Are There Contradictions in the Bible?

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
—Matthew 5:14-16, NIV

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what you do in secret, will reward you.
—Matthew 6:5-6

(Please note in passing that the normal posture for prayer in the first century, as evidenced in this verse, is standing, facing heaven, with the eyes open and the hands uplifted at each side. Jews and Orthodox Christians still pray this way to this day. The practice of sitting or kneeling, facing downwards with eyes pinched shut and hands folded—as is the practice among Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans—is a western custom. I don’t think there is any significance in the posture for prayer, except that it makes the New Testament more understandable when we know this. I note that the Jewish-Orthodox posture is more conducive to the idea that prayer is addressed to an external transcendent being and not to some “power within.” )

Okay, what gives here? Are we supposed to keep our religion a secret, or are we supposed to spread the word?

Now this is where I would like to make a distinction between a discrepancy and a contradiction. The difference is this:

A discrepancy consists of two assertions which appear to be at odds, but which can be resolved either with further information or by correcting a faulty interpretation. For example, if I tell you that my father’s sister is an only child, there is a discrepancy between my assertion that my father has a sister and my assertion that she is an only child. I can clear up this discrepancy by telling you that my grandfather remarried after my father was an adult, and had a daughter by the second marriage. She is my father’s sister but she spent her childhood as the only child of her parents.

An example of a discrepancy in the King James Version can be found in Acts. It says in Acts 9:7 that Paul’s companions did not hear the voice from heaven, but in Acts 22:9, Paul says that his companions did hear the voice! The discrepancy is cleared up when we learn a little of Greek grammar: the verb “to hear” is the same in both verses, but the object of the verb is in the genitive case in Acts 9:7 and in the accusative case in Acts 22:9, and the difference is reflected in modern translations. Acts 22:9 says that they heard the voice, but Acts 9:7 says that they didn’t understand it.

The same thing can happen with the English verb “listen,” which can mean to hear or to obey. So a child can hear his mother talk without “listening to” (that is, “obeying” ) his mother!

There are many discrepancies in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, which many people have resolved by supposing (in accordance with John 21:25) that the gospels supply us with everything we need to understand the events, but not to reconstruct them. It is possible to resolve the discrepancies, but there is more than one possible resolution.

A contradiction, on the other hand, consists of two assertions which cannot possibly be reconciled. For example, there is an ancient legend that Jesus spent His childhood in Britain. There is also an ancient legend that Jesus spent His childhood in India. These are outright contradictions that cannot be resolved, no matter how much additional information is gathered. (However, the legends can be explained: Christian missionaries reached both Britain and India by the second century; the legends could have resulted from people who listened to early sermons and misunderstood Jesus as a local boy.)

It is my contention that the Bible contains discrepancies, but no contradictions.

So what about the two passages today? Is religion a public or a private affair?

I note that in Matthew 5, Jesus is talking about good deeds; whereas in Matthew 6 He is talking about devotional acts. We are to let our good deeds shine before the general public, but we are not to make a public display before nonbelievers of our devotional acts.

Here’s an example of letting your light shine: the Church of South India is an indigenous Christian body that represents the overwhelming majority of Christians in that country, which however make up a tiny percentage of the total population. Yet it enjoys quite a lot of attention and is very highly esteemed, quite out of proportion to its size. Why? Because it has a program of digging wells in villages with poor water supplies. There is no charge for this service; the villages receive their wells without cost. In a nation where charity is perceived as counterproductive to building good karma, it is startling to see such a thing! The Church of South India has let its light shine before men, their good deeds are praised, and the Christian church is widely praised. I have a Hindu coworker who told me about this well-digging program with awe in this voice. He is not a Christian, but as a result of this well-digging operation, he holds Christians in high esteem.

In the same way, if people know that because you are a Christian, you can be trusted with confidences and will keep your promises, that you will stick up for the underdog and will not participate in back-stabbing, people will practically line up at your door, seeking your help and advice. You will many opportunities to advance the cause of Christ without needing any tracts or pamphlets at all.

On the other hand, if you want an example of the destructive effects of making devotional acts public, you only have to turn on cable television. Even the people who are sincere as they pray on camera bring ridicule to themselves and to the cause of our Lord, just as you would if you insisted on blessing your food loudly every lunch time in the company cafeteria. You could be the most genuine Christian in all the world, but your conspicuous religiosity would bring you ridicule and harm the cause of Christ. There is nothing wrong with religiosity, as long as it is not our public face.

