Does the Bible Really Contradict Itself?

Does the Bible Really Contradict Itself? January 5, 2019

“Without the Way, there is no going. Without the Truth, there is no knowing. Without the Life, there is no living.”

~ Thomas à Kempis

In some recent progressive Christian blogs, the authors often argue that the Bible contradicts itself a great deal.

Some of these authors even go as far as to say that the Bible isn’t terribly reliable, and that certain things that God told Israel, for example, were . . . well . . . little fibs. “God really didn’t tell those people that. They had their fingers crossed behind their backs as they penned those claims.” Or so the thinking goes.

I find these sorts of explanations to be unconvincing at best. And they reflect modernistic Enlightenment rationalism (which governs the frontal lobes of those who flat-footedly reject Scripture) at worst.

While I don’t believe the Bible has a journalistic type of accuracy that most fundamentalists ascribe to it, nor do I believe that the Bible is some sort of magic book that will yield an answer to every conceivable question posed to it, I am convinced of the following:

(1) All Scripture is inspired by God.

(2) All Scripture is authoritative.

(3) All Scripture is completely true and wholly reliable.

In these ways, I stand with eminent scholars like F.F. Bruce, Craig Keener, N.T. Wright, Donald Guthrie, Ben Witherington, Howard Snyder, and many others too numerous to list.

Misguided Contradictions

That said, some of my progressive Christian author friends will sometimes use the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus as evidence of a “genuine” biblical contradiction.

But do the resurrection accounts really contradict each other?

A contradiction is a flat-out, mutually exclusive disagreement.

Suppose, for instance, you and I both witnessed a car accident. You said that the driver was thrown from his car 100-feet and died on impact. In contrast, I said the driver remained in his car and walked away with a few scratches on his head.

That’s a contradiction.

Either of us is fibbing or we are imagining. Or we are confusing a different accident with the one we both witnessed.

But if I said that the car was large, and you said it was small. Is that a contradiction? Well, that depends because “small” and “large” are relative. What I consider to be a small car you may consider to be mid-size car.

And what if you said there was one police officer at the scene and I said there were two? That’s not a contradiction if there were two, but you only noticed one.

Or what if you said the car was totaled and I said it was banged-up bad. That’s not a contradiction necessarily, because we could be using different words to describe the same thing. That would be a case of semantics.

Consequently, when you compare all four resurrection accounts closely, you won’t find any contradictions. You will, however, find differences. Just as you do when real eye-witnesses describe the same event. It’s rarely if ever identical.

There are many so-called “contradictions” in the Bible that people claim which really aren’t. Those “contradictions” can be resolved rather easily if one examines the context, the original languages, the different ancient manuscripts, and the particular perspective of the author.

When one reads Scripture carefully, they will find that there are very few real contradictions in the Bible. The rest are different perspectives or spiritual paradoxes.

Different Perspectives

Take Judas’ death, for instance.

In one account, the New Testament says that Judas’ went out and hung himself. Consider these two differing accounts:

Matthew 27:5
Then he [Judas] threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.

Acts 1:18
Now this man [Judas] purchased a field with the wages of iniquity; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out.

This isn’t a contradiction. It’s rather two different perspectives of the same event.

Judas did hang himself, but he did so from a tree hanging over the field. Luke graphically details what took place after his hanging. Here’s how one person describes it:

“Judas’ dead body hung in the hot sun in Jerusalem. The bacteria inside his body began breaking down tissues and cells. A byproduct of bacterial metabolism is often gas. The pressure created by the gas forces fluid out of the cells and tissues and into the body cavities. The body becomes bloated as a result. In addition, tissue decomposition occurs compromising the integrity of the skin. Judas’ body was similar to an overinflated balloon, and as he hit the ground (due to the branch he hung on or the rope itself breaking) the skin easily broke and he burst open with his internal organs spilling out.”

In short, the differing accounts of Judas’ death in Acts and Matthew do not constitute a contradiction.

Genesis 1 and 2 is another example. In those chapters, we have two different versions of the creation account.

