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Today’s “aha” moment–the 6th in the series–is by Christopher W. Skinner (PhD, Catholic University of America), Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Mount Olive in North Carolina. Skinner is the author or editor of 6 books, including John and Thomas: Gospels in Conflict?: Johannine Characterization and the Thomas Question (Wipf and Stock), What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas? (Paulist), and Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John (T & T Clark). His current book project is Reading John and will be published in the Cascade Companions series. He blogs, along with Nijay Gupta, at Crux Sola.


I was raised in a tiny town in southeastern Virginia where I spent much of my childhood inside the small Southern Baptist church nestled at the corner of Chesapeake Avenue and Guerriere Street. From the earliest age I was taught to love and revere the Bible—that it was the repository of everything God wanted us to know and do in this world.

In addition to affirming its truthfulness and authoritative status, we used terms like “inerrant” and “infallible” to describe the Bible. We were fond of saying things like, “The Bible is a perfect description of our realities and the perfect prescription for our ailments.”

The Bible was always correct in whatever it affirmed, and if a situation arose in which the Bible appeared to be incorrect, this discrepancy could easily be answered by those who knew more than I did. Any apparent inconsistency could be explained, resolved, or harmonized if given the right amount of time and attention.

This perspective carried me through my time in undergraduate school, where I involved myself heavily in a campus para-church group, and even my early days in vocational ministry where I served as an overseas missionary with the same organization.

In those early days, there were few challenges—either internally or externally—to my received convictions about the Bible. But as I entered seminary and began to immerse myself in the study of ancient languages, the history of interpretation, and other complex areas of inquiry, a nascent sense of cognitive dissonance began to emerge.

I had been led to believe that there was something like a one-to-one correspondence between what I read in the Bible and what I saw in the world, but my own experience seemed to contradict this.

In fact, when first learning about how to “do” theology, we were introduced to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—the idea that we must keep Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience in dialogue while constructing our theologies.

We were cautioned that, above all, the Bible MUST play the most important role of the four.

My problem was that my personal experiences and my own (admittedly feeble) attempts at reason very often disagreed with what the Bible seemed to be saying.

During my second year in seminary, I began a love affair with the Gospels from which I have yet to recover. I began to read them all the time in English, and as my skills improved, in Greek. I read every commentary I could get my hands on and trolled the campus and local bookstores for other books that could help me better understand these four texts.

At this time, I began to experience an even greater sense of cognitive dissonance. In these Gospels I was seeing four very different, yet very compelling portraits of Jesus.

At times the differences were so great that I felt they might never be harmonized. However, I remained resolute in my conviction that any discrepancy I might find was either the result of my ignorance, my inattention to the text, or my own personal sinfulness.

In short, I found myself constantly doubting the veracity of the Bible I had been taught to trust implicitly, and there was no little guilt associated with these doubts.

If only I could have had more faith….a faith that would have allowed me to believe through my doubts.

One of the most poignant epiphanies came during my third year of seminary in an upper-level class called, “Exegesis of Gospel Narrative.” The course was team-taught by two members of our New Testament faculty—one a Synoptic specialist (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the other a scholar of John’s Gospel.

The class was illuminating in so many ways. We were introduced to Jewish backgrounds to the Gospels, philological concerns, and important insights from 19th century German scholarship.

However, there was still a baseline assumption that for all of their “perceived” differences, these four Gospels could (and should) be harmonized. On the side, I had also begun reading the work of Alan Culpepper and the early NT narrative critics, an exercise that was contrasting sharply with my experience in class.

It was in this class that I ran into my first truly insurmountable problem. Since I had always been taught about the Bible’s coherence and internal consistency, I thought, “Surely the New Testament gives us reliable information about Jesus’ origins?”

This meant that despite my misgivings, there had to be a way to reconcile the conflicting genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.

From Abraham to Jesus, Matthew lists only 41 names while Luke lists 57. At the time I thought Matthew’s omission of names must be some kind of rhetorical device. However, more problematic for me was the realization that of the 41 names Matthew and Luke should have had in common, they agree on only 17.

How could this be? Surely this level of disagreement was something more than a rhetorical device?

Whenever I raised this question, one solution that evangelical friends and commentators alike continued to affirm was that one genealogy recounts the line of Mary while the other recounts the line of Joseph. However, this solution was immediately unacceptable to me since both texts clearly indicate that the lineage is being traced through Joseph (if you doubt this, please see Matt 1:16 and Luke 3:23).

I also spent considerable time researching the history of scholarship on this issue only to realize that it was not just a problem for my 21st century historiographical sensibilities. As early as Julius Africanus in 225 CE, this contradiction had been a serious problem for commentators on the Gospels.

I wasn’t the only one who saw this problem for what it was—a REAL problem—and I cannot tell you the relief that realization was. I had been wracked with guilt and confusion this whole time.

Finally, I decided to approach the Synoptic specialist in the class—an individual I greatly respect, who is both a brilliant scholar and a man of tremendous Christian conviction. When I told him my concern, he replied that the best solution was to regard one genealogy as Mary’s and the other as Joseph’s.

I objected to this facile solution by pointing to the details of actual text. His response was simple: “We need to trust the Bible even when we don’t understand, even when it seems to be contradicting itself.” Not only did this seem to me like an easy answer, it smacked of the same sort of intellectual dishonesty I had been taught to avoid at all costs.

This was a travesty. I had been taught to ferret out every exegetical nugget, to mine every nook and cranny for insights into the text. I had spent hours and hours learning Greek, textual criticism, and numerous other exegetical skills, only to be told to abandon them when I ran into a problem that contradicted my overarching approach to the Bible.

