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Solutions to Apparent Contradictions

Course: Why I Trust My Bible
Lecture: Solutions to Apparent Contradictions


Before I get into the possible solutions, let me just emphasize one thing up front. If you’re talking to someone, whether at work or school, and they say, “Oh, I could never be a Christian,” or “I could never trust the Bible; it’s all full of errors,” you know what to ask, don’t you? If I’m in a really obnoxious mood, I will say as innocently as I can, “Really? Can you show me one?” Ninety-nine percent of the people that say, “I can’t believe in God; I can’t believe in the Bible; I won’t be a Christian because the Bible is full of errors,” don’t have the foggiest idea where the problem passages are. There are problem passages, but they don’t know where they are, for the most part. Now if they do turn to one and find it, you have an obligation to figure out how to answer it. But most people won’t do that—they’ll change the subject or walk away. Don’t ever get sucked into these discussions about errors in the Bible, because usually it’s a smoke screen. Most people don’t have intellectual problems with Christianity. Most people have moral problems with Christianity. They don’t want to answer to a God, so they put up intellectual road blocks so that they can pretend he doesn’t exist.

Why are there problem passages? The problem passages come about primarily because of the nature of communication. It is rare that two people tell the same story in the same way. So when Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell a story, they are going to tell it from their point of view, and there are going to be differences. For example, if both you and I talked about church last Sunday, it would be different—our stories would fit together, but they would be different. At other times, problem passages come about because of misunderstandings on our part, which is related to translation and context. Every time someone says something, it’s in context, and if you don’t understand the context, you can misunderstand the statement.

Secular source could be wrong

Some possible solutions to when there are apparent contradictions include the following: First, the secular source could be wrong. This seems simple, but it is important. Sometimes people say, “Well the Bible contradicts history”; one solution to this simply may be that the historians got it wrong. Old Testament scholar Julius Wellhausen, created a serious problem. He was very liberal; Old Testament scholarship is still trying to recover from the mess he created. Wellhausen said things like “you can’t really believe that Moses wrote the Old Testament, because writing wasn’t invented until 500 BC,” and “texts about David playing musical instruments can’t possibly be true because music wasn’t created until 500 BC.” These are two statements that couldn’t be any more false. Writing goes back millennia! And can you imagine there not being music? Can you imagine someone not taking the bones of a dead animal and rhythmically beating them on the walls of the cave? There has always been music, and there has always been written language. In this case, Wellhausen was completely wrong, but for fifty years, his theory dominated Old Testament research and was often used as evidence that the Bible was wrong.

Another good example is the one I keep referring to about Quirinius. Luke 2 says, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Now this is one of the prime examples people use for why you can’t trust history in the New Testament, because according to Josephus, a Jewish historian, Quirinius was governor at a different time. Josephus’s dating and Luke’s can’t both be right, they’re mutually exclusive. A lot of people assume that Josephus is right and Luke is wrong. And the answer is, well, maybe Josephus was wrong. We throw out Josephus’s work at other times—he got so many things wrong, it was amazing—but when it comes to a date that contradicts Luke 2, it’s amazing how many people say, “Josephus got it right every time.” The point is that sometimes a secular source can be wrong. I stress that because I’ve been involved in many discussions where people won’t even consider that the secular source could have gotten it wrong.

Misinterpreting the text

Secondly, one of the possible solutions is that maybe you are misinterpreting the text. Perhaps the problem is that you haven’t understood the text properly and that’s why it appears to contradict another text. Let me give you a couple of examples. There was a man who was driving out demons and he wasn’t one of the twelve disciples. In Mark 9:40, Jesus tells his twelve disciples to cut him some slack, “For whoever is not against us is for us.” Now that sounds like if someone is neutral toward Jesus, if he’s not actively against us, he’s therefore by default for us. This gets a little tricky, since later on in Luke 11:23, Jesus says to some Pharisees who had just said that Jesus was demon-possessed, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” In this case, it sounds like if you’re in a neutral position and not actively with Jesus, you are therefore against him. These two verses are often used as obvious examples of contradiction. But the solution is so simple, we’ve misinterpreted what the text is saying. In the first example, Mark 9:40, the man who was casting out demons was most likely one of Jesus’s disciples. He wasn’t one of the inner twelve, but there was a much larger group that followed him. The twelve didn’t like the fact that some other follower of Jesus had the power to exercise demons. They wanted to be in control, and Jesus says, “No, no, no.” If they, and the context there is “my disciples,” if they are not actively against me they are for me – they are my disciples. The context in the other passage is exactly the opposite. The Pharisees have just accused him of being demon-possessed. Jesus says, “Hey, if you’re not one of my disciples, you’re against me, there’s no neutrality.” So the verses are actually talking about significantly different things, and if you take the time to look at it and to appreciate the context, you will see that.

