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Latter-day Biblical Literalism (Part I) Guest Post by David H. Bailey

Introduction

The eighth Article of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reads (in its current form) “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”  Some in the LDS Church today interpret this to mean that the entire King James Bible, possibly excluding a few mistranslated verses, is the literal, inerrant word of God.

Yet the LDS movement was founded on a rejection of biblical inerrancy.  Joseph Smith taught that the Bible is not complete, and that “Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.”  In his account of the first vision, he recalled that “teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”  It was for such reasons that Joseph Smith embarked on his own revision, which he never completed.

Brigham Young taught that the Bible contains “history and traditions of the fathers … handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not.”  Even Joseph Fielding Smith acknowledged that the Bible is “filled with metaphor, simile, allegory, and parable, which no intelligent person could be compelled to accept in a literal sense.”  With regards to the eighth Article of Faith, it is interesting to note that a version published in the 19th century differs from the version cited above: “We believe in the Word of God recorded in the Bible; we also believe the Word of God recorded in the Book of Mormon, and in all other good books.”  Note that this more open-ended wording clearly avoids the inference that the entire Bible is the literal or infallible word of God.

In spite of this tradition, some LDS writers today insist on a highly literal approach to the Bible.  For example, one prominent LDS scholar recently wrote, “We take the Scriptures to be literally true, we hold symbolic, figurative or allegorical interpretation to a minimum, accepting the miraculous events as historical and the moral and ethical teaching as binding and valid.”  He added, “There isn’t a single verse of the Bible that I do not personally accept and believe.”  Such views echo what is widely taught in the evangelical Protestant world, such as in the “Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy,” available at http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html.

These writers are certainly entitled to their beliefs, but I personally cannot see how such claims can be defended in light of modern scholarship, or even from a careful reading of the text itself.  A more flexible approach is required, one that recognizes the human as well as the divine in scripture.  To that end, I present the following examples, certainly not out of disrespect for the Bible, but only to underscore the hopelessness of a literal or inerrant approach.  Most of these examples are fairly well known, although some are my own observations.  Further details and complete references can be found at http://www.dhbailey.com/papers/dhb-bible-literal.pdf.

The Old Testament

There are numerous discrepancies in the first few books of the Old Testament.  For instance, in Gen. 7:2 we read that Noah was commanded to take seven each of every “clean” beast, males and females, and two of beasts that are not “clean.”  But in 7:9 we read that only two of each kind were taken.  In 8:7 we read that Noah sent forth a raven; in the next verse we read that he sent a dove.  In 7:17 we read that the flood was 40 days upon the earth.  However, in 7:24 we read that the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days, and then decreased until the tenth month, which would be roughly 300 days.  A still different figure is found in 8:14, which with 7:11 gives 57 days.

Another example is in the account of Joseph being sold into Egypt.  In Gen. 37:28, we read that Midianite merchants drew Joseph out of the pit and sold him to Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.  In Gen. 39:1, the Ishmaelites then took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar.  But in Gen. 37:36 we read that it was the Midianites who sold Joseph to Potiphar.

Exo. 12:37 says that “about six hundred thousand” Hebrew men (i.e, two to three million total persons) left Egypt in the exodus.  Exo. 38:26 and Num. 1:46 are more specific, giving the figure 603,550 men 20 years or older.  Needless to say, is hard to see how such a host could have survived in the Sinai desert for 40 years and escaped modern-day archaeological detection.  However, even from the Old Testament text it is clear that the actual number was much smaller: (1) Exo. 1:5 says that Jacob’s extended family numbered just 70 persons when they entered Egypt, so 430 years later they would have numbered only a few thousand; (2) Exo. 1:15-17 says that there were only two midwives for the Hebrews when Moses was born, which implies that the Hebrew society at the time had no more than about 7,000 women; (3) in Exo. 18:21, Jethro recommended that Moses organize the host of Israel into thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens (not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands); (4) a census of firstborn males in Num. 3:40-43 counted 22,273; (5) in Num. 20:17-19 and 21:22, Moses promised the king of Edom that the Israelites and their cattle would pass through his territory strictly on the narrow king’s road; if the Israelites numbered in the millions, such a procession would have been hundreds of miles long and taken many months; (6) the ancient city of Jericho was only about two blocks in size, and could have housed at most 3,000 people; if the Israelites numbered in the millions, a miracle of walls falling down would hardly have been needed to overcome this small settlement. 

