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Overview > Is the New Testament reliable? > Internal Evidence Test > Does the Does the NT contain contradictions?

Does the Does the NT contain contradictions?

Summary
  1. When examining supposed contradictions remember:

    • Difference versus contradiction
    • Translation
    • Use of language
    • Context
    • 20th century standards
    • Descriptions of God

  2. Not a single supposed contradiction has ever been proved!
Another common objection to the historical reliability of the New Testament documents is that it is full of contradictions. It is a popular idea that the New Testament disagrees with itself, casting considerable doubt on its own trustworthiness. However, it is easy to accuse the New Testament documents of inaccuracies, but it is quite another matter to prove it. [6 p. 126]

What constitutes a contradiction?

What in fact constitutes a contradiction? The law of non-contradiction, which is the basis of all logical thinking, states that a thing cannot be both A and non-A at the same time, in the same place, and in the same manner. It cannot be both raining and not raining at the same time in the same location. [6 p. 127]

If a person can demonstrate a violation of this principle in the New Testament, then and only then can they prove a contradiction. For example, if the Bible said - which it does not - that Jesus died by crucifixion both at Jerusalem and at Nazareth at the same time, this would be a provable error. [6 p. 127]

The approach to apparent contradictions

When it comes to ‘apparent’ contradictions, we should not minimize or exaggerate the problem, and we must always begin by giving the author the benefit of the doubt. This is the rule in other literature, and it should also be the rule here. [6 p. 127]

Here are three typical examples of supposed self-contradictions (internal contradictions) in the New Testament. [1 p. 215]

  1. The chronological order of events in the life of Jesus is not the same in any two of the four Gospels. [1 p. 215]

  2. One account of Judas’s death says he hanged himself (Matthew 27:5); another says he fell down and his body burst open (Acts 1:18). [1 p. 215]

  3. Matthew relates how two blind men met Jesus at Jericho, while both Mark and Luke mention only one. [6 p. 127]

We need to take recognition of two points with respect to questions like these.

First, a sense of perspective is needed. There is nothing substantial about these apparent contradictions. The New Testament documents could well be historically accurate in all its teachings, its message and in what Jesus said and did, even while being incorrect in incidental details like these. [1 p. 216] Secondly, even these minor contradictions have possible explanations. For example

  1. Only Luke, who was a Greek doctor, claimed anything like exact chronological order. [1 p. 216]

  2. Perhaps Judas’s noose broke. [1 p. 216]

  3. Neither of the accounts actually denies the other (see the next section on Difference versus Contradiction).

It is obviously unwise to get overly creative when resolving seemingly contradictory accounts. When invoking speculative factors - which indeed, ultimately and by nature, are arguments from silence - we should choose only reasonable speculations that fit in with the characters, setting, the known facts of the situation, and human nature. [12]

For example, in point two above, a possible reconstruction would be as follows. Judas hanged himself on a tree on the edge of a precipice that overlooked the valley of Hinnom. After he hung there for a time, the limb of the tree snapped or the rope gave way and Judas fell down the ledge, mangling his body in the process. This fall could have been before or after death, as either would fit this explanation. This possibility is entirely natural when the terrain of the valley of Hinnom is examined. From the bottom of the valley, you can see rocky terraces 25 to 40 feet in height and almost perpendicular. There are still trees that grow around the ledges and a rocky pavement at the bottom. Therefore, it is easy to conclude that Judas struck one of the jagged rocks on his way down, tearing his body open. [6 p. 130]

Note that when resolving seemingly contradictory accounts for legal proceedings, speculation of some degree is often invoked. What must be determined, however, is how reasonable that speculation is.[12]

It is worth stressing that when a possible explanation is given to a supposed contradiction, it is unreasonable to state that the passage contains a demonstrable error. [6 p. 128]

Difference versus Contradiction

Concerning point three above (the accounts of the blind man/men at Jericho), suppose that you talk to a headmaster of a local school and the history teacher at that school. Later you see a friend, say John, and tell him that you talked to the headmaster today. An hour after that you see another friend, James, and tell him you talked to both the headmaster and the history teacher. Your friends compare notes, and there seems to be a contradiction - but there is not. Since you had not told John that you talked only to the headmaster, you did not contradict what you told James. The statements made by John and James were different, not contradictory. [6 p. 127]

This was highlighted when we considered the manner of Judas' death. Matthew relates that Judas hanged himself, while Peter tells us he fell and was crushed by the impact. As demonstrated by the possible reconstruction of his death, the two statements are indeed different, but not contradictory. [6 p. 130]

There is a distinction between difference and contradiction. Many biblical statements fall into this category, and people sometimes think they find errors in passages when actually they simply do not read these passages correctly. [6 p. 127]

Translation

Another reason why two passages may appear contradictory is that the translation is not as accurate as it could be. Knowledge of the original languages of the Bible can immediately solve these difficulties. [6 p. 127]

A classic example of this involves the accounts of Paul’s conversion. In the book of Acts it states “And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.” (Acts 9:7 King James Version), and then a bit later it states “And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.” (Acts 22:9 KJV). The statements seem contradictory, with one saying Paul’s companions heard a voice and the other saying no voice was heard. [6 p. 128]

However, if we examine the Greek we find that the construction of the verb ‘to hear’ is not the same in both accounts. In the first case it means that something is being heard, that sounds are reaching the ear; nothing is indicated as to whether a person understands what he hears or not. In the second case, it describes a hearing that involves mental understanding. Acts 22:9 does not deny that the associates of Paul heard certain sounds; it simply declares that they did not understand what was being said. Our English idiom in this case, is simply not as expressive as the Greek. [6 p. 128]

Note too that certain translations, for example the King James Bible, were put together before the availability of some of the linguistic, archaeological and cultural information that we have today, and passages may therefore be more likely to ‘appear’ contradictory.

Use of Language

The Bible - which is, after all, a composition of literature - makes use of various literary techniques such as metaphor. [12]

One particular type of verse that is often highlighted as containing contradictions are those that use the word "all" or some form of it. We would recognize that a statement like, "Everybody in the world likes ice cream," or, "I'm putting all I have into it" as an idiomatic statement indicating strong feeling or considerable weight. However, people apply this incorrectly to the Bible. If the Bible says "All the kings of the world came to Solomon for his wisdom," then they unfairly say that this is a contradiction, as not every king in the world actually came to visit Solomon. It is, however, obvious that such a phrase simply means that Solomon was famous for his wisdom and that a considerable number of rulers (not all) admired his wisdom and came to him to partake of it.

When examining a passage for a supposed contradiction, we need to be aware of any language devices that are used.[12]

Context

Context is an important issue when considering any quoted phrase, whether in the Bible or elsewhere. Most sceptics would probably agree with the statement, and say out loud, "I believe Christians are wrong when they say that the Bible contains no contradictions." If we were to quote them thereafter as saying, "I believe...the Bible contains no contradictions," they would definitely disagree. Obviously, context is important. [12]

Which standards to use?

We need to be careful of making a judgement based on 20th century standards of what constitutes a mistake - when in fact, we ought to judge by the standards of the day in which the Bible was written. For example, many of the passages that make use of Proverbial literature (parts of the New Testament and much of the Old Testament) can be seen as containing contradictions if they treated as incorrectly.[14]

Wisdom literature was (and still is) characterized by language of exclusivity. This is partially attributable to the fact that it was intended to be short, compact, and easily memorized. Because of these characteristics, the genre cannot be read as though it were absolute. [13]

Here are two modern examples: [13]

  1. "He who hesitates is lost."

    This frequently used proverb alludes to the fact that quick action leads to success, whereas self-doubt means disaster. Obviously this is not always true: Self-doubt may lead to preservation in some instances!

  2. "Practice makes perfect." Does it always? Obviously not, for internal skills are a factor as well - and even then perfection is a difficult goal.

Material in the Bible that belongs in the proverbial/wisdom genre cannot be read absolutely and used to claim error and/or contradiction. [13]

Another example is that of exact numbers. Ancient histories rarely claimed exact numbers. Inexact estimates were common and expected. So was the use of symbolic numbers instead of literal numbers to describe real events. In the Old Testament, we sometimes find examples of this, for example the populations of peoples and armies are often estimated differently in different accounts of the same events. Once we understand the use of number in ancient histories, such passages, can not be taken as evidence for a contradictions. [1 p. 216]

We must be careful of incorrectly imposing our modern standards of accuracy on certain material in the Bible that was never intended to have it. [1 p. 216]

Descriptions of God

Certain supposed contradictions need to be addressed on a philosophical and theological level. The following are some apparent contradictions that fall into this category: [1 p. 216]

  1. On the one hand, God is just and punishes the wicked. On the other hand, he is merciful and revokes the eternal punishment of those who repent of their wickedness.

  2. On the one hand, God is absolutely one. On the other hand, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit are also called “God”, so he is three.

  3. On the one hand, God is awesome and terrifying. On the other hand, he is compassionate and comforting.

There are many such examples and a proper discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this study. To address these issues, both philosophy and theology is involved. The main point worth noting here is that despite the large number of issues raised, these ‘contradictions’ have all been competently refuted. For completeness sake here are some possible high-level answers to the above mentioned ‘contradictions’: [1 p. 216]

  1. God does not compromise either his justice or his mercy. The two are reconciled through Jesus’ death. Jesus gets the justice and we get the mercy.

  2. He is one in being and essence, three in person.

  3. He is both awesome and loving. What is more awesome than love? The ‘fear’ of awe and respect is quite compatible with mature love’ and the other kind of fear, craven fear, is the response love can evoke in the soul of the immature. The same God of holy love can be comforting to a saint and threatening to a sinner.

These are only a few samples of the large amount of similar issues that have risen in the last two thousand years. Despite the large number, the intellectual credentials of biblical theology remain impressive and unrefuted.

External Contradictions

What about external sources for contradictions? Has archeology found anything to invalidate the claims of the Bible? The answer is an emphatic ‘No’. The results have been that the Biblical claims have been proved, or considered probable. None of the Biblical accounts have been disproved by archeology. Many claims have been made (e.g. that Luke recorded incorrect details about the location of certain cities, and that Jericho fell long before the Jews came), and then later withdrawn in the light of new evidence. [1 p. 217]

There may still be some unanswered questions (e.g. Why didn’t the Jews leave any physical remains as evidence of the exodus?) but these are simply unanswered questions and not disproofs. [1 p. 217]

Support for the New Testament by external sources will be discussed again when examining the External Evidence Test.

Conclusion

Over the years, people have argued over hundreds of ‘apparent’ contradiction examples. We have only mentioned a few here. However, in all the cases, not a single supposed contradiction has ever been proved! [1 p. 220]

   



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