Contradictions in the Bible?

Introduction

All Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16).  If God is as the Bible presents Him, as an all-knowing, infinite Being who cannot lie, then when we read the word of God, we should be able to find no contradictions, no mistakes in the Scriptures.

Atheists and others who want to tear down the credibility of the Bible will scour its pages looking for passages that seem to disagree with each other, and will proudly pronounce, “Here is a contradiction!”  And when they present these potential problems, they proclaim the Bible to be a fraud, uninspired, and worthless.  By doing so, they have actually overturned the faith of some, causing them to deny the Lord who bought them with His own blood.

It’s easy to understand an atheist or someone like him trying to take things out of context to try to show supposed contradictions in God’s word.  But there are times when an honest, sincere Christian will read passages of Scripture and honestly has a difficult time reconciling perhaps two different records of the same event which don’t seem to agree with each other, or worse yet, some which seem to completely oppose each other.

What is a Christian to do when faced with what looks like a contradiction in the Bible?

What is a Contradiction?

It’s extremely important that we understand what a contradiction is and what it is not.  When we grasp the true meaning of what a contradiction is, and what it is not, most of the so-called “contradictions” of the Bible disappear.

A contradiction only exists when two (or more) statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same manner.  For example: (1) My only pets are two cats. (2) I own a dog.  These two statements are a contradiction, for if my only pets are cats, then I cannot own a dog.

The Manner

It is not a contradiction if two statements, which might seem contradictory, are true in a different manner.  For example: (1) I am a father. (2) I am a son.  These are referring to two different relationships, and so they are both true at the same time.  If I were to say (pointing to a man), “I am his son,” and then (pointing to the same man) say, “I am his father,” it would be a contradiction if it was speaking of only physical relationship, for both statements could not be true at the same time and in the same manner.  But I have heard of a man who converted his father to Christ.  So, in that instance, his dad could point to him and say, “I am his father, but I am his son in the faith.”

There are examples of Jesus using language that would seem contradictory until you understand that He is describing physical things in one place and spiritual things in another.  For example, Jesus says “He that lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26), but then tells Peter, “Verily, verily I say to you, When you were young, you dressed yourself, and walked wherever you wanted; but when you are old, you will stretch forth your hands, and another will dress you, and carry you where you do not want to go.”  He spoke this signifying by what death [Peter] should glorify God (John 21:18-19).  Jesus said the faithful would never die spiritually, and that Peter would die physically.

The Time

It is not a contradiction if two statements, which might seem contradictory, are true at different times.  According to George DeHoff, some skeptics of the Bible use Genesis 1:31, “God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good,” and 6:6, “It repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart.”  They claim that these two statements are contradictory, but there are over a thousand years of history that have passed between the two statements.  Each of them was true when it was spoken, but after the fall of man and the continual thoughts of evil that gripped all of mankind—except for Noah—it was no longer “very good.”

For the one who believes in God, we must never just accept someone’s word on something being a contradiction without a thorough investigation.  We must remember some principles as well that, when put into practice, answer most—if not all—of the allegations of contradiction.

The Translation Issue

Some supposed contradictions are a result of the translation(s) one uses.  If you use the King James Version, Galatians 6:2 and 5 seem to be a contradiction: “Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” vs. “For every man shall bear his own burden.”  Well which one is it?  Are we to bear one another’s burdens or are they supposed to bear their own burdens?  The answer is that there are two different Greek words translated “burden” in those passages.  One of them is personal responsibility, while the other one is struggles, trials, difficulties that come upon someone.

The same thing could be said for Galatians 1:1:6-7: “I marvel that you are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ into another gospel which is not another…”  Is it another gospel or is it not?  Again, the problem here is eliminated by knowing that there are two different words translated “another” in that passage.  Paul says, literally, “into a different gospel [one of a different type], which is not another [one of the same type].”

The solution when you come some apparent contradictions is to consult some other translations and see how they translated it.  It is possible that the contradiction is one created by the word choice of the translators, and not in the text itself.