Similar difficulties arise in analysis of the ages of the patriarchs given in Gen. 5 and Gen. 11.  Even setting aside the question of whether such extreme longevities are biologically possible, it is clear that there are anomalies in these figures.  For example, in a suspicious number of figures for years lived after first son, the last two digits are 20 or less, or are “00”.  Also note that by adding the ages at first son through Lamech, plus 600 (since the flood occurred when Noah was 600), one finds that the flood occurred 1656 years after Eden.  This corresponds to 86,400 weeks, which is a magic number in Egyptian cosmology, and which is memorialized even today in our reckoning of time: 24 hours x 60 minutes x 60 seconds = 86,400 seconds per day.  These longevity figures also conflict with Gen. 6:3, where the Lord declares that mankind’s days shall be “an hundred and twenty years.”

The New Testament

The four Gospels, while generally in agreement on the Savior’s ministry, contain numerous discrepancies, although as before such discrepancies pose no substantive difficulties, except to those who insist that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.  One well-known example is the differing versions of Jesus’ genealogy given in Matt. 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38.  These passages disagree beginning with who was Joseph’s father (Jacob versus Heli), the number of generations between David and Jesus (27 versus 40), and even in the genealogy between Moses and David.

There are significant differences in the two accounts of Jesus’ nativity.  In Matthew’s account (Matt. 1:18-25, 2:1-23), Jesus and his parents were living in a house at Bethlehem at the time of his birth, and were visited by the wise men when he was one year old or so (since Herod ordered all children under two killed).  They then fled to Egypt, but later settled in Nazareth.  In Luke’s account (Luke 2:1-52), Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth, went to Bethlehem and then returned to Nazareth after a stop at the temple in Jerusalem.  Thereafter they lived only in Nazareth – Luke specifically mentions that they returned to Jerusalem from Nazareth each year at Passover.  Also, whereas Matthew’s account records Jesus’ birth during the time of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, Luke describes Jesus’ birth in the days of Cyrenius, governor of Syria, who did not reign until 7 AD (an 11-year discrepancy).  Along this line, there is no historical record of a decree from Augustus “that all the world must be taxed,” requiring everyone to return to his/her birth city.

The four gospels do not even agree on who served as Jesus’ original twelve apostles.  Matt. 10:2-4 and Mark 3:16-18 list Simon (Peter), Andrew, James (son of Zebedee), John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Lebbaeus (surnamed Thaddeus), Simon (the Canaanite) and Judas (Iscariot).  However, in Luke 6:14-16 and in Acts 1:13, Judas the brother of James is listed in the place of Lebbaeus, and Simon Zelotes is listed in the place of Simon the Canaanite.

There are also differences among the four accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  In Matthew and Mark, Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene (Matt 28:9; Mark 16:9), whereas in Luke, he first appears to Peter (Luke 24:34).  In Matthew, Jesus meets the apostles in Galilee (Matt 26:32, 28:10, 16), but in Luke and John, Jesus first appears before them while they were gathered in Jerusalem (Luke 24:33-36; John 20:19).

Part II follows Friday!

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11 comments to Latter-day Biblical Literalism (Part I) Guest Post by David H. Bailey

  • rick

    Looking forward to Part II.

  • Chris Maloy

    Of course it is easy to write this now and days. Whenever science challenges our belief systems we have to find a way to make them fit. End of soapbox.

    I do have a question. Why does the JST (Joseph Smith Translation) version of the Bible not fix those discrepancies and blatant problems (at least the parts he got to)?

  • Chris Maloy

    In case I do not come back to this site to check the answer given to my question be emailed to me. I would really like to know. Cheers.