This was the beginning of the end of my rigid reading of the Bible.

The “aha” moments began to come with increasing frequency and intensity over the next few years. I am genuinely thankful for that moment because it allowed me to begin the process of reading the Bible without my hands tied behind my back.

The assumption (and protection) of a unified, harmonious, problem-free reading of the Bible is endemic to the life of most evangelical Bible readers. However, the Bible we have—as opposed to one we want or are often led to believe we have—does not fall into line with that assumption.

When we ignore or explain away these problems, we do ourselves, our churches, and future generations of Bible readers a serious injustice.

I have come to think that defending the Bible as inerrant is more about maintaining an identity than it is about searching for truth. I like to tell my students that one of my goals is to help them “eschew the culture of easy-answerism.” One of the best ways to do this is to study Scripture together without flinching and let them know that they have nothing to fear.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.


  • Marg Mowczko says:

    Reading both genealogies of Joseph in the infancy narratives resulted in a watershed moment for me too.

    I simply could not reconcile that both contained Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, even though the genealogies diverged generations earlier. (Luke’s follows the line of David’s son Nathan, while Matthew’s follows the line of David’s son Solomon.)

  • Karen says:

    Christopher, you write: “I have come to think that defending the Bible as inerrant is more about maintaining an identity than it is about searching for truth.”

    I would agree that identity is an important aspect in this. However, the concern I hear over and over is about postmodern deconstruction of the text. It *does* often seem that those who no longer ascribe to inerrancy end up affirming rather progressive theologies or no longer holding to Scripture as authoritative in a meaningful way.

    It seems that in order to make headway in this conversation that those who legitimately point out problems with the Chicago statement need to demonstrate and propose principles that uphold Scripture’s authority and truthfulness without a doctrine of inerrancy. Has there been alternative proposals on this for inerrancy? I know there have been for hermeneutics. Its not enough to simply point out the problems, an alternative needs to be presented–at least if we want to address the underlying concerns inerrantists have about Scripture as revelation from God.

    I’ve noticed that postliberals of the Duke sort seem to offer one potential way. They value a close reading of Scripture that many inerrantists would resonate with and yet they don’t have the hangups of the inerrantists. In fact, they don’t seem to have the hangups that many disillusioned evangelicals have. Disillusioned evangelicals are usually working through their angst about how the Bible is different than what they were always taught. But postliberals never had those concerns in the first place. Perhaps because some of them were more mainline and then adopted the close reading of Scripture. They came from the opposite direction.

    I also think working on a doctrine of dual authorship of Scripture plays an important part in this. The Chicago statement gives lip service to dual authorship, but renders it meaningless. Efforts have been made to address dual authorship of late. However, I am concerned that some of these attempts by moderate or former evangelicals can come across as jaded. Some scholars are still working through their own issues and thus a bit of cynicism can creep that is distracting. I felt that way when I read Sparks, for example. He has good things to say, but there was also something a bit depressing about the way his ideas were articulated (Sacred Word, Broken Word). At least I was left the book feeling like the author was jaded.

    • Daniel Merriman says:

      As far as I am concerned this is the best comment made in these threads, your third paragraph particularly. There are Christians out there who take the Bible seriously who don’t come from fundamentalist or evangelical backgrounds.

    • John says:

      But we need to consider that “authority” is a vague term that doesn’t operate in a vacuum.

    • Andrew Dowling says:

      “need to demonstrate and propose principles that uphold Scripture’s authority and truthfulness”

      What does that mean?

      • Karen says:

        Andrew, I mean that those who object to the doctrine of inerrancy would find more ground by addressing inerrantists’ concerns. In other words, finding ways to articulate that Scripture truthfully reflects God’s revelation without the necessity of a doctrine of inerrancy. Inerrantists believe that the doctrine of inerrancy is THE doctrine necessary to hold on to the premise that Scripture truthfully reflects God’s revelation. Without inerrancy, they believe we have conceded to saying the Bible is only a human book (and that God is false). If we beg to differ then we need to demonstrate to them why inerrancy is not necessary to maintain that Scripture truthfully reflects God’s revelation.

  • Christopher,

    Question for you. How would you preach on the genealogies of Matthew and Luke? In other words, how does this view play out pastorally, in your opinion?

    I agree that “easy-answerism” is problematic; however I am not so sure about Occam’s Razor as a hermeneutical tool (per one of your comments). History is a complicated thing.

    • Christopher W. Skinner says:

      OddintheTruth, thanks for your question. This question is, for me, much easier than the historical one. I am a narrative critic and I consider the biblical narratives in their final forms to be what’s most important for Christian proclamation. If I were going to *preach* the genealogies, I would do so in the context of the overall autonomous story in which each falls. For instance, Matthew is concerned to show us that Jesus is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham (1:1). He not only structures his genealogy in a way that is designed to demonstrate this to the literary audience, he also fashions his Christology in this way. Thus, the genealogy is setting the table for our reading of Matthew’s understanding of Jesus. It works the same way in Luke. As for Occam’s Razor, I was not suggesting that it is “clinches the argument” for me as a hermeneutical tool. Rather, when we ask questions about the text, we need to reflect honestly on the highly complex and speculative reconstructions in which we engage and be honest enough to say, “perhaps the simplest explanation (viz., they disagree) is preferable.”

