On Biblical Literalism

What did the Founding Fathers think of net neutrality? If you know the answer to that one, you’re a lot smarter than I am. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Constitutional Literalism. At the time that the Constitution was ratified in 1788, we lived in a completely different world. For example, the Founding Fathers were not, on the whole, opposed to slavery. The notion that women should have the vote was preposterous. And the Internet was entirely inconceivable. The problem with taking an archaic document literally is that the context changes. We’ll never know what the Founding Fathers would have thought of net neutrality, nor does it really matter. In Constitutional interpretation of this sort, we have to derive the essence as best we can and apply it to the question at hand.

If Constitutional Literalism is difficult to negotiate, then Biblical Literalism is exponentially more problematic. With the Constitution, we at least know who wrote it, and it’s one document written in a language (English) that we can still understand. What about the Bible? The first problem we encounter is that there are different versions of the Bible. There is, for example, the Hebrew Bible, which consists of a different set of books from the several Christian Bibles. The first Christian Bible didn’t even appear until 331 AD, and it was a distillation of various authors writing in different languages, including Aramaic, Koine Greek, and ancient Hebrew. A Latin version was commissioned by Pope Damasus in 383 AD The first translation into English didn’t appear until 1535. There have been different translations of the Bible ever since.

The translations of the Bible, such as they are, have produced a document rife with a multitude of contradictions. In fact, Biblical contradictions are so numerous that there have been documents published with names like “1001 Biblical Contradictions.” It’s not necessary to list them here. Biblical contradictions are like shooting fish in a barrel; they’re so plentiful and in many cases so obvious that it’s not even sporting.

The Old Testament/Torah

The first problem in defining the “Bible” is that there are different versions of the Bible which contain different books. So we have:

  • The Tanakh (or Jewish Bible)
  • The Protestant Old Testament
  • The Catholic Old Testament
  • The Eastern Orthodox Old Testament

Just a quick glance at the table below indicates that there’s a substantial difference between the documents, as the Jewish Bible has only 24 books and the Eastern Orthodox Bible has slightly more than twice that number.

Tanakh
(Jewish Bible)
(24 books)
Protestant
Old Testament
(39 books)
Catholic
Old Testament
(46 books)
Eastern Orthodox
Old Testament
(49 books)
Original language
Torah (Law)Pentateuch or The Five Books of Moses
BereishitGenesisGenesisGenesisHebrew
ShemotExodusExodusExodusHebrew
VayikraLeviticusLeviticusLeviticusHebrew
BamidbarNumbersNumbersNumbersHebrew
DevarimDeuteronomyDeuteronomyDeuteronomyHebrew
Nevi’im (Prophets)Historical Books
YehoshuaJoshuaJoshua (Josue)Joshua (Iesous)Hebrew
ShofetimJudgesJudgesJudgesHebrew
Rut (Ruth)RuthRuthRuthHebrew
Shemuel1 Samuel1 Samuel (1 Kings)1 Samuel (1 Kingdoms)Hebrew
2 Samuel2 Samuel (2 Kings)2 Samuel (2 Kingdoms)Hebrew
Melakhim1 Kings1 Kings (3 Kings)1 Kings (3 Kingdoms)Hebrew
2 Kings2 Kings (4 Kings)2 Kings (4 Kingdoms)Hebrew
Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles)1 Chronicles1 Chronicles (1 Paralipomenon)1 Chronicles (1 Paralipomenon)Hebrew
2 Chronicles2 Chronicles (2 Paralipomenon)2 Chronicles (2 Paralipomenon)Hebrew
1 EsdrasGreek
Ezra–NehemiahEzraEzra (1 Esdras)Ezra (2 Esdras)Hebrew and Aramaic
NehemiahNehemiah (2 Esdras)Nehemiah (Neemias)Hebrew
Tobit (Tobias)Tobit (Tobias)Aramaic and Hebrew
JudithJudithHebrew
EstherEstherEstherEstherHebrew
1 Maccabees (1 Machabees)1 MaccabeesHebrew
2 Maccabees (2 Machabees)2 MaccabeesGreek
3 MaccabeesGreek
Ketuvim (Writings)Wisdom Books
Iyov (Job)JobJobJobHebrew
Tehillim (Psalms)PsalmsPsalmsPsalmsHebrew
Mishlei (Proverbs)ProverbsProverbsProverbsHebrew
Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes)EcclesiastesEcclesiastesEcclesiastesHebrew
Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs)Song of SolomonSong of Songs (Canticle of Canticles)Song of Songs (Aisma Aismaton)Hebrew
WisdomWisdom (Wisdom of Solomon)Greek
Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)Sirach (Wisdom of Sirach)Hebrew
Nevi’im (Latter Prophets)Major Prophets
YeshayahuIsaiahIsaiah (Isaias)IsaiahHebrew
YirmeyahuJeremiahJeremiah (Jeremias)JeremiahHebrew and Aramaic
Eikhah (Lamentations)LamentationsLamentationsLamentationsHebrew
Baruch with Letter of Jeremiah as the 6th ChapterBaruchHebrew
Letter of Jeremiah as standalone bookGreek (majority view)
YekhezqelEzekielEzekiel (Ezechiel)EzekielHebrew
DanielDanielDanielDanielHebrew and Aramaic
Minor Prophets
The Twelve
or
Trei Asar
HoseaHosea (Osee)HoseaHebrew
JoelJoelJoelHebrew
AmosAmosAmosHebrew
ObadiahObadiah (Abdias)ObadiahHebrew
JonahJonah (Jonas)JonahHebrew
MicahMicah (Micheas)MicahHebrew
NahumNahumNahumHebrew
HabakkukHabakkuk (Habacuc)HabakkukHebrew
ZephaniahZephaniah (Sophonias)ZephaniahHebrew
HaggaiHaggai (Aggeus)HaggaiHebrew
ZechariahZechariah (Zacharias)ZechariahHebrew
MalachiMalachi (Malachias)MalachiHebrew

