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What Do We Do With Discrepancies in the Bible?

What Do We Do With Discrepancies in the Bible?

My mom is super Christian.

I mean that in a great way. She has spent more time in the Scriptures than anyone I have ever met. Her Bible is color-coded with highlights and nearly every page has notes in the margins. She prays for people constantly and recites the promises of God in troubling situations. This woman loves God and she loves the Bible.

So, during a trip home, I was floored when she casually asked me a question about the Bible. This had never really happened. It was like having a deer walk up to you in the woods. You have to move slowly so you don’t freak it out. So there I was, feeling suddenly hyper-aware of the slight movement of air on the hairs of my neck, waiting anxiously to hear what magical question my mother might ask ME about the BIBLE.

“I was reading about the resurrection and I noticed something strange,” she pondered.
“…Oh, is that so?” I said with my voice barely hiding a quiver.
“Yes,” she said, suddenly pausing. I felt a twitch in my eyebrow.
“And?” I prompted, still pretending to be caught up on my iPhone.
“Well,” she finally said, “I noticed that the book of John says that one woman comes to Jesus’ tomb.” She paused again, carefully searching for the right words. “But Matthew says two women came to the tomb. And Mark has three women coming to the tomb.”

Silence filled the air.

“What do you make of that?” She asked.

To fill you in, she’s right. The verses are John 20:1; Matt. 28:1; and Mark 16:1. They don’t share the same details about the morning of Jesus’ resurrection. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a discrepancy: “A lack of compatibility or similarity between two or more facts.” It’s minor. It doesn’t disprove anything about the historical truth of Christ’s resurrection. Some people have even attempted to explain it away by some tricky linguistic gymnastics.

But it is there.

Do you feel the silence suddenly filling the space here?

I ask that because, for most Christians, these things aren’t supposed to exist. Pointing them out is an automatic red flag in many Christian circles. My mom asked me, not because she didn’t have anyone else to ask, but because asking anyone else would come with repercussions. What pastor can even start to admit something like this? This, readers, is dangerous ground for church-folk.

But this doesn’t stop certain other groups from doing the research, and the Internet has made that easier than ever. A quick Google search can show infographics that quickly calculate as many as 439 “contradictions” in the Bible. Now, if we’re honest, that’s stretching it. A lot of the Bible is metaphorical and poetic, translated from an ancient culture and language, and you can’t really find fault with a proverb that uses colorful language to make a point. So, these guys seemingly have their own agenda, too.

But most of us are somewhere in the middle. We’ve come across a few verses that have made us raise an eyebrow, so we quickly move on to a different thought or verse. These aren’t comforting things to think about because the Bible is our link to God — accessible at any time or place. This is the Word of God, so it can’t have mistakes, right?

Well, no.

See, the Bible is the Word of God, but it’s been filtered through the word of us. During Yom Kippur this year, many synagogues told the story of the martyr and Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion. He was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive. If you’ve ever been to a synagogue or known a Jewish person, they treat the Torah with the utmost respect. To burn it with this Rabbi was an attempt at an ultimate form of humiliation. His final words? “I see the parchment burning, but the letters are flying to heaven.”

God’s Word is not bound by paper.

A Rabbi I know had an interesting take on Psalm 24. This chapter asks the question, “Who can ascend the Lord’s mountain? Who can stand in his holy sanctuary?” But it doesn’t leave us hanging for long and answers the question immediately. “Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart.” This Rabbi understood that even if you found God’s holy mountain or sanctuary, it wouldn’t necessarily mean anything to you unless your heart was in the right place.

This isn’t about who is better or being perfect. Purity and cleanliness are ways that we show our dedication to God. And dedication comes from the right desires. When we desire God — when we take steps to find God and hear from God — we will find ourselves in God’s holy sanctuary.

The same is true of the Bible. We can come to the Bible like many do, with aggression and anger and a manipulative attitude, and find things to discredit or disprove the Bible. We can literally read the text in the Bible without ever reading the Word of God.

But one can also come to the Bible with a yearning and a desire for a pure heart. It is in these moments that God is revealed to us in the Bible. Mary, Martha and Salome may have visited the tomb together, and they may have visited it separately. But the story is not about how many women came to grieve. The story is about how hard it is to grieve when someone you thought was dead has turned out to be very alive.

And perhaps that’s you. Maybe the Bible has been dead to you for a long time and you’ve happened to stumble upon this article in the same way that Mary came to grieve over the body of her lost friend and teacher. But to their surprise, Mary and these women received a message that day. They received a message that the Word of God made manifest had been resurrected and transformed and was not dead. God’s Words, God’s message to us, is bigger than death, and it’s bigger than a book.

So next time you open your Bible, may you, too, step into the holy sanctuary of God’s presence and read with eyes that see the letters fly off the pages.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared in RELEVANT in 2013. 

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