Christians generally hold to two key doctrines:
- God is perfect, so does not and cannot make mistakes
- The bible is the inspired word of God
Therefore, if Christianity is true, it must logically follow that there are no mistakes in the bible. However, herein lies a problem. One of the most common arguments against the credibility of the bible is that it appears to contain several obvious contradictions and mistakes. Some Christians answer this issue by sidestepping the question, arguing that even if some biblical authors made mistakes, this does not immediately mean that key events that underpin Christianity (namely the life, death and resurrection of Jesus) did not happen. Although this is true, the apparent fallibility of the bible is still a serious issue for the Christian believer and one which is certainly worth attempting to tackle.
Mistake vs. Misunderstanding
When people first realise that there are a number of apparent contradictions and mistakes in the bible, many come to the conclusion that either God is not infallible or, more commonly, the bible is not the word of God. If either of these options is true, the basis of Christianity rapidly starts to crumble.
However, I believe that there is a third option. I would argue that the apparent errors in the bible are not due to the fallibility of God, nor the fallibility of the bible, but rather due to the fallibility of our human understanding of the bible.
I first researched into this topic in detail for a talk at my university Christian Union Apologetics group in 20141. As I looked into the commonly quoted contradictions and apparent mistakes in the bible, I found that, with a little research and without exception, they could all be explained as misunderstandings from the reader’s perspective, rather than errors on the author’s part. Furthermore, I found that these apparent errors could be split into 5 categories according to the type of underpinning misunderstanding. The categories are:
- Stylistic Misunderstandings
- Definitional Misunderstandings
- Subject Misunderstandings
- Cultural Misunderstandings
- Translational Misunderstandings
In the rest of the chapter, we will go through the most commonly quoted apparent contradictions and mistakes in the bible. I shall try to unpack how each can fit into one of the above 5 categories, and thus can be convincingly explained as a misunderstanding on the reader’s part.
1. Stylistic Misunderstandings
These are textual misunderstandings that stem simply from different writing styles. When former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died in April 2013, many of the national British newspapers ran biographical articles on Thatcher’s life. If you did not know much about Thatcher, and read a biography in one of the right-wing newspapers, you would probably concluded that Thatcher was the best thing to ever happen to Great Britain. However, if you had read a more left-wing article, you would have probably concluded that Thatcher was a mean, anti-workers, unpopular Prime Minister. On first inspection, the left and right-wing articles may appear to contradict each other. However, upon closer inspection one would find that the facts of Thatcher’s life did not change. What initially appeared to be contradictions should (assuming accurate journalism) simply turn out to be different authors writing in different styles, with different agendas and for different audiences. Many of the apparent contradictions found in the bible can be explained in this way. This is especially true of the gospels, for which we have four very different authors all recounting the same overall event- the life of Jesus. Below are two examples from the gospels.
In the four gospels, there are several discrepancies between the chronological orders of events in the different accounts. For example, in Matthew chapter 21, we read the account of Jesus trashing the temple businesses in Jerusalem, followed by Jesus cursing the fig tree. However in the gospel of Mark, the same events are described but the order of the events is reversed; in Mark chapter 11, the writer describes Jesus cursing the fig tree, followed by Him trashing the temple businesses. This appears to be a contradiction in chronology.
However, this can be straightforwardly explained by differences in writing styles. Most scholars believe that Mark is written in chronological order. However, we know that Matthew is not; Matthew generally groups events according to similarities in themes, rather than chronologically. When this is noted, the contradiction disappears- the differences are simply stylistic.
Another example is the discrepancies between the resurrection accounts in the four gospels. In the scene where the two Marys discover the empty tomb, Matthew 28 and Mark 16 describe the appearance of an angel. However, Luke 24 and John 20 contradict them by describing two angels present.
However, if you read the full resurrection accounts in the four gospels, it becomes clear that Matthew and Mark are focussing on the dialogue of the event, while Luke and John are painting a more holistic picture. Only one angel is reported to have spoken to the two Marys, so it was only necessary for Matthew and Mark to mention one angel, even if two were present. Thus upon analysis of the writing styles, the contradiction dissolves.
2. Definitional Misunderstandings
This next group of misunderstandings is based on a principle that we learn in primary school: some words have more than one definition. And importantly, when a sentence or phrase is plucked out of its context, it often changes its meaning. As a philosopher friend of mine likes to say: “a text without a context is a con”2. For example if I, as a medical student, said in a hospital “This patient has a damaged heart”, it would obviously mean something very different to if I were in a pub and said to a friend “My ex-girlfriend left me with a damaged heart”.
This simple principle can be used to explain, in my experience, the most commonly quoted alleged mistake that Jesus made. In Matthew 16:28, Jesus says to His disciples “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”3. However, it is obvious that the disciples are now all dead, and the Second Coming of Jesus has not happened (yet). This sounds like a prediction by Jesus that turned out to be false.
However, this quote only appears erroneous when taken out of context. If you continue reading the next two verses, Matthew 17:1-2 says: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them.”3 During the transfiguration, Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light”3 and Peter, James and John got a preview of Jesus’ Second Coming. The descriptions of Jesus’ face shining and His clothes becoming white are very similar to the descriptions used in Revelation 1 to describe the appearance of the glorified Jesus. And so when Jesus said to the disciples “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”, He was clearly not referring to the Second Coming per se, but to its preview given to Peter, James and John six days later. When you read the quote in context, it becomes apparent that Jesus did not make a mistake.
