I have known about the allegation of contradictions within the Bible long before I became a Christian. In fact, when I was still a teenage Agnostic-Atheist, I made this very same charge against those people in my life who held the Bible to be the inspired word of God. I wasn’t just repeating a claim that I heard second-hand from someone, either, as is the case with most people who make this accusation. I actually looked into the alleged contradictions and did my best to press the ones that I felt were the most damning to the Christian worldview. The discrepant Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, as well as the conflicting genealogies connected with them, were just a few of my favourite examples. I claimed that those who tried to harmonise these accounts were not being intellectually honest, and if only they would just face the facts, they could be as I enlightened as I was.

Fast forward to almost a decade later, and I can still remember the arguments that I made against the Bible. I had since heard plausible explanations for many of these alleged contradictions (though I can’t claim to know an explanation off the top of my head for every single one). While there are many lists of contradictions on the internet, I found that equally impressive explanations also exist out there.[1] I now find myself responding to many of the same claims I used to make myself. As I have done so, I have observed that there is a tendency among those who allege contradictions in the Bible to claim to be more honest and forthright than those who seek to harmonise the text. The latter, it is said, are engaging in “verbal gymnastics,” whereas the former are simply being “scholarly” and following the evidence wherever it leads.

This is a troubling claim, for many reasons. First of all, it is a thinly-veiled ad hominem attack. Instead of engaging harmonisations of apparently discrepant passages on their own merits, skeptics of the Bible dismiss such attempts outright, and claim those who engage in such harmonies as being intellectually dishonest. Seldom is any attempt made to actually respond to such harmonies, if any attempt is even made to know what the harmonies are to begin with. This dismissive attitude is best expressed by the popular skeptic Bart Ehrman, who devotes an entire book to the topic of Bible contradictions called Jesus Interrupted. In this book, he states:

There is simply too much evidence [of contradictions in the Bible], and to reconcile all of the hundreds of differences among the biblical sources requires so much speculation and fancy interpretive footwork that eventually it gets to be too much for them [i.e. Ehrman’s students]. . . .  The more they read the text carefully and intensely, the more mistakes they find, and they begin to see that in fact the Bible makes better sense if you acknowledge its inconsistencies instead of staunchly insisting that there aren’t any, even when they are staring you in the face.[2]

A good principle to apply in these kinds of situations is exemplified by a verse from Proverbs which states: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17, ESV). If one reads an article alleging some kind of contradiction or historical error in the Bible, it’s good to see if anyone else has written a response to the allegation in question.[3]

The second troubling aspect about this tendency is that it betrays a dismissive or sometimes even downright antagonistic attitude towards the Bible. While this is not necessarily always the case, I have found that many of the people I know who allege that there are contradictions in the Bible will go out of their way to find material that they consider to be contradictory. I remember one critic who kept on insisting to me that the Genesis 6 contradicts Genesis 6 because whereas the Genesis 6 talks about Noah bringing one pair of every kind of animal onto the Ark, the Genesis 7 talks about bringing in seven pairs of every kind of animal, despite the fact that the 7th chapter is clearly talking about only select kinds of “clean” animals, and is intended to be a corollary to the previously mentioned instruction about bringing a pair of every other kind of animal onto the ark. This critic’s insistence on reading Genesis disjunctively prevented him from seeing what to most other readers seemed to be a rather obvious interpretation of the two chapters that didn’t necessitate putting them at odds with one another.

This brings us to the fact that we do need to be fair in seeking an explanation for why scripture reads the way it does. Theologian R. C. Sproul, in his primer on biblical hermeneutics entitled Knowing Scripture, talks about the necessity of giving the benefit of the doubt to any author of any work, not just the Bible:

The simple canons of common decency should protect any author from unwarranted charges of self-contradiction. If I have the option of interpreting a person’s comments one of two ways, one rendering them consistent and the other contradictory, it seems that the person should get the benefit of the doubt.[4]

A similar piece of advice is given by the popular philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler, who wrote a famous book called How to Read a Book. He dedicates the tenth chapter of this book to the topic of how to criticise a book fairly, and gives three general maxims on how to accomplish this: 1) complete the task of understanding before rushing in, 2) do not be disputatious or contentious, and 3) view the disagreement about matters of knowledge as being generally remediable.[5] The first of these three maxims is the most important for purposes of our discussion. Adler writes about the necessity of being slow to judge in one’s reading of texts:

In years of reading books with students of one kind and another, we have found this rule more honored in the breach than in the observance. Students who plainly do not know what the author is saying seem to have no hesitation in setting themselves up as his judges. They not only disagree with something they do not understand but, what is equally bad, they also often agree to a position they cannot express intelligibly in their own words. Their discussion, like their reading, is all words. Where understanding is not present, affirmations and denials are equally meaningless and unintelligible. Nor is a position of doubt or detachment any more intelligent in a reader who does not know what he is suspending judgment about.

There are several further points to note about the observance of this rule. If you are reading a good book, you ought to hesitate before you say, “I understand.” The presumption certainly is that you have a lot of work to do before you can make that declaration honestly and with assurance. You must, of course, be a judge of yourself in this matter, and that makes the responsibility even more severe.

