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

by K.W. Leslie, 13 September

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.

Our error-free, perfect bible?

by K.W. Leslie, 12 September
INERRANCY ɪn'ɛr.ən.si noun. Belief the bible contains no errors of any kind.
[Inerrantist ɪn'ɛr.ən.tɪst noun.]

We Christians put a lot of trust in the scriptures. We trust their authors to steer us right when it comes to God, to Christ Jesus, to salvation, to eternal life. We use them as confirmation the stuff God tells us personally, the stuff he reveals to Christians as we follow him, is valid. We’re basing an awful lot of our beliefs on the bible. It had better be up to the task.

I believe it is. As far as God and Jesus and salvation is concerned, the bible’s infallible: It’s an accurate, trustworthy, truthful description of the stuff we need to know to connect with God, and corrects us when we go astray. That’s why God inspired it, why Christians kept it, and why we read it. 2Ti 3.16

Inerrantists claim this isn’t good enough. They insist the bible has no errors. At all. Period.

In order for the bible to be truly authoritative, inerrantists figure it has to be perfect—as they define perfect. Errors would make it imperfect. Therefore it can’t have any. And anything which appears to be an error or discrepancy in the scriptures, simply isn’t. Can’t be. There’s gotta be a reasonable explanation for it, and with a little investigation they’ll find it. But it doesn’t matter how much it may look like an error: There are none.

Why do they believe this? Mostly because humans are creatures of extremes. “You believe the bible’s trustworthy? I believe the bible’s absolutely error-free. Hah. In your face. You don’t have faith. I have faith.” Of course that’s not faith. That’s dick-measuring.

But that’s not the only reason Christians insist the bible’s inerrant. Really it’s because they’re putting a lot of trust in the bible… which really, properly, oughta be put in the Holy Spirit instead. See, when we read bible, if we’re reading it with wrong or ulterior motives, we’re gonna lead ourselves astray, despite having the bible’s fully accurate testimony of who God is and how salvation works. Doesn’t matter how perfect the bible might be; in the wrong hands we’ll go so wrong, as heretics and cults demonstrate all the time.

Whereas when we’re following the guidance of the Holy Spirit—the same Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the bible—he’s gonna steer us right. And even if the bible were full of errors and factual inaccuracies (and it’s not), the Spirit can steer us right around every landmine and lead us to truth. If you’re gonna put your faith in anything, put it in him.

Well, inerrantists don’t. They put it in bible. Then they fight anyone who says, “Waitaminnit.”

The fake fruit of fidelity.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 September

So as I wrote previously, the Spirit’s fruit in Galatians is πίστις/pístis, “faith.” Not, as too various bible translations render it, “faithfulness.” Like the ESV.

Galatians 5.22-23 ESV
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Faith is also a supernatural gift of the Spirit, and various Christians wanna make a distinction between gifts and fruit. (Usually ’cause they have some problematic beliefs about the gifts.) So they prefer the interpretation “faithfulness.” By which they mean fidelity—you can be depended upon to do as you say, to stand up for those you love.

And hey, fidelity can be an admirable trait. But that all depends on whom we show fidelity to. As humanity has demonstrated lots of times, we can show fidelity to some really godless people, ideas, and institutions. We can do profoundly stupid or evil things in their support—because we value them more than we do wisdom or goodness.

Should Christians be loyal? To Jesus, absolutely. To family members, friends, fellow Christians, and the suffering, sure: Part of love is not giving up, and enduring all.

But is it what Paul meant by pístis? No; he meant faith. It’s a lot harder to trust God, than it is to stand up for people. Humans can pretty much stand up for anything. Doesn’t take the Spirit’s power to do so. People can be loyal, dependable, steadfast Christians our whole lives long… yet when the Holy Spirit expects us to put our doubt on hold and trust him, often we can’t. We might be loyal to the Lord, but we don’t entirely trust him. And which of the two is more important?

Likewise we Christians tend to be just like everybody else in the world when it comes to loyalty and fidelity: It has a cut-off point. We love and support one another in good times and bad… until somebody violates something to which we show more loyalty. We’ll eat Big Macs every day… till that giant heart attack. We’ll love our kids no matter what… till they declare they’re gay. We’ll love our spouses through thick and thin… till they cheat on us. There’s nearly always another line in our minds, whether we realize this or not, and once it’s been crossed, that’s the end of our fidelity. We cut ’em off.

