I grew up believing the Bible to be the inerrant Word (that’s an obligatory capitalization) of God. My parents, sisters, and all our next-step-removed relatives believed it and almost all still do. It’s enough to discredit any memory of being a bright child that I didn’t discard this silliness until after age 18. However, whatever intrusion of reason occurred to me then has eluded 40%-90% (depending on the definition of inerrancy) of the American population to this day.
Belief in Biblical inerrancy demonstrates the power of religious dogma to overcome intelligence and reason. The only way to find the Bible inerrant is to have agreed going in that dogma will prevail no matter what. This agreement-to-agree trumps even the most minimal analytical judgment. As an atheist who nonetheless finds Christian history interesting, I’ve usually found that I know more than Christians about the fights among early pre-Christian sects, the spotty process of evolving a canon, the many sources of mistranslation and outright falsification, and the frankly political process involved in deciding just what Christianity would mean and what written record would be called the “Word of God.”
The first relatively authoritative suggestion about which 27 “books” out of considerably more would constitute the canon did not come about until three centuries after the alleged Jesus’s death, taking to even later to be generally accepted. (My favorite exemplary reasoning was Bishop Irenaeus’s justification for including four “gospels” when there were more available. He argued that four is the appropriate number because there are four corners of the earth and four winds of heaven, therefore . . . well, you get his point.) Such sterling reason marks the hodge-podge of inconsistencies and contradictions about and throughout the Bible despite its perfect consistency being regularly touted by fundamentalists.
Liberal Christian groups know that to prevent the Good Book from being a laughing stock, much of it must be read figuratively. Understandably, they disagree about which parts are figurative and which are literal, leaving us with a Cafeteria Word of God. At least Bible literalists avoid that problem by considering the whole thing to be literal. Well, they do until you notice that they, too, cherry pick which passages are not literal at all. It’s safe to say that some kind of mental disability is required for someone to be a no-exceptions true literalist. I’ll graciously assume that literalists only mean the Bible is sort of totally true.
On one hand, conscientious literalists must somehow deal with even slight variations in text among the many versions not only in English, but also in the growing number of other languages. (In my youth, we were content to think that if the King James Version of 1611 was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for us.) On the other hand, liberal Christians must confront the troublesome fact that once figurativeness gets its nose under the tent, all bets are off on the complexion of the entire Christian enterprise.
One can’t expect a madrasa graduate to know much about the philosophies of Mill, Locke, or Rousseau. Similarly, you can’t expect Christians to know that a great deal of the Jesus story, including miracles, is comprised of warmed over folk tales from previous times in other civilizations. Yep, that’s right; much of what became essential pillars of Christians’ faith (virgin birth, resurrection, and so forth) was neither original nor unique to Christianity.
Maybe the divinely inspired authors were rushed for time and had to grab material where they could. After all, there was much negotiation and intimidation to be done in bringing together (or silencing) a plethora of authors, scribes, and zealots with opposing inspiration. It was a tough task and took time.
In their defense, it’s hard to fault early believers for a little sloppiness in their rush. There was no time to waste. As it was, in order for what is now called the New Testament to come into being took almost half a millennium following the days of the alleged Jesus. That’s close to 25% of the time between Jesus’s birth and mine in which there was no agreed upon Christian “Word of God.”
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