But as Len Sweet and I explained in Jesus: A Theography, one is a micro version from the mind of God, while the other is a macro version from the human perspective.

I’ve debated with atheists who used both of these examples (Judas’ death and Genesis 1 and 2) to “prove” to me that I can’t trust the Bible. When I was finished answering them, the head of one Atheist association said, “It’s exceedingly difficult to punch holes in your arguments.”

I point this out only to demonstrate that a follower of Jesus Christ doesn’t have to adopt the rational of atheists, agnostics, and Deists and concede that the Bible isn’t reliable. Nor do they have to escape into “don’t confuse me with the facts” lines of reasoning.

Again, while I don’t see the Bible has having a journalistic accuracy – meaning, there do appear to be a few very minor contradictions (mainly in some Old Testament numbers), the best scholars have shown that the Scriptures are reliable as historical documents.

F.F. Bruce argued the reliability of the New Testament with unassailable logic in his many books and scholars like John Goldingay and David Lamb have made it plain for the Old Testament.

An illuminating book I’ll recommend to you on this score is Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible.

This book shows that most of the biblical contradictions that people claim can easily be resolved. They aren’t real contradictions at all.

Spiritual Paradoxes

There’s yet another reason why some think that the Bible contradicts itself.  It’s the fact that spiritual truth is paradoxical. And paradoxes run all throughout Scripture. Jesus, in fact, is the Ultimate Paradox since He is fully God and fully human. (HT to Kierkegaard.)

Here’s how Len Sweet and I put it in Jesus Manifesto,

“The truth is, most Calvinists live like Arminians (they hold themselves and others responsible for their actions). And most Arminians pray like Calvinists (they submit their requests to the will of God) . . .

The Christ who is truly (but only partially) present in our doctrine and experience is the true substance of the Christian faith. As for us, we will always “know in part” until we meet Him “face to face.”

Concerning the reality of Christ Himself, all the fullness of God dwells within Him. It is for this reason that every theological system breaks down somewhere. Every systematic theology, no matter how coherent or logical, eventually meets some passage of Scripture or passage of life that refuses to fit into it. Such passages have to be bent, twisted, and forced to fit the system.

Why is this? It’s because Christ is too immense, too imponderable, and too alive to be tied into any immovable system of thought constructed by finite humans.

Thus, He will always break out.

As Jeff Goldblum’s character said in the hit movie Jurassic Park—“Life will find a way.” (That was his response to the idea that scientists had created an ironclad, airtight system to keep dinosaurs from reproducing.) Jesus Christ is too alive to be caged in any human system. As Paul exclaimed in holy exasperation, “How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

Life will find a way.

Jesus is not just one way, a better way, a pleasant way on a good day. He is the way.

Jesus is not just one truth, a higher truth, or a more personal truth. He is the truth.

Jesus is not just another life, a nicer life, a more abundant life. He is the life of God Himself.

In short, following Jesus doesn’t mean trying to create a weapons-grade theological system to analyze, explain, and contain Him. Neither does it mean trying to obey His teachings by the power of our own volition . . .

So, Christianity is not an allegiance to a complex doctrinal or ethical system, but a passionate love for a way of living in the world that’s rooted in living by Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life. Our theologies, doctrines, and subjective experiences are designed to flow organically from our loving relationship to Christ, but they are never to substitute for it.”

Point: If the Bible isn’t reliable, then putting my faith in the Person that all Scripture points to — the Lord Jesus Christ — is a bit shaky. But note, reliability doesn’t mean perfection. Every historical document that’s reliable in its account isn’t perfect. Meaning, there may be a few typos, grammos, imperfect wordings, and even scribal mistakes. But those don’t overturn nor negate the overall message of the document.

It’s the same way with Holy Writ. And because I believe that Scripture in inspired by God and thus constitutes God’s written Word, I won’t retract calling it “holy” . . . for “holy” means uncommon.

Nor am I ashamed of it.

For like Moses, those of us who follow the Master can rightfully take our shoes off when we approach the Living Christ to whom all Scripture witnesses.

Incidentally, this post is yet another example of those of us who have moved beyond evangelical.

