I used to know a young man who was very religious. Unlike some of that ilk, he wasn't annoying about it: you could talk to him for long periods without the subject coming up at all. Over time, however, enough leaked out to make it plain that he took his Christianity very seriously.
One day we happened to be talking about books we had read and he mentioned the Bible, almost apologetically, but still asserting that this had to be the "greatest book of all".
Curious, I asked him why he would say that. Without hesitation, he answered.
"Because I've never found it to be wrong."
I hesitated. That word "wrong" can have such slippery meaning in the world of religion. Depending upon who is saying it, it can mean that that they literally believe everything the Bible says. More usually it means something akin to "I believe what the Bible teaches me", which leaves all the contradictions, inconsistencies and plain errors of fact to be as they are.
"Do you mean the Bible is inerrant?", I asked.
That actually means very little. Biblical inerrancy cheerfully ignores errors, inaccuracy and contradiction. I just wanted to see how much attention he was paying to his religious leader.
He agreed that he thought the Bible to be inerrant. I asked a more direct question.
"Are there any contradictions in the Bible?"
To my surprise, he immediately answered in the negative. That's unusual, because a person insisting on that plainly has not paid close attention to their reading - or may not have read at all. I decided to find out.
"Have you ever read it?", I asked.
Of course I have read it
That question set him back a bit. His retort was as expected - of course he had read it.
I asked him if he had his Bible with him. He had a copy back at his desk and we went to fetch it. I thumbed through it and found the first passage I wanted.
I had him read that out loud and then flipped to another section. This is John telling the same story. It's a bit different from Matthew's version.
So which is it? Did Jesus sullenly refuse to answer or was he a smart aleck?
I know that "inerrancy" doesn't require these passages to match, but this young man did not. He was embarrassed, so I took it upon myself to explain to him the slippery nature of these claims and advised him to go have a talk with his pastor for further explanation.
I don't know that he did and, if he did, who knows what his paster might have said? He might just dismiss it with "The Devil can quote Scripture" or he might have simply noted that the different accounts are designed to teach different things. He might have also insisted that the refusal was one part of the questioning and that the answers came later. It hardly matters: there is always some way to wipe away any contradiction or error.
The purpose of the Gospels
A Christian may easily forget (or may not even know) that those who wrote these stories had no idea that they would someday be bound together in the New Testament. The earlier writers certainly wouldn't have been aware of the embellishments and contradictions of later writers and those later writers might not have had access to the same version of an earlier work that you can read today.
The New Testament has just four gospels, but there were many more. In a time when truth in advertising was unknown, people rewrote stories to suit their own purposes. If you hated Jews, you made them responsible for the death of Jesus. If you hated the Romans, the Jews would get a more sympathetic treatment. Each story had its own flavor and prejudice.
Much later, the early churches gathered together the stories they liked and tossed out the ones they did not. They may have even tried to destroy some stories that they deemed unfitting for any eyes. There is a controversial story that might imply homosexual practices, for example, but even works far less insulting were suppressed or ignored.
For all these reasons, most intelligent Christians acknowledge the contradictions and fall back to a more reasonable position that each writer was trying to impart important truth in the best way they could. If we substitute "political spin" for "important truth", that is exactly what they were doing and the selection of those four accounts out of dozens was yet more "spin".
Just for fun
With the idea firmly in mind that none of this matters except to the most ignorant, it is still fun to look for amusing glitches in the Bible. I want to present to you just one of my favorites.
Remember, this is just for fun. I know that it is unimportant to any intelligent Christian. It should not be thought that I am presenting this to attack your faith. I just find these things amusing.
Feeding the multitudes
The story of Jesus feeding large crowds is well known to Christians. The more skeptical atheists will note that those stories are likely lifted right out of Kings in the Old Testament:
When the gospel writers are singing the praises of Jesus, they describe a similar miracle - two of them, in fact. On one occasion Jesus feeds four thousand with seven loaves of bread and some fish and on another he feeds five thousand with five loaves and two fish.
You might think that these two stories are suspiciously similar. However, both appear in Mark, so we can't argue that one gospel writer accidentally changed a few facts or just heard them differently. Mark makes it plain that these are separate instances and they are quite close together also.
What's amusing about this is that the disciples had plainly seen Jesus do this bit of magic previously. And yet they are baffled both times as to how the crowd will be fed. The same bafflement that Elisha's servant expressed in the Old Testament story, of course.
Again, that's meaningless. Many Christians might even laughingly accept that the stories probably did come from the same source and that even the Kings version has antecedents in older religions. They might say that it is the concept of charity and giving that is important, not any details written by unknown authors at different times.
I don't have any problem with that. As I said, picking out these little glitches is just mild fun with no malice intended. Well, unless I'm actually dealing with some crazed person who insists that it all must be literally true, of course. That's a very different sort of "fun".
Do you have any favorite inconsistency or flat out error? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.
To the moderate Christians: you really don't need to point out how none of these things matter, but if you really must, then go ahead. I'm already in agreement, but you might feel I haven't presented your particular take or haven't expressed it forcefully enough. I'm sure you'll forgive my poor attempts, of course.
In fairness, I'd have to offer the same opportunity to any literalist who wants to pretend that this word was mistranslated or that the Devil affected all versions but the secret one that will now be revealed to us - I shudder to think what we might get by allowing that, but I suppose I must.
All I ask of anyone is to try not to be too repetitive. I know that's hard in these circumstances - nuance can be so important when waving away Biblical problems. I'll try to be fair, but if you really haven't added to the conversation, I might have to delete your comment in the interests of saving space.
Other than that, have at it!