What about All the “Contradictions” in the Bible?

The inerrancy of Scripture is a powerful doctrine. What could be more reassuring than knowing that you have a 100% reliable guide to attaining a blissfully happy eternity? It is also one of the most attacked doctrines of Christianity. This seems odd when you think about it, given how much time we devote to securing our own happiness and the amount of ink and money we spend on other books telling us how to achieve it. Of course, the Bible also says that the means of attaining that happiness are impossible for you to achieve on your own and that if you don’t, you will inherit an eternity of misery. Naturally, that’s the part people don’t want to be true.

One of the most common methods of attack is to find some sort of contradiction in the Bible. Often this involves a contradiction between the Bible and other nations’ histories of the time. Evidently, the critics believe the boastings of egotistical conqueror-kings are more reliable than the chronicles of historians willing to admit when their heroes commit incest, adultery, and murder. From the materialistic standpoint of the critics, any author who believes that God intervenes in history is automatically starting from a flawed premise and is therefore less reliable. (Or perhaps I should say, “anyone who believes that the Christian God intervenes in history,” since the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures they rank as more reliable than the Bible also believed their gods intervened in their histories.) Of course, we all know how many contradictions are supposed to exist between the Bible and modern scientific theories. I dealt with that issue in my first blog post, so I won’t say anything more about it here.

Instead, I should like to devote this post to equipping you for wading through the sea of supposed contradictions within the Bible itself. For anyone who actually bothers to read the Bible before attacking it and the bloggers who take their word for it, this is one of the most popular means of criticizing it. That makes sense because, if one Biblical writer says the opposite of another, they can’t both be right and the Bible is ipso facto in error on a point. Q.E.D. Certainly, the Bible contains enough material to keep them very busy with its variations.

First, let’s specify our terminology. As Dr. R. C. Sproul says, drawing on his philosophy background (though I can’t remember his exact words), “The Law of Noncontradiction maintains that something cannot be A and not A at the same time and in the same way.” So I’ll give you an example of a genuine contradiction. At the Battle of Minden in 1759, six British infantry battalions pierced the French center after withstanding attacks from artillery, cavalry, and infantry. In an early history of the battle, someone wrote that one of the British commanders, General Kingsley, fell from his horse when his brigade was for the moment pushed back by fresh troops. Kingsley himself read a copy of this work and made his own annotations. He took exception with many of the things the historian said and wrote in the margin, “Kingsley did not fall from his horse.” So, here are two authors saying something happened and did not happen at the same time in the same way. Unless you can find Scripture doing that, you don’t have it contradicting itself.

Most people find the contradictions in the implication rather than the explication. Here’s an example of what they do. If I tell one friend, “I heard from James that the party will be at 6:00” and another friend that, “I heard from John that the party will be at 6:00,” a Biblical critic will say that I contradicted myself. The implication they read into it is that the second time I said, “I heard from John (and not James).” Makes sense, right? But, in actuality, there’s no logical necessity that one of those statements is false. Who’s to say I didn’t hear it first from James and then later from John?

Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, tells a story that illustrates the danger of disbelieving the Bible based off of implication and assumption. He says that Zedekiah refused to repent and surrender to Nebuchadnezzar because he ultimately relied on his false prophets rather than the true ones. The true ones he rejected because he thought they had contradicted themselves. Jeremiah had told him that Nebuchadnezzar would capture him and take him into exile in Babylon, but he had heard that Ezekiel had said he would never see Babylon. Contradictory, right? Well, actually, Nebuchadnezzar captured Zedekiah, had him blinded, and then took him prisoner to Babylon. Both prophets were right; they just focused on different aspects. I don’t know if that story is true or not, but I expect that will be the experience on Judgment Day of everyone who eased their conscience with a supposed contradiction in the Bible.

In addition, it really makes no sense to go after the Bible’s “contradictions” with the viciousness its critics resort to. We’re talking about the most powerful religion in history. It has withstood, off and on, millennia of persecution from the various superpowers of the day, rising to reshape Western culture and make inroads in every other one. Slavery was for millennia the socio-economic basis of Western civilization, but thanks to Christianity, it is now illegal throughout the West. The Bible turns fierce enemies into sincere friends and brings troubled people to unfathomable peace. Martin Luther appeared to many to be insane from the way he agonized over his sins, real or imagined, but one verse from Romans salved his conscience and relieved his fears. Yet, the critics say, the people who made up this earth-shaking religion were so stupid and disorganized that they couldn’t keep their story straight for two pages!