  • Kim Fabricius says:

    I give you a parable …

    Compute new constants, recalibrate the epicycles, add some equants, etc., etc., and the regnant Ptolemaic Theory of the Solar System limps along for hundreds of years until the invention and deployment of the telescope, revealing new, thrilling, and undeniable, if dissonant and disturbing, observations of the heavens, until the geocentric model, dying the death of a thousand qualifications, is finally – tipping point – given the coup de grâce by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, et. al. – though not, of course, without relentless and sometimes ruthless resistance – as the heliocentric paradigm shift begins to kick in …

    “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit if God.”

    – John Calvin (Institutes, II, 2, xv)

  • Dima Kotik says:

    I wrote an article on the question of genealogies a few years ago, the patristic evidence has one uni-vocal answer – the difference in geologies is due to Joseph having two fathers by way of levirate marriage. Let me know if you’d like the data on it.

    • Christopher W. Skinner says:


      I am well aware of this solution in the patristic (and later) material on the genealogies. The very fact that this “solution” is so vigorously proposed is evidence of the problematic nature of the conflicting genealogies. It is a classic, “methinks thou dost protest too much” discussion in the history of biblical scholarship. Again, I regard this levirate marriage solution as another in a long line of overly complex solutions to a very real (and very simple problem). All of this is to say nothing of the fact that to argue for a levirate marriage out of the clear blue sky (as a way of harmonizing these texts) is to argue completely from silence.

      • Dima Kotik says:

        Nah, I there is enough independent source information to that explanation to claim historical confidence, unlike the Mary/Joseph approach, which really has no documentation until when, reformation?

        Imo, it is very presumptuous to think that for 300 years Christians read gospels and didn’t notice that first chapters were different. It is standard historical method to assert a cause based on available documentation (and 3-5 sources is absolutely plenty for antiquity). It is argument from silence that the other alternative is better or does not pass for explanation. It would not pass for explanation if there was an alternative documented explanation.

        • Christopher W. Skinner says:

          Dima, you are engaging in just the type of special pleading I have been critiquing in the comments today. For 300 years, not many Christians actually READ the gospels. The world in which the gospels were written and circulated (at least early on) was characterized by widespread illiteracy. This is one reason why it took so long for those who actually were *reading* the gospels side-by-side to pick up on the disagreements.

          • Dima Kotik says:

            Well for not “reading” the gospels, the Church Fathers have produced the largest body of religious commentary the world has ever seen to that day. I think you are the one “special pleading” here. What are you comparing to?

            Those that were reading left us a good answer, as good as they come in the discipline of history. You don’t like, fine. I like it 🙂 Just don’t make methodological suicide out of your dislikes.

          • Christopher W. Skinner says:

            You are misreading me. I’m not talking about the Church Fathers. I’m saying that prior to the Fathers (and even after) READING the gospels was a relatively rare phenomenon for people of faith. Most of them heard the gospels preached or performed but did not sit down to read the gospels silently as we might today. There is a great body of literature on this and it’s far from special pleading. You commented that it was presumptuous of me to assume that for 300 years Christians read the text without seeing a problem. First, I did not assume that, nor did I suggest it. Second, my point about widespread illiteracy is to say that there was neither a context in which to read or a venue in which to express concern over the disagreements between the various gospels.

          • Dima Kotik says:

            Oh I disagree. 🙂 There was plenty concern made over disagreements from people like Marcion. Second, the answers that John of Damascus, for example, delivered are not “his.” He is relaying oral tradition that he believes is apostolic. Again, comparing to other rubs with history in all source material we have, this one can be classified as excellently documented.

            When you say: “I disagree,” I say “based on what source.” When you say “I dislike,” I will say “sure, you are free to dislike, but you have to stick to what is actually documented when it comes to biblical criticism.”

          • Christopher W. Skinner says:

            Dima, I’m afraid we are talking past one another. Thanks for taking the time to weigh in.

          • Dima Kotik says:

            Fair. One last point: the material on levirate marriage was provided by the Fathers to alleviate disagreement.

          • Andrew Dowling says:

            Are you arguing the Church Fathers in their Scriptural commentaries were engaging in something akin to modern historical analysis?

          • Dima Kotik says:

            No, they were mostly men of integrity engaged in pastoral counselling using the best information available to them with prudence and accuracy in both written and oral sources. Modern historical analysis is what we have to do do because we don’t have direct access to information they had.

  • David says:

    I have been following this series and I have a question.

    So far, everyone featured who has had their aha moment has managed to retain their faith despite their enlightenment. I suspect this could be because they started out from a position of conservative evangelical faith. Post-aha, they have managed to make adjustments to reconcile their faith.

    Would this be possible for a new generation that starts off post-aha without the foundation of conservative evangelical faith?

    What does an enlightened/liberal evangelical look like who didn’t walk the journey from absolute trust in the inerrancy of the Bible to understanding what it is and is not?

    Do we get the same kind of Christians as featured in this series who have retained their faith or is another animal created?

    • Andrew Dowling says:

      I was not raised a conservative evangelical . . if I would describe my upbringing it would be called moderate Catholicism. I never ascribed to anything akin to inerrancy, although in terms of the biblical stories I never really knew any interpretive exegesis beyond a soft literalism. I didn’t begin really getting into biblical scholarship until my mid-20s, and before that frankly my knowledge of Christian history and theology was mediocre at best. After engrossing myself in higher criticism my faith evolved from being disjointed but more ingrained in the supernatural metaphysics to being stronger but more mystical. I do mourn the comfort some of my earlier beliefs brought, but I think my faith now demands more accountability of myself and thus makes me a better Christian and human being.

      That said, I do think higher criticism can be only properly digested as an adult. If I’d known half of what I knew know at age 15, it’s hard for me to think I’d still be a Christian, but those things are pretty much impossible to predict.

      • David says:

        Thanks for sharing your experience. You raised the precise question I’m grappling with. If someone starts with knowing what we now know, would they still be a Christian.

        • Andrew Dowling says:

          No problem . . it’s certainly not an easy topic. I struggle with it in terms of how to instill a healthy faith in/for my children all the time.

          • MattB says:

            Thanks Andrew for sharing that story. I wrestle a lot with doubt and with eternal security.

          • Stacey (the kids' Aunt Tasty) says:

            I love this, and I think you might like it, as well: Life with Christ is more about cross-bearing and less about fire insurance than we think.

            Peace be with you, brother.

          • MattB says:

            Thanks Stacey for that statement:)

    • JL Schafer says:

      David asks a great question. Stanley Hauerwas says that evangelicals can very easily slide into “Protestant liberalism” because of their low view of church and Christian tradition. Check out this 3-minute video clip of Hauerwas:

  • Jeff Y says:

    This was great. I especially loved the comments at the end. That said, a question for Christopher or Pete: one ‘solution I have heard is that both go through Joseph but one through his paternal side, the other through his maternal grandfather (sometimes it is clear genealogies skip a generation). Any thoughts on this? That said, I agree with the general premise about the gospels and the inability to harmonize them per our modernist assumptions.

  • Dwight Gingrich says:

    I’ve been following this series and thought I’d share some general reflections. On one level I’m enjoying the series and finding it helpful. I plan to continue following. Thanks for providing these windows into the intellectual journeys of others, for many of us are treading over similar ground.

    On another level I’m finding the series frustrating. Perhaps my sense of frustration is unfair, for maybe I’m expecting the series to do something it was not intended to do: provide a coherent alternative to the inerrancy position.

    On a larger sense, what frustrates me with how this topic is so often addressed is that people appear to talk past each other–pointing out evidence that undermines the position of the other side, but never dealing head-on with the evidence that challenges their own side.

    For example, a friend recently recommended the talk that Kevin DeYoung gave at this year’s Together for the Gospel conference: “Never Spoke a Man Like This Before; Inerrancy, Evangelism and Christ’s Unbreakable Bible.” My friend wrote, “In my opinion, it will go down in History as one of the most compelling defenses of the inerrancy and authority of scripture in our age.” I listened to the sermon and found it to be a quite stirring survey of some of Jesus’ own statements, statements that revealed something of his own understanding of the high trustworthiness of Scripture. However, completely absent from the sermon (unless I missed it) was any acknowledgement of the kind of apparent discrepancies within and between biblical texts that would seem to challenge Jesus’ claims–such as the apparent discrepancies, noted in this article, within the very Gospels that contain Jesus’ words affirming Scripture! This challenges to inerrancy are numerous and unavoidable for any close reader of the Bible. I concluded that this sermon will definitely NOT go down in history as a “compelling” defense of inerrancy. It was preaching to the crowd.

    On the other hand, the articles in this series (and many writings of those who have abandoned inerrancy) give little to no attention to the kind of Scripture-affirming claims from Jesus’ lips that DeYoung so forcefullly demonstrated in his sermon. (Or of similar statements from other NT persons and authors.) How do we reconcile the words of Jesus about the Bible (“Scripture cannot be broken” in John 10; “not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law…” in Matt 5; “he who created them [God] said… ‘Therefore a man shall leave…'” in Matt 19; his reference to the writings of Moses as being “the word of God” in Mark 7; his apparent belief in a literal Adam and Eve as the first humans created at the beginning in Matt 19; etc.) with the apparent discrepancies noted in this series? Do we conclude that Jesus was mistaken or imperfectly informed about Scripture? Do we conclude that the evangelists misunderstood or misrepresented Jesus’ understanding of the trustworthiness, perfection, and divine origin of Scripture? If yes to either of these, then we have some pretty big philosophical problems to solve if we are going to retain any sort of confessional faith rather than ending up where the liberal modernists ended. If no, then how do we explain the existence of apparent contradictions and inaccuracies?

    Until a meaningful (exegetically and theologically) explanation is offered for Jesus’ own understanding of Scripture, I can’t help finding a series like this one ultimately just as unsatisfying as DeYoung’s sermon. Neither side has proven that the other side can’t possibly be right (as the comments below about possible explanations for the genealogies, however “unlikely,” have demonstrated), and neither side is directly responding to the evidence that most strongly challenges their own hypothesis.

    The challenge facing all of us is to lay all the evidence side by side and work out a synthesis. For if a meaningful synthesis (see below for nuance) cannot be formed–and I’m not so pessimistic as to think this task is impossible–I don’t think I want either a “fundamentalist” or a “re-thought” Christianity.

    What kind of a synthesis should this be? I suggest we must limit ourselves to work toward a *possible* synthesis, and reject the attempt for a *proven* synthesis. It seems to me that both sides in the inerrancy debate sometimes go wrong because they work for a *proven* synthesis so strongly that they downplay data that contradicts their proposed synthesis. Fundamentalists pile all the rocks haphazardly onto their wall, without taking sufficient time to observe how the rocks fit next to each other, plastering over apparent inconsistencies with loud protestations about the perfection of Scripture. Ex-fundamentalists insist that every stone must fit perfectly and unarguably in place, with the kind of demonstration that would convince the most hardened skeptic. This leads them to reject some stones that don’t seem to have a self-evident fit. If someone points to one of the abandoned stones and demonstrates that “this stone *could* fit in such-and-such a place, even though I can’t prove it *must*,” the ex-fundamentalist rejects the suggestion as a bad attempt at harmonization. Neither approach, it seems to me, helps us build an authentically Christian wall of faith.

