"Where Can We Go?"

Rick Ritchie
Monday, March 1st 2010
Mar/Apr 2010

When Jesus was on the earth, he said some difficult things. When he said these things, the crowd stopped following him. His disciples still hung on, despite the fact that they probably did not understand either (see John 6). Looking back, we can see why. Although much of what Jesus was talking about would make sense only in light of events that had not yet taken place, the disciples knew they could trust their master. We should always remember this scene as we approach Bible difficulties. It reminds us that our trust is not founded on everything fitting together neatly. Our trust may improve when some difficulty is resolved. When this happens over and over again, it may be greater still. But this is not how anyone first began to trust the Bible.

A couple of mistakes are often made in how we approach such matters. The first is to decide that none of this matters: the Bible will tell us how to get to heaven, even if what it says of earth sounds like nonsense. Many like this approach because they never have to study or sweat over it. Their faith is in one compartment and their street smarts are in another. The trouble is that this does not fit the Bible's conception of itself: "I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?" Jesus asks (John 3:12). The second mistake is made by those who set the bar too high. They imagine that they have almost no right to continue believing until they reconcile all difficulties. But we didn't begin trusting because of our individual abilities to resolve such questions. And as with any belief system of any complexity, we believe because the central case is compelling to us, not because we comprehend how everything works.

If someone presents you with a Bible difficulty, before you spend even a minute of time wrestling with it, determine how important it really is. "Would a satisfying answer to this question lead you to adopt the Christian faith?" is a good question to ask. If the answer is no, then move on. Why go researching if you know the answer will not help? You can also try to guide the person in thinking through which questions should be crucial. If your questioner is convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead, would he or she not be willing to live with some unanswered questions in obscure sections of the Old Testament? If not, the questioner is not thinking straight. A certain number of difficulties are inevitable when dealing with material this ancient.

Too Early and Too Late

Writing in the 1920s, G. K. Chesterton noted that Christianity often got attacked for contradictory reasons. One person would attack it for producing the pacifism of the Quakers and another for producing the warlike ferocity of the Crusades. Whatever was true, he figured, the Christian faith must be a very interesting matter indeed to warrant this. I have found the same thing in my reading, even in the same author. For example, John Shelby Spong, a radical Episcopalian bishop who made a publishing splash some years back by attacking conservative views of the Bible, takes issue with when the biblical revelation was given. He says, "If Abraham is the starting point for our faith story, human beings were on this earth 496,000 years before our faith story was born. Can one realize this and still claim that ultimate saving truth resides only in our understanding of God? Would it not be a strange God who would leave human beings with no saving revelation of the Divine One for all but .8 percent of human history?" (1) So, according to Bishop Spong, God spoke too late. Only that's not all. He spoke too soon as well: "Can modern men and women continue to pretend that timeless, eternal, and unchanging truth has been captured in the words of a book that achieved its final written form midway into the second century of this common era?" So God is cruel if he fails to reveal himself before the race has any ability to remember or record what was said, but his message is not to be trusted if he doesn't wait until our own time–the apex of human knowledge when we have finally achieved true understanding without him. It is clear that none of this really presents the biblical story in its own terms.

In its own terms, the story begins at the beginning of humanity. The gospel is spoken as far back as the third chapter of Genesis, right after the Fall (Gen. 3:16). Those who did not hear this message must blame those who failed to repeat what they heard. Yet even here, it appears that God makes some allowances for ignorance (Acts 17:30). On the other hand, had God waited longer to reveal himself, what advantage would that give? Let's say he revealed himself in the middle of the twentieth century when the resurrection could be televised and taped. Would that not have been better? It is tempting to think it would. But even in our current era, doubts are raised about the images captured by our cameras. Could someone have faked the footage? What were the conditions of the taping? Have they been digitally edited? The older I get, the more I see that our written accounts might actually be better over the long haul than some other ideal that I might at one time imagine would solve the problems. One generation is almost never in a position to see what would have been best for all time.