The Audience Issue

Some people have alleged that the Bible contains contradictions because in answer to the same question, different responses are given.  For example, when the question “What must I do to be saved?” or one that means the same thing is asked, there are different answers given.  The people on the Day of Pentecost were told “repent and be baptized,” but the Philippian Jailor was told, “only believe” (no mention of repentance of baptism in their answer), and Saul of Tarsus was told, “Go into the city…” where Ananias told him, “arise and be baptized” (but there was no mention of belief or repentance.

The answer to this allegation and others like it is that there is a difference in the audience.  Each of the ones being spoken to were at different levels of understanding, and at different points in their journey towards salvation.  The Philippian jailor in Acts 16 was not willing to believe in Jesus Christ until after the earthquake that opened all the prison doors, yet none of the prisoners fled.  He realized that Paul and Silas were sent by the most powerful God, and he wanted to be right with them and with the Lord.  So the response that Paul gave him was the first thing he needed to do: believe.  They then taught him what he needed to believe (which, incidentally, included the urgency of baptism), and went from there.

The people on the Day of Pentecost already believed in God, and by the time they asked their question, “What shall we do?” they believed that Jesus was the Christ.  So Peter had no need to tell them to “believe,” since they were already at that point.  He gave them what they needed for where they were in their journey: repent and be baptized.

Saul of Tarsus believed in Jesus by the time Ananias got to him; and Saul had been fasting for three days and prayed—showing he had already repented.  So Ananias told him what he needed to do next: arise and be baptized, wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.  There was no need to tell Saul to believe or to repent, because those had already been done.

Some call it a contradiction, but it isn’t, because these statements were made to different people at different stages in their journey to salvation.

The Covenant Issue

Closely connected with the difference in audience is the statements made to people under different covenants.  The most famous one is the thief on the cross vs. the Jews on the day of Pentecost.  It is alleged that the example of the thief trumps (i.e., contradicts) the commands given on Pentecost.  But that ignores that the people lived under two totally different covenants.

The thief on the cross lived and died under the Old Testament.  Baptism was never a part of the Old Testament commands for salvation or forgiveness.  Baptism into Christ was something that was ordained by the Lord after His death, burial, and resurrection—that is, under the New Testament (see Mark 16:15-16, Matthew 28:19).  Since the thief on the cross never lived under the New Testament, he was never answerable to the command to “repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.”  He, like David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and literally millions of other Jews before him, lived and died under the Old Testament, and were never under the command to be baptized into Christ.

As a side note, we can also add to this example that when Jesus was on earth, He could do whatever He wanted regarding the forgiveness of sins.  But since He has ascended, His written covenant is what we have to guide us.  And His written covenant—His will—says “repent and be baptized.”

The Author Issue

Some skeptics have claimed that since the Gospel writers place events in different orders, they can’t be inspired.  The problem here is one that arises from the author and the author’s purpose.  Only one of the gospel writers makes the claim that he was giving events in chronological order, and that is Luke, who wrote as a detailed historian (see Luke 1:3).  Matthew’s purpose was not to give a strictly chronological sequence of events, but to show that Jesus was the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament.  As such, he often groups similar events (miracles, parables) together.  We do the same thing today on occasion, telling people things we remember which remind us of other similar stories.  Then we might go on to some other things that took place between the stories, or even before.  In short, Matthew wasn’t concerned with strict chronology.  Mark was the same way, grouping some events together because there were similarities (see Mark 3:20-35, whereas they appear in Luke three chapters apart, and in different order).  John’s account was written to show the deity of Christ and to cause people to believe.

One of the examples of a supposed contradiction in chronology comes from the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.  Matthew 4 records them in this order: (1) turn the stones to bread, (2) jump off the temple, (3) bow down and worship me.  Luke’s record switches the second and third ones.  It’s not a contradiction, for both writers agree the same things happened, and Matthew made no claim that he was giving everything in a strictly chronological order.

The Complementary Issue

Most of the alleged contradictions come from incidents where one writer gives details that others don’t.  One of the best illustrations of this is found in Jesus’ speaking to Peter about his impending denial of the Lord.