    I say this in response to Skinner’s “aha moment.” He (or “you,” if you are reading this, Dr. Skinner–thank you!) expresses his dissatisfaction with his professor’s statement: “We need to trust the Bible even when we don’t understand, even when it seems to be contradicting itself.” On first reading, I identify with this dissatisfaction. The statement can sound like the worst sort of brain-chucking. However… if we simply replace the words “the Bible” in the professor’s statement with the word “God,” then doesn’t the statement express something important about the very essence of Christian faith in the context of the limits of human finitude? And if we believe that the Bible is, in whatever way, the word of God, then isn’t the statement also true of the Bible? And isn’t it unreasonable to think that we can achieve a proven synthesis that reflects complete human understanding? And isn’t it very reasonable to admit that ways of synthesizing the apparent discrepancies of the Bible do actually exist, however “unlikely” our best current attempts at harmonization may appear to some observers? We diligently work to honestly assess and synthesis the data, but in the end we still say, “I will trust even when I don’t fully understand.”

    So again, I don’t want to unfairly judge this series for failing to provide a positive alternative to inerrancy, and I certainly don’t want to imply that all the writers in this series agree with all the positions I’m critiquing. But I do want to register my sense that the kind of biblical evidence being presented here is not the full picture of all the relevant data. Perhaps we could even say that the evidence presented here is not enough to build mature faith, only enough to challenge a poorly-informed faith? Thanks for listening!

    • Dwight Gingrich says:

      Mistake: “The limits of human finitude.” Now isn’t that a fine concept! 🙂 I think the statement is somewhat self-refuting…

    • Christopher W. Skinner says:

      Thank you for these lengthy and substantive reflections. I can’t speak for everyone involved in these “aha” moment posts. In speaking for myself, however, I would say that, because of my experience with highly systematized positions regarding the nature of Scripture (which have all, in my opinion, proven less than coherent), I am presently leery of similarly structured positions that would “prove” what I think/believe now. In other words, having escaped the shackles of my previous imprisonment under the delusion of an “inerrant” text, I am not anxious to run into another situation in which I am enslaved to a similarly structured position. I am content to say that the Bible is authoritative for Christians because it has always been so. While this is a clear nod to “tradition” (with which many “sola-Scriptura-Protestants are uncomfortable), I am completely at home recognizing that the church has always incorporated T/tradition(s) as authoritative for faith and practice. I hope this makes sense. It’s somewhat “stream of consciousness.”

      • Dwight Gingrich says:

        Thank you for taking time to respond. While I remain less skeptical than you about the idea of inerrant original manuscripts (though I hasten to affirm that our faith does not depend upon the idea that God has preserved them without error), I appreciate that you do not pretend that your current position is demonstrably without its own possible problems. And I also affirm your nod toward the tradition of the church. After all, this tradition is often (and definitely on this topic of Scriptural authority) linked to the traditions of the apostles, which the Bible itself presents as a pattern for us. And being of Anabaptist stock, I would want to qualify any sola-Scriptura affirmation, anyway.

        Again, thanks for your reply.

  • Kim Fabricius says:

    Do we conclude that Jesus was mistaken or imperfectly informed about Scripture?

    Faith demands neither an inerrant Bible nor an inerrant Jesus (whom, of course, we only know through the scriptures). If our Lord left out the “h” in Methuselah during a spelling bee at elementary school; if he said during a history exam at Nazareth High that Reu was 31 rather than 32 when Serug was born; if he got the name of the high priest wrong in his discourse on the Sabbath in Mark 2 (oops, according the the Second Evangelist, he did!) … Is it inconceivable that Jesus might have goofed about this and that, or even been wrong about the historicity of Adam? Would the former be thin-end-of-the-wedge faith-threatening mistakes, and the latter faith’s coup de grâce?

    There is something unhealthily OCD, not to say pathological, about the need for a slam-dunk theory guaranteeing proof about the scriptures and Jesus before we venture forth in faith. Wittgenstein said that what’s ragged should be left ragged. Well, the Bible is ragged, and so too are hermeneutics. Get over it, and get on with it – with following Jesus, tagging along behind – we’ll never catch up: he’s off again just as we arrive (R.S. Thomas). We know enough of his life and teaching to get started, and we have sufficient light to keep going, amidst all the uncertainty and confusion, the doubt and darkness.

    The late Robert Carroll, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies at the University of Glasgow, wrote of the “chimera of ‘biblical Christianity'”: the Bible “is too untidy, too sprawling and far too boisterous to be tamed by neat systems of thought”. And further: that even if fundamentalism “appears to be a growing phenomenon of our time,” nevertheless its “readings … will break down under their own incoherence and internal contradictions, but not before they have spoiled many lives and rendered the Bible unspeakable for generations of sensitive people. The chimera can only be hunted, I suspect, by the imagination and great good humour in the service of reason and intelligence.”

    • Dwight Gingrich says:

      “There is something unhealthily OCD, not to say pathological, about the
      need for a slam-dunk theory guaranteeing proof about the scriptures and
      Jesus before we venture forth in faith.” I agree, for the most part, and said much the same in my first comment. And I also agree that there is mystery involved in the question of the development of Jesus’ own understanding. However, I’m not quite content with a “get over it” response to the contradiction between Jesus’ words about Scripture and the suggestion that some of his own words are errant.