True fidelity among fellow Christians is hard to find. Oh, it exists. But you won’t see it unless we’ve done something that’ll alienate nearly everyone. Like murdering your parents: Most of your so-called Christian friends won’t stick around after that. (Even if they think you’re not guilty!—they’re too afraid of what others will think when they associate with you. Jesus might eat with sinners, but they would never.) The few which remain are truly loyal; the rest, not so much. We tend to only be loyal to the righteous. And sometimes the popular.

The prayer of faith. Or not.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 September

James 5.13-18.

There’s a blog I follow. A few weeks ago the author wrote about how he no longer believes in prayer: He no longer believes it heals people.

’Cause he’s tried to heal people. He’s a pastor; he’s been in thousands of situations where he’s prayed for the sick and dying, or been asked to pray for them. He’s led prayer vigils and prayer chains, and begged God over and over and over again to cure people or let ’em live. He hasn’t got the results he wanted: Either God didn’t cure them (or didn’t cure them enough), or didn’t let them live.

So he’s figuring prayer must not work that way: It’s not about making our petitions known to God, on the grounds God might intervene in human history and do us a miracle. It’s only about being God-mindful, and letting that personally transform us and our attitudes.

He’s not the first Christian to claim this. I grew up in cessationist churches, and heard it all the time from Christians who don’t believe God intervenes; that praying for the sick to become well is a nice idea, but it’s the act of desperate people who can’t accept reality. You just need to accept reality, accept that God’s allowing this to happen, and just slog it out. Hey, suffering builds character.

I might be inclined to believe this too… if I never read James.

James 5.13-18 KWL
13 Do any of you suffer? Pray!
Is anyone cheerful? Make music!
14 Are any of you unwell? Summon the church’s elders.
Have them pray over you, anointing you with oil in the Master’s name.
15 The believer’s intercession will save the sick person; the Master will lift you up.
And if you committed sins, they’ll be forgiven you.
16 So confess sins to one another, intercede for one another, so you can be cured!
A right-minded person’s request is much more powerful.
17 Elijah was a person like us, prayed a prayer for no rain,
and it didn’t rain on the ground three years and six months!
18 Elijah prayed again, and the skies gave rain,
and the ground sprouted its fruit.

Apparently James bar Joseph believed if mature believing Christians pray, sick people get cured. Based on what? Duh; based on personal experience. Read Acts. In his day, Christians prayed for one another and for strangers, and got straight-up cured. Cured like when Jesus cured the sick, ’cause it’s the same Holy Spirit who’s empowering the curing. This wasn’t for “back in bible times”—this wasn’t stuff which happened in Elijah’s day, but no longer. This was for now. It’s still for now.

I’ve had this same personal experience. I’ve seen sick people get cured, right in front of me. Prayed for them, and the Holy Spirit cured them. They prayed for me, and the Holy Spirit cured me. No I didn’t psyche myself into thinking the Spirit cured me; I was honestly skeptical he’d do anything, but he graciously cured me anyway. Wasn’t my faith that cured me; it was the person praying for me. That’s all the Spirit wants to see.

So why do I have experiences which jibe with the bible, and this blogger doesn’t?

The Adulterer Story… if it even happened.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 September

John 7.53 – 8.11.

Today’s passage is called the Pericope Adulterae, the Adulterer Story, about a woman caught committing adultery, and Jesus was expected to judge her, and didn’t. It’s a really popular story in Christendom, and even pagans know the line, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Jn 8.7 KJV It’s used as the basis for a lot of live-and-let-live, “who am I to judge?” beliefs.

Two things though.

  • That’s not what Jesus meant by “He that is without sin.” I’ll get to that.
  • This entire story isn’t found in the earliest copies of John. Nor the gospels. It got added in the 300s. It’s a textual variant.

That second thing tends to really freak out Christians when I point it out to them. But just about every copy of the bible but the KJV points this out. The whole passage is put in brackets, or prefaced by “The oldest copies of John don’t have this story.” Some more daring bible translations even put the whole thing in the footnotes, and John 7.52 is immediately followed by John 8.12.

