A cross to bear: Bible authors struggle to keep details straight

12 Sep 2011

While I've read my Bible, one facet of religious debate I haven't followed deeply is that of Biblical historical accuracy. Which is something I need to rectify, as every brush with the topic suggests that the Bible and its believers often come up short in that department. 

The Answers in Genesis: BUSTED blog offers up an Amazon review of I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist, a book what wants us to see the Bible as a fine historical textbook. Unfortunately for that tome's authors, the review rips its conceit to pieces, showing where its claims are unsupported, self-contradicting, or demonstrably wrong. There are plenty of examples to be found – and it's the short, simple ones that strike me the hardest. Like this one, which I'd never heard before:

[The book] says that John 19:17 is accurate because it was indeed customary for crucifixion victims to carry their own crosses, just as John says. Cool. The same reasoning chips away at the accuracy of Matthew 27:33, Mark 15:21, and Luke 23:26 which all say that Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus' cross for him.

I checked the Biblical passages. Sure enough, we have John telling us that Jesus carried his own cross, while the remaining Gospellers report that someone else carried it. Oops!

Now, I don't see this as some refutation against anything in the Bible being historically accurate – after all, while the conflicting cross reports can't both be right, one of them still might be. And it's hardly an important detail within the broad Gospel narrative. However, does the example above – and many more like it – refute claims of the Bible being divinely, infallibly accurate in all that it reports? Yes! Any believer who wants to be honest would have to agree.

Inconsistencies like the above are exactly what you'd expect from human authors (especially authors removed from the event they describe by a century, all in an age before word processors and collaborative email and Wayback Machine archives). Moreover, even if the accounts did all agree on who carried the cross, well, so what? That, too, would be the perfectly normal result of humans jotting down history, if said humans were to put just a wee more effort in corroborating their tale.

Along the same lines, I never have understood the point of believers triumphantly proclaiming a faith-confirming victory when archaeology discovers a Bible-cited city or king to have been real. Again, mention of real cities and rulers is exactly what we'd expect of documents authored entirely by humans. My Stephen King novels keep mentioning a place called Bangor, Maine, which turns out to be a real city... and which doesn't suggest divine power to me. Someone please tell me, again, how it is that we require a Yahweh to explain this complete non-mystery.

Forget the tales of who bore the cross, or what body of water was the Sea of Galilee, or when the Pool of Bethesda existed. The I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist authors are wrong on those points, and even if they weren't, the examples demonstrate nothing about supernatural beings. Where's the Biblical goodness that could only have come from sources superhuman? Knowledge that could not have been known to ancient humans? A millenia-early peek into how genetics works? A Biblical revelation of the distance from here to Betelgeuse? Some casual anachronistic name-dropping in scripture, like "Golgi apparatus" or "Wankel engine"? Or even a loving Commandment opening the path to life-saving medicine? ("Disease comes from germs, not evil spirits. Thou shalt wash thy goddamned hands.")

Ack. I don't know how the "Scripture is all divinely accurate!" believers try to whitewash the inability of Biblical writers to stick with the storyline on even basic details, but I for one am taking an increasing interest in such inconsistencies. After all, it's a bit humbling for me as well. While I think of my Jehovah's Witness upbringing as having provided me with (for what it's worth) a pretty thorough knowledge of scripture, I've come to discover how inaccuracies in the Testaments somehow got thoroughly overlooked during 12 years of thrice-weekly Bible study meetings!

Time for me to really study the Bible.


go back and read those gospels again.  jesus started carrying his cross, but fell several times, so the Romans grabbed Simon to carry the cross for him.  


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