“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.
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).
When someone raises the “contradiction” objection, a reasonable first response is, “Show me one.” Often, the person cannot do so. However, it must be acknowledged that there are numerous places in Scripture where there are seemingly conflicting testimonies and apparent contradictions. If the Bible comes from God, and if God neither lies nor makes mistakes, how do we reconcile these Bible difficulties? There are good explanations for these seeming contradictions.
Even so, the explosion of modern Bible translations has led some people to ask, “Which version is right?” and others to conclude that because there is so much variation between translations, none of them is correct. Keep in mind, however, that the autographs, or original documents, of Scripture are inerrant – not the subsequent copies and translations. Even though there are dozens of English translations that differ in varying degrees from one another, we have a high degree of confidence that the source documents from which these versions come are accurate representations of the autographs.
Christians generally believe in the reliability and authority of Scripture. But some have doubts and others raise serious objections to the Bible’s claim to be the Word of God. This study will address eight of the more common objections, including: “No one really knows what the Bible says because the original manuscripts are lost,” and “The Bible is full of contradictions.”
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Apologetics 101: Part 4 — How do I know the Bible is true?
This is the fourth in a 10-part series designed to help Christians defend their faith.
Objection 3: The Bible is full of contradictions.
When someone raises this objection, a reasonable first response is, “Show me one.” Often, the person cannot do so. However, it must be acknowledged that there are numerous places in Scripture where there are seemingly conflicting testimonies and apparent contradictions. If the Bible comes from God, and if God neither lies nor makes mistakes, how do we reconcile these Bible difficulties?
The law of non-contradiction
First, we should examine the Bible the same way we examine other documents, using the traditional rules of logic and reason. A good place to start is by applying the law of non-contradiction, which maintains that “nothing can both be and not be.” For example, it cannot be day and night in the same place at the same time. Therefore, if a passage of Scripture violates the law of non-contradiction, its trustworthiness is undermined. At the same time, two statements may differ without being contradictory.
For example, in Matthew’s Gospel we read that Jesus meets two blind men (Matt. 20:29-34). Mark and Luke, however, mention only one blind man. Are these contradictory statements? Not necessarily. If Jesus meets two men, He certainly meets one. In addition, when the three Gospel accounts are read in their entirety, it becomes clear that Bartimaeus picks up an unnamed blind companion during the time Jesus visits Jericho. Finally, “Matthew was concerned to mention all who were involved in this episode (just as he alone of the Synoptists recorded the fact that it was really two maniacs that met Jesus on the territory of Gadara [Matt. 8:28], whereas both Mark and Luke speak only of one demoniac possessed by the Legion demons)…. As for the second blind beggar, neither Mark nor Luke finds him significant enough to mention” (Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 333).
By the way, apparent contradictions such as this actually provide supporting evidence for the veracity of the eyewitnesses. They show that the New Testament writers didn’t “get their story straight” in order to concoct a hoax. Just as four eyewitnesses to an auto accident would report what they saw from their different vantage points, so the four Gospel writers sought to communicate to their readers the details they felt were most important. Their testimonies are consistent even though their stories vary in detail.
Translation and context
Next, we should consider translation and context. Some Bible passages appear contradictory because of the nuances of Bible translation. A case in point: The Book of Acts has two accounts of Paul’s conversion experience. Acts 9:7 (KJV) says the men journeying with Paul hear a voice but see no one. Acts 22:9 (KJV) says they do not hear the voice. The two passages appear contradictory, but the Greek clears it up, as do some modern translations. The construction of the verb is different in each account.
W.F. Arndt explains: “In Acts 9:7 it (the verb ‘to hear,’ akouo) is not the same in both accounts. In Acts 9:7 it is used with the genitive, in Acts 22:9 with the accusative. The construction with the genitive simply expresses that something is being heard or that certain sounds reach the ear; nothing is indicated as to whether a person understands what he hears or not. The construction with the accusative, however, describes a hearing, which includes mental apprehension of the message spoken. From this it becomes evident that the two passages are not contradictory” (Does the Bible Contradict Itself? quoted in “Bible Contradictions – Appearance or Reality?” found in www.allabouttruth.org.)