We neither find alignment with the progressive approach to Scripture (it’s unreliable and is full of errors and contradictions) nor do we find alignment with the fundamentalist approach (it’s journalistically accurate and answers every question that a mortal can bring to it).

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’ll check with the Blog Manager. DISQ isn’t terribly reliable. You can always email PTMIN@aol.com if your comment doesn’t come through.

    We’ve moved from this thread to “Jesus Calling” – my post from yesterday. And “The Ultimate Issue,” the post from today. Check out that post as I’m doing a survey on “Jesus Calling.” Thanks!.

  • Jeanne S

    I’ve tried to post something twice now. Is there a technical problem or are you not willing to post it? It wasn’t argumentative, just explaining where I’m at in my journey.

  • As I said, that was just one example among others, which I don’t have time to hunt down. Most of them are number variations, others are account variations that I couldn’t reconcile nor were they in “Alleged Discrepancies.” My view on reliability is in line with the neo-evangelicals like F.F. Bruce. Not journalistically accurate nor does it answer every question, especially scientific ones, but no major errors and few contradictions (what I’m calling “real contradictions” are minor and don’t change the meaning of the text.)

    There are unattested differences in the manuscripts. Many who hold to the word “inerrant” say Scripture is flawless “in its original manuscripts.” We don’t have Paul’s actual letters, for instance, that’s what I mean, There are some interesting problems with the Isaiah manuscripts, for instance that are hard to resolve.

    But to bottom line this, I believe the Scripture is true, inspired, authoritative and reliable and most of the alleged contradictions can be resolved. That’s the main point I’m making. btw/ I encouraged you to respond to one of the commentors who took a progressive approach. Thanks in advance. 🙂

  • Lyndon Unger

    Frank, If it’s scribal error (and it is – you may have noticed that the NIV doesn’t contain that error…and neither does the LXX or some of the DSS. The miscopying of numbers is the most frequent type of scribal error in the OT), it’s not an actual contradiction. An error made by a copyist isn’t an error in the autographa. That’s like attributing an error made by a person who misquotes you…to you.

    It simply doesn’t follow for a second.

    Second, we actually DO have the originals. You understand the difference between the “autographa” and the “originals”, right? The autographa are the physical pieces of parchment/velum/whatever that the prophet wrote on. The “originals” are the words that they wrote. We don’t have the first copy (the autographa), but not a single word of what they’ve written has been lost in history.

    That’s part of why the entire field of textual criticism exists; peeling off the extra verbiage added through the centuries of scribal transmission to roll the text back to what it originally said. It’s been said that textual criticism is like having a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle with 5,500 piece in the box. All the original pieces are there, but a person needs to remove the extra pieces in order to make the puzzle.

    I certainly applaud the statement that we either take the whole scripture or none of it. You’re talking like an inerrantist and I’m pleased to see that.

    If the Bible is inspired, words like “inerrant” aren’t needed…because they’re assumed if one understands what the Bible informs us as to what “inspiration” means.

  • Thx. Jason. There are several things here. 1. the difference between a true contradiction and a paradox. They aren’t the same. 2. I’m saying the “progressive position” generally, (there are many variations as there are in the fundamentalist position) is just as thin as the fundamentalist position to my mind. Not long ago I read someone who considers himself “progressive” try to argue that the resurrection accounts are in contradiction to each other. I found this whole way of thinking to be wholly unconvincing and stated why in the post. I don’t see them as contradictory at all, but offering different perspectives that are in harmony. The book I referenced does a great job sketching that out. 3. Most so called contradictions really aren’t contradictions at all. 4. the Bible is full of paradoxes (see the quote from Jesus Manifesto in the post on that score). But those aren’t contradictory. 5. I find the whole line of thinking that some Christians have adopted that says, “God really didn’t say that to Israel, or “Jesus really didn’t say that” to be weak and unconvincing. In short, I find the whole argument that the Scriptures are full of errors and historically unreliable to be unconvincing and misguided. The authors I mentioned to one of the commentators have done a fantastic job dismantling that sort of thinking. I hope that helps.

  • Jason

    So you are not denying that there are factual inaccuracies, just not outright contradictions. Your issue seems to be with the use of the word “contradiction”. Fine, I can tentatively accept that position, especially since you also do not claim an inerrant bible.

    So, if you would help me grasp the nuance of your argument in relation to my comment on your use of “completely true and wholly reliable” I’d appreciate it. What in scripture is completely true and reliable? The spirit of the text? The wisdom? Am I just expecting that you’re trying to make a much bigger point than you really are?

    Also, I think you are generalizing “progressive” way to easily here. The belief that the bible is unreliable and full of errors is relative to exactly what one thinks those terms refer to in relation to in the text. A progressives response to a fundamentalist on, say, the historicity of scripture is one where they claim it unreliable. That doesn’t mean that there is a lack of authority because to a progressive (yes, I’m generalizing here…) scripture’s authority doesn’t come from whether an event is accurately represented.

  • Jason, you’re missing the nuance of my argument. Resolving an alleged discrepancy is hardly “making excuses” for when things “don’t line up.” Your comment is a “hard line” statement that implies a motive judgement, actually, and it’s rhetorically false. 🙂

    And what you say regarding my point about Judas’ death is “speculation” underlines that the nuance of the argument was missed. The point is if it COULD have happened that way, which is very plausible, it’s not a real contradiction. A real contradiction is just that. It can’t be reconciled.

    If I was a betting man, I’d say you’ve imbibed the arguments of the progressives without looking at the critiques of their thinking. Have you read ALLEGED DISCREPANCIES or any of the work of F.F. Bruce or Craig Blomberg or Richard Bauckham on the reliability of the Scriptures? I think it would be better for a fundamentalist like Lyndon Unger who airs on the other side of the progressive spectrum than I do to challenge you a bit here, since he’s coming from the other extreme. Sometimes those who see things from the far side can better point out where we may be missing something. My view is neither fundamentalist nor progressive – it’s more in line with the post evangelicals like F.F. Bruce and company.

  • Only have a second, but there are a number of examples with numbers in the OT as I’ve already stated. To give one example – is the number of horsemen that David captured – 2 Sam. 8:4 and 1 Chronicles 18:4 contradict each other on this. However, one can view this as a scribal error (hence my term “journalistic accuracy.”) Nonetheless, it’s a real contradiction in the text we have. But it doesn’t overturn the main message of either book.

    As far as the Bible “being flawless in the original manuscripts,” that may be true. But we have no way to tell as the originals don’t exist anymore.

    Thus I agree with F.F. Bruce who said the Bible is “true” and reliable and authoritative. I believe that’s sufficient. (Words like inerrant “are unnecessary” as Bruce put it.) My article is a critique of the progressive idea that the Bible is full of real contradictions and factual errors, and that’s not a problem (for them). I would argue that if it’s full of factual errors and real contradictions, then what basis does one have in believing any of it? As I said to one other person in the comments, it leaves us with a pick and choose option. So it seems to me.

  • Part II: Smith’s main argument is that the fundamentalistic approach to Scripture is brittle and doesn’t work. I’ve argued the same in this short post. His main solution is a Christ-o-centric hermeneutic, but he doesn’t go into any detail as to what that looks like and how it works.

    “Jesus: A Theography” is a 400+ page book that demonstrates in living the color that hermeneutic from Genesis to Revelation. http://frankviola.org/jesuschrist.

    But again, Smith believes Scripture is true and reliable. If it’s not, then we could throw out what it says about Jesus because it can’t be trusted. This is the argument of the atheist, Deist, and agnostic. “A man said that Jesus said such and such and did such and such. We can’t trust the Bible. It’s not a reliable historical witness.”

    This is where the logic of many of the progressive Christians — which neither Smith nor myself are — leads one to. If the Bible really is FULL OF errors and contradictions and flaws, then it can’t be trusted. And it lands us into a pick-and-choose situation where one picks the parts of the Bible they like and disavow those parts they don’t like.

