Monday, October 27, 2014

Gay political values examined in 'Homocons' by Richard Goldstein

Originally published in 2002 as The Attack Queers, Homocons: The Rise of the Gay Right (2003) pinpoints how the American liberal press employs conservative gay pundits to attack queer culture. While some of the specific legislative struggles are dated, the examination of political values remains relevant even a decade later.

What is the "gay right," and what are "homocons" or "attack queers"?

The phrase "Gay Right" in the book's subtitle refers not to legal rights but rather to the political right-wing. The word "homocon," it goes without saying in the book, is a play on the popular term "neo-con" meaning a new kind of American political conservative. Homocons identify as individuals who happen to be homosexual and want other gay people to do the same. They do not like the idea of a queer tribe, a network of social and political communities. Homocons separate from gay culture and their words seek to undermine the politics and values that are commonly found in this culture. They identify with their oppressors; their words may be tainted with racism and sexism.

The book focuses on the nasties author Richard Goldstein calls "attack queers" who are employed in the liberal press to "police the sexual order." These people argue for a tepid version of gay rights: gay individuals should have "a place at the table" at the price of their assimilation. This idea can carry the insinuation that only an elite "talented tenth" of avowed homosexuals (a select group that always implicitly includes the speaker) should be accepted in polite society while the rest of the queer community should be excluded if they cannot perform or conform. The attack queers get away with blanket criticisms of gay culture and less privileged gay or transgender individuals by virtue of their own homosexuality. The liberal press seems to love the spectacle and sometimes even agrees with the conservative message.

Goldstein homes in on "attack queer" personalities Andrew Sullivan and Camille Paglia in detail. He also briefly calls out Norah Vincent for dissing transsexuals and Michelangelo Signorile for outing other gay men.

Attack queers may argue that other gay people are too dirty - or not dirty enough, depending on the puritan value du jour. According to Goldstein's analysis, Sullivan inveighed against "libidinal pathology" and "meaningless promiscuity" until he was caught in a sex scandal and reversed his position, saying that gay men ought to acknowledge their innate promiscuity; he also denied that gay people were subject to any significant job discrimination. Paglia, meanwhile, complained that "so much lesbian sex is mommy-huggy-kissy" and said that rape victims should stop whining about their psychological suffering.

Political ideas

Homocons in general tend to promote libertarian ideas. For homocons, Goldstein explains, "gay rights have nothing to do with social justice and everything to do with getting the government off your back." Thus they're interested in promoting same-sex marriage and ending discrimination in the military even if their personal goals do not include marriage or military service. Leftists, on the other hand, do not always support campaigns for marriage and military service because these institutions are sometimes seen as reinforcing social status rather than promoting social justice. The author, for the record, supports increased rights so people can choose how they wish to live, even if they do not wish to avail themselves of certain options. He recognizes that actual gay people tread in ambiguous territory of "feel[ing] normal and different." Goldstein made an analogy between gay identity and Jewish identity, where the forces of assimilation, at least in the United States, have historically aimed for middle ground: don't be flamingly Other but don't ape the dominant culture to such an extent that you are obviously false.

Image: © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikimedia Commons.

Goldstein believes that American gay culture has been based on community, but that this community is constructed (as opposed to being an essential part of being gay) and could disappear if it is not nurtured. Part of gay culture is a historical association with progressive politics which developed because of
"the marriage (if you will) between bohemanism and socialism more than a century ago. This heady union begat a sensibility...The ability to make connections between sexual repression and social oppression is a signature of the democratic left..."
While many gay individuals might otherwise be drawn to conservatism, they tend to feel tradition-bound to the left. This is not a bad thing, in Goldstein's opinion, particularly as it continues to be the case that American liberal politics "welcomes our company and supports our fight for civil rights" while conservative politics "is willing to grant us the basic entitlements of citizenship, at most."

How the defanging of anti-sodomy laws changed the book's message

Goldstein has worked as a journalist covering "sex, culture, and politics" since the 1960s. His short insta-book Attack Queers/Homocons became partially obsolete shortly after its publication when the Supreme Court overturned "sodomy laws" (the criminalization of gay sex) in Lawrence v. Texas. This probably explains why the book was promptly reissued under a new title with an "Afterword" acknowledging the sea change. There Goldstein credited a half-century of queer activism that enabled the Supreme Court to simply acknowledge "a changing social reality."

