WHAT ABOUT CONTRADICTIONS IN THE BIBLE?

In my experience, one problem that critcs of the Bible have when claiming that it’s full of contradictions is they don’t understand what a contradiction is.

The definition of a contradiction is that “A (some statement) cannot be non-A (the statement’s opposite) at the same time and in the same way.” In other words, two contradictory statements cannot both be true (at the same time and in the same way).

I read one pastor recently who told his congregation that the Bible has contradictions, but not to worry because that “does not mean a lack truth.” Contradiction is a sure sign of untruth! In fact, there is no truth where there is contradiction.

If someone were to say “My brother in an only child” we know the statement is false because the statement is a contradiction. It’s cannot possibly be true based on what it means to be a brother and what it means to be an only child. Inconsistency is one of the tests all of us use all of the time to determine if something is true or false.

Here are some examples of supposed contradictions in the first four books of the New Testament. Keep the definition of a contradiction in mind as we examine each example.

Luke 23:46 says Jesus’ last words on the Cross were “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!.” John 19:30 says His last words were “It is finished.” Is this a contradiction? First, in context, neither author explicitly states that these were His last words just that He said these words before passing away. Second, if it impossible for Jesus to have said both things right before He died? What if the time changed, even by a second, so He said one right after the other, but Luke only recorded one and John the other? Could Jesus have said both right before He died? Of course! There is no contradiction here. This ‘difficulty’ is easily cleared up with a slight time change.

Did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on 2 donkeys (Matthew 21:2-7) or on one (Mark 11:2-7Luke 19:30-35John 12:14)? First, Matthew says Jesus sat on the coats (the closest antecedent to the word “them” in v. 7) not both animals, and the other three mention Him sitting on one animal. Second, Matthew added a detail the others simply left out. If one author said, “There was only one donkey” and Matthew said, “There were 2 donkeys” that would be a contradiction, but that didn’t happen here. Mentioning only one of the donkeys does not mean the authors are denying the existence of the other one. The same is true with the two demon possessed men in Matthew 8:28-34, where Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-37 only mention one of them. No one would agree that since Mark & John didn’t talk about Jesus’ birth that He wasn’t born! Again, there is no contradiction here.

Matthew 27:3-8 says the chief priests bought a field with the money Judas gave them for betraying Jesus, but Acts 1:18-19 says Judas bought it. This is more difficult to reconcile, but that hasn’t stopped a number of scholars from seeking to do so. Some scholars argue like this, “The chief priests actually purchased a field with the money that belonged to Judas (in his name, as it were)." [1] Others suggest, “that either Judas had determined to purchase it (with a reference to 2 Kgs 5:26) or that Judas began the purchase (expecting the cause of Jesus to come to nothing) and the priests concluded the process." [2] Others argue, “Luke portrays Judas as the buyer of this field. Because the high priests considered the reward Judas had received to be blood money, they refused to accept the thirty silver coins. These belonged to Judas. Indirectly, then, Judas purchased the potter’s field." [3] The explanation that made the most sense to me personally is this, “When Peter says that Judas purchased a field with the wages of his crime, he employs a common rhetorical expression applied to a fact well known to his hearers, meaning that the field was purchased with the money of Judas, the verb being used in a causative sense; in a somewhat similar manner as a man is said to build a house, although actually the house was not built by him, but with his money. In reality, the field was not purchased by Judas, but by the priests with the money which they paid to him." [4] Now, a person may think these attempts are silly, but it seems at least possible that a contradiction can be avoided here too if one of these explanations is allowed.

In the end, people who argue for contradictions in the Bible need to keep in mind the difference between accuracy & precision. The Gospel writers were accurate in everything they wrote, but they were not precise. They didn't give every detail of every event with the kind of precision we demand. John 21:25 (“Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”) clearly states they were selective and their selectivity does not mean the denial of the details they didn’t choose to select.

[1] Peterson, David G. The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

[2] Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47.1 (2004): 86.

[3] Kistemaker, Simon J., and William Hendriksen. Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 17. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001.

[4] Gloag, Paton J. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1870.

Pastor Jon Benzinger