Does the Bible Contradict Itself?
A charge often made against the Bible is that it contradicts itself. Usually, people who make this charge have not personally read the Bible; they are merely repeating what they have heard. Some, though, have found what seem to be genuine contradictions and are troubled by them.
1, 2. (Include introduction.) (a) What charge is often made against the Bible? (b) In comparing different Bible passages, what should we remember? (c) What are some reasons why there is sometimes a difference in the way two Bible writers report the same event?
IF IT really is the Word of God, the Bible should be harmonious, not contradictory. Why, then, do some passages seem to contradict others? To answer, we need to remember that, while the Bible is the Word of God, it was written down by a number of men over a period of several centuries. These writers had different backgrounds, writing styles, and gifts, and all these differences are reflected in the writing.
2 Moreover, if two or more writers discuss the same event, one might include details that another omits. Additionally, different writers present the subject matter in different ways. One might write it down chronologically, while another might follow a different arrangement. In this chapter, we will present some alleged contradictions in the Bible and consider how they can be reconciled, taking the above considerations into account.
3, 4. Regarding the army officer whose manservant was sick, what apparent discrepancy exists between Matthew’s account and that of Luke, and how can these accounts be reconciled?
3 Some “contradictions” arise when we have two or more accounts of the same incident. For example, at Matthew 8:5 we read that when Jesus came into Capernaum, “an army officer came to him, entreating him,” asking Jesus to cure his manservant. But at Luke 7:3, we read of this army officer that “he sent forth older men of the Jews to him to ask [Jesus] to come and bring his slave safely through.” Did the army officer speak to Jesus, or did he send the older men?
4 The answer is, clearly, that the man sent the elders of the Jews. Why, then, does Matthew say that the man himself entreated Jesus? Because, in effect, the man asked Jesus through the Jewish elders. The elders served as his mouthpiece.
5. Why does the Bible say that Solomon built the temple, when the actual work was clearly done by others?
5 To illustrate this, at 2 Chronicles 3:1, we read: “Finally Solomon started to build the house of Jehovah in Jerusalem.” Later, we read: “Thus Solomon finished the house of Jehovah.” (2 Chronicles 7:11) Did Solomon personally build the temple from start to finish? Of course not. The actual building work was done by a multitude of craftsmen and laborers. But Solomon was the organizer of the work, the one responsible. Hence, the Bible says that he built the house. In the same way, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the military commander approached Jesus. But Luke gives the added detail that he approached him through the Jewish elders.
6, 7. How can we reconcile the two different Gospel accounts of the request of the sons of Zebedee?
6 Here is a similar example. At Matthew 20:20, 21, we read: “The mother of the sons of Zebedee approached [Jesus] with her sons, doing obeisance and asking for something from him.” What she asked was that her sons should have the most favored position when Jesus came into his Kingdom. In Mark’s account of this same event, we read: “James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, stepped up to [Jesus] and said to him: ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever it is we ask you for.’” (Mark 10:35-37) Was it the two sons of Zebedee, or was it their mother, who made the request of Jesus?
7 Clearly, it was the two sons of Zebedee who made the request, as Mark states. But they made it through their mother. She was their spokesperson. This is supported by Matthew’s report that when the other apostles heard what the mother of the sons of Zebedee had done, they became indignant, not at the mother, but “at the two brothers.”—Matthew 20:24.
8. How is it possible for two different accounts of the same event to differ from each other and yet both be the truth?
8 Have you ever heard two people describe an event that they both witnessed? If so, did you notice that each person emphasized details that impressed him? One may have left out things that the other included. Both, however, were telling the truth. It is the same with the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry, as well as with other historical events reported by more than one Bible writer. Each writer wrote accurate information even when one retained details that another omitted. By considering all the accounts, a fuller understanding of what happened can be gained. Such variations prove that the Bible accounts are independent. And their essential harmony proves that they are true.
Read the Context
9, 10. In what way does the context help us to see where Cain got his wife?
9 Often, apparent inconsistencies can be resolved if we just look at the context. Consider, for example, the often-raised problem about Cain’s wife. At Genesis 4:1, 2 we read: “In time [Eve] gave birth to Cain and said: ‘I have produced a man with the aid of Jehovah.’ Later she again gave birth, to his brother Abel.” As is well known, Cain killed Abel; but after that, we read that Cain had a wife and children. (Genesis 4:17) If Adam and Eve had only two sons, where did Cain find his wife?
10 The solution lies in the fact that Adam and Eve had more than two children. According to the context, they had a large family. At Genesis 5:3 we read that Adam became father to another son named Seth and then, in the following verse, we read: “He became father to sons and daughters.” (Genesis 5:4) So Cain could have married one of his sisters or even one of his nieces. At that early stage of human history, when mankind was so close to perfection, such a marriage evidently did not pose the risks for the children of the union that it would today.
