Just our imagination?

June 2004


This essay is not an attempt to prove deductively that the Bible contradicts itself. It is an attempt to prove that, notwithstanding apologists' efforts to resolve the contradictions, it is reasonable to believe that the contradictions are real. It began when a Christian challenged me to show him a contradiction. It was far from the first time I had seen such a challenge, and I knew well enough what his response would be, so I decided to take a different approach to the issue.

I decided to do an analysis of the apologists' defenses. My research led me to a Web site, operated by the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, that includes a good summary of skeptics' claims and apologists' responses. The CARM homepage is http://www.carm.org/. The material we are interested in starts at http://www.carm.org/bible_difficulties.htm. For any believer who genuinely wonders "What contradictions do skeptics think they see in the Bible?" it is a good place to go for an answer.

The apologist position is that there are no real contradictions in the Bible. According to believers, there are only apparent contradictions, most of them imagined by skeptics who are looking hard for them in order to discredit the Bible. Supposedly, we would never notice them if we were not trying so hard to find them.

Of course not all skeptics are intellectually honest. Some of them do look very hard for contradictions, and they do find them in places where there really are not any. We're all human, and ideology can cloud anyone's judgment. However, the excesses of zealots do not negate the honest perceptions of people who read the Bible soberly without being ideologically committed to its inerrancy. My argument here will be that even if it is factually true that all the Bible's authors were in perfect agreement with one another, it is nevertheless reasonable for us skeptics to think otherwise. Even if the contradictions are only apparent, we are justified in thinking they are real. We are not just imagining them.

I concede that the apologists' arguments are generally valid, given an assumption that the original writings of the biblical authors were inerrant. That is, if writer A says X while writer B says Y, and X seems inconsistent with Y, then one may argue as follows:

Since the Bible is inerrant, X and Y must both be true. If writer A, while writing X, actually meant Z, and if Z is consistent with Y, then writer A must have meant Z, and therefore there is no contradiction.

As a proof of noncontradiction, though, this is question-begging. The assumption of inerrancy is in effect an assumption that there can be no contradictions. If two statements are contradictory, then by definition at least one is false. To assume they are both true is therefore to rule out even the possibility of a contradiction. Of course "The writer meant Z even though he wrote X" might in some cases be a plausible supposition, but that needs to be determined independently of any assumptions about the truth of X. Debates over plausibility and writers' intentions are notoriously subjective, of course, and in any event they are necessarily speculative if the writer is not available to tell us what was on his mind when he wrote X.

We can note this much. No matter how plausible the suggestion that in writing X the author meant Z, it demonstrates only that X and Y are not necessarily contradictory. It does not prove they are consistent, but only that they could be consistent. Just because something is possible doesn't mean it is necessarily true. It is not wrong to say "It could be true, but I don't think it is true."

In this way, and without assuming inerrancy, the apologists can demonstrate that the original authors of the Bible could have been in perfect agreement with each other. But we still have the question of what a disinterested reader may reasonably suppose the writer to have meant. The mere assumption that writer A and writer B must have been in perfect agreement is not justified without independent evidence that they could not have disagreed.

Why not contradictions?

As the apologists are so fond of saying, we must take context into consideration. We note that writer A and writer B seem to disagree. Someone points out how it is logically possible that they are actually saying the same thing. Very well. We accept the possibility that they agree. But then the apologist says we must reject any possibility that they disagree. Why? Why must we assume the impossibility of a contradiction?

Well, let us have a look at the context of the claim "There can be no contradiction." It appears, usually, in a context where the following assertions are taken for granted:

  1. The original writings that were compiled into the book we call the Bible were inspired by God.
  2. The consistency of the writings is evidence of (1).
  3. God wanted those writings to be believed and correctly understood by all people, including everyone living today. It was his will, in other words, when he inspired the writings, that all people know them to be his message to the world.
  4. In particular, God wants everyone to believe the portion of those writings that report the death and resurrection of his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, as atonement for the sins of humanity.

Now let's take a closer look at (2). Here is a typical instance of that claim.

The writings of man are marked by disunity and contradiction. Virtually every book written by more than one person contains discrepancies or significant differences in philosophy, facts, emphases, or ideas. Even those written by one author may contain contradictions in fact or logic. Bible scholars are amazed at a book written by 40 different men, coming from many different walks of life, composed in three languages, with 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, yet manifesting continuity and consistency in doctrine and facts.

However, the "continuity and consistency in doctrine and facts" that so amazes Bible scholars is apparent only to those committed to an assumption of unity. Apologists have a credibility problem if that unity can be proved only by supposing that it must be there.

The usual apologist response is that skeptics do not see the unity because they do not want to see it. And why do we not want to see it? Because, the apologists say, by refusing to see it, we are justified in ignoring what the Bible tells us about our obligations to God. Here is a typical comment representing that attitude.

For centuries, skeptics and atheists have attacked the Bible, claiming it was nothing more than a collection of man's overactive imagination. "Where did Cain get his wife?" became the question that was supposed to discredit the Bible, silence its defenders, and place it on the shelf with fairy tales and other works of fiction.