The Old Testament begins with five books — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy — that make up the Torah. This is the story of Israel from the creation narrative to the death of Moses; these books apparently reached their present form in the “Persian period” of 538-332 BC, and were authored by a multitude of writers who had the political control of the Temple at that time.

The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings followed, forming a history of Israel from the Conquest of Canaan to the Siege of Jerusalem, and were probably authored during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC; the two Books of Chronicles probably date from the 4th century BC; the books of the various prophets were mostly written between the 8th and 6th centuries BC; and the “wisdom books” date from between the 5th century BC and the 2nd century BC.

Not only are the authors of all Old Testament books unknown and multiple, it’s also clear that most of these books have been edited, if not just rewritten, to serve various political objectives. The process by which scriptures became canons is equally complicated, and need not detain us here. All the books were translated into Latin at the time of the publication of the first “coherent” Bible, the “Vulgate” Bible commissioned in 382 AD.

The New Testament

With respect to the New Testament, what most people concentrate on is the four Gospels. But there is, of course, much more in there than that. The structure of the New Testament is as follows:

The Gospels

These are the gospels that came to be accepted as part of the New Testament “canon.”

The Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles is a narrative of the apostles’ ministry and activity after the death of Christ, and also a kind of “sequel” to the Gospel of Luke.

The Epistles

The Epistles are generally “divinely inspired” letters written by Saint Paul and others, and several are considered to be pseudepigraphic.

The Pauline Letters to Churches

These are letters written by Saint Paul or attributed to him dealing with issues in the early Christian churches and their related communities.

Pauline letters to individuals running churches

These letters are also attributed to Saint Paul, although he probably did not write most of them. Instead of being written to churches or whole communities, they were written to individuals, but individuals with pastoral oversight of churches.

The Epistle to the Hebrews

Addressed to a Jewish audience, the Epistle to the Hebrews is of unknown authorship, although it has sometimes been attributed to Saint Paul (an assertion which contemporary scholars doubt). It includes a discussion of the superiority of the new covenant and the ministry of Jesus to the Mosaic covenant.

The Catholic Epistles

The Catholic epistles,1 of generally disputed authorship, consists of letters and “treatises” written to the early church at large.

As the table below demonstrates, there is also some variation in which books of the New Testament are included in the competing Christian traditions, although that variation is not as significant as in the Old Testament.

Books
Protestant traditionRoman Catholic traditionEastern Orthodox tradition
Canonical Gospels
MatthewYesYesYes
MarkYesYesYes
LukeYesYesYes
JohnYesYesYes
Apostolic History
ActsYesYesYes
Acts of Paul and TheclaNoNoNo
Catholic Epistles
JamesYesYesYes
1 PeterYesYesYes
2 PeterYesYesYes
1 JohnYesYesYes
2 JohnYesYesYes
3 JohnYesYesYes
JudeYesYesYes
Pauline Epistles
RomansYesYesYes
1 CorinthiansYesYesYes
2 CorinthiansYesYesYes
Corinthians to Paul and
3 Corinthians
NoNoNo
GalatiansYesYesYes
EphesiansYesYesYes
PhilippiansYesYesYes
ColossiansYesYesYes
LaodiceansNo*No*No
1 ThessaloniansYesYesYes
2 ThessaloniansYesYesYes
HebrewsYesYesYes
1 TimothyYesYesYes
2 TimothyYesYesYes
TitusYesYesYes
PhilemonYesYesYes
Apocalypse
RevelationYesYesYes
*Included in some editions

Non-Canonical Gospels

Of course, so far we have only been dealing with “Canonical” gospels, that is, books that appear in an official version of the New Testament. There are, however, many other writings about Jesus and the early church that never made it into the 27 books that make up the generally agreed upon New Testament.

