What To Do When The Bible Contradicts Itself?

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Hello, friends, and welcome back. I’m the Rev. Sare Liz Anuszkiewicz and this is the Sunday Sermon. If you’re looking for the bits of the bible I’ve referenced in this sermon, you can find the link right here on the website where you found this audio file. For the nerds in the know, this is the third Sunday after the Epiphany, and here’s the sermon I preached on January 22, 2023. 

Good morning! This morning we hear the calling of some key apostles, just like last week, but this week we hear it from Matthew’s perspective, and last week it was from John’s perspective. I mention this, because both stories talk specifically about Andrew and his brother Simon (who gets a name change to Peter) who are called, and the stories are both quite different.

Now, this brings up a tricky part of reading the gospel.

What do we do when the stories contradict each other?

There are a couple of ways to look at this. We could say, ‘okay, this is like modern eye-witness accounts; everybody remembers it happening differently. So, we should just take it that way – matthew remembers one thing, john remembers it differently. Learn what you can from it, but don’t base deep belief on it happening precisely that way, because it probably was a little different, even from all the varying and contradictory accounts.

So that’s interpretation way number one: all accounts are slightly off from what may have actually happened and we have no way of knowing, move on.

Another way to interpret contradictions in the bible is that we could say, ‘okay, there are differences, but maybe they’re on purpose. Recounted history wasn’t quite as fact-laden back then and so-called historians had no problem massaging facts to fit a certain kind of story they were trying to tell.’ And the gospel writers aren’t even meaning to write histories. They’re spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, and they’re trying to convince people to follow him.

So, that’s interpretation way number two: don’t impose a modern requirement of historicity on ancient accounts. They may have changed things on purpose, for their own reasons, likely to create a more persuasive argument, or story.

Another way to interpret contradictions in the bible is to ignore them, or more specifically, weave them together and fill in the gaps to create a more or less seamless story. This would be working on the assumption that different people didn’t see the same thing differently, they saw different parts of a story and only told the parts they saw. And that’s interpretation way number three.

And the fine art of biblical interpretation is to figure out which way to use for which passages, and when to use all three at once, and in what proportion. Because it’s like cooking. Just because you have three main spices doesn’t mean you want two tablespoons of all three of them, especially if one of them is salt, and one of them is cayenne. Maybe you want ⅛ of a teaspoon of cayenne, and a half teaspoon of salt, and two tablespoons of curry powder. It’s the same thing with biblical interpretation. The first way is like salt – you really want to put at least a little in pretty much everything. So in biblical interpretation, you always want to read any passage of the bible remembering that everybody tells stories differently because what they notice, and what is important is different to them, and the human memory is a funny thing, even in societies with very good collective memories, where oral tradition and oral learning is more prevalent.

And likewise, in biblical interpretation, you always want to remember that these are ancient stories from an ancient culture not our own, and so things are going to work a little differently than it works in the other books we read, or the newspapers we take in.

And just like cayenne – you don’t want it in every dish. It has its place in chili, but maybe not lasagna, sometimes it’s a good idea to try and weave seemingly contradictory accounts together, and sometimes it’s not and you’ll only know by trying (or following a trusted recipe).

The search for truth in the bible, and indeed in any ancient piece of wisdom literature, isn’t about the search for history, the search for what really happened. Of course something really happened, and in truth, accounts vary and are somewhat unreliable. And if we are searching for what really happened, we’re going to get distracted from the real point of ancient wisdom literature: to change our lives for the better. That’s what all the gospel writers wanted to begin with.

And so from Matthew’s gospel account, we can see how important it is, sometimes, to just take a leap of faith and follow Jesus. To abandon what we thought we were going to do, what we thought our own best road would be and to change course entirely.

And from John’s gospel account, we can see how important it is, like Andrew, to bring someone to church. He brought Simon, (renamed Peter), and it turned out that was kind of important, both for Peter, and for the Christian Church As We Know It. And so many people here in the pews right now are here because someone else said, ‘Why don’t you come to church with me?’ And maybe that invitation happened just the once and you said, ‘okay’, and maybe that invitation had to be issued again and again before you tried out Trinity and realized this was a place that could be good for you. But so many of you here have had that moment, and anyone here could extend that invitation, the same one so many of you have received, to someone else.

Just like Andrew, and just like Peter.


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