Sodomy laws, in place in 13 U.S. states when the book was written, had caused some gay people to fear the loss of their children or their profession if they were ever to be charged with the crime of having sex. Goldstein had written that American conservatives approved of sodomy laws mainly because they preserved the social stratification between straight people and gay people. (President George W. Bush, while campaigning to be governor of Texas, tellingly referred to sodomy laws as "a symbolic gesture of traditional values.") Goldstein worried that the end of sodomy laws could encourage stratification among gay people since "it does away with the laws that placed all sodomites in the same damnable boat," while the possible introduction of same-sex marriage could facilitate a new hierarchy among gay people by enabling them to differentiate between the married and the unmarried.

Lawrence v. Texas was decided in June 2003. Had Goldstein waited just five more months to hear the outcome of Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health — the case in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided in favor of same-sex marriage — one wonders how the Afterword might have changed. During the next decade, more states legalized same-sex marriage, until, in 2015, the right was extended to all 50 U.S. states through the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges. Through it all, the constitutional repeal of all sodomy laws remained in place; the military began to officially allow openly gay servicemembers; 21 states and the District of Columbia forbid employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and in most of these, protection also extends to gender identity and expression; and Florida ended its ban on the adoption of children by gay parents.

Today, Homocons reminds the reader — although the author could not have intended it — of how much the United States has achieved in one decade to defend people's rights regardless of their sexuality. Yet, in accordance with the author's intentions, it is also still relevant in its exhortations to avoid selective silence due to complacency and privilege.

This essay was originally posted to Helium Network on Oct. 22, 2011. Last updated Dec. 25, 2016.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The challenge of protecting ancient scrolls that are in high demand

Popularly known as "the Dead Sea Scrolls", they are a set of 900 manuscripts about two thousand years old. Most of the texts are in Hebrew; some are in Aramaic; a few are in Greek. Many of them are Biblical texts from the Second Temple era. Others are sectarian texts like the Book of War, the Community Rule, and the Nahum Commentary. The texts predate the New Testament of the Bible.

Originally posted to Helium Network on May 19, 2013.

As physical objects, they are extremely fragile. The first discovery of the scrolls occurred in 1947 when Bedouin shepherds following a stray goat in the Judaean Desert came across earthenware jars in a cave. Soon, the scrolls came into the possession of scholars. The scholars investigated additional caves in the area and found many more manuscripts. Most were in an extremely fragmented condition, so there were thousands of pieces to connect.

It was the "ultimate jigsaw puzzle," as Pnina Shor, head curator of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Project, put it at a lecture given at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass. in May 2013.

From the beginning, scholars used what they thought were the best preservative methods available. Unfortunately, some of the scroll fragments disintegrated because they were stuck to plates with various tapes and glues. These misguided attempts continued for decades. Today, conservators are forced to make painstaking efforts to remove the adhesive residue. Efforts related to preservation are determined by an international committee devoted to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This image of the War Scroll shows why preservationists work to protect ancient scrolls. Image by: Eric Matson of the Matson photo service, 21 May 2012. © Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.

Due to their age, some fragments are illegible to the naked eye. In the 1950s, when infrared technology was new, infrared photographs were taken to clarify the contrast of the aged ink on the parchment and papyrus scrolls. In the 1990s, spectral imaging was used for similar purposes. The most recent photography has been done with a 39-megapixel camera that creates images from 28 exposures on the visible and near-infrared spectrum. These photographs are posted online at The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. Digitizing the scrolls enables inquisitive people worldwide to examine the content without damaging the physical scrolls themselves.

