Is the Bible Coherent and the Word of God? — Follow-Up
This is a somewhat belated reply to the responses of David Knott and Gerald R. Baron to an article of mine some time ago on the topic of contradictions and lack of coherence in the text of the Bible. (I’m publishing it as an article, rather than directly to them, in case other Medium readers are interested. There is hopefully enough material in it for anyone interested in Christianity.)
My article was addressed primarily to Knott who says that he finds “astonishing coherence” in the Bible, and as a Christian therefore believes it to be the Word of God. Baron, while accepting that there are some contradictions, believes that there is an overall consistent message, and considers the Bible authoritative in matters of religion and faith. I was therefore attempting to point out to them major contradictions. If I’m right, then this would cast doubt on the claimed coherence, and the supposed status of the New Testament as the Word of God.
Before I discuss their responses, it’s worth commenting on David Knott’s belief in the Bible’s “astonishing coherence”. Personally I cannot take seriously the idea that the Bible is the Word of God, however that suggestion is interpreted by Christians. The New Testament is obviously a collection of writings by very religious, deeply spiritual people, inspired by something very profound that happened about 2,000 years ago. I cannot go any further than that.
More important than my personal opinion, as I believe it is a historical fact, the New Testament is a collection of writings, known formally as the canon, chosen by the Roman Catholic Church, and ratified as late as 397 CE, although this may have been the completion of an ongoing process beginning in the first century. This was considerably later than the Council of Nicea, when the Christian faith was formalised in 325 CE. It is hardly surprising therefore that the Church chose to include in the New Testament the texts which would back up the theology that it had previously decided. Also, as the biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has pointed out, some of the texts were edited in retrospect, to ensure they conformed to the Christian message¹.
All this would easily account for the coherence that David Knott finds, since anything which seemed to contradict the message was not included, or edited out. My own response is, since significant problems remain, is that really the best that they could manage? That’s why I wrote two articles, in order to point out what I believe are major contradictions in the New Testament, therefore major problems for Christianity as we know it, as formulated by the Church.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that around this time the Church organised book burning on a large scale, trying to ensure that posterity would not be aware of any interpretation other than theirs. Fortunately, it seems that some texts managed to escape this outrage, and were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 — the so-called ‘Gnostic’ gospels.
My first article was about the apostle Paul. The essential point is that he contradicts the account of his conversion on the road to Damascus and what followed, as found in the book of Acts. He says this in a way that suggests he is swearing an oath; that is how strongly he feels. He insists that, following his conversion, the details of which he never himself reveals, he went away “at once into Arabia” rather than seek to meet the disciples of Jesus, which is what would have been the more obvious course of action. (Please consult the article if more details are required.) I therefore suggested that this is a highly significant issue for the understanding of Christianity. Why did he go there, and what happened?
It’s possible that Knott and Baron are not aware of the full significance of this issue. When reading the New Testament, it’s easy to get a false impression of the chronology. We read the gospels and Acts first, and only then the epistles of Paul. This might give us the impression that the gospels are the most important texts in relation to the life of Jesus, and the theology they suggest. However, scholars are I believe unanimous in believing that Paul’s epistles were written earlier than the gospels, and are therefore the first Christian writings. We do not know who wrote the gospels. It is therefore quite possible that they were written under the influence of Paul’s ideas, perhaps by his actual followers.
Also significant is the fact that Paul is perceived by Jews and Muslims as the villain in the story, the one who perverted the original teachings of Jesus. See, for example, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by Hyam Maccoby², and The Mysteries of Jesus by Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood³. Other commentators also have suggested that Paul is responsible for the creation of Christianity, or that Paul rather than Jesus is the more significant figure for the origin of Christianity, since he is responsible for the core Christian doctrine that salvation would come only by believing in Christ’s death and resurrection. (This is what David Knott says he believes.) In discussing Paul and what happened in Arabia, the stakes are therefore very high.
It may appear to Knott, Baron and others like them that, in my writings about Christianity, I am seeking to undermine, challenge, or disprove it. In order to avoid any such misunderstanding, let me say that, if I’m seeking to undermine anything, it is the version of Christianity that they believe in, the one created by the Roman Catholic Church in the fourth century. I am trying to penetrate beyond this, attempting to reconstruct what might have been Christianity’s true origins and meaning. By seeking the truth about Paul, I am attempting to defend it against the types of criticisms made by Jews and Muslims, as mentioned above. Although I’m just an ordinary member of the public with no scholarly qualifications, I am seeking an authentic Christianity, if only for my own personal satisfaction.
I suggest that the reason why Paul went to Arabia and what he did there are of extraordinary importance for Christianity. It is disappointing, therefore, that both Knott and Baron seek to downplay the importance of this episode in their responses.
Unfortunately, all we know from Paul himself is that he went there immediately following his conversion, which is obviously significant, but not what happened while he was there. We can only speculate (although there are perhaps some strong clues in his epistles). This is regrettable, because speculation is also Knott’s solution to the problem of why the author of Acts (Luke?) never mentions Paul’s journey. The reader will have to judge whose speculations are more credible, his or mine. For Knott’s full response click here. In order not to make this article too lengthy I’ll focus on just one of his points.
