Is the Bible Coherent, and is it the Word of God? — part 2
This is part of a conversation on Medium between myself and David Knott (and on the sidelines Gerald R. Baron) about Christianity. Knott believes that “there is a coherence to the Bible that is astonishing”. This statement follows his reading and study of it for over 40 years, so that “it rings true”. He is therefore “satisfied that there is a rational and reasonable basis for trusting in the authenticity of the Bible”, and believes it to be the word of God.
I cannot agree with such statements, and Baron has also agreed that there are inconsistencies. I’m focussing on two strong ones which I believe don’t get the attention they deserve, at least not by Christians — they are sometimes discussed by scholars. In the first article I discussed the conflict between the apostle Paul and the author of the Acts of the Apostles. Here I’ll turn to the portrayal of Jesus as an eschatological prophet in the synoptic gospels. I have already written about this at length in this earlier article, so if you’re really interested in this topic please read that. Here I’ll just do a summary.
Eschatology is the branch of theology concerned with the end of the world. In the first three gospels, but not in John, Jesus makes a speech which has been called eschatological (Mark chapter 13, Matthew chapters 24 and 25, Luke chapter 21, vv5–36). There are two aspects to this topic, the speech itself in its various versions, and the lead-up to it in the gospel accounts, which I will discuss first.
According to some passages, Jesus believed in the imminent fulfilment of his mission, whatever that was — I am leaving that an open question. Christians may assume, based upon the gospels, that it was to die on the cross for our sins. This might be true, but it would be an interpretation based on later theology. Another strong, alternative possibility is that, as Jewish Messiah, he was expecting the liberation of Israel from the rule of the Roman Empire, and the institution of God’s kingdom on earth, under his rule.
Thus we read: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1.15), and in similar vein, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16.28). Especially interesting is a passage known as The Mission of the Twelve (Matthew 10.5–40), when Jesus sends out his apostles to preach, expecting the almost immediate fulfilment of this mission. The most relevant verses are 7, “As you go, proclaim the good news. ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’ ”, and 23, “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”. This suggests that Jesus was expecting his prophecies to be fulfilled not merely within his lifetime, but within a few weeks. There is also the strong implication that Jesus thought that his mission was going to be successful. The Son of Man would arrive. He speaks of this being in the third person! He will come while Jesus is still alive. So who or what exactly is this Son of Man? And what will he do when he comes?
Paul, writing approximately 20–30 years after the resurrection, identifies this heavenly saviour with Jesus himself: “It is from there (heaven) that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3.20). This will be “the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8.18). He is expecting an apocalypse of some kind — some have suggested the end of the world: “in view of the impending crisis… the appointed time has grown short… the present form of this world is passing away” (1.Corinthians 7.26–31). He also refers to “the wrath that is coming” (1.Thessalonians 1.9–10). Paul thus believes that history was about to reach its climax and that Jesus would return within his own lifetime.
Christianity, especially John’s gospel, tells us that Jesus was God incarnate — the Word made flesh . Is it reasonable to conclude therefore that he was omniscient and therefore infallible? This is often how God is described. How therefore can Jesus, and for that matter Paul, have been so mistaken in their predictions, since they were referring to events contemporary or close in time to them? Since these passages remain in the gospels, despite the possibility of later editing, this would seem to be a strong indication of their authenticity, since the implications for later Christianity are so extraordinary.
Another point worthy of attention is that in Matthew the storyline following the Mission of the Twelve becomes incoherent: Having “finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities” (11.1). It seems reasonable to assume that they actually went off on their mission, and therefore that Jesus, as the text implies, went on alone to teach. Despite the extreme importance that Jesus placed upon this mission, however, it is never mentioned again. The disciples do not return to report on what they have achieved, and we never know whether the mission was successful or not. No mention of the disciples is made in chapter 11, so it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was indeed preaching alone. However, chapter 12 begins “At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat”. So did they go off on this extremely important journey, the fulfilment of Jesus’s mission, or not? We don’t know; it is as though it never happened.
It seems impossible to believe that Matthew’s text, as we have it, is the original; he would have been a very incompetent writer. One might assume, therefore, that some severe editing has taken place, and that whoever was responsible clearly didn’t make a very good job of it. (One would then wonder what was their motive in undertaking such a drastic redaction, what the original version contained.)
A good reason not to think this, however, is that Luke would appear to have the same version of Matthew in front of him as he writes, and seems to be trying to correct these defects in the text. He also includes the mission of the twelve apostles (9.1–6), and later a further mission of seventy others whom Jesus had appointed (10.1–20). His accounts are toned down, however, less apocalyptic; he retains “The kingdom of heaven has come near ”, but omits “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”. This is wise, since he knows that this prophecy did not come to pass; he refers merely to a “judgement”, and “on that day”, but does not specify when that will be. The apostles are merely instructed to spread his message and his good works: “he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal”. This seems more like a celebration of the work of Jesus rather than an announcement of the imminent fulfilment of his mission.
Luke is then careful to say that “they (the twelve) departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere”, and “on their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done”, thus correcting what Matthew has omitted, but without providing any details — perhaps he doesn’t know any. There is also a report on the return of the seventy; Luke cannot be blamed for any mistakes in continuity, but we may be right to be suspicious about the authenticity of his content, given that he seems merely to be editing Matthew’s text, rather than relying upon whatever sources he has.
A further observation about the Mission of the Twelve in Matthew is that Jesus instructs the disciples “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10.5–6). This suggests that Jesus was something of a Nationalist; salvation is only for the Jews. Could this be the same person who told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25–37), as an example of how a despised foreigner could be more charitable than a Jewish priest? Could this be the same person who, following his resurrection in the same gospel, instructed his disciples “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”? (28.19) This is similar to a verse in Mark, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (16.15), which scholars have agreed is a later addition, so we have reason to be suspicious of the same message in Matthew. Should we conclude that salvation for Jews alone was the original message of Jesus? Luke again tries to improve Matthew by harmonising these various elements: “It is written… that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24.47).
For a discussion of the eschatological speeches themselves with their further inconsistencies, please see the original article.
If we are talking about consistency and coherence in the Bible, then one major inconsistency is that the author of John, who literally declares Jesus to be the Word incarnate, is either unaware of, or chooses to ignore, the eschatological speeches including the Mission of the Twelve. Whichever is the case, we can easily understand why he would do so. We are therefore left with the even more serious inconsistency of the portrayal of Jesus in the other three gospels, as someone whose prophecies were completely wrong, despite Luke’s apparent attempt to smooth out the problems in Matthew. How is this possible if he were divine?
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).