The Birth Narratives Cannot be Reconciled–to the Christmas Pageant

Surely for the story of Jesus to be believed, the Gospels must present us with some kind of believable account of the events of Jesus' birth. It is one thing for accounts to tell of supernatural events–most Christians know that when they believe in God, interventions in nature cease to be impossible. Yet logical problems are another thing–if the accounts blatantly contradict each other, we might be more inclined to believe this is just a poorly concocted tale.

Bishop Spong tries to argue this. We think we know the story of Jesus' birth because of what we've seen in the Christmas pageant. As he says:

The traditional Christmas pageant normally follows Luke's story line of annunciation, journey to Bethlehem, birth, angels, shepherds, and concludes with the shepherds kneeling before the creche within the stable. If Matthew is used at all, the story of the wise men is simply tacked on as the final scene. This produces the visual fallacy of the wise men presenting their gifts to the baby in the manger, which may be romantic, but it is biblical nonsense. (2)

He explains that this is nonsense because Matthew does not have Jesus in a manger but in "a house in Bethlehem over which a star could stop." (3) He lists some other difficulties and then moves on to show this to be even worse:

Luke tells us that on the eighth day of his life Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21) and that on the fortieth day of his life Jesus was presented in the temple in Jerusalem. Only then, when this family group in faithful Jewish obedience had accomplished in a rather leisurely fashion all of these things required by the Law, did they return unto Galilee, "to their own city Nazareth" (Luke 2:39). While these liturgical acts were being performed in Jerusalem and while they were returning peacefully to their home in Nazareth, according to Luke, Matthew said that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were fleeing for their lives into Egypt, and only after the death of Herod were they able to risk returning to their Bethlehem home and even felt that to be too dangerous, so they journeyed on into Galilee to settle in Nazareth. One cannot be in Jerusalem and in Galilee and in Egypt at the same time. Someone is wrong. Maybe both Evangelists are wrong, but certainly both of them cannot be right. (4)

What is interesting here is how persuasive this can look at first glance, but how terribly argued it looks upon investigation. I initially read this passage while grazing the shelves of the religion section at a local Barnes and Noble bookstore. As I read, my stomach became upset. Not because Bishop Spong was impious, but because his argument appeared, on the face of it, to be irrefutable–perhaps in large part because he claimed it was. (My upset stomach reminded me of a previous time a difficulty bothered me, and I remembered how it was resolved, and remembered to trust. Things were probably not as bad as they seemed.) I asked a pastor how this could be resolved. "I heard that this is solved if you see Mary and Joseph being visited in a house in Nazareth," he said. "It makes sense of a lot of things, including Herod's slaughter of infants under two years of age. It would have taken the magi some time to travel, so if we assume they traveled after Jesus was born, the couple could have moved back from Bethlehem to Nazareth, and then fled to Egypt after the magi visited." The pieces really did seem to fall into place, as quickly as they had fallen out of place when Spong was telling the story. In fact, they made more sense than they had before I had read Spong.

Now looking at Spong's actual text, I can see how he distorted the question. He mentioned the Christmas pageant so that the chronology would be framed a certain way. He also left out details that would help frame the story another way. As Matthew tells us, it was after Jesus had been born that wise men arrived from the East (verse 2). Then we find that Herod asked "the exact time the star appeared" (verse 7) and used that information to decide to kill all the male children "from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi" (verse 16). Only after this did the family flee to Egypt.

With the timeframe actually given in Scripture, it is clear we have a different sequence of events than Spong lists. We have something more like annunciation, journey to Bethlehem, birth, angels, shepherds, circumcision, presentation in the Temple, return to Nazareth, arrival of magi, flight to Egypt.

Some time after I ran into this question with its solution, I saw the correct chronology portrayed. Franco Zeffirelli's television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth shows the events happening as I have described above. I happened to catch a broadcast of the series in which a scholarly discussion was featured before and after a given episode. The scholars mentioned that most filmed portrayals of the life of Christ focused on one Gospel rather than the others. This one was different in that it harmonized all of the Gospels.