11. What alleged disagreement between James and the apostle Paul do some point to?
11 Our considering the context also helps us to understand what some have claimed is a disagreement between the apostle Paul and James. At Ephesians 2:8, 9, Paul says that Christians are saved by faith, not by works. He says: “You have been saved through faith . . . not owing to works.” James, however, insists on the importance of works. He writes: “As the body without spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26) How can these two statements be reconciled?
12, 13. How do the words of James complement rather than contradict those of the apostle Paul?
12 Considering the context of Paul’s words, we find that one statement complements the other. The apostle Paul is referring to the efforts of the Jews to keep the Mosaic Law. They believed that if they kept the Law in all its details, they would be righteous. Paul pointed out that this was impossible. We can never become righteous—and thus deserve salvation—by our own works, for we are inherently sinful. We can only be saved by faith in Jesus’ ransom sacrifice.—Romans 5:18.
13 James, however, adds the vital point that faith in itself is valueless if not supported by actions. A person who claims to have faith in Jesus should prove it by what he does. An inactive faith is a dead faith and will not lead to salvation.
14. In what passages does Paul show that he is in full harmony with the principle that a living faith must be demonstrated by works?
14 The apostle Paul was in full agreement with this, and he often mentions the kinds of works that Christians should engage in to demonstrate their faith. For example, to the Romans he wrote: “With the heart one exercises faith for righteousness, but with the mouth one makes public declaration for salvation.” Making a “public declaration”—sharing our faith with others—is vital for salvation. (Romans 10:10; see also 1 Corinthians 15:58; Ephesians 5:15, 21-33; 6:15; 1 Timothy 4:16; 2 Timothy 4:5; Hebrews 10:23-25.) No work, however, that a Christian can do, and certainly no effort to fulfill the Law of Moses, will earn him the right to everlasting life. This is “the gift God gives” to those who exercise faith.—Romans 6:23; John 3:16.
15, 16. How could both Moses and Joshua be correct when one said that east of the Jordan was “this side” of the river while the other said it was “the other side”?
15 Sometimes the Bible writers wrote about the same event from different viewpoints, or they presented their accounts in different ways. When these differences are taken into consideration, further apparent contradictions are easy to resolve. An example of this is in Numbers 35:14, where Moses speaks of the territory east of the Jordan as “on this side of the Jordan.” Joshua, however, speaking of land to the east of the Jordan, called it “the other side of the Jordan.” (Joshua 22:4) Which is correct?
16 In fact, both are correct. According to the account in Numbers, the Israelites had not yet crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, so to them east of the Jordan was “this side.” But Joshua had already crossed the Jordan. He was now, physically, west of the river, in the land of Canaan. So east of the Jordan was, for him, “the other side.”
17. (a) What alleged inconsistency do some point to in the first two chapters of Genesis? (b) What is the basic reason for the supposed discrepancy?
17 Additionally, the way a narrative is constructed can lead to an apparent contradiction. At Genesis 1:24-26, the Bible indicates that the animals were created before man. But at Genesis 2:7, 19, 20, it seems to say that man was created before the animals. Why the discrepancy? Because the two accounts of the creation discuss it from two different viewpoints. The first describes the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them. (Genesis 1:1–2:4) The second concentrates on the creation of the human race and its fall into sin.—Genesis 2:5–4:26.
18. How can we reconcile the apparent discrepancies between the two creation accounts in the early chapters of Genesis?
18 The first account is constructed chronologically, divided into six consecutive “days.” The second is written in order of topical importance. After a short prologue, it logically goes straight to the creation of Adam, since he and his family are the subject of what follows. (Genesis 2:7) Other information is then introduced as needed. We learn that after his creation Adam was to live in a garden in Eden. So the planting of the garden of Eden is now mentioned. (Genesis 2:8, 9, 15) Jehovah tells Adam to name “every wild beast of the field and every flying creature of the heavens.” Now, then, is the time to mention that “Jehovah God was forming from the ground” all these creatures, although their creation began long before Adam appeared on the scene.—Genesis 2:19; 1:20, 24, 26.
Read the Account Carefully
19. What apparent confusion exists in the Bible’s account of the conquest of Jerusalem?
19 Sometimes, all that is needed to resolve apparent contradictions is to read the account carefully and reason on the information provided. This is the case when we consider the conquest of Jerusalem by the Israelites. Jerusalem was listed as part of the inheritance of Benjamin, but we read that Benjamin’s tribe was unable to conquer it. (Joshua 18:28; Judges 1:21) We also read that Judah was unable to conquer Jerusalem—as if it were part of that tribe’s inheritance. Eventually, Judah defeated Jerusalem, burning it with fire. (Joshua 15:63; Judges 1:8) Hundreds of years later, however, David is also recorded as conquering Jerusalem.—2 Samuel 5:5-9.