Here’s the story as the UBS has it. Lighter-text parts come from the Textus Receptus, which is where the King James Version’s translators got it.

John 7.53 – 8.11 KWL
53 Each person went to their house, 1 and Jesus went to Mt. Olivet.
2 At dawn Jesus went again to temple, and all the people came to him. He sat to teach them.
3 Scribes and Pharisees brought Jesus a woman caught red-handed in adultery.
They stood her in the middle 4 telling Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultering.
5 In our Law Moses commanded us to stone such people to death. Lv 20.10 So what do you say?”
6 They said this to test Jesus, so they could have an accusation on him.
Stooping down, Jesus was writing on the ground with his finger,
as if he weren’t listening, 7 while they continued to question him.
Then Jesus stood and told them, “Whoever among you haven’t sinned: Throw the first stone at her.”
8 And again Jesus bent down to write on the ground.
9 The listeners, one by one, convicted by their consciences, left, beginning with the elders.
Only Jesus, and the woman in the middle, were left.
10 Standing, seeing no one but the woman, Jesus told her, “Woman, where are they?
No one condemns you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.”
Jesus told her, “I don’t condemn you either. Go, and don’t sin from now on.”

Prophets in the bible: Read their books!

by K.W. Leslie, 06 September
THE PROPHETS ðə 'prɑf.əts noun, plural. Biblical writings by and about God’s Spirit-inspired messengers.
2. [In Christian bibles and book order] Books in the Old Testament primarily consisting of prophecies. Usually Isaiah through Malachi.
3. [In Jewish bibles and book order] The second major grouping of the Hebrew scriptures: Books written between 1000 and 400BC; Joshua through Malachi.

Sometimes I refer to “the Prophets,” and I admit this can be confusing to Christians who grew up Jewish. To Jews, “the Prophets” are the middle part of their bible—Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the 12 minor prophets.

But to Christians, “the Prophets” are the books with prophets’ names on them, specifically written by them, specifically full of their prophecies. Isaiah, Jeremiah (and Jeremiah’s book Lamentations), Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some of us throw in the New Testament book of Revelation, and others throw in the apocryphal book of Baruch.

And for too many of these Christians, these are flyover books.

Yep. Just like snobs on the east and west coasts assume the middle of the United States consists of irrelevant “flyover states” which one needn’t bother to visit, many Christians figure these books needn’t be read. ’Cause they were written to the ancient Hebrews, not us. And they’re too confusing. Too filled with hard-to-interpret visions. Too weird. Not relevant.

They figure the Prophets have only two functions; only two reasons why we bother to publish bibles including them. First of all, they’re full of predictions Messiah was coming, so they point to Jesus. So we keep ’em for the Messianic prophecies, in case anybody isn’t sure the Prophets did foretell Jesus’s first coming.

The other is because they also foretell Jesus’s second coming. They foretell the End Times. So “prophecy scholars” mine ’em for their End Times prognostications, for anything which might fill in the blank parts of their timelines.

Otherwise, these books are considered a hard read. So Christians don’t read ’em. We read the books we consider relevant: The New Testament. The Old Testament origin stories, or tales of great biblical heroes. The psalms, for the poetry. Proverbs, for the wisdom. Song of Songs, for the smut.

But not the Prophets. Otherwise you’d have to learn about the historical context these prophets were talking about, and that’s way too much homework for your typical Christian’s taste. Plus they’re a bummer, ’cause they’re full of condemnation and God’s wrath. So, as I said, they’re skipped. Mine ’em for proof texts in case there’s a “biblical principle” you’re pushing. But otherwise skip ’em.

This attitude is incredibly short-sighted for those of us who wanna hear from God.

Because these prophets likewise heard God. You wanna know what God sounds like? Read the Prophets. You need to hear what God’s legitimate messengers sound like.

Summaries of the New Testament’s books.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 September

Did the summaries of the Old Testament’s books, so it’s time I summarized the New Testament’s books too.

Gospels.

