How Can You Explain Contradictions in the Bible?
“The Bible is full of contradictions!”
Ever heard that one before? It’s a common slam against the Bible. To be sure, there are quite a few statements in the Bible that appear to be in direct contradiction with each another. Yet, Christians usually claim that the Bible is perfect and the Word of God. How do we reconcile this? Does the Bible have contradictions, and if so, doesn’t that make the Bible imperfect and therefore not the Word of God? A lot hinges on how Christians approach this issue.
A few opening comments. First, we need to take an intellectual approach here. For Christians to simply say that there are no contradictions without having reasonable explanations is not a very good path to take. When we come to this issue, we can’t check our brains at the door. Same goes with saying “you just need to have faith!” While that is true, it doesn’t mean we should stop using common sense.
Second, it is reasonable to expect that not all of the apparent contradictions will be able to be explained away fully. The reality is that the Bible is a very old book and some of the historical details are virtually impossible to confirm. Over time, historical research and archaeology may give explanations, but it may take time to get there. Therefore it is fair to have possible and plausible explanations even if they are not certain. The Bible should at least be afforded as much slack as any other ancient document would. It is just as wrong for skeptics to push hard to disprove the Bible without just reason as it is for Christians to defend the Bible without just reason.
As far as I can see, there are seven reasons the Bible has apparent contradictions. Here they are with an example for each:
1. Translation Problems
- James 1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.
- Genesis 22:1 After these things God tempted Abraham…
On the surface, this looks so obvious! But this contradiction is caused by a translation problem. The word that is translated as “tempted” in Genesis 22:1 is translated in a lot of more recent versions of the Bible as “tested”. This is accurate, as the original language carries the meaning of “tempted with intent to prove”. In other words, God does not tempt people so that they will fail, but he gives them opportunities to be tested so that they can grow and demonstrate their faith. That’s not the same thing.
A lot of “contradictions” in the Bible are likewise matters of translation issues. A little homework can usually clear them up easily.
2. Figures of Speech
- Exodus 33:11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.
- John 1:18 No one has ever seen God…
So what’s the deal here? Has no one seen God, or did Moses see him? Not only this, but there are all kinds of examples from the Bible where God “appeared” to people. How does this make sense?
One thing that needs to be kept in mind is that the God of the Bible is three-in-one. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all revealed to be God in the Bible. In John 1:18 Jesus must be speaking of God the Father. This makes sense because he says, in full, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” The God at the Father’s side is either a reference to Jesus or the Spirit, who both reveal God the Father. Even the Old Testament appearances of God are believed to be visions of Jesus before his incarnation.
So, Moses appears to have seen the pre-incarnate Jesus. But even then, Moses did not see the fully glory of God on the mountain top. In Exodus 33:18-23, Moses asks to see God’s glory. God says that he will reveal his glory to Moses but that he may not look into the face of God. Instead, God walks by him and holds out his hand so that his face is covered, and Moses sees God’s glory shining from the back as God passes him.
So even Moses did not actually see God’s face in full glory. No one has. When Exodus 33:11 says that Moses and God talked “face to face”, we must take that to be a figure of speech. Especially in an ancient culture, before the days of telephone and internet, face to face communication was valued. It hinted at friendship. When the Bible describes Moses and God as talking face to face, it means they had an intimate friendship with one another, which is exactly what the rest of the verse says.
Figures of speech can take away some of the supposed Bible contradictions.
3. Partial Reports
- Acts 1:18 Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.
- Matthew 27:5 And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.
This is an example of a partial report, where two different authors (Matthew and Luke) give an account from the same story by sharing only partial information. Luke records the falling of Judas’ body and his guts busting out, while Matthew records the suicidal hanging of Judas. Both are true, and by harmonizing them we can see the whole picture: Judas hung himself, his body swelled up after he died (which makes sense scientifically), and either the branch or the rope snapped and he fell and burst open upon hitting the ground. Nasty!
But what about the “falling headlong” part? How can a person fall headlong after hanging themselves? Wouldn’t they fall feet first? If you look in the ESV translation, there is a footnote there that says “swelling up” is a possible translation of that phrase instead. It seems to me that “swelling up” makes more sense, even though it is not the common meaning of the translated word.
This is just one example of partial testimony that can reconcile supposed contradictions.
4. Scribal Errors
- 2 Chronicles 36:9 Jehoiachin was eight years old when he became king…
- 2 Kings 24:8 Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king…
This one at first glance is so obvious! Here there is a discrepancy because of differences in the original manuscript. Newer versions of the Bible have both ages at 18. The reason is that, until recent years, the manuscripts of the Bible differed on the ages. But more recently, manuscripts have been found that indicate there was a scribal error in the past. It seems one scribe accidentally wrote 8 instead of 18, and that version was copied over and over, furthering the mistake. But, now it has been identified as an error and corrected in newer translations of the Bible. The ESV again even has a footnote on this.
There are other examples of “contradictions” that can be explained by simple scribal errors. That is the beauty of having more than 25, 000 copies or partial copies of the Bible in ancient manuscripts. We can compare them to each other to determine where errors or tampering has crept in. That number far exceeds any other ancient historical document by far, making the Bible the most reliable piece of ancient literature in the world.
- Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
- James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Some contradictions make sense when you consider the context of the words written. In the example above, two authors are addressing two audiences with two different issues. Paul, the author of Romans, is telling the Romans that becoming a Christian happens by faith and not by obeying God’s law perfectly. James, on the other hand, is writing to explain that becoming a Christian does mean there will still be a change in the way a person lives.
Christians have fought to explain this for years. Obeying God doesn’t make you a Christian, but becoming a Christian makes you want to obey God. A simple analogy is the exchange of wedding vows. Imagine that after one partner gives their vow of lifelong fidelity, the other says “Sweet! I guess that means I can sleep around and do whatever I want, because you’ll never leave me.” That would be an abuse of what the commitment was meant to be.
It is the same with becoming a Christian. The vow that God makes to forgive our sins does not mean we should go out and do whatever we want, knowing that we will be forigiven. It should make us want to obey God in appreciation for forgiving us. So, these two authors believe the same thing but are conveying that truth with a different emphasis to teach a different audience dealing with different problems.
It is just one example where knowing the context makes the message that much clearer.
- Mark 15:25 And it was the third hour when they crucified him.
- John 19:14-15 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!”…
This is a tricky one. According to Mark, Jesus was crucified at the third hour. But then, John says Jesus was on trial at the sixth hour. How can that be?
It is an example of authors writing from different viewpoints. The timelines given by Matthew, Mark, and Luke all line up perfectly: Jesus was on trial early in the morning (about 6am), then crucified around the third hour (about 9am), then darkness came at the sixth hour (about noon) until Jesus died at the ninth hour (around 3pm). John is the only one who seems to disagree, saying Jesus was on trial at the sixth hour.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all writing with a Jewish timeline. Day for Jews started at 6am. So, the third hour for them was 9am, and so on. However, John is writing from a different view. He is using the Roman time system, where the day begins at midnight (like our does). So for Jesus to be on trial at the sixth hour means he is on trial at 6am, which agrees with the other writers. It makes sense that John would use that time system since historically it has been proven likely that he authored his gospel at an old age while living in the town of Ephesus, with little or no population of Jews.
Once again, there are other discrepancies like this one that make sense when you allow for authors to write from different vantage points.
7. Historical Details
- Luke 18:35 As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging.
- Mark 10:46 And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside.
One says Jesus healed the blind man going in to Jericho, the other says it was when Jesus was leaving. Which is it? Archaeological digs have unearthed multiple sites for the city of Jericho. The current city of Jericho is not in the same location as ancient references. From the timelines that historians can determine, Jesus’ day was likely to have two functioning locations of the city, approximately 2 kms apart. This historical detail, lost for centuries, makes it possible that Jesus was passing from one site to the other when he healed the blind man. This does not seem all that crazy especially for me, as I live in a “twin city”, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario which is paired across the St. Mary’s River with Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
Historical details such as these help the Bible come to life and make more sense.
In the end, it is difficult to find the exact explanations for every supposed contradiction in the Bible. But what these examples point out is that there is a lot more continuity than one might expect!