So here are some ways of interpreting why one part of Scripture says one thing and another part says the “opposite”:

First of all, the Bible is rich in paradox. This happens when two seemingly opposite things are true, but in different ways. This results from the Bible contrasting our natural earthly perspective with our new heavenly perspective (that’s the whole point of Ecclesiastes). Jesus says in Mark 10:44 that a Christian wanting to be first must make himself the last. Contradictory, right? Well, what He’s saying is that a Christian who subordinates his own interests to others’ in a way that loves his neighbor as himself will be from the world’s perspective the very least successful of people, but that in God’s eyes he’s one of the best Christians there is. There’s another paradox that has tripped up a lot of people: the Bible teaches that we are not saved by works but that we are not saved without works. The simple truth reconciling this is that God justifies us by faith without reference to our works, but on a human level those who have faith must have a new nature that will by necessity delight in doing good works.

It seems paradoxical that II Samuel says God moved David to foolishly take a census of Israel and for I Chronicles to say that Satan did it while James adds that God tempts no one. Surely it’s a contradiction for the Bible to say Satan and God did the same thing, right? Especially when it involves someone being led to sin. Well, does II Samuel say, “God moved David, and Satan didn’t”? What all these authors mean is that God, in His eternal decrees, had decided that His wisdom and justice called for David conducting a census at that moment in time and that He therefore permitted Satan, who was more than willing to oblige, to tempt David to it. God allowed it, but Satan did the tempting. What looks like a paradox is actually an object lesson in how God ordains that all things, even sin, should come to pass as He planned them. The fact that God plans something and works good out of it doesn’t make it good in and of itself. The ends don’t justify the means, as we say.

You must also allow for everyday things like approximations, exaggerations, figurative language, etc. If I say π is equal to 3.14159, I doubt most of you would correct me when technically π is a number consisting of infinite digits. Sometimes one Bible writer is being more precise than another or emphasizing something more than another because he has a different objective or audience in mind. I Kings gives the circumference of Solomon’s “Sea” in the Temple as 30 cubits when, at 10 cubits in diameter, it would have been 31.4159 cubits (approximately). Either the writer of Kings is measuring the inner circumference after accounting for the handbreadth of thickness between outer and inner rims, or he is making a rounding approximation only a pedant would find objectionable. We do that sort of thing all the time, and nobody calls us liars for it, so I don’t see why we should refuse the Biblical writers that same latitude.

You must also consider the summarizing nature of the Bible. Its history covers, starting with dates we can establish with reasonable certainty, as many as 2,200 years between Abraham’s birth and Paul’s captivity in Rome, and its ethical principles seek to govern the entirety of human behavior. Naturally some things are going to be telescoped. Therefore, when Kings says a King of Judah was bad and did not remove the high places of idol worship and Chronicles says the opposite, or vice versa, maybe they’re referring to different phases of the king’s reign. Maybe he started doing one thing and later changed his mind. That is not without precedent. Joseph II of Austria is remembered as an emperor who tried to enact sweeping reforms in keeping with the Enlightenment, but, towards the end of his life, when he was a broken, disillusioned man, he repudiated many of his reforms. Chronicles presents Manasseh going through such a personality change, but Kings does not. Is one contradicting the other, or is one just emphasizing a matter more important to his story? Kings, written during the Babylonian Exile, explains how Manasseh corrupted Judah to the point of no return, and Chronicles, written after the Restoration, explains how God could restore even such a wicked king like He had the Jews from their exile.

Sometimes Matthew and Luke disagree on how many people Jesus healed in a particular story- Luke might say there was one and Matthew that there were two. Neither says, “There was one, and only one.” Instead, one evangelist chooses to be more exact whereas the other focuses on the one who interacted with Jesus the most. Matthew says the man Legion possessed had a confederate; Luke mentioned just the man with the multitude of demons because he was clearly the major player in the drama.

Summary, I think, is the source of most of the really conspicuous “contradictions” in the Bible. The Passion and Resurrection narratives differ in details from one Gospel to the other, so some think they’re garbled accounts of what actually happened. But, really, why would John have bothered to write his Gospel if he was just going to copy what Mark had written? They all have their different emphases and therefore include different details. What you don’t have is John saying, “Mary Magdalene was the first to see Christ,” and Matthew saying, “Mary Magdalene was not the first to see Christ.” Or you don’t see Matthew writing, “And the two thieves on the cross mocked Jesus,” and Luke saying, “The one on His left, and only the one on His left, mocked Him.” Presumably, both of the thieves mocked Jesus, but when the one on His right saw how Jesus bore all the torment and mockery with fortitude, he realized his mistake and repented. Matthew wants to emphasize that Jesus’s humiliation was so great that even people suffering the same loathsome fate as He felt He was below them, and Luke wants to point to the power of faith that can save someone even at the point of death. If every Biblical author included all the details that everyone else wrote about his particular story- well, in the first place you’d have a pretty boring, unmanageable tome to sift through, and in the second, you’d have one that didn’t focus well and tell its story in artistically crafted themes.

