Differences, or Contradictions? Responding to Apparent Contradictions in the Bible

A list of apparent contradictions in the Bible is making the rounds again online. To help Christians think through this challenging but important issue, we asked Darrell Bock, Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, to offer his thoughts; he graciously agreed. Here’s his response.

Do differences in Bible accounts automatically mean contradiction? Recently, the blogger Friendly Atheist drew attention to a website where an array of supposed Bible contradictions are presented in a large chart. Here’s a small sampling:

Most of the apparent contradictions on the list are well known to anyone who teaches the Bible. Is the creation story the same in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2? Where were the Ten Commandments given—on Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb? Who was the father of a given biblical figure, person A or person B? Does Paul teach salvation by faith while James teaches salvation by works?

The chart also highlights other areas where life in biblical times, especially in the Old Testment, differs from moral standards we hold today—for example, the cases of polygamy in the Old Testament. The chart also lists Bible passages we find uncomfortable today, such as texts that seem anti-homosexual or anti-women. (The book of Genesis is the big offender here.)

So what is one to make of claims of clear contradictions in Scripture? Do (or should) such lists leave religious Bible believers speechless?

When thinking through these questions, the first thing to note is that these are hardly new issues—even though people in the church are sometimes unaware of these differences in the Bible text. Anyone with a good study Bible and a concern for these questions will find them discussed and explained in ways that do not read the Bible in as “flat” a way as simply setting two different texts next to each other. For example, the two accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 not contradictory; one is an overview of creation, while the second zeroes in on the creation of humanity. No contradiction is here—only complementary accounts. Similarly, the writings of Paul and James aren’t contradictory as they may seem at first glance; Paul discusses the entry into salvation, while James looks back and asks what that salvation looks like in retrospect. Other Pauline texts like Ephesians 2:10, Titus 2:11-14, and Titus 3:5-7 take up the themes James raises.

This points to a second item to keep in mind: if we pull out single Bible verses and ignore their context, we can create a greater sense of difference than may actually be there.

Now, some of the differences in the list are more complex than this. They may involve the development of teaching in the progress of revelation, as in the case of polygamy; or the use of a different meaning of a term, as when the word father is used to mean ancestor.

What this all means is that Bible texts need to be read in their entirety, not just cited in a list side by side. They also need to be studied, sometimes quite carefully.

But there is a further lesson here for the church. The less we show how the Bible works, the more likely lists like this will trouble people. I have in mind church leaders here. We need to teach believers about these kinds of issues so that people aren’t caught off guard when confronted by these differences. Leaders, encourage people to read carefully, be aware of the kinds of issues raised by skeptical readers, and urge the use of serious Bible study tools that can help people when challenges are presented. There is nothing new in these lists. Answers and responses exist. People need to know where they can go to have these kinds of issues explained so that they’ll recognize the difference between a difference and a contradiction.

Darrell L. Bock (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen; postdoctoral study, Tübingen University) is Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. A popular speaker and prolific scholar, he is the author of numerous volumes, including A Biblical Theology of Luke and Acts (Zondervan). We’re very grateful to Dr. Bock for sharing his insights with us.

Related posts:

  1. Doubt, contradictions, and the problem of evil: responding to Bart Ehrman
  2. Examining a Bible “contradiction:” who discovered the empty tomb?
  3. Questions About Easter: Do the Resurrection Accounts in the Four Gospels Contradict Each Other?

Posted by Andy

Filed under Apologetics, Bible Study