How to Answer Alleged Bible Discrepancies and Contradictions
If you are a Christian who has talked about the Bible with an intelligent non-Christian friend, then there is a good chance that you have encountered objections to its divine inspiration on the basis of alleged Bible discrepancies and contradictions.
Objections of this kind are numerous. Some claim that Paul or Luke got some historical fact wrong, or that some passages in the Old Testament make incorrect scientific claims. Some involve claims of contradictions – or at least discrepancies – involving details about Jesus’ personal claims and resurrection. Others involve apparent inconsistencies even regarding the theological doctrine that the Bible means to teach.
A list of examples of such objections would certainly be quite lengthy, and one would quickly realize that it is impossible to give sufficient responses to all of them without devoting part or all of one’s career to the endeavor.
A General Response
In the introductory chapter to The Big Book of Bible Difficulties by Norm Geisler and Thomas Howe, the authors list and explain 17 common mistakes critics make when arguing that the Bible contains errors. Below are statements and explanations of each mistake.
Understanding these mistakes will in turn help us form a general method for engaging with any alleged Bible errors that we may encounter. That is to say, if we take care to avoid these mistakes and instead follow the recommendations below, we will have the resources to find the answers to many of the objections to the Bible that we hear from our non-Christian friends.
17 Mistakes in Bible Interpretation
Mistake 1: Assuming that the unexplained is not explainable. Some apparent errors do not currently have explanations, or at least we do not currently know they are. But from this it does not follow that there are no explanations. No one has comprehensive knowledge of the Bible, so we should expect to come across some unexplained difficult passages, especially given the complexity of the Bible. Part of the reason that the field of biblical studies exists is to deal with such passages. So when a passage like this arises, we should do our research and look for a solution, remaining open to the idea that one is there.
Mistake 2: Presuming the Bible guilty until proven innocent. This mistake is as silly in Bible interpretation as it would be in our courts of law. The writers of Scripture clearly mean to be communicating truths, so we should give them the benefit of the doubt unless we have good reason to think otherwise – at least with respect to historical facts and alleged contradictions.
Mistake 3: Confusing our fallible interpretations with God’s infallible revelation. The Christian position is that the Bible is inerrant, but that we are not. So we should not assume that our interpretation of God’s word is itself God’s word, especially when the meaning of a passage is not clear. When it was discovered that the Earth went around the Sun, it was our interpretation of the Bible which had to go, not the Bible itself. This is because the Bible never explicitly teaches that the Earth is the center of the universe; it was only some interpretations of the Bible that inferred this.
Mistake 4: Failing to Understand the Context of the Passage. One can make the Bible say whatever she wants if she takes passages out of context. For instance, the second clause of Psalm 14:1 says that “there is no God.” But clearly the Bible does not teach atheism, since the first clause of the verse says, “The fool has said in his heart…” The first clause gives the context needed to understand the meaning of the second. While this is of course a simple example, often issues of context are what decide the proper interpretations of the largest and most important passages in the Bible.
Mistake 5: Neglecting to interpret difficult passages in light of clear ones. Some passages are crystal clear, whereas others are much more obscure. The clear passage should be kept in mind when interpreting the obscure passage.
For instance, Philippians 2:12 says to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” We could interpret this verse as teaching that we are saved by our works, even though this idea is not clearly being taught here. However, that interpretation would make this passage contradict clear passages where the same author clearly teaches that we are saved by faith, “not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9; cf. Rom. 4:5; Tit. 3:5-6). Those passages are more harmonious with next verse, Phil. 2:13, which says that “it is God who works in [us] both to will and to do for his good pleasure.” Thus, Paul in Phil. 2:12 may be taken to mean that we are to work our salvation out in the way we live because God has saved us and transformed our motivations so that we could do so. Hence there is no contradiction.
Mistake 6: Basing a teaching (or objection) on an obscure passage. A common maxim in Bible interpretation is that “the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” The most important things, the things that become doctrines, will be taught clearly in many places in Scripture. The upshot for us is that if a certain passage unclear, we shouldn’t conclude that it contradicts another plain teaching of Scripture. That would in essence be to combine mistakes 1-3.
Mistake 7: Forgetting that the Bible is a human book with human characteristics. The Bible was not verbally dictated by God, but communicated through human writers. In other words, God used human writers to communicate what he wanted to be communicated, while allowing them to communicate it naturally for them. So we should expect to see cultural and personal elements in the writings of the 40 or so biblical authors. But such cultural and personal elements do not prove that the Bible was not also inspired by God.
