As a detective, I’ve learned to accept the variation I see between eyewitness accounts. I’ve interviewed witnesses of crimes (occurring just hours earlier), only to find what appeared to be significant “contradictions” between the accounts. It’s my job, as the investigator, to determine why the eyewitnesses appear to contradict one another, even though there is no doubt the event occurred and the witnesses were telling the truth. There are times when similar variations (or alleged “contradictions”) are observed in the Biblical accounts. It’s our job, as Christian Case Makers, to apply a few simple investigative principles to determine whether or not these differences impact the reliability of the accounts. I want to offer a few investigative principles and filters for investigating these alleged Bible contradictions. These principles are not outrageous or unusual. They’re not specific to the Bible. They’re not Christian tricks or devices used to cover up inadequacies. They are straightforward tools and approaches useful when examining any ancient document or piece of evidence. If we objectively examine the Scriptures with these principles in mind, we’ll not only grow in our understanding of the Bible, but we’ll better comprehend and resolve the difficulties:
Principle #1: Begin With A Fair Attitude
Imagine you’re driving down the street and you come to a stop sign. You don’t assume the sign is wrong. Even if you don’t see opposing traffic or you don’t understand the reason for the sign being at that particular corner, you still stop for the sign. Even if no other car shows up at the intersection, you don’t simply blow through the sign. You give the sign the benefit of the doubt. In essence, you don’t assume a street sign is wrong until proven right. When you begin to read the Bible and examine what it says, it’s important to start off with a fair attitude. You don’t need to treat it as something unquestionable and beyond examination, but you do need to afford it at least as much consideration as you would afford a street sign, a box of macaroni or a friend. Before you jump up and call it a liar, take a second to examine what it says fairly.
The Example of Biblical Genealogies
As an example, let’s examine Biblical genealogies. Some have tried to use the Biblical genealogical lists with a particular attitude about why God included the lists in the first place. Were they given to us to determine the chronological dating of the account or were they given to establish the rich heritage of the readers and their connection to God’s covenant? Our attitude will determine how we read the text. If they were written to provide dating information, we might determine the age of the earth, for example, by examining the genealogies in Genesis Chapter 5 and 10 and the lifespans offered by the text related to people in the genealogical lists. If this is the purpose of the lists, we would expect them to provide us with the proper, accurate genealogical sequences necessary to accomplish their goal. But what if our attitude about the purpose of the genealogies is wrong? Upon closer investigation, it’s clear Biblical genealogies are not as comprehensive as some would like to think they are. Biblical genealogies contain gaps. When someone is said to be a “father” of someone else, it often simply means he is an “ancestor”. In a similar way, when someone is said to be a “son” of someone else, it often simply means he is a “descendant”. This is why Jesus is called the “Son of David” when He is actually a distant descendant. This can also be seen in Matthew 1:8, where the Scripture says Jehoram is the father of Uzziah. If we look at 1 Chronicles 3:11-12, we can see three generations actually separate Jehoram from Uzziah. Clearly the word “father” is used to indicate “ancestor”. In addition to this, if we compare Genesis 10:24 to Luke 3:36, we discover Cainan has been omitted from the Genesis genealogy. There are undoubtedly other gaps as well, as the list of names is meant to paint the genealogy broadly without concern for chronological precision. It was God’s desire for us to understand the genealogical roots of our heritage, not the precise chronological age of the text or the planet on which we live.
Principle #2: Examine the Text in Its Context
Sometimes we need to look at every account of a specific statement or event in the Scripture to understand what actually happened. When we do this, we are reading the account in its proper context. Remember, “Any text taken out of context is a pretext (an effort or strategy intended to conceal something or prove a point not really there). So never read a single Bible verse, always read the entire chapter and all the other accounts available to us.
The Example of the Mustard Seed
As an example, many critics and botanists claim the Bible contains an error and this error actually came from the lips of Jesus Himself. They refer to the statement Jesus made related to the famous mustard seed:
Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”
Critics look at this statement and criticize the claim the mustard seed is the “smallest seed you plant in the ground”. They are quick to argue the mustard seed is not the smallest seed on earth. In fact, there are many seeds smaller than a mustard seed. So how can Jesus, Lord and God over all, not know this? Well, the critics aren’t reading carefully and they aren’t trying to understand what the original text is saying. Jesus was talking to a group of people living in an agricultural society. His listeners were farmers. He didn’t say the mustard seed was the smallest seed on earth. He said the mustard seed “is the smallest seed you plant in the ground”. He is referring directly to the seeds they were using in their day to plant their gardens: “it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants…” As a further demonstration of this reference to garden seeds, look at a parallel account in another Gospel:
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
Careful reading (with an effort to understand what the original text truly says) will resolve the lion’s share of apparent “contradictions” or “errors” in the Bible.