Some additional considerations
There are other considerations that may help clear up Bible difficulties:
- Time. Some seemingly contradictory statements are separated by years – even hundreds of years – and must be seen in their proper time frames. For example, Gen. 1:31 records that God was satisfied with creation, while Gen. 6:6 says He was sorry that He made man. Contradictory? No. Keep in mind that hundreds of years, including the fall of man, came between the first and second statements.
- Context. A careful study of the chapters and books in which the apparent contradictions occur often reveals subtle differences that aid understanding.
- Sense. Words and phrases can be used literally or figuratively. For example, in Matt. 11:14 Jesus identifies John the Baptist as Elijah, yet John denies being Elijah (John 1:21). Contradiction? No. In Matthew, Elijah is described as the spiritual antitype of the great prophet (see also Luke 1:17).
- Quotations. Many references to Old Testament passages are not word-for-word quotes in the New Testament. Rather, they are paraphrases or summaries. Many of the apparent discrepancies in the Gospels, Acts and the writings of Paul – minor as they are – disappear once we judge ancient historians by the standards of their day rather than ours. As Craig L. Blomberg writes, “In a world which did not even have a symbol for a quotation mark, no one expected a historian to reproduce a speaker’s words verbatim” (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 207).
- Understanding. Some critics assume that passages they can’t explain cannot be explained by anyone. But lack of understanding does not necessarily imply errors in transmission.
- Perspective. When two or more writers provide separate accounts of the same events, differences in names, numbers, and conversations may be accounted for by each writer’s perspective: What did he see? Who did he interview? What was most important to record? Who is the audience to whom he wrote? Should numbers be exact or rounded?
Rick Cornish summarizes: “Skeptics play a constructive role. Their challenges force us to study and sometimes reevaluate our interpretations. But until they improve their own game, we need not worry about their accusation that ‘the Bible is full of errors and contradictions.’ It’s not” (5 Minute Apologist, p. 68).
Objection 4: There are so many translations of the Bible that it’s impossible to know which one is right.
It’s true there is an alphabet soup of Bible translations available today, from the KJV to the NJB and the TNIV to the HCSB. This has led some people to ask, “Which version is right?” and others to conclude that because there is so much variation between translations, none of them is correct. Keep in mind, however, that the autographs, or original documents, of Scripture are inerrant – not the subsequent copies and translations. Even though there are dozens of English translations that differ in varying degrees from one another, we have a high degree of confidence that the source documents from which these versions come are accurate representations of the autographs.
Andreas J. Kostenberger writes: “[T]he task of translating the Bible from its source languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) into a receptor language such as English involves many issues related to the nature of language and communication…. The goal, of course, is the production of an English version that is an accurate rendering of the text written in such a way that the Bible retains its literary beauty, theological grandeur, and, most importantly, its message” (“Is the Bible Today What Was Originally Written?” found in www.4truth.net).
General translation classifications
There are four general classifications of Bible translations: formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, optimal equivalence, and paraphrase.
Formal equivalence. Often called a “word-for-word” or “literal” translation, the principle of formal equivalence “seeks as nearly as possible to preserve the structure of the original language. It seeks to represent each word of the translated text with an exact equivalent word in the translation so that the reader can see word for word what the original human author wrote” (The Apologetics Study Bible, p. xviii). Advantages of formal equivalence include: (a) consistency with the conviction that the Holy Spirit inspired not just the thoughts but the very words of Scripture; (b) access to the structure of the text in the original language; and (c) accuracy to the degree that English has an exact equivalent for each word. Drawbacks include sometimes awkward English or a misunderstanding of the author’s intent. The only truly formal equivalence translation is an interlinear version that tries to render each Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word with an English equivalent without changing the word order. Translations that tend to follow a formal equivalence philosophy are the King James Version (KJV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV), and The Amplified Bible (AMP – a word-for-word translation that features additional amplification of word meanings).