Mistake 8: Assuming that a partial report is a false report. In modern news reporting, a reporter is under no obligation to include every detail of a particular event. Hence, if another reporter includes more details in his report, we ought not to conclude that the are contradictory or one must be mistaken wrong. Rather, we should simply conclude that one reporter chose to include some details that the other didn’t, for whatever reason. In the same way, Luke recorded some details about Jesus that Mark did not, but that does not entail that Luke and Marks’ gospels are inconsistent.
Mistake 9: Demanding that New Testament citations of the Old Testament always be exact quotations. Again, just like in modern times, citations need not be exact quotations. For various reasons, one author may paraphrase or modify the wording of another in order to fit it into what they are saying. For example, John quotes Zechariah 12:10 in his gospel and changes the pronoun because there is a change of speaker. Also, in some places like Matthew 2:23, a general truth is mentioned that has been taught by the prophets as a whole, whom Matthew cites, but there is no single verse which says verbatim what Matthew attributes to them. This should not be taken as a mistake but as a paraphrase, given that Matthew doesn’t mention a specific place where this claim could be found.
Mistake 10: Assuming that divergent accounts are false accounts. Multiple reports of the same event from different perspectives will, of course, reflect the different perspectives. This is yet another point that is easily understood when one thinks about how this is true in modern news reporting. What is important is that the reports do not contradict each other. However, if they merely reflect different perspectives, then there is no difficulty. In fact, divergence ends up being evidence of the genuine independence of the accounts, because if one had copied the other, then we would expect to find no divergence.
Mistake 11: Presuming that the Bible approves of all that it records. The Bible is without error in all that it teaches, but not in all that it contains. Thus, Satan’s lies are not truths even though they are quoted in the Bible, because the Bible does not teach that they are true. The Bible teaches that Satan said certain things and that these things are lies. This is what the Bible takes to be true.
Mistake 12: Forgetting that the Bible uses non-technical, everyday language. God wants his word to be accessible for the common man. We therefore shouldn’t impose technical, scientific, or overly precise language requirements on the Bible. Just as we make use of the terms “sunrise” and “sunset” without implying that these are literal scientific truths, so the Bible can say the sun is “rising” (Josh. 1:16) without implying that the Earth is the center of the universe.
Mistake 13: Assuming that round numbers are false. Going off the previous point, some of the numbers in the Bible are not necessarily meant to be precise. Round numbers are not necessarily wrong numbers: they may well be rough approximations, especially if they are large and recorded by humans.
Mistake 14: Neglecting to note that the Bible uses various literary devices. Human language contains many different modes of expression, including metaphors, hyperboles, and other kinds of figures of speech. Since humans wrote the Bible, it should be no surprise that we find these devices contained there. Such devices are not meant to be taken literally. Thus, if we read Revelation and conclude that Jesus is literally a lamb, the error is not in the Bible but us. (This statement is meant to vividly communicate that Jesus is humble and sacrificial.) Understanding the genre of a book is also crucial to recognizing the presence or absence of certain literary devices.
Mistake 15: Forgetting that only the original text, not every copy of scripture, is without error. The KJV or ESV Bible translations are not divinely inspired; rather, the original Greek Bible is divinely inspired. Nor are particular manuscript copies of the Bible inspired, but only the original. Humans make mistakes when copying things, but this doesn’t change whether or not the thing copied was inspired. Otherwise I could purposely misquote the Bible and bring it about that it wasn’t inspired, which is absurd.
Mistake 16: Confusing general statements with universal statements. Sometimes a general truth is written in an unqualified manner in Scripture. But these are not therefore to be taken as universal truths. The Book of Proverbs is full of wisdom for living rightly. But because right action sometimes depends on context, the proverbs are meant to be general truths of wise conduct, not universal truths without exception. In general, if you raise your children virtuously, they will turn out to be virtuous themselves (Prov. 22:6), but there are certainly some exceptions (e.g., some of David’s children).
Mistake 17: Forgetting that later revelation supersedes previous revelation. Some of God’s commands to us are situation-dependent. For example, God gave Israel numerous ritual laws partly because their role was to be a light to other nations. Since then, however, God has declared that the church is the new Israel (rather than one nation), and Christ has thereby declared so these theocratic laws are no longer in effect for us. This does not prove that the old laws were mistaken; rather, the old laws merely depended on the context of Israel holding a particular role. Modern parents do this sort of thing all the time. For example, a parent may tell his child to eat with his fingers at one age, but with utensils at a later age. Both of these commands were wise in their own context. In the same way, God makes certain commands to us that are restricted to our particular situation.
Being careful is avoid these mistakes will go a long way towards equipping us to adequately deal with the alleged Bible discrepancies and contradictions that we encounter, whether on our own or with our non-Christian friends. At the same time, I encourage you to pick up The Big Book of Bible Difficulties if you need help with any particularly difficult Bible passage.
Be sure to request further explanation of any of these points in the comments section below, and I’ll be happy to interact with you!