Answering Alleged Contradictions in the Bible
During the FOX News February 27 broadcast of The O’Reilly Factor, Mr. Bill O’Reilly stated that the New Testament Gospel writers contradict each other, in addition to implying that the Bible contains other errors. On February 26, as the Factor Tip of the Day, Mr. O’Reilly urged his viewers to present what they believe in a “rational way.” As the following article sets forth, to be rational means that one honors the law of rationality. This means that one should draw only such conclusions as are warranted by the evidence. This article provides a sound base for responding to such claims as those made by Mr. O’Reilly. The article first appeared in Sufficient Evidence: A Journal of Christian Apologetics (October 2012). For additional study see also “The Case for Biblical Inspiration” (Chapter 11) in Sztanyo’s 2012 book, Graceful Reason: Studies in Christian Apologetics.” [Charles C. Pugh III, Director]
In one of his letters, Peter wrote that some of Paul’s writings were difficult to understand. He stated:
. . . [O]ur beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
Notice that he suggested that there are “some things hard to understand,” which is quite different than saying that all things are hard to understand. Furthermore, he did not say that these things were impossible to understand. Moreover, even though these things were hard to understand, Peter makes it clear that those who fail to do so because of a lack of effort, do so at their own peril. As far as I am aware, few have dared to argue that difficulties or differences are the same as a contradiction. In point of fact, they are not the same. Difficulties may require some effort at times, but they do not disprove inspiration, nor do they present a real problem for believers. Differences in meaning are found in Scripture due to the covenants in force, different contexts, different circumstances, translation issues, etc. On the other hand, contradictions cannot be explained away. A genuine contradiction would be an insurmountable problem. If the God of the Bible cannot lie, then neither can His message to mankind communicate that which is a lie.
We frequently hear the charge, “The Bible is full of contradictions.” If not this exact statement, the positions advocated by skeptics and doubters is meant to say the same thing and to be the same attack upon the integrity of Scripture. There are people who believe these allegations, because they have heard the charge repeated so often. Others who hate God, Scripture, and anything associated with the Christian faith, frequently make the same accusations. The problem is, that most of these people have only a superficial knowledge of Scripture and of what constitutes a genuine contradiction. They can rarely name even one alleged contradiction that the Bible is supposed to contain. They are just convinced that these contradictions are in the Bible somewhere.
What Is a Contradiction?
The logical Law of Contradiction is derived from metaphysical first principles. The metaphysical principle of non-contradiction is that “a thing cannot both be and not be, taken in the same sense and at the same time.” In other words, the universe cannot both exist and not exist at the same time, taken in the same sense. It either exists or it does not. I, as an individual, cannot both exist and not exist taken in the same sense and at the same time. Even God Himself cannot both exist and not exist. This first principle is part of the fabric of reality itself. Now, the way that we speak precisely about things, and formulate arguments, falls within the sphere of logical investigations. Thus, the logical Law of Contradiction simply says, “contradictory statements cannot both be true.” When I formulate statements about the universe, myself, or God, as I did above, I am reflecting upon reality itself in the way that I described them. Metaphysics is the study of ultimate reality, including those principles which govern reality (such as the principle of non-contradiction, the principle of excluded middle, and the principle of identity). Logic, ideally, is how we speak and think intelligently about that reality. Perhaps that is why some refer to these fundamental principles of logic as “laws of thought.” What I am looking at presently is either a door or it is not a door. It cannot be both a door and not a door, taken in the same sense and at the same time. If it is a door, it is precisely a door and not something else. When I speak, write, or think precisely about such things, I am employing the principles of logic.
To give some additional examples, the Earth cannot both be flat in shape and not flat in shape. Baptism, for a penitent believer, cannot both be necessary for salvation and not necessary for salvation. If one of the conjuncts is true, the other is necessarily false. If one is false, the other is necessarily true. If the Bible somehow claimed that both statements from any of the examples I have given are true, then we would have a real contradiction.