The books that did not make it include

(1) The Infancy gospels, books written in the 2nd Century and thereafter which fill in details of the biography of Jesus, such as the Infancy Gospel of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and the Infancy Gospel of (Pseudo) Matthew ;

(2) The “Jewish-Christian Gospels,” books authored by one or more Jewish Christians, and which no longer exist, but which were quoted extensively by the likes of later writers such as quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Jerome;

(3) the “Passion” Gospels, which deal specifically with the arrest, execution of Jesus, and include the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Gospel of (Pseudo) Cyril, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Questions of Bartholomew, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

(4) the Non-Canonical gospels, which include gospels that for political or other reasons were not included in the “Canons” by the early church fathers. The six gospels in this category are:

  • The Gospel of Thomas, which includes mostly wisdom literature, without narrating any part of Jesus’s life.
  • The Gospel of Peter, which is a narrative of Jesus life, and is notable for asserting that Herod, not Pontius Pilate, ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.
  • The Gospel of Judas, which tells the story of the Jesus’ministry from the perspective of Judas.
  • The Gospel of Mary, consisting mainly of dialog between Mary Magdalene and the other disciples.
  • The Gospel of Barnabas, allegedly authored by Barnabas, but believed to actually have been written between the 14th and the 16th century, and notable for mentioning Muhammad as Messenger of God and contradicting much of Pauline doctrine. It claims that Jesus identified himself as a prophet, not the son of God.
  • Marcion of Sinope, which comprises the writing of an early Christian leader, and is essentially a shorter version of Gospel of Luke.2

I list all of these various Gospels to demonstrate, at the least, the editorial choices that the early leaders of the Christian Church had to make just in deciding what would be included and what would be excluded as part of Holy Scripture.

The Nag Hamedi Library

In December of 1945, near in the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt, two brothers found several papyri in a large earthenware vessel while digging for fertilizer in caves near the town. These turned out to be mostly Gnostic treatises, but they also include three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum (Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts) and a partial translation (including alterations) of Plato‘s Republic. In 1946, the brothers left the manuscripts with a Coptic priest. Later that same year their brother-in-law sold a different codex to the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, where the resident Coptologist and religious historian Jean Doresse realized the significance of what had been delivered. He published the first reference to the manuscripts in 1948. Meanwhile, a single codex had been sold in Cairo to a Belgian antiques dealer, whereafter it was acquired by the Carl Gustav Jung Institute in Zurich, and where it’s significance was also quickly affirmed. It has been suggested that these codices may have belonged to a nearby monastery, and were buried after Saint Athanasius condemned the use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367 A.D. The codices were written in the Coptic language, probably not that long before they were buried.

Gnosticism is the idea, popular among certain early Christian and Jewish sects, that personal spiritual knowledge (“gnosis”), or direct knowledge of the supreme divinity, is the most most direct route to salvation. (In this sense they foreshadowed aspects of the Protestant reformation and the “great awakenings” in the United States, as well as subsequent evangelism.) Gnostics may also distinguish between a supreme, transcendent God and a “demiurge” responsible for creating the material universe. Gnostic writings flourished among certain Christian groups until the Fathers of the early church denounced them as heresy.

In any case, there are some provocative ideas in the documents unearthed at Nag Hamedi. So, for example, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas) depicts Jesus as a young bully, who curses one child, kills another, and then blinds the parents of the killed child, before healing all of the damage that he has done. In the Gospel of Judas, Judas is depicted as the apostle closest to Jesus, and the one who will “rule over” all the others when all is said and done. And the Philip Gospel maintains that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ life companion (if not actually his wife).

Problems of Authorship

One of the problems in taking the Bible literally is the problem of authorship. The earliest books of the Old Testament were mostly authored 600 to 800 years before the birth of Christ while the Jews were in Babylonian exile. None of the original writings survive. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament are historically attributed to Moses — the Torah or Pentatuch — are most likely pseudepigraphic works, as is almost everything written in the Bible with the exception of the letters of Saint Paul.3

In addition, as Karen Armstrong explains in her “History of God“, there are two primary sources for the earliest books of the Old Testament:

The two earliest biblical authors, whose work is found in Genesis and Exodus, were probably writing during the eighth century, though some would give them an earlier date. One is known as “J” because he calls his God “Yahweh,” the other “E” since he prefers to use the more formal divine title “Elohim.” By the eighth century, the Israelites had divided Canaan into two separate kingdoms. J was writing in the southern Kingdom of Judah, while E came from the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Armstrong, Karen. History of God . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The remaining books of the Old Testament were drafted, copied and edited by various authors until around the time of time of Christ. Nor does the record get much clearer after Christ is born. There are, as previously discussed, no contemporaneous records attesting to the existence of Christ that are independent of the Gospel narratives. There was no biography of him written while he was alive. The first things written that became part of the New Testament were probably the letters of Saint Paul, who had his conversion on the road to Damascus perhaps half a dozen years after the death of Christ. The first Gospel narrative which was written — the Gospel of Mark — was probably written about 40 years after the death of Jesus, and just after the Second Temple had been destroyed and the city of Jerusalem laid waste to by the Romans.

Problems of Translation

The books of the Old Testament were mostly written in Hebrew, although a few seem to have been written either in a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew, just Aramaic, or just Greek. The general consensus is that the original language for the books of the New Testament was Koine Greek, although there is a minority view that some of the New Testament books might originally have been in Aramaic and translated into Greek.

