How do we handle discrepancies in the Bible?: Contradictions and God's word

For all our scientific progress, our minds are still finite and fallen.  Our test tubes cannot show us what lies beyond death, on the other side of this brief moment we call life.  Our proven knowledge is limited to the tiny slice of reality we can experience in this moment.  For the eternal questions, we need knowledge beyond our time-conditioned world.  We need a relationship with the Creator who transcends his creation.  We need to trust the One no test tube can contain, the Person no laboratory logic can fathom.  Nothing worth proving can be proven.

But we try.  We want life to make sense.  We believe that non-contradiction is the test for truth, that logic and reason are the way forward.  And when we find apparent contradictions in our laboratories or our Bibles, we protest.  "The Bible is filled with contradictions," we often hear.  Such criticism justifies the skepticism about biblical authority which is so common today.  Why do we think in this way?  What are we to believe about the Bible and "contradictions"?  Why does the subject matter?

The contradictory history of contradictions

Everyone knows that contradictions are bad.  If you can find a statement I make in this chapter which disagrees with something I've already said, you'll feel justified in rejecting both.  Even though one may be right.  Even though they both may be.  Why?

We have Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) to thank, or blame.  In his desire to compile all knowledge into an organized system, he devised laws of logic as organizational tools.  One of them is called the "law of contradiction": A cannot equal B and at the same time not equal B.  A fish cannot also be a mammal, if a biologist like Aristotle is going to classify it.

From then to now, we Westerners have adopted Aristotle's law as the basis for determining all truth.  If we can find a contradiction in the Bible, we think we have reason to dismiss its veracity.  But before we decide we're right, let's think about Aristotle's laws some more.

His approach is necessary in the physical sciences.  We want our doctors to diagnose ailments by Aristotelian logic.  If your knee is hurting, you don't want your orthopedist to suggest that it might be cancer and torn cartilage, so let's treat it for both and see what happens.  You want a non-contradictory medical response.

The trouble with Aristotle's law comes when we apply it outside its intended context.  Aristotle wanted to classify all empirical knowledge, and needed his laws of logic to do so.  But he didn't use them outside the physical realm.  When we apply them in this way, problems quickly emerge.

Relational experience is seldom logical and non-contradictory.  It may appear contradictory to claim that you love your children and yet sometimes wish they'd never been born.  But if you're a typical parent, both are sometimes true.  Jesus claimed to be fully God and fully man; God is three and yet one; the Bible is divinely inspired but humanly written; God knows the future but we have freedom to choose.  Inside every essential Christian doctrine there is a paradox, an apparent contradiction.

This is as it should be.  If you and I could understand fully the nature of God, either he wouldn't be God or we would be.  Mark Twain once remarked that if he could understand everything in the Bible, he wouldn't believe that God wrote it.  We should expect paradox and rational tensions within our finite, fallen understanding of the omnipotent God of the universe.

Many of the so-called contradictions in the Bible fit into such spiritual or relational categories.  For instance, the Bible teaches that "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8).  Yet it also states clearly, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Ro 1:18).  And it warns, "For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger" (Ro 2:8).  How can God both love and hate?  Don't ask Aristotle.  But you can ask any parent.

Not all truth fits into test tubes.  My seventh-grade geometry teacher claimed that parallel lives never intersect.  But to prove it, he'd have to draw them forever.  Black and white are not the only crayons in the box.

Consider the larger context

A second category of apparent contradictions in the Bible results from misunderstanding the intended context of the texts in question.  Let's look at some commonly-cited examples, taking them in the order they appear in Scripture.

An eye for an eye and the God of love

A critic asks, "The Old Testament teaches, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  But Jesus told us to turn the other cheek.  Which is right?"  Both.

We're dealing with the Lex Talionis, the oldest law in the world.  It appears in the Code of Hammurabi, dated to 2285 B.C.  It is found in the Old Testament as well: "If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (Exodus 21:23-25).

Before this law, if I wrecked your car you could destroy my house.  If I injured your child, you could kill all my children.  The original purpose of the law was thus to limit vengeance.  Only the one who caused the injury could be punished, not his entire family or tribe.  And only to the degree that he has injured another, protecting him from a more powerful enemy.  This law did not promote retribution--it limited it.