Dynamic equivalence. Often referred to as “thought-for-thought” translation, dynamic equivalence attempts to distinguish the meaning of a text from its form and then translate the meaning so that “it makes the same impact on modern readers that the ancient text made on its original readers” (The Apologetics Study Bible, p. xviii). Strengths include: (a) a high degree of readability and (b) an acknowledgement that accurate and effective translation requires interpretation. Drawbacks include: (a) the meaning of a text cannot always be neatly separated from its form; (b) the author may have intended multiple meanings; and (c) difficulty in verifying accuracy, which may affect the usefulness of the translation for in-depth study. Examples of translations that tend to employ dynamic equivalence are the New International Version (NIV), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), and the Good News Translation (GNT – formerly Today’s English Version [TEV] and Good News Bible [GNB]).
Optimal equivalence. Optimal equivalence as a translation philosophy recognizes that form cannot be neatly separated from meaning and should not be changed unless comprehension demands it, according to The Apologetics Study Bible: “The primary goal of translation is to convey the sense of the original with as much clarity as the original text and the translation language permit. Optimal equivalence appreciates the goals of formal equivalence but also recognizes its limitations” (pp. xviii – xix). The theory is to translate using formal equivalence where possible and dynamic equivalence where needed to clarify the text. The main advantage of optimal equivalence is the combination of accuracy and readability. The only drawback is that some people prefer either a more formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence translation. Translations that employ optimal equivalence include the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB); the NET Bible; and God’s Word.
Paraphrase. Paraphrased versions of Scripture are loose translations that are highly readable and contemporary but lack the accuracy of word-for-word translations and at times add meaning beyond what a thought-for-thought translation would allow. “These translations place primacy on clarity and are willing to skip some of the finer nuances in the text to make sure the reader is getting the main point of each verse,” notes Ray Clendenen, associate editor of The Apologetics Study Bible. Examples of paraphrased translations include The Living Bible (TLB) and The Message.
Today the Bible is translated into more than 2,000 languages, covering more than 90 percent of the world’s people – and 1,000 new translations are in the works, according to Rick Cornish in 5 Minute Apologist. As far as English translations go, there are good reasons for so many of them. “One reason relates to the original language,” writes Cornish. “As more manuscripts are discovered, scholars learn those ancient languages better and correct previous misunderstandings. A second reason is the changing nature of modern languages. What made sense in one generation makes less sense in the next and eventually, no sense or the wrong sense” (5 Minute Apologist, p. 73).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips
Apologetics 101: Part 2 – How do I know the Bible is true?
This is the second in a 10-part series designed to help Christians defend their faith.
Muslims claim The Koran is the perfect revelation of Allah given to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. It corrects corrupted Jewish and Christian scriptures and supersedes all other religious writings.
Members of the Unification Church say Divine Principle is their written authority, coming from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, “the Lord of the Second Advent” who completed the work Jesus left unfinished when Jesus died on the cross rather than marrying and having children.
Mormons profess belief in four standard works: The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and the Bible (“as far as it is translated correctly”). The Book of Mormon is especially important, recording Jesus’ appearance in America to the descendants of a Jewish prophet; it is, in Mormon teaching, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”
Adherents to the Church of Scientology study Dianetics, a book by one-time science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who claimed that people are eternal beings who go through a series of rebirths and must shed the negative baggage from past lives in order to become “operating thetans.”
Then, of course, there’s the Bible, which most Christians agree is the Word of God.
Add to these the sacred writings of countless other belief systems – from Buddhism to Baha’ism – and the claims to truth are astounding in their number and variety.
