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I’ve argued (Part 3) that the Bible is a coherent work of literature. But that’s obviously not true if it contradicts itself. You can find all kinds of collections of supposed biblical contradictions; there’s a well-designed site that lists 140 of them, and the Skeptics Annotated Bible identifies 496.
I’ve studied this topic for many years, and the more of these charges I read, the less I think of them. In fact, the great majority—I’m talking 98 or 99%–are just silly. I don’t have the space to prove that here, but I’d like to engage in a little exercise that will get us started in that direction.
For many years, if you GoogledTM “contradictions in the Bible,” you’d get first a link to a list of 69 errors compiled by Jim Meritt. (The site owners have since taken it down, for reasons that will become obvious in a minute.) If you don’t know all the details of how something gets to be the first hit in Google, in brief it’s an indication that the internet community has decided, by linking to it, that it’s the most valuable resource available on the topic.
Since Meritt’s list was #1 for years, I went to the trouble of evaluating it in depth and compiled this summary. His work is now gone and replaced with this list of 332 alleged contradictions, largely harvested from the Skeptics Annotated Bible, but the principles we’ll note today still very much apply.
When skeptics allege a contradiction in the Bible, they’re pretty much always making at least one of eight very basic scholarly errors. Let me identify them and give an example of each.
1. Depending on an English Translation
No orthodox Christians teach that any translation of the Bible is inspired; inspiration, and thus inerrancy, apply only to the original writings. So when Luke says that the men with Paul heard the voice of Jesus from heaven (Acts 9.7), and Paul later tells the mob in Jerusalem that they didn’t (Acts 22.9), some English translations fail to make obvious a very clear distinction in the Greek—that the men heard the sound of the voice but could not understand the message. Now, a skeptic can be forgiven for being misled by a translation, but he should not get away with making scholarly judgments when he doesn’t even have the basic tools (knowledge of the biblical languages) to speak to the question.
2. Transcription Errors
The manuscripts from which modern Bibles are translated were copies made by hand from older copies. They contain copying errors; no one denies this, and there’s an entire discipline (textual criticism) that devotes itself to dealing with them. (And by the way, that’s not a problem for us—but that’s a subject for another post.) So when 1Kings 4.26 says that Solomon had 40,000 horse stalls, and 2Chr 9.25 says he had 4,000, that’s not an error in the original; it’s clearly a copying error.
3. Not Paying Attention
Any work of literature contains details, and readers are supposed to notice them. Gen 7.9 says that all the animals went into the ark in pairs. Back in Gen 7.2, we find that God told Noah to take 7 of each kind of clean animal—obviously, so he’d have extras for eating and sacrificing. Verse 9 doesn’t contradict that; there were 2 of all animals, and 7 of just the clean ones.
4. Not Paying Attention to Context
In 1Co 2.15, Paul says that the spiritual person judges all things; in context he’s talking about discerning what the Spirit teaches to those whom he indwells. In 1Co 4.5 he tells the Corinthians not to judge—that is, not to make decisions “before the time,” or without having complete information. The context of each statement makes it clear that they do not contradict.
5. Cultural Ignorance
The Bible is the literary product of another time and place. When we interpret it, we need to understand how the people of that time and place would have spoken or written. For example, Paul speaks of “The Twelve” apostles (1Co 15.5) after Judas’s suicide, when there would have been only 11. But it’s clear in the NT that the body of the apostles was routinely called “The Twelve”; and Peter’s statement in Acts 1.20-22 that the missing Judas must be replaced helps verify that.
6. Childish Literalism
Literature uses metaphor routinely. But skeptics often read such metaphors like Amelia Bedelia—perhaps because they think that’s how we read them. (It isn’t.) So God tells the serpent that he will eat dust (Gen 3.14), and the critic says that’s a scientific error. Um, no. When a drag racer looks in his rear-view mirror and shouts, “Eat my dust!” he’s not making nutritional recommendations.
7. Eyewitness Perspective
When two eyewitnesses report an event, they notice and thus report different things. (Investigators will tell you that if two suspects report exactly the same details about an accusation, they’ve probably concocted the story.) So when Matthew, Luke, and John report that the rooster crowed after Peter’s denial, and Mark reports that he crowed twice, that’s not a contradiction. In fact, since Mark is reporting Peter’s perspective, and Peter was the only disciple there, it’s likely that the other 3 are just summarizing what Peter had told them.
8. Roundness of Character
Good literature celebrates the fact that people are complicated. Is God a God of war (Ex 15.3) or a God of peace (Rom 15.33)? Well, it kinda depends on where you stand with him. That’s not a contradiction; it’s a round character, and we learned about those back in ninth-grade English, when somebody apparently wasn’t paying attention.
An objective analysis of these passages makes it clear that not only are they not contradictions, they’re not even reasonably problematic. And usually the people making the charges don’t know enough about the subject even to be addressing it.
That said, there are some difficult passages in the Bible; there are statements that we don’t have enough information to evaluate with certainty. What about those?
In the past, some of the thorniest questions—writing in the time of Moses, and the existence of the Hittites, for example—were answered as further information came to light from archaeology and other sources. Undoubtedly more questions will be answered as the Lord tarries.
But what if they aren’t?
Let me suggest that it’s not naïve or unscholarly to trust your friends. I trust my wife because I know her; we have a basis for trust. I trust God and his Word for the same reason. That’s not blind faith; it’s how healthy relationships work.
So for the things in God’s Word that we don’t understand, we wait, and we trust.
And for the things we do, we obey, and we worship.