Sources of Alleged Contradictions
There are a number of books that deal with supposed contradictions and Bible difficulties. Space in this brief article will not allow me to discuss each of the ones that skeptics introduce. Discussions on the subject are readily available from both sides. I suggest that any who are confronted with the charge that “the Bible is full of contradictions” investigate that charge carefully before jumping to conclusions. The Law of Rationality says that “one ought to draw only such conclusions as are warranted (justified) by the evidence” (cf. Ruby 131). No one should accept a charge for or against such important matters unless the evidence demands that the charge be accepted.
One of the best treatments of this subject is the work of John Haley. It has virtually become a standard for discussions of this sort. He lists the following possible sources of alleged contradictions: (1) difference in dates, (2) difference of authorship, (3) difference of standpoint or of object, (4) different principles and methods of arrangement, (5) different modes of computing time, (6) peculiarities of oriental idiom, (7) use of several names for persons and places, (8) use of the same words for different meanings, (9) errors in manuscripts, and (10) the imaginations of critics (3-29).
Beyond these I would also list some additional sources of alleged contradictions. First, there is ignorance. Those who loudly proclaim that the “Bible is full of mistakes and contradictions” often cannot produce a single alleged example when pressed to prove their case. Many today are completely ignorant of the basic teachings of the Bible. For instance, the Bible refers to the Hittites more than 40 times. Critics were certain no such people existed as was claimed in the Old Testament. However, in 1906, archaelogical excavations begun at Bogazkoy (90 miles east of Ankara, Turkey) unearthed the capital of the Hittite empire thus proving the existence of the Hittites.
Second, no single Bible writer claims to tell the whole story. As an example, the four Gospel accounts differ from one another precisely because the authors had different audiences to whom they were addressing themselves. Matthew was written primarily for a Jewish audience, and numerous Old Testament quotations are found within that record. Mark was written mainly for a Roman populace interested in power. Luke seems to have the personal interactions between Jesus and His listeners in mind. John writes to convince His readers that Jesus the Christ is actually the Son of God. We get a more complete picture from four different witnesses than we could ever have obtained from a single source. The emphasis seems to be: (1) the Messiah-King is coming, and He is here (Matthew), (2) the Messiah-King is powerful (Mark), (3) the Messiah-King is completely and fully man (Luke), and (4) the Messiah-King is completely and fully God (John).
A significant difference exists between the two genealogical records given in Matthew and Luke. Some have tried in vain to suggest a contradiction between them. If Matthew was tracing the ancestry of Jesus through the Davidic line and, therefore, the divine ancestry of Jesus, whereas Luke was tracing the human ancestry of Jesus, then the supposed difficulties vanish into thin air. The authors had different purposes in mind. Does anyone seriously suppose that authors who were trying to invent a story to deceive the world, would present to their readers such an obvious inconsistency, if that was what we have in these two records? Would they not have done a better job at getting their stories to fit together? As far back as 1749, one writer said:
No single forger, or combination of forgers, would have suffered the apparent inconsistencies which occur in a few places, such as the different genealogies of Christ . . . and some little variations in the narration of the same fact in different Gospels. These are too obvious at first sight, not to have been prevented, had there been any fraud. (Watson 33)
Our skeptical friends will have to do better than this.
Third, there are numerous examples of those who fail to be fair with the biblical record. Such persons go to the Scriptures with a preconceived belief that there are contradictions. Then they are able to find that for which they are looking. Of course, they do so by failing to even consider possible explanations or harmonizations. This is similar to Bible believers who go to the text with a preconceived notion of various doctrinal positions they have always held to be true, and then finding those positions by taking verses out of context to bolster their viewpoint. This is fallacious reasoning.
Fourth, there are those who are guilty of misinterpreting the Bible. For many years critics (both religious and non-religious) have argued that James and Paul contradict one another in their teaching about faith and works. Martin Luther even went so far as to suggest that the epistle of James was a “right strawy epistle” meaning that it was not as certainly inspired as Paul’s writings where he assumed that he found salvation by faith only. Now, here is the issue: Paul says that “we are not justified by works” (Romans 4:1ff.; 11:1ff.). James says that “we are justified by works” (James 2:14-26). Either we have hopeless contradiction in Scripture between these two writers, or there is another possible explanation. Since the faith mentioned in these passages is the same kind of faith, both before and after salvation occurs, the explanation has to be in a careful consideration of the term works.
