Does the Bible Contradict Itself?
AUTHOR Henry Van Dyke once wrote: “Born in the East and clothed in Oriental form and imagery, the Bible walks the ways of all the world with familiar feet and enters land after land to find its own everywhere. It has learned to speak in hundreds of languages to the heart of man. Children listen to its stories with wonder and delight, and wise men ponder them as parables of life. The wicked and the proud tremble at its warnings, but to the wounded and penitent it has a mother’s voice. . . . No man is poor or desolate who has this treasure for his own.”
The Bible has indeed “learned to speak in hundreds of languages.” At least one of its 66 books has been translated into 1,982 tongues. Millions view the Bible as a gift from God and read it with pleasure and benefit. However, others say that it contains contradictions and is therefore unreliable. What does careful research reveal?
As indicated by our cover picture, God used faithful men to write the Bible. Indeed, careful analysis of the Bible reveals that it was written by some 40 men over a period of 16 centuries. Were they professional writers? No. Among them one can find shepherd, fisherman, tax collector, physician, tentmaker, priest, prophet, and king. Their writings often mention people and customs unfamiliar to us in the 20th century. In fact, the Bible writers themselves did not always comprehend the significance of what they wrote. (Daniel 12:8-10) So we should not be surprised if we encounter certain difficulties when reading the Bible.
Can such difficulties be resolved? Does the Bible contradict itself? To find out, let us consider some examples.
Are These Real Difficulties?
▪ Where did Cain get his wife? (Genesis 4:17)
One might think that after the murder of Abel, only his guilty brother Cain and their parents, Adam and Eve, were left on the earth. However, Adam and Eve had a large family. According to Genesis 5:3, 4, Adam had a son named Seth. The account adds: “The days of Adam after his fathering Seth came to be eight hundred years. Meanwhile he became father to sons and daughters.” So Cain married his sister or perhaps one of his nieces. Since mankind was then so close to human perfection, such a marriage evidently did not pose the health risks that may imperil the offspring of such a union today.
▪ Who sold Joseph into Egypt?
Genesis 37:27 says that Joseph’s brothers decided to sell him to some Ishmaelites. But the next verse states: “Now men, Midianite merchants, went passing by. Hence they [Joseph’s brothers] drew and lifted up Joseph out of the waterpit and then sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver pieces. Eventually these brought Joseph into Egypt.” Was Joseph sold to Ishmaelites or to Midianites? Well, the Midianites may also have been called Ishmaelites, to whom they were related through their forefather Abraham. Or Midianite merchants may have been traveling with an Ishmaelite caravan. At any rate, Joseph’s brothers did the selling, and later he could tell them: “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.”—Genesis 45:4.
▪ How many Israelites died for having immoral relations with Moabite women and for engaging in the worship of the Baal of Peor?
Numbers 25:9 states: “Those who died from the scourge [from God for their wicked conduct] amounted to twenty-four thousand.” However, the apostle Paul said: “Neither let us practice fornication, as some of them [Israelites in the wilderness] committed fornication, only to fall, twenty-three thousand of them in one day.” (1 Corinthians 10:8) Perhaps the number slain was between 23,000 and 24,000, so that either figure would be satisfactory. Yet, the book of Numbers especially indicates that “all the head ones of the people” involved in this sin were killed by judges. (Numbers 25:4, 5) There may have been 1,000 of these guilty “head ones,” making a total of 24,000 when added to the 23,000 mentioned by Paul. Whereas apparently 23,000 were direct victims of the scourge from God, all 24,000 experienced Jehovah’s scourge because every one of them died under his decree of adverse judgment.—Deuteronomy 4:3.
▪ Since Agag was a contemporary of Israelite king Saul, was not Balaam’s much earlier reference to an Amalekite ruler of that name a discrepancy?
In about 1473 B.C.E., Balaam foretold that a king of Israel would be “higher than Agag.” (Numbers 24:7) No subsequent reference was made to Agag until the reign of King Saul (1117-1078 B.C.E.). (1 Samuel 15:8) This was not a discrepancy, however, for “Agag” may have been a royal title similar to that of Pharaoh in Egypt. It is also possible that Agag was a personal name repeatedly used by Amalekite rulers.
▪ Who caused David to take a count of the Israelites?
Second Samuel 24:1 states: “Again the anger of Jehovah came to be hot against Israel, when one incited David [or, “when David was incited,” footnote] against them, saying: ‘Go, take a count of Israel and Judah.’” But it was not Jehovah who moved King David to sin, for 1 Chronicles 21:1 says: “Satan [or, “a resister,” footnote] proceeded to stand up against Israel and to incite David to number Israel.” God was displeased with the Israelites and therefore allowed Satan the Devil to bring this sin upon them. For this reason, 2 Samuel 24:1 reads as though God did it himself. Interestingly, Joseph B. Rotherham’s translation reads: “The anger of Yahweh kindled against Israel, so that he suffered David to be moved against them saying, Go count Israel and Judah.”
▪ How can one harmonize the different figures given for Israelites and Judeans in David’s count?
