Contradictions — and too many translations: Can we really trust the Bible?
Can we really trust the Bible? After all, critics say it’s full of contradictions. Plus, there’s an alphabet soup of translations — from the KJV to the NIV, and the NASB to the HCSB.
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.
How do I know the Bible is true? (Part 5)
This is the fifth in an eight-part series addressing skeptics’ claims against the Bible. Click on the “Bible” link under Topics to read parts 1-4.
Objection 5: The Bible is full of contradictions.
When someone raises this objection, a reasonable first response is, “Show me one.” Often, the person objecting 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 does not make mistakes, how do we reconcile these Bible difficulties?
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, based on the law of non-contradiction, two statements may differ without being contradictory. For example, in Matthew, we read that Jesus met two blind men. In Mark and Luke, we only read about one blind man meeting Jesus. Are these contradictory statements? Not according to the law of non-contradiction and the rules of evidence. If Jesus met two men, He certainly met one. (By the way, alleged contradictions such as this 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.)
Second, 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 heard a voice but saw no one. Acts 22:9 (KJV) says they did 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:
- Time. Some seemingly contradictory statements are separated by years – even hundreds of years – and must be seen in their proper time frame. 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 seeming contradictions occurred often reveals subtle differences that aid understanding.
- Sense. Words and phrases can be used literally or figuratively. For example, Matt. 11:14 identifies John the Baptist as Elijah, yet in John 1:21 John denies being Elijah. Contradiction? No. In Matthew, Elijah is described as the spiritual antitype of the great prophet (see 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.
- Understanding. Some critics assume that passages they can’t explain cannot be explained by anyone. But hard sayings do not 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: “The Bible enjoys a much better track record than the critics. They’ve been proven wrong man times; Scripture, not once. Even though criticized for centuries, it has stood the test of time. But 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).
Next — Objection 6: The Bible can’t be true because it depicts a different God in the Old and New Testaments.
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips