By Jason Dollar and Steven B. Cowan –
Many skeptics and unbelievers say the Bible cannot be trusted because it contains errors and contradictions. We have never personally seen one, but antagonists continue to maintain that they are there. One online skeptic writes, “When the Bible is examined with dispassion and with objectivity, it soon becomes obvious that it is so hopelessly riddled with errors, impossibilities and contradictions that it is essentially ludicrous to make the claim that it is inerrant.”1 Our focus in this particular article is on the charge that the Bible contains contradictions. That is, the claim that the Bible contains texts that logically conflict with each other.
What leads people to see these supposed contradictions? Mostly it is because they are not giving the Bible a fair reading. They commit several blunders in their reasoning and as a result they “find” contradictions in the text that are not really there. In this article, we would like to highlight several criteria that, if carefully followed, would show that there are in fact no contradictions in the pages of inspired Scripture. But, first, we need to clarify exactly what it means to say that the Bible contains contradictions.
What is a Contradiction?
A fundamental law of valid reasoning is the Law of Non-contradiction which simply states:
A statement cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same way.
Another way of putting this is that a statement and its denial cannot both be true. In other words, it cannot be the case that A and not-A are both true (where A stands for some declarative statement). For example, consider the following two statements:
“Caesar Augustus decrees that a census be taken this year.”
“Caesar Augustus does not decree that a census be taken this year.”
Assuming that the phrase “this year” refers to the very same year in both sentences, then the Law of Non-contradiction tells us that these statements cannot both be true because they contradict each other. It is, of course, possible that one and the same statement is true and false at different times. In the above example, both of these statements can be true if “this year” is talking about different years.
Also, the Law of Non-contradiction can allow that a statement and its denial can both be true even at the same time if the statements have different meanings. For example, both “Hillary Clinton is cold” and “Hillary Clinton is not cold” can both be true even at the same time as long as the word “cold” means something different in each case. Suppose that in the first statement, “cold” means emotionally cold (i.e., distant, aloof), while in the second statement, “cold” means physically cold (i.e, cold in temperature). In this case, obviously, both statements can be true simultaneously. All that Law of Non-contradiction rules out is both statements being simultaneously true in the same sense.
Now the skeptic claims that the Bible contains contradictions. What this must mean is that the Bible contains at least one pair of texts in which a particular claim and its denial are made in such a way as to deny the Law of Non-contradiction. That is, the charge is that the Bible contains texts that make assertions of the form “A and non-A.” A hypothetical example would be something like: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “In the beginning God did not create the heavens and the earth.” Of course, to contain a real contradiction, the Bible would not have to have assertions that are as obviously contradictory as this. It may be that the Bible asserts some proposition A, but never explicitly asserts not-A. Yet, perhaps it asserts some other proposition B that logically implies not-A. In that case, the Bible would still contain a contradiction.
Interpretation and Alleged Contradictions
The question remains, however: does the Bible contain contradictions? In what follows, we will apply some important principles of interpretation to several examples of alleged contradictions to show that the critics of the Bible are mistaken.
Find the Background Facts
Many times people do not have all of the facts about a particular passage. When missing this vital information, it might seem as though a contradiction is evident. Take these two passages for example:
Matthew 5:33-37 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (ESV)
Hebrews 6:13-14 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” (ESV)
In Matthew 5 Jesus instructs his followers not to swear and take oaths. However in Hebrews 6 God himself is swearing and taking an oath! Is this not a glaring contradiction? No it is not a contradiction. A few more background facts will help us see that these two passages are not at odds with each other.
In the Matthew text, Jesus is giving his famous Sermon on the Mount where he was confronting the hypocrisy and legalism of the Pharisees (see 5:20). One of the things the Pharisees did was set up a system of oath taking. They could swear by Jerusalem, or by heaven, or oddly enough, they could even swear by their own heads. Some of these were greater to swear by than others. This system of oath-taking was strictly man-made and nowhere to be found in the Word of God, yet the Pharisees equated the authority of this system with Scripture.
Suppose I promise you that I am going to come over and wash you car tomorrow. You say, “Okay, I really need you to wash my car! You will be there right?” I say, “I swear by a double cheeseburger, I will be there!” Tomorrow comes and uh-oh, I slept late and did not come over to wash you car. So you come looking for me. Waking me up you say, “You swore you would come and wash my car!” I reply: “Wait a minute! I only swore by a double cheeseburger. I did not swear by a quarter-pound cheeseburger! If I had sworn by the greater burger, I would have been more obligated to be there, but as it is, I only swore by the lesser burger. So too bad!”