Many “apparent contradictions” are explained by a correct interpretation of the text. Another example would be the temptation narrative I talked about in the last lecture. In Matthew, it’s “turn the stones to bread, jump off the temple, and worship me.” In Luke it’s, “turn stones to bread, worship me, and jump off the temple.” The order of the second and third temptations are different—an apparent contradiction! No—Matthew says this happened, then this happened, then this happened. Luke says this happened and this happened and this happened. The word “and” is not necessarily sequential in Greek. Luke’s gospel has a strong theme that a prophet is to be killed only in Jerusalem. For him, the temptation of jumping off the temple is more significant than the worship, because the temple is in Jerusalem. It seems that for literary reasons, Luke switched the order, but he doesn’t claim this happened, then this happened, then this happened. He says this happened and oh, this happened, oh and this happened. In our Western minds we read that as sequential, but it’s not sequential in Greek writing or thinking. Luke does not prioritize the order, because he’s trying to make a literary point. We are much more obsessed in modern culture with sequence. Our obsession with sequence and precision and exactness is a modern thing. However, when someone, for example a new Christian, looks at these two passages, you can see how it might look like a problem. The primary thing that matters to me in this discussion is the idea of trust. Sometimes the problem is just one of interpretation.


The third possible solution is harmonization. We talked about this a bit last time, but just let me recap it quickly. Harmonization simply asks the question, “Is there any scenario in which both of the stories could be true?” When trying to harmonize two texts, you don’t have to be able to prove that this is the way it absolutely had to happen. Rather, it must simply be conceivable that these two stories could be describing the same event from different points of view. I previously gave some example of harmonization in the Synoptics, one of which involves the two thieves on the cross. One Gospel says Jesus was hung between two thieves who reviled him. However, Luke talks about one of the thieves repenting and becoming a Christian, and dying and going that day to paradise. Now is there any way that you could envision both of those accounts to be true? Sure—Jesus talked to the thieves who reviled him, got through to one of them, who then became a Christian. It’s very conceivable; it doesn’t stretch my imagination at all to think of that.

What would be a harmonization for the two cleansings? This one’s simple. He did it twice. Some people would say, “Oh, that’s too easy!” But the cleansing of the temple was an act of judgment on a decrepit religious system that should have known better. What better way to start your ministry than by saying to that system “you are completely and totally wrong?” In Mark 2, these religious leaders are trying to kill Jesus very quickly in his ministry. What did he do that ticked them off so badly? Maybe he kicked them all out of the temple. And it’s just as conceivable to think that at the end of his ministry, nothing’s changed. The same false religious system that he condemned three and a half years ago still exists, so he’s going to do the very same thing to bookend his ministry. It doesn’t take any imagination on my part to believe that happened. There are other solutions to the two cleansings, but that’s the easiest one, and I like it. Why look for a difficult solution when there is an easy one?