      So… what Jesus thought about Scripture is irrelevant? He seemed to think it was important not only that the details were trustworthy, but that the whole narrative arc of the 1st Testament pointed indisputably in a certain direction, one denied by most contemporary interpreters. (That sounds like one of Carroll’s “systems of thought,” and demonstrates that the mere presence of multiple interpretive schemes does not prove the non-existence of one correct understanding.) And Jesus made the trustworthy witness of Scripture a central plank in his own testimony about himself (end of John 5). If he was that wrong, and repeatedly so, on something that he thought so important, why should we trust him on anything else? Maybe he was just a deluded rabbi with Messianic ambitions?

      Of course, the resurrection puts the lie to that–and it is worth noting that even in his post-resurrection exalted state he did not diminish his emphasis on Scripture as the trustworthy pattern for understanding both his own mission and the ongoing life of the church. Surely at this point, at least, he would have had a trustworthy understanding. Yet he never said anything like, “Hey, listen, disciples. You remember those forceful statements I made about how Scripture is unbreakable and trustworthy in every detail? Well, now I know that I was overstating the case. Don’t get so hung up on whether you can trust Scripture or make sense of all its contradictions. Just follow me and stop making such a big deal about Scripture being trustworthy.”

      In other words, I’m still more comfortable doubting my own capacity to interpret “problem passages” than to doubt the clear statements of our Lord about the trustworthiness of God’s inscripturated words. It seems to me that this is the direction humility points us whenever we come to an interpretive problem that we just can’t crack. I don’t think this approach is so much a matter of us trying to tame the Bible as it is a matter of us being tamed by the Bible. For we accept its clear claims and acknowledge the limits of our understanding regarding the “problem passages,” rather than rejecting those clear claims because we lack the ability to understand the mysterious ones.

      • Andrew Dowling says:

        “And Jesus made the trustworthy witness of Scripture a central plank in his own testimony about himself”

        Well here exhibits the different playing fields people are on regarding this subject. Yes, taking the Bible as some eyewitness testimony, Jesus went around saying how the Scriptures pointed to him and he was fulfilling the Scriptures. Most non-apologetic scholars would concur that those articulations are those of the evangelists and not the historical Jesus.

        “If he was that wrong, and repeatedly so, on something that he thought so important, why should we trust him on anything else?”

        That’s a rather ridiculous assertion. If trust requires perfection than you aren’t going to lead a very happy life. If you found out at 8 years old your mother or father had been wrong about something, would that lend credence to you simply chucking everything they had ever taught you? “well, if they were wrong about that . . . . .”

        • Dwight Gingrich says:

          Yes, if you do not consider the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, then we are indeed on different playing fields. It seems to me that a fairer understanding of the historical evidence–one that matches how other ancient texts are handled–would be to conclude that, at minimum, the evangelists provided an functionally faithful translation of Jesus’ words.

          It also seems to me that your example of a parent being mistaken on something misses the point. If parents are wrong about how to spell a word or fix a bike, that does nothing to undermine their essential trustworthiness, for those mistakes have nothing to do with the core of who they are. A good parent, after all, never makes any claims that would demand such perfection. (Even my 5 year old is very well aware that I make mistakes!) But if Jesus was mistaken about Scripture, then his whole life mission is called into question, for he defined his life mission according to his understanding and exposition of the Jewish Scriptures, and in his life mission he claimed to act as the Father’s representative. People repeatedly noted that he spoke and acted with unprecedented authority, authority that had the increasing appearance of being divine. If he misunderstood Scripture, then his interpretive inabilities belied his claims about his own identity. Thus I think Lewis was right to say he was either Lord, liar, or lunatic. The one thing he couldn’t have been was merely the equivalent of a benignly mistaken parent.

          One book that has helped me on this topic of Jesus’ use of Scripture is R.T. France’s book Jesus and the Old Testament.

          Thanks for listening.

          • Andrew Dowling says:

            “It seems to me that a fairer understanding of the historical
            evidence–one that matches how other ancient texts are handled–would be
            to conclude that, at minimum, the evangelists provided an functionally
            faithful translation of Jesus’ words.”

            Ancient authors invented speeches by people all of the time in their writings. Not sure how you came to the conclusion that ancient texts always contained “functionally faithful translations” . . .to the contrary, authors felt no qualms adjusting what “historical” (as in, people who lived in history) people said to fit their larger narrative. .

          • Dwight Gingrich says:

            Dowling, I agree that we cannot assume that the historiographical traditions of ancient writers were the same as our own. But I think it is imprecise and misleading to say “ancient authors invented speeches by people all of the time in their writings.” Craig Keener, an expert in first-century writings, has a long discussion of such matters in his two-volume John commentary. A few of many possible quotes:

            “Sometimes modern scholars write as if ancient historians and biographers lacked proper histiographic [sic?] care or interest, but such a sweeping judgment neglects too much evidence. History was supposed to be truthful, and historians harshly criticized other historians whom they accused of promoting falsehood, especially when they exhibited self-serving agendas… To a lesser extent, they critiqued those who unknowingly got their facts wrong. This emphasis did not mean that historians could not omit events–…but it did prohibit the creation of events.”

            “And paraphrase of sayings–attempts to rephrase them without changing their meaning–was standard rhetorical practice, as evidenced by the school exercises in which it features prominently. Such paraphrase provided a degree of rhetorical freedom, and in the case of familiar lines would prove more aesthetically appealing than verbatim repetition. Thus even writers intending to write accurate history could ‘spice up’ or ‘enhance’ their narratives for literary, moralistic, and political purposes. This is not to say that good historians fabricated events; but they did often alter or add explanatory details to events.”

