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18 August 2017

Bible “difficulties”: The passages which won’t do as we want.

Usually we mean scriptures which appear to contradict other scriptures.

Whenever you hear Christians refer to “bible difficulties,” you’d think we meant scriptures which’re hard to translate, hard to interpret, hard to understand, or hard to follow. Often we do. Certainly I do.

But why do Christians consider these scriptures difficult? Three reasons.

  1. We believe the bible contains no errors—but these passages appear to be in error, or appear to contradict other scriptures. Like Jesus’s two different genealogies.
  2. We have certain beliefs, doctrines, traditions, or assumptions—and these passages appear to violate them. Like Christians who don’t wash feet, Jn 13.14 or Christian men who don’t kiss one another hello. Ro 16.16 We don’t wanna say these passages don’t apply anymore… but honestly, we don’t wanna follow ’em either.
  3. These passages actually are obscure, and Christians throughout history (and Jews too) have found ’em hard to interpret.

The most common reason would be the first one: Discrepancies. Scriptures which appear to contradict other scriptures… or reality itself.

Nearly every Fundamentalist insists the bible has no such contradictions. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Have these guys ever read the bible?” Tried to line up the resurrection stories, or Jesus’s aforementioned genealogies?

Plus several orthodox Christian teachings—based on bible, I remind you—are kinda contradictory as well. Like how God’s kingdom is here, yet not yet here; like how God is one yet three. Fundies know all this stuff, but regardless: One of their fundamentals, one of their non-negotiable beliefs, is that the bible has no errors. Contradictions would be errors; therefore no contradictions.

Hence Fundamentalists have written big giant books about bible difficulties. In which they try to explain away any discrepancies, plus any other problem scriptures, as best they can. Sometimes reasonably, ’cause these passages only look like discrepancies but aren’t really. Other times Fundies really stretch reality in order to defend their doctrine.

These aren’t always contradictions.

Like I said, there are passages which only look like discrepancies but aren’t really. If you don’t know your ancient history, it’s gonna look wrong to you.

Fr’instance Jonah. In the book about him, Jonah got swallowed by a dag gadól/“great fish.” Jh 1.17 But when Jesus referenced this story, he said Jonah spent three nights in a kítos/“whale.” Mt 12.40 Waitaminnit: Whales aren’t fish. Which animal was it, a fish or a whale?

Well in our culture whales aren’t fish. They’re marine mammals, and our word for marine mammal, cetacean, is based on kítos/“whale.”

But to the ancient Greeks, to Jesus’s culture, and well into the middle ages, if it swam in the ocean it’s a fish. (Monks who were only permitted to eat fish on Fridays would take advantage of this really broad definition, and claim otters and badgers were fish, so they could therefore eat ’em. Yeah, it’s silly.) Wasn’t till Carl Linnaeus and the classification system he published in 1776 that whales got distinguished from fish. But that’s a century and a half too late for the King James Version, which had already translated kítos as “whale.” Mt 12.40 KJV

Other bibles nowadays, in order to dodge the problem, translate Jesus’s words as “great fish” (ESV, NKJV, NLT), “huge fish” (CSB, NET, NIV), “big fish,” (GNT), “sea creature” (ISV), even “sea monster” (Amplified, NRSV). Problem is, people read these translations and conclude—and insist—Jonah was never swallowed by a whale. ’Cause a whale’s not a fish. “Plus my bible doesn’t say ‘whale’; it says ‘fish.’ ”

But y’know, there’s actually no reason to fight this battle. It’s not a real discrepancy!

So why do Christians get into a tizzy about such a thing? Back to the Fundamentalists: They wanna claim the bible is a scientifically accurate book. Hence Jesus can’t be permitted to mix up whales and fish. We moderns have deduced whales aren’t fish. Jesus, even though he was entirely consistent with ancient natural philosophy, is all-knowing; he must’ve supernaturally known how we moderns were gonna think, and had the foresight to side with us.

Yeah, it’s a ridiculous, self-centered point of view. But you’ve seen how modern bible translations have voted.

Hiding the discrepancies.

And here I’m gonna bring up a very bothersome trend in present-day bible translation: Certain translators either believe the bible has no errors, or work for organizations who made it mandatory for them to think so. Hence they go out of their way to hide all the biblical discrepancies. Whether they’re real discrepancies or not.

You just saw how they handle the Jonah “discrepancy.” As I demonstrated, it’s not a real problem. But people nowadays try to turn it into a problem. So rather than deal with these silly people—rather than sit ’em down and explain, “Our system of classification is a construct, and isn’t the one the ancients used”—they avoid the problem, hide the problem, by mistranslating kítos as “fish.” Or by putting the word “sea creature” into Jesus’s mouth.

A hidden problem isn’t a solved problem.

It also begs the question: Are translators doing this because they don’t want Christians to quibble over irrelevant issues? Fine; I get that. Or is it really because they’re pretending there is no issue?

It’s kinda like a chef who hides his dirty pans in the oven before the health inspector visits. Does he plan to clean his pans later, and is only doing this to pass inspection? Or has he no intention of ever cleaning the pans at all? Either way, he’s in trouble if the inspector catches him. And shouldn’t he be?

This is what I find bothersome about the lengths, both long and short, to which inerrantists go when they wanna hide the problem scriptures. Frankly, a lot of their explanations are unreasonable, even dishonest. If they tried to give such explanations in a court of law on any other subject, opposing counsel would make mincemeat of them, and the jury would dismiss them as ridiculous.

Some translations go to a lot of effort to hide every discrepancy. The New International Version is notorious for it. (Here’s a list of their deliberate mistranslations.) It’s why I no longer trust that translation for serious bible study, and seldom use it.

Censoring verses to suit our theology, means our theology is no longer based on bible. Instead we’ve altered the bible to suit our theology. And the product is both a bad bible, and bad theology.