The real trouble is not that Matthew and Luke contradict each other but that they cannot be harmonized with the Christmas pageant. I suppose for an Episcopal bishop, in a church where everything has to be pretty, this has become a higher priority than providing a coherent reading of the Bible. Ironically, to find that coherent reading of Scripture's narrative we must turn from the bishop to a film producer.

She Was There: Go and Ask Her

When we approach the resurrection, we are at the heart of our faith. If this event did not happen, our faith is vain, as St. Paul tells us. So arguments that would undermine the truth of the resurrection cut very deep. Bishop Spong would have us believe that there is a spiritual truth of resurrection that cannot be affected by the facts, one way or the other. Further, the resurrection accounts are clearly not factual, since like the birth narratives they supposedly contain irreconcilable contradictions. We find again that some of these are in the eye of the beholder. Yet here we do have a case where there are some aspects of the telling that are puzzling even to those who offer them a more sympathetic reading.

Spong questions many elements of the accounts. I wish to look at one element that might not only turn out to have a reconciliation, but may perhaps even show there is a class of textual difficulty that in the long run turns out to be a strength. That is, sometimes we find that our reading of the Gospels raises a question; but if we allow the question to simmer for some time, we might find an answer that makes the accounts more coherent than they would have been had they possessed the uniformity of form we imagined they ought to possess.

The element I wish to examine is the women at the tomb of Jesus on resurrection morning. Spong states the problem thus:

Who went to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week? Paul said nothing about anyone going. Mark said that Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome went (chap. 16). Luke said that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and some other women went (24:10). Matthew said Magdalene and the other Mary only went (1:28). John said that Mary Magdalene alone went (20:11). This is not an important detail unless you claim inerrancy for every word of Scripture. If that claim is made, even minor disagreements become catastrophic.

As with the birth narratives, Spong has unnecessarily framed differences as disagreements or contradictions. Rather than list all of Spong's violations of the rules of evaluating evidence, it is probably better to show how easily the differences between the accounts could and do add to the coherency of our picture of the times: Who went to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week? Paul, writing to Christians in Asia Minor (none of whom would be unlikely to have an opportunity to meet an eyewitness), has no names to offer. Mark, writing early to a community with good access, lists the living eyewitnesses as Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome (chap. 16). Luke, perhaps writing after the death or infirmity of Salome, includes the perhaps less prominent Joanna with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and some other women (24:10). Matthew, perhaps not having investigated as carefully as Luke did (Luke 1:3), only lists Magdalene and the other Mary (1:28). Finally, John, writing later still, only lists Mary Magdalene (20:11), a younger woman who likely outlived the other women who were already mothers of adult men when the events happened.

Now this rendering of the differences is speculative, to be sure. But it is a speculation that puts weight on the idea of eyewitnesses and offers some explanation for why the writer included some people and not others, which fits into a larger explanation for the naming or not naming of characters in the Gospels. (5) Eyewitnesses were named so that people who were able could find them and talk to them. When the eyewitnesses had passed from the scene, their names ceased to be so important. We're used to thinking of common people as important enough to write about. But in the ancient world, it was rare to do so except in farce. (6) Bishop Spong assumes the curiosity of a culture surrounded by gossipy talk shows where this kind of detail is all anyone wants to know. He talks enough about cultural distance that he cannot be ignorant of these things. He knows better, but takes advantage of the fact his readers do not.

God in the Dock

Just as logical problems pertaining to the story of Jesus strike at the heart of the credibility of the key Bible narrative, so also do moral difficulties in the Bible strike at the heart of its claim to be redemptive. The atonement of Christ is a necessary doctrine if God is holy and man is sinful. If man, however, is improving while the old accounts show God to be of questionable character, that is another thing altogether. This is the situation many since the Enlightenment have asserted is the case. A little over a century ago, a committee of women produced a work called The Woman's Bible. The main editor was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Rather than being a new Bible translation, as the name might suggest, this was commentary on key passages that affected the status of women. This was a period of social change, when radical ideas were popular among the educated, and some imagined that the main obstacle holding society back from progressive goals was belief in the authority of the Bible. One of the best ways to undermine this was to show that the morality on display in Scripture, rather than being exemplary, was inferior to the morality that most readers already held.