            I could quote more, including Keener’s discussion of the historiographical nature of the Gospels themselves (they are, where we can test them, evidently among the most historically accurate of ancient histories). But I think the tenor of these quotes already suggests that we should temper your assertion that “ancient authors invented speeches by people all of the time.” First, we should restrict our “ancient writers” to historians, for ancients distinguished between the writing of history and the writing of fiction, and the evangelists were quite clearly asserting to write history. Second, we should interpret “invented” as “paraphrased” or “summarized” or, at the loosest, “wrote the kind of thing that this historical character was well known to say in such situations.” To understand “invented” as “fabricated with no historical basis” does not reflect the balance of the historical record provided by ancient historians.

            Keener goes on to note the value of multiple source traditions in determining the historical accuracy of ancient writers. Of course, the multiple Gospels and their multiple levels of sources provide just such a situation of multiple attestation. And when it comes to the original topic of our discussion–Jesus’ view of the trustworthiness of scripture–his statements on this topic, too, are found in multiple sources. This affirms the the evangelists did, indeed, provide a functionally accurate expression (translations ranging from nearly verbatim to faithful paraphrase) of Jesus’ perspective on the Jewish scriptures.

            So, to return to my original concern, I think it is clear that in our discussions about the pros and cons of scriptural inerrancy, infallibility, and the like, we cannot avoid the historical demand to include Jesus’ perspective as part of our synthesis.


    • Christopher W. Skinner says:

      I would love the exact reference for this quotation, Kim. I intend to put it up on my office door!

  • Kim Fabricius says:

    Hey Chris,

    The quote comes from Carroll’s Wolf in the Sheepfold: The Bible as Problematic for Theology (London: SCM Press, 2nd ed.1997), pp. 87-88, 147 – a book to which I often return. “The Bible will burn your mind” (p. 147)

    As it says on the back cover: “This provocative study, first published by SPCK in 1991, looks at how the Bible has been subjected to ideological manipulation.” And hasn’t it just!

    Cheers – and thanks for your work and witness.

    • Christopher W. Skinner says:

      Bought the book used on Amazon last night. Thanks again for the reference. I look forward to reading it at the beach in a week. Thanks also for your work and witness. Your comments on the web are always filled with thought-provoking moments.

  • Daniel Fisher says:

    Sure there are difficulties in the Bible, but I’ve never understood why this genealogy thing is one of them…. EVERYONE has multiple genealogies, depending on which line you want to trace for which purpose. If “son of…” is used in the Bible to also mean “descended from…” (Which is pretty obvious by the reference right in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus as “the Son of David”)… Then why would it be completely impossible for Chris’ colleagues who suggested one may be Mary’s genealogy? Jesus was (in Luke) supposedly the son of Joseph, and (also) the son of (Mary’s father) Heli… He’s going to trace Mary’s line, and not mention the woman (which seems pretty common), so starts with Jesus’ maternal grandfather, but as a courtesy also mentions Jesus’ (apparent) immediate father also. This is just one possibility, i imagine…there seem to this reader a multitude of different possibilities… Luke may well have traced via Joseph’s mother’s ancestry, Matthew, Joseph’s father’s ancestry, each for their own purpose. Point remains… EVERYONE has multiple genealogies, depending on which you want to trace for what reason. There may well be some significant bible difficulties… I have never understood people arguing that this is one of them.

    • Christopher W. Skinner says:

      You are begging the question here, Daniel. Where in the text does it either say or imply that Heli is Mary’s father? That is the entire point of this post. We need not posit solutions whose sole purpose is to avoid the appearance of contradiction when what we really have is a legitimate contradiction. Generally speaking, only those who privilege the text with the same sort of mindset you display here feel compelled to rescue the text from “perceived” contradictions. Whether you see it or not, this is a real problem.

      • Daniel Fisher says:

        It neither says nor implies, but the way ancient genealogies were written, this is a distinct possibility that should be considered by any open minded historian… Not to rescue the text but as an inquiring person that is willing to at least entertain the possibility that Matthew and Luke, as historians in general, living within a generation or two of this very family in a culture that was very careful about their ancestry, may, just may, have actually done their research correctly and be correct. And jumping to the conclusion of a bona fide contradiction, instead of entertaining the very real and distinct possibility that the problem lies in our distance, lack of immediate knowledge, unfamiliarity with their language, culture, idioms, and ways of describing such things.

        Respectfully, I think it “begging the question” to conclude a contradiction when very real distinct possibilities exist… Especially in a case like this where I must again emphasize… EVERYONE has multiple genealogies. wouldn’t surprise me, given what I know about the different purposes of Matthew and Luke, if Matthew clearly and specifically traced the line through the Kings of Israel, and Luke very intentionally, emphasizing Jesus as accessible to the poor and meek, intentionally steered away from tracing through that line.

        • peteenns says:

          Daniel, as 1st century historians it is likely that the historiography of Matthew and Luke wrote their histories according to ancient conventions–one of which is to shape the past deliberately to speak to the present. “Multiple genealogies” doesn’t solve this one.

          • Daniel Fisher says:

            I’m a bit confused by your response that multiple genealogies can’t solve this…. Are you suggesting that Jesus did not, in fact, have multiple genealogies?

