The Bible verse, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), tells us that the entire Bible from its very first verse to its very last verse, all of which is Scripture, is God-breathed. Having been breathed by God, the Bible is inspired. The verses of, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17) and “God is not a man, that he should lie” (Numbers 23:19) tell us that God does not lie. He speaks only the truth. This being true, the entire Bible is the truth in everything it says, including what it says about miracles, historical events, and persons’ and places’ names. Everything the Bible says is accurate and trustworthy. Since God speaks only the truth and he does not lie, and since the Bible is God’s inspired Word, the Bible is without mistakes, errors, and contradictions.
Unbelieving critics of the Bible, however, assert that it has numerous contradictions. They then charge that the Bible cannot, therefore, be the inspired, God-breathed Word of God, and that therefore the Bible is not without mistakes and errors.
It must be remembered that the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testaments as written by the original writers were the texts that were breathed and inspired by God. We do not have those original texts anymore. What we have is only copies of those Hebrew and Greek texts and translations of those copies. The copies and the translations are not inspired. We must allow for the possibility of copying mistakes to have crept into the texts in places and also allow for an improper translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts in some instances.
While the copies of the Hebrew and Greek texts and the translations of those texts are not inspired, the fact remains that so far as the copies of the texts agree with the original texts and the translations are faithful translations of those texts, the copies and the translations are the infallible Word of God. Throughout the ages God has guarded both the original text and the translations, thus preserving his Word in spite of an occasional copying error or a word that has been translated less than satisfactorily. Such occasional errors have not changed any doctrinal content of the Bible. Indeed, we can hold our Bible in our hand with the divine assurance and confidence that it is God’s inerrant, infallible Word without any mistakes, errors, and contradictions.
We must admit, however, that the Bible does have some statements that appear to be contradictions. But being apparent contradictions does not mean that they are actual contradictions that cannot be explained, harmonized, and resolved. The Bible remains true even in the face of the alleged and so-called contradictions. It is the inspired Word of God the God who speaks only the truth and does not lie. He makes no mistakes.
The purpose of this article is to define what a contradiction is and in what ways apparent contradictions in the Bible are resolved. The information in this article is based on the late Dr. William Arndt’s excellent book entitled Does the Bible Contradict Itself? (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri, fifth edition, revised, reprint of the 1955 edition). Dr. Arndt was a professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
What is a contradiction?
Dr. William Arndt cited this definition of the principle of contradiction as he had taken it from the Standard Dictionary (p.579, Ed. of 1922): “The principle that it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be at the same time and in the same sense, that contradictory attributes cannot co-exist in, and may not be affirmed of, the same object, and that the same proposition cannot be both true and false.”
Based on that definition of the principle of contradiction, the following can be stated:
1. For two statements to be contradictory they must both be discussing the same thing or the same person. If the two statements are discussing two different things or two different persons, then there is no contradiction. If it can be shown or explained in some way that the two statements are not discussing the same thing or the same person, then the alleged contradiction is cleared up and resolved. For example: a critic of the Bible may claim that Acts 12 and Acts 15 contradict one another. Acts 12:2 states that Herod had James the brother of John put to death with the sword. But Acts 15:13 states that years later James spoke at the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem. How can Acts 12:2 state James was put to death and Acts 15:13 state that years later James spoke at the Apostolic Council? This apparent contradiction is cleared up and resolved very simply. The James who was put to death by Herod was James, the son of Zebedee, and the brother of the apostle John. The James who spoke years later at the Apostolic Council was James, the half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ. The apparent contradiction disappears as soon as it is understood that the two James were not the same man but were different men.
2. For two statements to be contradictory they must both be discussing the same thing or person at the same moment of time in history. If the two statements are discussing the same thing or the same person but at two different times, then there is no contradiction. If it can be shown or explained in some way that the two statements are not discussing the same thing or the same person at the same moment of time, then the alleged contradiction is cleared up and resolved. For example: 2 Samuel 14:27 states that Absalom had three sons and a daughter. 2 Samuel 18:18 states that Absalom had no son to keep his name in remembrance. How can 2 Samuel 14:27 state Absalom had three sons while 2 Samuel 18:18 states that he had no son? Some critic of the Bible would say: “See, here is a contradiction!” But there is no contradiction between the two verses. The apparent contradiction is easily cleared up and made to disappear when it is understood that 2 Samuel 14:27 speaks of Absalom early in his life, whereas 2 Samuel 18:18 speaks of Absalom when he was much older before he died and after the deaths of his three sons. The apparent contradiction disappears as soon as it is understood that the two statements spoke of two different times in Absalom’s life.
3. For two statements to be contradictory they must both be discussing the same thing or the same person in the same sense. If the two statements are discussing the same thing or the same person in two different senses or meanings there is no contradiction. If it can be shown or explained in some way that the two statements are not discussing the same thing or the same person in the same sense, then the alleged contradiction is cleared up and resolved. For example: In Matthew 11:14 Jesus said of John the Baptist that John the Baptist was the Elijah to come. In John 1:19-21 priests and Levites from Jerusalem asked John the Baptist, “Are you Elijah?” and he answered, “No.” How can Jesus have said that John the Baptist was the Elijah to come, and yet John the Baptist said he was not Elijah? Here again an unbelieving critic of the Bible would say this is a contradiction. But there is no contradiction between what Jesus said and what John the Baptist said. Jesus spoke of John the Baptist in the sense of his being the Elijah of whom Malachi had foretold in Malachi 4:5 would be the forerunner of Jesus. The priests and Levites from Jerusalem had asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah in the sense of his being the Elijah who had lived at the time of King Ahab but had now come back to earth. To this John the Baptist answered he was not the old Elijah who lived back at the time of King Ahab. The apparent contradiction is resolved as soon as it is understood that Jesus spoke of John the Baptist in one sense of his being the Elijah who was to come as Jesus’ forerunner, but John the Baptist spoke of his not being Elijah in the different sense of his being the Old Testament prophet Elijah.
4. For two statements to be contradictory they must both speak of the attribute(s) of a thing or a person in a contradictory manner. If one statement said a certain person was very thin but another statement said that same person was very fat, that would be a contradiction. But in the Bible just because opposite qualities or characteristics are assigned to someone does not mean they are necessarily contradictory. It is possible for two opposite qualities or characteristics to be true of a person. For example: Psalm 5:4 states that God hates all who sin and do iniquity. But 1 John 4:8-11 states that God is love and that he has loved us sinners. God hates the sinner and God loves sinners. Some might say these statements are contradictory. These statements are not contradictory however. God has both these qualities and characteristics. According to his righteousness and justice and law God does hate all who sin and commit iniquity. On the other hand, according to his grace and mercy and the gospel he so loves us sinners that he sent his Son Jesus into the world to save us by suffering and dying on the cross.
5. The same statement or proposition cannot be both true and false. If in one place of the Bible a statement says something is true and in another place of the Bible a statement says that same thing is false, that would be a contradiction. If in one place of the Bible a verse said that the Lord is God, and in a different place of the Bible a verse said that the Lord is not God, those verses would be contradictory. The statement that the Lord is God cannot both be true and false in the same sense at the same time. No such instances, however, occur anywhere in the Bible.
6. When considering alleged contradictions, one must take into account that two statements may be different without being contradictory. For example: Matthew 8:28-34 states that two demon-possessed men met Jesus and that Jesus cast out the demons from the men into a herd of swine that then rushed down the steep bank and perished in the waters. Luke 8:26-33, on the other hand, states that Jesus was met by a certain demon-possessed man whose name was Legion. Jesus cast the demons out of him into a herd of swine that then rushed down the steep bank and drowned in the waters. These are the same accounts but they are different. Matthew stated there were two demon-possessed men, while Luke wrote about only one demon-possessed man. These two statements are different, but they are not contradictory. Neither statement denies the truth of the other. If Luke had stated that there was one, and only one, demon-possessed man from whom Jesus cast out the demons into the herd of swine, then there would be a contradiction between Luke’s statement and Matthew’s statement.
When coming across such differences, one must realize that each writer wrote from his own perspective and what was pertinent to the aim and purpose of his writing. Each wrote what he saw and what was of interest to him in giving his account. Their accounts and statements can be different, but that does not make them contradictory. Their accounts and statements are supplementary to one another. One gives details the other does not give. One is more complete than the other. So in the case of the above example, Matthew was interested in writing about the two demon-possessed men, while Luke was particularly interested in the one man named Legion and giving the details about him.
What has just been stated in this section #6 can also be true of the number of angels in the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection.
7. Apparent contradictions can sometimes be the result of improperly translated verses. One of the two verses in question or both of the verses may not have been translated correctly. In these cases an individual who is knowledgeable in the original Greek and Hebrew languages of the Old and New Testaments can clear up the difficulty. For an example, Dr. Arndt pointed out the account of Paul’s conversion in the Book of Acts. He wrote that Acts 9:7 stated the men who journeyed with Paul stood speechless when Jesus appeared to him and that they heard a voice but saw no man; whereas Acts 22:9 stated that the men saw a light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of him who spoke to Paul. These two verses appear to contradict each other. Acts 9:7 stated the men with Paul heard a voice; Acts 22:9 stated they did not hear the voice of the One who spoke to Paul. Dr. Arndt clarified this apparent contradiction in this manner: The Greek construction in connection with the verb that means “to hear” is not the same in both accounts. He stated that Acts 9:7 used the genitive case with the verb, while Acts 22:9 used the accusative case with the verb. The genitive case expressed that some sounds are heard but nothing is stated about whether the person understood what he heard or not. The accusative case, on the other hand, indicated a hearing that included an understanding of the message that was heard. This explanation of the translation of the verses clears up the alleged contradiction. Acts 9:7 stated the men with Paul heard the sound of Jesus’ voice but did not necessarily understand what they heard. Acts 22:9 did not deny that the men heard some sounds but stated only that they did not hear with understanding the sounds they heard. The two statements are harmonized.
8. Apparent contradictions can sometimes be the result of a copyist’s error that has crept into the Hebrew or the Greek text. As stated at the outset of this article, we are no longer in possession of the original Hebrew and Greek texts. We only have copies and translations. The scribes of the Jews took great pains to preserve the content and the accuracy of the Hebrew Old Testament texts. One thing Jesus never rebuked the Jews for was how they had handled the Old Testament texts and had worked to preserve their accuracy. But some Hebrew letters look similar to other Hebrew letters, and they could be substituted by mistake when writing a copy. And the Hebrews used letters of the Hebrew alphabet for numerals. Thus a copyist could have mistook one letter of the Hebrew alphabet for a similar looking letter and in his copy wrote the wrong letter, which then changed the number in the text, causing an apparent contradiction.
The copyists of the New Testament likewise went about their work in a very conscientious manner. But it must be taken into account that when copies of the New Testament were made in the ancient scriptoriums, often times a reader sat at the front reading the Greek text and the copyists sat at their tables in the room writing what they heard the reader read. Needless to say, some Greek words sound nearly the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. The reader could have read one word and the copyist heard and wrote a different word. Some Greek letters resemble other Greek letters, and a copyist copying from one copy could have mistakenly written the wrong letter in the copy he was making that then changed the word that he wrote. In any case, at some ancient time when all the copies were written by a copyist’s hand, the copyist could have made a copying error that then crept into the text and was then repeated in later copies of the text.
As some examples of copyists’ errors, Dr. Arndt cited several. In the King James Version of the Bible 2 Samuel 8:3 states David smote Hadadezer the king of Zoba, while 1 Chronicles 18:3 states David smote Hadarezer, king of Zoba. This was evidently a copyist’s error in the spelling of the name. He mistook the Hebrew letter for “d” for the Hebrew letter for “r”, which Hebrew letters look extremely similar to one another, and in this way changed the name. The newer translations like the NIV and NASB have translated both verses with the name Hadadezer, thereby eliminating the apparent contradiction from their translations. Another example of an apparent contradiction as the result of a copyist’s error that crept into the text is found between 1 Chronicles 18:12 and the title of Psalm 60. First Chronicles 18:12 states 18,000 Edomites were slain; the title of Psalm 60 states the number was 12,000. In this case the scribe switched the Hebrew letters for the numbers 18 and 12, in this way changing the number of the slain and introducing a discrepancy into the text that has caused some difficulty.
Dr. Arndt has very correctly stated such copyists’ errors do not change any of the doctrinal contents of the Bible. The copyists’ errors are no different than the typographical and printers’ errors that we find today, which do not change the message of the book or the article.
9. In dealing with contradictions it should be understood that whenever any possible way of harmonizing the alleged contradiction is explained, that is sufficient to clear up the discrepancy and to resolve it until such proof can be cited that discredits the explanation and shows it is an impossibility. As Dr. Arndt stated, an alleged contradiction disappears as soon as a possible method of bringing the two statements into agreement is suggested, unless that method can be shown to not apply to the particular contradiction under discussion.
10. One last point to bear in mind about the apparent contradictions in the Bible: If we do not know how to resolve a certain apparent contradiction, we should not conclude that it is therefore a genuine, real contradiction. Our not being able to resolve an apparent contradiction does not mean that no one else has resolved, or can resolve, it either. Maybe we cannot resolve it, but that does not mean someone more knowledgeable than ourselves cannot resolve it. We should realize and believe that the Bible remains true even in the face of alleged and so-called contradictions, even if we ourselves cannot resolve them at the time. Maybe in the future we will be able to resolve the apparent contradictions, or we will find someone who has resolved them