I’ve written about the Bible’s confused relationship with science and have explored Bible contradictions with a Top 20 list of the most embarrassing. Now let’s look at how Christian apologists respond to Bible contradictions and similar embarrassments.
The perfect message of an infallible god has a lot more contradictions than you’d expect. Was John the Baptist the reincarnated Elijah? Yes (Matthew 17:10–13) and no (John 1:19–21). How many donkeys did Jesus ride on Palm Sunday—one (Mark 11:7) or two (Matthew 21:7)? Who killed Goliath—David (1 Samuel 17:50) or Elhanan (2 Samuel 21:19)?
You won’t be surprised that Christians have a lot of tactics with which to resolve awkward questions like these. Let’s review some of them and see how they hold up.
Tactic 1: Technically, it’s not a contradiction
This excuse splits hairs about the word “contradiction.” A contradiction, they’ll say, is a sentence X that clashes with a sentence not-X, and nothing less precise will do. The two statements must directly and unambiguously contradict each other.
They might apply this to the number of women at the empty tomb. Each gospel identifies a different number of women. For example, John says that it was Mary Magdalene, but Luke says Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James “and the other women.” Apologists will defend the Bible by saying that John didn’t say Mary and only Mary was there, so it’s not a contradiction—at least not technically.
This approach might work if the question of women at the tomb were the only problem, but there’s much more than that. And, of course, apologists always resolve the contradiction in favor of their conclusion, which is a supernatural fantasy that is about as far-fetched as it is possible to be. (More “apparent” contradictions in the four resurrection accounts here.)
While you’re haggling with them over the definition of “contradiction,” the Bible problem is ignored, which they count as a win.
What does “contradiction” mean?
To remember how we evaluate contradictions in everyday life, suppose you’re a newspaper editor. Matthew and Luke have been assigned to the Jesus beat—this is such an important story that you want two journalists working on independent articles—and they drop off their stories (their respective gospels) on your desk. How satisfied would you be?
Not very. You’d call them back and tell them to try again. This isn’t merely Luke having the Parable of the Prodigal Son but Matthew omitting it, and Matthew having the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant but Luke omitting it. Space is limited, and those editorial decisions are understandable, but it’s more than that. Did wise men visit the baby Jesus, or was it shepherds? Was Jesus whisked off to Egypt for his protection or not? Did the dead rise at the crucifixion, who first witnessed the empty tomb, and how many angels were at the tomb? Matthew and Luke disagree on each of these and more. In common parlance, these are contradictions. Relabel the problem if you want, but don’t dismiss it.We could debate how essential these story elements are (very essential for the flight to Egypt and less so for the shepherds), but with enough of these differences, the stories become unreliable—both of them.
Tactic 2: Use or discard evidence based on whether you like where it points
Here’s an example of an apologist wanting to have it both ways, inconsistently using contradictory information as it suits his agenda. After accepting that Jesus spent two years in Egypt (a claim given only in Matthew) but dismissing the idea that he also visited India, Greg Koukl concluded:
The record that we have of Jesus’ life indicates that he was there [in Israel] for his entire life except for that brief sojourn in Egypt, which is recorded. (@ 23:44)
Let me illustrate the problem with an imagined dialogue:
Bob: Why say that Jesus went to Egypt? Matthew is the only one with that. Luke has a birth narrative, but it doesn’t mention Egypt. If the flight to Egypt actually happened, it’s hard to imagine Luke omitting that.
Greg: Luke doesn’t say, “And by the way, Jesus never went to Egypt.” Luke apparently pared down his narrative, and the Egypt journey was cut. This was an editorial choice, not a contradiction.
Bob: Luke also doesn’t say, “And by the way, Jesus never went to India.” So maybe he did.
Greg: We have a record of his life before his adult ministry in two of the gospels. There’s no mention of India, so we have no reason to consider it.
The problem here is that you can’t ignore the omission of Egypt and then point to the omission of India as important evidence.
To be clear, I’m not saying that there’s strong evidence that Jesus went to India. I doubt there is, and support for such a hypothesis would need to be put forward with data from outside the New Testament. But you must be consistent—don’t decide whether to ignore or highlight an omission in your holy book based on whether it will support your conclusion.
Continued in part 2.
in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?
— Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great
Image from Jenni Jones, CC license