The Bible is a tough book to read. Sure, there are some fascinating stories and beautiful poetry to admire, but much of the Bible consists of ancient legal codes, histories of obscure kings, and strange prophecies about God’s judgment.
Yet Christians believe there’s something special about this book; they believe that God reveals himself through its stories and teachings. But what if the stories themselves are not true? What if the teachings contradict one another? What if there are mistakes, errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions in the Bible? Wouldn’t that call everything into question? How can anyone trust the Bible?
It doesn’t take long for Bible readers to come across what seem to be inconsistencies and contradictions. In fact, you can find this as early as page one—there are two different accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2.
In the first account—Genesis 1—God creates all the plants and animals before creating human beings.1 In the second—Genesis 2—he creates humans and then plants.2 So which is it? The Genesis account is strange to begin with, but now it seems like whoever wrote it couldn’t get their story straight. How can we believe any of it to be true?
That’s just one example. Others could be listed. And they all raise the same question: What about these contradictions in the Bible—don’t they prove that the Bible isn’t really “God’s Word” as Christians claim? It’s a question worth exploring.
Readers of the Bible have long recognized, analyzed, and discussed these discrepancies, and many have come to an important conclusion: with some basic understanding of ancient languages, literature, and the cultural context of biblical writings, it becomes apparent that most of these inconsistencies are not actually contradictions.
Good explanations can be found for why passages in the Bible sometimes differ. Let’s take a look at a few of these.
To begin, we must recognize that the Bible is a collection of books written by many different people who were not trying to force an artificial uniformity on their writings. Indeed, various authors had expressly different purposes or emphases.
This means that one writer may underscore God’s anger at injustice while another may emphasize his grace and compassion toward the undeserving. As a result, two books in the Bible, two passages in a single book, or even two verses in a single chapter may portray God in very different ways. Because God’s nature and character are so complex, each portrayal is necessarily incomplete but not necessarily inconsistent.
This also means that two authors may differ when describing the same event or people. For example, the books of 1 and 2 Kings recount the histories of the kings of Israel. The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles do the same, but their narratives often include quite different details. Are we to conclude, then, that the two accounts are contradictory? Of course not. We know that two descriptions of the same event often vary in their details, and yet both can be fully accurate in what they do include.
Here’s a good example: Matthew and Luke relate many of the same events in Jesus’ life. Luke’s order of events is often different than Matthew’s, and therefore one might conclude that the two books contradict one another. But it’s important to know that chronological accuracy is a modern concern, not an ancient one. Ancient biographers like Matthew and Luke organized their content based on different thematic interests. Thus differences in order simply reveal the purposes and themes important to each writer.
In case you think this strange or complex, just look at the numerous biographies of a recent historical figure like Abraham Lincoln.3 The multitude of emphases (his childhood, family, senate race, presidency, the Civil War, etc.) and different biographical methods (chronological, thematic, documentary, etc.) produce widely varying accounts. Naturally, some accounts of Lincoln’s life could be false. But different ways of telling his story do not, in and of themselves, call into question the accuracy of the accounts. The same is true of the Bible.
Moreover, paraphrasing was acceptable in the ancient world. This is important to know when examining quotations that appear inconsistent. For example, when Jesus was baptized early in his ministry, Matthew and Mark both record what was said next:
And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’Matthew 3:17
And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’Mark 1:11
So which is it? The differences are slight, but they’re there nonetheless—and this is supposed to be God talking! They can’t both be right, can they? But the languages in which the Bible was originally written have no quotation marks, and journalistic precision with quotations is a modern concern.
In the ancient world, it was acceptable for a writer to paraphrase someone else’s words, as long as the meaning of the original statement was not lost. So Mark directs the voice’s remarks to Jesus (“you are”), capturing the intimate nature of the encounter. Matthew, however, directs the voice to the crowd (“this is”), demonstrating to all readers God’s pleasure with his son. Both statements still faithfully communicate the same message. Thus variations of quotations in the Bible are not necessarily contradictions once we comprehend the accepted conventions of ancient writing.
We all need a better perspective on the literature, geography, culture, and history of the Bible and the biblical world in order to understand perceived inconsistencies. At best, our knowledge of the biblical world is partial. Many gaps remain.
Returning to the example of the two creation accounts, many think that Genesis 1 is poetic. They consider the “seven days” to be a literary device used by the author to portray creation in an elegant and lyrical way that communicates design and beauty. But the exact order and details of the days are not intended to be taken literally, and therefore the apparent inconsistencies in the accounts are not truly problematic.
Of course, this is simply one viewpoint on Genesis that some may disagree with. We have no way to know for sure, as the details of the author’s intentions are lost to history. Regarding the Bible at large, there will always remain some unanswered questions in light of the subject matter. As humans, its authors struggled with how to describe who God is and what he has done.
While some Bible readers today are troubled by these seeming contradictions, many actually point to these inconsistencies as evidence of the Bible’s authenticity and reliability. Contrived and forged works generally don’t contain such marks.
To people in this camp, the best explanation is that the Bible is not contrived. Its authors simply reported what they experienced to the best of their abilities, so that in doing so, readers of all ages might see the hand of the Supreme Author and begin to find their own place in his grand story.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Genesis 1:11–27.
- Ibid., Genesis 2:5–7.
- See, for example, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005); William Lee Miller, Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York: Knopf, 2002); James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (New York: Penguin Press, 2008); and William C. Harris, Lincoln's Rise to the Presidency (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007).
- Photo Credit: imageshunter / Shutterstock.com.