But which of these books is really true? Is it possible that all of them contain some truth – or that all of them are true for the people who choose to believe them? Is it narrow-minded, arrogant, or even bigoted to say that any of these writings is false? Why do Christians insist that the Bible is the Word of God? Can’t we all just get along?
Most Christians believe in the veracity of Scripture. That is, we trust the Bible to be the inerrant, infallible, and inspired Word of God and the authoritative source of all we believe and practice. By inerrant, we mean the original autographs are without error. By infallible, we mean the Bible is incapable of error because God, as its author, does not lie or make mistakes. By inspired, we mean the Bible is “God breathed.” And by authoritative, we mean that the Bible, as God’s Word, is His written revelation to us and must therefore guide our thoughts, words and deeds.
But many people – including some professing Christians – do not share such a high view of Scripture. They raise serious objections to the church’s claims about the Bible’s truthfulness and reliability. For example, some critics charge:
- “No one really knows what Bible says because we don’t have the original manuscripts.”
- “It’s silly to assume that one book – the Bible – contains all of God’s truth and that other great writings, from the Vedas to The Book of Mormon, do not come from God.”
- “The Bible is full of contradictions.”
Responding to these objections is a daunting task – in part because critics raise some valid points. For example, it’s true that we do not have the “autographs,” or the original documents written by the Bible’s human authors. At the same time, the Bible soars above other ancient documents in many convincing ways, giving us good reasons to trust it as the Word of God. In the paragraphs below we offer seven reasons to trust the Scriptures.
Reason 1: The documents
While the autographs, or original manuscripts, of the Bible have not survived the ravages of time, no other book from the ancient world has more, earlier, or more accurately copied manuscripts than the Bible. For example, we have 25,000 – 30,000 handwritten copies of the New Testament, 5,700 of them in Greek. This is astounding when you consider that the average Greek author has fewer than 20 copies of his works – and no originals – still in existence. Even if there were no copies of these biblical texts, we could reconstruct the entire New Testaments from the writings of the ancient church fathers, who quoted from the New Testament more than one million times. In addition, the existing Bible manuscripts are relatively older than other ancient documents, dating closer to the time of the originals, thus lending credence to their reliability. Finally, while these documents vary somewhat as they have been copied over the years, nearly all of the variants are minor, and none of them challenges a single doctrine of the Christian faith.
Reason 2: The scribes
The 40 men who penned the Scriptures over a period of 1,500 years insisted that their message came from God. Many were persecuted, or even martyred, for their faith. The authors of the Bible claimed to be under the direction of the Holy Spirit (2 Sam. 23:2; 2 Peter 1:20-21). The prophets ascribed their message to God. Phrases such as “Thus saith the Lord,” “God said,” and “the Word of the Lord came to me” are found hundreds of times in the Bible. The apostle Paul declared that “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Peter referred to the writings of Paul as “Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Even non-Christian ancient writings attest to the truthfulness of the eyewitness accounts of Christ. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities, written
in the last third of the first century, corroborates the claims of the New Testament writers that Jesus was more than a man; He was the Messiah, and rose from the dead on the third day (18:63-64, quoted in “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Craig L. Blomberg, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 215).
Reason 3: Fulfilled prophecy
The Old Testament features nearly 300 prophecies of the Messiah, the latest of which dates to more than 200 years before the birth of Jesus, who fulfilled every Messianic prophecy except those pertaining to His glorious return one day. Many of these ancient prophecies are highly detailed, making it impossible – apart from divine intervention – for one man to fulfill them all. Yet Jesus did, confirming His identity as the Messiah (or Christ), and providing exceptional evidence for the reliability of Scripture. Among the Messianic prophecies fulfilled in Jesus are:
- His virgin birth (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:21)
- His birthplace in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:4-7)
- His miracle-working authority (Isa. 35:5-6; Matt. 9:35)
- His rejection by the Jews (Ps. 118:22; 1 Peter 2:7)
- His suffering and death (Ps. 22; Isa. 53; Matt. 27:27ff)
- His resurrection (Ps. 16:10; Mark 16:6; Acts 2:31; 1 Cor. 15:3-8)
- His ascension into heaven (Ps. 68:18; Acts 1:9)
- His place today at the Father’s right hand (Ps. 110:1; Heb. 1:3)
In addition, the Bible gives us many supernatural confirmations of its divine origin. For example, Moses, Elijah and other prophets were given the authority to perform miracles to confirm God’s sovereign power and divine message through them. Jesus, were are told by Luke, was “a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22).