3. Subject Misunderstandings
This set of misunderstandings is based on the principle that two accounts can only contradict if they are referring to the same subject matter. This seems obvious, but can lead to confusion. For example, imagine I separately met two different friends during the same day. To the first friend I say “yesterday I received some upsetting news”, and to the second friend I say “yesterday I went to a really exciting event”. If my two friends met later and compared what I had told them, they would find contradictory conversations. However, they probably would not conclude that I was lying to one or both of them. Rather, it would probably be more reasonable to assume that at least two different events took place the previous day.
This sometimes subtle principle can be used to explain an often quoted apparent contradiction in the bible: the death of Judas Iscariot. Matthew 27:5 simply states “He [Judas] went away and hanged himself”3. However, in Acts 1:18 we read a very different account: “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.”3 This seems like a glaring contradiction.
However, on closer inspection, one realises that these two accounts are describing subtly different events. If someone’s body has burst open and their intestines have spilled out, that person will clearly be dead, or very close to dying. However, a dead or nearly dead person cannot “go away and hang themselves”. It follows that Matthew 27:5 is describing Judas’ entry into the dying process, while Acts 1:18 describes Judas’ exit of the dying process. The events are intrinsically linked, but nonetheless distinct and non-contradictory.
Although rather speculative, one can even combine the two accounts to produce a narrative for Judas’ death. For example, perhaps Judas hanged himself and died; the rope then snapped causing his body to fall on a spikey rock which burst open his body. That is just one postulation, but the point is, these two accounts in Matthew and Acts are not contradictory. They just narrate two different subjects.
4. Cultural Misunderstandings
This is an interesting group of misunderstandings that is based on the observation that cross-cultural differences can produce subtle misinterpretations. On an episode of BBC’s QI, the Stephen Fry spoke about a remote tribe of people who use the words “forward” and “back” in opposite ways to us in the UK. The tribespeople describe the future as “back in time”, and past as “forward in time”. If I were to visit the tribe and hear someone talking like this, I would probably wrongly assume that they were making a mistake. However, the confusion would be simply down to a cultural misunderstanding.
Because the books of the bible were written into cultures very different to our own, cultural misunderstandings hold the key to understanding several apparent mistakes. One example is Jesus’ healing of the blind man outside Jericho. Luke 18:35-43 reads:
“As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging… He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”…
Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.
Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.”3
However, the same story is recounted in Mark 10:46-52:
“Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”…
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”…
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.”3
These two accounts are describing the same event. However, Matthew says it occurred while Jesus was entering Jericho, while Mark says it happened when Jesus was leaving Jericho.
Nonetheless, this seemingly stark contradiction can be reconciled with knowledge of 1st Century Jewish architecture. Today, we conceptualise “cities” as groups of building occupying a defined area of land. However, in 1st Century Israel, cities were often composed of several small clusters of buildings separated by uninhabited space. History tells us that 1st Century Jericho was structured like this. Therefore, if Jesus was travelling between one collection of buildings to another, it would be understandable if one witness reported Jesus entering Jericho, while another reported Jesus exiting Jericho. Technically, Jesus would be doing both. Cultural information can thus resolve this seemingly irreconcilable contradiction.
5. Translational Misunderstandings
This final group of misunderstandings stem from the principle that words can lose shades of their meaning when they go through linguistic translation. This is particularly problematic when one word in one language translates to multiple words in another language. For example the Danish word “gift” translates to two English words: “married” and “poison”. The English definition has to be partly deduced from the Danish word’s context.
This idea can resolve some otherwise difficult apparent contradictions in the bible. For example the King James Version (KJV; an older translation of the bible) of the book of Acts contains too contradictory accounts of the blinding of the apostle Paul. Acts 9:7 reads “And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.” However, later in the book, Paul recounts the event in Acts 22:9: “And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me”. So did Paul’s companions hear the voice or not?
The answer lies in the original Greek text. The Greek word translated in both verses to the English “hearing/heard” is “akouó”. However, this word can be translated to English as either “hearing” or “comprehending by listening”. Scholars generally conclude that the two verses indicate that the companions heard a noise that they could not comprehend or understand. This is why the New International Version (NIV) translates Acts 22:9 as “My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.” The word “hearing” remains in the NIV translation of Acts 9:7
Another translational misunderstanding is the often quoted chronological discrepancy between Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1, animals are created before human beings4. However in the KJV, Genesis 2:15-19 reads:
“And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it… And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”
This appears to contradict Genesis 1 by indicating that animals were created after Adam (the first man). However, there is a simple resolution to this problem. In the Hebrew text, there is no equivalent of the English past participle. Therefore scholars agree that the past participle, “had”, should be inserted into the Genesis 2 account. As a result, the NIV translates Genesis 2:15-19 as:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it… Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”
How Can God Exist When there are Obvious Mistakes and Contradictions in the Bible?
There are more apparent contradictions I have not covered, and no doubt there are probably a few that I have not yet come across. However, from my study of the bible, I have yet to find a contradiction or mistake that cannot be explained by one or more of these five types of reader misunderstandings. Therefore, even though it is not a central doctrine of Christianity, I believe that there is a strong case for the bible’s inerrancy.