Dealing with the Bible’s Apparent Contradictions

The Scribe, George Cattermole, 1800-1868, from The Cooper Gallery

The Scribe, George Cattermole, 1800-1868, from The Cooper Gallery

Critics have tried for at least 2,000 years to discredit the biblical texts.  One of their most common charges is that the Bible is full of contradictions that prove it is neither “divinely inspired” nor “inerrant.”  Rather, it is just another example of fictional literature, produced by primitive people trying to explain the world around them.  Is the Bible really “full of contradictions” as some claim?  Or are there reasonable explanations for these textual difficulties that can maintain the Bible’s credibility and authority?  Let’s take a look.

It is true there are many examples in the Bible that critics can use to try and demonstrate errors or contradictions.  This fact is not surprising since the biblical texts were written over 1,200+ years, by 40+ authors, using multiple languages, in different countries, across varied cultures.  However, upon deeper research, these conflicts can be answered without the texts being in error.  Entire books have been written that address these biblical difficulties individually, so we will focus instead on some of the principles that show how they can be resolved.

  • Context: Difficult passages must be interpreted within their context including the entire passage, the full Bible, and even the culture in which it was written.  A great example is the “contradiction” between James 2:24 (“…a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”) and Ephesians 2:8-9 (“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith…not by works…”).  On the surface, the James passage seems to contradict the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.  However, within the fuller context of James, it is clear that he is not teaching that works are required for salvation, but that they necessarily result from salvation (i.e. if there are no works, the faith isn’t real).  Real, saving faith produces godly works.  But the works themselves don’t add to salvation, so there is no conflict.
  • Quotations: As in current writings, quotations have to express the meaning of the speaker, not necessarily the exact words.  For example, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ is stated in three separate quotes in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  However, the meaning of all three is the same, so there is no error.
  • Divergent reports: Inerrancy does not mean that various authors cannot provide different descriptions of the same events due to their individual perspectives.  A good example of this concept is when Matthew discusses one angel at Jesus’ tomb (Matthew 28:5) while John describes two angels (John 20:12).  This initially sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t.  Matthew does not say there is only one angel present.  Rather, he chooses to only discuss the angel that spoke and does not mention the angel that did not speak, while John does.
  • Recording vs. approving: We must not confuse the Bible’s recording of an event with its condoning of that event.  For example, when the Bible tells us Solomon had many wives, it does not mean it promotes polygamy.
  • Everyday language: The Bible typically uses common, non-technical language for the day and culture in which it was written.  Therefore, it is anachronistic to apply modern or technical meanings to words and phrases.  For example, when bats are listed as a type of “bird” in Genesis, it is not in error since 3,000 years ago, the term translated as “bird” was meant to refer to “a flying creature” instead of “a member of the Aves class within the animal kingdom.”
  • Expressions: The books of the Bible were written in different cultures that had expressions which may not translate exactly into English.  If we fail to understand this fact, we can easily see what appear to be mistakes.  A perfect example is the supposed conflict over when Jesus was crucified.  Mark 15:25 says that Jesus was crucified at the “third hour” on Good Friday.  However, John 19:14 says Jesus was still on trial before Pontius Pilate during the “sixth hour” and he was crucified later.  This appears to be a clear contradiction until we realize the authors are using different expressions of time for different audiences.  Mark uses the Hebrew method of measuring time, which starts at sunrise (approximately 6 am).  So his “third hour” is approximately 9 am.  John, however, was writing his gospel in Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia.  So he used the Roman method of telling time, which started at midnight.  So John tells us Jesus was on trial at 6 am, and Mark tells us He was crucified at 9 am.  There is no conflict, just different expressions used by different cultures.
  • Literary devices: The Bible can and does use literary devices such as poetry, parables, metaphors, similes, allegories, satire, figures of speech, etc. without being in error.  So when the Bible talks about the four corners of the world, it is not teaching the earth is flat.
  • Round numbers: It is not a mistake for the Bible to use round numbers just as we do today.  So the Bible’s description of something’s diameter as about 1/3 its circumference is correct, even if the exact value is closer to .318.
  • Copy mistakes: Only the original texts are said to be without error, so copy mistakes do happen.  In the vast majority of cases, they can be—and have been—identified and annotated by cross-checking various manuscripts.  For example, the King James Bible, translated from the Masoretic texts, mentions 3 years of famine in 1 Chronicles 21:11, but seven years of famine in the parallel account given in 2 Samuel 23:13.  But more modern translations, using the Greek Septuagint texts, have the correct three years in both places.  So Masoretic copyists made a mistake as they transcribed.
  • Translation issues: Since the books of the Bible were originally written in other languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek), apparent conflicts can arise when they are translated into English.  Since every word cannot be translated exactly, the closest word to the original is used, potentially resulting in a translation “mistake.”  A good example is when Mark 15:23 says Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh to drink but Matthew 27:34 says it was mixed with “gall.”  However, the Greek word Matthew uses is “chole,” which can be used for multiple bitter substances, including myrrh.  So there is no conflict.
  • General statements: We cannot assume that general statements made in the Bible are universal statements without exceptions.  For example, when Proverbs says proper child rearing produces better adults (Proverbs 22:6), it is clearly a true statement.  But it doesn’t mean every child that is raised right will turn out well.
  • Progressive revelation: God did not reveal all of Scripture at once nor did he apply the same standards or conditions to mankind at each time.  This does not mean God made mistakes or changed His mind.  Rather, it means God revealed to mankind what he needed to know at the time.  It is akin to a parent telling his or her young child to hold a hand while crossing the street, but then changing that rule when they get older.  This is not a mistake or change on the parent’s part but is rather due to changes and maturity in the child.

