By James Bishop| It is often claimed that the Bible is just full of contradictions and therefore it cannot be true or trustworthy. Not only this, some people will try to debunk the entire Christian faith by pointing such supposed contradictions in the Bible.
In this article we are going to look at seven quick responses to the claim that the Bible is full of contradictions and clarify the misunderstanding that this (even if true) would somehow invalidate the Christian faith.
1. Contradictions call into question “Biblical innerancy“, not Christianity.
The Christian might respond by arguing that this is not a challenge against the truthfulness of Christianity. Rather, it is a challenge against Biblical Inerrancy. Innerancy refers to the divine inspiration and authority of scripture. Christians differ on the doctrine of inerrancy as some hold it as a primary doctrine while others view it as secondary (1).
The Christian can simply argue that the Bible does not have to be free of contradictions in order for Christianity to be true. This is not minimizing the importance of the Bible, innerancy, or Biblical authority, but simply stating the reality of the situation. It means that even if we grant the skeptic his claim, it just doesn’t logically follow that Christianity is false.
The Christian faith hinges upon the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:14), NOT whether or not the Bible is airtight in it’s authorship and penmanship. Jesus could have died on the cross for our sins and rose on the third day despite the fact that there are different numbers of witnesses as the empty tomb in different Gospels. It simply has no bearing on the Christian faith.
2. These contradictions are exaggerated
Skeptics can be very uncharitable when reading the Biblical text. They no longer attempt to remain objective as possible, but instead look for contradictions. Sometimes they even find them where none exist.
Take one skeptic’s challenge (chart depicted) where he lists over 60 000 alleged discrepancies and contradictions in an interactive chart (2). This is absurd considering my Bible is, give our take, 1200 pages. Are there really 50 to 60 contradictions per page?
Some Christians readily accept the Bible is full of errors and contradictions given its diverse nature of texts (C.S Lewis, Peter Enns and Thom Stark would agree with this point). So given that Christians are willing to be honest and objective about these points, why lie about the amount of contradictions there are?
3. Most are not contradictions, just differences
Most alleged contradictions are not actually contradictions, but differences. A difference is when two or more independent accounts describe the same event with nuances, but do not contradict each other. According to New Testament scholar Mike Licona who has compiled 60 pages of differences between the gospel accounts:
“Many of the alleged contradictions are actually differences and not contradictions.”
He goes on to say, “there were certain literary liberties that were allowed; time compression, lack of precision when it came to minor chronological details such as the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, Matthew and Luke – one of them inverts the second and the third. We wouldn’t regard that as a contradiction, we would say that that is a difference.”
If the Gospel of Mark fails to mention certain facts about the resurrection that are mentioned in Matthew, this is simply a difference, not a contradiction. If I tell you that Sally and Sam went to the store, bought a snack, and then went home, and then later tell you they went to the store, bought a snack, sat in the park, and THEN went home, this is not a contradiction.
These two stories are not diametrically opposed to one another. One just mentions a different detail the other didn’t. When we realize this basic fact we can disqualify a good percentage of alleged contradictions. William Lane Craig having considered this writes:
“In fact, when you look at the supposed inconsistencies, what you find is that most of them—like the names and number of the women who visited the tomb—are merely apparent, not real. Moreover, the alleged inconsistencies are found in the secondary, circumstantial details of the story and have no effect at all on the four facts as I’ve stated them” (3).
4. This presupposes a false dichotomy
The skeptic must be careful not to commit a logical fallacy. To simply dismiss a text because of secondary errors, differences, or contradictions would fall victim to the fallacy of the excluded middle. This is when one dismisses an entire text because he finds an error in it.
We wouldn’t dismiss the account of a historian recording the story of a war if he says there were 20,000 killed just because another historian says 25,000 were killed. Nor would we conclude that therefore NOBODY died during the war. Or that the war didn’t happen. Or that every other detail about the war and other events in the same book didn’t happen. To assume so would be to commit a fallacy and do irresponsible scholarship.
This skeptic is limiting his options by only choosing between either A (the text is 100% perfect and consistent) or B (that we must reject the entire text because we find an error in it). However, there are other options.
For instance, option C could be that even though there are scribal errors and differences in a text we can still trust it as historical. To either be forced to choose between option A or B, and exclude option C, or other options, is simply not the way the historical method works.
5. Perhaps only the originals are error free, and the rest are scribal errors
Regarding the inspiration of scripture, many Christians would argue that only the originals are error free, should there be errors and/or contradictions in our translations (4). This is noteworthy as many alleged discrepancies are based on the translations of Hebrew or Greek words to English.
Many Hebrew words have several meanings that may all apply – for instance, just see the debate over the Hebrew word yom in the Genesis creation account, and how it has produced over a dozen theories of how to read Genesis. Other alleged errors are scribal lapses since our texts come down to us via scribes copying earlier manuscripts. In such a process a slip of the pen, a misreading or mishearing of the words being copied, or a sleepy state of mind could accidentally change a word or two without the scribe being aware of it.
These, some apologists argue, could account for some contradictions and errors. After all, with 20,000-30,000 handwritten manuscripts of the Bible, it is safe to assume that somewhere during the first few copies that spread there would have been a small amount of errors from the originals which then would have been passed down to the rest.
6. Contradictions or not, these are historical documents
Whether a skeptic likes it or not, even if you take away the inspiration of the gospels/Bible they still remain historical documents that require historical analysis. Jesus’ death via crucifixion, his empty tomb, the postmortem appearances to the disciples and skeptics alike, and their willingness to suffer and die for the proclamation of the risen Jesus are absolutely central details that are attested to in all our gospel sources, Pauline epistles, extra-biblical Christian writings, secular sources, and other sources.
For example, the reliable Roman historian and senator Tacitus (c. A.D. 55 – c. A.D. 117) mentioned Jesus’ crucifixion and the Christians by name in ‘Annals, book XV’:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”
Bart Ehrman, an agnostic-atheist, is one of the most respected New Testament scholars of our day. He is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, and received his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. About the crucifixion, he says:
“ONE OF THE MOST CERTAIN FACTS OF HISTORY IS THAT JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED ON ORDERS OF THE ROMAN PREFECT OF JUDEA, PONTIUS PILATE”. IN THE HISTORICAL JESUS: LECTURE TRANSCRIPT AND COURSE GUIDEBOOK, 2000, P. 162
So even if there were doctrinally significant contradictions (which there really aren’t), this would not take away from the fact that the Gospels were written as historical documents and therefore must be analyzed using the historical method.
As we can see, the issue of contradictions in the Bible is one that, at the very most, might call into question certain forms of Biblical innerancy. But they do not threaten the truth of Christianity, the historicity of the Bible, any central doctrines, of the deity of Jesus.