The accepted way to approach ancient writings is to assume innocence, not guilt. The Bible deserves this same treatment.
Possibilities Will Suffice
If we believe the Bible is innocent until proven guilty, then any possible answer should be good enough to nullify the charge of error. This principle does not allow for just any answer, but any possible answer. When one studies the Bible and comes across passages that may seem contradictory, one does not necessarily have to pin down the exact solution in order to show their truthfulness. The Bible student need only show the possibility of a harmonization between passages that appear to conflict in order to negate the force of the charge that a Bible contradiction really exists.
The alleged contradiction surrounding Mark 2:25-26 illustrates the value of this principle. While Jesus and His disciples were strolling through a field one Sabbath, they plucked ears of grain and ate the kernels. The hypercritical Pharisees found fault with this act—calling it work—and accused the disciples of breaking the Sabbath law. The Lord responded to their charge saying: “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” Critics compare Christ’s reply to 1 Samuel 21 and cry “Contradiction!”
The difficulty centers on the question over which levitical minister was present when David ate the showbread. Whereas Jesus mentioned Abiathar, 1 Samuel 21:1 states: “Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest…” (emp. added). Who was correct—Jesus or Samuel? No fewer than three answers are possible. First, it may be that the two names belonged to the same man. Such an answer is not impossible, and finds analogy in Scripture. For example, Moses’ father-in-law was known both as Reuel and Jethro (Exodus 2:18; 3:1). And Peter is sometimes called Peter, Simon Peter, and Simon (Matthew 14:28; 16:16; 17:25). It may be that Abiathar and Ahimelech were the same person.
A second possible solution to this “problem” passage may be found in the fact that Jesus did not say Abiathar was the priest who ministered to David, but simply that the event occurred during the lifetime of Abiathar. This is in agreement with 1 Samuel, which mentions a priest named Abiathar several times. Thus, the phrase “in the days of ” may not be intended to modify Abiathar’s priesthood, but his entire life.
Third, notice that 1 Samuel does not give the name of the high priest when Ahimelech assisted David. Samuel mentioned a priest named Ahimelech, whereas Christ mentioned a high priest named Abiathar. These were two different offices in the Mosaic age.
Which of these three solutions is correct? Actually, in the absence of more information, a definite answer seems impossible, however, all of the above answers possess merit. Any one is sufficient to answer the charge of error. Over a century ago, the reputable and conservative scholar J.W. McGarvey commented on this point as follows:
We are not bound to show the truth of the given hypothesis; but only that it may be true. If it is at all possible, then it is possible that no contradiction exists; if it is probable, then it is probable that no contradiction exists.... It follows, also, that when there is an appearance of contradiction between two writers, common justice requires that before we pronounce one or both of them false we should exhaust our ingenuity in searching for some probable supposition on the ground of which they may both be true. The better the general reputation of the writers, the more imperative is this obligation, lest we condemn as false those who are entitled to respectful consideration (1886, part 2, p. 32).
Again, the apologist does not have to know the exact solution to an alleged contradiction; he need show only one or more possibilities of harmonization. We act by this principle in the courtroom, in our treatment of various historical books, as well as in everyday-life situations. It is only fair, then, that we show the Bible the same courtesy by exhausting the search for possible harmony between passages before pronouncing one or both accounts false.
What is a Contradiction?
One of the main problems in the discussion concerning alleged contradictions is that most people do not understand what constitutes a genuine contradiction. Ninety-nine percent of all alleged contradictions likely could be resolved simply by acknowledging the real meaning of the word contradiction. What is a contradiction? In its briefest form, the Law of Contradiction, as stated in W. Stanley Jevons’ Elementary Lessons in Logic, says: “Nothing can both be and not be” (1928, p. 117). The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle amplified this definition by suggesting that there are three areas to which this maxim is applied. He stated: “That the same thing should at the same time both be and not be for the same person and in the same respect is impossible” (see Arndt, 1955, p. x). Although this definition may seem somewhat complicated at first glance, it actually is quite elementary. For example, a door may be open, or a door may be shut, but the same door may not be both open and shut at the same time. With reference to the door, shut and open are opposites, but they are not contradictory unless it be affirmed that they characterize the same object at the same time. So it is very important that one recognizes that mere opposites or differences do not necessitate a contradiction. For there to be a bona fide contradiction, one must be referring to the same thing or person in the same sense at the same time.
Suppose that someone says, “Terry Anthony is rich,” and “Terry Anthony is poor.” Do those two statements contradict each other? Not necessarily. How do you know the same Terry Anthony is under consideration in both statements? It could be that Terry Anthony in Oklahoma is rich, but Terry Anthony in Tennessee is poor. The same person or thing must be under consideration.
Furthermore, the same time period must be under consideration. Terry Anthony could have made a fortune in his early twenties as a business consultant and been very rich, but after a terrible stock-market crash, he could have lost everything he owned. At one time, then, he was rich, but now he is poor. The two statements could have been accurately describing his life at the time each was made.
Also, the statements must be talking about the same sense. Terry Anthony could have more money than anyone else in the entire world, but if he is not following God, then he is poor. On the other hand, he could have absolutely no money, but be rich in spiritual blessings. After all, “Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith” (James 2:5)? Answering these three questions helps tremendously in resolving the contradiction controversy.
These examples reveal that a mere difference does not make a contradiction. For a thing both to be and not to be for the same person or thing in the same sense at the same time is a contradiction. But, if it cannot be shown that these three things are all the same, then one cannot honestly say there is a contradiction. It never is legitimate to assume a contradiction until every possible means of harmonization has been exhausted.
Consider how the proper understanding of what a contradiction is can help solve allegedly conflicting passages of Scripture.
Same Person or Thing
The book of Acts records the death of James in Acts 12, while later (Acts 15), James is prominent at the Jerusalem conference. Is this a contradiction? Not at all. The James murdered in Acts 12 was the brother of John (v. 2), the son of Zebedee (Matthew 4:21), while the James of Acts 15 was Jesus’ half-brother (Matthew 13:55; Acts 12:17; 15:13; Galatians 1:19).
An infidel once suggested that he had discovered a “contradiction” in the Bible. He noted that since Noah’s ark (described in Genesis 6) was 300 cubits long, fifty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high (or 450 feet x 75 feet x 45 feet) and would have weighed several tons when fully loaded, it was preposterous to believe that the priests could have carried it across the Jordan River as described in Joshua 3! Impossible right? A clear-cut contradiction? The critic’s inability to distinguish between the ark of Noah and the ark of the covenant made answering his argument a simple matter for even the most elementary Bible student. Obviously, different objects were under consideration. The priests carried the ark of the covenant—not the ark of Noah (cf. Genesis 6:14-16; Exodus 25:10-15). It is critically important first to make sure that differences between two or more passages are not the result of different people or things being discussed.
Same Time Reference
Some time ago, I visited a skeptic’s Web site in which he indicated that Genesis 1:31 and Genesis 6:5-6 were contradictory. Supposedly, a discrepancy is evident since in Genesis 1 the Bible records: “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good,” and then in Genesis 6 it says, “And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” The Lord could not be both satisfied and dissatisfied with His creation, could He? He certainly could—if the statements were not referring to the same time. And it just so happens that the events, though only five chapters apart in the Bible, are separated by hundreds of years, chronologically speaking.
Another skeptic charged the Bible with making a mistake after comparing Genesis 6:9 with Genesis 9:21. In the first verse, Noah is described as being “…a just man, perfect in his generations.” In the second passage, Noah’s drunkenness is described. How is it that Noah could be “a just man,” while also being a drunk? The same person is under consideration in both passages. The problem with this line of reasoning is that the two verses are separated by more than one hundred years. Furthermore, one also would be incorrect in concluding from Genesis 9 that Noah was a drunkard. He may have continued to “walk with God” throughout his life, despite his struggles with sin (cf. Hebrews 11:7,13).
If any book is to be understood correctly, it is imperative that recognition be given to the different senses in which words may be employed. Normally, terms are used literally, but they sometimes can be employed figuratively as well. On occasion, two or more biblical passages may appear to be in conflict because they employ language in a different way. Such is the case with Hebrews 11:17: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son.” When this verse is compared to Abraham’s history as recorded in the book of Genesis, we immediately notice that Isaac was not the “only begotten son” of Abraham. In fact, we read that Abraham fathered Ishmael by Hagar (Genesis 16:16) more than a decade before the birth of Isaac. And later in his life, Abraham took Keturah as a wife, by which he begot at least six more sons (Genesis 25:1-2). How then could it be said that Isaac was Abraham’s “only begotten son”?
The answer to the problem is quite simple. The term “only begotten son” is used by the writer of Hebrews to indicate something other than the number of Abraham’s children. It is used in a different sense. In the Greek text of Hebrews 11:17, the word translated as “only begotten son” is monogenes. While this word often was used to refer to an only child, it was not limited to such a usage. The Jewish historian Josephus used the word monogenes to refer to a man named Izates who had an older brother and several younger brothers (20.2.1). The well-respected Greek-English lexicon by Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker explains that the word can be used to denote something that is “unique (in kind) of something that is the only example of its category” (1979, p. 527). This meaning fits perfectly into Hebrews 11, where the Hebrews writer is explaining that Abraham offered up his “only promised son.” Abraham had no other children that fit in the category of being promised by God. Isaac was the only “example of a category,” that category being a son who was promised to Abraham and Sarah. Although Abraham had many other children, by other women, he had no other child of promise. Isaac was his unique son, the only one of promise: the “monogenes.”
Supplementation does not Equal Contradiction
Another common-sense principle that is useful in approaching alleged contradictions surrounds one’s understanding of supplementation. Suppose you are telling a story about the time you and a friend went to an Atlanta Braves baseball game. You mention what great defense the Braves played, and your friend tells about their clutch hits in the final innings of the game. Is there a contradiction just because your friend mentions the offense but you mention only the defense? No. He is simply adding to (or supplementing) your story to make it more complete. That happens in the Bible quite often.
As an example, in Matthew 14:21 the Bible says that Jesus fed about five thousand men, and that He also fed women and children. But in Mark 6:44, it says that He fed about five thousand men. Mark never mentions the women and children. Is that a contradiction? No, of course not. Did He feed about 5,000 men? Yes, and that makes Mark correct. Did Jesus break the loaves for about 5,000 men, along with some women and children? Yes, which makes Matthew right, too. Just because one account “adds” some things does not mean that the accounts contradict each other.
Again, Matthew 27:57-60 says that Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body and placed it in his tomb, yet John 19:38-40 says that Nicodemus and Joseph put the body in the tomb. Do they contradict each other? Certainly not! If one text said only Joseph did it or only Nicodemus did it, then a contradiction might exist. But as it stands, John simply “adds” some facts to the story. Supplementary accounts are not contradictory.
Look Who’s Talking
Another principle that must be remembered when dealing with various biblical passages is that the Bible contains numerous uninspired statements. Even though “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16), not everything that the inspired writers recorded was a true statement. For example, after God created Adam, He told him not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil lest he die (Genesis 2:17). Yet, when the serpent approached Eve, he “informed” her that she would not die if she ate of this forbidden fruit (3:4). Obviously, Satan was not inspired by God to say, “You will not surely die.” In fact, as we learn later, he actually lied (John 8:44). However, when Moses recorded the events that took place in Eden hundreds of years later, he wrote by inspiration of God (cf. Luke 24:44; John 5:46). When Jesus healed a demoniac, some of the Pharisees accused Him of casting out demons, not by the power of God, but by the power of “Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24). Like Moses, Matthew did not write a lie, but merely reported a lie. The writers of the Bible are in no way responsible for the inaccurate statements that are recorded therein. Whether the statements were true or false, they reported them accurately.
The above examples are quite basic: Satan’s statement and the Pharisees’ allegations clearly were false. But what about when statements are made by individuals who do not seem “as bad” as these? I once read an article by a gentleman who was defending a doctrine by citing various verses in the book of Job. The problem was that these verses blatantly contradicted other passages in the Bible. This man was mistaken in his understanding of the biblical text because he never took into consideration one of the fundamental rules of interpretation—knowing who is speaking; he simply cited all statements as being true. One who studies the book of Job must realize that it is an inspired book that contains many uninspired statements. For instance, we know that Job’s wife was incorrect when she told him to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). We also know that many statements made by Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were incorrect. Nine of the 42 chapters in the book were speeches by these “miserable comforters” (16:2) whom God said had “not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has” (42:7). Clearly, then, one never should quote these men and claim it as an inspired truth (unless, of course, an inspired man verified it as being true—cf. 1 Corinthians 3:19).
The Golden Rule
A final rule to keep in mind when interpreting alleged contradictory passages is that we need to be as fair with the Bible as we wish others to be toward us. Suppose you mentioned to a friend at work that you woke up at sunrise. How would you feel if your coworker responded by saying, “You are a moron. The Sun does not rise! That’s just the Earth rotating on its axis!”? No doubt, you would think this person had some serious problems, because it is common knowledge that the Sun does not literally rise in the east; however, people have no problem understanding the real meaning of this comment. We call this “phenomenal” language—language that is used in everyday speech to refer to ordinary phenomena. On occasion, the Bible also uses phenomenal language. In Psalm 50:1, the writer describes the Sun as rising, and in 1 Corinthians 15:6 Paul described some of the Christians who had died as having “fallen asleep.” No one would accuse us of making a scientific mistake when we say that the Sun will rise, or that a dead person has “fallen asleep.” In the same way, the Bible should not be accused of containing mistakes simply because it uses the same type of language. So, remember, the Bible regularly describes things as they appear, and not in scientific terms—just as you do in casual conversation.
By remembering these nine principles of interpretation, a person is equipped with the tools to answer even the most difficult questions concerning alleged Bible contradictions. When logic, fairness, and these nine fundamental principles are ignored, however, it is possible that some may conclude (ignorantly) that they have a legitimate Bible contradiction on their hands.
Arndt, William (1955), Does the Bible Contradict Itself? (St. Louis, MO: Concordia).
Arndt, William, F.W. Gingrich, and Frederick Danker (1979), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Barker, Dan (1992), Losing Faith in Faith (Madison, WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.).
Brown, Andrew (1999), The Darwin Wars (New York: Simon and Schuster).
Gaussen, L. (1949), The Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, trans. David D. Scott (Chicago, IL: Moody).
Greenleaf, Simon (1995), The Testimony of the Evangelists (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Classics).
Jevons, W. Stanley (1928), Elementary Lessons in Logic (London: MacMillan).
McGarvey, J.W. (1886), Evidences of Christianity (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).
McKinsey, C. Dennis (1995), The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
Paine, Thomas (1795), Age of Reason (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1924 reprint).
Thiede, Carsten Peter and Matthew D’Ancona (1996), Eyewitness to Jesus (New York: Doubleday).
Wells, Steve (2001), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible [On-line], URL: http://www.Skepticsannotatedbible.com.
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