How do you make sense of contradictions in the Bible? Peter Williams at USC

Cambridge scholar Peter Williams answers USC’s toughest questions about the Bible at The Veritas Forum. Moderated by Dead Sea Scroll expert Bruce Zuckerman.

In this clip, Williams and Zuckerman share their perspectives on how to deal with contradictions in the Bible. Williams suggests that many such cases are deliberate contradictions to draw out important meanings, and that he hasn’t found any unreconcilable statements. Zuckerman suggests that the writers were more concerned with the message and less than the details. VIDEO by The Veritas Forum (Photo below credit

From the video:

„The Bible is full of contradictions,” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. How do you understand biblical contradictions as a scholar and how do you understand them  as a professing Christian?

Peter Williams:

The way I see things is a contradiction is not necessarily a bad thing, the way Dickens begins ‘A Tale of Two Cities’- ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….’ At which point, you might close the book, or you might struggle on for a few more pages. But the point is that simply using code which is opposite, and someone asks me, „Do you believe this?” And I say, „Yes and no.” Of course my yes is a qualified yes, and my no is a qualified no. But, I have packaged them as a formal contradiction. Now, sometimes bible writers will actually use contradictions quite deliberately.

John’s Gospel has its famous passage: ‘For God so loved the world’. John’s epistle has a passage that says: ‘Do not love the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in Him.’ In other words, telling you not to love the world. But, of course you have to think a little it further about what it means by world, and what it means by love. And John’s Gospel is actually full of these sorts of these things, where it says, „The Son didn’t come into the world to judge it, and in another place it will say ‘for judgment I came into the world.’ And they’re in the same Gospel, sitting alongside each other.

You can find in 1 Samuel 15 where it says that God does not change His mind, he’s not like a man to change His mind, and yet He does change His mind. And it’s all there in the same passage. You can find in 2 Kings 17 a passage that talks about ‘they worshipped God’ and ‘they didn’t worship God’ and then ‘they did worship God’. In other words, you’ve got A B A. Both of those 2 Old Testament passages that I mentioned, where you have a statement contradicting the statements on the two sides, and I think these are things deliberately put there by the authors.

Now, there, I think one of the things that makes us use contradictions less often is that since Aristotle taught us to use technical vocabulary, we like to use one term with one sense. And we don’t like the idea of using one term with multiple senses. That means ancient authors were not constrained in that same way. Now, people might be prepared to accept, when they read John’s Gospel that John has an overall intention when he uses these contradictions. In other words, he’s making you think a little bit further. What happens, though, when they find one thing in one writer and another thing in another writer, and they say, „Well, there’s no way I can fit those together.” Now, the way I would understand things is that things are written in the Bible as such, that there are different authors at the human level, but a single author at the divine level. I can’t prove that, but it seems to me a rational thing. So, I don’t find this sort of contradictions in the Bible which are utterly irreconcilable at any level. In other words, I don’t find them in the Bible something that says Jesus was born in Egypt and Jesus was born in Judea.

I come to the text believing that it speaks truth. I don’t think it has to speak truth according to our conventions, our interest in precision. It can quote in completely different ways than us, because after all speech marks (punctuation ?) were only invented in the last few centuries, so there are all sort of conventions which make it different. But, I think… and this is where we need to have a discussion on this issue, that I think there is an overall coherence within Bible writers, even that come from some pretty different perspectives. I’m happy with tension.


When scholars claim that they found these 2 very different strands which are being combined by some editor at some stage, that is essentially a scholarly reconstruction, all we have is a final text, and the final text is where we start from and and we try to explain how the final text arose as it did. And so, if we have 2 passages alongside each other  that seem to us to be different, well, someone put them together and thought that they could fit together. And so, I want to understand that someone’s mind, and I think that very intelligent people can waste a lot of effort dealing with hypothetical sources, and I’m not sure that’s a very fruitful thing.

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