Christians are sometimes asked if we believe the Bible is literally true.
After all, whether eating Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood is a plunge into cannibalism, or a figurative expression of full devotion, depends on how we understand the language of Scripture.
In one sense, we might say the Bible is divinely inspired literature through which God speaks to human beings in our own language. This naturally includes a range of literary devices, from narrative to hyperbole.
So, what does it mean to take the Bible “literally”?
It means applying a natural reading as the author or speaker intended, with a goal of grasping the writer’s message. This requires context and may include approximations, analogies, metaphors, quotations, parables, apocalyptic language, etc.
In contrast, taking the Bible “literalistically” means adhering to a rigid understanding of the primary meaning of words, without allowing for figurative language or a possible range of meanings.
An example may help clarify this. In John 10:9, Jesus states, “I am the door.” A literalistic rendering of this passage means that Jesus is calling himself an actual wooden piece of hardware, which either is absurd, or communicates a failed grasp of reality for the One who claims to be our only hope of everlasting life.
A literal understanding of this verse, however, considers the figurative language of Jesus’ words and the context in which He speaks. In other words, Jesus is the one true hope of everlasting life.
This eight-part series addresses common objections to the Bible as the Word of God.
Objection 5: 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 are different.
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 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
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, Matt. 11:14 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).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips