“I have read The New Testament. It’s a mess of conflicting stories about events decades before it was written. And some people believe The Bible is the literal truth. This does not make any sense whatsoever. My question is this – how can The Bible be literal truth when it essentially contradicts itself?” (Lee)
“Why are all the gospels hugely inconsistent with each other, even though two of them are copies of the first?” (Paul)
Already talked about the credibility of the Gospels (The Bible for Atheists #4, 16/4/2018) – whilst written decades after the events recorded, they were written within living memory, and we can say with some confidence that they reflect events which actually took place.
Multiple Gospel accounts is not the real problem here, rather the contradictions between the accounts. For example, the resurrection:
- How many women attended the empty tomb? Certainly Mary Magdalene, but was she alone, or were there one, two, or more other women with her?
- Was it before or after sunrise?
- How many angels spoke to her [or them]? One or two?
Whilst it would be intellectually convenient to have a single, coherent account of Jesus’ life, it runs counter to our experience of life, which is often messy and contradictory itself. For my money, the existence of contradictions is itself evidence of the authenticity of the gospels: If the church had written the life of Jesus three hundred years or so after it was supposed to happen, you would think they’d have written ONE account, or tried to get their story straight. At the very least, we know that the gospels are honest – they have not been tampered with in order to impose a false coherence.
To unravel all this, let’s take a little detour: Are you interested in the truth or the facts? Aren’t they the same thing? No.
University of Berkeley: “Science is both a body of knowledge and a process. In school, science may sometimes seem like a collection of isolated and static facts listed in a textbook, but that’s only a small part of the story. Just as importantly, science is also a process of discovery that allows us to link isolated facts into coherent and comprehensive understandings of the natural world.“ (https://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/whatisscience_01)
“An isolated fact is like a stray piece of a puzzle. It’s an object, … a fragment of information … Truth, on the other hand, is all about meaning.” (https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-q-and-a/faith/facts-vs-truth)
- The difference between hearing and listening (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GwW1L9ZS8Q).
- We can gather all the facts without understanding the truth. (Aspergers have trouble with understanding a joke, they hear all the facts, but can’t put it all together – the truth).
- We can state the facts without telling the truth: by withholding certain facts, or presenting them a certain way, we distort how we represent reality – so we’re lying without telling a lie. (http://www.calldrmatt.com/Difference_Between_Facts_and_Truth.htm)
- We can interpret the same facts and come to different conclusions.
- Are you interested in fact or truth? Whether you’re a scientist, detective, philosopher or theologian, atheist, agnostic or true believer, you should be interested in truth, first and foremost, and only secondarily in fact. Truth exists at a higher order of thinking.
“factual knowledge serves as the instrument of truth”, …  “If … factual knowledge is kept in view without any concern for truths, the truths at length disappear so far from sight that one cannot tell whether they are truths.” (Secrets of Heaven, paragraph 5948)
Is science clear and unambiguous? Or are there contradictions in science?
- Newtonian and Quantum Mechanics: “The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that you can never simultaneously know the exact position and the exact speed of an object. Why not? Because everything in the universe behaves like both a particle and a wave at the same time.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQKELOE9eY4)
- Climate science. If it were that simple, everyone would agree – but they don’t.
“… factual knowledge dwells in virtually the same inferior light as a person’s physical sight. This inferior light is such that, unless it is brightened from within by the light received from truths, it leads to falsities, especially those that are a product of the illusions of the senses…” (Secrets of Heaven, paragraph 6004, section 4)
What does the Bible say … about the Bible? What is its intended purpose? Does the Bible insist that it is factually consistent with itself? Or even that it should to be?
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16,17)
The Word’s purpose: The spiritual awakening of man. So, is an historical record is the most important aspect and primary function of the Gospels, or indeed the Bible itself?
The end of John’s gospel: “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) THE GOSPELS ARE CERTAINLY NOT INTENDED TO BE EXHAUSTIVE, and not written to corroborate one another.
“… regarded in themselves historical narrations can do little to lead to a person’s change for the better and nothing whatever to bring him to eternal life; … To enter heaven and experience its joy, that is eternal life, souls have no need of anything except that which is the Lord’s and which derives from Him. It is for the sake of these things that the Word exists, and those are the things which it contains interiorly.” (Secrets of Heaven, paragraph 1886)
Why are there four gospels? Externally, they contain different eyewitness accounts, and written for different audiences: Mark is the gospel of action; Matthew is the Jewish Gospel; Luke the Gentile Gospel; John, the spiritual gospel, written later and independently of the others. As there are external characteristics and purposes, so there are internal ones.
George De Charms theory, based upon Swedenborg’s work in expounding the spiritual meaning of the Bible: “… it may well be a matter of great importance for the Lord to reveal the nature and quality of each [inner degree of the mind], and this in a manner that could be possible only if each one was viewed separately. If so it would explain why the New Testament is divided into four Gospels, rather than retaining the one narrative as recorded in the Old Testament. …” (Harmony of the Gospels, p. 13)
Reading Swedenborg’s work, it quickly becomes apparent that the different levels of meaning can seem contradictory: for example, where the literal text refers to “death”, the inner sense often points to new life – because the death of the natural body is an awakening to spiritual life. In the same way, the death of the old priorities and desires of physical life reveal a new spiritual awakening, even while we occupy physical bodies.
It’s quite possible that in representing the development of different degrees of the mind through the Gospel story, certain literal contradictions become necessary. So, looking at the Bible from the perspective of its inner meaning and purpose, external contradictions are neither disturbing, nor even surprising.
The Lord provides for our different states: “…the uneducated are regenerated in a different way than the educated. People with different interests are regenerated in different ways. People who are in different lines of work are regenerated in different ways. People who study the outer meanings of the Word are regenerated in a different way than those who study its inner meanings. Those who inherited an earthly goodness from their parents are regenerated in a different way than those who inherited evil from their parents. People who have become heavily involved from an early age in the pointless pursuits of this world are regenerated in a different way than people who have discontinued those activities, whether they stopped them sooner or later in their lives. … The variety is in fact infinite, just like the variety of faces and minds. Despite the variety, however, absolutely all of us are capable of being regenerated and saved in a way that suits the state we are in.” (True Christian Religion, paragraph 580)
If the Word is to achieve this, it MUST speak to the variety of states we find ourselves in, and we will respond to different gospels as determined by our different states. One YouTuber expressed his appreciation of the Gospel of Luke for its focus on God’s infinite love for every person, no matter what mess we have got our lives into. But I find Luke’s logic difficult to follow and somewhat disjointed, much preferring John’s Gospel, which has a profound simplicity and depth to it.
That’s not a shortcoming of the gospels, that’s the different states we all find ourselves in, and from that perspective it’s an example of the perfection of the Gospels.
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, …, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:9-11)