Today, the scrolls are kept in a climate-controlled storeroom. Even when they travel for museum exhibitions, they must be stored in this kind of environment, protecting them against heat and humidity. Additionally, they must be showcased in a darkened room, since prolonged exposure to light causes them to deteriorate.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are an important piece of the religious history of Jews and Christians. The content doesn’t turn any received religious doctrines upside down and there were no conspiracies to cover up their revelations, as Prof. Gary A. Rendsburg assures in a lecture for The Teaching Company's "Great Courses" series, but the scrolls are nevertheless fascinating from a sober historical perspective. That is why so much attention is given to their physical preservation.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

For states, talking to rogue militants is a difficult choice

When a person is abducted and held hostage for ransom, or when a building or entire region is threatened with destruction, it can be tempting for would-be heroes to negotiate with the terrorists and comply with their demands to ensure that their civilian targets remain unharmed. One naturally wants to "talk down" an unstable person from committing rash acts, and thereby to save the day. However, that sort of unforeseeable opportunity for heroism should be distinguished from carefully planned, long-range negotiations. When a state knows that certain people are likely to commit crimes in the future, the state may choose various approaches in its interactions with them.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on July 9, 2006.

In the heat of the moment, saving the innocent at all costs – even by paying high ransoms, for example – may seem like the only moral thing to do. However, such altruism comes at a steep price. The payment conceded to one terrorist group may encourage others to extort similar concessions by the use of similar criminal acts. In other words, terrorists will learn that "crime pays." Saving one person's life by paying a ransom may therefore contribute to the abduction of ten more people in the future.

Furthermore, while an individual might be expected to quickly cave into the demands of a criminal, a government is expected to have sufficient military backing to stand firm in its positions even in the face of substantial pressure and threat of violence. A government that quickly retreats from a standoff with a small group of people may be perceived by other nations as weak, insecure, or incompetent. This may harm its foreign relations and future negotiations of all kinds.

A state has no need to negotiate with significantly weaker, more vulnerable terrorists – for example, lone, crazed gunmen or isolated cults. And although more threatening terrorist groups, such as organized militia, might actually rival the government's power, the government may still believe it is better off projecting an air of confidence and assuming that the militia will not call its bluff.

Refusing to talk to the enemy is a rational approach when one is certain one will win in the end. Of course, depending on the enemy's strength and influence, there is often a real possibility that the state could lose the battle, either militarily or ideologically, or at least not decisively win the battle through eradicating the enemy's presence. In that case, the state needs to consider how it can continue to thrive in a world where the enemy exists. That may involve talking to the enemy.

Image: Irish National Army soldiers sort through a post office destroyed by arson in Dublin. Image taken Nov. 5, 1922 and published in the Irish Times the next day. © No known copyright restrictions. National Library of Ireland on the Commons.

As Mitchell B. Reiss put it in Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists: "While there is no guarantee that talking to enemy states will promote a country's national interests, there is likewise no guarantee that not talking will do so. Not talking may be simply the stubborn residue of a failed policy. Some states cannot be isolated internationally, defeated militarily, or overthrown by domestic political forces. Keeping diplomatic distance from odious regimes may therefore not achieve a state's foreign policy objectives." Before Reiss wrote his book, he spoke to "elected officials, career civil servants, senior intelligence agents, military officers, and counterterrorism experts" who somehow managed to hold "two conflicting thoughts: Terrorists are evil and they may be part of the solution."

If the government knows that its population is at the mercy of a terrorist group distinctly more powerful than itself – for example, a group with multiple nuclear weapons – it may be more advantageous for the government and for the people it serves to engage in formal negotiations to deflect a major threat.

It makes a difference whether the situation is likely to repeat. This is illustrated through a well-known psychological exercise called the Prisoner's Dilemma, in which two people are put in separate rooms and given an opportunity to betray each other for possible gain. Betraying (called "defecting" within this exercise) is more likely to bring personal gain, and it has been deemed more "rational" insofar as rationality has traditionally been equated with greed that disregards obligations to others. However, if there are multiple iterations of the choice to cooperate or defect, and one does not know when these iterations will end – in other words, if the exercise is like real life, and people are in relationships of indefinite duration – it is risky to betray one's partner because the partner can easily return the injury on the next iteration. The same can apply to parties in long-term political negotiations.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed the question of how foreign policy can balance "practical" and "moral" obligations in her book The Mighty and the Almighty. The very idea of what it means for morality to be impractical or irrational is a separate, thorny question, but one that nevertheless affects political negotiations. Negotiators often feel they must balance "playing nice" or "being kind" with a set of aggressive, self-serving national goals. This is part of what makes negotiations so difficult.