Those are some solutions to apparent contradictions. Let me give you a couple of conclusions: First, there’s almost always a conservative answer if you look for it. Almost always. There is almost always some way to handle these problems. The seminary I went to wasn’t that concerned with harmonizing these problems passages, so I just assumed that there were mistakes in Scripture. I never told my mom and dad or they would have canned me, but I just thought that everyone else thinks there are contradictions, so there must be. My two best friends from graduate school are now teachers at Dallas Theological Seminary and Denver Seminary—two bastions of conservative thought. One had gone to Dallas and the other had gone to Trinity, another bastion of conservative thought. It was really important at those seminaries that students would learn how to harmonize Scripture. The professors spent a lot of time helping students work through these difficult passages. Every Thursday afternoon the three of us ate together and argued. Darryl was a dispensationalist, Craig and I weren’t, so mostly we argued about dispensationalism. We also argued a lot about inerrancy. I have some of my fondest memories sitting in the cafeteria arguing. I was shocked that no matter what apparent contradiction in Scripture I showed them, they had an easy answer. This happened with passage after passage after passage. You would listen to them and say, “That makes sense, that could happen.” I learned the very hard lesson that sometimes it takes a lot of hard work to harmonize passages. I called Craig the other day because I simply couldn’t figure out how to handle a passage. I said, “Craig, walk me through your harmonization.” There are explanations for apparent contradictions. So if you’re confronted with them, my encouragement to you is to not throw up your hands and say, “There’s a contradiction,”, but rather to go do your homework and find out what the answer is.

This is the second part of my conclusion. I think that Scripture deserves the benefit of the doubt. Scripture is correct so much of the time that if someone says about a passage, “Here’s an error,” I think it’s fair to give Scripture the benefit of the doubt, and then go do your homework and find out what the solution is. I think that’s a fair position to take on this whole issue of inerrancy.

What does Inspiration Not Mean?

Let me quickly cover what inspiration does not mean. This is important, because these are the kinds of things that often come up in Bible studies and Sunday school classes.

(1) Inspiration does not include copies of the original text. When Paul sat down to write his letter to the Romans, that actual document he wrote is called the autograph—this is the technical word for it. The doctrine of inspiration applies to the autograph; It does not apply to the thousands of copies that were made of this original. We know, because we have them, that some differences crept in. Whenever you talk about inspiration, you talk about the autographs, the originals.

(2) Inspiration does not include footnotes. It’s really easy, especially for a young Christian who is given an NIV Study Bible, a great study Bible, to not realize the bottom half of the page includes human ideas. We should gently help people understand that inspiration includes the biblical text, not the footnotes or study notes.

(3) Inspiration does not include titles and headings. There are still lot of titles in the Book of Psalms, but in the older translations there were additional titles and headings that were not inspired. For example, Genesis used to have the heading, “The Book of Beginnings, 4004 BC.” When Darwin came along, he took this as part of the inspired text, and refuted it;, but that’s a heading that Moses never wrote; it’s not part of the inspired text.

(4) Inspiration does not include things like verse numbers, paragraph breaks, chapter numbers, or punctuation. These things were not original to the text. It is okay to study just half a verse. When Greek was originally written, it was all capital letters with no spaces. These other things were added hundreds of years later.

(5) Translations are not inspired. I actually met someone who honestly believed that if the King James was good enough for Paul, it was good enough for me. Bless her heart—she really believed that Paul spoke in King James English. You have to be gentle, but English wasn’t a language until about 1000 AD. Translations are not inspired.

(6) Grammatical errors are not inspired. There are grammatical errors in Scripture. Some of them appear to be intentional, others, I don’t know, but inspiration does not cover grammatical errors.

(7) Figures of speech are not grammatical errors. By the way, the reason I’m choosing these as examples is because these are all reasons that I have read or heard others give as reasons that you can’t trust the Bible because it has errors. Figures of speech are not errors. The Bible is full of metaphors. Metaphors are not errors; they are metaphors. For example, Revelation 7:1 talks about the four corners of the earth, the flat earth society says if you’re going to be a Christian, you have to believe that the earth is at least rectangular, and certainly flat. But this is a metaphor! A hyperbole is not an error, just another figure of speech. Matthew 3:5 says, “All of Jerusalem went out to be baptized by John the Baptist.” Do you believe that? Every single new born, every single ancient person went out to be baptized? That stretches the imagination. But we all speak like that. Has anyone here ever said, “I’m starving to death?” Are you a liar, or is this a hyperbole? It’s a hyperbole, not an error. Phenomenological language is language that describes phenomena as the eye perceives it, for example the “sun rising.” I’ve been in discussion with people who say, “I don’t believe the Bible, it talks about the sun rising. Since it is the earth that spins, rather than the sun rising, I don’t trust the Bible, it’s in error.” Give me a break! These are figures of speech.