In a heated discussion over the reliability of the Bible, one skeptic asked an evangelist, "Now tell me where did Cain get his wife?" The evangelist answered with this question, "Are you going to let another man's wife keep you out of heaven?"

Mark Twain once said, "Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they don't understand, but for me, I have always noticed that the passages that bother me are the ones I do understand."

People do not reject the Bible because it contradicts itself, but because it contradicts them. What the Bible has to say to us can be very disturbing. This is why people have, for centuries, tried to bury the Bible in their funeral services of ridicule.

From this perspective, any doubts about the traditional understanding of the Bible's origins must be due to hostility to it. According to this view, skepticism is "inherently hostile to God's word" (Note: link has gone bad):

There are two types of criticism: Higher and Lower. Higher criticism deals with questions concerning authorship, date and place of composition, and other issues bearing upon the historicity and authenticity of a particular work. Applied to the Bible, higher criticism is also called "destructive criticism" because its main objective is to pull down the authority of the scriptures.


Well, it is a fact that people can fail to see evidence that they just do not want to see. But it is also a fact that people can see evidence where it does not exist if they want it to exist. We could waste a lot of time trying to decide whether skeptics or believers are more inclined toward letting their wishes determine what they will or will not see, but let us try really hard to give each other some benefit of doubt on that. Let us see if we can imagine what a truly impartial and disinterested person might conclude about whether there are contradictions in the Bible.

Contradictions resolved?

When I looked at the CARM Web site in preparing the original version of this essay, I counted 87 apparent contradictions that the author had gathered, presumably from skeptical literature. Of those 87, I agree for the sake of this discussion that 15 represent overreaching on the skeptics' part, that they are not true contradictions and that nobody should have said they were. That still leaves an even six dozen that, to me at least, look problematic. The question now is whether the problem lies in skeptical thinking or in the claim that the Bible is without error.

There is more at stake here than the mere issue of whether the Bible's authors were in perfect agreement.

My position, and the position of most skeptics, is not that IF there are contradictions, THEN nothing in the Bible is true. If the gospel authors disagreed about details of the resurrection, that would in no way prove that God did not send his only begotten son to die for our sins or that the son never rose from the dead. My argument is only that if there are contradictions, then the men who wrote the Bible did not write infallibly. And if they did not write infallibly, then I am justified in doubting something they wrote if for any reason it seems improbable to me -- unless there is independent corroborating evidence for that particular claim.

The apologist claim, on the other hand, is not merely that there no contradictions. The authors' agreement, if it can be proven, is supposed to prove something else. The apologist claim is that the absence of contradictions implies divine inspiration and therefore the truth of evangelical Christian doctrine. According to that doctrine, God wants me to believe that the Bible is a message from him to me. It is his wish that I have no doubt about the truth of everything in the Bible. It is in that context, I suggest, that we should examine the arguments offered in defense of scriptural consistency.

I attempted a classification of CARM's responses to the apparent contradictions. Most of them -- 58 of the 72 -- fell into one of seven categories.

The largest group, comprising almost a fifth of the responses, was what I called logical allowance. This is the plea that from a strictly logical standpoint, the truth of one statement does not rule out the possible truth of the other statement.

Here are two examples (out of 13 that I found):

In Genesis 6, God tells Noah to take two of every kind of animal aboard the ark. In Chapter 7, Noah is instructed to take two of some kinds and seven of other kinds. CARM says: "Logically, to have seven pairs also means that there are two pairs, since the two are included in the seven." Well, yes, that is true, mathematically speaking. However, that is not how people ordinarily communicate. People who say "two" are not normally understood to mean "at least two," and a god who wanted to make himself clearly understood would know that.

The author of Mark's gospel reports that on a certain occasion, James and John asked Jesus to let them sit at his side in the kingdom to come. According to Matthew, though, that request came from their mother. CARM notes that neither author says anything proving the other wrong: "Most probably," the site author says, "the mother first approached Jesus and asked Him about her sons. Later, they approached Jesus with the same question." Yes, it could have happened that way, but are we justified in presuming that it must have? Only if we must assume inerrancy. Without that assumption, we may reasonably suppose that if the request had been made by the disciples and by their mother, then at least one of the writers would have mentioned both requests. Since neither of them did, it is not unreasonable to suspect that somebody made a mistake.

Then we have copying errors. CARM attributed 10 contradictions to them, including discrepancies over who killed Goliath, whether Saul's daughter Michal had any children, and several passages involving numbers.

These two explanations -- logical possibility and copying errors -- by themselves provide for almost a third of CARM's responses, and I think we are now ready to ask a question.

If the Bible is God speaking to us, does he actually intend for us to know that? Is it plausible that he really wants us to have no doubt that he inspired the writing of that book?

Suppose I am writing letters to some friends about the wildlife I can see in my back yard, looking out the window of my home office. To one friend I say that on a certain occasion I saw two crows. To another friend I say that on the same occasion I saw seven crows. Question: Will the two friends to whom I am writing both agree that I had given each an accurate report of what I had seen?