Jesus himself most probably spoke Aramaic. The writers of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were not contemporaries of Jesus. The earliest Gospel, that of Mark, was believed to have been written around 70 AD, or more than a generation after Jesus died. Mark is believed to be Mark the Evangelist, although even this is not clear.4 The other gospel authors wrote even later, and are generally believed to have derived their work from Mark’s gospel, from oral traditions, and potentially from an unknown written source of Jesus’ sayings, known as the “Q Source.” In case of the Gospel of John, there may have been multiple authors who wrote at three distinct time periods, with the book not reaching its final form until 90 to 100 AD. The Gospel of Matthew was probably written in Aramaic or even Hebrew, although the version we know was translated into Koine Greek.

The most commonly used rendering of the Bible in English is the “King James” version, begun in 1604 and completed in 1611. This was the third translation into English to be approved by the English Church authorities, after the Great Bible commissioned in the reign of King Henry VIII, and the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. King James gave the forty-seven scholars who performed the translation instructions intended to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England, and its belief in an ordained clergy. The “King James” version itself became rife with errors because of misprints and variations among the printed texts, leading to a renewed effort to standardize this translation. Consequently, scholars at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge embarked on a decade long mission to produce a definitive version, which in 1769 emerge as the “Standard” text.

Needless to say, the modern English translation of the Bible is problematic in all kinds of ways. For one thing, the English version is translated from the Latin, which is itself translated from other languages. But in addition to the linguistic problems, there are serious issues of context: most of us understand so little about the times in which Jesus lived, and are likely to misinterpret the meaning of things, such as Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek.”

A Very Short History of the Abrahamic God and his Major Prophets

Yahweh (also, “YHWH” or “Jehovah”), the God of ancient Israel, who became the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus and the God of Mohammed, is a deity who, according to the preeminent religious historian Karen Armstrong, “emerged” from a region in the south of Canaan. He was an especially capable War God. When he first entered into public consciousness ” probably around 1300 BC, Yahweh had to “compete” with a Pantheon of other regional Gods. Initially he was considered to be the consort of Asherah, the Semitic Mother Goddess of ancient Canaan. Because he was a War God, he was not regarded as being particularly good at agricultural abundance or fertility; this is why the Canaanites (later Israelites) continue to worship other Gods as well. Yahweh did not become the God of all Israel until the Exodus, which some have speculated may in actuality be the story of a peasant uprising.

As depicted in the Old Testament, Yahweh is jealous, petty, and insecure. Loyalty is prized above all other virtues. If God is the husband and Isreal the wife then, as some commentators have suggested, this is an abusive relationship. To cite just one of many examples, Yahweh tests Abraham — the Patriarch of the “Abrahamic” religions — by forcing him to promise to sacrifice his only son. Yahweh relents in this demand only when Abraham already has his knife in his hands. Subsequently, Yahweh enters into a covenant with the people of Israel in which the greatest (and some might argue only) sin is disloyalty. This God is vengeful and capricious, and shows no mercy to the enemies of Israel. As the Bible progresses, Yahweh mellows slightly and becomes a bit more compassionate and a little less unrelenting. But fundamentally, disloyalty is still the greatest sin in the eyes of the Lord.

After Abraham, the next of Yahweh’s great prophets is Moses. Whether Moses actually existed as an actual human being is debatable; most likely, he is a composite of historical figures, much like a character in a historical novel. Nor has the Exodus been clearly connected to any Egyptological chronology. The stories related to Moses may be based in events that happened over time, or they may just be copies of other mytholical legends. If Moses actually existed, he probably lived around 1200 to 1300 BC, or around the time that Yahweh was first recognized as a God.

Moving on to the Second Temple period, we eventually come to the emergence of Jesus. We really don’t know much about the historical Jesus. We know three things with reasonable certainty: (1) that he was baptized, (2) that he was crucified, and (3) that in-between he had a ministry. The ministry didn’t last very long, probably not more than three years. Jesus did not write anything down himself, and he was probably illiterate. Nor did any of his contemporaries write anything down about his ministry. Nothing formal was written down until at least a generation after his death, beginning with the “Synoptic” Gospels. These Gospels tell us much about what Jesus is believed to have taught. 5 In truth, Jesus can be said to have a complex legacy. We know, for example, that while he taught much about justice and compassion, Jesus was not opposed to slavery. He also believed in eternal damnation, which earned him the severe disapprobation of Bertrand Russell, among others.

If we don’t know that much about Jesus, we know relatively more about the last great prophet of the Abrahamic tradition, Muhammad ibn Abd Allah, (or “Mohammed”). For one thing, we know that he was born 570 AD. We even believe to know the exact date of his death, on June 8, 632 at the age of 62. We know that Mohammed had thirteen wives, and we know all of their names. More significantly, we know when he received his first revelation, and that the book that he would eventually author — the Quran or “Recitation” — was dictated over 23 years by Mohammed to various scribes. We know that the process of “writing” the Quran is closer to what today would be considered “channeling.” We know that Mohammed united the Arab tribes of his time and that, in 622, Mohammed migrated with his followers to Medina. (By the way, the name “Allah” derives from the name of pre-Islamic pagan Meccans, and originally referred to their creator deity. For all practical purposes, in the Islamic period it is a different name for the same Abrahamic god previously identified as Yahweh.)

