Or is it? A look at the so-called contradictions in the Bible
John W. Haley, wrote the definitive work on the subject, “Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible”. Haley tackles a comprehensive list of alleged discrepancies under the headings “doctrinal,” “ethical,” and “historical.” The book was originally published in 1874.
“You can’t trust the Bible! It’s full of contradictions!”
It is a popular view these days. Many people have the impression that the Bible is simply an outdated book of fairytales and contradictions. We are told that biblical stories are fine for children, and perhaps they even contain some moral value. “But, surely” says the critic, “such stories cannot be taken seriously in our modern age of science and technology.”
Logical vs. Psychological Problems
Aside from the claim of contradictions, most objections to the Bible are not actually problems at all from a logical perspective. For example, suppose that someone claims, “The Bible can’t be trusted because it contains accounts of miracles, and miracles are clearly impossible.” This argument is not rationally sound because it begs the question. Clearly, an all-powerful God as described in the Bible would be capable of doing miracles. Thus, by merely assuming that miracles are impossible, the critic has already dismissed the possibility that the Bible is true. His argument is circular. The critic is essentially arguing that the Bible is false because the Bible is false.
To argue that something is impossible because it “seems” counter-intuitive is not rational. Just imagine a lawyer arguing that his client is innocent by saying, “Your Honor, I just really, really believe in my heart that he is innocent. I just don’t feel that he could have done it.” This is nothing more than a mere opinion; it is not evidence at all and would be a silly argument.
The Challenge of Contradictions
If the Bible contains genuinely contradictory information, then it cannot really be completely true, since one of the two claims would have to be false. Thus, unlike mere subjective opinions about what is plausible, the claim that the Bible contains contradictions is a real challenge—one that Christians should take seriously.
A contradiction is a proposition and its negation (symbolically written, “A and not A”) at the same time and in the same relationship. The law of non-contradiction states that a contradiction cannot be true: “It is impossible to have A and not A at the same time and in the same relationship.” The last part of this definition is crucially important. Obviously, A and not A could each be true at different times. And this resolves a number of alleged biblical contradictions. They could even be true at the same time if the relationship is different.
Difference of Sense or Relationship
Some of the alleged Bible contradictions fall under this category. For example, it is claimed that James contradicts Romans on the topic of justification:
Romans 4:2–3 teaches that Abraham was justified by faith alone, not by works. However, James 2:21, 24 teaches that Abraham was justified by works and not by faith alone. Do we have a contradiction here? We do have A and not A at the same time, but the relationship differs. Romans 4 is teaching about justification before God; by faith alone Abraham was considered righteous before God. But James 2 is teaching about justification before men (James 2:18); by works (as a result of faith) Abraham was considered righteous before men. There is no contradiction here.
Some alleged contradictions of the Bible are presented as a dilemma: “Was the Bible given by inspiration of God as indicated in 2 Timothy 3:16 or was it written by men as indicated in other passages (Luke 1:3; John 21:24)?” The implication is that only one of these can be true, and so, the Bible must contain errors. But this is the fallacy of the false dilemma because there is no reason why the Bible cannot be both inspired by God and also written by men.
Some examples of alleged contradictions commit the fallacy of taking the text out of context. For example, Genesis 1:1 indicates that God exists and has made everything. Suppose someone argued that this contradicts Psalm 14:1 in which we read “there is no God.” But to suppose that this is a contradiction would be absurd, since the excerpt from the Psalms is out of context. In context, Psalm 14:1 teaches that “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” When the context is considered, there is no contradiction at all. We must remember that the Bible records statements and events that it does not endorse.
Fallacy of Sweeping Generalization
There are a number of places where the Bible speaks in terms of generalizations—things that are usually (but not universally) true. The book of Proverbs contains many of these. It is not a contradiction to have some instances where the general rule does not apply. Therefore, we must be careful not to commit the fallacy of a sweeping generalization—applying a general principle as if it were a universal rule. The Proverbs are not intended to be taken as universal rules, but rather as general principles that work most of the time.
Moreover, the Bible also contains things that are indeed rules, but that have acceptable exemptions. Clearly, the Bible teaches that it is wrong to murder, and yet understandably makes exceptions for self-defense, punishment for certain extreme crimes, and during battle. Exceptions to a general principle or exemptions to a rule are not contradictions and thus pose no challenge to the Christian worldview.
Contradictions of Inference
A contradiction of inference is where we merely infer a contradiction that the text does not actually state.
