Monday, 8 December 2008

Inerrancy, "Contradictions," and God's Perfect Text

My prior blog on inerrancy prompted a question regarding the two accounts of Jairus' daughter. Mark 5:23 has Jairus saying that his daughter was near death, whereas Matt 9:18 has him saying that she was dead. How then can the text be inerrant in the face of such blatant contradiction.

There are so many "contradictions" of this sort in the Gospels. My favourite is the ripping of the veil. In Matthew and Mark, it comes consequent to Jesus' death, while in Luke, it precipitates Jesus' death. In such cases, we moderns are prone to impose our concept of exactitude onto the text, as if the disciples set themselves staged on the two scenes with atomic clocks awaiting to see whether the veil ripped first or Jesus' death occurred first, with wireless walkie talkies to communicate the results.

But I think inerrancy allows for such inexactitudes. If you ask me what time it is, I respond, 8:15, when in fact it might be 8:17:04.

The case of Jairus' statement is a little different. Is Matthew allowed to telescope past Mark's detail of the process of Jairus first saying that his daughter was sick and then consequently being informed of her death? I think so. If I were telling the story and wanted to pare it down to its essentials while maintaining good literary form, would I be allowed to change Jairus' words in order to get to the main point that she was dead? I think so--at least by ancient standards. I think if you asked a first century Jew if Matthew or Mark were mistaken in their reports, I think they would say "No."

In the case of the disparities in the ripping of the veil, Matt and Mark's presentation emphasises a theology of judgment: Israel just killed God's Son, and judgment and destruction is consequently inevitable. In contrast, Luke's presentation emphasises the vindication of Jesus: Jesus cried, "Into your hands, I commit my spirit," and God opens the veil in order to welcome him into the heavenly Holy of Holies.

I'm not sure if there are any theological motivations behind Matt's presentation of the Jairus' story. He may have modified it for literary reasons. Matt constantly reduces Mark's story down to the essentials for literary effect. The process will inevitably produce the kinds of inconcinnities as we find in this pericope.

Ultimately, we must ask, "Is the text exactly the way that God wanted it to be?" By faith, I reply, "Yes."

3 comments:

crevo said...

The standard I use for error in scripture is this - if I were to use [insert standard of error here] to decide when to publicly correct my wife when she's talking, would I get beat senseless? If the answer is yes, then it is an overly-stringent standard of error.

JKG said...

In the case of the disparities in the ripping of the veil, Matt and Mark's presentation emphasises a theology of judgment: Israel just killed God's Son, and judgment and destruction is consequently inevitable. In contrast, Luke's presentation emphasises the vindication of Jesus: Jesus cried, "Into your hands, I commit my spirit," and God opens the veil in order to welcome him into the heavenly Holy of Holies.

How much does inerrancy in this case require a historical inerrancy? Obviously it is a theological issue, Mark and Luke are differing over the theological interpretation of the alleged event.

Are we required to believe they are both true, both illuminating an aspect of the significance of the rent veil? Or can we think Mark and Luke had different speculations of the interpretation? Maybe the important things is more what we think the inspiration of the authors means rather than the inerrency of scripture?

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

From a practical standpoint, how could the eyewitnesses of the crucifixion discern if the veil was ripped before or after Jesus' death? They would have had to have atomic clocks at both locations to track the exact time the events took place.