At 2 Samuel 24:9 the figures are 800,000 Israelites and 500,000 Judeans, whereas 1 Chronicles 21:5 numbers Israel’s fighting men at 1,100,000 and Judah’s at 470,000. Enlisted regularly in the royal service were 288,000 troops, divided into 12 groups of 24,000, each group serving one month during the year. There were an additional 12,000 attendant on the 12 princes of the tribes, making a total of 300,000. Apparently the 1,100,000 of 1 Chronicles 21:5 includes this 300,000 already enlisted, whereas 2 Samuel 24:9 does not. (Numbers 1:16; Deuteronomy 1:15; 1 Chronicles 27:1-22) As regards Judah, 2 Samuel 24:9 apparently included 30,000 men in an army of observation stationed on the Philistine frontiers but which were not included in the figure at 1 Chronicles 21:5. (2 Samuel 6:1) If we remember that 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles were written by two men with different views and objectives, we can easily harmonize the figures.
▪ Who was the father of Shealtiel?
Certain texts indicate that Jeconiah (King Jehoiachin) was the fleshly father of Shealtiel. (1 Chronicles 3:16-18; Matthew 1:12) But the Gospel writer Luke called Shealtiel the “son of Neri.” (Luke 3:27) Neri apparently gave his daughter to Shealtiel as a wife. Since the Hebrews commonly referred to a son-in-law as a son, especially in genealogical listings, Luke could properly call Shealtiel the son of Neri. Similarly, Luke referred to Joseph as the son of Heli, who was actually the father of Joseph’s wife, Mary.—Luke 3:23.
Harmonizing Texts Involving Jesus
▪ From how many men did Jesus Christ expel the demons who took possession of a large herd of swine?
The Gospel writer Matthew mentions two men, but Mark and Luke refer to just one. (Matthew 8:28; Mark 5:2; Luke 8:27) Evidently, Mark and Luke drew attention to only one demon-possessed man because Jesus spoke to him and his case was more outstanding. Possibly, that man was more violent or had suffered under demon control for a longer time. Afterward, perhaps that one man alone wanted to accompany Jesus. (Mark 5:18-20) In a somewhat parallel situation, Matthew spoke of two blind men healed by Jesus, whereas Mark and Luke mentioned only one. (Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 10:46; Luke 18:35) This was not contradictory, for there was at least one such man.
▪ What color was the garment Jesus wore on the day of his death?
According to Mark (15:17) and John (19:2), the soldiers put a purple garment on Jesus. But Matthew (27:28) called it “a scarlet cloak,” emphasizing its redness. Since purple is any color having components of both red and blue, Mark and John agree that the cloak had a red hue. Light reflection and background could have given different casts to the garment, and the Gospel writers mentioned the color that was strongest to them or to those from whom they got their information. The minor variation shows the individuality of the writers and proves that there was no collusion.
▪ Who carried Jesus’ torture stake?
John (19:17) said: “Bearing the torture stake for himself, [Jesus] went out to the so-called Skull Place, which is called Golʹgo·tha in Hebrew.” But Matthew (27:32), Mark (15:21), and Luke (23:26) say that ‘as they were going out, Simon of Cyrene was impressed into service to bear the torture stake.’ Jesus bore his torture stake, as John stated. In his condensed account, however, John did not add the point that Simon was later impressed into service to carry the stake. Hence, the Gospel accounts harmonize in this regard.
▪ How did Judas Iscariot die?
Matthew 27:5 states that Judas hanged himself, whereas Acts 1:18 says that “pitching head foremost he noisily burst in his midst and all his intestines were poured out.” While Matthew seems to deal with the mode of the attempted suicide, Acts describes the results. Judas apparently tied a rope to the branch of a tree, put a noose around his neck, and tried to hang himself by jumping off a cliff. It seems that either the rope or the tree limb broke so that he plunged downward and burst open on the rocks below. The topography around Jerusalem makes such a conclusion reasonable.
How Will You View Matters?
If we encounter seeming discrepancies in the Bible, it is good to realize that people often say things that appear contradictory but are easily explained or understood. For instance, a businessman may correspond with someone by dictating a letter to his secretary. If questioned, he would say that he sent the letter. But since his secretary typed and mailed the letter, she could say that she sent it. Similarly, it was not contradictory for Matthew (8:5) to say that an army officer came to ask Jesus a favor, whereas Luke (7:2, 3) said that the man sent representatives.
The foregoing examples show that Bible difficulties can be resolved. Hence, there is good reason to have a positive attitude toward the Scriptures. Such a spirit was recommended in these words appearing in a family Bible published in the year 1876:
“The proper spirit in which to deal with those difficulties is, to remove them as far as practicable, and to cleave and submit to the truth, even when every cloud cannot be cleared away from it. We should imitate the example of the apostles, who, when some of the disciples were offended by what they called a ‘hard saying,’ so as to forsake Christ, silenced every objection with this: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life, and we are sure that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ . . . When we see a truth seemingly in conflict with another truth, let us try to reconcile them, and show them thus reconciled to all.”—John 6:60-69.
Will you take such a position? After examining just a few examples demonstrating the harmony of the Scriptures, it is hoped that you agree with the psalmist who said to God: “The substance of your word is truth.” (Psalm 119:160) Jehovah’s Witnesses take that view of the entire Bible and will gladly give reasons for their faith in it. Why not discuss this peerless book with them? Its heartening message may well fill you with true hope and happiness.
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Have you asked Jehovah’s Witnesses why they have faith in the Bible?