"Does the Bible contain contradictions? Yes."
Are there contradictions in the Bible?
Those who wish to discredit the Bible will sometimes come up with lists of contradictions in order to try to discomfit those who believe it. In response, many Christians will perform extraordinary mental gymnastics to attempt to prove that there are no contradictions in the book.
But if we study the Bible carefully and deeply, and are honest about what we find, we have to conclude otherwise. Does the Bible contain contradictions? Yes.
Now, we need to understand what this means. It does not mean that the Bible is unreliable, that it is ‘flawed’. It is not denying that it is the revealed truth of God, the word of God. But, nonetheless, it contains contradictions.
The thing is this: the Bible was written by many people over a long period of time. And although, as Christians believe, the Spirit of God was inspiring those writers, he wasn’t over-ruling them. They weren’t robots; they weren’t taking dictation. And so they bring their interests, their priorities, their concerns and their perspectives to what they write. And those perspectives are often different. It can be argued that this makes the Bible stronger and more valuable than if it were some sort of direct download from heaven.
There are a number of different types of contradiction, and we need to think about them separately. We shouldn’t just lump them together.
First, there are minor contradictions that probably result from damage to the texts. We don’t have the original manuscripts of any part of the Bible. What we do have is a large number of ancient copies – some relatively complete, and some very fragmentary. We know that occasionally small errors creep in in the copying process. So, an example of such a contradiction would be:
Saul was one year old when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel. (1 Samuel 13:1)
The biblical story that goes along with this verse clearly tells how Saul was a grown man when he was anointed king, and reigned for many years. Biblical scholars are almost unanimous that this contradiction is a simple case of text corruption through scribal error.
Sometimes there are minor contradictions because of multiple witnesses to an event. All four of the gospel accounts testify clearly to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But they disagree over minor details. For example: who arrived first at the tomb? According to Matthew it was Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James; Mark adds Salome; Luke has Joanna with the two Marys and ‘other women’; and John mentions Mary of Magdalene alone.
It’s easy to see how such minor variations might have arisen. The few believers in Jesus Christ in those days were scared, scattered and bewildered; their recollection of the most important fact is seared on their memories, but minor details are remembered differently by different witnesses. There is no reason for this to lessen our confidence in the truth of the resurrection. It is well known that when multiple witnesses stand up in court and give absolutely identical accounts of an event, they have probably fabricated it. The minor divergences serve to authenticate the testimony about the main fact.
Sometimes different accounts arise because different authors have different theological concerns, and the way they tell the story is crafted to reflect that priority. Sticking with the gospels, for example, it’s striking that they sometimes place the events of the life of Jesus in a different order.
A good example is when Jesus enters the Temple in Jerusalem to cleanse it. The gospel writers differ in where they place this event in the ministry ofJesus – at the beginning, or the end. It is possible that Jesus did the action twice. But it is more likely that this event, rich in symbolic meaning, is being interpreted in different ways by the writers, who then shape their narrative to highlight that particular element of the rich meaning. The first three gospel writers place the event in the final week of Jesus’ life. For them, they want to show us that Jesus is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies that one day God would visit and judge the Temple. By contrast, the writer oft he fourth gospel puts this event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, because he wants to put primary importance on Jesus’ renewal of the worship of Israel and his claim to be the new way that humans meet with God, which replaces the Temple function.
So, although the writers differ in their chronology, what they are really doing is expressing different facets of this richly symbolic action.
One of the main reasons that we find apparent contradictions in the Bible is because they are there deliberately. There are two main reasons why this might happen. The first is to show us that a character in the story is an unfaithful witness. For example, in 1 Samuel 31:4 we read about the death of King Saul after being wounded in battle. Here we are told that he asked his armour-bearer to finish him off, and when the servant refused, he fell on his own sword. Just a few verses later, in 2 Samuel 1:10 (the two books of Samuel form one continuous document), a messenger comes to King David and tells him that he slew Saul as a mercy killing.
Is our writer too obtuse to notice that he has given us two different accounts of the death of Saul? Not at all. But whereas the first one is told to us by the narrator, and is therefore to be trusted, the second account is in the mouth of a character in the story. His contradictory story is evidence of his unreliability. Ironically, King David has him executed for the crime that he didn’t really commit!
The complexity of truth
The second, and perhaps most important type of deliberate contradiction is found where our author or authors want to indicate to us that something complex and subtle is going on, and to invite us to ponder it carefully. Here, I’d like to give two examples.
The first is in the book of Proverbs. This is a collection of ‘wise sayings’. It is sometimes understood as a set of promises (live well and you will be blessed) – it isn’t. And it is sometimes understood as a set of laws, telling us what to do. It isn’t that, either. It is a rich and subtle exploration of how to live well in God’s world.
In Proverbs 26:4-5, we have an interesting pair of Proverbs.
Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.
There is no way that our author has failed to notice that these two sayings contradict one another! They are right next to each other.
Sometimes people who want to criticise the Bible try to hunt out contradictions as if they will be embarrassing and difficult to explain. But here we have a pair of contradictory sayings right next to each other. No hunting is necessary, and the author is clearly without embarrassment.
So what is our author doing? He is inviting us to ponder the value of ‘answering fools according to their folly’. Sometimes it is an important and fruitful thing to reason with someone who is acting or speaking foolishly. At other times, you are wasting your time and it is foolish to continue to try. The wise person will be discerning about which conditions are in force at any given time.
A second set of examples is found in the book of Joshua. This book gives an account of the military conquest of the land of Canaan by the people of Israel, led by Joshua. Within this book we find many contradictions about how complete the conquest was. Perhaps one of the best examples is in Joshua 10:20, where Joshua is repelling an attack by five armies. Compare the two halves of this verse:
When Joshua and the Israelites had finished inflicting a very great slaughter on them, until they were wiped out, and when the survivors had entered into the fortified towns…
So, were the people wiped out, or were there survivors who fled? Once again, our author is completely unembarrassed about giving us contradictory information. If we were to interrogate him, we would learn two things. First, he would probably be puzzled about our question. Because he’s wanting to communicate something to us that is more important (to him) than actual casualty figures. And second, if we pressed him, the answer he would give us might be something like this: “Joshua utterly defeated them, obviously, but of course he didn’t kill them all!”
God sees a bigger picture
"Truth is rich and complex. It cannot be boiled down to a set of facts."
There’s one more category of apparent contradiction that we should consider. This is where we see contradictions because we are not reading the Bible from God’s perspective, but from our own, flawed one. A good example here would be the question of whether God is a God of love or a God of wrath. Many people would suggest that the Bible is contradictory on the matter.
However, this is to fail to understand that our writers see no problem with asserting both of these things at the same time. Loving parents fiercely defend their children, and, indeed, discipline them. So the Bible reveals a God whose love is tough and fierce, and whose loving nature necessitates that he be angry against, for example, the violent and the abusive. There is no contradiction here, as the Bible sees it.
Truth is rich and complex. It cannot be boiled down to a set of facts. Instead it can be explored, probed, tested, hinted at, and illustrated. This is whatt he Bible does, again and again. This is best explained with an old story, somewhat clichéd, but still helpful.
The story is of several blind men who are investigating an elephant and trying to decide what it is like. One gets hold of the trunk and thinks it is snake-like. Another grasps the leg and believes an elephant is like a tree. A third seizes a tusk and concludes that it is like a spear. You get the analogy. None of these men is wrong, but they are all holding an incomplete part of the picture. Are their ideas contradictory? Not if we know that the elephant is much bigger than any of them can perceive.
God is much, much more rich and complex than an elephant. (Wouldn’t it be dreadful if he could be easily explained, or drawn?) And we are like blind people fumbling our way towards discovering more about him. The Bible helps us in our search, but only if we embrace its rich complexities.
Are there contradictions in the Bible? Yes. Why would we wish it any other way?