Biblical Discrepancies

dis-krep’-an-siz, bib’-li-kal:

1. Definition:

By this term should be understood substantial disagreements in the statements of Biblical writers. Such disagreements might subsist between the, statements of different writers or between the several statements of a single writer. Contradictions of Biblical views from extra-Biblical sources as history, natural science, philosophy, do not fall within the scope of our subject.

2. Criticism versus Doctrine of Inerrancy:

Observant Bible readers in every age have noted, with various degrees of insight, that the Scriptures exhibit manifold interior differences and contrasts. Differences of literary form and method have ever seemed, except to those who maintained a mechanical theory of inspiration, wholly natural and fitting. Moreover, that there was progress in the Biblical revelation, especially that the New Testament of Jesus Christ signifies a vastly richer revelation of God than the Old Testament, has been universally recognized. In fulfilling the law and the prophets Christ put a marked distance between Himself and them, yet He certainly affirmed rather than denied them. The Christian church has ever held to the essential unity of the Divine library of the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, the evangelical churches have recognized the Bible as "the only and sufficient rule of both faith and practice." Indeed, in the generation following the Reformation, the strictest and most literal theory of inspiration and inerrancy found general acceptance. Over against such a body of presuppositions, criticism, some generations later, began to allege certain errors and discrepancies in the Bible. Of course the orthodox sought to repel all these claims; for they felt that the Bible, whatever the appearances might seem to indicate, must be free from error, else it could not be the word of God. So there came with criticism a long period of sturdy defense of the strictest doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Criticism, however, kept on its way. It has forced the church to find a deeper and surer ground of confidence in the authority of the Bible as the witness to God’s self-revelation to man. In our day the church has for the most part overcome the notion that the certainty of the saving grace of God in Christ stands or falls with the absolute inerrancy of each several statement contained in the Bible. Still there remains, and doubtless ever must remain, a need of a clear understanding of the issue involved in the allegation-- along with other "human limitations"--of Biblical discrepancies.

3. Synopsis of the Argument:

Alleged discrepancies pertain

(1) to statements of specific, concrete facts, and

(2) to the utterance of principles and doctrines. Under the first head fall disagreements respecting numbers, dates, the form and order of historical events, records of spoken words, geography, natural history, etc. Under the second head fall disagreements respecting moral and religious truths, the "superhistorical" realities and values. Our inquiry resolves itself into three parts:

(1) to determine whether there be discrepancies, of either or both sorts, in the Bible;

(2) to obtain at least a general understanding of the conditions and causes that may have given rise to the discrepancies, real or apparent;

(3) to determine their significance for faith.

4. Alleged Discrepancies Pertaining to Facts:

As to the first point, it should be observed that apparent inconsistencies may not be real ones; as so often in the past, so again it may come about that the discovery of further data may resolve many an apparent contradiction. On the other hand, the affirmation a priori that there can be and are no real discrepancies in the Bible is not only an outrage upon the human understanding, but it stands also in contradiction to the spirit of freedom that is of faith. Besides, it should not be overlooked that the discoveries of modern historical and archaeological research, which have tended to confirm so many Biblical statements, seem just as surely to reveal error in others.

In any event we must bow to reality, and we may do this with fearless confidence in "the God of things as they are." But are there real discrepancies in the Bible? It is no part of the present plan to attempt the impossible and at all events useless task of exhibiting definite statistics of all the alleged discrepancies, or even of all the principal ones. Passing by the childish folly that would find a "discrepancy" in mere rhetorical antitheses, such as that in Pr 26:4,5 ("Answer not a fool," and "Answer a fool according to his folly"), or instances of merely formal contrariety of expression, where the things intended are manifestly congruous (e. g. Mt 12:30; Lu 11:23 contrasted with Mr 9:40; Lu 9:50: "He that is not with me is against me," "He that is not against us is for us"), it will serve our purpose to notice a few representative examples of real or apparent discrepancy.

5. Alleged Discrepancies Pertaining to Doctrine:

The discrepancies thus far noted pertain to historical matters, and not one of them involves the contradiction of a fact in which faith is interested. But are there also real or apparent discrepancies in matters of doctrine? Many scholars maintain, for instance, that the ideal of the prophets and that of the priestly class stand in a relative (not absolute) opposition to each other (compare, e. g. Isa 1:11; Mic 6:8 with the ritualism of Le and Dt). Or, to turn to the New Testament, some would assert-- among them Luther--that James stands in opposition to Paul in respect to faith and works (compare Jas 2:17 ff in contrast with Ga 2:16 and many other passages in Paul). But particular interest attaches to the problem of Christ’s attitude toward the Old Testament law. His "but I say unto you" (Mt 5:22 and passim) has been interpreted by many as a distinct contradiction of the Old Testament. Another question of acute interest is the agreement of the Johannine picture of Jesus with that of the Synoptists.

It can scarcely require proof that some of these alleged discrepancies are not such at all. For example, Jesus’ attitude toward the Old Testament was one of profound reverence and affirmation. He was perfectly conscious that the Old Testament law represented a stage in the Divine education of mankind. His "but I say unto you" was not a denying of the degree of advancement represented by the Old Testament law, but a carrying out of the principle of the law to its full expression (compare LAW; FULFIL). Of course, the Divine education of Israel did not mean the mere inculcation of the truth in a fallow and hitherto unoccupied soil. There was much superstition and error to be overcome. If then one should insist that the errors, which revelation was destined to overcome, still manifest themselves here and there in the Old Testament, it may be replied that at all events the one grand tendency of Divine revelation is unmistakably clear. An idea is not "Scriptural" simply by virtue of its having been incidentally expressed by a Biblical writer, but because it essentially and inseparably belongs to the organic whole of the Biblical testimony. In the case of James versus Paul the antithesis is one of emphasis, not of contradiction of a first principle. And as for the variations in the gospel history, these do not deserve to be called real discrepancies so long as the Gospels unite in giving one harmonious picture and testimony concerning the personal life and the work and teaching of Jesus. Even from this point of view, John, though so much more theological, preaches the same Christ as the Synoptists.

6. Causes of Discrepancies:

As to the conditions under which discrepancies may arise, it may suffice, first, to call attention to the general law that God in revealing Himself to men and in moving men by His Spirit to speak or write, never lifts them out of the normal relations of human intelligence, so far as matters of history or science are concerned. It is their witness to Himself and His will which is the result of revelation and inspiration. Their references to history and Nature are not therefore in any sense super-human; accordingly they have no direct authority for faith (compare REVELATION; INSPIRATION). On this basis the divergences of human traditions or documents as exhibited in different genealogies, chronologies and the like are natural in the best sense and wholly fitting. As for the rest, errors of copyists have played a part.

7. Their Significance for Faith:

Faith, however, has no interest in explaining away the human limitations in God’s chosen witnesses. It is God’s way to place the heavenly "treasure in earthen vessels" (2Co 4:7). It seems that God has purposely led the church to see, through the necessity of recognizing the human limitations of the Bible, just where her faith is grounded. God has made Himself known through His Son. The Scriptures of the New Testament, and of the Old Testament in preparation for Him, give us a clear and sufficient testimony to the Christ of God. The clearness and persuasive power of that testimony make all questions of verbal and other formal agreement essentially irrelevant. The certainty that God has spoken unto us in His Son and that we have this knowledge through the Scripture testimony lifts us above all anxious concern for the possible errors of the witnesses in matters evidently nonessential.


Besides the literature noted under REVELATION and INSPIRATION, see J. W. Haley, An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, Andover, 1873; M. S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, New York, 1883; Kahler, Zur Bibelf rage, Leipzig, 1907.

J. R. Van Pelt