  • DB

    I certainly hope you’re not trying to argue that the Bible cannot be interpreted literally because there are inconsistencies in the text. That would be an incredibly illogical argument. You have argued that the Bible is not literal and that it is not inerrant and you have provided some examples of errancy. However, you have not provided any explanation of how errancy equals non-literalism. Will that come in subsequent parts? A book of non-fiction does not become a book of fiction simply because there are errors and inconsistencies in its text. How many historical texts with no errors and inconsistencies exist? Zero. Also, as this blog is intended for Mormon readers, it is really unnecessary to argue the errancy of the Bible as that is part of our doctrine. Yes, there are errors in the Bible; we all know that. However, I must disagree with your assessment of some of the inconsistencies in the Bible:
    Genesis 7:2 does not state that Noah was commanded to take seven each of every “clean” beast but rather that he was commanded to take them “by sevens, the male and his female”. If he took seven of them, that would be 3 ½ pairs which makes no sense. The statement “by sevens, the male and his female” seems to indicate seven pairs. I could be wrong, but that makes a whole lot more sense than 3 ½ pairs and would not be inconsistent with 7:9.
    Genesis 8:7 states that Noah sent a raven. Genesis 8:8 states that he also sent a dove. How is this inconsistent if the text claims that he sent both animals?
    Genesis 7:17 states that the flood was forty days upon the earth which is consistent with 7:12 stating that it rained forty days and forty nights. It appears that the term “flood” 7:17 would refer to the act of the earth becoming flooded as caused by rain rather than the persistence of the waters upon the earth. 7:24 then states that the waters prevailed upon the earth 150 days. The same 150 days is restated in 8:3 and in 8:4 when it states that is when the arc rested on Mt. Ararat. The tenth month you referred to is in 8:5 which only states that that’s when the tops of the mountains were seen. The date in 8:14 compared with the date in 7:11 corresponds to one year and ten days which it states is when the earth dried, or I suppose could mean when all the flood waters went away. I have no idea where your calculation of 57 days comes from.
    The account of the selling of Joseph to Potiphar is a rather weak inconsistency if one at all. The statement that the Midianites sold Joseph into Egypt unto Potiphar is not really inconsistent with the statement that the Ishmeelites sold Joseph to Potiphar if it is viewed in the context of the Midianites selling Joseph to Potiphar using the Ishmeelites as middlemen. In that context, it would also not be wrong to say that Joseph’s brothers sold him to Potiphar. Most international trade (now and anciently) is conducted through middlemen and transportation companies who take full possession of the items being traded.
    Well, I think that’s enough for now. The points that I’m making are that the inconsistencies you’ve pointed out are either very weak or are not inconsistencies at all, Mormon doctrine accepts inconsistencies and errors in the Bible so you’ve argued nothing new to anyone, and you’ve yet to explain how inconsistencies equate to non-literalism whether in whole or in parts. If you’re going to argue that the Bible is not literal, whether in whole or in parts, you’ve got to do much better than this.

  • I am actually reading the Old Testament right now, and am appreciating the quotes by former prophets and heads. Also, to my understanding, at the time of the prophet Joseph Smith’s death, he was in-process of translating the Bible. I understand the church procured much of his work from Emma years later, but that it was not complete according to Joseph. Is there someone that can back me up on this?

    Anyway, I appreciated your post. I love the Bible AND The Book of Mormon, and yet have wondered how allegory, symbolism, or inerrancy may have come into play when I read about Noah drunk in his tent, Lot’s daughters molesting him (weird) and a myriad of other things that have made me pause and go hmmm?

  • Reed Russell

    The list of figures/ages in Genesis 5 is very heavy on numbers that end in 5 or 0 — in fact 21 of the 30 end in 5 or 0. Probability – roughly one in a million. Further, 1, 3, 4, 6 and 8 never appear at all as the final digit. Probability – about 2 in ten million.

    That figure of 1656 is a mysterious one. Multiplied by 52.177, the number of weeks in a year (365.25 /7 = 52.177), one obtains very nearly 86,400, which is that “magic” number of Babylonian astronomy. The flood came 86,400 weeks after the beginning.

  • Chris Maloy

    I just came back to this site and I can tell you right now that I cannot relate. I do not even know why I try or even read those sites anymore…. so many of you keep trying so hard to get the damn square peg to fit in the circle hole.

    How bout this… is it even possible that maybe the Bible is just a fabricated book by a bunch of power hungry men driven by political agendas and had very subjective points of view.

  • Chris Maloy

    Gotta say Reed Russell’s comments made me laugh. Cheers mate.

  • Reed Russell

    Chris – I think you missed the point, friend. Cheers.

  • Chris Maloy

    No Reed they really made me laugh. Either you were being serious and the ridiculousness of it made me laugh or you were making a joke and I laughed.

    Last question I have for this post and then I am done.

    The articles of faith state that we believe the Bible to be the word of God as long as it is translated correctly.

    My question is this… Is the Bible translated correctly?

    I don’t think many would agree it is. Love to hear your points of view.

  • The Bible is errant, and it provides a way to compensate for that fact.

    The Bible twice declares that it is errant. The first declaration is Matthew 13:33 which reads, “Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” The second declaration is Luke 13:21 which reads, “It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.”

    The Bible thrice mentions a way to compensate for the errancy. The first mention was at Deuteronomy 19:15 which reads, “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.” The second was at Matthew 18:16 which reads, “But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” The third mention was at 2 Corinthians 13:1 which reads, “This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” Their commonality, which is the way to remove the leaven, reads, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.”

    Moreover, the “three measures of meal” are the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon.

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