One aspect of Biblical variations is the influence of translation. Jesus spoke to His audience in Aramaic while the Gospel writers were composing their works in Greek, so obviously they couldn’t give the exact words He spoke (in most cases, that is- every now and then they give the original Aramaic, like, “Talitha cumi” in Mark 5). Thus, they had a certain degree of liberty in how they worded their quotation, just like any other translator. When Jesus is asked in Mark if He is the Son of God, He says, “I am,” but in Matthew and Luke He says, “You say that I am.” It’s obvious from the priests’ reaction (and the fact that He used similar words to unquestionably affirm that Judas was the treacherous disciple) that Jesus was affirming His deity in Matthew and Luke just as in Mark. Mark just translated a little bit less literally than Matthew and Luke to make it less ambiguous.

Translation probably accounts for the famous “contradiction” where Jesus says David ate the showbread “in the days of Abiathar the High Priest” (Mark 2:26). Biblical critic Bart Ehrman lost his faith by thinking Jesus meant that David ate the bread during the term of Abiathar as High Priest, which isn’t true since his father Ahimelech was High Priest at the time (at least for a little while before Saul slaughtered the priests and Abiathar as the survivor did become High Priest). Some say the “epi” in the Greek should be translated, “in the story of Abiathar the High Priest.” At this time the Bible did not have chapters and verses but had to be referenced by subject matter of the passage. Makes sense. Or Jesus was referring to the fact that this happened during the life of Abiathar, who became High Priest, which is also true. It’s like the book Napoleon in Egypt, where the author referred to his subject as “Napoleon” after admitting that in 1798, when he invaded Egypt, he was still known as General Bonaparte. He only became Emperor Napoleon (and was referred to on a first-name basis) in 1804. Looking back, though, we almost always refer to him as Napoleon, not General Bonaparte, and only a pedant is going to insist on a book entitled General Bonaparte in Egypt. If I say, “Mrs. Jones went to elementary school at Such and Such Academy,” are you really going to contradict me even though it’s obvious Mrs. Jones was not Mrs. Jones at the time but rather Miss Smith (or whatever her maiden name is)? In all these cases the speaker is just referring to the subjects by the titles they assumed and became famous for so we’ll know whom exactly he means.

Lastly, the fall-back position is that there was an error in the scribal transmission. With all the textual variations in the Bible, they can’t all go back to the original reading, so we know it did happen. Just because Samuel and Chronicles sometimes differ by essentially a decimal point in their casualty figures doesn’t mean that when they were originally written they didn’t both agree on the correct figure. Sometimes these are downright obvious. Yes, II Samuel 21 says in the Hebrew manuscripts that Jaare-Oregim slew Goliath the Gittite after I Samuel 17 made a whole pericope out of David slaying him, but who really thinks a historian capable of writing an epic story on the level of the Book of Samuel would forget that his hero David played the pivotal part in what is the best-known story of the work? Homer nodded, yes, but never on anything that big. Of course the author of Samuel originally wrote, “slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite,” like Chronicles! Some scribe just messed up and was copied by others; anyone fabricating the story could have done a better job than making such an obvious blunder. Inerrancy doesn’t claim that every manuscript we possess is 100% accurate; the original authors would have had to have been crazy to write all those variations. It claims that the originals are completely trustworthy, so when you have the original wording, you have the words of God. (When I discussed C.S. Lewis’s trilemma in the prior blog post, I went into the reliability of our New Testament manuscripts in preserving the original meaning.)

The Bible nowhere says something along the lines of, “Joab fell from his horse at the Battle of Rabbah,” and then elsewhere, “Joab did not fall from his horse at the Battle of Rabbah.” If we think it is contradicting itself, we’re not considering the subtle nuances one would expect in a work written by dozens of authors over the course of at least thirteen centuries. A measure of variation is the mark of one author following his own style and emphases, not an indication that one of two authors is necessarily mistaken. Don’t be like Zedekiah.