Principle #3: Let the Bible Clarify the Bible
Most modern translations of the Bible include Scripture references in the margin of the Bible to help us make sense of difficult passages. Allow the Bible to explain itself by reading these additional passages. Allow the Bible to clarify itself:
The Example of the “Spiritual” Body
For years there has been some confusion over passages dealing with the Resurrection. In fact, many cults have taken errant positions on some of these passages. Some deny the physical resurrection of Jesus, for example, based on the following passage:
1 Corinthians 15:42-44
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
Some look at this passage and argue the resurrected body is not a physical body, but a “raised a spiritual body” as the passage appears to say. Therefore, the argument goes, Jesus was not raised as a physical man, but was only “spirit” when He appeared to His disciples after the resurrection. But is that really what Paul was saying here? Is there some way to better understand what he meant? One approach would be to see if Paul talks about the “spiritual body” anywhere else in the same paragraph somewhere else in the same letter:
1 Corinthians 2:15
The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment…
In this passage, is Paul talking about men who have no body, or is he talking about men who have submitted their lives to spiritual guidance and obedience (rather than material guidance and obedience)? When we read how Paul uses the word elsewhere in the letter, we come to understand spiritual men and women are not ghostlike vapors without a material body, but men and women who have been transformed by the power of God and have now submitted themselves to God’s direction and life. They still have bodies. You and I can be spiritual people today. Bible difficulties can often be understood if we will allow the Bible to clarify itself.
Principle #4: Don’t Confuse “Imprecision” with “Error”
The Bible was written at a time when the culture commonly used general figures or descriptions to discuss more specific issues. This is particularly true when the Bible discusses numbers. As a matter of cultural device, specific numbers are often rounded off. Instead of saying 998, the Bible may simply say 1000. It’s not that the writer was a blockhead who didn’t understand the math, the writer was simply employing a common cultural device (also used in non-Biblical writings of the time) to describe a general truth.
The Example of the Pool of Metal
Let’s take a look at a specific example of this type of generalized description in the Old Testament. One can be found in the description of a pool that Solomon built at the temple of the Lord:
2 Chronicles 4:2-3
He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.
This passage seems to advance the notion a circular pool could measure 10 units in diameter and 30 units in circumference, but we know the ratio of circumference to diameter of any circle is not 3 to 1, but is Pi (3.14…) to 1. So doesn’t this prove the Scripture is wrong? No, it doesn’t actually prove an error at all. The common cultural device of the Jewish people was always to round off figures, particularly when these figures were insignificant to the story or the passage. And this is still a device we employ today. After all, Pi is not actually 3.14. We are rounding this figure off so we can discuss it easily. In reality, Pi is an infinite fraction we could never write with complete accuracy. Even if we wrote it to 20 decimal places (3.14159265358979323846), we still haven’t captured the true value of the number. So why are we surprised when the Bible doesn’t try to capture its precise value? There is not error here, simply the common cultural device of rounding numbers for the sake of simplicity.
Principle #5: Old Testament Quotes Aren’t Meant to be “Verbatim”
There are often times when New Testament writers quote a passage from the Old Testament to show a prophecy is being fulfilled. We’ve all seen these quotes, but seldom do we ever compare the New Testament quote to the Old Testament passage. If we were to do this occasionally, we might discover some of the quotes are not perfect “verbatim” quotes from the Old Testament. Does this mean the New Testament writers were in error?
The Example of the Prophecy of Zechariah
Let’s take a look at one such example of an Old Testament quote. As Jesus hung on the cross, John observed an Old Testament prophecy was being fulfilled:
…and, as another Scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.
John appears to be misquoting Zechariah. John says that the Scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced”, but Zechariah says, “They will look on me, the one they have pierced”. Is there a “misquote” here? Well, we’ve got to begin by understanding in our modern translations we have added the quotation marks to the New Testament Scriptures. Remember the original manuscripts did not contain the punctuation, paragraph delineations, or chapter divisions existing in the later versions we presently use. These conventions have been added by men following the original writing. So we must be careful how we view quotations. John never meant his reference to the Old Testament Scripture to be a precise quote. John was simply saying he stood there, before the cross, and observed Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah.
Principle #6: Perspectives Are Different Than Contradictions
Sometimes when we read parallel accounts of the same event we seem to find minor contradictions in the way the event is described. We’ve got to be careful not to confuse differences in perspective with Biblical “error”. Remember, no two witnesses to the same event will ever describe the event in exactly the same way. If the witnesses did describe the event in exactly the same way, you would probably question their honesty. The original assemblers of the Scriptures could easily have changed the differing accounts after the fact so they all said the same thing. Or they could simply have formed one large Gospel including a single story of Jesus, and then destroyed all the competing accounts. But that’s not what they did. Instead, they left us with all four eyewitness accounts so we could get all the differing perspectives. These differences are not the result of error; they are simply the result of perspective.