Textual Inconsistences in the Bible

There are many internal contradictions in the Bible, most of them owing to the previously discussed problems of authorship and translation, as well as the politically motivated edits of various scribes. And there are many websites which set these contradictions forth. One can have a lot of fun with these contradictions.

Some of the contradictions are clearly unimportant, such as those having to do with the numbers or times of certain things. The Rationale Wiki sets forth the following examples of instances where there are numerical differences in the description of certain events in the Bible, which are not really important:

  • Jehoiachin’s Age at Royal Ascension
  • Ahaziah’s Age at Royal Ascension
  • How many horsemen did David capture?
  • How many stalls did Solomon have for his horses?
  • How many animals were on the ark?

Other contradictions are clearly more significant. One example of this is the genealogy of Jesus, which is set forth in both Matthew and Luke, and has significant differences. These differences are important because according to the prophecies, Jesus would be a descendant of David.

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments would seem to be pretty fundamental to Biblical scholarship, since they are a central part of the core covenant between the God of Abraham and the Jews.6 But even on this matter, the Bible cannot help contradicting itself.

It turns out that the Ten Commandments are set forth twice in the Old Testament, once in Exodus and another time in Deutoronomy. As the table below demonstrates, while some differences are simple issues of capitalization, other commandments have differences in language that are not insignificant. (Differences are set forth in strikeout.)

The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2-17The Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:1-22
 And Moses called all Israel, and said to them: “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your hearing today, that you may learn them and be careful to observe them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive. The Lord talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire. I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up the mountain. He said:
 I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
1. You shall have no other gods before me.1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. You shall not make yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God are only worthy of worship, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image-any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.4. Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
5. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.5. Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
6. You shall not murder.6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.7. You shall not commit adultery with somebody’s spouse.
8. You shall not steal.8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
 These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly, in the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and He added no more. And He wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me.
Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of Ten Commandments

The textural differences here are not huge, but if we are to treat them as laws, than from a legal perspective, they do engender certain questions. For example:

  • Is it okay, under the 2nd Commandment, to make a carved image for someone else other than yourself?
  • In terms of respecting the Sabbath, is it not a violation of the 4th Commandment if you allow livestock other than ox, donkey, or cattle to work (so that, for example, your chickens could still lay eggs?)
  • With respect to the 7th Commandment, can you commit adultery so long as it is not with someone else’s spouse?

Biblical scholars have argued about the importance of these differences. For example, in Chabad.org, representing an an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement, there is a discussion of the differences between the two versions of the Ten Commandments. Focusing on the Fourth Commandment, and the difference between “remembering” and “keeping” the Sabbath, the website has this to say:

The commandment to “remember” the Shabbat (Exodus) tells us to verbally sanctify the Shabbat through reciting kiddush, etc., while the commandment to “keep” the Shabbat (Deuteronomy) is about refraining from doing forbidden work.

Why Two Versions of the Ten Commandments?

That same website provides two labored explanations of why there are two versions in the Bible.

  • The first explanation is that “the two versions correspond to the two sets of Tablets. The version in Exodus was what was written on the first set of Tablets, which were ultimately broken after the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf. The Deuteronomy repeat records what was written on the second Tablets that G-d gave Moses.”
  • The second explanation is that “the Exodus version is how G-d himself said it, while Deuteronomy tells how Moses recounted it.”

The problem that this discussion demonstrates is the mental gymnastics that believers have to go through to rationalize the many obvious discrepancies in the Bible. It also begs certain questions like: (1) since they were not there, how would the authors of the Biblical narrative have known what God said to Moses as opposed to what Moses reported that God said; or (2) in a “perfect” document, why would something as important as the Ten Commandments not be the same in both versions. (Let’s not forget that the scribes of Deuteronomy had the Exodus version to refer to, and vice-versa.)

Jesus Birth Narratives

There are also substantial differences between the four accepted Gospels that open the New Testament. First of all, two of the Gospels — those of Mark and John — contain no birth narratives at all, and introduce Jesus when he is already an adult. The other two — Matthew and Luke — have substantial differences in their stories, as set forth below.

