Harris’ Bible Contradictions Chart: A study in deconstruction

About two years ago, Fast Company pushed out a piece via their twitter feed provocatively called  “Infographic: What the Bible Got Wrong.” Now, why Fast Company, a secular business publication, would have any interest in describing the chart as, “[managing] to make an ancient text — over which men have fought wars and women have sacrificed babies — look downright silly.” is beyond reasonable comprehension. However, the power of visualizations like this is important to note in our present day, media driven society.

The chart cited originates from Sam Harris’ Project Reason site and has elicited plenty of conversation.  As an initial observation, the chart is an excellent example of simplifying a complex argument through a graphic representation. On first glance the chart is overwhelming, it appears to demonstrate massive contradictions across the 66 books of Christian Scripture. Most of my atheist friends I have pointed to this chart, and one had it specially framed and put on their office wall. This chart has found new life on the site: bibviz.com.

The chart also is a good representation of how a provocative issue, like errors in the Bible or anything about “rethinking” Jesus, can sell like umbrellas in a rainstorm.

However, as we  take a closer look at the chart and don’t get overwhelmed by its possible implications we see there is not much beyond the flashy graphic.

After adopting their work from another person (which came out two years prior to Harris’ chart,) Harris’ chart attempts to immediately shock the cursory glance by suggesting that there are such insurmountable contradictions within the Bible that they should stun any believer or non-believer to think the Bible is coherent, honest, or valid. Of course, this is the point of this wildly erroneous infographic.

So in evaluating the graphic we begin by noting several of its features:

1. The chart is broken up into several parts that are all important: the arching lines are the most prominent, but also below the lines are the various chapters of the entire 66 books of the accepted Christian Bible measured according to their verse length, then below this top half of the chart is a numbered list of the 439 Bible contradictions, finally some bottom information which is essential to understanding the chart.

2. Now, the amount of lines on the graphic exceeds 439 lines.

3. As well, there is little evidence that any of the arching lines in the above chart correspond to the contradictions listed. As a result, the force of the graphic is unrelated to the contradictions below. Since multiple references occur for different numbered contradictions, there is little way of showing how these have worked themselves out graphically in a singularly colored chart.

4. You’ll note on the bottom left hand corner of the chart Harris’ group points out that the biblical translation they are using is the King James Version only. Since it “The King James Bible was used due to its popularity, perceived authenticity, lack of copyright restrictions and the fact that it has not been subjected to cosmetic editing, as have some of the more modern versions of the Bible.”

This is a compelling statement that should immediately discredit their work. The last update of the King James Version was in 1769. Since 1769 the amount of credible, peer reviewed, academically recognized biblical studies research that has occurred is the same amount of difference of the scientific worldview from 1769 to the present. The Dead Sea Scrolls were unknown, the Critical Text was unknown, Ugaritic was unknown, archeological studies were in their infancy, the list can go on and on.

As a result it is highly disingenuous and discrediting for Harris’ group to suggest that the 1769 KJV is the best text since all the contemporary versions have been “cosmetically edited.” Suffice to say, the “editing” in the contemporary versions isn’t cosmetic, it is rigorously backed, highly research multi-disciplinary updating.

5. The list of 439 contradictions (expanded to 464 on the bibviz.com site) is actually not a list of contradictions. It instead contains a host of perceived errors, scientific inaccuracy, sexual discrimination, unresolved questions, and other issues that Harris’ group find to be on contradiction not always to the Bible, but to their worldview primarily.

6. As one begins to evaluate these “contradictions” it becomes clear that the vast majority are easily dismissed and have been dismissed by competent, credible scholarship.

For instance, here’s one taken at random: #48 Did Jesus Baptize Anyone? Of the texts given (which correspond to entries from the Skeptics Annotated Bible) are not actually in contradiction or show any discrepancy. Instead, the narrative as the Gospel of John records it, there is a clarification given on 4:2 (which clearly was only a paragraph or two later in the original texts) that explains 3:22 in that Jesus was overseeing the baptism carried out by His disciples.

Other examples abound within the chart. (I’ll anticipate responding to a few more later this week, however I do not simply have the time to respond to all right now.)

Upon closer investigation, even without the aids of competent scholarship, most of the “contradictions” are easily resolved by a plain text reading of Scripture using basic hermeneutical principles that most lay people are familiar with.

Ultimately what we are left with in Harris’ chart is a stunning graphic that has no basis. Yet the atheistic response seems to attempt to build a fortress upon this weak ground.

Others have responded to this and poor texts like Dennis McKinsey’s ill fated Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy. A couple of good examples are Norm Geisler’s Big Book of Bible Difficulties and Gleason Archer’s New International Encyclopedia of Bible DifficultiesOther resources abound though the scholarly consensus is that the vast majority of these 469 contradictions aren’t actual challenges to the Bible. This isn’t to say there are difficult spots within the biblical text, but it is, instead, to point out how rejected these tired new atheist arguments are in the broader academic circles.

Tomorrow, I’ll go through a discussion the Bible study group I lead had about this chart and how we can practically lead our people to see poor argumentation for what it truly is and then believe stronger.