Reading the Bible with misplaced expectations

“The Bible is full of contradictions.”

So say many critics of God’s Word. When asked to provide examples, however, critics often reveal a gross misunderstanding of the writers’ purposes, according to Douglas S. Huffman, a contributor to In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture.

Bible VerticalWhile alleged contradictions come in many forms, one of the most common is that of misplaced expectations; that is, critics approach the Bible from angles that are foreign to the author’s intent.

Huffman offers five examples:

Selection vs. denial. Authors must select what they choose to include in their accounts. Their selections are related to their purpose for writing. Just because they leave some details out does not mean they deny their existence. For example, each of the four Gospels has information not contained in any of the others. But this does not mean these records are in conflict with one another.

Even the Gospel writer John alludes to this: “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

Difference vs. discrepancy. A difference in perspective, theme, or details is not necessarily a discrepancy. For example, some argue that the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ death disagree with one another because Matthew and Mark report the temple curtain being torn after Jesus dies, while Luke records it the other way around. But this ignores the fact that all three Synoptic Gospels note that both events occurred at “the ninth hour.”

Accuracy vs. precision. Accuracy and precision are not completely synonymous terms. You may be accurate in saying, “It rained last week,” but not be precise as to which day and time it rained. Matthew and Mark report that the transfiguration happened “after six days,” while Luke reports that it happened “about eight days after …”

Precise claims may be false and imprecise claims may be true. It’s important to notice how the terms are used. In the Gospel accounts of the transfiguration, Luke uses “about” and Matthew and Mark use “after.” It’s the event that is important; the exact time is secondary.

Paraphrase vs. quotation. Quotations in the Gospels vary from one another. For example, the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism in Matthew says, “This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him!” Mark and Luke, however, record the voice as saying, “You are My beloved Son; I take delight in You!”

Of course the voice did not speak English at all, or perhaps even Greek, but possibly Aramaic. Therefore the record in Greek is a paraphrase of the words spoken. The quotation mark is a fairly recent literary invention. What writers are concerned about in the New Testament is getting the message right. Few of us expect exact quotations when we ask, “What did the pastor say today?”

Chronology vs. theme. Ordering events by theme, and not merely by chronology, does not mean the author is being dishonest. The four Gospels largely are chronological, but not exclusively so. They each begin at the beginning – either of Jesus’ life or ministry – and end after His resurrection. Still, none claims that each story is told in chronological order.

Reporting today, whether news accounts or book-length biographies, often set aside strict chronology to enhance the story telling or to follow themes. The temptation of Jesus as reported by Matthew and Luke features different orders. Matthew uses the more sequential connecting words “then” and “again” and apparently lists them in order.

Luke, however, lists the temptations in a different order. But there is no contradiction when we notice Luke’s apparent desire to end the list with a climactic emphasis on the temple in Jerusalem. Luke uses the non-sequencing words “and” and “but” to connect the three items.

We expect the Bible to be accurate since it is divinely inspired. That doesn’t mean the human writers are prevented from using their own writing styles and organizing their accounts of Jesus’ life thematically.

“When we think we have found a contradiction between reports in the Bible, we should be willing to double-check our potentially errant expectations,” says Huffman.

This column first appeared Jan. 14, 2014, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.


  1. Marco

    After looking a few days on the dilemma of how and when the human race was born, I gave birth to these hypotheses, thanks also to the differences found in Genesis between two stories that seem different, namely the creation of man on the sixth day and then the telling of the story about Adam and Eve. If we read the part of the genesis which explains the creation of man on the sixth day, and then the creation of Adam and Eve, you may notice a detail that differs between the two parts, suggesting that they are two completely different stories. In fact, in Genesis 1:26, we can see that man was created on the sixth day in the image and likeness of God, as in Genesis 5:1 (referring to Adam and Eve after 7 days of creation) the text of the Bible omits “image”, the fact that “image” and “likeness” indicate two similar concepts but different. I think “image” means human nature able to conceive the evil, so the suffering too, instead “likeness” denotes the inherited attributes of God as love, reason and they are both still together. Hypothetically speaking, the man of the sixth day is a creature evolved from animals or some other thing, then, over time has developed the reason as we know it today, while Adam and Eve were created in the Garden of Eden and as the Bible says in Genesis 2:7 (And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground) this means that God took their dust from the young earth and has created them in the Eden where the concept of time did not exists or was limited to the 7 days, this event happened before the creation of trees as written in Genesis 2:4,5,6: (These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground and God formed man of the dust of the ground). In this perfect reality there was no concept of evil, so they were only a “likeness” of God. After that they were created, were expelled from Eden, only to find themselves in this situation where had passed perhaps millions of years (because in the Eden the time for them had not passed), a situation in which the man who was created in the image and likeness did not exists anymore because of a mass extinction caused by some natural catastrophe or by “something else”, or perhaps still he existed, and the descendants of Adam and Eve hybridized this species, confirmed in Genesis 6:1,2,3,4, in which it says that the sons of God married the daughters of men (but may also be refers to the descendants of Cain, who turned away from God). The spirit of God will not dwell forever with the man because he also is flesh, living up to 120 years (mean that men of God who lived up to 900 years later live up to 120 years because of the fact that hybridizing with the daughters of men they are “contaminated” at the genetic level, partially losing genes that enabled him to live a lot longer). According to the Bible, Adam and Eve were the first humans created by God, who lived approximately 6,000 years ago. According to the science, humans existed a long time before. The two lines of thought can be easily united, thanks to the omnipotence of God, who in the beginning created humans in a reality where there was no concept of “evil”. Metaphorically speaking, Adam and Eve were expelled from this heavenly reality, find himself in another reality, namely in today’s reality that we all know, where there is the concept of evil, as well as that of the well, a reality where they were the first humans who experienced firsthand the life God had reserved for them (so they were the first humans in the “perfect” reality). From here it is clear that the story of Adam and Eve does not upset in the least bit the evolutionary linearity, and the seven days of creation relate to a creation took place in the reality of Adam and Eve, where everything was possible, even just create the stars, animals and everything else, without the scientific method and the time needed to have their share. In practice, they were the first men of God, whereas prehistoric man lived before Adam and Eve was a man, but it could be considered as an animal evolved from animals or by something else, which had two arms and two legs, and that may have hybridized with the descendants of Adam And Eve after they were “moved away” from the “perfect reality”. God has endowed man about the concept of “infinity” and “eternity”, as well as other questions can not be explained through the use of the scientific method, thus making humans free to believe in God or not, in a reality for us tricky and necessary for the construction and continuation of his project.

  2. Annah Z Katasha

    Thank you so much for this article, I’ve been seeing Christians burning Holy Bibles on YouTube and it makes me so sad. Please let us all keep praying for those burning Bibles , because it’s not them, its the devil at work. Being a Christian I believe that the Almighty God will use bad for good.

  3. Emerso Branham

    Those who would attack the Word of God have had mostly 2000 years to find a conflict in the scriptures without success. That there are those today who think they have succeeded where the former attackers have not, only reveal how dumb down they have became in their approach. We, Christians, must maintain the intellectual high ground and refuse to debate at todays accepted level, but require the debate to proceed at a much higher standard.

  4. Nancy Diggs

    I love your website! It is so educational and written on a level that is easy to understand. The study of Revelation is most enjoyable. I can’t wait until the end!