A few weeks ago I received a telephone call from a member of the congregation who is writing a play loosely based on the story of the birth of Jesus. He had been looking at the Gospel accounts of the event, and was perplexed by some of the things he had read. He was surprised to find that only two of the Gospels – Matthew and Luke – mention the birth of Jesus, and that Mark and John have nothing to say on the matter. Surely, he felt, something as momentous as birth from a virgin should merit a mention by all four evangelists. Further, the two accounts we have seem to contradict each other. Matthew has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem and moving to Nazareth after the family has returned from Egypt. Luke, on the other hand, has them living in Nazareth and travelling to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Matthew says nothing about the shepherds; Luke says nothing about the wise men. Matthew says that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, Luke says that it happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria – a discrepancy in time of about ten years.
I agreed that all this is very perplexing and has engaged the ingenuity of Christian scholars for centuries. I also pointed out some less obvious discrepancies. For example, although both Matthew and Luke give a genealogy of Jesus, the differences are so great that they cannot possibly both be right. Both tell us that Jesus’ father is Joseph, but Matthew says that his grandfather is Jacob, and Luke says it was Heli. What’s more, since both Gospels are at pains to point out that Joseph played no part in Jesus’ conception, a genealogy traced through Joseph seems totally redundant, doubly so when we consider that a Jew is a Jew by virtue of descent from a Jewish mother, not a Jewish father.
As the gospel story proceeds, the careful reader becomes even more puzzled. John’s Gospel has the startling story of the raising of Lazarus, probably the most stupendous miracle recounted anywhere in the Bible. Remember the story, Lazarus has been dead for four days when, at the request of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, Jesus goes to the tomb and brings him back to life again. This would not just mean the reanimation of a corpse, but the reanimation of a putrid, rotting corpse. ‘By this time he stinketh’, says Martha, in the quaint language of the King James Version (John 11:39). Some miracle, I’m sure you will agree. Why then, do the other three evangelists have nothing to say about it? Surely they can’t have thought it too insignificant to include in their accounts. Surely they can’t have been unaware of it, if, as some suppose, the actual companions of Jesus are the major sources of the stories. Most Christians assume (erroneously, in my view) that the apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew. As one of Jesus’ closest associates, he would have known about the raising of Lazarus, and yet he never mentions it. He has no room for it? Come on! He’d make room for it if he’d known about it. He could have left out his genealogy, or dropped one of the feeding stories; in chapter 14 he tells us about the feeding of the five thousand; in the very next chapter we have the feeding of the four thousand; almost identical stories. You or I would have made do with just one in order to free up a bit of space for Lazarus, wouldn’t we?
And then there’s the timing of events. All the Gospels tell us that Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple, but John tells us it happened right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – he writes about it in chapter 2 – whereas the other three say that Jesus did this just a few days before his death. The time sequence of really important events is also confused. Matthew, Mark and Luke say that Jesus was crucified on the day of the Passover; John says it was the day of preparation for the Passover – that is, the day before. Mark says that Jesus was crucified at nine o’clock in the morning (the third hour), and died at three o’clock. John says that Jesus was crucified at midday (the sixth hour) and died before sunset.
Discrepancies like these have caused problems for Christians for centuries. They have given earnest Ph. D students something to research, little historical knots for them to untie, as they exercise their ingenuity to show that the contradictions are only apparent. Here’s an example: Matthew says that Judas hanged himself in remorse over betraying Jesus; in the Acts of the Apostles, however, it says that Judas fell headlong into a field and his bowels gushed out. I put this contradiction to a Jehovah’s Witness friend, but he was ready for it. ‘He hanged himself,’ he said, ‘but the rope broke and he fell and impaled himself on a stake.’These discrepancies have given opponents of Christianity plenty of ammunition, as you can imagine, and numerous people who have piously tried to harmonise the Gospel record have given up in despair and rejected Christianity as illogical and historically unreliable. One of the most celebrated examples of this is the English novelist George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), whose inability to construct a satisfactory Gospel Harmony was a significant factor in her movement towards non-belief.
Discrepancies and implausibilities are not only found in the Christian scriptures. The Jewish scriptures – the Old Testament – have more than their fair share. In fact, it’s quite likely that many an earnest seeker after spiritual truth has given up on the Bible barely half an hour after starting to read it. Read chapters 1-3 of Genesis, and you will find two accounts of the creation of the world, two accounts which cannot possibly be reconciled. I haven’t got time to list the contradictions, but they aren’t too difficult to find, and discovering them may entertain you for an hour or so on one of these winter afternoons. These discrepancies and contradictions are not trivial, nor are they only apparent to painstaking scholarship. They are obvious even to the casual reader, who is prepared to approach the text with a modicum of intelligence and a minimal use of the critical faculty. Which makes me wonder why people can continue to say – as they do say, in their millions – that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God. One reason, of course, is that people who say this have never really read it. I have known plenty of orthodox Christians who, if asked, ‘Do you believe that the Bible is the word of God?’ will reply without hesitation, ‘Yes, I do.’ But most of them would also have to admit that they haven’t read it. How strange! If I believed that the Bible was the word of God I wouldn’t be able to put it down!