Lastly, there is the simple question of how a state is certain that it is pursuing the right goals. Subjectively, people often feel it to be obvious that, if one has been victimized by terrorists, then naturally any response that happens to be desired is also morally justified and will have valuable results. But some people, including some victims of terrorism, have criticized this attitude as irrational and harmful. Nikki Stern, whose husband died in the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, wrote in Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority that individuals and governments need to beware of the idea that they are invested with infallible moral clarity that exempts them from having to provide justification for their beliefs and demands. Being the victim of terrorism is a painful experience, but pain does not confer "any sort of grief-related moral wisdom" and "it certainly doesn't confer expertise." When one incorrectly assumes that one has wisdom or expertise, it can lead to dangerous choices. She noted that "people who believe themselves in possession of the truth tend to believe they're also in possession of the moral authority to act on it."

Stern concluded that nations set the best example of moral leadership when they "pursue truth, justice, and fairness to the best of [their] ability while remaining aware of [their] fallibility." This is a wise reminder of humility for anyone who is tasked with confronting a terrible force.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Thomas Edison: Hard work, focus and innate talent is the recipe for success

Orison Swett Marden interviewed Thomas Alva Edison and published the result as "An Inspiring Talk with Thomas Alva Edison". Originally posted to Helium Network on Sept. 23, 2012.

The American motivational author Orison Swett Marden, founder of Success Magazine, did not have an appointment with inventor Thomas Alva Edison when he decided to interview him in 1902. Rather, he stealthily "camped three weeks in the vicinity of Orange, N. J., awaiting the opportunity to come upon the great inventor and voice my questions."

After persistently ringing the bell at Edison's laboratory, Marden was eventually welcomed inside, where he noticed "one of the most costly and well-equipped scientific libraries in the world." (An amateur video of Edison's library, posted to the Internet in 2010, gives a sense of what Marden saw. Edison was to tell Marden, "I never was much for saving money, as money. I devoted every cent, regardless of future needs, to scientific books and materials for experiments.")

A young assistant slipped Marden's card under the door where Edison, then 55, was working. At this point in his life, Edison had about 600 patents and 300 outstanding patent applications, or so he was to tell Marden. Soon, Edison appeared in "sooty, oil-stained clothes," asking, "Want to see me?" with a smile.

The resulting interview was published as "An Inspiring Talk with Thomas Alva Edison" in 1903 by The Success Company.

Edison recounted that his family had come from Holland to America in 1730 and that he was born in Erie County, Ohio in 1847. After attempting to read through the hundreds of pages of Isaac Newton's "Principia Mathematica" when he was only eleven years old, he understandably became disinterested in mathematics. At 12, he started a newspaper, the Grand Trunk Herald, which he distributed from the Grand Trunk Railroad. He also "fitted up a small laboratory on the train" to explore chemistry, but when he broke a bottle of sulfuric acid, the conductor hit him on the ear, leaving him partially deaf for the rest of his life.

Edison learned telegraphy, taught to him by a station-master who was grateful that Edison had pulled his boy from the path of an oncoming train. The railroad then employed Edison as a telegrapher. Too imaginative for his own good, Edison modified his telegraphy machines and pulled pranks until the railroad sent him to Canada for a winter as punishment. Later, he invented a device that allowed telegraphers to pre-record their messages.

In 1869, he patented a machine that politicians could use to record votes, but as it would have prevented political minorities from filibustering, the Legislature did not want to use it. Edison learned "to be sure of the practical need of, and demand for, a machine, before expending time and energy on it." He turned instead to improve the printers relied upon by Wall Street, and he earned $40,000 for this invention.

Marden asked Edison whether his talent was inborn or developed. Edison responded that he believed inventors are born with their gift. "Some people may be perfectly familiar with a machine all their days, knowing it inefficient, and never see a way to improve it," he explained. Furthermore, he said that while his invention of the phonograph came "indirectly through accident," all others were the result of "trial after trial" and long hours of intense focus on problem-solving.

"When it is all done and is a success," he said of his work, "I can't bear the sight of it. I haven't used a telephone in ten years, and I would go out of my way any day to miss an incandescent light."