Part of the confusion expressed in the ongoing give and take relative to this issue, is located in failing to distinguish types of works in Scripture. When the Bible says that “works do not justify” and “works do justify,” it becomes pretty clear that either the Bible is hopelessly contradictory on this point, or more than one type of work is under consideration in the Bible. The latter choice is the correct one. Some works are completely excluded with reference to my salvation, and some works are included. When those works that are included are performed, they do not merit salvation in any sense whatever. Works excluded are: (1) works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21; this should be obvious), (2) works of human merit (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-5), (3) works of the Law (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:20), and/or (4) works of human devising (Romans 10:1-4). In contrast, works included with reference to my salvation are works of righteousness (Acts 10:34-35; John 6:28-29).
The question is (and always has been) whether our faith is active and submissive in the salvation process, or totally inactive and passive. Calvinists, Wesleyans, and others argue that faith is totally inactive and passive. In fact, faith is even given to us as a gift. It is not something that you or I do in the active sense, especially per Calvinistic thought. I would submit to you, however, that Scripture clearly teaches that my faith must be active and submissive. Isn’t it interesting that the very one who is used by Paul to argue salvation apart from works of human merit and devising (viz. Abraham) is used by the author of Hebrews as well as James as the primary example of active and submissive faith (Hebrews 11:8, 17; James 2:24-26). One other example is used, namely, Rahab. Her faith was expressed through works (James 2:25-26), which the author of Hebrews defines as an obedient faith (Hebrews 11:31). If she didn’t perish with those who disobeyed, it must have been because she obeyed (cf. Romans 1:5; 16:25-26; 6:16-18). The only kind of faith the Bible describes with reference to salvation is a living, active, obedient, and submissive faith. Salvation is the gift, not faith, and we must be obedient to the commandments of God if we have any hope of salvation at all (cf. Matthew 7:21-23).
Fifth, we sometimes have a change in circumstances in Scripture. One can find passages in the Bible where it says that the creation of man was “good” (Genesis 1:31) and where it says that it “grieved [God] at His heart” that He had even made man on the Earth (Genesis 6:6). If one places these two statements side by side, then they are apparently contradictory. However, when we consider that there is at least 1000 years between the circumstances announced in these two passages, and that the first was made before sin entered into the world while the second is a description of the awful effects of sin, there is no discrepancy. The statements are correct in the their description of the different circumstances at the time being discussed in both instances.
Sixth, there is an extreme prejudice in the minds of some critics of the Bible. Some simply do not want to be convinced that the Bible is the word of God, and they will do anything and everything possible to avoid accepting it as true. Surely this betrays an unwillingness to even consider what the Bible says we must do in life. For instance, philosopher Thomas Nagel candidly writes:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind. (130-31)
It is a rather rare admission that a person simply doesn’t “want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” If there is a God (and there is) and the Bible is His word (and it is), then the situation is quite different, is it not?
Some Alleged Contradictions
Space prohibits a full discussion of the supposed contradictions in Scripture. Indeed, it would require a very large book, or a series of volumes, to begin to deal with all of the challenges that have been made against the integrity of the Bible. Suffice it to say that the objectors keep shifting the ground of the debate, because their challenges continue to be answered. Consequently, I will briefly introduce a couple of examples of the sorts of things being said about the word of God by those who refuse to accept it.
First, it is suggested that the Bible gives two contradictory accounts of creation, one in Genesis 1 and the other in Genesis 2. If we understand through a careful analysis of the contexts in question, and the rest of the biblical record that Genesis 2:1ff is really an expansion upon and an explanation of Genesis 1:26-28, the problem disappears. Actually, the Bible traces the lineage of God’s people rather than a description of and discussion of those who in history rebelled against Him. Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. For a time, both boys occupy attention in Scripture. Then the Bible begins to more narrowly focus upon Isaac, and Ishmael becomes less and less prominent. Isaac had Jacob and Esau as sons. Again, there is some attention given to both boys at first. But, the focus is once more upon the lineage that ultimately leads to the Christ. So, Jacob becomes the prominent figure. Then, his sons take center stage, etc. In ever narrowing and intense focus, the Bible points with crystal clarity to the coming of the Christ, His life, teachings, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Then, the focus changes slightly to a description of the church that He shed His blood to purchase (cf. Acts 20:28). This is the way that the Bible treats these important subjects. With Genesis chapters 1 and 2 properly understood, there is no discrepancy at all; only a narrowing of the focus from creation at large, including living creatures, to a more complete discussion of humanity.