Then there are the people who do read it, but who read nothing else. These are the most dangerous and blinkered of all. ‘Cave hominem unius libri’, said St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘Beware the person of only one book’. Such people – the fanatics of all faiths – are prepared to read their chosen work as an oracle, without the application of critical intelligence, without recognising that it is a text like any other text, and that it can only be understood aright by applying to it the recognised and accepted rules of textual criticism. Sacrificing one’s intelligence and critical awareness to a text is idolatry and, like all idolatry, it will eventually involve human sacrifice.
Did you see the Late, Late Show two Fridays ago? Ian Paisley was being interviewed, and he admitted that the first film he ever saw was Oliver Cromwell, the 1970 film starring Richard Harris and Alex Guinness. So, he was at least 44 before entering a cinema, and he’s rarely repeated the experience since. In an earlier Guardian interview with Ian Jack, he admitted to being an avid reader. Biography, history, and religious polemic make up his library. No fiction, no poetry. Is it any wonder that he has a literalist view of the Bible? I have never met a religious fundamentalist of any description who was a reader of serious fiction. The basic premise of serious fiction is that life is complicated and messy, that human motivation is ambiguous, that people react differently to situations, that judgment often has to be suspended. None of this sits comfortably with rules and precepts and a black-and-white code of morality. Serious fiction helps develop a nuanced and tentative approach to life and its problems, which is completely at odds with the certainties of religious literalism.
I don’t want any of this to give you the impression that I am attacking the Bible. I most certainly am not. I have spent a good part of my life studying and reading the Bible, and as the years have gone on, my respect for it, and my love of it, has increased. In my study, I have come to certain personal conclusions about the Bible. The most significant of these is that the inconsistencies and implausibilities it contains are not the result of oversight, bad editing, conflicting testimony, ignorance, or any of a dozen other reasons put forward variously by believer and non-believer. I think that they are there to stop us taking the text literally. Historical discrepancies are there because the authors of the individual books, and then the editors of the whole volume, wanted us to look below the surface meaning. The people who compiled these works were not idiots. They knew perfectly well that Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus conflicted with Luke’s. They knew that Jesus couldn’t have been born when Herod the Great was the king and when Quirinius was governor of Syria. They knew that the various accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were impossible to reconcile with one another. They knew that the first creation story in Genesis conflicted with the second. Why, then, did they not do a swift editing job and bring them all into line? It wouldn’t be difficult. Give me a week or so and I could do it.
But they didn’t do it because they wanted us to beware of concentrating on superficial interpretations. Give something an incredible historical context and readers will not be tempted to see it as history. Mention scientific implausibilities – like the sun standing still in the book of Joshua, or a snake talking in Genesis – and readers will not be tempted to see it as science. But, sadly, these writers and editors overestimated the intelligence and literary sensitivity of their readers, and instead of exciting the imagination and eliciting praise for their cleverness, their ingenuity has failed, and left successive generations squabbling over irrelevant details.
As far as I am aware, the first person to put forward this radical idea was Origen, who lived in Alexandria at the end of the second and the beginning of the third Christian century. The example he gives concerns the story of the creation at the beginning of Genesis. Read it carefully, and you’ll notice something strange: the first thing that God creates is light, but the sun and moon aren’t created until day 4! What kind of light can be created before there are sun, moon and stars to give light? Not physical light, obviously. What then? Think about it! That’s what the story’s implausibility is asking you to do!
I’ve gone to great pains over this because this year there are a number of important Darwinian anniversaries which are sure to provoke yet more wrangling over Creationism, Evolution, Intelligent Design and the like. Darwin was born on 12th February 1809, just two hundred years ago, and his famous Origin of Species was published in 1859, 150 years ago. So, in the coming months, we can expect some more polarised opinions in the debate. On the one hand there’ll be those who say that Genesis is science and should be taught as science alongside evolution; on the other, there’ll be those who say that Genesis is primitive myth and belongs nowhere near a science classroom.
My own view is simple: Genesis is not science, nor is it history, nor is it an oracle from God. But it’s not a worthless document either, valuable only as a literary curio. It is a work of spiritual genius, presenting in poetic form remarkable convictions about the nature of human beings, our relationship with God, with the earth, with the animals, and with each other. The earth is good, it tells us, the universe is intelligible, men and women are equal, all human beings are brothers and sisters, all are created in the image of God. These are the lessons of these early stories, and they are beautiful lessons, necessary lessons. In fact, a recently published book Darwin’s Sacred Cause; Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins attempts to show that part of Darwin’s motivation for his work was a hostility to slavery, and a desire to demonstrate that all the various human groups had the same ancestors, something, of course, that is clearly taught in the early pages of Genesis. Ironically, while rejecting a literal interpretation of these stories, Darwin was inspired – unconsciously, perhaps – by their sublime and noble teachings. Such teachings lie at the heart of all Judaeo-Christian morality, and our individual and communal lives are sadly impoverished without an appreciation of them. To use these poems as weapons in the supposed war between science and religion is, I feel, almost blasphemous, and both sides should be ashamed of themselves.
8th February 2009