But the law seems to contradict Jesus' clear teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not resist an evil person.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (Mt. 5:38-42).

In their historical context, Jesus' statements are intended to speak to a very different subject than self-defense and retribution.  Each of his examples points to the same principle: stop the cycle of revenge.  Don't return slander with slander, gossip with gossip.

His first example relates to your honor: "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (v. 39).  "Strikes" in the original means to "slap."  The right hand was the only one used in public.  To slap your right cheek with my right hand was an insult, not a threat to life and limb.  Jesus says, Don't slap back.  If someone insults you, don't insult them.

Next, Jesus speaks of your possessions: "If someone wants to use you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well" (v. 40).  Your "tunic" was your undershirt with sleeves; it could be taken in a lawsuit.  Your "cloak" could not, for it protected you from the elements.  But give it anyway.  Don't insist on your rights.

Now he deals with your time: "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles" (v. 41).  Jesus refers to the power of a Roman soldier to make a Jew carry his military pack for one mile.  Carry it two miles.  Sacrifice the time, though you don't have to.  Do it anyway.

And last, he speaks to your money: "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (v. 42).  As Augustine reminds us, we are not told to give everything we are asked for, but to give to every person who asks.  Even though it is your right not to.

So refuse retribution.  Stop the cycle of vengeance.  Don't repeat the gossip or slander.  Refuse to return insult for insult, pain for pain.  It has been noted that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is a rapid way to a sightless, toothless world.  That's the point of Jesus' teaching, and it in no way contradicts the law in Exodus.  The former deals with personal insults, the latter with physical malice.  Knowing the context explains the "contradiction."

Nuram, Naphtali and Dan

1 Kings 7:13 states that Huram, one of the builders of Solomon's temple, came from the tribe of Naphtali.  However, 2 Chronicles 2:14 says his mother was from the tribe of Dan.  Which tribe was hers?

A number of possibilities exist.  She could have been descended from Dan but living in Naphtali, or the reverse.  One of her parents could have come from one tribe, the other from the other tribe.  There is no reason to assume a contradiction in the accounts.

Abiathar and Ahimelech

In Mark 2, Jesus defends his disciples' decision to eat grain on the Sabbath: "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?  In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread" (vs. 25-26).  But 1 Samuel 21:1 says that this occurred when Ahimelech, Abiathar's father, was priest.  For such kindness to David, Ahimelech and his family were killed by Saul's soldiers.  His son Abiathar escaped, and was later made priest (1 Sam. 22:20-23).

This problem is explainable on grammatical terms.  "In the days of Abiathar" translates a Greek phrase which says literally "upon Abiathar the high priest."  Mark usually uses "upon" (epi in Greek) to refer to location rather than time.  The phrase is better translated, "at the place where Abiathar was high priest," not "during the time when" he served.

Another "contradiction" involving these two men is also explainable.  2 Samuel 8:16-18 lists King David's officials and includes "Ahimelech son of Abiathar" as priest (v. 17).  We know from 1 Samuel 22:20 that Ahimelech was Abiathar's father.  But it is possible that Abiathar had a son whom he named for his own father Ahimelech.  Remember that Zechariah's family wanted to name his son for his father, until his parents insisted that he be called "John" (Lk. 1:59-63).  My middle name is my grandfather's first name; one of my sons carries his grandfather's first name as well.  Such family traditions are still as common today as in the ancient world.

David's census

2 Samuel 24:1 states, "the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, 'Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.'"  Then, after David conducted such a census, God responded with judgment and punishment.  As a result, 70,000 people died in a plague which an angel brought against the people (v. 15).  Why would God punish David and his people for doing what he led the king to do?

To further complicate matters, 1 Chronicles 21:1 records, "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel."  Now we find Scripture blaming not God but Satan for the census.  Again we wonder why God punished the people for something Satan instigated.  And we wonder who was behind this apparent sin.

Two facts deserve notice.  One: David misused his freedom to conduct the census.  His advisers warned him against such an action of prideful self-reliance (2 Sam. 24:3-4).  His actions implicated the entire nation, so that judgment came against them all.  Disobedience leads to consequences beyond our intention.  As someone has noted, sin will always take you farther than you wanted to go, keep you longer than you wanted to stay, and cost you more than you wanted to pay.