The Example of Judas
Let’s take a look at three examples of perspective found in the New Testament Gospel accounts. The first example can be seen in the description of Judas’ death. Matthew records the way Judas killed himself following his betrayal of Jesus, but this account seems to contradict Luke’s description in the Book of Acts:
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.
Now if these accounts are taken very strictly, there does appear to be a contradiction. Did Judas give back the money or spend it to buy a field? Did Judas hang himself or did he fall to his death? Well, remember whenever you see two “competing” versions of an event, you need to ask yourself, “Am I reading two different perspectives of the same event? Is it possible both accounts are accurate and each eyewitness is only recording the part of the event particularly interesting to him (or the part helping him to make a specific point about the event)? When we apply this approach to the story of Judas, the differences fade away. First, we need to spend a minute doing a little research in the Gospel of Matthew. The very next verse gives us a little more information:
The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.
Now things are becoming a little clearer for us. Put the two eyewitness accounts together and see what they say. Judas threw the money into the temple and left. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. Judas later went away and hanged himself in this very field purchased with his money. After he was dead, his body eventually fell from the noose. He fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. There is no contradiction or error here. When you have two separate accounts of the same event, one witness may only provide a portion; it does not mean the writer is not aware of the other account.
Principle #7: Consider the Viewpoint of “Earthbound” People.
Sometimes critics read the Scriptures and complain primitive language is used to describe natural phenomena. They argue this is somehow evidence of the human origin of the Bible and also evidence God is not the author of the Scriptures. But, when I described an event to my daughter when she was still very young, I often described it with language relative to her perspective of the world. The Bible was also written from the perspective of common human standing on the surface of the planet.
The Example of the Four Corners of the Earth
Critics point to this passage from Isaiah in an effort to demonstrate the primitive nature of the Bible and its writers. They argue these early Jews were not privy to the knowledge of God, just because they wrote in common language:
He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.
Does this Scripture teach the earth is actually flat? That’s what critics would have you believe. But this expression is simply a cultural expression (and one we still use today); it has little to say about the true shape of the earth. In fact, an argument can be made the Bible is the only ancient Scripture consistently correct about scientific discoveries. Remember, it’s common for scientists to use the language of regular people as well. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Diagnostics Center website lists the times of “sunrise” and “sunset” for any city in the nation. But the terms “sunrise” and “sunset” are not accurate scientific terms because they assume the sun is rising and setting as it travels around the earth and not the earth turning to create the appearance of rising and setting. A more accurate expression would be “the time at which the earth rotation reveals (or obscures) the sun”. Even scientific communities resort to common language to describe events in the simplest of terms.
Principle #8: Description is Different Than Approval
Sometimes critics of the Bible (or critics of Christianity in general) point to an evil or corrupt situation described in the Bible to argue God (or Christianity) approves of the situation (or is the source of the evil). Remember, just because a Biblical author writes about something, this does not mean God condones it or supports it. A condition described in the lives of Biblical characters isn’t always a condition God would want for those same Biblical figures.
The Example of Polygamy in the Bible
There are certainly a number of Old Testament men who were married to more than one wife at a time. These men were described in the Scriptures and many of them seem to have been blessed by God. David and Solomon both had large harems, and were often blessed by God in one way or another. Do these examples of polygamy on the part of revered patriarchs indicate God accepts or endorses the behavior? No, the fact something is described in the Bible (even without open condemnation) does not mean it is endorsed by God. We’ve got to do enough reading to understand the true desire of God on any particular issue. The Bible says that God’s original intention was for one man to be married to only one woman, (as seen in Genesis 2:24). But men quickly perverted the concept of marriage to allow for multiple wives (by the time of Genesis 4:19). And while the Bible does not specifically condemn the practice of polygamy until the New Testament (see 1 Timothy 3:2), this doesn’t mean God approved of polygamy before this time. Early in the Old Testament, God said kings were not supposed to take multiple wives (Deuteronomy 17:14-20) and these kings were to be the example for other believers as well (1 Timothy 3:2 & 12, and Titus 3:12). From the very beginning, anyone who had more than one wife was in sin and was living in opposition to God’s will. If you take a close look at the lives of David and Solomon, you will see their sin of polygamy did not come without a price. Look at what happened to Solomon:
1 Kings 11:3-4
He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God…
Just because something is described in the Scripture s, don’t be fooled into thinking God endorses it. Even when the Scriptures seem silent on an issue, a careful reading will reveal the nature of sin and the heart of God.