To say “I don’t understand” is, of course, also a critical judgment, but only after you have tried your hardest does it reflect on the book rather than yourself. If you have done everything that can be expected of you and still do not understand, it may be because the book is unintelligible. The presumption, however, is in favor of the book, especially if it is a good one. In reading good books, failure to understand is usually the reader’s fault. . . . When you say “I don’t understand,” watch your tone of voice. Be sure it concedes the possibility that it may not be the author’s fault.[6]

Those who seek to find discrepancies in the Biblical text would do well to heed this word of advice, especially if they are adherents of other holy books who wish for their own texts to be treated with an equal level of fairness, or those who are authors of books themselves, who wish to be understood in their own terms rather than simply attacked and criticised.

The truth is, many of the alleged contradictions are fairly easy to resolve. It is simply a matter of being careful in one’s reading and not jumping at any feature in the text that appears to be discrepant without first checking the context. The one I just mentioned is a fairly clear example. Another example involves the fact that in John 14:38, Jesus says “Rise, let us go from here” (ESV), and yet the Upper Room Discourse continues for another three chapters. Anyone who has left a venue with a group to go somewhere else knows that dialogues that begin in one place easily continue on after the people have left that place and are en route to a new location. Omission of details are also common examples of this. For example, much has been made of the fact that Paul states that he spent three years in Arabia before going to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:17ff), whereas Luke omits the Arabian sojourn and has Paul head straight for Jerusalem (Acts 9:26ff). The fact that Luke often “telescopes” his stories by omitting episodes to emphasise the important ones is ignored or overlooked by such critics.

Other examples may be a bit trickier, and usually involve some knowledge of the geography or linguistic structure of the passage in question. A good example of this is the alleged “confusion” that Mark has over the location of the feeding of the five thousand. Recently, critics of the Bible have pounced on this as the prime example of a contradiction that any “honest” individual should admit to (the implication being that anyone who proposes any type of harmonisation is being dishonest). However, many harmonies have been proposed for this already, and it has been shown that a thorough analysis of the passage shows that Mark is well aware of the geographical context of the story. Those who accuse him of being confused are merely judging from a distance rather than trying to see what is really happening up close.[7]

Finally, the third issue that troubles me about those who allege contradictions in the Bible are the unacknowledged biases and presuppositions operating among them. Our postmodern age has exposed the folly of the pretended scientific objectivity of those who attempt to dissect and deconstruct sacred texts, and yet this pretense of objectivity and freedom from bias still circulates in many skeptical and liberal circles. This isn’t new, however. It is simply another version of what Reformed philosophers and theologians refer to as the “myth of religious neutrality.” Skeptics accuse Christians who attempt to harmonise the Bible of operating with an agenda, yet they are either unaware of, or refuse to admit, that similar agendas exist within themselves.

The problem with this is that our biases and presuppositions tend to colour what we see as plausible and what we see as implausible. I have found that many alleged contradictions can be resolved in a way that is not at all intrinsically improbable when seen from a Christian worldview perspective which affirms that there is a God who speaks in history, and does so in diverse settings but with a unified message. Those who do not share this worldview will inevitably not share our same appreciation for such harmonies. Conversely, because of this disjunction in viewpoint, Christians will often hear non-Christians make allegations that to our ears stretch at credulity or just sound patently absurd. In fact, for adherents of some non-Christian religions, their worldview practically demands that they manufacture such discrepancies, since the existence of a unified text that speaks a message that contradicts their own faith threatens it at the very foundations.

In summary, the practice of harmonising the Biblical text often gets a bad rap, especially in those who try to put on an air of scholarly erudition. However, this bad rap often has nothing to do with any intrinsic problems with the proposed harmonies, but is the result of differences in perception caused by the fact that we approach the text with fundamentally opposing worldviews. This foundational difference must be addressed before discussions of hermeneutics and historicity can move forward in a productive direction.

Endnotes

[1] As a good illustration of this, see Shabir Ally’s article, “101 Clear Contradictions in the Bible,” Answering Christianity (http://www.answering-christianity.com/101_bible_contradictions.htm), and the corresponding rebuttal by Jay Smith, et al., “101 Cleared-up Contradictions in the Bible,” Debate.org.uk (http://www.debate.org.uk/debate-topics/apologetic/contrads).

[2] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), Kindle Edition (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2009), ch. 1.

[3] The classic work on this topic is Gleason L. Archer’s New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001). This book deals with hundreds of alleged contradictions from Genesis to Revelation. Another equally scholarly book that deals more specifically with allegations of contradiction between the four Gospels is Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd edition (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

[4] R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, Rev. Ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 52.

[5] Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, Revised and Updated Edition (New York: Touchstone, 1972) 151.

[6] Ibid., 144-145.

[7] Three proposed harmonisations are worth mentioning. The first is by Jonathan McLatchie, “Is Mark “Confused” About the Location of the Feeding of the Five Thousand?,” Answering Muslims (http://www.answeringmuslims.com/2016/08/is-mark-confused-about-location-of.html).  The second is by Steve Hays, similarly titled, “Is Mark Confused?,” Triablogue (http://triablogue.blogspot.ca/2016/08/was-mark-confused.html). The final one is by James White, from the 18 August 2016 episode of The Dividing Line (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pgk0don6HEE). While all of these proposals are commendatory, I personally found the last one by White to be the most compelling.

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