Okay. Something weightier.
I was raised to believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and is inerrant, infallible. I’d run across difficult passages, but there was always at least a plausible explanation to make it believable.
So about a year ago, I’m reading along in Luke, and I come across the following passage:
Now when He concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.”
Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick.
Luke 7 : 1–10 (NKJV)
Now, I’d read this story many times before, but the version I had read was somewhat different. So, making good use of the handy cross-reference in the inter-column margin, I flipped over to the account of the same story in Matthew:
Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.”
And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour.
Matthew 8 : 5–13 (NKJV)
There’s a pretty major difference between these two accounts, and it stems from the fact that in the Matthew account, Jesus speaks directly with the centurion, whereas Luke clearly describes the centurion as refusing to speak directly with Him, out of respect.
Now, the usual explanation for differences such as these is that it was common to gloss over the details in historical accounts, and to make statements that are true only directly. This is the same argument that gets applied to the difference between the accounts of the Legion of demons, where one account said Jesus encountered a demoniac, and another account says Jesus encountered two (jointly possessed by the Legion). And it seems to be true (though in the specific case of the demoniacs, I’m skeptical); people seem to have expected a certain amount of simplification as still acceptably true. So, if Jesus spoke to the centurion only indirectly through his friends, it’s still true to say “Jesus said to the centurion,” or “the centurion said to Jesus,” in the same sense that I can be telling the truth when I say “I gave the papers to Mr Smith”, when in actuality I left them with Mr Smith’s assistant.
But as I read the Matthew passage, I realized that, even with this consideration, they still don’t quite match up. The major problem is the next-to-last sentence of the Matthew account:
Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.”
This phrase doesn’t make any sense unless it was said directly. If the “to the centurion” bit had been left out, you could make a case that this phrase he was actually directing at the friends. But it specifically says he was speaking to the centurion. And it’s a phrase that makes perfect sense in the Matthew account.
But in taking the Luke account into consideration, it makes no sense at all. Would you tell your pal Sam’s wife, “Tell Sam to go on his way, and I’ll take care of it,” when Sam is sitting inside his house? “Go your way” is something you only say in parting, to someone with whom you are speaking directly.
My dad (a pastor) put forth the explanation that the centurion, being frazzled by the plight of his beloved servant, might have been subject to sudden changes of mind, and at the last minute, come out to Jesus in the very end, whereupon Jesus actually directed that sentence to the centurion.
While this is technically feasible, it seems like an awfully big stretch. It’s also entirely inconsistent with Luke’s portrayal of the man, who was so humble, and who esteemed Jesus so much that he proclaimed himself a man so unworthy that he shouldn’t even go to speak directly with him—and went out of his way twice to prevent doing so. What would make a man who a moment ago had made such a grand statement, change his mind on a whim and say, “aw, what the heck,” and go out to him anyway?
And thus began the first steps of my journey in really questioning the reliability of the Bible.
Update: more examples and more-detailed explanation of my progression from believer to unbeliever are given in the recent post, Lost Credibility.