So let us make our spirituality manifest to nonbelievers, but let’s keep our religiosity among ourselves.

The emotional side of it

Once a very long time ago, when I had the honor of doing such things, I gave a Bible lecture in which I wanted to begin by examining the passage in question in detail to discern the writer’s purpose and message. To do that, I said, I would set aside—for the moment—any critical views of the text and work with the assumption that the text we have is completely without error. Then, only if we ran into difficulties, we would consider what the critics have to say. In essence, I said to my mixed audience of believers and unbelievers, we will assume that the text is the infallible Word of God unless it is proven otherwise. That way, if we hit on a passage that is hard, we won’t take the easy way out and miss the truth. For attendees who were not believers, I asked them to concede me this only as a working hypothesis and to play along to see what would happen.

Everyone, believer and skeptic alike, was satisfied with the fairness and appropriateness of this procedure, especially when it turned out several hours later that we never did have to consider any other possibility than the infallibility of the text. But one man took grave exception to what I said. He demanded that I concede that the Bible contains contradictions.

I reiterated that I was only setting forth a working hypothesis for our present purpose, to guard against taking an easy way out of a difficult passage and that I did not require anyone in attendance to believe any particular doctrine about inspiration. I was testing the text, to see if it could be inspired and in what way, and I did not want to jump ahead to the conclusion of the matter. It was, for the purpose of the lecture, just a working hypothesis. If he doesn’t believe in the inspiration of the Bible, that’s fine with me, just go along with my working hypothesis and see if I run myself into the gutter or not.

Everyone chuckled when I said that, some because they believed the Bible would be vindicated, others because they believed I would end up in trouble, but my heckler wasn’t satisfied. So he contended again that there were contradictions in the Bible and that it couldn’t be inspired because that is the case.

I told him he was trying to get me to come to a conclusion before I conducted the investigation, which was an unsound method, but to go beyond the scope of the discussion and to get into my personal convictions (which I believe my heckler was really after, and he nodded confirmation), my personal opinion was that the Bible does contain discrepancies, but not contradictions. A discrepancy is when we cannot get truthful accounts to mesh completely because we do not have all the data. (Anyone who tries to compose a harmony of the gospels runs into this problem.) But I do not believe that the Bible ever says one thing in one place and the exact opposite in the other. So it is my conviction that there are no contradictions. I then gave a few examples where apparent contradictions can be handily resolved.

My heckler simply got up and left the room. It couldn’t have stung me more if he had hit me with a whip!

Otherwise the lecture was a huge success. It was scheduled for two hours, but my audience kept me for four. But not even the overwhelming success of my lecture took away the sting of the heckler who left the room.

The point of all this is that when you are discussing any topic, especially religion, there is always the possibility that no matter how reasonable you are, no matter how much you bend over backwards to accommodate everyone, no matter how fair and objective you are, there are people who simply choose to disagree with you; not for any rational reason, they just don’t want to agree. You can have the most loving heart, the most compassionate soul, the most persuasive presentation, the most compelling logic, the best scriptural proofs, the most thorough historical corroboration, the most recent archaeological relics to prove what you are saying, and every word you say can be motivated by the purest influence of God’s own Holy Spirit, and people will just get up and leave.

God gave us the freedom to choose. At times there is no force in the universe that can separate a fool from his unwise choice.

Occasionally in every household there is a jar whose lid will not come unscrewed. The jar is passed from person to person, each grunting and groaning with effort. Each tries his own remedy: hold the lid under hot water. Bang the jar upside down on the counter. Grip the lid with a dishtowel. Someone even gets out the pliers in desperation! Then the little one gives it a delicate twist and it opens with a pop!

Sometimes souls are like pickle jars. They won’t open for you, but they might open for someone else. Don’t be so arrogant to suppose that you are the only one that God can assign to this case! Pass the jar onto the next guy and let him have a try at removing the lid. Sometimes it appears that there are no more next guys, but you should walk by faith and not by sight. You might have to let the matter rest, but you should have enough faith in Jesus to know that He will pursue the matter, unseen by you, until its final conclusion.

I never saw that heckler again in my life.

Love the immovable soul and have compassion for it. Have faith enough to let the field lie fallow. Pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send a worker to bring it to fruition at some later, more appropriate time.