Second, the healing of the blind man is frequently brought up due to different descriptions in the Gospel accounts (cf. Matthew. 20:20-34; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43). For example, as Jesus traveled toward Jerusalem, Mark and Luke mention the healing of one blind man (Mark 10:46; Luke 18:35), while Matthew records the healing of two men (Matthew 20:30). Matthew and Mark indicate that the healing was done as Jesus was leaving Jericho, whereas Luke appears to suggest the a blind man was healed as the Lord “drew nigh” to the city. If Mark had declared that one, and only one, man had been healed, but Matthew affirmed that more than one was healed, then we would truly have a Bible contradiction. But, this is not the case at all. Matthew’s record merely supplements Mark and Luke. So, what sorts of explanations can be given for this circumstance. Some have suggested that one of the blind men was quite prominent while the other was less so. The writers all focused upon the more prominent of the two, while Matthew mentions both of them. This, it seems to me, is the least satisfactory explanation. Others have said that it is possible that three blind men were healed in the vicinity of Jericho on this occasion. The instances mentioned by Luke while Jesus approached the city would be different from that recorded by Matthew and Mark when He was leaving the city. This is possible. But, the next two explanations seem more plausible to me than the first two. The verb eggizo (rendered “drew nigh” or “drew near” in Luke 18:35) is often translated “to be near,” as in the Septuagint’s rendering in 1 Kings 21:2; Deuteronomy 21:3; Jeremiah 23:23; Ruth 2:20; 2 Samuel 19:42. And, in the New Testament, it is also translated in this way in Luke 19:29 compared with Matthew 21:1 and Philippians 2:3. As a result, Luke really said that Jesus was “near to” Jericho when the miracle occurred which removes the problem entirely. Finally, a view that is very popular among many who discuss this subject is the fact that, at the time of Christ, there were actually two Jerichos. The first Jericho is the one of Old Testament history. This city was mostly in ruins at the time of the New Testament. The other city was about two miles south of the first one and was the new Jericho built by Herod the Great. The Lord, therefore, travelling toward Jerusalem, would pass through the Old Testament Jericho first and finally, some two miles further down the road, He would pass through Herodian Jericho. If the miracles performed were done between the two Jerichos, once again the question is rendered a non-issue. This is the explanation favored by the great Greek grammarian of a few decades ago, A. T. Robertson (163).
Remember, if we have difficulties in Scripture and if they are capable of rationally intelligible explanations, then we do not have a contradiction. Contradictions occur if, and only if, there is no plausible explanation at all. There is no plausible explanation at all to the assertion that God both exists and does not exist, when taken in exactly the same sense and at the same time. One cannot give a possible explanation to the propositions, “baptism in water is essential unto salvation for a penitent believer” and “baptism in water is not essential unto salvation for a penitent believer.” It is either one or the other; both can’t be true. So it is with alleged Bible contradictions. That we have Bible difficulties and discrepancies is beyond successful refutation. But, that we have Bible contradictions (wherein no possible explanation can be given) has not been proven. And, as a matter of fact, since the Bible is the word of God, such allegations will never be proven!
Dick Sztanyo studied Philosophy of Religion and Apologetics under Thomas B. Warren at Harding Graduate School of Religion. He has done additional study at the International Academy of Philosophy and Andrews University as well as doctoral work in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. His recently released book, Graceful Reason: A Study in Christian Apologetics, published by Warren Christian Apologetics Center is available through the Warren Center Bookstore. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Haley, John W. An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1951.
Nagel, Thomas. The Last Word. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. 1. Nashville: Broadman, 1932. 6 vols.
Ruby, Lionel. Logic: An Introduction. Chicago: J. B. Lippincott, 1960.
Watson, Richard. A Collection of Theological Tracts. Vol. 5 London: Evans, 1791.