Three Short Pieces: Correct Doctrine, Contradictions, Ecclesiastes

Three Short Pieces: Correct Doctrine, Contradictions, Ecclesiastes

These thoughts are presented with no elaboration. Consider them biblical canapés intended to pique your spiritual appetite.

1. God is not particularly invested in his people’s having correct doctrine. Name virtually any hero of the faith from Abraham through the author of your favorite online meditation, and given ten minutes to spend with him or her I guarantee I would be able to uncover serious errors in that person’s “biblical” understanding. God is immeasurably more interested (1) in our direct relationship with him and with each other, and (2) in our actions (vs. our beliefs).

“He has shown you what is good! What does Yahweh want from you except that you do what is just, and love mercy, and that in humility you walk with your God?” –Micah 6:8


2. Concerning contradictions in scriptural accounts: trying to reconcile contradictions is counterproductive and sort of silly. They are a nonissue. The Bible was written by human beings from widely different cultures, who spoke different languages, who had unique beliefs, and who possessed varying degrees of literacy. We should be concerned about the subject matter, which is of incomparable importancenot the medium by which we learn about that subject matter. There are numerous contradictions, but I want to address the most glaring example in all of scripture—the four accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.

Many atheists have cited these resurrection-account contradictions as proof that the Bible is balderdash. That’s because these atheists have bought into the same foolish error that many Christians have swallowed—that the Bible claims to be perfect in every way (it doesn’t), and if you can find a single error then nothing in it is true. That’s just mindlessly stupid. The Bible was written by human beings. Human beings are broken. Therefore the Bible is in various ways broken (see I Corinthians 13:9). Of course there will be errors! Of course there will be contradictions! They have nothing to do with the importance of the Bible and its validity in helping us to understand God, just as punctuation and grammatical errors do not prevent our finding the U.S. Constitution to be a rather useful document.

The resurrection accounts differ in significant ways—who got to the tomb first, who first saw Jesus, what Jesus first said and did, etc., etc. But rather than demonstrating that the accounts are false, the variations are precisely what you would expect from eyewitness accounts! Trial lawyers know that eyewitness accounts offer the flimsiest possible basis for a conviction. People’s initial observations as well as their memories are grossly unreliable. If all four accounts of the resurrection were pretty much identical, that would be a compelling reason to dismiss them as untrue, as it would be smoking-gun proof of collusion among the authors. But the differences among the accounts remain. It is senseless to commit contortion on the narratives in order to reconcile them; it makes much more sense to let them speak for themselves, contradictions and all.

The powerful central message we can derive from these four contradictory accounts, however, is astounding: This guy had been dead for days, and he got up! Every writer agrees on that. They all also agree that the stone was rolled away, that there were angels somewhere in the story, that Mary was somehow involved, that Peter and John were somehow involved, that different followers saw the risen Messiah at different times. It’s what everyone agrees on that makes the story believable. Clearly there was no collusion, because the contradictions are glaring. But it’s pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus was raised from the dead. Don’t let contradictions distract you. You should expect contradictions.

Focus, rather, on the preeminent question: This guy is still alive! Have you met him? Do you know him?


3. Hebel הֶבֶל and translation/interpretation of Ecclesiastes.

N.B. I plagiarized the essence of this short teaching from Ron Simkins, my small-group leader and former pastor of my church in Urbana. Ron was inspired by the writing of Ellen F. Davis, a professor of Old Testament at Duke University.

Hebel הֶבֶל is often translated as idol. Here are a few other passages that use the term in various ways:

RSV Job 7:16 I loathe my life; I would not live for ever. Let me alone, for my days are a breath.

RSV Psalm 39:11 When thou dost chasten man with rebukes for sin, thou dost consume like a moth what is dear to him; surely every man is a mere breath! 

RSV Psalm 62:9 Men of low estate are but a breath, men of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.

RSV Psalm 144:4 Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow. 

RSV Isaiah 30:7 For Egypt’s help is worthless and empty. 

RSV Isaiah 57:13 When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them off, a breath will take them away.   

RSV Proverbs 21:6 The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.

And, for what it’s worth, הֶבֶל hebel  is the name of Cain’s brother.

Professor Davis has researched this term extensively and has concluded that its underlying meaning—including its meaning in Ecclesiastes—is vaporous or something akin to that idea.

The basic concept is of something that is ephemeral.

And that drastically changes the way much of Ecclesiastes comes across—from being sort of a downer (“All is vanity” or whatever), to being hopeful and realistic (“All these things are ephemeral, they won’t last”), pointing (at least for Christian believers) toward the “city with foundations.”