The gospels, I should point out, aren’t Jesus-biographies. They only focus on his ministry: Proclaiming God’s kingdom has come, and he’s its king; teaching us how we’re to live in his kingdom, starting now; and his death and resurrection.

Because people think of gospels as Jesus-biographies, they regularly miss the fact Acts is also a gospel: It likewise proclaims God’s kingdom has come, with Jesus its king; how we’re to live, with examples from the apostles’ behavior; and the aftermath of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Acts was written as a sequel to Luke, and arguably they oughta be read together as one giant two-part book. Still, people’s confusion means a lot of New Testament booklists have Acts in its own standalone category of “history.”

GOSPEL, ACCORDING TO MATTHEW. A gospel of Christ Jesus, written particularly for a Jewish audience. Hence all its Old Testament quotes, Jesus’s commentary on the Law, and other things first-century Jews would consider relevant; gentiles not so much. (A popular theory is it was originally written in Aramaic and translated to Greek, but we’ve no proof.)

GOSPEL, ACCORDING TO MARK. Probably the first gospel written, and one of the sources for Matthew and Luke. It’s short and to the point.

GOSPEL, ACCORDING TO LUKE. With Acts, a gospel that more resembles ancient Greco-Roman histories, particularly in Luke’s attempt to determine the dates of things, and quote multiple sources. (Including, likely, Jesus’s mom.) Luke tried to include all the reliable Jesus stories he could track down, making it the longest gospel.

GOSPEL, ACCORDING TO JOHN. And John apparently filled in all the blanks in Luke, giving a firsthand account from one of Jesus’s first students about some of the things Jesus taught and did.

ACTS OF THE APOSTLES. After Jesus was raptured, how his new church got its start. Its first persecutions, first council, the origin of Paul of Tarsus, and how it was spread across the Roman Empire.

Summaries of the Old Testament’s books.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 September

It’s nice to have the book order memorized, but it’s far more useful to know what’s in the books. So here’s a brief summary of each book of the Old Testament.

Books of Moses.

GENESIS. These are the formation stories of the earth and the Hebrew people.

  • Creation.
  • Adam and Eve and humanity’s fall.
  • Noah ben Lamech, and humanity wiped out by floods.
  • Babel, and humanity’s scattering.
  • Avram ben Terah, or Abraham the Hebrew; his relationship with God, and his relocation to Canaan.
  • Jacob ben Isaac, or Israel; his relationship with God, and the creation of his large family—the ancestors of the 13 tribes.
  • Joseph ben Jacob, or as the Egyptians called him, Chafnat-pahaneakh; how he went from slavery to become Egypt’s vizier, and his brothers’ relocation to Egypt.

EXODUS. Primarily it’s about the Exodus—how the Hebrew descendants of Israel became a nation, became enslaved by Egypt, and had to be saved by the LORD himself. It tells how the LORD did that, through 10 plagues of judgment upon Egypt. It introduces his prophet Moses ben Amram, his Law, and his instructions for the tabernacle (which’d be replaced four centuries later by the temple).

LEVITICUS. Largely consisting of commands, Leviticus mostly focuses on how the LORD wanted his priests to perform his ritual sacrifices, and his definitions of ritual cleanliness. He wanted Israel to be holy; these were the steps they had to take.

NUMBERS. What happened to the Israelis (KJV “Israelites”) after the LORD handed down his commands at Mt. Sinai: Wandering though the wilderness, grumbling all the way; failing to enter Canaan, so wandering through the desert some more; rebellions from certain malcontents, and opposition from other Hebrew nations. Various new commands were added by the LORD as needed.

DEUTERONOMY. Right before the Hebrews entered Canaan, Moses gave a book-long speech to the new generation of Israelis, reminding them of the Law and informing them what they were in for. (And foretelling how they’d repetitively go through a cycle of repentance.)

God’s still small voice?

by K.W. Leslie, 03 September

Y’might’ve heard this story before.