(8) Approximations are not errors. This is getting a little closer to home for us because we live in a culture that insists on exactness in many ways. If you were to pick up a history book and it said, “In 1493, Columbus left for the New World,” you would say, “Error—it was 1492.” Our culture is obsessed with this precision. But even so, we still use approximations. When Scripture uses approximations some people have trouble. For example, how tall are you, Bill? Oh, I’m 6’3.” Liar! 6’2 _”! 6’3” is an approximation. You’ll find articles written about why you can’t trust your Bible, because when you compare the number of people dead in Kings and Chronicles they are different. 23,000/24,000. A thousand people is a lot of people, but it’s still an approximation because I’m pretty sure it wasn’t 23,000 exactly, that sounds to me like an approximation. People use that as an example of error. Measurements are also approximate, like my height. Here’s an example that actually happened: My father was getting very heavily involved in teaching at Campus Crusade for Christ and Harold Lindsell wrote his book, The Battle for the Bible. Because of Lindsell’s book, my dad was no longer allowed to teach! Crusade was nice about it, but they said “You’ve become so controversial that we can’t have you teaching,” because Lindsell attacked my father in this silly, red-covered book. Dad had written an article about the laver that’s outside the temple in Solomon’s temple, and it gives the diameter and the circumference in real numbers. Mathematicians, is that possible? No. You have to have pi if you’re going to give circumference and diameter. Even pi is an approximation. Well, this is often being used in print as an example of why you can’t trust the Bible, because here’s an error. You can’t give circumference and diameter of the same object without pi. Dad wrote an article and said, “It’s an approximation, get over it!” Lindsell wrote in his book, “My student, Bob Mounce,” and said dad was liberal and untrustworthy, because if you measure the outside of the laver for the circumference and the inside of the laver, the diameter, they are exactly the same. So obviously the Scripture is not in error and dad’s a liberal. The last time I checked it was really hard to cut out of stone a perfectly symmetrical laver. But dad lost his position teaching at Crusade because of Lindsell’s book, and that one stupid illustration. Measurement is an approximation, get over it.

Things can get a little sticky, as we’ll see in these last two examples. In Matthew, Jesus goes into Jerusalem and cleanses the temple on the same day, Matthew 21. In Mark, he comes into Jerusalem, he goes back to Bethany to sleep, and then cleanses the temple the next morning. That’s a little more awkward, isn’t it? But if you read the literature of those days, the scientific insistence on accuracy simply doesn’t exist. It wasn’t expected that everything was precise, but for someone in our culture this is really difficult. You have to read the ancient literature to see it. For the ancients, approximation wasn’t a big deal. Jesus got there, he cleansed the temple, and they killed him. The timing didn’t matter as much to them, but that’s hard for someone in our culture to deal with. But that’s the way ancient history was written; it didn’t have the precision that we have today.

One last approximation—and this may be troublesome, but I need to say it. Do we always have the exact words that Jesus spoke? You may really want to believe that, but there are several problems. One problem is that most likely, Jesus didn’t speak in Greek, but in Aramaic. Most likely he was bilingual, but did most of his teaching in Aramaic. So the Greek manuscripts that of the New Testament is already a translation, so we’re one step removed from the actual words of Jesus. There are books that harmonize the Synoptic Gospels so that you can see them side-by-side; these are very interesting to read through. Matthew 4:7 says, “Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”’” Luke 4:2 has, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Well, one time Jesus says, “It is written,” the other one Jesus says, “It is said.” They mean exactly the same thing, but they different words are used. What happens again, especially for new believers, is that people believe that these are always meant to record precisely the exact words that Jesus used, and then people start see the different wording of these stories it really hurts their faith. Inerrancy doesn’t claim that we always have the exact, precise words of Jesus. It claims that we got it right. This is what Jesus said, but the exact words that were used, we don’t know. Now that really ticked me off the first time I heard it. I don’t like that argument, but it stares you in the face when you compare the Gospels, and I don’t think there’s any way to get around it.

I know that was a lot of heavy stuff, but it’s terribly important, and as I said last lecture, inspiration is one of those things where you can say, “Yeah, I believe it,” and then you go through an experience that causes you to have to remake that decision. It really is a process, and until you go through really difficult times, or you’re challenged in this belief, you keep reaffirming the decision. I encourage you all to embrace this process.

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