Principle #9: Don’t Fret Copyist Variants
I’ve addressed the variations we see between the Biblical copies we presently have. We can trust our Scriptures for several reasons, however, even in spite of these variations. None of these variations change the theology or content of the Bible. In addition, the variations existing in the ancient manuscripts can be found in the margins of the modern translations so you can investigate them for yourself (to see how important or unimportant they really are). The vast majority of these variations are single letter or number variations, and the copyists were extremely honest in the way they transmitted these errors down through the ages. As a result, the variations come down to us in complete honesty.
The Example of “Number” Variations
Most variations take the form of number discrepancies and these are generally resolved by comparing passages and using a little common sense. Let’s just take a quick look at one such variant as it relates to David’s conquering of Hadadezar described in both 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles:
2 Samuel 8:3-4
David smote also Hadadezer, the son of Rehob, king of Zobah, as he went to recover his border at the river Euphrates. And David took from him a thousand chariots, and seven hundred horsemen, and twenty thousand footmen: and David houghed all the chariot horses, but reserved of them for an hundred chariots.
1 Chronicles 18:3-4
And David smote Hadarezer king of Zobah unto Hamath, as he went to stablish his dominion by the river Euphrates. And David took from him a thousand chariots, and seven thousand horsemen, and twenty thousand footmen: David also houghed all the chariot horses, but reserved of them an hundred chariots.
So exactly how many horsemen did David take? 2 Samuel tells us that it was 700 horsemen while 1 Chronicles says it was 7000. Obviously, we have a copyist variant here, and more times than not, copyist variants of this nature involve the addition of a letter or number, leading us to lean toward 700 as the correct number. If we compare this with the number of chariots mentioned (1000), the 700 number does appear more reasonable. But we may never know for sure how many horsemen were captured. And just like all the other copyist variants, it doesn’t really matter. Nothing here changes the doctrine of the Scriptures, nothing challenges the nature of God, nothing contradicts the teaching in the Bible about our own need for a Savior. In essence, copyist variants are not a stumbling block for Christians.
Principle #10: Remember Who’s Boss
As we wrap up our assessment of simple rules for reading the Scriptures, we’ve got to remember the Bible describes the work of God here on planet earth and the history of God’s people. Sometimes we’ll read something in the Old Testament and wonder how God could act in such a way. Sometimes the God of the Old Testament can seem pretty harsh. Critics look at certain passages and argue the judgment seen in God’s nature in the Old Testament contradicts the mercy seen in God’s nature in the New Testament. But we need to read the Scriptures carefully and remember God alone is God. He knows the end from the beginning, and He is the source of all morality. He gets to make decisions over life and death, even when we don’t understand all the details.
The Example of the Amalekites
Let’s take a look at one of the passages offered by critics who claim that our God is actually brutal and immoral:
1 Samuel 15:1-3
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
Critics point to this passage and others to argue God is cruel. After all, God is seen here slaughtering people left and right. Is there an ethical contradiction here? Moral judgments require a standard of some sort, and this standard, if it is to be applied across cultures and time to look at the behaviors of the ancient Israelites, is going to have to be an objective standard transcending all humanity. Objective, transcendent standards require an objective, transcendent standard giver. This standard giver is the source of moral truth, and He alone therefore, gets to define the standard for the rest of us. Without an objective law giver, there can be no apparent injustice. In addition, the Creator of something gets to make decisions about its future. If you create a piece of art, you have the right to destroy it, even though I do not. After all, it is your creation and, therefore, it is your property. You can do with it as you will. God is the Creator and Master Artist. Only He gets to determine the fate of His creations:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.”
“See now that I myself am He. There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.
God has a reason for everything He does, even when we may not see it as clearly as we would like. Many critics point to the Amalekites and claim God was taking innocent life in his call for their destruction. But the Bible tells us these people were already guilty in the eyes of the Lord:
Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.
According to God, the land the Israelites were about to inhabit was already an abomination. The people of this land were already involved in offensive practices. God was already displeased with them. Unless they were removed, His children would eventually succumb to their practices and lifestyle. God created the Amalekites. He alone had the moral and ethical authority to order their removal.
In the final analysis, all of us have to ask an important question. As a reader of the Bible, am I going to stand as its critic, or I am going to allow the Bible stand as a critic over me? Either I am going to decide what’s true or false in the Bible, or the Bible is going to decide what is true or false in me:
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
So, who is right, Christ or the critics? Who are you going to trust; the Divine Lordship of Jesus or Modern Scholarship of skeptics? These simple rules of engagement will help you evaluate apparent Biblical “contradictions” and have confidence in the reliability of the Biblical account.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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