Harmonization by Omission
Is the Bible the inerrant Word of God? Would God allow contradictions in his inspired message to us? If you are a Christian, you can safely assume that a loving God would not, so how do we explain the many contradictions that are in the Bible? Or – apparent contradictions, as my former Fundamentalist self would say. Consider these two separate accounts of the death of Judas, by two separate authors:
Now when morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus to put Him to death; and they bound Him, and led Him away and delivered Him to Pilate the governor. Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to that yourself!” And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself. Matthew 27:1-5 (NASB)
At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. “For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out). Acts 1:15-18 (NASB)
So Matthew has Judas hanging himself. Acts has Judas falling and gruesomely spewing his intestines. Is this a contradiction? Nope. Not if you are hell-bent on harmonizing contradictory passages like these to make the Bible inerrant. To harmonize these passages you can do either one of two things:
The first tactic is what I call ‘Harmonization by Omission’. That is, when two passages contradict each other with different accounts, you claim that they both really happened, but each has omitted some crucial detail and is only telling part of the story. Why different authors would only tell different halves of the same story is beyond me, but we just chalk that up to a mystery known only to the Mind of God, and press forward. A simple search through Fundamentalist websites on these two verses will show us this tactic being used to full effect. For instance, here is one attempt to put the jigsaw together:
Matthew 27:5 tells us that Judas died by hanging himself. Acts 1:18 tells us that Judas fell onto some rocks and his body burst open. Is there a contradiction here?
No. Both accounts are true. Apparently Judas first hanged himself. Then, at some point, the rope either broke or loosened so that his body slipped from it and fell to the rocks below and burst open. (Some have suggested that Judas didn’t do a very good job of tying the noose.) Neither account alone is complete. Taken together, we have a full picture of what happened to Judas.
See how this works? We just combine two contradictory accounts into one story, and say that each separate account is incomplete, even though both had to happen to keep the Bible inerrant. Using this technique also comes in handy for explaining away the contradictions of Peter’s Denial of Jesus stories (you have to have Peter denying Jesus up to 9 times), the Cleansing of the Temple stories (Jesus had to cleanse the temple of moneychangers twice) and don’t even get me started on the contradictions in the Resurrection of Jesus stories (I have heard people claim that Jesus had to ascend to heaven and descend back to earth up to 3 separate times in order to harmonize the contradictions of the Resurrection stories in the Gospels).
The second tactic is to do what Fundamentalists claim that they do, and take the Bible literally. In this case, just interpret it as two accounts from two different authors, probably based on hearsay, tradition or oral folklore. Thus you have two similar, but contradictory accounts. That’s it. Pretty simple if you ask me. The problem is that God, who inspired the Scriptures, is completely removed from the picture, and the doctrine of inerrancy is brought into doubt.
But really, which scenario is more likely? Which is the simpler explanation? Which requires the least amount of creativity, presumption and text manipulation?
If you decide to choose the Harmonization by Omission Tactic, as every inerrantist ultimately must, the problem is actually worse than I made it out to be. You see, there is another contradiction in the two passages besides how Judas died. Matthew has Judas scatter the 30 pieces of silver, the price for his betrayal, into the temple sanctuary. Acts has the money, called the price of his wickedness, being used by Judas to purchase a field. This is yet another contradiction, so how do we use the Harmonization by Omission Tactic to solve this? Yikes – we have two separate contradictions in the same passages of Scripture! This calls for all the harmonization creativity that we can muster.
Let’s try. Did Judas actually purchase the property at a ridiculous discount so that rounded up he still has the same amount of money to scatter into the sanctuary? Was Judas such a scoundrel that he purchased the property with the ransom money immediately after betraying Jesus, steal it back from the seller sometime the next Passover morning, then hang himself on the property causing the rope to break and scatter his pilfered coins? Did Judas actually purchase the property from a seller who was in the sanctuary when her heard the news that Judas had hung himself, broke the rope and spewed his intestines on the property, which startled the seller so that he scattered the money in the sanctuary when he learned of Judas hanging himself, thus making Judas the indirect cause of the scattered money?
Yes, those are preposterous harmonizations. But can you think of a better explanation to keep the Bible inerrant? Go ahead and try it. Use your imagination because the sky’s the limit when using the Harmonization by Omission tactic. Mine are no more preposterous than some other explanations that I found on the internet. Let’s try this one:
But weaving together the two fuller accounts it appears that what really happened was that when the priests rejected the money Judas threw it down in the temple and then went out and hanged himself. After his suicide such disgrace was attached to him that no friends or relatives came to care for the body and that it had to be buried at public expense. The priests remembered that his money had been brought back, that it could not be put into the treasury since it was blood money; and now that his body needed burial they were appropriately decided to use the money to buy a burial ground, the very field in which he had committed suicide. Therefore, he is said to have obtained a field with the reward of his iniquity,–not that he personally bought it, but that it was purchased with his money and he was buried in it.
See what I mean? Do you see the pretzels the inerrantist must be willing to twist into to keep these passages harmonized? So is it easier to believe these admittedly contrived harmonizations to keep the Bible inerrant? Or do we admit that we have two similar, but contradictory accounts written two different men based on hearsay, tradition or oral folklore?
And if so, what does inspiration and inerrancy even mean?