Another contradiction of inference is what we might call the X and only X fallacy. This occurs when a reader erroneously assumes that a number stated in the Bible (X) indicates only X and not more.
Contradictions of inference tell us that we have incorrectly imagined the details that were not provided by the text. They are not problems with the Bible because such contradictions exist only in our speculations, not in the biblical text. We must always be careful about drawing dogmatic conclusions from things the Bible does not actually state.
Factual Contradictions and Begging the Question
Another type of criticism might be called an apparent factual contradiction. In this case, rather than claiming that the Bible contradicts itself, the critic alleges that the Bible contradicts a well-established fact. There are two types of alleged factual contradictions, and both turn out to be fallacious. The first type comes from a misreading of the text. This could stem from any of the fallacies already listed. A word could be taken in the wrong sense; a verse could be taken out of context; there could be a translational or manuscript dispute; or something could be assumed to be a teaching of scripture when in fact it is only an inference by the reader.
The Psalmist says, “I shall not be moved.” (Psalm 16:8). Clearly the author does not intend that he will be physically stationary—rather he means that he will not deviate from the path God has created for him.
In the second kind of alleged factual contradiction, the critic has understood the biblical text properly, but is confused about what the external facts actually are. In this case, secular beliefs are assumed to be facts that are beyond question. Examples include: the big bang, evolution, a billions-of-years timescale, naturalism, and the secular order of events. The Bible does indeed contradict all of these things, but the critic merely assumes that it is the Bible that is wrong. He then argues that since the Bible contradicts these “facts,” it must be wrong. But this is the fallacy of begging the question. The critic has simply assumed that the Bible is wrong (by assuming the secular claims are true), and then uses this to argue that the Bible is wrong. This is nothing more than a vicious circular argument.
The belief that the Bible contains contradictions and inaccuracies is an excuse for not believing. Many such people have not actually read the Bible for themselves. Still fewer have analyzed any of the alleged contradictions. It has been my experience that, after a little research, all the alleged contradictions and inaccuracies are explainable.
If you, the reader, are prepared to look at these answers with an open mind, then you will discover that the excuse of supposed inaccuracies does not hold water. If, however, you have already convinced yourself that such an old book as the Bible just has to contain errors, then you may as well skip this chapter.
Many scoffers reject the Bible’s authority because they say it contradicts itself.Perhaps you’ve heard one of their pat claims: “The Bible says the sun moves around the earth,” “The Bible calls a bat a bird,” and so on.
Many alleged contradictions take verses out of context. For example, the Bible refers to sunrise and sunset, so some critics claim that it teaches that the sun goes around the earth. But clearly the Bible is using the language of appearance
Skeptics also frequently quote a flawed translation when claiming a contradiction. For example, in Leviticus 11:13–19, we find words like these in our English translations: “And these you shall regard as an abomination among the birds; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle . . . and the bat.” The translation process is not infallible, so we must consider what the original Hebrew author intended. The Hebrew word translated bird—owph—actually means “fowl or a winged creature.” Of course bats are winged creatures.
Tim Challies’ Series on Inerrancy:
What a lot of Christians don’t know is that the autographs (original writings) are inspired–not the copies. The autographs are the original writings–the original documents penned by the biblical writers. The copies are copies of inspired documents. The copies are not themselves “inspired”; that is, they have no guarantee of being 100% textually pure. But don’t worry, the Bible manuscripts are 98.5% textually pure. Only a very small amount of information is in question because we have repetitive facts, instructions, and information found elsewhere in the Bible. Nevertheless, through the copying method over the years, various textual problems have arisen. Following is a list of the types of errors that have occurred in copying the manuscripts. I’ve used English as examples instead of going into the original languages for examples.
- Dittography – Writing twice what should have been written once. Example: writing “latter” instead of “later.” “Latter” means nearest the end. “Later” means after something else.
- Fission – Improperly dividing one word into two words. Example: changing “nowhere” into “now here.”
- Fusion – Combining the last letter of one word with the first letter of the next word. Example: “Look it is there in the cabinet . . . or Look it is therein the cabinet.”
- Haplography–Writing once what should have been written twice. Example: “later” instead of “latter.” “Later” means after something else. “Latter” means nearest the end.
- Homophony – Writing a word with a different meaning for another word when both words have the exact same pronunciation. Example: Meat and meet have the exact same sound but different meanings. Also, there and their and they’re are another example.
- Metathesis – An improper exchange in the order of letters. Example: Instead of writing “mast,” someone writes “mats,” or “cast” and cats.”