Contending with the (Alleged) Contradictions of Scripture
It is very common for someone to object to Christianity on the basis of the belief that there is a wide array of contradictions in the Bible. It is also very common that, if pressed, the person raising this objection cannot name a single contradiction. However, it doesn’t take but an internet search of “Bible contradictions” to provide an abundance of opportunities to think about possible inconsistencies. We will of course not be able to address in this short article every single contradiction that is alleged or even very many of them. Instead I want to think more generally about how to evaluate alleged contradictions. I’m happy to tip may hand from the outset here and say that I do not believe there is a single contradiction in the entirety of the Bible. This is not an article of blind faith for me. I have come to this conclusion from a long and varied study of these issues as I have tried to approach this area as unbiased as possible.
We should first get clear as to what a contradiction is. A contradiction is when a claim (e.g., pizza is good) and the negation of the claim (e.g., pizza is not good) are both asserted as true, where the terms of the claims are understood in the very same sense and occurring at the same time. Let’s say that you overheard me say “Romney did not win the presidential election.” Then, in the course of the conversation a few minutes later, suppose you heard me claim “Romney did win the election.” This appears to be a contradiction. However, there are a few ways in which it may not be. I could have meant by the term ‘win’ in the first instance that Romney did not win in terms of actual votes but in the second instance I could have meant that Romney won the election of our hearts (I’m not sure what that would mean but let’s go with it). Here there would be two different senses of the term ‘win.’ Furthermore, I could have meant in the first instance that Romney did not win the Presidential election of 2012 but in the second instance that he won the Massachusetts gubernatorial election of 2002. That is, if these statements were referring to different times, then they are perfectly consistent.
A contradiction is when a claim and the negation of the claim are both asserted as true, where the terms of the claims are understood in the very same sense and occurring at the same time.
When it comes to the Bible, the reason why there are so many apparent inconsistencies is because the Bible is a multi-authored, multi-genre book with many different aims and purposes relative to specific sections of Scripture written over the better part of two millennia. Many of the apparent inconsistencies can be resolved by simply thinking about the genre, the purpose of the relevant texts and what was going on historically in that point in the text.
Let’s look at a few examples of alleged contradictions. Exodus 20:12 records the command “honor your father and your mother” while Jesus says in Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” On a straightforward reading, this would appear to be a contradiction about how one should think about one’s parents. However, this is easily reconciled if we understand Jesus as using hyperbolic language to communicate how “sold out” a disciple must be. After all Jesus is in the midst of speaking in parables and teaching in the most extreme terms about the devotion of a disciple. Jesus doesn’t think that we should hate our family members any more than he thinks we should carry literal lumber on our backs to fulfill his command to carry our cross (v. 27). Moreover, these seem to be understood as hyperbolic by his disciples since they do not go out casting aspersions at their family members.
Perhaps the most often cited example of contradiction are the events related to the resurrection of Christ as accounted for in the four gospels. One such instance of this concerns the women to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection. Matthew has it as “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matt. 28:1), Mark has it as “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome” (Mark 16:1), Luke says “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them” (Luke 24:10), while John mentions only Mary Magdalene (John 20:1). Now if the John passage said that Mary Magdalene came by herself then this would seem to be impossible to reconcile with the other passages. But as it is, to claim that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb is perfectly consistent with Mary Magdalene and other women coming to the tomb. It would seem that John likely had a reason to emphasize Mary Magdalene’s presence perhaps as representative of the group without the need to mention the other women by name.
A similar thing happens with parallel Old Testament accounts when they differ in terms of names and numbers. We should mention that it is possible that these minor differences are the result of copyist errors. However, it has been my experience that there are often ways that these differences actually provide interesting insight into the events in perfectly compatible ways.
Rather than casting doubt on these accounts, these sorts of (compatible) differences of detail actually provide reason to think that the accounts are reliable. If two accounts of witnessing an event are supposed to be independent (that is, not relying on each other), then they should not be identical in the details they emphasize. This is because when describing a typical event, there are so many details from which we may choose to emphasize that it is virtually impossible two witnesses would select the very same details in describing the events. What we would expect with eyewitness testimony is discrepancies. It is a problem when these discrepancies are irreconcilable but actually a boon to their authenticity when they paint a fuller yet consistent picture.
A final problem with these alleged contradictions is that they are simply too obvious. It’s not as if we have only just discovered the discrepancies with the rise of the New Atheist movement. If Scripture was filled with fabrications, then the fabricators were incredibly inept at their craft. It seems more likely to me that these are accounts that are faithful to a variety of aims and purposes.
I, without apology, approach Scripture with the belief that it is innocent until proven guilty.
So far all I have pointed out is alternate ways of understanding certain passages that if right would resolve apparent tensions. But how do I know the way I am reading these is the right one? Something to notice is that a critic of the Bible will almost always approach Scripture as guilty until proven innocent. If there is the mere possibility of contradiction, then it often follows, for this person, that there is a contradiction. I, without apology, approach Scripture with the belief that it is innocent until proven guilty. So if a passage can be justifiably read (it is, for me, really important that it is justifiable) in such a way that resolves the tension, then I will. The reason for this is that these textual issues are one part in a complete apologetic. It stands alongside all the rest of the multifarious evidence, philosophical, historical, archeological, textual and so on. With all of this pointing to the veridicality of the Christian claims, it would be entirely unmotivated for me to approach Scripture in an uncharitable manner. I understand that there will be many who don’t share these motivations when they approach Scripture. But this is why we need to have a long conversation.