For the past few months, my wife and I have been meeting periodically with some family members to discuss our religious differences. The conversations have been interesting.
When we tried this during our deconversion six years ago, it didn’t go well. Emotions were simply way too high. This time around, we’ve all come to accept the status quo, so there’s less pressure on both sides. The conversations have gotten heated at times, but nothing like they used to. Overall, I feel like they’ve been going pretty well, though I don’t think any positions have been changed, and I don’t expect them to.
Most of you know that my wife and I once believed the Bible was completely inerrant, and this was pretty much the consensus of everyone at our congregation. The Bible’s flaws had a lot to do with our leaving Christianity, and I tend to refer to them any time I’m discussing religion with someone. But these family members have reacted to this in a way that I don’t really understand, and that’s what I want to talk through in this post.
In one of our meetings, I suggested that we look at an example of something that I think is a contradiction in the Bible, so I pointed their attention to the two different accounts of Judas’s death. I’ll give a brief synopsis of the problems here, but if you’d like to read about it in detail, check out this post.
The gospels tell us that Judas, Jesus’s most infamous disciple, betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver. In the Gospel of Matthew, Judas brings that money back to the chief priests, because he regrets what he’s done. They refuse to take it, so he throws it at their feet, leaves, and hangs himself. There’s no indication that the priests ever found out what happened to him, but because the 30 pieces of silver are blood money (a bribe to take Jesus’s life), they decide not to put it back in the treasury. Instead, they buy a field with it and use it as a cemetery for strangers. That field comes to be called “Field of Blood,” because of the money used to buy it.
In Acts, we get a completely different story. There, Judas uses the money to buy a field for himself. Somehow, while he’s in the field, he falls, ruptures his abdomen, and bleeds to death. Again, the field comes to be called “Field of Blood,” but now it’s because Judas bled to death all over it. There’s no indication that it was used to bury strangers.
We talked about a number of the discrepancies between those two accounts, but I mostly focused on Matthew’s claim that all of this fulfilled a prophecy “spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.” The problem is that the prophecy Matthew quotes can’t be found in Jeremiah. The closest passage is in the book of Zechariah. My family members didn’t immediately know how to answer that problem, which is completely fine — it deserves research.
So in the next meeting, one of them said he had read an article where someone argues that Matthew says “spoken by the prophet Jeremiah” because Jeremiah literally spoke it, but didn’t necessarily write it down. I found that explanation really disappointing. First of all, if that were the case, why would Matthew mention it? He shouldn’t have even known about it, but we could get around that by saying that God gave him the information through revelation. The real problem is that it would be meaningless to his audience. Stating that an event fulfills a prophecy is offering a piece of evidence. It’s making the argument that this event falls neatly into God’s plan. But when the prophecy can’t be found, it ceases to be evidence. It ceases to make a point at all, unless it’s the point that I’m making: Matthew made a mistake.
But there’s an even clearer problem. The writer of Matthew didn’t just write this one section, he wrote an entire book. And it turns out that “spoken by the prophet ______” is a pretty common phrase of his. He uses it in Matthew 1:22, but goes on to quote a passage from Isaiah 7:14. In Matthew 2:17, he uses the phrase to refer to Jeremiah 31:15 (the very same prophet he refers to when talking about Judas). In Matthew 3:3, he uses the phrase to refer to Isaiah 40:3. We just found 3 examples within the first 3 chapters of Matthew. When he says “spoken by the prophet,” he still means that it was recorded as a prophecy.
These are the points I presented, but my family remained unconvinced. How is that possible?
That same night, I offered another example. I told them that the synoptic gospels claim Jesus was crucified on Passover, but John’s gospel claims that it was the day before. Again, if you’d like more information on this one, check out this post. After we looked at all the passages, they didn’t have anything to say. Again, I get that. It’s surprising stuff to see when you think the Bible is inspired. And I also don’t expect them to suddenly change their minds. They need time to study it and think about it. So that’s how we left it.
We usually try to meet every Friday or so, but we didn’t meet again for 7 weeks. Last Friday, we finally got back together, and when I brought back up how we had left things, they said that they hadn’t had time to look into the issues surrounding the day of Jesus’s death. That simply makes no sense to me.
Again, they attend a congregation where virtually everyone there would say that the Bible is inerrant. So pointing out a potential contradiction should motivate them to go into deep-study mode. But it didn’t. Even if they aren’t bothered by the implications of a contradiction, we are. And since they believe we’re bound for an eternal Hell, you’d think that would inspire them to study the issue.
So I backtracked a bit and told them that I didn’t really understand why they wouldn’t have made time for this in 7 weeks. I suggested that perhaps they didn’t think the Bible needed to be inerrant. If that was the case, then I could see why they wouldn’t be bothered by the two examples I brought up. But they didn’t really commit to a position on inerrancy either way. I’m not sure how much they’ve thought about it before.
What’s behind this?
College football is huge down here, and these members of my family are die-hard Alabama fans. They always have been. But as much as they love Alabama, they wouldn’t pretend that Alabama is objectively the right team to pull for. Sure, they could talk about how well Alabama plays, and they could talk about how great a coach Nick Saban is, but they know that a Tennessee fan isn’t going to be “converted” to Alabama by those arguments. And those aren’t even the reasons why they’re fans to begin with. One’s love for a sports team is a subjective thing. You love them simply because you love them.
But when it comes to religious beliefs, those are truth claims. As such, they should have evidence that shows why they’re objectively true. But I’ve started to realize that many people, like my family, belong to a particular religion for the same reasons that they follow a sports team. It’s just what they know.
In these discussions, my family members only know that my wife and I have to be wrong. When we bring up issues with the Bible or Christianity, they don’t really have a response, but that doesn’t seem to bother them. When we’ve asked if they think the Bible should be inerrant or not, they don’t really say. When we ask why they believe it, they mostly appeal to how it makes them feel personally. If they had more substantial evidence, they would offer it. But they don’t believe for the same reasons that I believed. If I had been asked why I believed the Bible was inspired, I would have begun talking about its prophecies and amazing consistency. I would have been wrong, but only out of ignorance — not because I hadn’t thought about it. Truth claims require evidence.
To be fair…
This is a pretty critical post about some people that I love. While I find their outlook to be confusing and frustrating, I do appreciate that they care enough about us to pursue these discussions. My wife and I didn’t instigate them — our family did. So that’s definitely a point in their favor. I don’t expect for either of our views to change, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Right now, I don’t think they’re considering the possibility that they could be wrong. If they would be open-minded about that, then who knows where things could go? After all, the basic facts are’t all that complicated: the Bible says what it says. On the surface, it’s very clear that it has inconsistencies and inaccuracies. The only question is what that might mean. When someone says they know who the creator of the universe is and that they know his plan, they should have some way to demonstrate it. Facts matter.