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.

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