Today more than ever the origin, credibility, and historical reliability of the Bible have come into question. It is faulted for not being immaculately inerrant, and critics proffer a barrage of apparent contradictions in attempts to discredit the Bible.
Are their criticisms valid?
Perhaps we should first determine what constitutes a genuine contradiction. A contradiction occurs when two or more statements or situations stand in opposition to each other: “Jack is bad.” “Jack is good.” These two appear mutually exclusive, but perhaps we should interrogate them. Are the two Jacks the same person? At what times were the two statements made? Might Jack have changed? Again, who are the readers? How should readers understand the words “bad” and “good?”
I remember once after preaching that a young friend blurted out: “Man, you bad!” He meant that I had done very well. Acknowledging the range of important elements that come into play—time, place, language, social norms and customs, etc.—this article considers eight of the many salient principles that deserve our consideration before Bible enthusiasts or critics may state valid claims. Hopefully, the examples that accompany these principles serve to reasonably clarify the contradictions that seem to be involved in each instance.
Although the Bible bears one common theme, it was composed by about 40 different personalities at various times, authors whose styles, purposes, and use of literary conventions, whose foci and agendas varied significantly from person to person.
Example: The Temptations of Jesus. The Gospel writers’ varying order of the temptations of Jesus coincides with the goals of each author’s book. In Matthew, where majesty is a major theme, Jesus’ climactic temptation is Satan’s offer of world kingdoms (Matt. 4:9, 10), placed second in Luke (4:9-12). The bulk of Luke’s Gospel is a travel narrative (Luke 9:51-19:47), showing Jesus headed toward Jerusalem where He would die for sinners. In keeping with this purpose Luke’s climactic temptation situates Jesus on the pinnacle of the Temple.
Bible writers used an exegetical method in which later biblical texts, whether in the Old Testament or New Testament, are sometimes written in the light of, or within the matrix of earlier biblical references or other noncanonical or extrabiblical sources. This may take the form of echoes, allusions, or quotations. Guided by the Holy Spirit, Bible writers exposed new contexts not originally contemplated, citing otherwise odd or incongruous parallels. This approach in biblical writing creates inconsistencies for some readers.
Example: Paul’s Allegory. In Galatians 4:21-31 Paul uses the narrative of Sarah and Hagar (Gen. 21) as an allegory to describe two covenants: slave woman Hagar is the earthly Jerusalem and the old covenant; free woman Sarah is the New Jerusalem and the new covenant.
Example: Matthew’s Messianic Fulfillment Passages. Matthew’s first four chapters introduce Jesus, the interpretive clue for understanding the rest of his Gospel. Jesus is Israel personified, who succeeds where Israel has failed. Matthew uses multiple Old Testament references to substantiate his fulfillment theme that Jesus is the New Israel. He reappropriates original context, place, and name in this endeavor.
“Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matt. 2:15) harks back to Hosea 11:1, which in its original context adds that the son’s heart was hardened. This is an unexpected parallel. Again, Matthew 2:17, 18 intertextually refers to Jeremiah 31:15, in which Jeremiah speaks of the Babylonian Exile and the promise that God’s people will return to Jerusalem. Matthew reapplies that prophecy to Herod’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem.
Figures of speech such as exaggeration and hyperbole, etc., in the service of truth is no modern invention; nor are rounding off numbers, or categorically binary opposites: God loves Jacob and hates Esau (Mal. 1:2, 3).
Example: David and the Showbread. In the accounts with David and the showbread, Mark identifies the high priest as Abiathar (Mark 2:25, 26); 1 Samuel 21:1ff. identifies him as Ahimelech (cf. 1 Sam 22:11, 15-20; 23:6-9). Jeremiah’s application on the purchase of the potter’s field (Jer. 19:1-3; 32:6-12; Matt. 27:9, 10) to the fulfilment of words spoken by Jeremiah may also illustrate this point since, in the Bible, they occur as Zechariah’s words (Zech. 11:12, 13).
Writers on the same topic often have different emphases. Witnesses to a given event see different things. The Synoptic Gospels are not carbon copies of the same thing. Each bears its own message.
Example: “Blessed Are the Poor.” While Luke’s report of the Sermon on the Mount celebrates the poor—“Blessed are the poor” (see Luke 6:20), for Matthew, Jesus commends “the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). The apparent contradiction need be no more than each author’s discreet employment of common material. “The poor” is a theme in Luke. Here he honors individuals who make themselves poor for the kingdom’s sake. Because Matthew’s audience is predominantly proud religious leaders, he shows that poverty of spirit is a crucial need.