Two: the Jewish people saw all that happens as within the providence and permission of God.  God does not himself cause us to sin (Jam. 1:13-14).  But because Satan must work under the control of the Lord (cf. Job 1:12; 2:6; Ezek. 3:20; 14:9; Acts 4:28), God permits what Satan does.  In this sense, Satan's activity (1 Chronicles) was permitted by the Lord and thus attributed to him (2 Samuel).

As the Jewish people grew in their knowledge of God, the Chronicler (writing 400 years after 2 Samuel) could record Satan's activity in more detail than the people had earlier understood.  In the proper historical and theological light, the two accounts do not contradict each other.

Quirinius, governor Syria

Luke 2:2 tells us that the census which led Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem "was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria."  However, Jewish and Roman historical records seem to date Quirinius' term in office from A.D. 6-9.  Can we reconcile the discrepancy?

Yes.  We know from the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 3:48) that Quirinius led military expeditions in the Syrian region a decade earlier.  Luke uses "governor" (hegemoneuo) in a general sense of leading or ruling, so that he may well have this military office in mind.  And some ancient records seem to indicate that Quirinius served two terms in office; the first from 6-4 B.C. and the second from A.D. 6-9.  A census occurred during each term (Acts 5:37 refers to the census which took place during Quirinius' second term in office).

It seems unlikely that Luke would make an historical error regarding political leadership at the time of Jesus' birth, given his careful use of eyewitness records (Lk. 1:1-4) and the fact that such a mistake would be easily exposed by his contemporaries.  But given the general nature of Luke's word "governor," it is easy to see how his narrative correlates with ancient historical records.

In a sermon this Sunday, I could attribute the allied victory in World War II to the "leadership" of Dwight Eisenhower, even though Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were president during this time and Eisenhower came to the White House later.  If I state that Gen. Eisenhower was "president" in 1945, any who listen to my sermon would quickly correct me.  If I call him our "leader," all would understand.

Mark 1, Isaiah and Malachi

Mark 1:2-3 begins the life of Jesus with this citation: "It is written in Isaiah the prophet: 'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way'--'a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him."'"  The problem is that the first citation does not come from Isaiah but from Malachi 3:1.  Did Mark make a mistake?  No.

Mark's second citation is taken direction from Isaiah 40:3, so that the prophecy he cites did in fact come from Isaiah.  But what of the first prediction?  Isaiah was the first book in the division of the Hebrew Bible known as the Latter Prophets, so that everything from Isaiah to Malachi could be considered to be "in Isaiah."

This kind of attribution was common in ancient literature.  For instance, the book of Proverbs begins, "The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel."  Yet Proverbs 30 claims to be "the sayings of Agur son of Jakeh" (v. 1), while Proverbs 31 is the work of "King Lemuel" (v. 1).  The larger book is attributed to Solomon, since he is its principal and best-known author.  In the same way, the prophecies found in the Latter Prophets all stand "in" or under Isaiah, their first and best-known representative.

The roof and the paralytic

Mark informs us that the friends of a paralyzed man tried to bring him to Jesus, but could not get inside the house crowded with people listening to him teach.  So "they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on" (Mk. 2:4).  Mark describes a typical Palestinian house, made with a flat roof accessible by a ladder.  Usually roofing clay was packed and rolled, then covered with branches laid across wooden beams.

However, Luke describes the same event this way: "they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd" (Lk 5:19).  Since Gentile houses often used such tiles, could it be that Luke used a description with which he was more familiar?  If so, was he in error?  Did the friends "dig through" a clay roof, or remove ceiling tiles?

Both.  Jesus was teaching in a house large enough to accommodate a crowd which included Pharisees and teachers of the law "from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem" (Lk 5:17).  Perhaps this expansive house was owned by a person wealthy enough to afford roof tiles, rather than the cheaper thatched roof which had to be replaced periodically.  These tiles would substitute for the branches which were laid on wooden beams across the clay roof.  Mark does not state that the friends dug through branches, but only through the roof itself.  Luke gives us the added detail that they removed tiles before they dug through the clay roof.  There is no reason to conclude that the two accounts contradict one another.

