The Parable of the Error Free Book

Once upon a time in the state of Nebraska there was a small village with a most wonderful mayor. He was a great benefactor to the citizens of the village and when he died the town people decided to have a biography written to inspire future generations with his wisdom, compassion, and good deeds.

Fortunately, four well known biographers resided in the village. Each was independently assigned the task of writing the biography. When they were completed, the town folk decided to bind each of the biographies into one book, which they entitled, "The life and works of Mayor Taylor."

The people of the village loved their biography of mayor Taylor; some of the town folks said the biography was well written; others said it was excellent; still others said it was error free.

"Wait a minute," said Joe, a young resident of the village,

"The book may be fine indeed but it is NOT error free. How can it be?"

Bob said, "Well - perhaps an earlier version of the book was error free."

"I don't think so," replied Joe, "it is unlikely that at one time all authors recorded the correct address and THREE somehow got garbled since the first edition." "But, after all, the book we have before us now is NOT error free!" "It may have many worthwhile tales about the life of our late mayor Taylor, but obviously it is NOT error free."

There are four DIFFERENT addresses given for the Mayor's residence.

Some say that the Bible is error free. Four of its authors record the words affixed to the cross on which Jesus died.

All four agree on the gist but all four messages cannot be what was actually written. Only one, at most, can be correct or what one might call "error free."

One might also ask, "What were the very last words of Jesus as he died on the cross?" At least here we have two of the four authors in agreement.

Only ONE of these messages could possibly be THE LAST words of Jesus; but each author says that he has captured the last and then goes on to say that Jesus died immediately thereafter. Here even the gist of the messages differ. We can see, again, by placing these texts side by side that the bible is far from error free.

If we were to say that God wrote these words and that they are error free are we kidding ourselves or are we insulting God?

At the time of the crucifixion Matthew says:

Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. ... In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. 27:38&44

At the time of the crucifixion Luke says:

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals--one on his right, the other on his left. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him. 23:32&33&39

Who is correct? Matthew or Luke? Did one of them heap insults on Jesus or both? How does one go about choosing?

One cannot hold that the two criminals hurled insults at Jesus and at the same time hold that only one did. If one attempts to do so then is he really trying to love God with his whole mind?

Are we to believe that the bible is only error free when it comes to the gist of the larger issues? In my mind if the God of the universe chose to write a book it would have been error free. We would not find egregious errors of science, conflicts of facts, or inconsistency of view from chapter to chapter.

The bible is a very useful book. It is at the heart of the Western World's history and civilization. It contains the parables of Jesus as well as sage advice from a diversity of authors. Many of its stories serve as models for a better way of living.

There has been hope that God actually wrote a book - a "user's manual" for mankind. That is the belief which identifies a "Fundamentalist". Fundamentalism is a mind-set, independent of any particular religion. Indeed that mind-set exists in all major religions - only the book differs. It is usually the holy book found in ones own region of the world. In some religions it is the Bible; in others the Koran or... But God did not write a book - in any language in any civilization. No instruction manual has been handed down from heaven. If he had written one it would have been error free. The bible is NOT. We are still going to have to exercise judgment and think for ourselves. Let us realize that the bible represents the contribution of a variety of authors - each interested in having us lead a Godly life. The stories they weave represent their own viewpoints, testimonies, and observations.

As an Episcopalian I call Jesus Lord. I do not, however, consider the bible error free because I have read much of it and I find too many errors there. There is a lot of what one can consider absolutely great and marvelous about the bible but one can not truly call it error free.

If one were to assume that the bible were error free, one would verify that by going to the text. I go there and find errors of fact and contradictions. I would assume if God were responsible for the text that he would have gone out of his way to avoid the mere appearance of error.

But those who hold that the bible is error free must resort to circumlocution to try to figure out ways that these contradictions and errors of fact somehow are not really errors. But in all truth, this cannot be done.

We must conclude, then, that God does not hold himself responsible for the veracity of everything contained in the bible. The task for us then, is to find how [in anthropomorphic poetry] God speaks to us - to find the "words of God" in what traditionally has been referred to as the "Word of God."