You Might Also Like:

The Art and Agony of Translation

1 John 5:7-8 reads differently in the King James Version than in other translations because Erasmus lost a bet. If you compare this verse in the King James Version, you will find a Trinitarian formula (“the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one” ) that does not appear in mos...
Read More

Translations of the Bible Into English

You decide to buy yourself or someone else a Bible, so you run down to the nearest bookstore—but they have so many different translations, you don’t know where to begin. Here is something that might help: a list of modern translations that you are likely to find in a bookstore, with a description of...
Read More

About Those ‘Literal’ Translations

Every so often, someone writes to ask me about some obscure Bible translation, and invariably they add, ‘it is supposed to be a literal translation.’ For me, this is a red flag. Let me explain. New Testament Greek is quite a different language from English, and a strictly literal translation is impo...
Read More

The Nicene Creed and the New Testament Canon

The New Testament and the Nicene Creed are deeply entangled with each other. The wording and the concepts in the Nicene Creed come from the New Testament—in fact, one of the most important debates at the Council of Nicea concerned whether it is proper to include a word in the Nicene Creed that does ...
Read More

The Torah in Modern Scholarship

The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah by Jews and the Pentateuch by scholars. The word ‘Torah’ is Hebrew for ‘teaching’ or ‘law,’ and the word ‘Pentateuch’ is Greek for ‘five books.’ Sometimes scholars include the book of Joshua and term the collection the ‘Hexateuch,’ which means ‘...
Read More

The Apocrypha and the Old Testament

Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.—Proverbs 30:5-6, NIV The canon of scripture—that is, the official list of what’s in the Bible—is not revealed to us by any saying of Jesus, nor does scr...
Read More

New Testament Scholarship

The Insufficiency of Literary Analysis Unaccompanied by Other Tools New Testament critics generally assume that our gospels are the product of a scribe having two or more editions before him, which he takes together to produce a new version that contains material from the old sources. They say this,...
Read More

The Synoptics and John

If you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke in a row, you get a “haven’t I read this before” feeling, because they are so similar to each other. In many places, they even have identical wording! For this reason, Bible scholars lump them together with the term “synoptic gospels.” The word “synoptic” means “t...
Read More

Leviticus For Christians

A few interesting laws from Leviticus, which at first glance don’t seem to concern us today: Forbidden leftovers When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the LORD, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day;...
Read More

Slavery and Sonship

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”—John 8:34-36, NIV Notice that Jesus has the slave living in the house, albeit temporari...
Read More

The Rescue of Lot

The story of the destruction of Sodom and its sister city of Gomorrah is of compelling interest today because of the current debate in the churches over homosexuality. In the course of this debate, these two chapters of Genesis have been degraded from a story of God’s justice and providence to a dia...
Read More

Evolution and Creationism

Why does water boil? Fred and Ethel have different explanations. Fred says that heat causes the vapor pressure within the water to rise to the same level as the atmospheric pressure on its surface. That causes bubbles to form, which rise and break the surface.Ethel says that’s nonsense. The water wa...
Read More

Reading What Isn't There

“Judge others, but you are exempt from judgment. You must go out and tell it like it is, exposing sinners wherever you find them. You will receive a special bonus for each evil you expose.”—Matthew 7:1-2, Reversed Fractured Version “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you ju...
Read More

Wrong Impressions

Do you have a regular Bible study plan? Well, I’m so glad to hear that! You don’t? Well, maybe that is not so bad. You know, a lot of people who have a regular Bible reading plan are very systematic about it. Certainly you’ve met the type: they read a chapter a day, or some other arbitrary amount. I...
Read More

But Is it Biblical?

Recently I helped my boss decode a rather obtuse document, in which the writer had used obscure words instead of plain language. “This is,” I said, “an example of what happens when people go to the dictionary for permission instead of guidance,” and my boss thought that was an astute observation. Ju...
Read More

The Bible and Personal Revelation

God reveals Himself to us in nature, for Scripture says: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.Their voice goes out in...
Read More

The Inspiration of the Bible

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.—2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV Someone recently asked if I consider the Bible the inspired and inerrant word of God or if I fee...
Read More

Interpreting the Bible

When I work on interpreting Scriptural texts, I work through these layers: The probable meaning of the writer, which has to fit in with the writer’s environment.If it is an Old Testament text, the way the passage has been used and interpreted historically in Judaism.The way the passage has been used...
Read More