The Bible - Spiritual Truths vs. Non-Spiritual Factoids

We’ve had a few newcomers to the list ask more or less the same question - - if you aren’t going to believe everything the Bible teaches, why believe in any part of the Bible?

I was surprised that one of the responses I didn’t see was the distinction between:

  1. a Non-Spiritual Factoid (“A Mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds”)


  1. a Spiritual Truth (“All Humans are guilty of sin.”)

In the case of the mustard seed, this part of the Bible is wrong. Mustard seeds are not the smallest of seeds.
But in the case of the humans and sin, TRUTH!

To me the distinction is readily obvious and philosophically sound as well.

I see no “spiritual truth” in the Bible’s presentation of the age of the Earth. But I do see a spiritual truth in the proposition that God created the Universe.

What are some other “factoids” that have no material bearing on spiritual truths, but show that trivial facts may well be wrong without causing any harm to the Bible’s message?

Hi George,
I don’t think I can completely agree with the strictness of the dichotomy you’re drawing here. The main problem is, where do we draw the line? We certainly can’t leave it up to each of our individual fancies, or the Bible becomes more like a Christmas buffet where you can pick and choose whatever you like.

On the other hand, there’s certainly something to say for that distinction. Just yesterday, I was studying 1 Corinthians 10 at a meeting with my church small group. Verses 7 and 8 read as follows:

“7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.”

The problem is that the story that Paul is referring to (Exodus 32:6) actually had “only” 3,000 casualties (Exodus 32:28). A later story with a different background has 24,000 people killed (Numbers 25:9). Both numbers don’t correspond with the number quoted by Paul. Back in the 19th century, this led the distinguished theologian Charles Ellicott to conclude the following:

“The explanation most in harmony with the character of the writer, and the utterly unessential nature of the point historically, is, I venture to think, that either the Apostle quoted from memory a fact of no great importance, or else that he referred for his figures to some copy of the LXX., in which the numbers might be specified as here.”

It appears that Ellicott also employed a category of facts of “no great importance” and of an “utterly unessential nature historically”.

How can we know how important or essential information is? I suppose we need three things to get us out of this tough spot. Of course, we need biblical scholarship to familiarize us with the cultural context of the writings which help to understand the intended message of the authors. This can clarify what is essential or not. Unfortunately, there’s no absolute guarantee of knowing which biblical scholars are pointing us in the right direction. That’s why we also individually need the guidance of the Spirit of Christ as we try to understand the Scriptures (like the disciples on the road to Emmaus). However, our individual fancies might still lead us astray there. That’s why we need the corporal wisdom of the Church (both today and throughout history) as a litmus test for the sanity of our own approach.

Wow… I sure went out on a limb there. Anyway, that’s my two cents.


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How do those three settle the mustard seed issue, to take a case in point?

Good question.

Well, as far as I know, there is no controversy among biblical scholars about the intended meaning of the mustard seed parable. “The smallest of all seeds” can be understood as a hyperbole to make a point. For example, Charles Ellicott commented:

“The description is, of course, popular, and need not be pressed with microscopical exactness.”

The lack of controversy among scholars suggests that we don’t need to dive very deep to sort this one out. I personally believe that approach does justice to the text (this is where personal guidance factors in) and the Church has not made a big issue out of it at any point in history (corporal wisdom).

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That at least some gospel writers made distinctions between “utterly unessential” facts and “essential” ones is sometimes made explicitly clear in the text itself. For example, in the feeding of the 5000 we are told that “about five thousand” were there (besides women and children even). Whereas the earlier writer (Mark) just tells us that “Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.” So the Matthew writer took a statement of Mark and himself explicitly acknowledged the imprecision of that number.

The only thing both writers seem at pains to communicate here is the amazingly large nature of the crowds that receive these two blessings, and if we are supposed to notice the more exact precision of any numbers, it would be the other numbers given – especially the baskets full left over with the rich symbolic meaning pointing towards both Jewish and gentile peoples in the two respective events. Which in itself is a warning against all those modern folks who want all truth to first conform to a low bar of “factoid truthhood” before they will admit it into any higher consideration.

Having just graded some physics exams in which some points were lost when students gave answers with more precision than could be justified, I had all this on my mind and how even the Gospel writers (who were concerned with infinitely more important things) still foreshadow some of our modern habits when they round a figure to “5000”.

Many baskets full of blessings, and a merry Christmas to all!

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