What about contradictions in the Bible?

Our church has started a mini-series on what you might call the “doctrine of the Bible”. Sunday morning we had a sermon on… well, on many things, but one of the topics discussed was the inerrancy of the Bible. (The text was 2 Peter 1:16-21.) The topic was discussed mainly in terms of what the Bible had to say about itself, ignoring most outside considerations or contentions. The sermon in the evening, by Ben Falconer, took a more apologetics approach, asking how we should respond to people who claim that they have found contradictions in the Bible. I hate to keep a good sermon to myself, so I thought I’d share his thoughts.

The nominal motivation for the discussion was an infographic that was apparently passed around a few years ago, though I never saw it, containing 439 supposed contradictions in the Bible. Let me just pause there for a second – the Bible is a very large book written over centuries by a multitude of authors. An organization goes through it with the goal of finding every contradiction they can, no matter how small, and they only come up with 439? I feel that’s pretty impressive already. And it gets better, as you’ll see since many of these supposed contradictions are easily done away with – even the contradiction-finders must have realized they were being dishonest. Once you start whittling down the number, then the reconciliations offered for the remaining truly difficult contradictions, even if they seem a bit forced, start feeling more plausible. (Would you find it more likely that the Bible has zero contradictions, or five, say?)

Ben said many supposed contradictions fall into four general categories.

1. They result from a wooden, instead of a natural, interpretation of the text.

For example, the first few verses of Galatians 6 were held to contain a contradiction.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.

Well – are we supposed to bear one another’s burdens or does each bear his own? The answer, of course, is both – we should bear one another’s burdens, but we still have to bear our own. Forgetting Biblical inspiration for the moment, wouldn’t any human author notice if he’d written something so contradictory in the space of a couple of sentences?

Another proposed contradiction resulting from this kind of poor reading happens in Genesis 19. In verse 13, the angels visiting Sodom say to Lot,

For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.

But in verse 24, we read,

Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.

So who destroyed Sodom, the angels or the Lord? But again, this isn’t really a contradiction – there are a number of ways you could reconcile it. Perhaps the Lord was appearing as one of the angels, or the Lord used the angels in the destruction, and so on. This text never bothered you before, with good reason.

2. A second type of proposed contradiction results from chronological problems.

I got the sense that these are especially common in the Gospels, which don’t report all events in the same order – Luke puts the story of John’s imprisonment near the beginning of his Gospel, while Matthew has it toward the middle. Matthew and Luke also present the temptations Satan offered Jesus in a different order. The answer in both these cases is to realize that the Gospels are not following the genre rules of modern biographies – it wasn’t thought necessary to present events in order. They could be grouped differently to emphasize a certain theme, which is probably exactly what happened in the Gospels.

Perhaps a more difficult to reconcile contradiction concerns the healing of blind Bartimaeus. In Mark 10:46, we read,

And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside.

But in Luke 18:35, we read,

As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging.

Mark says the healing took place as Jesus was leaving Jericho, whereas Luke appears to say it took place before he entered. So what happened? Well, we aren’t frankly sure. Archaeology has indicated that there were actually two Jerichos, an older city and a newer city – it could be that the two authors are really referencing different cities. Jesus was leaving one and entering the other. Or, it could be that Luke omitted parts of Mark’s account.

3. A third type of contradiction involves variation in numbers and names.

In 2 Samuel 10:18, we read,

And the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed of the Syrians the men of 700 chariots, and 40,000 horsemen, and wounded Shobach the commander of their army, so that he died there.

But in 1 Chronicles 19:18, retelling the same events,

And the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed of the Syrians the men of 7,000 chariots and 40,000 foot soldiers, and put to death also Shophach the commander of their army.

So did David eliminate 700 chariots, or 7000 chariots? No fancy way around this problem – Ben instead suggested a transcription error had occurred while copying. When Biblical inerrancy is discussed, it is always the original manuscripts that are held to be inerrant, not the modern copies (though we have good reason to think them excellent copies). Losing (or adding) a zero on a number would probably be an easy mistake to make if you’re copying by hand.

4. A fourth type of error results from not acknowledging the practice of paraphrase.

This type of error gets into some of the subtle distinctions that are made when we say the Bible is without error – and one of those distinctions is to say that we are OK with paraphrase. The Beatitudes as reported in Matthew and Luke, for example, do not record Jesus as having said exactly the same words.

Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Luke: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

We’re fine with that. (Jesus wasn’t speaking Greek anyway!)

I welcome comments on any post, of course, but especially want to know if you have any thoughts on this one.

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