What Is the Bible?—Contradictions

Many people assume that the Bible is full of contradictions, but few really take the time to examine the evidence. Of course, many books and papers have been written both alleging contradictions on the one hand, and attempting to prove that these are not really contradictions on the other - it is very hard to be completely neutral or impartial on this issue! While this page can't even begin to examine all the data, it suggests some ways to distinguish between different types of alleged 'contradictions' and shows that many of these can easily be reconciled or are deliberate strategies by the authors. For Bible believers, the evidence for the consistency and harmony of the Bible is far more powerful than the alleged 'discrepancies'.

One of the most common reasons people give for not accepting the Bible as the inspired word of God is that they claim it contains many contradictions. However, most who believe that there are contradictions in the Bible are not able to actually list more than one or two. It is one of those things that is supposedly common knowledge.  Sadly, few know enough about the Bible to have any idea if there are real contradictions or not.

A careful and sensitive reading of the Bible certainly does not reveal numerous contradictions, but rather a stunning harmony of theme and message. The fact that it is a compilation of books written by numerous authors over approximately 1500 years leaves little doubt that this is a special book.

As cohesive as the Bible is, however, there are some passages that do indeed appear to be contradictory.  These are very few relative to the size of the Bible, but it is nonetheless important to consider them and conclude whether or not they are really contradictions.  To simplify the consideration, alleged contradictions will be grouped into four categories:

  • 'designed' contradictions
  • 'allowed' contradictions
  • 'invented' contradictions
  • 'anything but' contradictions

One of the things you can do if someone claims to have discovered a Bible contradiction is to evaluate the claim and consider if it falls into one of these groups.

Designed Contradictions

The first type of contradiction is a “designed” contradiction.  What is meant by "designed" is that the author appears to have deliberately inserted a contradiction for some reason.  A good example of this is the creation account in the first few chapters of Genesis.  We are told creation occurred over six ‘days’.  On the first day, the existence of light is heralded and light is distinguished from darkness:

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.  And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.  And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.  And the evening and the morning were the first day. (Genesis 1:3-5) (AV)

The apparent contradiction comes in verse 14.  It is not until day four that the lights of the heavens are created:

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:  And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.  (Genesis 1:14-15) (AV)

One thing that is common with designed contradictions in the Bible is that they stick out for all to see.  They are not obscure passages that exist because some scribe did a sloppy editing job.  These passages are separated by a few verses and it is clear the author intended to order the days of creation this way.  There is little chance the author or editor did not notice the ‘contradiction’; rather, it was their literary intention to put it in.

What was intended in this particular case? 

To fully appreciate the account, it is important to understand the structure of the passage.  The days are presented utilizing a form of Jewish poetry that uses repetition and a verse construction which “mirrors” concepts.  There is a very clear pattern in the days of creation in which days one and four, days two and five, and days three and six each complement each other.  It is no mistake, therefore, that light is mentioned in day 1, and that light-emitting bodies are mentioned in day 4 – it is part of a bigger pattern being unfolded in those verses. While we cannot be certain what the light in day 1 refers to (could it be a reference to the glory of God shining forth, for instance? – some people believe that the author of Genesis 1 was documenting a series of visions that were seen over a period of 7 days to reveal teaching from God about creation). This isn’t the place for a detailed exploration of all the possibilities, but it is clear that as well as being an explanation of the process of creation, Genesis 1 also contains more than a simple transmission of facts about creation.  It seems the account relays an allegorical message as well as a factual description of the beginning of an epoch. 

Why then is day one a description of light being separated from darkness?  A search of these words in the Bible would answer the question.  The contrast between light and darkness is a core theme from beginning to end.  We are told “God is light” in the  Gospel of John.  A person, a people, and ultimately an entire world being in the light is the mission statement of the Bible.  When this is understood, the logic behind introducing light in day one, separate from the heavenly bodies that provide physical light, starts to become clearer. There is no ‘accident’ here.

Allowed Contradictions

Allowed contradictions are those which at first glance appear to be minor discrepancies.  A first example we might take is the inscription on the cross of Jesus.  All four Gospels have slightly different variations of the superscription Pilot had nailed to the cross to identify the man being executed.  All four gospels include the title:

“This is Jesus the king of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37)

“The king of the Jews” (Mark 15:26)

“This is the king of the Jews” (Luke 23:38)

“Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews” (John 19:19)

It is first important to mention what is in agreement between the accounts.  All tell of a sign being posted on the cross.  All agree on who ordered it to be there (Pilot).  All agree to the essence of the title: that it stated the one hanging on the cross was the king of the Jews (much to the horror of the on-looking Jewish leaders).  All the important facts are in concert though indeed the text does slightly vary in each account.  What does this tell us?  Four different people wrote summaries of the work and teaching of Jesus Christ.  Each was writing to a different audience and each was writing from his own perspective.  There has been no attempt to force-fit identity in the accounts.  The remarkable thing is that there is no contradiction in critical details.   Quite possibly the sign on the cross read: "This is Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews."  Each writer cited that part of the sign which best underscored his message to his audience.

These minor textual variations are very rare.  Maybe the most obvious one is in the account of the healing of the mentally ill man known as Legion.  The three gospels that include the story are once again in agreement on all the important details: the location of the event is in the land of the Gergesenes (on the west side of the sea of Galilee), the verbal exchanges, the herd of swine that were run into the water, the resulting actions of the healed, etc.  Most importantly, the texts agree on the transformation of the sick man from crazed and self-destructive to sane, calm, and whole.  As with many miracles, this was an acted out parable showing how Jesus can tame even the worst “demons” that plague mankind and bring sanity where none seems possible.