In this endeavor of finding the footprints of God in scripture, Episcopalians use the three legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. I think it is important to listen to all the great minds and thinkers of the world for insights, especially religious thinkers. I feel that it is important to search out the overarching themes in scripture.

In addition to the contradictions in scripture, some of which I have enumerated, there are errors of fact. I have mentioned a few contradictions among the gospel authors. Here is an example of an obvious error of fact found in the Old Testament:

NKJV 2 Chronicles 4:2 says, "Then he made the Sea of cast bronze, ten cubits from one brim to the other; it was completely round. Its height was five cubits, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference"

1 Kings 7:23 says nearly the same thing.

Something described as a circle in shape with a diameter of 10 [in any units such as cubits, inches, etc.] would have a circumference of 31.4 not 30.

Even the crudest of approximations would yield 31. That author could not be described as inerrant. The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is a constant referred to in mathematics as pi.

This must have been the verse that Dorothy Nelkin refers to in her book "The Creation Controversy," published in 1982, when she said: "Evolution was not their [the Fundamentalists] only target. The revolt against science also included attempts to prescribe by law that pi should be changed from 3.1416 to 3.0000, partly because it was simple to use, partly because the Bible described Solomon's vase as three times as far around as across."

Pi expressed as a decimal is often rounded to 3.14159 or 3.14 but in actuality the digits after the decimal point never end. Computers have approximated its exact value by figuring out scores of digits following the decimal point.

While both Biblical passages exactly agree in stating the INCORRECT ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle, they both differ on the volume:

1 Kings 7:26 says, " contains two thousand baths.

2 Chronicles 4:5 says,"...and it received and held three thousand baths."

I would assume if God were responsible for the text that he would have edited out the gross mathematical error and would have gone out of his way to avoid the mere appearance of error.

Contrast the fundamentalist's view of God, Jesus and the Bible with this short paragraph excerpted from a sermon entitled The Battle For God preached by the Very Rev. John B. Chane at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C. on December 2, 2001, shortly before he was elected bishop of that Episcopal Diocese and while he was the Dean of The Cathedral of San Diego:

"If we can glean anything from Jesus' life, teaching, death and resurrection it is that the real knowledge of God and the active presence of God in the world are always defined by unconditional love. It is when love is absent that evil and darkness take over the human soul and when death reigns over life. Jesus is remembered not for his adherence to orthodoxy or fundamentalism. He is remembered for his ability as God's son to love unequivocally and extravagantly. Even Christ's death is known as the Passion. And what more can be said about passion other than a love that extends beyond the limits of human understanding!"

In March of 2001 in his homily, The Bible… Whose Word is it Really, he said:

"The Bible is so filled with contradiction that to think of it as a uniform, compiled, inerrant book of law, regulating human behavior in some cases and condemning it in others is absurd! To treat the Bible solely as a uniform book of rules, regulations and laws is to reveal that the perpetrators probably never really read it!"

Paul Gibson in his book Discerning The Word wrote:

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Episcopal priest in Lander, Wyoming has a most interesting take:

"The Bible - I heard something the other day that encapsulated my thinking about this set of books (for it is more than one, written at many different times by many different authors). This person said "It is like our family albums". Pictures, clippings, and mementos of encounters with a common experience. It tries to tell of encounters with the Holy and make sense of the Divine-Human relationship. Like the family album we may have stories about the pictures and know the names of the people we are viewing but there is always a level that cannot be seen or understood because we were not there when the photo was taken or the event occurred.

When I read the Bible with this sort of lens - I stop fighting with it and using it like a template. When it contradicts itself, I can see that this is because there were different points of view about events, like when people are interviewed after a wreck and remember totally different versions of the same event. One person said about Revelation - it is like Modern Art - trying to convey ideas through metaphors, feelings, and images - not representational or photographic. When we try to apply scientific, rational principles to works of art or scripture we miss the point and end up analyzing the paint."

Reverend Fontaine's blog can be found at: blog

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