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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Bible Contradictions - Three Common Errors in Assuming Contradictions

We're currently discussing how to deal with claims that the BIble contains contradictions.  You can read the forst two posts in this series here and here. As, I've already noted, those who claim the Bible contains contradictions must prove the statements in question are actually contradictory and not meant in different ways.  Usually, though, most "contradictions" are nothing of the sort. Biblical passages generally hold different types of meaning, determined by their context.  Many times, a person is claiming that the Bible has a contradiction usually has some hidden assumptions that are influencing his or her understanding of the passage. In fact, most supposed contradictions are really errors on the part of people who are not treating the Biblical text fairly. In my study of the different errors that people make in treating the Biblical text, I've found that these errors tend to fall into one of three main groups: Expecting Robot Reporting, Snubbing Style to Force Meaning, or My Way is the Only Way.

Don't Expect "Robot" Reporting

The biggest mistake I see when people mishandle the Biblical text is to expect that the Biblical writers were trying to capture every detail of the scene that they describe. Many people assume the Bible offers some kind of strict, court transcript style reporting of whoever is speaking.  But that was never the intent of the authors.  This first group of mistakes-expecting Robot Reporting, that is to expect the Bible to be completely precise in its descriptions of events. But as we'll see, the Bible can be completely accurate without having to record all details of everything it mentions.

Accounts are history, but not transcripts

All ancient historians understood that they wanted to accurately portray their subject matter.  But they would never try to write down a blow-by-blow description of all aspects of the events they record.  They couldn't. Writing in the ancient world was a much bigger deal than it is today.  For one thing, writing was a skill that not everyone had.  We know Jeremiah and Paul had to use secretaries to help them at times.  Paper also was a prized commodity, and unlike books today, scrolls could only hold so much.  A writer would need to be careful to include only the important facts in his account of an event in order to achieve his point.  Other items may be ignored.  A good example of this is the variation in the number of women at the tomb in our example below.
Example: How Many at the Tomb?
  • One woman: John 20:1
    "Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb."
  • Two women: Matt. 28:1
    "Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave."
  • Three women: Mark 16:1
    "When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him."
  • Five or more: Luke 24:10
    "Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles."
To easily clarify what the gospel writers are doing, let's look at a parallel that happens many times today. Suppose I received a phone call from my co-worker Fred Jones who says, "Hey, we're going to take our kids to see the new blockbuster at the theater, would you like to come?" "Sure!  I'll gather the family and we'll meet you there."

The next day, I talk to three people about my evening.  A mutual fried asks "what did you do last night?"  "Oh, we went to the movies with the Joneses."  Then, my mom calls me and asks why I wasn't at home.  I reply "I took the family to see a movie." A co-worker then asks if I have seen the new blockbuster.  "Yes," I replied "Fred and I both saw it."

Now, have I contradicted myself in any of these accounts?  No.  I've merely reported the relevant details applicable to the audience.  Leaving out some people is not a contradiction.  Remember, we said a contradiction has to be two mutually exclusive concepts.  If I were to say "I saw the movie with Fred and I saw the movie without Fred" it would be a contradiction.  And even then, it's only a contradiction if I'm talking about the same showing of the movie and that we were both present and not present at the same time. This kind of objection is also used to say the number of angels at the tomb is in error, but there's no contradiction here, just more or less information being presented.

Tomorrow, I will discuss some more ways the error of Robot Reporting comes into play. I hope you'll come back for the whole series.


  1. RE: "Example: How Many at the Tomb?"

    It seems like you pick a weak example. Why not pick one of the strongest examples of a contradiction?

  2. Maybe you should provide one from a real critic, and mention who they are. Bart Erhman would be a good source, who wrote extensively on it.

  3. Like this supposed contradiction quoted in the article?

    "But if Matthew and John were both written by earthly disciples of Jesus, why are they so very different, on all sorts of levels? Why do they contain so many contradictions? Why do they have such fundamentally different views of who Jesus was? In Matthew, Jesus comes into being when he is conceived, or born, of a virgin; in John, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God who was with God in the beginning and through whom the universe was made."

    Is that a REAL contradiction? Is it possible that the virgin birth and the eternal God the son can both be true? Of course, and the creeds of Christendom have affirmed both for nearly 1700 years. Ehrman himself knows that these statements are neither contradictory nor do the text necessitate their exegesis to be in conflict at all. Ehrman uses these for shock value.

  4. "Ehrman himself knows that these statements are neither contradictory nor do the text necessitate their exegesis to be in conflict at all. Ehrman uses these for shock value."

    Like Bart Erhman has said, you can create a gospel story by combining all 4 from the Bible; but please be aware that in doing so, you are essentially creating a 5th version.

  5. Bernie, You need to re-read what a contradiction is. This is not a contradiction. If Ehrman (or you) are asserting a contradiction, then you must back up your assertion. If your claiming that you think the accounts cannot be harmonized, that's a different claim. But I don't see a contradiction here.


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