Bible Contradictions

Have you ever heard a Christian claim that there are “absolutely no contradictions in the Bible”? Maybe you’ve heard the opposite claim, or seen something like this image that represents thousands of contradictions.

At the risk of committing the Middle Ground fallacy, I think the truth is somewhere between these two. There are definitely contradictions and errors in the bible and I want to address some of those here. However, many of the inconsistencies listed in charts like the one above are so minor or easily reconciled that they shouldn’t pose a concern even for Christians who believe every word of the bible is literally true.

So, how do I decide which things “count” as contradictions and which don’t? Well, as usual, I want to look at what would be an effective example to encourage conversation. There are generally two criteria that I use:

  1. The contradiction is clear and unambiguous. In other words, the bible clearly says one thing in one passage and something contradictory in another passage. It can’t just be a result of translation or turn of phrase. Word games aren’t going to cut it with believers and they shouldn’t be something a skeptic relies on either.
  2. The contradiction must matter to the doctrine of the bible. While there are number of errors like how long a particular king ruled in two different passages, those don’t ultimately say anything about the truth of the supernatural claims or matter for the theological implications of the bible. For a contradiction to make my list, there needs to be something in it that matters to the believer.

With that list in mind, I don’t find any of the contradictions cited by the American Atheists to be very compelling. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a donating member of American Atheists and I think the work they do defending the separation of church and state is incredibly important. I just don’t think this list of contradictions would be very useful in convincing a Christian that there are issues–many of these quotes are devoid of context that could reasonably be used to justify them.

Here are some of the passages that I would cite to a Christian claiming the the bible has no contradictions or errors, along with why I think it matters.

  • God lies to Adam. In Genesis 2:17, the bible says, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Surprisingly, Adam lives to be 930 years old, according to Genesis 5:5.
  • In the story of Babel, God purposely causes confusion among humans. In Genesis 11:7-9, it says, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.” However, 1 Corinthians 14:33 says, “33 For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”
  • Any of numerous times in the Old Testament that God cannot do things (even though he is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent), including:
    • Genesis 18:20-21. God has to “go down to see” what’s happening in Sodom.
    • Exodus 32:14. God “repents of the evil” he was planning to do to his people.
    • Judges 1:19. God could not help Judah defeat his enemies because they had iron chariots.
  • Any of the numerous times God commits evil acts like Genocide, Torture, Slavery, Incest, etc.
  • The resurrection story of Jesus is inconsistent.
    • Matthew’s version says:
      • “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” went to see the tomb.
      • An angel rolls back the stone blocking the tomb and says Jesus is not there.
      • The two Marys ran to tell the disciples what happened.
      • Jesus greets the two Marys before they reach the disciples.
    • Mark’s version says:
      • Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb.
      • The stone was already rolled away when they got there.
      • There was a “young man” sitting inside the tomb.
      • None of them said anything to anyone because they were afraid.
      • Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene alone and then separately to “two of them”
      • Jesus appears to the eleven as they ate.
    • Luke’s version says:
      • They [the women which came with from Galilee, later listed as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them] came to the tomb.
      • The stone was already rolled away when they got there.
      • The tomb was empty when they went inside.
      • Two men “in shining garments” appeared next to them.
      • The women went to tell the eleven and “all the rest” what happened.
      • The apostles didn’t believe the women and went to check for themselves.
      • Jesus appears to the apostles but prevents them from recognizing him.
    • John’s version says:
      • Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone.
      • The stone was already rolled away when she got there.
      • She ran to Simon Peter and “the other disciple, whom Jesus loved” and told them someone stole Jesus’ body
      • The two disciples ran to the tomb and saw empty clothes inside.
      • The two disciples went home.
      • Two angels appears in the tomb to Mary.
      • Jesus appears in the tomb to Mary but she does not recognize him.
      • Mary tells the other disciples she saw Jesus.
      • Jesus appears to the disciples.
    • These stories are certainly similar but how many people really went to the tomb? Was the stone in place or not when they arrived? What did they see inside? Who did they tell? These are contradictions between the gospel accounts that professional apologists have spent years trying to reconcile. The most common explanation given is that each gospel only gives part of the story. Why then, should “part of the story” disagree with another part?

Christians may have ways of rationalizing these discrepancies to themselves or other believers, some may be compelling, others not. The important thing to understand, and to explain to a believer, is that a perfect book should not require apologetics or have contradictions that need rationalizing. This is the very reason that many Christians do not take the whole bible as the literal, inerrant, direct word of God and instead interpret the bible as metaphor, allegory, and parable to suit their world view.

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