          • peteenns says:

            I think you are asking the wrong question. “Multiple [historically accurate and verifiable] genealogies” doesn’t explain M and L. That is what I am saying. Are you suggesting that M and L did not, in fact, shape their genealogies for theological purposes, that they were striving to be “historically accurate”?

          • Daniel Fisher says:

            I’m assuming, then, that you’re acknowledging that Jesus did have multiple geneaologies that could be at least hypothetically be historically accurate and verifiable?

            To illustrate: For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is historic fact that Jesus was descended from David’s Son Solomon through the paternal line of his lineage, and from David’s son Nathan through the other (through either his, or Joseph’s, maternal grandfather). So Matthew for his theological purpose (emphasizing Jesus as King) says Jesus is descended from King Solomon, while Luke (emphasizing Jesus humble status) said Jesus was descended from Solomon’s brother Nathan – and given my working assumption, THEY WOULD BOTH BE CORRECT.

            In other words, I think we agree that Jesus did in fact (like any human) have multiple lines of ancestry. I’m suggesting that the observation that M chose to record one and L the other for their own divergent theological purposes, does not in and of itself require that one (or both) of them MUST be historically inaccurate.

            In other words, selectively choosing historical data to fit a theological purpose, and achieving ‘historical accuracy’, are not (inherently) mutually exclusive – and certainly not in this case.

          • DonaldByronJohnson says:

            Here is how I address this puzzle, in case anyone is still reading.
            On Matt’s genealogy, see Jer 22:24-30 and 1 Chron 3:15-17; this is a negative prophecy that NONE of Coniah’s descendants will be king of Israel. And Jeconiah (Coniah) is listed in Matt 1:12, so Matt is showing how Joseph COULD NOT be the biological father, in order to fulfill Jer.’s (negative) prophecy. The point is that both positive and negative prophecies count as prophecies that Jesus needed to fulfill. The implication is that it must be through Mary that Jesus is a biological son of David.
            On Luke’s genealogy, there is an important word in the Greek that is essentially always missing in English translations and that is the article in front of Joseph. Omitting the article was a Jewish way of (indirectly by implication) referring to the mother, as the use of the article was a direct way of referring to the father. So Luke is referring to Mary, but in a way that is often missed by translators.

          • Dwight Gingrich says:

            “Omitting the article was a Jewish way of (indirectly by implication)
            referring to the mother, as the use of the article was a direct way of
            referring to the father.”

            Do you have reliable evidence that you can share to prove this assertion?

        • Dwight Gingrich says:

          I think Skinner and Enns are correct in saying that the observation that “everyone has multiple genealogies” doesn’t explain the differences between Matthew and Luke. However, I think Fisher is correct in saying it is faulty logic “to conclude a contradiction when very real distinct possibilities exist.”

          Darrell Bock has a 5+ pages excursus on this problem in his Luke commentary. After rejecting the conclusion that the genealogies are non-historical and the explanation that says one traces Jesus’ lineage through Mary and the other through Joseph (I almost typed “Martha”!), he surveys the explanations that have been given for how both genealogies could trace Jesus’ lineage through Joseph. I think his conclusion is balanced. He says that each view that sees both genealogies as tracing Jesus’ lineage through Joseph “requires a set of conjectures that cannot be proven. What seems mostly likely, if one is to take the accounts as historical, is that Jacob (Matt. 1:15-16) and Heli (Luke 3:23) had a close relationship, though whether as brothers, half-brothers, through the marriage of Heli’s sister to Jacob, levirate marriage, or adoption is less clear. It is also clear that other breaks in the listing occurred. What the options show is that it is premature to insist on error here, even though a definite solution does not emerge.”

        • Andrew Dowling says:

          “that is willing to at least entertain the possibility that Matthew and Luke, as historians in general”

          Your presumption that the authors of Luke and Matthew are anything akin to a modern “historian” is clouding your outlook. They are not meant to be “histories” even though they contain some historical recollection through oral tradition.

          • Daniel Fisher says:

            OK, so “Matthew and Luke, as average, untrained, nothing like a modern historian, simple people living close to the events who did at least some collection of historical information in order to tell the story of Jesus…”

            I’m not sure I would buy that, but even if I did, I’m not sure how that changes anything about the current question. You mentioned “they contain some historical recollection through oral tradition.” OK, and my point remains that I find no obvious reason to regard as erroneous the two historical recollections of Jesus’ two lineages (one royal, one “peasant” for lack of a better word) – argued as erroneous for apparently no other reason except by virtue of the fact that they are different from each other.

          • Andrew Dowling says:

            “OK, and my point remains that I find no obvious reason to regard as
            erroneous the two historical recollections of Jesus’ two lineages (one
            royal, one “peasant” for lack of a better word) – argued as erroneous
            for apparently no other reason except by virtue of the fact that they
            are different from each other.”

            I’m not going to write several paragraphs on why modern scholarship generally subscribes that the genealogies are ahistorical, but when you look at the aims of the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew and literary type/themes, the character of oral tradition in ancient cultures (the genealogy of an obscure Jewish preacher would’ve not been known let alone told around the campfire), theological motifs etc. . . .there becomes no obvious reason to regard them as “historical record-keeping” of any sort. No-one had any idea what Jesus of Nazareth’s actual genealogy was. The discrepancies between the listings only amplify the point.

  • Cathy says:

    Thank you for your refreshing approach to the “problems” in Scripture! Very helpful article.

  • Andrew Dowling says:

    Great article of relevance to the genealogy question:

  • phil8 says:

    Proud of this Dallas Theological Seminary graduate! Keep up the first-rate scholarship, Chris.

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