There are a large number of Christians who think that the Bible is inerrant and infallible because it was inspired by their god, similar to the way that Muslims think that the Koran must be 100% correct because their god directly dictated it to their prophet.
This of course poses some problems because there seem to be some clear contradictions between different parts of the Bible. When I was an undergraduate, I was a believing Christian but not a biblical literalist and some of us used to have a little fun at the expense of a local evangelical preacher by asking him to explain certain obvious contradictions in the four different versions of Jesus’s life told in the four Gospels and then watching him twist himself up in knots to try and show how they were all in fact consistent when the plain words showed otherwise.
But that does raise the question of why those contradictions exist at all and were allowed to enter into the scriptures. After all, we know that these documents were transcribed from earlier oral traditions and copied multiple times by scribes who sometimes made alterations in the texts. Why didn’t the writers of the various texts or the people who put the documents together remove these contradictions?
In a review of the book A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book by John Barton in the November 2019 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Christopher Beha writes that the goal of those who put together these compilations was not to create a document that represented a coherent theology that was free of contradictions and inconsistencies that could be defended by literalists but merely to serve as an archive of existing knowledge. Writing things down and putting the documents together in a book was a means of preserving documents for posterity.
Composed by (or revealed to) a single person over the course of twenty years, the Qur’an is internally coherent and remarkably consistent in tone and intention; while it does have some narrative elements, it is first and foremost “a guidance to the God-fearing,” as an early sura puts it. By comparison, one of the most striking features of the Hebrew Bible is its variation. It contains verse and prose, legal writing and storytelling. Mythological accounts of prehistoric times share space with passages that clearly aim to meet the standards of documentary historiography, at least as it was understood in the ancient world. Some books are what we might now consider short novels, fairly realistic and coherent narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends, recounting incidents from the lives of obviously imagined characters with little in the way of divine intervention. The Song of Songs is an anthology of erotic poetry that makes no mention of God and would surely be treated as thoroughly secular in any other context. The Book of Job and Qoheleth (known to Christians as Ecclesiastes) advance worldviews sharply divergent from the mainstream of Jewish and Christian belief. All of this is perhaps to be expected from a collection of works written over the course of a thousand years, but in some places, particularly in books that are the product of redaction, inconsistencies crop up from verse to verse. This feature of the Bible is apparent from the very beginning: the first and second chapters of Genesis provide two differing accounts of the creation.
Modern skeptics point to these moments to undermine the Bible’s authority, though all they really undermine is a particular and relatively recent way of reading the Bible: as an inerrant work of historical truth. Clearly the Torah’s earliest editors were aware of its discrepancies, which must not have been a cause of great embarrassment, or else they would have been corrected at a time when the “official” version of these texts was still unsettled. Far from cleaning up such problems, these scribes actually introduced them in the process of combining competing narratives. To Barton, this suggests that the Torah was meant as a kind of archive, designed “to ensure that no piece of tradition got lost.” Adding a narrative thread to the scroll was the only reliable way to preserve it, and there was no reason that it had to be perfectly reconciled with any other thread. (Similarly, the literary critic and biblical translator Robert Alter has suggested that the primary criterion for the canonization of such heterodox books as Job and Qoheleth must have been their literary quality.)
That kind of explanation of biblical contradictions makes a lot more sense than the pretzel logic invoked by the literalists to imply that they don’t exist. But it will never be congenial for those whose religious faith is inextricably linked to the idea that the Bible is inerrant.