1 Kings 19.11-13 KWL
11 The LORD said, “Go out. Stand on Mt. Sinai before the LORD’s face.”
Look, the LORD passed by.
A great, strong wind tore away the mountain, breaking rocks before the LORD’s face—
but the LORD wasn’t in the wind.
After the wind, an earthquake. The LORD wasn’t in the quake.
12 After the quake, a fire. The LORD wasn’t in the fire.
After the fire, a voice—a thin whisper.
13 When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his robe and went out to stand in the cave’s opening.
Look, the voice to him said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

This is the only instance in the bible of a ק֖וֹל דְּמָמָ֥ה דַקָּֽה/qol demamá daqqá, “a voice, a thin whisper,” better known by the way the KJV puts it, “a still small voice.”

The only instance. Nowhere else is the LORD described as talking this way. Usually he’s super obvious, and super loud. Frighteningly loud, and even people who knew and loved him would cower in terror, ’cause God’s louder than the loudest thing the authors of the bible could describe. Usually they’d go with thunder, or “many waters”—multiple waterfalls, or ocean waves, which are the darnedest things to talk over. Rv 19.6

Yet for some reason, the still small voice is how everybody seems to think God talks to people: He’s quiet. A tiny whisper. Something you can barely hear.

I would argue they can barely hear him for other reasons. Not because he’s quiet—or worse, because he’s silent.

The senators dismiss the Galilean prophet.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 September

John 7.37-52.

The last day of the Sukkot festival was treated like Sabbath. Lv 23.36, Nu 29.35 Every day, God was presented a ritual food offering; on the last day they presented a ritual drink offering. The priests drew water from the Šiloakh pool (where Jesus later sent a blind guy to wash himself) then walked round the temple’s altar with the water. Then the officiating priest lifted his hand to indicate the ritual was over… and then this happened.

John 7.37-39 KWL
37 On the last day, the great day, of the Sukkot feast, Jesus stood and called out,
saying, “When anyone thirsts, come to me and drink!
38 When one believes in me, as the scriptures say,
‘Rivers of living water will flow from his womb.’ ”
39 Jesus said this about the Spirit who was about to receive those who believed in him:
The Holy Spirit hadn’t yet come, for Jesus hadn’t yet been glorified.

Jesus’s bible quote isn’t an exact quote of anything. He was going for a general idea of water bubbling up from within, as implied in verses like this one.

Isaiah 58.11 KWL
“The LORD led you constantly. He satisfied your soul in scorched lands. He strengthened your bones.
You’re like a well-watered garden, like a water spring which doesn’t produce foul water.”

It’s similar to what he told the Samaritan at the well:

John 4.13-14 KWL
13 In reply Jesus told her, “All who drink this water will be thirsty again.
14 Whoever would drink the water I give them, won’t be thirsty in the age to come.
Instead, the water I give them will become a water spring within them,
bubbling up into eternal life.”

As John said, this is a prophecy about the Holy Spirit, who wouldn’t come Ac 2.1-4 till after Jesus was raptured and glorified. Ac 1.9-11 Come to Jesus and receive the water of life; receive the Holy Spirit.

Still, it galvanized the people, who were pretty sure Jesus was either the Prophet or Messiah… although as you can see, there was still some debate about his credentials to be Messiah. He was Jesus the Nazarene, after all—and they knew Messiah didn’t come from Nazareth.

John 7.40-44 KWL
40 So some from the crowd who heard this word said, “This is truly the Prophet.”
41 Others said, “This is Messiah.”
And some said, “No, for Messiah doesn’t come from the Galilee!
42 Doesn’t the scripture say Messiah comes ‘out of David’s seed’ Ps 89.4
and ‘from Bethlehem,’ Mc 5.2 the village where David was from?”
43 So there became a split in the crowd about Jesus.
44 Some of them wanted to arrest Jesus, but nobody put their hands on him.

We know Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but I remind you John didn’t include Jesus’s birth story; he just showed up in his 30s to be baptized by John, gather students, and start teaching. John states multiple times he came from heaven, sent by the Father, which was good enough for John. Not so much for the Jerusalemites, who were looking for any reason to disqualify him. Jesus is descended from David ben Jesse, Mt 1.1 and wasn’t just born in Bethlehem but had ancestors from Bethlehem; Nazareth was founded by Bethlehemites. His provenance definitely doesn’t disqualify him from being Messiah. But for doubters, any excuse will do. We get the same way nowadays; all humans do.