He attempts “to bring Acts and Galatians into alignment” (although they seem to blatantly contradict each other), by assuming “that Paul’s time in Arabia occurred between verses 25 and 26 of Acts 9, i.e. after leaving Damascus and before going to Jerusalem”, although this is not mentioned by the author, who Knott suggests might be ignorant of this episode in Paul’s life. “If the Jews were trying to kill Paul in Damascus, how much more would they be wanting to kill him in Jerusalem. Spending some time in Arabia to allow things to cool off seems like a good idea to me”. If that is the case, however, why did Paul himself not say this? He was quite free to say that he escaped to Arabia because he feared for his life if he returned to Jerusalem. What he actually says completely contradicts the account in Acts up to the point Knott mentions, and he says this as if swearing an oath. Which version should we accept as more credible, Paul himself or Acts (not written by him)?
Gerald Baron does not find my interpretation of Paul’s visit to Arabia convincing, and thinks that there are more obvious contradictions in the Bible. I assume therefore that he thinks I am exaggerating its importance, and this on two counts. Firstly, he says: “ While you dismiss the eminent biblical historian and theologian N. T. Wright as ‘blinkered’, his credentials suggest he deserves a bit more of a respectful treatment. He does not push this reference to Paul’s journey under the carpet, but instead sees it as Paul understanding himself and perhaps positioning himself as a prophet in the line of Elijah”.
Both Baron and David Knott are keen on N. T. Wright, and invite me to read him. I have actually read some of his books, albeit a long time ago, and found them unconvincing and him, as noted by Baron, blinkered. He does indeed have excellent academic credentials. My problem with him can be explained by this quote from C. S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else”. (I came across this in a recent article by Prudence Louise. Thank you to her.)
Lewis presumably finds great satisfaction in his belief, but for me it is clearly problematic. He is openly admitting that he sees, and therefore interprets, the world through Christian-tinted spectacles. He is starting with a major preconception and, as we know from the rules of logic, if a preconception is false, it is likely to lead to false conclusions. For Lewis’s statement to be credible, he would have in advance to prove the truth of Christianity. This would surely be a very difficult task; even Christians agree that it is a matter of faith. As I was suggesting to Gerald Baron recently, when discussing any difficult subject matter like this, we should try as far as possible to make our minds a clean sheet, starting with no preconceptions whatsoever.
All this may be helpful if we examine Baron’s comments on N. T. Wright who, in my opinion, has the same problem as C. S. Lewis — he sees and interprets the world through exclusively Christian spectacles. (If I may be allowed a criticism, that is also how I perceive David Knott and, to some extent but less so, Gerald Baron. Knott’s speculations make complete sense in his eyes but that, I would suggest, is because he sees the world through Christian spectacles — just as C. S. Lewis did. He feels compelled to seek coherence, and therefore finds it, where there perhaps is none.)
Baron says that Wright “does not push this reference to Paul’s journey under the carpet, but instead sees it as Paul understanding himself and perhaps positioning himself as a prophet in the line of Elijah”. I presume that by this Baron means that Wright at least has the decency to mention and acknowledge the visit to Arabia, unlike many other Christians and scholars who either ignore it or downplay its importance. However, as I suggested when I called him blinkered, he attempts to interpret the episode through his Christian spectacles. Instead of taking on board what the texts actually say, he comes up with a fanciful speculation about Paul “positioning himself as a prophet in the line of Elijah”. (I’m going out on a limb here. I haven’t read Paul’s epistles from start to finish, so I’m happy to retract if either Baron or Knott can identify any passage where he clearly identifies himself with Elijah.)
I gave examples of where Wright ignores the text of the New Testament in this earlier article: “He accepts that Paul did indeed go to Arabia, and attempts hypotheses to explain this from a conventional Christian perspective. More importantly for my purpose here, on four separate occasions he describes the Damascus road incident as a real event, completely failing to notice that Paul swears that the account in Acts is false. Of the four examples, the most telling is when he says that in the Galatians passage: “he describes the events leading up to and following from his dramatic experience on the road to Damascus”. This is why I feel justified in calling him blinkered; conveniently for him, he chooses to believe Acts, not addressing what Paul actually says.
Baron’s second reservation about my understanding of Paul is: “I remember earlier you said there was evidence he went there (i.e. to Arabia) to engage in psychedelics”. (He is referring to this article. What he says isn’t quite right; I said that this might be what happened after he had arrived there.) Baron makes no further comment, so I don’t know whether he thinks such a suggestion is too outrageous to even contemplate, and therefore not worth further discussion. I thought, however, that in the article I had made a reasonable case. At the very least there is a strong suspicion of a connection between magic mushrooms and Christianity.
I did write a second article on the problem of Jesus appearing in the synoptic Gospels as a failed eschatological prophet, which seems to contradict the idea that he was the incarnation of an (omniscient?) God. David Knott gave a detailed response; I thank him for taking so much trouble. Gerald Baron also responded. I don’t intend to respond to these, and apologise for that; I hope they don’t think that their time was wasted.
Knott’s response especially is one seen through the lens of conventional Christianity — he keeps quoting the New Testament, as if this should be enough to convince me. For the reasons I explained above, I cannot accept these texts as ultimately authoritative, even if they are a very interesting read. Nothing I might say is ever going to change his mind, which is his right. It is also highly unlikely that anything he says is going to change mine. I would prefer therefore to focus on the projects that are my main interest.
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, and all but the most recent can be found on my website (click here and here). This may be the easiest way to find them.
- Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, HarperOne, 2005
2. George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., 1986
3. Sakina Books, 2000