Over at her blog Think Divinely, Christian apologist Lisa Quintana has a post entitled “Odd Verses that Authenticate the Bible.” At its heart, it is an attempt to briefly explain why the hard parts of the Bible – purported contradictions, embarrassing stories, etc – actually demonstrate the Bible’s validity. She includes a number of examples: the lackluster history of Israel, Jesus’ seemingly failed prophecy that his return would come in the generation of the disciples, and more. She then writes,
These are just a few of the odd, embarrassing, or seemingly contradictory statements, that are in the Bible. It makes a great case for the historical reliability of the transmission of these ancient texts. I mean, if anyone wanted to change this stuff (the problematic parts of Scripture) over the centuries, they certainly could have. Nonetheless, these verses were unchanged and because of that, it makes a great case for the accurate transmission of the original wording of the Bible (with the exception of a few spelling errors, or flipped numbers, here and there).
This is a rather simplistic take on the issue and it really doesn’t get to the reliability of the Bible itself, merely its transmission. Nevertheless, let’s consider the question of why a scribe or a redactor might include seemingly contradictory information within a text. We don’t have to go far in the Bible to find just such a thing.
Two Visions of Creation
The opening chapter of the Torah is a creation myth. It involves Elohim, a plural form of El, the high god of the Canaanite pantheon. Within the narrative, Elohim is the transcendent creator who can simply speak the world into existence and does so in six days. He creates plant life on day three, animal life on days five and six, and humanity – both male and female – on day six as well. Elohim makes them in his image and gives this the responsibility of ruling over all he had made.
There is a second creation myth that begins in Genesis 2:4b. There, instead of Elohim, we read of Yahweh Elohim and his creative acts. Rather than taking six days to make the world, Yahweh Elohim takes just one. And whereas Elohim spoke the world into existence, Yahweh Elohim is more hands on. Before plants were created, Yahweh Elohim takes dirt from the ground and uses it to mold a man just as a pottery might use clay to mold a vessel. And he breathes into the nostrils of the man to bring him to life. He then creates plant life including the tree of life and the three of the knowledge of good and evil. When Yahweh Elohim notices that the man was alone and that it was not good for him, he then creates animal life and, upon finding no suitable mate for him, he puts the man to sleep and extracts a rib from which he creates a woman.
The version of the creation story in Genesis 1 is different from the version in Genesis 2. Why? Because they come from two different sources. The version of Genesis 1 came from a priest who wanted to make sure people had a healthy and respectful view of the God of Israel. He was transcendent and wholly other. And it was this God who established the sabbath day of rest upon completing the creation of the world. The version we see in Genesis 2:4b is from an author who sees God in somewhat more personal terms and whose name isn’t simply Elohim but Yahweh. Yahweh Elohim is a God who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
So why does the book of Genesis contain two very different accounts of the creation story? Why didn’t the compiler of the Torah leave one or the other account out altogether? Because both accounts were likely seen as important and authoritative to people. They were each sacred versions held to by different groups of Jews. So the compiler puts them together, side-by-side, warts and all.
If a redactor of texts was willing to include two contradictory accounts then we shouldn’t be surprised that a scribe didn’t alter those texts considerably. Why would he? He would have likely viewed what he was transcribing and copying as sacred, warts and all. This doesn’t mean that those texts are true, merely that they were viewed as true (or at least important).