Bible Difficulties


If you’ve ever read the exchange between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30, I’m sure you’ve asked the same question most of us have: “Did Jesus really say that?!”

What did He say?  In response to the woman’s request for Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter, Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  How rude!  It seems out of character for Jesus to put down a woman, equating her to a dog.

Larry Hurtado has a helpful article on this passage that explains Jesus’ point in its original context.  He makes the following points:

One of the distinguishing marks of the new atheists is that they not only think religion is false, but that it is dangerous and immoral too.  Even God himself is not above their judgment.  They regularly chide the God of the Bible as being a moral monster!  They accuse Him of being pro-genocide, anti-women, pro-rape, pro-slavery, etc.  Rather than the paradigm of moral goodness, God is an evil despot that is to be shunned.  You know it’s a bad day when even God is evil!

Is what they say true?  Is God – particularly as He is portrayed in the OT – morally evil?  Many Christians are sympathetic to this charge because they themselves struggle to understand God’s actions and commands, particularly as revealed in the OT.  Thankfully there have been some well-written responses to the problem of “theistic evil” written in recent years to dispel this negative portrait of God.  

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It is often said that Adam and Eve did not know the difference between good and evil prior to eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (TKGE).  This does seem to be the straightforward meaning of Genesis 3:22a: “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.’” (ESV)  There are a couple of problems I see with this interpretation, however:

  1. The text does not say Adam and Eve only gained knowledge of evil after the Fall, but knowledge of “good and evil.”  If we understand “knowledge” in a cognitive sense, this would mean God originally created human beings as amoral beings, having no knowledge of moral concepts or moral categories.  If we were created as amoral beings, then our moral intuitions and our capacity for moral reasoning are not part of the imago Dei (image of God) in which we were created, but rather a consequence of the Fall.  That’s a tough pill to swallow for two reasons: (1) Moral reasoning is one of the unique characteristics of God that among God creatures, humans alone exhibit.  Since humans alone were created in the imago Dei, it stands to reason that moral reasoning was part of that original imago Dei; (2) How is it possible for an act of disobedience to produce in us the knowledge of good?  Evil, yes, but good?
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I recently taught on the historical reliability of the Gospels and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.  One of the areas I focused on was the apparent contradictions and errors in the Gospels, demonstrating how most of these are easily resolvable, and thus not contradictions/errors at all.  But not all Biblical difficulties are so easily resolved.  In fact, there are some for which I do not presently have a good answer.  If you are a careful reader of Scripture, I’d bet there are Biblical difficulties you have encountered for which you lack a good answer as well.  What are we to do with such difficulties given the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy?  What should our posture be toward the Christian faith once having discovered irresolvable difficulties in the text?

Some individuals respond by concluding that Christianity is not true.  Some go so far as to conclude that God does not even exist!  I submit to you that these responses are ill-founded; the result of elevating the doctrine of inerrancy to a status it should not be accorded in one’s theological taxonomy.  While the Bible is an indispensable aid to our faith and Christian growth, an inerrant Bible is not necessary for the truth of Christianity, and thus the doctrine of inerrancy—and Bibliology in general—should be subservient to more central doctrines such as the resurrection of Jesus in our theological taxonomy.  Let me explain.

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In several previous posts (here, here, and here) I addressed the problem of differences in the Gospels, pointing out that what are often taken for contradictions are really just examples of 21st century Westerners trying to impose unrealistic and modern standards of historical reporting on ancient Easterners.  Here is another one.

Mk 14:47-54  But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 48And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” 50 And they all left him and fled. 51 And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked. 53 And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together. 54 And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. (See also Mt 27:55-8)

In verse 50 we are told that “all” the disciples fled the scene, and yet in verse 54 we are told that Peter followed Jesus from a distance.  Because both statements appear in the same Gospel no one complains.  But what if Mark only said that all fled, and Luke only said that Peter followed Jesus from a distance?  People would claim it was a contradiction.  How could Peter be following Jesus if he fled the scene?  Of course, the Christian would respond by trying to harmonize the two texts.  We would propose that all of the disciples did flee the scene when Jesus was arrested, but Peter returned, and followed Jesus at a distance.  Our critics would say we are being imaginative, and the only reason to offer such a harmonization is to avoid concluding that the Gospels are, indeed, contradictory.  But when both statements appear in the same Gospels within just a few verses from each other, no one claims contradiction. And guess what, most would agree that Peter must have fled with the rest of the disciples, but returned shortly afterward to learn of Jesus’ fate.  Indeed, that would explain why he followed from a distance.  He did not want to be seen by the guards lest he be arrested too—the very reason he fled in the first place.  I think this goes to show both how overblown the charge of “contradiction is,” as well as why harmonization is a perfectly legitimate enterprise when it comes to reading historical reports.

A new website, The Ehrman Project, has launched.  It’s dedicated to evaluating and responding to Bart Ehrman’s claims.  It examines each of his three best-selling books: Misquoting Jesus, God’s Problem, Jesus Interrupted.  There are eight video responses to each book, each one covering a different topic.  There are also links to related books and articles. 

Participating scholars include Ben Witherington, Darrel Bock, D.A. Carson, Daniel Wallace, Alvin Plantinga, et al.  One of the coolest features of the site is that you can pose a question on the blog, and it will be answered by one of the scholars!  So if you have any difficult questions related to the issues Ehrman raises, now is the time to ask them.

HT: Ben Witherington

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