The death of Judas

Here's another supposed contradiction: "Matthew says that Judas hanged himself; the book of Acts says he fell down and died.  Which is it?"  Matthew's gospel does indeed record Judas's suicide by hanging: "So Judas threw the money into the temple and left.  Then he went away and hanged himself.  The chief priests picked up the coins and said, 'It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.'  So they decided to use the money to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners.  That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day" (Mt 27:5-8).  In Acts 1 Peter says, "Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out" (v. 18).

How can the two accounts be reconciled?  In several ways.  It may be that Judas's body decomposed, so that when the rope broke or was cut, it fell as Peter describes.  Or it may be that the Greek word translated "hanged" is actually the word "impaled" (both meanings are possible), so that Peter describes more vividly the way Judas killed himself.  Either option is a possible way to explain the apparent contradiction.

The purchase of the field is likewise explainable.  "Judas bought a field" (Acts 1:18) can mean that the field was bought with his money, not necessarily that he procured the land personally.  We speak in the same way in our church when we tell members that their offerings paid for a particular ministry or building.  "You bought literature for our trip to South Texas," we tell them, even though they did not purchase the materials themselves.

It seems unlikely that Peter would get the details of Judas' death wrong, since it occurred less than six weeks before his comments in Acts 1.  He spoke in general terms about an event which was common knowledge; Matthew provided greater detail when he wrote about Judas' death some four decades later.

Angels at Easter

At Jesus' resurrection, when the women came to the empty tomb "two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them" (Lk. 24:4).  John's account agrees: Mary "saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot" (Jn. 20:12).  However, Matthew 28:2-7 records only one angel who rolled back the stone, frightened the guards, and spoke to the women.  And Mark tells us that the women found "a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side" of the tomb (16:5).

Were there two angels or one at the resurrection?  Yes.  In ancient literature, it was common for the spokesman to be described without mentioning those who accompanied him.  For instance, in Acts 15 we learn that Silas accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey (v. 40).  But then Luke records that "He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches" (v. 41), and then "He came to Derbe and then to Lystra" (16:1).  Where was Silas?  With Paul, though unnamed and unmentioned.

In the same way, one angel could roll aside the stone and speak to the women, while another was present as well.  There is no reason to insist that the accounts contradict each other.  Additionally, the angels were seated (Jn 20:12) and standing (Lk 24:4), as they changed their posture during the course of the event.

Such independence of accounts actually strengthens the case for biblical trustworthiness.  It is obvious that the writers did not try to coordinate their descriptions.  No collusion was at work.  Any traffic officer will testify that two people who witness the same automobile accident will tell the story with different details.  So long as they agree on the essentials, their testimony will be accepted as trustworthy.  In fact, if every detail agrees, the court will wonder if the witnesses coordinated their stories before telling them under oath.

In the same way, we can know that those who recorded the first Easter got the intended meaning and message of the resurrection right.  To ask more is to raise a question the text is not intended to answer.  We don't play tennis with a football.

Understand the author's intention

A third category of supposed contradictions results from misunderstanding the background behind passages in God's word.  When we don't have the full picture, we distort the parts we do see.

It is unfair to any book to ask questions it does not intend to answer.  We don't use a cookbook to repair a car, or a poem to mow the lawn.  If a biblical writer did not intend chronological, historical, geographic, or scientific precision, it is unfair to criticize him for failing by such standards.  A meteorologist can predict the time of tomorrow's "sunrise" without intending to take us back to the Ptolemaic universe in which the sun rotates around the earth.

Let's consider some examples of "contradictions" which are explained by remembering the intention of the biblical authors.

Jesus' temptations

Matthew 4 records Jesus' temptations in this order: turn stones into bread (v. 3), jump from the temple (vs. 5-6), and worship Satan on a mountain (v. 9).  Luke 4 records the same temptations, but in a different order: turn stones to bread (v. 3), worship the devil on a mountain (vs. 5-6), and jump from the temple (vs. 9-11).

Aristotelian logic requires that we ask: which order is correct?  Which writer is wrong?  If one is wrong, maybe they're both wrong.  Maybe Satan is mythical.  Maybe Jesus' temptations are symbolic.  Once we start down the slippery slope of contradiction, where do we stop?