Believe it or not, this example is similar to what the Pharisees were doing (less the burgers). They had set up an elaborate system of oath-taking that actually allowed them to get out of keeping their promises. It was just part of the super messed-up system that the Pharisees were living by. Jesus comes along and essentially says, “Enough of the oath-taking garbage! Quit playing those silly games with each other and be people of honesty and integrity. When you say ‘yes,’ let that be good enough. When you say ‘no,’ let that be good enough.” He does not condemn all promises or oaths for all time. He speaks to those people in their cultural situation and makes a strong point about the importance of integrity and character. So when God makes an oath as recorded in Hebrews 6, he is not contradicting Jesus’ words in Matthew 5. In Hebrews 6 God is taking an oath in the right way, not on the basis of a system designed to promoted lies and dishonesty.
A little more information about the historical background of the passages shows that there is no contradiction between them. Many passages in the Bible that seem to contradict on the surface actually do not contradict at all when a bit more research is done.
Interpret Passages in Context
Another reason that skeptics see contradictions in the Bible that are not really there is because they very often take verses out of their contexts. Read these two verses out of their contexts and you will see what I mean:
James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (ESV)
Galatians 2:16 Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (ESV)
Placing these two texts side-by-side in this way, it would appear that they contradict each other. If they do contradict each other, than logically one of them must be wrong, or both of them are wrong, but they can’t both be right. If they are not both right, then the Bible has a glaring error. If it has an error in one part of it, then our confidence in the Bible as the Word of God is called into question.
But examing the contexts of these passages, we find that Paul in Galatians is speaking of the root or the initiation of salvation. We are saved (in this sense) by faith alone. Our works cannot bring us into that initial entrance of a relationship with Christ. This becomes clear in reading all of chapter 2 and chapter 3 of Galatians. Here are a couple of verses that make the point:
Galatians 3:21-22 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. (ESV)
James, on the other hand, is speaking of the fruit or the sanctification element which is also a part of the salvation process. We are saved by faith alone, but faith is not alone. Real faith produces real works. If Christians do not have real works then they do not have real faith. Again, reading the context of the passage shows this:
James 2:17-20 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe- and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
James wants to be sure that we understand that faith is seen by works. That is why he states that people are justified by works as well as faith. Our works are a necessary outworking of our salvation. But Paul wants us to understand that we do not acquire or earn this salvation by our works, but by faith alone. Yet, he would agree with James that faith without works is dead (cf. (Rom. 6:1-11; 8:13; Gal. 5:22-24).
In context, these two passages are speaking of two distinct parts of the salvation process. But then if we would read and study the entire context of these passages we would know that! Paul and James are not disagreeing with each other nor do they contradict each other. Both of them are right and there is no error in the Bible.
Don’t Assume Difference Means Contradiction
The Bible was not written in the technical language of scholars, but rather it was written in the common language of the day, so that all could understand it. This means that different authors might be telling the exact same story from different points of view for different purposes. Because of this, one author may include details that the other omits and vice-versa. This does not mean they contradict each other, but are simply emphasizing those aspects of the story that help them make the points they wish to make. And this is simply the normal way people tell stories. Let us show you what we mean. Read these two passages and let’s see if they contradict each other as some skeptics say they do:
Matthew 8:28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. (ESV)
Mark 5:2-3 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. (ESV)
How many demon possessed men did you count in the Matthew passage? How many in the Mark passage? Okay, Matthew says there were two and Mark says there was one. Surely this is a glaring contradiction in the Bible if ever there was one! Well, not if we let the Bible speak in ordinary language.
Obviously, there were two demon possessed men, as Matthew says. So why does Mark only mention one of them? The answer is because Mark is telling his version of the story. Therefore, he only includes the parts that are important to his telling of the story. As you read the story as Mark tells it, you will find that one of the men developed a very close bond with Jesus and even wanted to go back with Him across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus did not allow the man to go, but instructed him to stay and tell his friends and family about the power of God (Mark 5:15-20).
Here is the point: Mark was interested in the one demon possessed man and his relationship to Jesus. The other man was not a concern to Mark and his telling of this story. That does not mean that the other man was not there. It just means Mark saw no need to mention him. (Of course, if Mark had said explicitly, “There was only one demon possessed man there,” then we would have a contradiction, but Mark did not say that.)
Suppose four friends—Mary, Mike, Melvin, and Marty—go whitewater rafting together, all in one boat. After the trip Mary and Melvin both write entries in their journals about the trip.