Image of an incandescent bulb taken by Stefan Krause, Germany.
© Free Art License Wikimedia Commons.

The interview was probably conducted shortly before the famous incident in early 1903 in which Edison publicly electrocuted a cantankerous zoo elephant on Coney Island in an attempt to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current. Edison's electrical patents were based on the use of direct current, while fellow scientists Westinghouse and Tesla promoted alternating current. This ongoing feud was not mentioned in the interview.

Marden capped the book with a series of quotations on the topic of success. This short, informal interview is engaging and provides insight into a brilliant mind that changed the world.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A look at the life of Chinua Achebe, author of 'Things Fall Apart'

The famous Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe died on March 22, 2013, in a hospital in Boston, Mass., at age 82 after an illness.

Originally posted to Helium Network on April 7, 2013.

A spiral stack of copies of the 1994 Anchor Books edition of Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart. Image by: Scartol, 2 Oct 2007. © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported and Generic licenses 2.5, 2.0 and 1.0 Wikimedia Commons.

"Achebe had not only put Nigeria on the world's literary map through his inimitable literary works, but had also fought for good governance and a better Nigerian society via his essays, trenchant criticisms and actions," ran an article in P. M. News Nigeria. The article explained that Chinua's work "infuses the English language with inflections and a history that is uniquely Igbo, discernibly Nigerian and unarguably African."

Achebe grew up reading British classics and was nicknamed "Dictionary" by his friends, according to an obituary in The Economist. However, he questioned the Europeans' depiction of Africa. Having developed the opinion that, as Philip Gourevitch put it for the New Yorker, "the Empire's claim that Africans had no history was a violent, if at times ignorant or unconscious, counter-factual effort to annihilate the history of his continent's peoples," as a young man, he began to question colonialist assumptions in his writing. He switched the focus of his studies from medicine to literature. It was an auspicious choice, as he was to become one of the world's most significant literary figures.

The handwritten manuscript of his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), languished for months at an English typing agency because it was perceived as a joke. When it was finally typed and published, it caused a sensation. The novel features a Nigerian man of Igbo ethnicity who becomes wealthy by traditional standards, yet is troubled by European colonialism. The novel has been in print continuously for over a half-century and has sold millions of copies. Kwame Anthony Appiah, quoted in The Week (April 5, 2013), said of its influence on African writers, "It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians."

Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, when Achebe was nearly 30 years old. Although Achebe taught in the United States and wrote in English, his literature continued to grapple with Nigeria's descent into war and military rule. He saw literature as a tool to inspire people and to confront the existing order. His fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), prompted the government to attempt to arrest him as a conspirator, but he escaped to England with his family and lived there for several years.

In 1977, he published a famous essay about Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in the Massachusetts Review, complaining that it was emblematic of a dehumanization of Africans endemic throughout literature. (The essay can be found today in the Norton Critical Edition of Heart of Darkness.)

Two decades after a novel nearly cost him his life, he resumed his career as a novelist with Anthills of the Savannah (1987). A car accident in 1990 left him paralyzed from the waist down, but he was able to continue his career as a teacher. His final book was There Was A Country: A Personal Memoir Of Biafra (2012).

"One measure of his influence," the Economist wrote, "is that contemporary African literature is now taught throughout America, where it was once thought marginal." People all over the world, whether they have read his books or not, continue to benefit from his voice.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Where the Bible contradicts itself

The Bible contains numerous contradictions. People have different ways of interpreting and reacting to them, but they are indisputably contradictions.

Update: As of 2021, there's a beautiful data presentation of Bible contradictions.

The essay below was originally posted Nov. 11, 2007 to Helium Network.

Image: Molecule Man, sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky, 1997, in Berlin, Germany. Image by: Georg Slickers. © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. Wikimedia Commons.

Many people throughout history, and even today, argue that the Bible is literally true and inerrant. This is impossible, as the Bible contains contradictions from beginning to end. Attempts to catalog them include, for example, Norman Geisler's "When Critics Ask".

Here is a consolidated list of some of the most significant contradictions. Please note that all direct Bible quotations are taken from the New International Version. Because modern technology allows searching the Bible by specific phrases, not every quotation here cites the chapter and verse number.