    In this short post – and again, it’s just a taste of a bigger subject – I’m arguing that the Bible IS true, reliable, and authoritative. So I stand with Smith, N.T. Wright, and F.F. Bruce and many other scholars on this score. And I think Scripture attests to this fact when understood properly. The examples I gave of “alleged” contradictions are no contradictions at all. We can trust the resurrection accounts.

  • Lyndon Unger

    So there are REAL contradictions?

    Where?

  • Jason

    You can’t make hard-line claims like “All Scripture is completely true and wholly reliable” and then make excuses for when the facts don’t line up. For something to be completely true and reliable, it needs to be completely factual in all of it’s details.

    Your explanation of Judas’ death is, while plausible, mere speculation. I think the bible is inspired, but not in a way that requires it to be void of contradictions and factual inaccuracies. I don’t see any compelling argument here, even though in general I think I agree with your overall premise.

  • Part I: I not only read it, but I reviewed it. I know Smith and I agree with his book. He’s very strong on inspiration, authority, and reliability. He’s essentially takes this third view I’m espousing. My book JESUS: A THEOGRAPHY puts wheels on Smith’s main point, that the Scriptures all reveal Jesus Christ. JESUS: A THEOGRAPHY fleshes out that point from Genesis to Revelation. The witness to Christ is utterly reliable. http://frankviola.org/jesuschrist

  • Jeanne S

    I do think that the Bible is inspired, just as much as certain books you and others write are inspired.
    I’ll check the book out, if you read the book by Christian Smith, “The Bible Made Impossible”.

  • I disagree. This line of thinking is modernistic. A scribal error isn’t a contradiction that negates the inspiration of God. I believe that book I recommended will be of help to you in discovering what a real contradiction is and isn’t as the examples I gave may not have accomplished that task. In short, I think both the idea that says it has to be journalistically flawless to be God’s word *and* the idea that says it’s full of contradictions and errors are inaccurate options.

  • Jeanne S

    In that case, it would be hard to figure out what is a “few real contradictions” and what are words from God. I prefer to see the scriptures as men, who at the time, wrote what they felt was from God or their (our) finite view and understanding of God. Not something as if taking direct dictation from the Holy Spirit.

  • It doesn’t seem you read the whole piece. I’ve never claimed or implied the Bible is “inerrant” – which means it has a journalistic accuracy that’s perfect. However, if any “historical” document is full of *real* contradictions, it’s no longer reliable or trustworthy as a historical document. There I would agree with the atheists. If the Bible is full of REAL contradictions, they are correct in that it can’t be trusted. Thus I’ve argued for a view that’s neither fundamentalist nor progressive. The Bible has very few if any contradictions. And those that are present are minor and don’t overturn the message of Scripture. Scribal errors regarding numbers in the OT in a few places, for instance, don’t make Scripture unreliable. They simply show it’s human side.

  • Yep. That’s why there are variations within manuscripts. And why there are a few real contradictions in the text. But not terribly many.

  • Jeanne S

    Isn’t humanity/human’s subject to errors and inserting their own interpretations and views into it then?

  • 1) There are many who question the reliability of Scripture. If a book is full of REAL contradictions, it’s hardly reliable. That’s not an argument for “inerrancy” – I’ve never used that term and don’t particular care for it. Note what I said about journalistic accuracy. Like F.F. Bruce, whose work needs to be rediscovered today, I think the word is unnecessary and it conjures up ideas that aren’t accurate. “Why not just ay the Bible is true?”

    2) The “house of cards” mentality doesn’t apply to this third view I’ve offered. What you’re suggesting by implication “feeds” the “pick and choose” mentality. I choose to believe the parts that fit my modernistic mindset and ascribe other parts that don’t as being inspired by God. Or I benightedly say, “God didn’t really say that. That’s what Israel, or Peter, or John claimed He said.” Try proving that one.

    3) A real revelation of Jesus Christ will be grounded in Scripture and will comport with the Gospels and the NT. The same Spirit who revealed Christ also inspired Scripture. There are many “revelations” of Jesus which contradict the New Testament and the Gospels. To suggest that the faith of Jesus’ followers is grounded in a subjective revelation and not the Gospel accounts as thought they can be set aside violates the way God has revealed Himself. As one who believes that the Spirit still reveals today, I agree with the Church of the ages that the Spirit’s revelation will coincide and be based upon the revelation found in Scripture. “My words and Spirit and life” and “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ.” To separate the Spirit’s revelation and the Scriptures is to drift toward error. “you do err, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.” what God has joined together ought not to be divided.

    All told, I’m arguing for a third view here. Not progressive nor fundamentalist. It’s hard to read such a view without the filters of either perspective.

  • Peter Harding

    I don’t see why we have to worry about contradictions, and I don’t think it helps to try and reconcile them. I guess it comes down to how we view the Bible and what we mean by inspiration. The Bible was written by men of their own time, rooted in their own cultures and ideas and their inspiration was also dependent on their understanding of God at that time. That meant that they were quite capable of making mistakes whilst still being inspired! An inspired Bible does not have to be an inerrant Bible.

  • No I don’t because God chose to use humanity through which to reveal His mind. Both in the incarnation and in the Scriptures. His way of revealing Himself is very different from what modern minds would suspect — which would be a Book dropping out of heaven written by angels and easy to understand. The Bible is quite difficult to grasp. Not the way modernity would suspect or expect. It takes the Spirit and an understanding of the culture to understand authorial intent. It also takes a community to properly grasp all of its riches.

  • Orton1227

    A few thoughts:
    1) I haven’t seen a ton of people claim unreliability with the Bible. I’m sure they’re there, but even folks like Rob Bell and Pete Enns don’t seem to go that far.

    2) Is it possible for a source to be reliable yet have contradictions? If not, then we have a house-of-cards faith mentality.

    3) You say, “if the Bible isn’t reliable, then putting my faith in the Person that all Scripture points to is shaky at best”. I think that puts a large burden and expectation on the Bible that it doesn’t claim to have. This also feeds into the house-of-cards mentality. Plus, it makes it sound like to me that faith should be more dependent on the reliability of the Bible rather than Christ. I can tell you that my faith’s strength often comes more from his followers than the Bible.

    To me, this puts a heavy burden on the believer as well. If struggling thru Scripture yields contradictions (even perceived ones) and this believer believes so much in inerrancy, they’re apt to struggle with their faith as well.

  • Erik Merksamer

    Once again, your work is coming into my life at just the right time. Last year, right about this time, I walked away from fundamentalist approach to the Bible. Up until then, I had fought so hard against the reality of what you describe as “paradox”. There wasn’t much room for mystery in the certainty-seeking culture I was part of. So, whenever the word “contradiction” came around, it was immediately squashed. Often, it would be hit with the hammer of “God said, so I believe it!” Honestly, all that did was breed confusion and doubt within me, and not faith or maturity.

    I love this quote from “Jesus Manifesto”:

    “Concerning the reality of Christ Himself, all the fullness of God dwells within Him. It is for this reason that every theological system breaks down somewhere. Every systematic theology, no matter how coherent or logical, eventually meets some passage of Scripture or passage of life that refuses to fit into it. Such passages have to be bent, twisted, and forced to fit the system.

    Why is this? It’s because Christ is too immense, too imponderable, and too alive to be tied into any immovable system of thought constructed by finite humans.

    Thus, He will always break out.”

    As I have been discovering that, it has been both rewarding and also discouraging. I’ve struggled with wondering just what I can be sure of. Your book “Jesus Now” came into my life at that season. It kept pointing me again and again to the Risen King, who is reigning in my life in spite of my doubts. And today, this blog post is just another reminder of that.

    I’m starting to feel safer now thinking out loud about my questions. Like, what does “innerrant” even mean? And, how much different is the inspiration that a Bible writer experienced than what a believer experiences today?

    Much love and respect!
    -Merks

  • Jeanne S

    So if the following is true….
    (1) All Scripture is inspired by God.
    (2) All Scripture is authoritative.
    (3) All Scripture is completely true and wholly reliable.
    and that these contradictions are just different ways the writers or witnesses perspectives, don’t you think if God was the author of all this, it would be accurately written without the different perspectives and variations, free of contradictions?