Perhaps the greatest wisdom of the Bible is its diversity. There are so many ways in which the Bible says strikingly different things and promotes real dissimilarities. This stands in strong contrast to the orthodox claims of certain Christianities and Judaisms. The various contradictions in the Bible could be understood as weakness, but I propose they make the Bible more juicy and vigorous! Indeed, the Bible thrives on ‘difference’ and does not shrink from it.
Some big and obvious examples help shift the way we think about the Bible. There are four gospels in the Bible. Each gospel has many differences with the others. Perhaps the most conspicuous gospel discrepancies are between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John. For instance, these two gospels have almost no teachings of Jesus that are the same. They are different in content, focus, and language. Mark is full of short pithy parables, proverbs, and stories by Jesus. John has Jesus telling no parables and almost no proverbs, and Jesus’s stories in John are much longer.
A comparison between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke also yields some very big differences. Both of them contain several multi-chapter extended narratives about the birth of Jesus, in contrast to the Gospels of Mark and John which do not even mention Jesus’s birth. But the infancy chronicle is completely different in Matthew and Luke. Matthew tells an extended story from the father Joseph’s perspective about a visit of Magi to his house and a flight to Egypt to avoid soldiers killing all the babies. But Luke has none of that; rather it tells a story of shepherds visiting Jesus in a manger from mother Mary’s perspective.
Contradictions in the Bible allow for a variety of expression, imagination, proposition, and creativity
There are many liberal scholars who mock these dramatic differences between the four biblical gospels, since they do not represent the same consistent larger story, the same meanings, and are not told in uniform language and portraits. But such a judgmental liberal attitude is a modern and flat method for understanding ancient meaning making. Such approaches assume that it is better to be consistent and scientific. But ancient Mediterranean and west Asian ways of giving meaning to and receiving meaning from life did not depend on consistency and sameness of expressions or propositions. Rather, a wide variety of expression, imagination, proposition, and creativity was crucial to the depth of experience in the many overlapping ancient cultures of Mediterranean, north African, and west Asian areas. What came later—as both modernity and orthodoxies (literally “straight” thinking) made sameness and consistency superior—ultimately ridiculed this important diversity and complexity.
Although I am often associated with liberal scholarship, here I mean to open up a way of appreciating differences in textual interpretation and a way of getting past much (not all) liberal interpretation that requires modern consistency of meaning. For me, the differences between gospels and differences among many texts need not mean that these texts fail because they contradict each other, but that differences between texts and contradictions in the Bible show the strength of plurality. Such textual plurality opens up new ways of making meaning in contrast to much liberal insistence on scientific consistency or orthodox insistence on dogmatic consistency.
Our initial description of the plurality and multiple versions of biblical gospels is only a small part of biblical delight at assortments of values, meanings, images, color, and character. Another great wealth of variety is found in the five books of the biblical Torah. Not at all unlike biblical gospels, the book of Genesis itself has a plethora of diverse pictures of creation. Then the book of Exodus leaps into a completely different set of issues and discoveries of what matters, and the book of Deuteronomy is literally a second and wildly different version of Exodus. The introduction of Leviticus in the Torah is not so much a repetition of Exodus or Deuteronomy, but a beautiful and varied elaboration on them.
Examples from Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament writings
The letters of Paul argue with themselves, with Paul changing his mind for each of the different communities. Also differences between the gospels and letters are mindboggling, even if one only notices that gospels are full of stories, and the letters have no stories. Also, there are other interesting arguments and clashes between the Gospel of Matthew (in which Jesus praises the Torah) and in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (where Paul fusses and fumes about the Torah).
The same goes for the ways the Psalms alternately praise and rail against God’s ways and how the prophets argue with each other and with their people. The clash between the Revelation to John’s picture of God’s violent killing of thousands of people—and poems of love in some New Testament letters and some Hebrew odes to the beauty of humanity and nature—is yet another example.
In the first two chapters of Genesis there are two different pictures of how the universe unfolds, not to mention that Psalm 104 has yet another quite different picture of how the world works. Proverbs 8 paints a very improvised portrait of “the beginning,” and John 1 revises Proverbs 8 by adding Jesus into it. All these examples illustrate how biblical reality keeps evolving.
In contrast to later churches’ versions of what the Bible is supposed to be, the Bible is not “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Nor is it some clear system of laws and rules. Rather, if one can untangle the idea of ‘Bible’ from the pretense of orthodoxy, the Bible quite quickly blossoms into many different opinions, quite varied pictures of the world and humanity, and a universe that is constantly changing.
The endless creativity of an expanding universe
The Bible provides an overabundance of methods for improvising one’s way through the world in response to what happens to us and the universe. The Bible savors how Israel can change itself from one kind of society to another (first a loose confederation of tribes, then a monarchy, then two monarchies, then a conquered nation, then a people living in many different parts of the world). Its picture of early Jesus peoples is of many different supper clubs, associations, new kinds of families, and loosely organized groups with no one organizing any kind of grid or stable structure.
In understanding how the Bible inspires a way through the world and a sense of a larger cosmos, the model is more like a jazz big band constantly reinventing itself than Newton building a clock. Indeed, the Bible’s unfolding of cosmic reality has a lot in common with Einstein’s articulation of the endless creativity of an expanding universe. As Proverbs 8 puts it in the words of divine Wisdom, “the deep was not, when I was born, nor were the springs with their abounding waters…Before the mountains were settled…I came to birth….Creating, delighting…ever playing…delighting to be with the human children…” (8:24,25,30,31). The Bible does not produce or emerge like a machine, but it evolves like the ad-libbing of Einstein’s space, time, and energy.
It’s not a rule-book, it’s an improvisation
Strangely, and in a damaging manner, the Church succeeded in imposing the model of a mechanistic rule-book on the Bible. It did this mainly by making humans think they needed rules and structure to avoid their sins. Here we correct this error, and we reclaim the biblical model of multiple jazz instruments creatively improvising to allowing space for a constantly unfolding life.
Once we see this primary model of biblical creativity and improvisation, it is also much easier to integrate all of the newly discovered texts from the first two centuries of the Jesus movements. This allows us to understand how these new documents fit with the Bible and to understand them to be more improvisations in a larger biblical spirit. The ‘Bible and Beyond’ simply enlarges an open-ended wisdom stream that allows us to continue to grow in surprising ways. The Bible does not offer us rules that determine reality, rather it offers some combination of a wild stream and an improvising jazz band which make life bigger.