Which came first: The first man or the first plant?

The Bible begins with a massive contradiction, in that the creation story is told twice, in Genesis 1 and 2, with mutually exclusive details. In the first story, God created the world in this order: light, sky, ground, plants, sun and moon, fish and birds, terrestrial animals, and finally, male and female humans to rule over them. In the second story, God created the world in this order: Earth and sky, Garden of Eden, a male human, plants, animals, and a female human.

A major difference between the two stories is the question of whether plants and animals predated the first human being. The chronology of Genesis 2 is admittedly convoluted in comparison to that of Genesis 1, which has opened the door to theologians who try to reconcile the two, but there is an undeniable contradiction in the two accounts on the question of whether the first man was created before the first plant.

Recurring stories

Other stories in Genesis also tend to recur. The abduction of Sarah from her husband Abraham is retold as happening to their daughter-in-law Rebecca and their son Isaac. Lot's offering of his virgin daughters to an angry mob repeats as the deed of a different man in Judges 19. And the life stories of Joseph and Daniel, who were taken as royal servants and rose to glory because of their success at interpreting dreams, are remarkably similar.

On one possible reading, these are not "contradictions." The same events could indeed have happened twice; human history sometimes repeats itself. Alternatively, in some cases, the people who retold the stories could simply have used different names for the characters. However, for those who believe that the Bible is intended to be read as a chronologically accurate account that uses consistent names for its characters, the repetition of stories poses a problem.

What is God like?

The nature of God is a source of unending controversy. He is described as good, merciful, and the source of love and peace. Why, then, did God say,
"Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys."
Lest this one incident be explained away as a temporary lapse in God's character, it is also supposed to be true that "his love endures forever," which conflicts with the idea of God as "a warrior" who "create[s] disaster." There is an ongoing disagreement about whether God will punish children for the sins of their parents. While "I the Lord do not change," he sometimes does not carry through with his threats, and even "grieved that he had made man on the earth."

While it is claimed "no one has ever seen God," the one "whom no one has seen or can see," he has actually been sighted several times. In Exodus 33, it is said that, while God generally talked to Moses "face to face," in this particular exchange Moses was only allowed to see his back. This can be addressed by accepting that the language is metaphorical, but on a literal level, it is a contradiction.

Critically, while the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) insists there is only one God, nevertheless, in the creation story, the Hebrew word for divine beings is in the plural form. It matters very much whether there is one God or many gods.

Contradictions in the biographies of key characters

Some Biblical contradictions are less troubling than others. It doesn't seem to matter much whether King Solomon had four or forty thousand stalls of horses, or whether King Jehoiachin began reigning at age eight or eighteen. The first man Adam was warned that he would die if he ate from the forbidden tree, but he did so anyway and lived 930 years (Gen 2:17); perhaps God simply changed his mind and was lenient with him.

Also, although there are discrepancies in whether "all" or "many" followers were brought to Jesus and whether "all" or "many" were healed (Mark 1, Matthew 8, Luke 4), it seems that this language is supposed to be figurative anyway. Thus these are differences only in poetry; they are not really contradictions.

But important details in the lives of central characters call out for clarification. Did the "very humble" Moses (Num 12:3) order the wholesale slaughter of the enemy, including women and boys? Who provoked King David to take a census of the Israelites: an angry God, or Satan? And was David warned of three years of famine, or seven? (Compare II Sam 24 and I Chron 21.) How did Saul die: on David's order or by suicide, to avoid rape? Did Saul's daughter Michal die childless or did she have five sons? How did Judas die: by hanging himself or by spontaneous disembowelment?