20, 21. By examining carefully all the relevant details, what emerges as the history of the Hebrew takeover of the city of Jerusalem?
20 At first glance, all of this might appear confusing, but there are in reality no contradictions. In fact, the boundary between Benjamin’s inheritance and Judah’s ran along the Valley of Hinnom, right through the ancient city of Jerusalem. What later came to be called the City of David actually lay in the territory of Benjamin, just as Joshua 18:28 says. But it is likely that the Jebusite city of Jerusalem spilled across the Valley of Hinnom and thus overlapped into Judah’s territory, so that Judah, too, had to war against its Canaanite inhabitants.
21 Benjamin was unable to conquer the city. On one occasion, Judah did conquer Jerusalem and burn it. (Judges 1:8, 9) But Judah’s forces evidently moved on, and some of the original inhabitants regained possession of the city. Later, they formed a pocket of resistance that neither Judah nor Benjamin could remove. Thus, the Jebusites continued in Jerusalem until David conquered the city hundreds of years later.
22, 23. Who carried Jesus’ torture stake to the place of execution?
22 We meet up with a second example in the Gospels. Concerning Jesus’ being led out to his death, in John’s Gospel we read: “Bearing the torture stake for himself, he went out.” (John 19:17) However, in Luke we read: “Now as they led him away, they laid hold of Simon, a certain native of Cyrene, coming from the country, and they placed the torture stake upon him to bear it behind Jesus.” (Luke 23:26) Did Jesus carry the implement of his death, or did Simon carry it for him?
23 To begin with, Jesus evidently carried his own torture stake, as John points out. But later, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke testify, Simon of Cyrene was impressed into service to carry it for him the rest of the way to the place of execution.
Proof of Independence
24. Why are we not surprised to find some apparent inconsistencies in the Bible, but what should we not conclude from this?
24 True, there are some apparent inconsistencies in the Bible that are difficult to reconcile. But we should not assume that they are definite contradictions. Often it is merely a case of lack of complete information. The Bible provides enough knowledge to fill our spiritual need. But if it were to give us every detail about every event mentioned, it would be a huge, unwieldy library, rather than the handy, easy-to-carry volume that we have today.
25. What does John say about the record of Jesus’ ministry, and how does this help us to understand why the Bible does not give us every detail about every event?
25 Speaking of Jesus’ ministry, the apostle John wrote with justifiable exaggeration: “There are, in fact, many other things also which Jesus did, which, if ever they were written in full detail, I suppose, the world itself could not contain the scrolls written.” (John 21:25) It would be even more of an impossibility to record all the details of the long history of God’s people from the patriarchs to the first-century Christian congregation!
26. The Bible contains enough information for us to be sure of what vital fact?
26 Actually, the Bible is a miracle of condensation. It contains enough information to enable us to recognize it as more than merely a human work. Any variations it contains prove that the writers were truly independent witnesses. On the other hand, the outstanding unity of the Bible—which we will discuss in more detail in a future chapter—demonstrates without any doubt its divine origin. It is the word of God, not of man.
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Apparent discrepancies in the Bible prove that the writers were truly independent witnesses
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Consideration of the context often helps to solve alleged contradictions
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“Discrepancies” Do Not Have to Be Contradictions
Kenneth S. Kantzer, a theologian, once illustrated how two reports of the same event can seem contradictory and yet both be true. He wrote: “Some time ago the mother of a dear friend of ours was killed. We first learned of her death through a trusted mutual friend who reported that our friend’s mother had been standing on the street corner waiting for a bus, had been hit by another bus passing by, was fatally injured, and died a few minutes later.”
Soon after, he heard a very different report. He says: “We learned from the grandson of the dead woman that she had been involved in a collision, was thrown from the car in which she was riding, and was killed instantly. The boy was quite certain of his facts.
“Much later . . . we probed for a harmonization. We learned that the grandmother had been waiting for a bus, was hit by another bus, and was critically injured. She had been picked up by a passing car and dashed to the hospital, but in the haste, the car in which she was being transported to the hospital collided with another car. She was thrown from the car and died instantly.”
Yes, two accounts of the same event may both be true even though they seem to disagree with each other. This is sometimes the case with the Bible. Independent witnesses may describe different details about the same event. Instead of being contradictory, however, what they write is complementary, and if we take all accounts into consideration, we get a better understanding of what happened.