The only variation is in the Matthew account compared to Mark and Luke.  In Matthew, we are told that there are two insane people (Matthew 8:28) while in Mark and Luke, only one person is identified (Mark 5:2; Luke 8:27).  Do the Mark and Luke accounts simply ignore the second person?  Is Matthew’s recollection flawed or can the discrepancy be explained on the basis that Matthew simply emphasizes the leading individual with whom Jesus conversed?  Whatever the answer, the authors are all in agreement on every detail that is important to the lesson of the story, even if one non-essential detail varies between the accounts.

Invented Contradictions

Invented contradictions are not contradictions at all but rather fabricated items that Bible critics cook up to prop up their argument that the Bible is not inspired.  We will consider an example in the New Testament.

It is claimed that the Jesus presented in the four different gospels is not descriptive of the same person.  Possibly the most common claim is that the Jesus of the Gospel of John is presented as a part of the Godhead while the Jesus of the other three gospels is portrayed as an ordinary human being.  There are some obvious problems with this claim when all four gospels are carefully examined.  What becomes clear is that all four gospels are completely in sync in the picture they paint of Jesus and his message.  This point is so strong that we can take it for granted.  There is not one verse in conflict when it comes to the message Jesus preaches.  Additionally, the lesser important details such as names, personalities, physical locations, etc. are also in agreement.

In addition to stating facts such as who said what and the names of towns and the like, there is another important purpose of the gospel message that requires multiple accounts in order to be maximally effective.  Each gospel writer presents particular themes and perspectives on the life of Jesus.  Not only John but all the gospels cast Jesus in a slightly different light to emphasise different aspects of his personality and mission. While there is a difference of degree (John’s perspective is more distinct from Matthew and Mark’s than those two are from each other), fundamentally each of the gospels is presenting Jesus through a slightly different lens (you can find out more about this on each of the four pages on the gospels in the ‘Compass’ section of this site). In contrast to the claims of the critics, many Bible believers would argue that It could only be divinely guided that four different people could recount the life of Jesus in such a coordinated fashion in terms of the facts, while each still reveals various aspects of his character and work.

These different angle each of the gospel writers takes has many facets and can’t be boiled down into a one-liner.  Clearly though, John does focus on the divine origins of Jesus (as the Son of God), and the closeness of the bond that existed between Jesus and his father.  Luke on the other hand documents Jesus’ life in a straightforward fashion that would work well with a Roman audience.  Matthew is filled with Old Testament references and is clearly intended for Jewish consumption.  Mark paints Jesus as very much a man and more specifically, a man of action.  Does this put Mark in conflict with John?  Absolutely not; one book looks at Jesus one way and the other evaluates his life from a different and complimentary perspective. It is the same Jesus – but he can’t be contained in one single book of only twenty or so chapters by just one author!

Anything but Contradictions

The final category is a close cousin of invented contradictions.  What is meant by anything but contradictions is that these passages might be cast as contradictory but are actually quite the opposite.  They are instead demonstrations of how themes recur and grow throughout the scriptures.  A good example of this is Jesus’ comments about some parts of the Law.  A discussion of this point is very important for those who believe that the entire Scripture is the inspired word of God.  In order to take this stand, it is critical to reconcile the Law of Moses in the Old Testament with the message preached by Jesus in the New Testament.  An example of this is the passage in Matthew 5:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  (Matthew 5:38,39)

Jesus is referring to a part of the Law of Moses articulated in Exodus 21:

Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:24-25)

The first point to make is that this verse can easily be taken out of context.  The point of the verse is not that one who is responsible for the loss of another’s eye must have his eye plucked out in retribution.  The concept established is that of appropriate consequences for bad behavior.  It is necessary to look no more than the next few verses to see a couple of practical examples:

And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake.  And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake (vs.26,27).

In the cases detailed here, the master does not lose his eye if he assaults a servant and the result is the loss of the servant’s eye.  He does, however, pay a steep price for his act of violence and the victim is generously compensated. It’s clear that we mustn’t be too literal in our understanding of the ‘eye for an eye’ concept.

There is another point to consider, the Law of Moses must be put into context.  The Law was intended to guide the governance of a national population at a specific time in history.  It was also not intended to cover every possible situation that could arise in society but rather provided a framework for orderly conduct.  This framework was relevant for the time period it was given but there is nothing in the Law that states is would be used forever. 

The moral code on which the Law is based is indeed eternal and everything Jesus taught was in total harmony with it.  However, the framework in which this moral code is manifested has changed in time.  What shocked and angered the Jewish establishment about Jesus’ message was that he made it clear he was there to change the framework.  The time had come to conclude the use of the Law of Moses and to recast the moral underpinnings of the Law into something new.  There are a number of practical reasons why this was necessary.  Simply put, a new era was dawning for the person of faith.  This new order brought a new way for the believer to manifest his/her obedience to God.

Home | About |

© 2009 all rights reserved. Bible Toolshed is a free resource for anyone interested in studying the Bible. Content is presented in a clear, engaging manner in an effort to appeal to Bible students of all levels.

Another IDIStudio.com website.