Matthew, Luke, and John all record Jesus saying, in essence, “Before the cock crows, you shall deny me thrice.”  But Mark 14:30 adds a detail, “Before the cock crows twice, you shall deny me thrice.”  And in case someone wondered if the inclusion of that word was a mistake, verse 72 repeats it.  It’s not a contradiction, for Mark just gives Jesus’ statement in a bit fuller detail than the other writers did.  Matthew, Luke, and John each gave a slightly more summarized version.

Another example of this kind of supposed contradiction is found in the number of women at the cross.  Matthew 27:56 mentions only three specific women, Mark mentions three, Luke mentions none specifically, and John mentions four.  John just goes into more detail than the other writers at this point.

The Same Words, Different Meanings Issue

Just like in English, there are Greek words that have different meanings, depending on how the writer or speaker was using them.  The word “spirit” is a prime example, for it can mean “breath,” “attitude,” “the Holy Spirit,” “the human spirit,” or even “wind.”

I read a debate (read it free HERE) between a preacher of the gospel and a Mormon (one of the “seventy”), and in order to cast doubt on the validity of the Bible, the Mormon said that Acts 9:7 and 22:9 showed that there were contradictions in the Bible.  In the first passage, Luke tells us “the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.”  In the second passage, Paul (relating the same event) says, “they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid, but they heard not the voice of Him that spoke with me.”

In this instance, it’s not the fault of the translators.  It’s not being said differently because of a different audience, a different covenant, or because the accounts are complementary to each other.  Luke uses the words “hearing (ἀκούω) a voice (φωνή),” and Paul uses the same words, “they heard (ἀκούω) not the voice (φωνή) of Him who spoke to me.”

The word φωνή “voice” can also be translated “sound,” and is indeed translated that way several times in the New Testament.  It is possible, then, that Luke meant that the men heard a sound when he used the word in Acts 9, but not necessarily the voice of Jesus.

In the same way, the word ἀκούω, “hearing,” can also carry the meaning of “understanding” or “comprehending,” like when Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  Jesus doesn’t mean just recognize that there is a sound, but to understand the words.  So it is legitimate to have Paul, in chapter 22, saying that the men didn’t understand the voice of Jesus.  Certainly they heard something, according to chapter nine, but that doesn’t mean they understood it.

There is an incident elsewhere in the Bible which sheds some light on this as well: John 12:20-29.  Some Greeks wanted to see Jesus, and Philip and Andrew went to Jesus to let Him know.  Then Jesus prayed a prayer which ended with the words, “Father, glorify thy name.”  Then there came a voice from heaven, saying “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.”  Then John says, “the people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said an angel spoke to Him.”

These people “heard” (ἀκούω) the “voice” (φωνή) from heaven, but to some, it was a sound, a noise like thunder, and not an actual understandable voice.

So back to the supposed contradiction in Acts 9 and 22.  In chapter nine, Luke said they heard a sound, but in chapter twenty-two, Paul is saying that they didn’t understand the voice of Jesus.  Both Paul and Luke used the same words, but they had slightly different meanings when they used them.

Conclusion

There are many other places that atheists and others like them point to as contradictions in the Bible, and if there is interest in looking at these, showing how they can be easily explained, we will do more lessons like this in the future.

The main point to remember throughout all of this, however, is that the Bible is trustworthy.  If just one mistake, one contradiction was made in the original writings of the apostles and prophets, then the Bible isn’t inspired by God.  It’s that simple.  But my friends, there are no contradictions in the word of God.  Not one.  This book is given by the inspiration of God and is able to make us “perfect” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), because He has given us everything regarding “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).

He’s given us the answer to the most important question we could possibly ask: what must I do to be saved?  The Philippian jailor, one who was not a believer and who had not heard the gospel before, was told to “believe” and then the gospel was preached to him, which resulted in his being baptized that very night!  The people on the day of Pentecost believed the gospel, so when they asked “men and brethren, what shall we do?” the answer was “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.”

You have to believe in Jesus Christ, repent of your rebellion against God, acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, and submit to His command to be baptized in order to be forgiven of your sins.  We ask that you would please make the decision to do that today if you haven’t already.

-Bradley S. Cobb

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