In their intentional context, there is no such contradiction here.  Neither Matthew nor Luke claimed to be writing historical chronology, so the order of Jesus' temptations is immaterial to their purpose.

Let's say a staff member asks me what I did today, and I tell him that I taught Men's Bible Study this morning, attended our Thursday prayer meeting, and worked on my sermon for this weekend.  Then tonight my wife asks me what I did, and I tell her that I taught Men's Bible Study, worked on my sermon, and attended Thursday prayer meeting.  Have I contradicted myself?  Only if I promised to state the activities in their proper chronological order each time I recounted the events.  If such was not my intention, my retelling of the day is correct in each account.

In the same way, Matthew and Luke contradict each other regarding Jesus' temptations only if each of them stated their intention to record chronological precision.  Since they don't, it is clear that the order of the temptations stands outside their intention and thus our criticism.

Copyist errors

The Bible is the product of some fifteen centuries of authorship and another fifteen centuries of handwritten transmission.  Not until the Gutenberg Bible was it possible to copy and transmit the Scriptures mechanically; not until this generation was such possible electronically.

As we will see in have seen, the manuscripts for the biblical texts are astoundingly accurate and trustworthy.  However, it is inevitable that human hands, copying such a large text, would make occasional scribal errors.  Such problems are far less common with the Bible than with any other ancient literature.  And not one affects a single doctrine or faith practice.

Let's look at some "contradictions" which result from copyist errors.  2 Samuel 10 tells us that in conflict with the Aramean army, "David killed seven hundred of their charioteers" (v. 18).  When 1 Chronicles 19 records the same event four centuries later, it states that "David killed seven thousand of their charioteers" (v. 18).  It would be easy for a scribe to make a mistake by either reducing the 1 Chronicles number or adding to the one recorded in 2 Samuel.

Of course, the two accounts are not technically in contradiction, since 700 is a subset of 7,000.  David killed 700 charioteers, if he killed 7,000.  But most likely the difference is the result of a copyist mistake.  And this mistake changes absolutely nothing about the intended message of the two passages--David led his armies to victory and his nation to peace.

Another example of copyist error is in the well-known 23rd Psalm.  The NIV renders the last phrase, "and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (v. 6).  The Masoretes (scribes who copied the Old Testament) rendered the verb as "I will return," from the Hebrew verb wesabti.  But the verb weyasabti ("remain") was likely the original.  The "w" (Hebrew waw) and the "y" (Hebrew yod) looked so much alike that the Masoretes saw the "y" as a repeated "w" and dropped it, rendering the verb wesabti.  Because Hebrew scholars believe the original verb was weyasabti, they translate the phrase "I will dwell."

Before you decide that these kinds of mistakes in transmission disqualify biblical authority, apply such a test to any other means of communication.  A single typographical error in tomorrow's newspaper means that you cannot trust anything it reports.  A mistake in tonight's television newscast means that every story is unreliable.  My first mistake in typography or syntax disqualifies everything you read in this book.

By such standards no literature or communication medium can be trusted.  No phone book or dictionary should be consulted.  No doctor should practice medicine, since medical books are not free from error.  And no medical practice is immune from mistakes.  If a single doctor misdiagnoses a single ailment, none of us should ever consult a physician again.

At issue is the intention of the text.  As we have seen, the Bible does not intend to be a book which meets 21st-century standards of scientific, geographic, or historical precision.  No ancient book does.  And few if any documents in current literature can stand such scrutiny perfectly.  But the Bible, as transmitted to us across 35 centuries, retains complete accuracy in all it intends to accomplish.  It shows us how to find Jesus (John 20:30-31), and how to be equipped for faith and service in the Kingdom of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Conclusion

The next time someone claims the Bible is full of contradictions, ask him if he has read the Bible.  Then ask if it is a contradiction to dismiss a book he hasn't read.  Now offer to help him study the Bible and meet its Author.  It is a contradiction to me that a holy and perfect God would want me to live in his perfect paradise.  I'm glad it's not to him.

 Good sources in this area include Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1987); Larry Richards, Bible Difficulties Solved (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, 1993); and Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1982).

 For another explanation which locates Jesus' phrase with the biblical text concerning Abiathar rather than his physical circumstances, see Blomberg 193.