The three great monotheistic faiths are what are commonly referred to as religions of “the book” — that is, people who adhere to texts that they believe to be inspired. For Muslims it is the Koran, for the Jewish people the Torah, and for Christians, of course, it is the Bible. For the Catholic faith, we are not technically a religion “of the book,” because we also have Sacred Tradition and magisterial teaching, but the Bible is obviously of central importance, and we profess it to be truly the word of God.
One of the age-old and tired criticisms of the Bible is that it is filled with contradictions, and if a critic did their homework, they could really make an uneducated Christian scratch his/her head. The examples of supposed contradictions are numerous. The one that comes to mind as I sit writing this is from the lips of Jesus himself. In Matthew, Jesus says, “… Whoever says ‘you fool’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22). Later in the same Gospel, Jesus calls the Pharisees “blind fools” (Matthew 23:17). I am not going to do a full explanation on this example, because I actually have written about it in the past when addressing literal interpretations of the Bible. Suffice it to say we Catholics are not fundamentalists: everything must be taken in context.
In the scriptures things can certainly appear to be contradictory, but truth cannot contradict truth. The actual truths that the Bible transmits cannot contradict one another. A critic can easily take a chapter and verse out of context and create an apparent contradiction, but everything must be read in context.
Here is an example of the importance of context: Six different times in the Gospels, Jesus tells his followers that if they want to be his disciple they must pick up their crosses and follow him. If you go to Mass or even occasionally read the Bible, this should be a pretty familiar line. And yet in the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says something that, although comforting, seems to be completely contradictory to the whole cross-carrying thing. Again, this should be a pretty familiar line when Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:29-30).
On the face of it, this might seem like Gospel whiplash! Which is it, Jesus? Carry the heavy load of the cross or share your light burden? It is all about context! Our need to carry our crosses daily to follow Jesus stands on its own, but we need to know what happens right after his comment about the easy yoke. This comforting line from Jesus sets up the next scene in Matthew, when Jesus and the Apostles are walking through a field of grain. While they are walking through the field, they are plucking heads of grain to eat them as a snack. Pharisees appear on the scene and scold them for doing this “work” on the Sabbath, which was not permitted.
The Pharisees, as you might know, were a type of “church police” in ancient Israel, doing all they could to make sure that the 613 commands of the Torah were being adhered to. Many of these commands were very burdensome, such as not being able to walk more than three quarters of a mile on a Saturday (a Sabbath day’s journey) or cook meat and dairy products together, and hundreds more.
The Pharisees made darn sure that the burdensome laws were even more of a burden. In advance of this scene Jesus in essence is telling the reader that he would get rid of all these difficult laws that caused such grief to the people of Israel. The yoke he would offer is easy because he would reduce the 613 commands to two.
The two commands of the Torah that Jesus retains are, first, to love God with our whole being and, second, to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we follow these two commands we don’t need any others, not even the Ten Commandments. Because if we love God with our whole being we don’t need a command to tell us to keep holy the Sabbath. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we don’t need a command telling us not to steal from them or bear false witness about them.
There is no contradiction here. We must, indeed, pick up our crosses daily and follow Jesus if we want to be his disciples. All the while, his yoke is easy because he lightens the load of the 613 commands of the Torah down to two. Truth cannot contradict truth; it’s all about context. Never fall for the Bible critic’s claim that the Bible is full of contradictions, because it is not.
Here is the other commentary to which Father Kunst refers in the above reflection.
‘Fundamentally’ Different Interpretations of the Bible
Fr. Richard Kunst
Are you saved? Have you taken Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?
These are common questions from Pentecostals and evangelicals who often have a fundamentalist, that is literal, interpretation of the Bible. We as Catholics are not fundamentalists; we do not take the Bible literally, at least not as fundamentalists do.
There is a far deeper meaning to the Scriptures than what is simply face value. As a matter of fact, to interpret the Bible overly literally causes serious problems when reading the Word of God.
But first a teaser; If we truly took a strict literal interpretation of the Scriptures, we would have to come to the conclusion that Jesus is in hell. Keep reading for the explanation.
There are so many examples as to why we cannot take the Bible literally that it is dizzying, but to make the point, I want to tell of a run-in I once had with a fundamentalist. Earlier in my priesthood, I was visiting some patients in a local hospital when out of the blue a man stepped up to me and angrily asked if I were a priest. Since I was wearing my clerics, I figured the gentleman was not the brightest. After I affirmed that I was, he proceeded to go on a tirade against me and the church for calling priests “father,” when Jesus clearly states in the Bible that we are to call no one on earth our father (Matthew 23:9).
After asking me to give an explanation for this terrible gaffe of Catholicism, I told him that I would answer him only after he responded to my question. I then asked him to explain to me why he still had his two eyes, since Jesus clearly said that if your eye causes you to sin you have to gouge it out (Matthew 5:29). The man then walked away even more angry.
As a wise bishop once told me, sometimes there is nothing as stubborn as a fact, a quote from President John Adams.
As Catholics, we know that much of the Bible, and especially the Gospels, deals in facts. But we cannot, as this angry man seemed to do, make ourselves out to be the authoritative voice. There are tens of thousands of fundamentalist preachers in the United States alone, all of them claiming to interpret the Bible literally. But it would be silly to believe that every single one of them interprets the Bible in the same exact way. So what good would it be to have an infallible book with so many fallible interpreters? The Catholic Church alone has the authority to interpret the Bible, since it was God who chose the Catholic Church to produce the Bible.
Here is a small sampling of other Scripture passages that make it very difficult to be a true fundamentalist. First, there are two different accounts of the creation story in Genesis. Someone who takes the Bible literally is forced to choose which one is the correct one. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds (Matthew 13:31). But we know that the mustard seed is no the smallest of all seeds, so was Jesus wrong? Of course not. Jesus was not making a statement about botany, but about faith. If we were fundamentalist, we would have to admit that Jesus was indeed wrong. For science has proof that there are smaller seeds than the mustard seed.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead” (Luke (9:60). If we took the Bible literally, there would be a lot of unburied corpses lying around.
Here is another great example from Luke: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Do the people who take the Bible literally really hate their entire family? Does Jesus want us to hate our family? And how about Jesus calling that certain man in our life “father,” as he does in this passage when he states elsewhere that we can’t do that?
And how about the famous passage of it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God? (Luke 18:25 and Matthew 19:24).
Again, no one has the right to pick and choose what he or she wants to interpret literally. This small sampling makes it impossible to be a true literalist as many fundamentalists claim. And now for the teaser. A fundamentalist has to believe Jesus is in hell. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls the Pharisees “blind fools” (Matthew 24:17). But wait, did Jesus forget that eighteen chapters earlier he said, “Anyone who calls another a fool shall be liable to the hell fire” (Matthew 5:22)?
The Bible itself calls the bluff of a strict fundamentalist interpretation. We have to realize that the Bible is much deeper than what we simply see on the printed page. The Scriptures are alive, the living Word of God. The fundamentalist approach is more like “you only get what you see.”