Using these principles, most if not all, “mistakes” in the Bible can be resolved.  However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume someone finds a biblical statement they feel is an unexplainable error.  What will this hypothetical occurrence prove?  At most, it could disprove the inerrant, divine inspiration of that book if the error is in the original text and there is no true explanation (as opposed to an explanation the critic doesn’t want to accept).  But does it invalidate all of the book’s teachings?  Obviously not.  A book can be highly accurate and reliable even if it is not perfect.  Further, the Bible as a whole would not be discredited at all.

Remember the Bible is not one book, but a collection of books.  To claim a that possible error in one disproves the whole is akin to claiming that a mistake in a 1995 Wall Street Journal article invalidates an issue of the 2014 New York Times.  That is clearly preposterous.  So while Christians shouldn’t readily concede that errors exist, unbelievers shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the Bible’s teaching because they think they’ve found a new “gotcha.”

The bottom line is that the Bible, with over 2,000 years of study, critique, and application, has proven to be an extremely reliable work.  The supposed mistakes have been addressed while archaeological and historical studies have time and again verified the Bible, even when scholars previously thought the texts were in error.  In fact, no archaeological find has ever disproven a biblical statement.  Admittedly, it is impossible to prove every word of the Bible is free from human opinion or mistake.  However, we can definitively say that the Bible has withstood the test of time, despite countless attempts over many centuries to discredit it.  No other work has withstood this level of scrutiny while simultaneously discrediting its detractors and positively impacting the lives of its readers.  So instead of trying to tear it down, maybe critics should try learning from it!


2 thoughts on “Dealing with the Bible’s Apparent Contradictions

  1. We can believe in the Bible without believing in inerrancy. From whom did Mary Magdalene first learn of the resurrection? Was it from angels, as the Synoptics say, or was it from Jesus Himself, as John 20 says? It had to be one or the other. Please don’t dodge the question.

    • Randall, thanks for your question. First of all, I agree with you that someone can believe the Bible is reliable without believing it is inerrant and even make this point in the concluding paragraphs of my post (“A book can be highly accurate and reliable even if it is not perfect”). The ultimate purpose of the post is to counter critics’ claims that the Bible is “full of contradictions” and therefore not trustworthy. That is clearly not the case and the vast majority of inconsistencies can be relatively easily reconciled with a bit of research.

      Admittedly, your example of the resurrection accounts is one of the more difficult inconsistencies to explain. There two basic perspectives from which to address it: Full inerrancy or Historical accuracy.

      From a full inerrancy standpoint, there are several theories I’ve read on how to reconcile the accounts. They generally fall into the area of “divergent reports” mentioned in the post and assume that the gospel accounts are actually describing multiple visits to the empty tomb. Two examples are in these links (got questions?, I cannot vouch for the other material on these sites, but they do offer possible solutions to this particular question.

      From a secular historian’s viewpoint, the gospels, while maybe not inerrant, still provide highly corroborative accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. They all agree that Jesus was raised, the tomb was empty, His resurrection was announced by angels, and the first witnesses were women (which culturally would not have been the case if the story was concocted). So, much like witnesses in a court case, the gospels give highly accurate and reliable testimony, even if they differ in some minor details.

      Overall, thanks for the question. And keep coming back to the site as I plan to post a much more comprehensive series on the topic of inerrancy in the next couple of weeks.

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