Reason 4: Archaeology
The unearthing of ancient sites has confirmed the accuracy of the biblical record. Noted archaeologist Nelson Glueck states, “As a matter of fact … it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible” (Rivers in the Desert, p. 31, quoted in Systematic Theology, p. 557 ).
Examples of archaeological confirmations include the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11); Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19); the fall of Jericho (Josh. 6); King David (2 Sam.); and the Assyrian Captivity (Isa. 20). In the New Testament book of Acts alone there are hundreds of archaeological confirmations. During decades of research, Sir William Ramsay wrote, “I found myself often brought into contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth” (St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, p. 8, quoted in Systematic Theology, p. 558).
Reason 5: Jesus
Jesus claimed to be the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of God and the Son of Man (Matt. 16:16-18; 26:63-64; John 8:58). He was confirmed by acts of God (John 3:2; Acts 2:22) and declared that He had been given all authority in heaven and earth to rule and to judge (Matt. 28:18; John 5:22). Therefore, His views on the Bible are extremely important. What did Jesus have to say?
Norman Geisler writes, “Jesus declared that the Old Testament was divinely authoritative (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10); imperishable (Matt. 5:17-18); infallible (John 10:35); inerrant (Matt. 22:29; John 17:17); historically reliable (Matt. 12:40; 24:37-38); scientifically accurate (Matt. 19:4-5; John 3:12); and ultimately supreme (Matt. 15:3, 6)” (Systematic Theology, p. 559).
In addition, Jesus promised that the New Testament would be God’s Word. He told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would teach them “all things” and lead them into “all truth” (John 14:26; 16:13). The apostles later claimed this divine authority for their words (John 20:31; 1 John 1:1-4; 4:1-6). Peter acknowledged Paul’s writings as “Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Jesus also personally affirmed many things that Bible critics deny, for example: 1) God created a literal Adam and Eve (Matt. 19:4); Jonah actually was swallowed by a great fish (Matt. 12:40); the whole world was destroyed by a flood in Noah’s day (Matt. 24:36-39); and there was one prophet (not two or three) who wrote all of Isaiah (Mark 7:6-7; Luke 4:17-21).
Reason 6: The Holy Spirit
The same Holy Spirit who authored Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17) lives in believers’ hearts and “testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Rom. 8:16). This means the Holy Spirit confirms the truth of God’s Word to us. Jesus taught that the Holy Spirit would convince the lost of their sin of unbelief, of the righteousness of Christ, and of the judgment they will share with Satan if they persist in their unbelief – all clear teachings of Scripture (John 16:7-11).
Reason 7: The redeemed
The Bible’s life-changing power is widely known through the testimony of those who have come to know Christ. The apostle Paul, once known as a Christ-hating persecutor of the church, declared, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Peter added, “… you have been born again – not of perishable seed but of imperishable – through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
The celebrated British archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, who began his studies as a skeptic, became a Christian after exploring the sites of Paul’s journeys firsthand and comparing them with the testimony of Acts (“The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” Craig L. Blomberg, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 220).
Millions of personal testimonies throughout the ages lend credence to the power of God’s Word to convey truth, convict the spiritually dead of their sins and bring new life through faith in Jesus Christ. As the writer of Hebrews declares: “For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as to divide soul, spirit, joints, and marrow; it is a judge of the ideas and thoughts of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips