“You cannot believe the Bible because it is full of contradictions.”
I’ve heard this stated many times; you have probably heard it as well. You may be one who uses “Bible contradictions” as one of the reasons for rejecting Christianity, or you may be a Christian who struggles because there are things in the Bible that seem to be inconsistent.
There are various kinds of “Bible contradictions.”
- Internal factual — What were the names of the twelve apostles? How many angels were at the tomb when Jesus rose from the dead?
- External factual — Was Belshazzar the son of Nebuchadnezzar? How could Quirinius have been governor of Syria when Jesus was born?
- Doctrinal — Is there a doctrinal contradiction between Paul (save by faith) and James (saved by works)?
- Ethical — Was it right for David and his men to eat bread consecrated to the Lord? What about the conquest of the promised land under Joshua?
Many of these are easy to deal with and have obvious answers. Most of the rest have plausible answers as well. There are a few that I really don’t know the answer to, but that does not mean there is no answer. These sorts of things really don’t bother me much any more.
THE CALLING OF THE DISCIPLES
Here is my story of how a “Bible contradiction” challenged my faith, and how I came through that experience with a much greater confidence in the Bible as the reliable and trustworthy Word of God.
I came to a full understanding of the Gospel (good news) through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ when I was an undergraduate student. The basic message that I came to embrace was that humans have broken their relationship with God throught their sin, that Christ (fully God and fully man) died on the cross as our substitute, and that by faith in Christ we take on his righteousness. Campus Crusade placed a strong emphasis on the truthfulness—or inerrancy—of the Scriptures. Shortly after this, I started attending an independent, fundamentalist Bible church, in which the inerrancy of Scriptures was a central doctrine.
A year or two later I was at home in the church I grew up in; this was probably in about 1982 or 1983. It is not that the gospel was never preached there; it was embedded in the liturgy and I know the senior pastor at this time believed this good news with all his heart. If I did not understand the Gospel before, it was because of the hardness of my own heart, not because it was not proclaimed.
On this particular Sunday, however, the younger associate pastor was preaching. The topic was “The calling of the disciples,” and the pastor compared the account in John with that in Matthew. In John 1, Peter, Andrew, and others were introduced to Jesus through the ministry of John the Baptist, who was baptizing people along the Jordan River:
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). (John 1:35-42, ESV)
In Matthew 4, the calling of the disciples occurred on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Peter, Andrew, John, and James were working as fishermen, with no mention of the ministry of John the Baptist:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22, ESV).
The pastor read these passages, and then commented, “These two passages contradict each other; we don’t know which of them gives the true story.” I don’t remember the rest of the sermon, but I was devastated. After church, I went into my bedroom, closed the door, and wept. The Bible was the foundation of my Christian faith, but what kind of foundation would there be if I didn’t know whether or not what I read was true? I agonized in prayer, read the passages again, and prayed more earnestly.
As I read the passages more closely, I noticed something important. This was not an either-or situation. The liberal pastor (by “liberal” I mean theologically liberal) presented it as a contradiction: that either Matthew gave the true story or John (or I suppose “none of the above” would have been an option to him as well). But there was another possibility that the pastor hadn’t seen: why couldn’t both passages be true? Why couldn’t these be two separate events?
As I read the texts more closely, it became more apparent that I had found a very natural solution to this apparent contradiction. What happened was that the disciples were first introduced to Jesus through the ministry of John the Baptist. John said, “Look, the Lamb of God,” and Peter and his friends went and spent some time with Jesus. Nowhere in John does it say that the disciples left everything at this point to follow Christ. Some time later these men were back in Galilee working as fishermen. Jesus walked up and said, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At this point they left their homes and work and followed Christ. There is absolutely nothing in the passages that causes any problem with this interpretation.
At this revelation, my anguish was replaced with joyful exuberation. My faith had been challenged, and by God’s grace my faith had been strengthened.
That evening, I was back in my college town, and went to the Sunday evening service at my church there (Grace Bible Church, Bozeman, Montana). The message from the pastor that evening was on the topic of the calling of the disciples! The pastor addressed the same “contradiction” and presented the same conclusion that I had come up with through tears and prayer. This was a mighty confirmation to me that I hadn’t just made this all up, that the Bible was reliable, and that my faith rested on a solid foundation.
CONCLUSION — HOW I DEAL WITH “CONTRADICTIONS”
This experience greatly strengthened my confidence in the trustworthiness and accuracy of the text of the Bible. There have been other challenging passages, but I have been able to work through most of them. Most of these have come through my daily reading of Scriptures rather than from being confronted with contradictions from skeptics.
Now when I am faced with what appears to be a contradiction in the Bible, I approach the problem with the following principles in mind:
- My starting assumption is that I assume the Bible is right. This is not because I have a blind faith, but because my experience has been that once I understand the text, culture, and historical context, the Bible turns out to be accurate.
- Another principle is to assume that the authors of the Bible knew their world, with its culture and history. Skeptics often assume that the authors of the Bible were idiots. They weren’t. I have to assume, for example, that when John wrote about the calling of the disciples, he not only remembered his experiences, but he was also aware of what had already been recorded about this event in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which were written before John wrote his gospel. When John wrote about the disciples meeting Jesus through John the Baptist, we have to assume that he was also aware of the calling of the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, because he was there!
- We don’t know everything. For example, skeptics have charged that the lengths of reigns of the kings of Judah in the Old Testament make no sense. This went unanswered for quite some time. It has been shown, however, that the numbers make perfect sense once one considers that sons often served as co-regents with their fathers, so there was often considerable overlap in their listed reigns. The concept of co-regency was common in the ancient Near East, and there are precedents for counting years in reigns simultaneously. It is likely that a number of remaining difficulties in Old Testament chronology and archeology fall into this “we don’t know everything” category.
- We cannot force our cultural concept of what is acceptable in narrative literature to match that of Biblical cultures. For example, there are a number of places in the Old Testament where stories are arranged in a non-chronological order. If you try to read Jeremiah, for example, expecting a chronological story of Jeremiah’s life and teaching, you will be hopelessly confused. The book of Jeremiah is arranged topically, with chronology being a secondary consideration. Likewise, none of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is chronological, as far as we know. This is a source of many apparent contradictions that are not contradictions at all. Did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of his ministry (John 2) or in his final week (Mark 11) (or did he do it twice?). Biblical writers felt free to rearrange events to make certain points. There was nothing dishonest about this, and only our own cultural biases would cause one to call this a contradiction.
- Differences in wording are not contradictions. Did Jesus say, “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6) or did he say “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5)? Either he said both on different occasions, or the writer paraphrased a bit.
- Parallel passages are often written in different literary genres. Genesis 1 and 2 are not in the least bit contradictory. Either one of these or both of them are non-chronological, but that does not make them contradictory. A similar example would be Judges 4 and 5, which records the victory of Deborah. Chapter 4 records a narrative of this event, and chapter 5 records the battle in poetic form. One could find all sorts of apparent contradictions between the two chapters, but there are no real contradictions. Poetry is poetry, and narrative is narrative.
These are a few things that help me as I wrestle with the issues of apparent contradictions in the Bible. With application of these principles, most apparent contradictions are easily taken care of. None of the remaining issues are unsolvable.
CONCLUSION #2 — THE ELCA
The sermon by the liberal pastor which pointed out the “contradiction” between John 1 and Matthew 4 was one of the most influential sermons I have heard in my life, though not in a way that the pastor intended. This sermon was preached in a church that was part of the American Lutheran Church (ALC), which was one of the denominations that merged to form today’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). The ALC officially stated belief in Biblical inerrancy, but that was widely ignored. The present apostasy of much of the ELCA—the recent homosexual ordination vote is just one expression of this—had its roots in abandoning Biblical authority decades ago.
This saddens me deeply. First, it saddens me because I grew up in the ALC/ELCA and see that much that was good has been lost. I would love to see the ELCA return to its Biblical Lutheran roots. Second, it saddens me because as an Evangelical, an important part of my heritage includes Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. In fact, unlike most in my denomination, I identify more closely with Luther than with Calvin.
A Lutheran’s perspective on the ELCA’s slide away from Biblical Christianity: How the ELCA Left the Great Tradition for Liberal Protestantism (from Christianity Today). This article points out how the liberals built certain things into the ELCA at its inception, such as a quota system for voting delegates, that would ensure the triumph of their un-Biblical agenda.
Grace and Peace