I do not think so. I do not think the one friend will say to himself, "Well, he didn't say that he saw only two crows." I think my friends will reasonably infer that I had a poor recollection of how many crows I had seen -- unless I give them a clear and explicit explanation for why I wrote "two crows" in one letter and "seven crows" in the other letter. Similarly, lacking a clear and explicit explanation within the Bible itself for an apparent discrepancy, a mistake by at least one of the authors is more plausible than the apologists' explanations.

That addresses the logical-possibility defense. The copying-errors defense has a similar plausibility problem. It is not that copying errors are implausible. But if copyists can make mistakes, why not the original authors? The claim is that God protected the original autographs from human error but did not extend his protection to the copying process. But surely he could have? And surely nobody has a clue as to why he did not? If the copying was not protected, then what reason is there to suppose that the autographs were protected? There is none, aside from the special pleading of inerrantists. The Bible itself nowhere declares that the authors of scripture were protected from error when they wrote. Some of the Bible's authors appealed to the authority of scripture. That meant they believed it was authoritative. Logically, it implies nothing more, and any inference beyond that is interpretation, not fact. A document can, logically, be authoritative without being inerrant.

The problem with the autographs-only supposition also bears on the category I call "authorial perspective." This is the argument that you cannot expect different people to say exactly the same thing about the same event, and it is often invoked to explain discrepancies in the gospels. It is true that you do not expect duplication. Neither, though, do you expect contradictions. Nevertheless, although you don't expect them, you are not greatly surprised if you see contradictions, and when you see them you assume that at least one writer made a mistake.

There is no logical reason why an omnipotent God, who intended for the world to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was his only begotten son, could not have inspired four men to write four individually personalized stories that lacked even the appearance of inconsistency. Apologists routinely explain that the gospel writers had different messages for different audiences. That can explain a lot of variation. It does not explain apparent inconsistencies if they were guided in their writing by a common divine author whose primary intention was that the world believe every word written by all four men.

Like most apologists, CARM's author pleads that if the gospels were in perfect agreement, skeptics would cite this as evidence of collusion. It is the apologists themselves, though, who are claiming that the gospels are in fact in perfect agreement, not only with each other but with every other book in the Bible. Furthermore, they offer this consistency as evidence that there was indeed collusion. Apologists are not denying collusion. They insist that there really was collusion -- collusion between the human authors and almighty God himself.

Credibility gap

I have worked in the newspaper business, and I can assure anyone that if any newspaper editor were to send four reporters to cover the resurrection and they had come back with four stories as discrepant as the four gospels, that editor would not run all four stories as they were.1 He would assume that at least three of the reporters had gotten some of their facts wrong. He would instruct the four of them to go back to their sources, recheck their facts, and make whatever rewrites were necessary to harmonize their accounts.

No collusion would be required or expected. There would be no expectation that all four would end up sounding just like each other. Each reporter's personality could shine through in all its idiosyncratic glory. But they would be consistent. And more to the point, all readers would perceive them to be consistent.

Suppose that those reporters -- all four of them, together in the editor's office -- were to assure the editor that each story was already accurate. Suppose each one vouches for the others. Each one says that none of the others contradicts him. The editor would not be satisfied with this, even if he believed the reporters. He would not be satisfied because he would know that most of his readers would not believe that all four writers were giving an accurate account. The editor would know that if he ran the stories as they were, his newspaper's credibility would suffer. The editor would insist on rewrites that would eliminate the appearance of contradictions. When it comes to credibility, an apparent contradiction is every bit as damaging as a real contradiction.

I see those dozens of contradictions in the Bible. Apologists tell me that they are not real contradictions, and for all I know, the apologists could be right. But should I believe they are right? What reason do I have to believe the apologists' assurances that a writer who said X really meant Z? Their word is all I have. I cannot question the authors themselves.

The Bible looks like a collection of books written by fallible men, men who were as capable of error as any other men. It looks like a collection of books written by men who believed what they wrote, but whose beliefs were not in perfect agreement. The gospel authors seem to have all believed that Jesus rose from the dead. But they do not seem to have all believed the same things about who saw what, when they saw it, whom they were with, where they were at the time, or what the time was.

There are two explanations for this. One requires us to assume -- with no justification except that apologists say it is so -- that none of the four could have made a mistake. But this entails a pile of other assumptions and suppositions about which writer omitted which detail, or compressed this event with that one, or emphasized a point that the others weren't interested in, or ignored strict chronology, or took it for granted that his readers knew such-and-such, or . . . whatever. The other requires us to assume nothing more than that that the authors were ordinary men capable of error. This assumption scarcely needs any justification. We make it whenever we read any other book or any newspaper. We assume that the author of any document that has ever been written in the history of the world was capable of error. Only when we read the Bible does anyone tell us we should assume otherwise.

It is logically possible that the Bible contains no contradictions. However, the belief that there are contradictions is reasonable, and I have sought to prove nothing more. It is reasonable to infer from the Bible's actual words -- not what apologists read between the lines, but what was actually written -- that the apparent contradictions are real contradictions. It is reasonable to believe that the Bible was written by fallible men who were not in perfect agreement.

1My assurance alone proves nothing, of course. However, anyone who wishes to check out my assertion need only call any newspaper and ask the editor how he or she would deal with stories that appeared on their face to be inconsistent.

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