Judaism vs Christianity on biblical inerrancy

I held as many as four part-time jobs at once to make ends meet the year I dropped out of seminary. One of those jobs was a teacher’s aid at Sunday school, and by “aid,” really all I did was pass out paper and crayons, snacks, and pulled grabby kids off each other. The actual teaching part was not my responsibility.

For kids five and under, there’s not a ton of theology to impart beyond reading from a colorful kid’s Bible. After snack time, the kids assembled themselves on the floor while the teacher sat in a chair and held up the book so everyone could admire the pictures. Starting at Genesis and working from there, the teacher prefaced every lesson with, “Now pay attention, boys and girls, because these stories are from the Bible, and every one of them actually happened.”

Perhaps my English degree is to blame for feeling uncomfortable by that assertion. Even in high school I learned the difference between true stories and stories that communicate truths. Though I’m far from a biblical scholar, I think most of the Bible stories fall into the latter category. It’s not a conflict for me to take the truths about God and about humanity from a literary piece while accepting that the story itself may not have happened exactly as it’s written. The exception would be the stories about Jesus, whom even secular historians believe was a real person. If he was truly God in the flesh, then it’s not hard to believe at all that he calmed a storm and rose from the dead.

For some of my atheist friends, the stones of future deconversion were laid when they were taught at a young age that every Bible story was literally true. More often than not, the first stone overturned was the story of creation when presented with evolution facts in science classes. And in many sects, if one part of the Bible is proven untrue, then the whole thing falls apart.

I don’t share that ideology. There are a myriad of genres from Genesis to Revelation, all functioning as puzzle pieces of a larger story.

In my Jewish Study Bible, which I still refer to often in my personal study, there are footnotes that say many rabbinic scholars doubt that this battle took place, that archeological evidence doesn’t support this exodus. But these admissions have not shattered Judaism. If anything, they help it thrive because there is never a shortage of debate and discussion to have about the ancient history of its ancestors.

I would so much rather be a people of the Book than a people of the Facts. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that Judaism, historically speaking, has not needed every word of the texts to be literally true in order to learn from them.


7 thoughts on “Judaism vs Christianity on biblical inerrancy

  1. Hi Beth

    This comes from the Talmudic dictum ,when there are two or more divergent interpretations of scriptures, but which however poles apart are still valid. It goes “Eilu v’eilu divray elohim chaim hen – both these and these are the words of the living God.”

    This is true of the Talmud itself. There is one section which says Job did not exist and it was written by Moses to discuss theodicy. There is a another part , which goes to several pages adamant that Job was a real person. There’s also a nod to sympathy with Satan(not the same concept as the devil) having to do an almost impossible task.

    I also think that the two people dialectic way we study the Torah helps to reinforce to us that no one holds the absolute truth and the Hebrew Bible /Talmud/Rabbinic literature isn’t up to one person’s interpretation , which is why the Torah was given to and accepted by a whole nation, not a prophet or a demigod . And in a secular sense, I think this is why studying and debating isn’t a big problem for Jewish people.

    Then there’s Midrash , which my Christian friends just don’t get, but which I find enhances my understanding of the Hebrew bible no end .

    I suggested that Christians could do with Midrash e.g. as it epiphany now, what happened to the wise men, what were their names? The suggestion didn’t go down well…

    Liked by 3 people

      • Hi Beth

        Well quite. The bit where I get miffed is when evangelical Christians seemingly “mark” what I write on my own bible as a Jew , as if they’ve got an unruly pupil who needs to be corrected by their better standards. I try, but I cannot grasp how evangelical Christians read the bible verses how Jews do. And I’m not a liberal or reform Jew, so it’s not a “liberal ” verses “conservative” theological outlook.


  2. Fred Clark at Slacktivist has talked about this from time to time: the difference between a theology which studies the implications of Jonah’s attitude toward the Ninevites and the way God deals with him, vs. a theology which says that the proper way to deal with the book of Jonah is to arm yourself to insist to anyone who doubts that a human being could so survive for three days inside a fish.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Inerrancy, as practiced by too many evangelicals, is a fortress built on sand. I think your distinction between “true stories and stories that communicate truths” is vital and needs to be re-introduced into broader Christian discussions of the Bible.

    An excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

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