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The Problem With Divine Inspiration
“For most people, the Bible is a non-problematic book. What people don't realize is that they're reading translations of texts, and we don't have the originals.” Bart Ehrman
For almost my entire life I have been one of those people that Mr. Ehrman was speaking of. I didn’t question the Bible because that would be heresy. I believed the bible was the inerrant word of God and that the men who wrote it were just vessels being used by God to pen His very thoughts. I had heard arguments against this line of thinking and had always responded with, “If you start to question one word of the Bible then you can explain the whole book away”. I now realize how right I was, but it was also this thinking that caused me to simply assume I knew the Bible instead of asking questions about how the Bible came to be the book that is in every hotel room in America today.
A few years ago I started to question all the things that I had always held to be truth but had never actually studied with any amount of seriousness. I did not start my quest with an agenda and I still don’t have one. I am simply searching for factual truth.
A few months ago my searching led me to a program on the History Channel called Banned from the Bible. This program was about how the Canon of the Bible came to be and the books that were considered sacred texts that were rejected from the Bible. I was very surprised to learn that the books that are in the Bible were not decided upon until sometime in the fourth century and there wasn’t unanimous consent until sometime in the fifth century.
After just a little study on the subject I was surprised to find that the content of the Bible was not settled upon for well over a millennium after the coming of Jesus. The Catholic Canon was not fully accepted as doctrine until the council of Trent in 1546. Martin Luther actually wanted to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the Bible because these books seemed to disagree with his Protestant doctrines. German-language Luther Bibles still have these books placed last to this day.
There wasn’t even agreement on which of the Gospels should be accepted as accurate by the early church for well over one hundred years after they were written. It appears that the first time anyone made the argument that all four Gospels were inspired was in 180 a.d. when Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies. Irenaeus argued that because there were four winds, (wind is not an entity, it is simply air movement and so there is not one or four winds there is just wind) and four corners of the earth (we have since learned that the earth is an ellipse and so has no corners) there needed to be four Gospels.
How could the holy word of God be decided upon in such ways? Were decisions about which books were infallible really made from superstitions or by a group of men voting on which books to include? These questions compelled me to dig even deeper, and I was shocked at what I found. I began to read everything I could about early church history and in doing so came across the work of Bart Ehrman. Mr. Ehrman is a New Testament historian and scholar. His writings are the inspiration for many of the ideas expressed in this article.
Each thing I learned became more and more shocking to me. I had always assumed that the New Testament was printed in chronological order but that was not so. Paul actually wrote his letters before any of the Gospels (or any other books of the New Testament for that matter) were written. Mark was the first Gospel and it was written around thirty years after the death of Christ. Matthew and Luke were written ten to fifteen years later and John was written another ten to fifteen years after that.
I found the fact that the Gospels were written so long after the events they recorded to be troubling. That information, however, was followed by the, even more troubling, fact that most historians believe the Gospels were not written by eye witnesses. The Disciples of Christ were peasants who spoke Aramaic but the Gospels were all written in Greek. It is likely that the Disciples were completely illiterate. It is estimated that up to ninety percent of people in the Roman Empire could not even read their own language let alone write it, let alone write fluently in a second language.
To put the idea of how improbable it would have been that several peasants of that era would have known how to read and write in two different languages think about this, only twenty-five percent of Americans can speak two languages (some studies have that number at as low as nine percent) let alone write fluently in a second language. Could you write a narrative of twenty-two thousand words in Spanish?
So how did the stories of Jesus get put into writing? It is believed that the stories were passed on verbally until more educated converts decided to write the stories down to better preserve them. If this is true then these accounts would definitely have differences from one to the next.
What would happen if four different people saw the same event and wrote that event down? You would have four stories that looked a lot different with just a few details that looked the same. What would happen if some people witnessed an event and then told this story for thirty, forty or even sixty years before other people decided the story should be written down? These stories should differ very greatly from each other to the point of not even seeming like the same event. So if three stories, passed down in the manner described, had many places where they were exactly the same, word for word, and one of them was written before the other two wouldn’t it be safe to assume that the two of them copied the first account? Matthew and Luke seem to be copies of Mark for this very reason.