Matthew’s NarrativeLuke’s Narrative
An angel announces to a barren woman, Elizabeth, that she will give birth (to John the Baptist).
Mary is a virgin married to Joseph.Mary is a virgin married to Joseph.
An angel appears to Mary to inform her that she, too, will conceive, and that she will give birth to the Son of God.
Mary visits the pregnant Elizabeth, whose child leaps in the womb at being visited by “the mother of the Lord.”
John the Baptist is born, and his father, Zechariah, bursts into prophecy.
Mary is found to be pregnant.Mary then bursts into song.
Joseph, naturally suspecting the worst, plans to divorce her, but is told in a dream that Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit.There is a decree from the Roman emperor Augustus that every one in the empire needs to register for a census.
Everyone is to return to their ancestral home to register.
Since Joseph’s ancestors were from Bethlehem he travels there with Mary, his spouse.
When they arrive in Bethlehem there is no room at the Inn.
Joseph and Mary get married.
Jesus is born.Jesus is born.
Mary wraps Jesus in bands of cloth and lays him in a manger.
Wise men then come from the east, following a star that has led them to Jerusalem, where they ask about where the “King of the Jews” is to be born.Shepherds in the field are visited by an angelic host who tells them that the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem. The Shepherds go and worship the child.
King Herod makes inquiries and learns from the Jewish scholars that it is predicted that the king will come from Bethlehem.
King Herod informs the wise men, who proceed to Bethlehem, once again led by the star.
The wise men offer gifts to Jesus and his family, and then, warned in a dream, do not return to inform Herod, as he had requested.
King Herod, since he himself is the king, sends his troops to slaughter every male child two years and younger in and around Bethlehem.
Joseph is warned of the danger in a dream, so he, Mary, and Jesus flee from Bethlehem in advance of the slaughter and travel to Egypt.
Later, in Egypt, Joseph learns in another dream that Herod has died, so that now they can return.
But when they discover that Archelaus, Herod’s son, is the ruler of Judea, they decide not to go back, but instead go to the northern district of Galilee, to the town of Nazareth.
Eight days later, Jesus is circumcised.
Jesus is then presented to God in the Temple, and his parents offer the sacrifice prescribed for this occasion by the law of Moses.
Jesus is recognized there as the Messiah by a righteous and devout man named Simeon and by an elderly and pious widow, Anna.
When Joseph and Mary have finished everything required concerning the birth of their firstborn, they return to Nazareth.
Joseph and Mary stay in Nazareth, where Jesus is raised. Joseph and Mary stay in Nazareth, where Jesus is raised.
Differences between Matthew and Luke Birth Narratives

Professor Bart Ehrman, from whose book “Jesus, Interrupted” the summaries of these two narratives have been extracted, notes that the two narratives have almost nothing in common. In both narratives Jesus is from Bethlehem for the obvious reason that it’s prophesized in the Old Testament that the Messiah is to be from Bethlehem, but they arrive there in two completely different ways:

  • In Matthew, Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem, but have to flee to Egypt because of Herod’s decree that all the young boys under are two are to be executed.
  • In Luke, Augustus decrees that there is to be a census, so Joseph and his family have to return to Bethlehem be counted.

The other thing that Erhman points out is that although Joseph has a genealogy in both Matthew and Luke that leads back to King David, as it must under the prophecies, both genealogies get there in completely different ways.

The birth narrative in popular culture that we celebrate at Christmas is essentially an amalgam of both stories. So the wise men show up, and the shepherds show up as well, and Jesus is born in a manger. There is a census and Jesus has to flee to Egpyt.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to get into the meaning and consequences of the differences in these two birth narratives, although an excellent explanation of those meanings can be found in Erhman’s book Jesus, Interrupted.

Crucifixion (or “Passion”) Narratives

There are also substantial differences between the four accepted Gospels that open the New Testament. First of all, two of the Gospels — those of Mark and John — contain no birth narratives at all, and introduce Jesus when he is already an adult. The other two have substantial differences in their stories, including whether Jesus family fled to Egypt after his birth (Matthew) or went back to Nazareth (Luke).

Certain academics have actually tried to harmonize the four Gospels by creating a single, merged narrative, although the preferred method seems to be to set forth all four in columns and compare them side-by-side.7

But there are probably no more interesting differences than the narratives that the four gospels set forth with respect to the crucifixion (or “passion”) narratives.

MarkMatthewLukeJohn
Jesus has a night trial before the Sanhedrin.Jesus has a night trial before the Sanhedrin.
(No narrative.)
High priest questions Jesus; Jesus protests his arrest; Annas sends Jesus to Caiaphas.
Jesus receives a blasphemy death sentence at trial and is mocked.
Jesus receives a blasphemy death sentence at trial and is mocked.(No narrative.)(No narrative.)
(No narrative.)
Judas commits suicide.
(No narrative.)
(No narrative.)
Before Pontius Pilate, crowd chants to “crucify him!
Crowd chants, “His blood be on us & our children.”
Before Pontius Pilate, crowd chants to “crucify him!Crowd chants “We have no King but Ceasar!”
Jesus mocked with crown of thorns.
Jesus mocked with crown of thorns.
(No narrative.)(No narrative.)
Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross.Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross.Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross.Jesus carries his own cross the whole way.
Passersby mock Jesus.
Passersby mock Jesus.
People watch from afar.
(No narrative.)
Two thieves are mentioned but there is no conversation.
Two thieves taunt Jesus on the cross.
One thief taunts Jesus and is criticized by the other.The two men aren’t described as thieves.
Jesus is given wine mixed with myrrh, but he doesn’t drink.While on the cross, Jesus is given vinegar, but he doesn’t drink.    
While on the cross, Jesus is given vinegar, but he doesn’t drink.
While on the cross, Jesus is given vinegar, which he drinks.
A centurion is cited as saying: “Truly this was the son of God.”A centurion is cited as saying: “Truly this was the son of God.”A centurion is cited as saying: “Truly this man was innocent.”(No narrative.)
Four women watch Jesus from afar.Four women watch Jesus from afar.All Jesus’ acquaintances and the four women stand at a distance.He who saw it has “borne true witness.” 
Jesus says: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”Jesus says: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”Jesus says: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”Jesus says: “It is finished.”
No earthquake is mentioned.At the moment Jesus dies, a massive earthquake strikes and opens tombs where dead people rise again.No earthquake is mentioned.No earthquake is mentioned.
There’s a stone against Jesus’ tomb.
There’s a stone against Jesus’ tomb.(No narrative.)
(No narrative.)
Mary Magdalene & Mary (mother of Jesus) observe the tomb.
Mary Magdalene & Mary (mother of Jesus) observe the tomb; a guard is posted outside the tomb.
Women from Galilee observe tomb.
(No narrative.)
(No narrative.)
(No narrative.)
There’s a day of preparation before the burial.
The burial takes place a day before the Sabbath.
Differences in “Passion” Narratives