Contradictions in the biography of Jesus

Jesus is probably the most studied case of biographical contradictions. The New Testament provides two genealogies for him. The first one, in the Gospel according to Matthew, traces the line back to Abraham, the first Jew; the second one, in the Gospel according to Luke, traces the line all the way back to Adam, the first man. Aside the difference in their scope, these lists ought to be identical. So, shouldn't we worry, as Richard Dawkins put it in "The God Delusion", that
"Matthew traces Joseph's descent from King David via twenty-eight intermediate generations, while Luke has forty-one generations? Worse, there is almost no overlap in the names on the two lists!" Even Jesus's paternal grandfather's name is in dispute. It is very strange that the line should be traced through Joseph at all, since Joseph's biological relationship to Jesus is itself a point in question: while we are told that Jesus was a descendant of David, we are also told that Jesus is his mother's "child through the Holy Spirit".
Jesus was called a wine drinker (Mat 11:19) and his first miracle was turning water into wine (John 2), yet his Apostle Paul warned people against getting "drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery." (Ephesians 5:19) Jesus famously says that a person cannot serve two masters, namely God and wealth, yet he also advises people to pay their taxes on the principle that they should "give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

The four canonical Gospels provide contradictory reports on whether Jesus stayed with his disciples or fled to the wilderness immediately following his baptism. It is unclear whether Jesus's first sermon was given on a mountain or a plain, and what the exact text of the speech was. He engaged in fuzzy math such as "I and the Father are one" but "the Father is greater than I." The wine he was given just prior to his crucifixion may have been mixed with gall or with myrrh. His last words were "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"; "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit"; or "It is finished". The visitors to his empty tomb are variously reported as one Mary, two Marys, and two Marys and a Salome, and each of the four gospels has a different report of who these women saw at the tomb: one young man, two men, one angel, two angels. (Mark 16:1-8, Matthew 28:1-10, Luke 24:1-11, John 20:1-18)

Was Jesus the only man to ascend to heaven (John 3:13) or did Elijah do it too? Jesus was supposed to return from heaven within the same generation, which he apparently did not (either inside or outside the story).

Ethical recommendations

If one is to read the Bible as an ethical text, the integrity of its ethical claims should be of prime concern. Why, at certain times, are people exhorted to free slaves, and at other times to take and keep them? Why do the prohibitions against killing and stealing not apply to the victimization of foreigners? Why is it forbidden to make representative art, except for the tabernacle? If people aren't supposed to taunt others as "fools," why does Jesus use that forbidden word? If everyone sins, why was Job an exception?

The Ten Commandments are given to Moses in Exodus 20. The several chapters that follow elaborate on these instructions, during which God provides highly specific regulations about slavery, capital punishment, property rights, gender, etc. Moses, in a moment of anger, smashes the tablets containing the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32:19), and God gives him new tablets which God says will be identical but actually have nothing to do with the first set (Exodus 34:1-28), having more to do with ritual than with ethics, as well as promoting ethnic cleansing.

The New Testament writers disagree whether good deeds should be proudly displayed or hidden. One says good deeds are necessary for salvation; another says faith alone is sufficient. Prayer, too, should be done openly (John 7:4) or else secretly (Mat 6:6). The righteous will either "flourish" (Ps 92:12) or "perish" (Is 57:1).

People are instructed to support their families, because "if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." And yet Jesus repeatedly tells people to leave their homes in pursuit of heaven, because "anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." Humans "must obey God rather than men" but have a contradicting obligation "to every authority instituted among men."

In one instance, Jesus teaches that people become "perfect" when they love their enemies, just as God provides sun and rain to everyone; elsewhere, he says he will destroy goodwill between people and force them to take sides, and that he will deny eternal reward to the faithless.

How much can people expect to understand?

Perhaps all of these contradictions are meant to show readers that knowledge is out of human reach. "Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom," the Bible says, while warning that God will "destroy the wisdom of the wise." "The spiritual man makes judgments about all things" yet people should "judge nothing."

This raises the question: If non-contradictory, unchanging propositional knowledge cannot be obtained anywhere, why bother reading the Bible? Is the Bible to be understood purely as poetry like everything else?

The question of contradictions in the Bible also raises a larger question about human nature: Can people be trusted to self-report their own beliefs and activities? Yes, says John (8:14) — who also, tellingly, says no (5:31).

Some people deny that there are contradictions in the Bible. They try to explain away the tension as "mysteries" whose sensible explanations are not known yet to humanity. This article demonstrates, however, that there are indeed contradictions in the Bible. If such contradictions are perceived as a potential jumping-off point for creative interpretations or new insights, then they have some value for religious people and for scholars of Biblical literature, but they must still be recognized as contradictions.