Does the Bible Contradict Itself?
How to think about differences in scripture.
Does the Bible contradict itself?
Most people answer this question either with an adamant “Yes!” or passionate “No!” Too often, though, both sides fail to understand or represent the other side. Not everyone who says that the Bible contains contradictions is an angry, arrogant, card-carrying atheist. And not everyone who believes there aren’t any contradictions is a backwoods, unscientific, raging fundamentalist with his head in the sand.
The Middle Ground
There is a middle ground. One where someone has actually examined the apparent contradiction and humbly weighed the evidence, and yet concluded that what appeared to be a contradiction wasn’t one at all. There are also some who cherish God’s word, submit to its authority, and yet still acknowledge that there are some passages that contradict each other.
The Bible, they say, is God’s word to humankind, but it’s been mediated through human authors and therefore might contain some mistakes. Not everyone who believes that there are contradictions is hosting a Bible-burning party every Friday night.
I see myself somewhere in this middle ground, though I’m still not convinced that the Bible contradicts itself. So what do I do with all the apparent contradictions in the Bible? Certainly there seems to be contradictions.
What “Contradictions” Look Like
First, it’s important to distinguish between contradiction and difference. Just because two passages are different, doesn’t mean they contradict each other. For example, Matthew 27:5 says that Judas hung himself, while Acts 1:18 says that he fell to the ground and burst wide open. These are two different accounts of Judas’ death, but they are not formal contradictions. A contradiction would be one passages saying, “Judas hung himself and died” and another passage saying, “Judas didn’t hang himself; rather, he threw himself from cliff and splattered on the ground.”
In the Bible, it could be that he hung himself in a high tree, and then the rope snapped and he fell headlong and burst all over the ground. Or maybe his attempt at hanging himself didn’t work (Matthew 27 doesn’t actually say he died from hanging himself), and so he went and threw himself from a cliff, as recorded in Acts.
Or maybe there are other options. The point is, many apparent contradictions aren’t really formal contradictions at all. They’re simply different accounts, different perspectives, or different versions of the story.
We should respect, enjoy, and embrace the beautiful diversity in the Bible and not try to iron everything out so neatly. If God wanted to give us one account of Jesus, He would have given us one Gospel instead of four. We need to celebrate this diversity instead of being ashamed of it.
How We Read Scripture
Second, it’s also crucial that we don’t presuppose a particular view of the Bible and then try to stuff the Bible into our preconceived (and quite modern) notion of how it must read. Many Christians think that divine inspiration means that God dictated His words to human authors and therefore bypassed all human agency. But this isn’t what inspiration means.
When Paul says that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16), he doesn’t mean that the biblical writers received God’s word while rolling around in some trance, totally unaware of what was going on. God breathed out His words through, not in spite of, human authors. They wrote God’s words in their style, with their concerns, and in light of their culture context.
Third, and along these same lines, we must allow for flexibility within the language of the Bible. The Bible is written in narrative, poetry, and the highly imaginative genre of apocalyptic. It contains metaphors, prophecies, parables, and it sometimes overstates things to make a point. “Tear out your eye and throw it from you,” Jesus says, if it causes you to stumble.
Language is flexible and each culture has different standards of how language works. In the ancient world, for instance, it was quite common for battle accounts to use hyperbole when reflecting on the victory.
When the Bible says that “Joshua struck the whole land” and “left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed” (Josh 10:40), this is common war-rhetoric that simply means he won the war. He conquered his enemies. Normandy has been taken. So when we read about surviving Canaanites later in the book (e.g. Josh 13:1-7; 17:12-13), this doesn’t mean that the previous passage is wrong. The hyperbolic victory statement in Joshua 10, interpreted correctly, doesn’t mean that every man, woman, child, and infant was slain by the Israelites.
Fourth, critics of Bible often over emphasize contradictions in the Bible while ignoring the many passages where there’s striking agreement. For instance, I often hear people talk about all the contradictions between the numbers in Samuel and Kings versus the numbers in Chronicles when they record the same event. And it’s true: sometimes the numbers don’t quite match up. But what the critics often don’t tell you is that of the 213 times where Samuel/Kings and Chronicles records the same event, the numbers are exactly the same 196 times!
As far as the differences, Chronicles records a higher number 10 times and a lower number 7 times. If the author of Chronicles was all about inflating the numbers, he certainly didn’t do it that often, nor did he do it very consistently. If he was prone to telling big fish stories (“no really, it was a 10 pound…I mean 20 pound trout!”), you’d expect him to always inflate the numbers. But he doesn’t. There’s no clear, or even consistent, agenda going on here.
Plus, some of the differences can be easily explained. For instance, 1 Chronicles 21:5 says that Judah had 470,000 valiant soldiers while the parallel in 2 Samuel 24:9 says they had 500,000. Is this a contradiction? Not if you read the passage according to the normal rules of language. We don’t demand such precision in our daily speech; we round up or round down, and no one accuses us of lying.
Some of my students may say that my classes are three hours long, while others will say they are two hours and 50 minutes. They are both correct, really. I’ve never rebuked a student for lying, if he said class was three hours long: “Do the math, stupid! Class begins on 9:00am and gets out at 11:50am!”
The Bible, as God’s word, has been mediated to us through human authors. Real human authors who wrote in real human language in real space and time. Its authors were more like artists than scientists or mathematicians.
Answering for the Bible
Fifth and finally, we don’t need to have an answer for every apparent contradiction. Yes, it’s true. There are certainly passages that seem like contradictions, and I don’t have a good answer for it. Not yet at least. (The reigns of Asa and Baasha still throws me a curveball and I keep swinging and missing; 1 Kings 15:33 and 2 Chron 16:1.) Maybe I’ll be able to solve it at a later time. Maybe archaeologists will dig up something that will shed light on the contradiction, or maybe there’s some other piece of evidence that I’m unaware of.
For instance, for the longest time critics laughed at the blatant error in Daniel 5:1, where Belshazzar is named king of Babylon. Every historian knew that Nabonidus was the king at this time, not some guy named Balshazzar. That is, until archaeologists discovered an inscription known as the “Persian Verse Account of Nabonidus,” where it says that Nabonidus went away for a long journey during this time and left the kingdom in the hands of—you guessed it—his son Balshazzar. Contradiction solved.
Sometimes an apparent contradiction is just that: apparent but not actual. And sometimes further evidence, through archaeology or whatever, will verify the accuracy of the Bible. But sometimes it doesn’t. Buried beneath the sands of the Middle East may lie some piece of evidence that will never be found. We might just go to the grave without having ironed out all the problems in the Bible. And that’s okay. The Bible has a good enough track record, and mountains of striking agreement, to ease our worries about a few passages here and there that don’t make immediate sense to our limited, and quite fallible, perception.