How to Handle Contradictions in the Bible

Does the Bible have contradictions?

Okay, I’m going to be straight up with you. I’m not going to answer that question how you might want. In fact, you might think I’m doing more squirming than a politician who’s asked a tough question. Most people will answer this question with a yes or no. It’s black and white. But I don’t think either of those answers really suffice. I don’t think a yes or no gives an honest evaluation of the Bible.

Before we can attempt to answer this question we need to understand what the Bible is.

Understanding What Scripture Is

If you do a google search of Biblical contradictions you will quickly find list after list of hundreds of contradictions. The problem is most of these lists regard the Bible as 100% facts. But the Bible is not a list of facts. Now hear me out… The Bible is true. But the Bible is not all the same. The Bible contains 66 different books. Written by dozens of authors. Over thousands of years. The Bible contains many different genres and each has a unique style and purpose.

For example, books of poetry will often use expressive language that is not literally true, but rather it points to a larger truth. Even Jesus uses exaggerated language by telling people to cut their eyes out if they lust. He’s not literally telling people to do that; he’s exaggerating to make clear how serious he is.

Other books are historical; they are a little more dry and factual. You should read those differently because of the genre they fall in. Much of the New Testament are not books at all, it is actually letters. They were written to a specific group of people at a specific time. They are true. But to fully understand that truth we must understand the culture to which they are written.

For More on Understanding the Bible

How to Read the Bible (better)

Everything in the Bible is True… BUT

How To Choose The Right Bible Translation For You

Maybe you are thinking… What does this have to do with contradictions? Well actually a lot. Many of the contradictions that people will point to aren’t contradictions at all. The first step in determining if something is a contradiction is by looking at the context. Most of the time it doesn’t contradict itself; it’s just a different style and way of communicating.

Differences vs Contradictions

Next we need some distinction between differences and contradictions. The Bible does contain plenty of differences in accounts. A thorough reading will show you that. But a difference in accounts doesn’t necessarily equal a contradiction.

Let’s look at a few examples… In John’s account (John 20:1) he records one woman coming to Jesus’ tomb. While in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 28:1) he records two women. Still yet, Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:1) records three women. That is not a contradiction. That is a difference. But that doesn’t change the historical accuracy of the texts. More on that later.

Let’s look at another one. Matthew 27:5 says that Judas hung himself following selling Jesus out. While Acts 1:18 says he fell to the ground and burst wide open. Again this is a difference, not a contradiction. 

Think of it this way. If you and I watch a football game together, or witness an accident, or describe something we both saw, we will come up with a different version. We will tell the story from our point of view. Many contradictions are just different accounts, from different perspectives, or different versions of the story.

In the examples earlier, the accounts of how many women were at the tomb doesn’t contradict itself. A contradiction would be Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, but the other Mary (as Mark calls her) was not there. Matthew never said that the other women weren’t there, he just highlighted that Mary Magdalene was there. That’s a difference.

In the second example a contradiction would be Matthew stating Judas died from hanging and Acts saying Judas didn’t die from hanging, he jumped off a cliff. Matthew never recorded how Judas died, just that he hung himself. He very well might not have died from hanging, the rope could have snapped and he fell to his death as Acts records. It’s a difference, not a contradiction.

The point of this is when we come across something in the Bible that doesn’t jive, we first have to give a deeper look. Most of the time it’s a difference in the account, not a contradiction.

So What About Actual Contradictions?

Again I don’t think this is a yes or no answer to this question. Let me answer it this way. There is no difference or contradiction in the Bible that damages the integrity of the message. However there are contradictions that we just don’t have the answer to.

Here’s what I mean. Critics often overemphasize contradictions in the Bible. They will point to one small issue of discrepancy but ignore the majority agreements. Let’s go to the Old Testament. The accounts in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are often pointed to as containing contradictions. These books record the same events, but sometimes the numbers don’t line up. Critics will point to the few times the numbers don’t match, but ignore the fact that the vast majority of numbers do align.

Chronicles, for example, records 10 times a number that was higher than the other books. Some claim the author was all about inflating the numbers. But he wasn’t doing that because in addition Chronicles records a lower number 7 times. The issue with this example is that there’s no clear agenda or any consistency to this issues.

Some of these number discrepancies can be explained by a differing culture. For example, 1 Chronicles 21:5 states that Judah had 470,000 soldiers, but when you flip to 2 Samuel 24:9 it says Judah had 500,000. In our culture that would be considered a contradiction.

If these were your bank account balances you would want to know which one was true. Get out of your 21st Century mind for a minute. Think about when you are having a conversation with a friend about a road trip. They might ask, “how far are you traveling?” You say 800 miles. In reality, you are actually traveling 756 miles. But 800 just sounds better and the point of the story is still there. It’s very possible that in this instance that is what is happening. Sometimes we have to read by the rules of normal conversation, not a precise account. Context will tell us what to do and when.

We Don’t Need to Answer Everything

I believe every person should examine the Bible to see for themselves if it’s trustworthy. I don’t need to defend it, it can do that itself. We shouldn’t feel the need to have an answer for every single apparent contradiction in the Bible. There are passages that seem like contradictions. And I say seem because we cannot prove it… Yet. There’s a lot we don’t know, archeology hasn’t discovered, or God hasn’t revealed. I don’t know why. But I also don’t feel the need to answer every question.

Here’s why I don’t feel the need. The list of apparent contradictions in the Bible is shrinking. In Acts 13:7 Sergius Paulus is mentioned as proconsul of Cyprus. Critics have long contended that the title was wrong; rather he should be called propraetor which was the common title of the day. For a long time there was no answer to this apparent contradiction. However, archeologists later discovered coins on Cyprus with the inscription “Paulus the Proconsul.” Contradiction solved.

Here’s another one. In Daniel 5:1 Belshazzar is named King of Babylon. The problem is every historian knew that Nabonidus was king at this time. For a long time, this was one of the most blatant contradictions that critics would point to. That is until an inscription was discovered known as “Persian Verse Account of Nabonidus.” This inscription states that Nabonidus went away on a long journey. During that time he left the kingdom in the hands of his son, Balshazzar. Again, contradiction solved.

The point is, the apparent contradictions that exist are just that: apparent. There is a good chance that over time we will solve more and more of these contradictions. New evidence will be found, and archaeology will confirm the accuracy of the Bible. Maybe not all of them. Some are probably buried too deep in deserts somewhere. But that’s okay. The Bible stands on it’s own. It’s got a good track record. And stands way beyond the accuracy of just about every other ancient book.

The few apparent contradictions don’t hold a candle to the mountain of congruent passages and stories. The Bible as a whole is in agreement and a few passages here and there should not cause us to throw the rest out.

Recommended Resources for Understanding the Bible

How do you answer the question of contradictions in the Bible?

Jeffery Curtis Poor
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