It is, of course, a matter of opinion how different these discrepancies are. Is it important whether Jesus carried his own cross or whether someone else helped him? Is it important exactly what the Centurion said? Is it important whether the thieves who were crucified with him mocked him? Is it important how many people were observing his crucifixion? Once again, for the reader interested in this kind of analysis, I would refer them to Bart Erhman’s book Jesus, Interrupted. But I do think there is at least one thing worth pointing out here, and that is to look at the question of what Jesus said when he was on the cross. Did Jesus say:

  • My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?
  • Into thy hands I commend my spirit.
  • It is finished.

These are three very different things, and one would think them rather important in ascertaining the state of Jesus’ relationship with God at the moment of his death. If your argument is that Jesus is of the “same substance” as God — as is alleged in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity — then having Jesus ask God “why hast thou forsaken me?” doesn’t exactly suggest that he believed himself to be God.

It should also be noted that all four gospels are “anti-Jewish” to a greater or lesser degree — many scholars believe that the Gospel of John is the most anti-Jewish of the four — and part of that antipathy to the Jews seems to stem from these reasons:

  • By the time the Gospels were written, the Second Temple had already been destroyed, and the Romans had essentially chased all of the Jews out of Jerusalem.
  • Some or all of the Gospels may have been written in Rome, or at least areas under Roman control, and the gospel writers did not want to offend the Romans with their writings.
  • Because of their dispersal from Jerusalem, the early Jewish-Christians had wandered far and wide spreading the “good news” by the time the Gospels were written.
  • Saint Paul had already converted to Christianity and had already opened up the religion to non-Jews.
  • A nasty competition had already begun between “Temple” Jews (who denied the divinity of or even the Messiahship of Jesus) and Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles.

After all, it wasn’t the Jews who crucified Jesus. That would be the Romans. Or as we now know them, the Italians. And yet, there have not been 2000 years of anti-Italian feelings as there have been 2000 years of anti-Jewish feelings, and much of the credit for that must go to the authors of the four Gospels.

Finally, it should also be noted that a lot of the events included in the passion narratives are extraordinarily unlikely from a historical perspective. As explained by Reza Aslan in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, in the Gospel of Mark, Pontius Pilate interviews Jesus and finds him innocent on all charges. He then presents them to “the Jews” — clearly this presentation would not have been to a cross-section of ordinary Jews, the kind that Jesus actually ministered to, but rather to an elite audience of mostly priestly Jews, the kind that actually had decision-making authority in their community — along with a “bandit” named bar Abbas, who had been accused of murdering Roman guards during an insurrection at the Temple. According to Mark, it was a custom of the Roman governor to release one prisoner during the feast of Passover, a claim for which there is no evidentiary support anywhere. When Pilate asks the crowd which prisoner they would like to have released, the crowd supposedly demands the release of the murder and demands the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s at this point that they chant “crucify him!,” according to the Biblical account. (Mark 15:1–20). As Aslan points out, the scene makes no sense at all. The portrayal of Pontius Pilate as being concerned about the fate of an apocalyptic troublemaker like Jesus is preposterous. Why would Mark have “concocted such a patently fictitious scene” Azlan asks. Good question. And the answer seems to be that Mark was writing for an audience in Rome, where he himself resided at the time of writing his Gospel. His account was written very shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersal of the Jews into the diaspora that would eventually come to define the Jewish nation.

There also is no evidence that King Herod ever ordered the slaughter of children in or around Bethlehem; and there is no record of an empire-wide census during the reign of Ceasar Agustus. And there is problem with the timeline of Matthew and Luke, because because if Matthew is correct that the birth of Jesus occurred during the reign of King Herod, then Luke cannot also be correct that it happened while Quirinius was the governor of Syria, because we know know from a range of historical sources that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until ten years after the death of Herod.