The discrepancies between John and the other Gospels indicate that it was not copied from them, and it is possible that the author had never even read the other three Gospels. These discrepancies are very good indications that the stories were not written by eye witnesses. One of the biggest discrepancies of the Gospels is the story of the last supper.
Mark chapter 14 tells it like this, “12 And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 13 And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” 16 And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover. 17 And when it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’”
In Luke 22 it says “7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.” 9 “Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked. 10 He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.” 13 They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover. 14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.’”
These verses clearly state that Jesus ate the Passover meal with his Disciples and this is what became known as the last supper.
The problem with this story arises in John chapter 13 “13 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
This account seems to indicate that the last supper took place before the Passover but it’s not very definitive.
Looking ahead to John 18 only a few hours have passed. Jesus has been taken captive and the Jewish leaders have taken him to Pilate.
John 18 “28 Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, ‘What charges are you bringing against this man?’”
Here the contradiction is clear. In Mark, Matthew and Luke they eat the Passover meal and then Jesus is taken captive. In John Jesus is taken captive before the Passover meal. This discrepancy becomes even clearer later in John.
John 19 “12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” 13 When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). 14 It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.”
At this point, it is important to understand that Jewish days started at sundown. It is also important to understand that the day of preparation was the entire day preceding the Passover. This day was set aside to prepare for the Passover because no work could be done on the Passover. Once the preparations had been made and the sun set then the Passover meal would be eaten.
John clearly has Jesus being captured on the morning of the day of preparation and crucified the same day. The other Gospels clearly have Jesus eating the Passover meal and being crucified the next day.
It is also important to note that all of the Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on “The day of preparation for the Sabbath”.
John 19 “31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.”
Matthew 27 takes place the day after the crucifixion, “62 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
Mark 15 “42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. “
Luke 23 “50 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.”
These scriptures all refer to a different preparation day than preparation day that was set aside for the Passover. This preparation day that they are referring to is the day of preparation for the Sabbath. This preparation day would have normally been a Friday and the Sabbath would have been a Saturday. So now all the Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on a Friday right? Not necessarily. Once again the Gospel of John is causing trouble.
The Gospel of John mentions that it was a special Sabbath. A special Sabbath happened twice a year and it depended on the year what day they fell on. Some scholars believe that the year Christ died this special Sabbath happened on a Thursday. This would mean that Jesus was in the tomb more than three days and so did not fulfill the Old Testament prophecy or his own prophecy that he would be raised up in three days. This is, however, speculation and so may not be the case. It is still an issue that would be worth investigating for students of the Bible. It was a surprise to me to know that the Friday crucifixion is not an uncontestable fact.
There is still the contradiction of the crucifixion coming before the Passover or after the Passover. What does this mean? The way I see it there are three options to explain this contradiction. Either the writer of Mark made a mistake and the writers of Matthew and Luke copied this mistake later, or the writer of John made a mistake, or someone who was copying or translating the Gospel of John at a later date made a mistake.
The last option brings up an important issue. There are no original manuscripts of any of the New Testament books. In fact the earliest copies were written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus. There are many copies of the New Testament books that all date around the same time and there are so many discrepancies between these copies that, to quote Bart Ehrman, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”
All these contradictions and all these discrepancies in the Bible have convinced me that the Bible is not miraculously inspired by God. If the Bible was miraculously inspired then why wouldn’t God have preserved the original writings so that we could have His instructions to us? Would this have been too difficult for a God of His power? How can we know that the Bible we read today is even remotely similar to the original texts when countless men have altered it and injected their own ideas? Why should I assume that the sixty-six books that were decided upon hundreds of years after the death of Jesus are any more than a collection of ideas put together by fallible men?
I know that many people reading this will not share my views (although I doubt many of them will make it to this paragraph). To my fundamentalist Christian friends I would just like to say, I am not saying we should throw the Bible out. The Bible is a book with many good messages in it. I am saying let’s adjust the lenses that we read the Bible with. To ignore the contradictions and claim the Bible is inherent is to be willfully ignorant of the many errors it contains. If you see the errors you can see the humanity of the Bible. If you see the humanity of the Bible you can also see that the Bible has evolved with the people who read it. If the Bible contains mistakes could your ideas about the Bible also have flaws in them?
Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman