How can you possibly trust a book that is full or errors, contradictions and confusion? The simple answer is that you cannot. That is why we have to respond to such dismissive treatments of the Bible.
There has been a popular Islamic tract, ‘101 clear contradictions in the Bible’, doing the rounds recently. An atheist group has produced a poster diagram of 439 contradictions in the Bible. These lists of alleged errors, fired off with the rapidity of an automatic machine gun, can sound impressive. But, on closer inspection, they indicate the weakness of the case against Scripture.
Christians believe the Bible to be free of error because it is the word of God (2 Timothy 3.16; 2 Peter 1.20), just as Jesus affirmed (Matthew 5.18; John 10.35). For a full explanation of Jesus’s view of Scripture, I’d recommend John Wenham’s Christ and the Bible. But it would be a circular argument to use this with a non-Christian. They may simply reply: ‘So you believe the Bible is the reliable word of God because it says it is the reliable word of God? That doesn’t help me, I don’t trust what the Bible says in the first place’. Furthermore, our friends do not have to accept that the Bible is free of all error to recognise its historical value and consider the claims of Christ.
Down to brass tacks
But how do we deal with the objection that the Bible is full of errors? The first helpful reply is to ask what particular example our friend has in mind. Often there is nothing in particular, just a general feeling that the Bible must be in error! We may be reminded of those famous words: ‘My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with the facts!’
But sometimes our friend will have a specific example. Some are well known (How many times did the cock crow before Peter had denied Jesus? Who got to the empty tomb first?), others are very obscure. Did Ahaziah begin his reign at the age of 22 (2 Kings 8.26) or 42 (2 Chronicles 22.2)? The more obscure the contradiction, the more likely it’s been gleaned second hand from something like the Muslim tract I have already mentioned.
What to do
So, what should we do when we are stumped by such a difficulty? First, consider whether the alleged error is actually there. Check a couple of different translations to see that this is not a simple misreading of the text.
Secondly, ask whether the differences reflect a style of writing, the limited perspective of the author or a different context? The Book of Proverbs cautions, ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly’ and advises, ‘Answer a fool according to his folly’, all within two verses (Proverbs 26.4-5). Is this a contradiction? Or does it simply reflect the genre of wisdom literature where principles must be applied to different life settings.
Finally, consult a good commentary. Theologians have commented on such alleged difficulties for thousands of years. Rarely will you come across an example that has not already received a lot of attention. In the fourth century, Augustine pointed out that these supposed contradictions arise from one of three sources: either a faulty manuscript, a poor translation or a problem in our own limited understanding.
Elephant in the room
But there is a more obvious point to make about all this attention paid to alleged errors. It is found in the witty essay by C.S. Lewis entitled ‘Fern Seed and Elephants’. Scholars can offer thousands of words describing some fern seed of detail they claim to have discovered in the biblical text. This fern seed is not to be dismissed. But nor should the fern seed distract us from the elephant in the room. The elephant is the fundamental reliability and persuasiveness of the text of the Bible. For every complex verse that is hard to understand, there are hundreds that are simple and uncontroversial. The central message of the Bible is clear, consistent and compelling: ‘The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things’. What about the 101 clear contradictions in the Bible? You might want to see Jay Smith’s ‘101 Cleared Up Contradictions in the Bible’ which you can locate free online.
Chris Sinkinson is pastor of Alderholt Chapel and lectures at Moorlands College. His book on apologetics, Confident Christianity, has recently been released by IVP.
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