Bible writers did not always write in what a modern may deem perfect order, or in the sequence as events occurred. Order and sequence served an author’s theological focus. Highlighting the central theme is his main intent. The books of the Bible are not arranged in chronological order. Dates and times may be stated in different ways, both of which are in fact correct. Beware of arguments from ignorance—criticisms based on personal or even a general lack of information. Many perfectly legitimate literary devices employed in the Holy Scriptures are easily recognizable in nonbiblical writing, both ancient and current.
Example: Events in the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew’s account of the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:5-13) is situated before the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (verses 14, 15). Luke locates it before the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-16). In another instance, Matthew puts the cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21:12, 13) immediately after the triumphal entry (verses 1-11), and before the cursing of the fig tree (verses 18-20). Mark positions the cleansing of the temple (Mark 11:15-17) on the day after the triumphal entry (verses 1-10), but after the cursing of the fig tree (verses 12-14). These sequences of events seem to differ from each other. While the Synoptic Gospels have the basic general outline of events with a broad chronology, synoptic writers seem to be focusing on thematic and topical arrangements unique to each author’s overall literary and spiritual purpose: Matthew seems to be more thematic and didactic; Mark more sequential.
This commonly happens with the Synoptic Gospels. The key is to decipher the main point the writer is trying to establish. He may arrange items to reflect his theological agenda or the time of the writing. In the process he may vary in some detail from another author’s report on a similar topic.
Example: Sending of the Twelve. In Mark 6:7-13, at the sending of the twelve, the disciples were instructed to take their staff, no bread, bag, money, or extra tunic, and wear sandals. The parallel text (Matt. 10:5-15) dismisses all considerations for personal insurance including dispensing with staff and sandals. Because staff and sandals would be generally necessary, and neither of them is a luxury item, both Mark a
nd Matthew communicate the principle of Jesus, total dependence on the kindness of others and total self-abnegation. The main idea is to travel light and depend upon the hospitality of others. Differing minor details offer two statements, both of which sharpen that understanding.
Sometimes a study of the original language clears up a seeming contradiction.
Example: Creation of the Animals and Humans. Contradiction is claimed regarding the two Creation accounts. In Genesis 1:24, 25 God creates animals before humanity; in Genesis 2:19 animals are created after humans and brought to Adam for him to name them. A pluperfect rendering of the verb “had formed” solves the problem, meaning God had formed animals in the farther past. Once the pluperfect tense is used, the contradiction evaporates.
Example: “Hearing With/Without Understanding. On the road to Damascus, Saul’s fellow travelers heard the voice but did not see anyone (Acts 9:7, KJV). This seems contradicted in Paul’s later account where his fellow travelers did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to him (Acts 22:9, KJV). The solution to the seeming contradiction lies in the Greek grammar. In the first instance, the Greek verb “to hear” is used with the genitive case, signifying that they heard but did not understand. In the second situation, the same verb is used with the accusative case, signifying that the hearing is with understanding. In this instance, saying they did not hear means they did not get the sense; they did not hear with understanding. Conclusively, they did not distinguish an articulate voice.
A comparison of the best manuscripts available sometimes provides the basis for the best translation of a biblical reference. This involves a technical study of the apparatus of the Greek and Hebrew Bibles. A study of original languages is an asset for this exercise. This study can be very rewarding in settling claims of contradictions.
Example: Revelation 22:14. The King James Version renders this text: “Blessed are they that do His commandments.” This reading is supported by late-ninth-century manuscripts. More reliable and older manuscripts, such as the Codices Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus (fourth and fifth centuries), render a more accurate variant: “Blessed are they that wash their robes.” The former reading appears to be a scribal revision intended to be consistent with Revelation 12:17 and 14:12.
The above principles can help to unravel perceived contradictions in the Bible. The Bible was written many centuries ago, and the principles and procedures for interpreting its contents are available, though the content being analyzed may be far removed from our time. Diligent Bible students must necessarily study the Bible against the backdrop of a Middle Eastern society in antiquity in terms of its manner of speaking and writing. Figuratively put, we must study the Bible with ancient Middle Eastern lenses. The Spirit is ever available to guide us in our reading.
Fazadudin Hosein is dean and professor of New Testament Studies in the School of Theology and Religion at the University of the Southern Caribbean, Trinidad, West Indies.