In this scene Abraham does not appear in a very attractive light, rising early in the morning, and sending his child and its mother forth into the wilderness, with a breakfast of bread and water, to care for themselves. Why did he not provide them with a servant, an ass laden with provisions, and a tent to shelter them from the elements, or better still, some abiding, resting place? Common humanity demanded this much attention to his own son and the woman who bore him. (7)

Miss Stanton's explanation for why we hold to a standard different from Sarah is that "our moral standard differs from that of the period in which she lived, as our ideas of right and wrong are not innate, but depend on education." Miss Stanton misses a key point here. A key reason that we have a standard different from what Sarah seems to have is that we have more divine revelation offering us a higher standard to live up to. When God became incarnate, in addition to redeeming us, he provided a standard of selflessness beyond the level of anything we find in the best of the other Bible characters. Our education is different from Sarah's, but for reasons that the very Bible Stanton is attacking is in large part responsible for.

The difficulty here is that we want to be clear that nobody could be a better moral teacher than God himself. On the other hand, it is not the case that the entire Bible is written to convey moral lessons. Our condition is worse than this. No revelation of morality will save us from our plight. For our plight is that we wish to be just fine apart from God. A moral code will be twisted into an instrument of independence. In fact, it will become the instrument of sin. This is one of the ironies that comes out in the trial of Jesus. God gave to one nation a legal code, and when he takes on flesh, he is subjected to a corrupt trial that uses his own laws. If this is the case when God teaches principles clearly, then perhaps looking back we might wish to find another way of reading the narrative sections than as moral lessons embedded in story. We are bad enough at learning this stuff when it is stated baldly. God won't hide it in subtle form. When he uses another genre, he is teaching us something of another sort altogether. Since these are not moral lessons, they are not to be faulted for displaying immorality. To display immorality is just to display human beings in the disappointing reality.

But even another colleague of Stanton sees that her reading is not a good one. As Clara Bewick Colby responds in her own notes on the passage immediately following Stanton's, this episode looks very different when we take it as part of a larger whole. This is not the kind of literature where it makes sense to gage what is going on chapter by chapter, or where we can read the actions as if the characters could be held responsible for acting according to the mores of our own time. As she wisely says, "If we take any part of the story we must take it all." (8) (This is one of the most widely ignored principles of reading–to violate it leads to the straw man fallacy, where one attacks a position nobody holds to.) Otherwise we end up fulfilling Dorothy L. Sayers' definition of a Bible critic as someone who, in the place of supernatural stories for which there is evidence, substitutes naturalistic stories for which there is no evidence.


My few examples are meant to show that some difficulties do appear that impinge upon central questions. We are in real trouble if the narratives of Jesus' birth or resurrection prove incoherent. We would be in trouble as well if the overall teaching of the Bible could be shown as a whole to portray God–in whom there is no darkness at all–to be cruel. Either this would prove the Bible false or the world an inescapable darkness. Many who attack our faith will assert they have found such problems. They often add that these problems are insurmountable. Questions at such central points are worthy of our study. Before we get upset over them, however, we must first remember that some difficulties come not because the Bible is faulty but because we are limited. This limitation is just part of the human condition. We need not overcome this limitation in order to trust the Bible–but chances are that if we hold to our faith, answers will arise.

1 [ Back ] John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 39-40.
2 [ Back ] Spong, 212.
3 [ Back ] Spong, 212.
4 [ Back ] Spong, 213.
5 [ Back ] This connection between naming of characters and their being eyewitnesses known within the early church is argued convincingly by Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. I have adopted his overall theory here, though this application may or may not fit his own presentation of that theory. If there are problems with my approach here, they should not be attributed to problems in Bauckham's thesis.
6 [ Back ] See Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), 44-45.
7 [ Back ] The Woman's Bible, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993), 40.
8 [ Back ] The Woman's Bible, 41.
Photo of Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Monday, March 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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