Problems Associated with Taking the Bible Literally

Some of the problems with taking the Bible literally are just about too obvious to mention. One is the claim that the Earth is only 6000 years old, when the best evidence is that the Earth is approximately 4.543 billion years old. The difference between 6000 and 4.543 billion is a factor of 7,571,666. That is not, as we say, a “rounding error.” If you believe that the Earth is only 6000 years old — a belief that is not shared, for example, by the Pope — then you really don’t believe in science. And shouldn’t really try to take advantage of the things that have been brought to us like science, like electricity.

But let’s look at two particular exemplars of how awkward it can be to take the Bible literally.

The Nephilim

As students of the Bible know, there are references in the Bible to the Nephilim, referenced in both Genesis, Numbers and Ezekiel. The Hebrew word “nefilim” is sometimes translated as “giants”, but has also been taken to mean the “fallen ones.” Reference is made to them both before and after the great flood, although there are some implications in the Bible that they may in part have been a cause for the great flood. The Nephilim are describe as the “sons of God” in certain passages in Genesis, and are described as having consort with the daughters of humans, who “bore them children,” the implication that these children are something more than humans and less than Gods. Some Biblical scholars have interpreted the Nephilim to be the off-spring produced by fallen angels and human women. A different view holds that the Nephilim were simply men who had “fallen away from righteousness,” and that these were the descendants of Seth, the righteous son of Adam, and that they were members of Seth’s bloodline who rejected God. this is known as the Sethian view, which was the view held by St. Augustine as well as by a number of Jewish theologians.

This then, is an example of the difficulties of Biblical translation. If Biblical scholars can’t agree on whether these were giant half-men half-Gods or just very powerful warriors from a disenfranchised bloodline, then it becomes very difficult for the rest of us to interpret their inclusion in the Bible in any reasonable way.

The Great Flood

There are, of course, those who would have us interpret the Bible literally with respect to what is known as the Great Flood. As scholars of religion know, flood narratives are not uncommon in various religions, including Greek, Chinese, Norse, and Irish mythology, Hinduism, certain Native American and South American tribes, and some native African and Australian Aboriginal religions. In these narratives a great flood, usually sent by a particular deity or deities, destroys civilization, often as an act of divine retribution. One famous example of the flood myth is the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.

Now in the Bible itself there seems to be some confusion with respect to how many animals were brought on Noah’s Arc, and whether these animals were “clean” or “unclean” animals. In some passages Noah is required to bring on two pairs of each animal, and other passages require Noah to bring seven of the “clean” animals on board. Of course, you would also have to explain how the predators were fed during the forty day voyage, and how Noah kept the predators from simply feasting on all the prey brought aboard the Arc, under a scenario where the prey had nowhere to run.

But more particularly, because Biblical literalists want to be taken seriously, scientists have had to explain to them some of the consequences that would inure if you did have a global flood. These include:

  • Problems with the salination of plants, most of which would not have been able to survive saltwater flooding the rest of the earth.
  • Problems with seed abrasion, which would have occurred because of underwater currents.
  • The number of different insect species that would have had to be brought on board.
  • Problems with the survival of aquatic life caused by salinity changes, underwater turbulence, sediment accumulation and habitat destruction.
  • Problems with the destruction of available food sources for post-flood survival.
  • Problems with the redistribution of animals to their home territories.
  • Problems related to genetics and inbreeding after the flood.

As already previously demonstrated, the problem with taking a mythological work like the Bible literally is that you have to engage in so many mental gymnastics to explain away all of the improbabilities and impossiblities that are involved.

Scientists should not have to waste their time on this kind of nonsense. And neither should we.

Return to discussion of the current state of affairsProceed to discussion of the historical Jesus
  1. “Catholic” here does not mean the Catholic church, but is used more in the conventional sense of “general” or “universal,” and is a function of the fact that the authorship of these documents really is unknown.
  2. Marcion asserted among other things that the God who sent Jesus into the world was a different, higher deity than Yahweh, the God of the Jews, and that Saint Paul was the only true apostle of Jesus Christ.
  3. The scholarly consensus is that Moses himself likely never existed, but is either a composite of several others or simply a legendary character.
  4. The author of the Gospel of Mark could be Mark the Evangelist, or it could John Mark, or it could be John the cousin of Barnabas. Or it could be all three or a combination of any two of them. The experts are at cross purposes in these matters, and there’s no way definitive way to know.
  5. I personally view Jesus as kind of a precursor to Mahatma Gandhi — a prophet for the dispossessed, practicing a brand of non-violent political activism — but that’s a totally subjective interpretation based on far too little reliable information and my personal biases.
  6. According to certain scholars, the Commandments contain little that was new to the ancient world. Instead they reflected the morality common to the ancient Middle East. Scholars also contend that the Ten Commandments had no particular importance in Christian tradition until the 13th century, when they were incorporated into a manual of instruction for confessing sins. They became much more central in the Protestant reformation.
  7. A single table that lists all of the events described in the four Gospels can be found through this link. Part of what it indicates is how much the Gospel of John varies from the other three Canonical Gospels, and just generally how much variation there is in terms of what is included.