Mary writes these words: We just finished rafting and it was awesome! Our boat was full of people: Mike, Melvin, Marty, and me. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life and I will never forget it.
Melvin writes these words: Mike and I just wasted 5 hours of our lives. Neither one of us wanted to come on this silly trip. It was horrible. I will never go whitewater rafting again.
Now suppose you found Melvin’s journal and Mary’s journal and you compared these two entries side-by-side. It would be clear that two different people were writing about the same event from two different viewpoints. You would not think Melvin was lying or contradicting Mary just because he did not mention every single person who was on the boat or because his emotional experience was different. In fact, if you only read Melvin’s entry, you might be led to think that only he and Mike were on the boat. But Melvin’s point really has nothing to do with whom or how many were on the boat. His point has to do with his emotional state while on the boat.
Another example of this same phenomenon can be found in the resurrection accounts in the four gospels. Concerning the identification and number of women who initially came to the tomb, we read the following accounts:
Matthew 28:1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. (ESV)
Mark 16:1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. (ESV)
Luke 24:10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. (ESV)
John 20:1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. (ESV)
Atheist Michael Martin says that these accounts are hopelessly irreconcilable. That means no matter how hard you try, you cannot make them mesh. He says hey contradict and there is no way to bring them together.2 If Martin is right, then clearly we cannot trust the Bible. But is Martin right? Are these four passages contradictory? Martin is actually way off base and he is not giving the text a fair reading.
Notice first of all that Mary Magdalene is mentioned in all four of the accounts. In fact, it seems clear that she is the main character in all the narratives (other than Jesus). John only mentions her and none of the other women that Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention. Does that mean that John contradicts Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Of course not! Just because he does not mention the other women does not mean they were not there. John has a special interest in focusing on Mary Magdalene and so he only mentions her.
Suppose that Erin went to a Sunday School party last night. There were 30 people at the party. While there, Erin spent some time talking to Nick and Bart. They had a long conversation about their up-coming ministry project. But then Erin went over to Katie who seemed to be crying. “What’s wrong?” Erin asked. Katie confided in Erin that her dad had been diagnosed with cancer and that her family was really struggling right now. So Erin spent the rest of the time at the party right beside Katie, being a friend to her in a time of need. After the party Erin went home. Her mom asked her, “How was the party?” Erin tells her it went well. Her mom then asks, “Who was there?” Erin responds that she talked to Katie and explains to her mom about Katie’s dad.
But wait a minute, what about Nick and Bart? Was Erin lying or being deceitful to her mom when she said she talked to Katie? After all, she talked to more people than just Katie. We know that she wasn’t lying. She was giving her mom a selective history. She was not giving all the details of the party, but just the ones she thought were important.
John only mentions the presence of Mary Magdalene, but that does not mean the other women mentioned by the other gospel writers were not there. John does not see the need to list them out in his account. There is no contradiction here at all. Likewise with the respective lists of the other gospel writers. There is just a difference in emphasis among them.3
As you read the gospel accounts you will see this type of selective history all the way through. Just about every supposed “contradiction” melts away when we give the text this kind of fair reading.
The Verdict: Not Guilty of Contradictions
So contrary to what the opponents of Christianity declare, when the Bible is placed on trial for containing contradictions, it does not take a genius to see the verdict: not guilty. If the Bible is interpreted in light of accurate background data and within its context, and if it is allowed to tell stories in ordinary language in which differences in accounts are to be expected, then no errors will be found.
And if the Bible contains no errors or contradictions we can be assured that it is trustworthy and true; which means there is a God to whom we are accountable and who has promised us eternal life through Jesus Christ. We encourage you to trust and walk with him who has shown himself worthy of worship and who has revealed himself so clearly in the pages of the inerrant Word of God.
(Published in the Areopagus Journal Vol. 7, No. 6 November-December 2007)
Jason Dollar is the Youth Specialist for the Apologetics Resource Center and teaches high school Bible and Apologetics at Shades Mountain Christian School in Hoover, Alabama.
Steven B. Cowan is the editor of Areopagus Journal and is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Southeastern Bible College in Birmingham, Alabama.
1 Scott Bidstrup, “What The Christian Fundamentalist Doesn’t Want You To Know: A Brief Survey of Biblical Errancy,” accessed at www.bidstrup.com.
2 Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 1993.
3 For discussion of other apparent conflicts in the resurrection narratives, see John Wenham, The Easter Enigma: Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict?, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).