Christians: Does the Bible contain errors and/or contradictions?
Christians believe that what the Bible teaches is true, so we come to the Bible with what J. I. Packer calls “an advance commitment to receive as truth from God all that Scripture is found on inspection actually to teach.”1
All that the Bible teaches is truth from God, whether statements of fact about earth, heaven, humans, or God, or moral commands, or divine promises. This has been the universal affirmation of the church until the time of the Enlightenment, when acceptance in the secular academy led some biblical scholars to base their conclusions on culturally misguided reason rather than on revelation and reality.
The affirmation of the truthfulness of the Bible is inextricably tied to the character of God himself. God is a truthful God who does not lie.2 Therefore, because God is ultimately the author of Scripture, it is perfect, unlike every other uninspired writing and utterance.
Taken altogether, inerrancy is the shorthand way of summarizing all that the Scriptures say about Scripture. Inerrant means that the Scriptures are perfect, without any error. The doctrine of inerrancy posits that because God does not lie or speak falsely in any way, and because the Scriptures are God’s Word, they are perfect.3 As a result, the entire Bible is without any error.4
The Bible claims to be wholly true and therefore inerrant. We find such explicit statements in passages such as 2 Samuel 7:28, “O Lord GOD, you are God, and your words are true”; Psalm 19:7–10, which uses words such as perfect, sure, right, pure, true, and righteous; Psalm 119:42–43, 142, 151, 160, 163, which uses the specific word truth or true; and John 17:17,
“Your word is truth.” Second Timothy 3:16 rightly says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God.”
Unlike the Bible, however, those of us who read and study it are not inerrant in our understanding of it.
The Bible itself gives us much cause for humility as we approach the Scriptures because:
- God’s thoughts are much loftier than ours;5
- God has secrets that he has not revealed to anyone;6
- sometimes we see the truth as if through a dirty and fogged window;7
- we are prone to resist God’s truth because it forces us to repent, and sometimes we are simply hard-hearted;8
- we know in part;9
- some parts of the Bible are just hard to understand.10
If it appears that there is a contradiction in Scripture, we should first dig deeply into our Bible to see if what appears to be an error is, in fact, not an error once we have examined it more closely.11 In the end, it is perfectly reasonable to say that we do not have an answer for every question we may have, though we may as we learn more, or when we get to heaven and get the final word on everything. The kind of humility that a priori assumes that when we do not understand or initially disagree with Scripture that we, and not the Bible, are in error is essential to truly Christian study.
A key point to remember is that self-testimony is valid and strong when that testimony is validated by sufficient evidence. The remarkable accuracy of the Bible in areas where we can check it gives us confidence that it is true in all areas.
A telling example of the Bible’s accuracy is in the transliteration of the names of foreign kings in the Old Testament as compared to contemporary extra-biblical records, such as monuments and tablets. The Bible is accurate in every detail in the thirty-six instances of comparison, a total of 183 syllables. To see how amazing this is, Manetho’s ancient work on the dynasties of the Egyptian kings can be compared to extra-biblical records in 140 instances. He is right forty-nine times, only partially right twenty-eight times, and in the other sixty-three cases not a single syllable is correct! The Bible’s accuracy is shown not only in the original work but in its copies as well.12
Luke correctly identifies by name, title, job, and time such historical individuals as Annas,13 Ananias,14 Herod Agrippa I,15 Herod Agrippa II,16 Sergius Paulus,17 the Egyptian prophet,18 Felix,19 and Festus.20 Political titles were very diverse and difficult to keep straight since every province had its own terms and, worse yet, the terms constantly changed. Yet Luke gets them right: a proconsul in Cypress and Achaia,21 the undeserved title Praetor in Philippi,22 the otherwise unknown title of Politarchs in Thessalonica,23 Asiarchs in Ephesus,24 and “the chief man” in Malta.25 The descriptions of local custom and culture are equally accurate. As John Elder states:
It is not too much to say that it was the rise of the science of archaeology that broke the deadlock between historians and the orthodox Christian. Little by little, one city after another, one civilization after another, one culture after another, whose memories were enshrined only in the Bible, were restored to their proper places in ancient history by the studies of archaeologists. . . . Contemporary records of biblical events have been unearthed and the uniqueness of biblical revelation has been emphasized by contrast and comparison to newly discovered religions of ancient peoples. Nowhere has archaeological discovery refuted the Bible as history.26
This affirmation of the truthfulness of the Bible is exactly the attitude of Jesus himself. Frederick C. Grant, who is not any sort of fundamentalist Christian, acknowledges that the New Testament consistently takes “for granted that what is written in Scripture is trustworthy, infallible and inerrant. No New Testament writer would ever dream of questioning a statement contained in the Old Testament.”27
Those parts of the Old Testament that are most commonly rejected as error are also those sections of Scripture that Jesus clearly taught. This includes creation,28 the literalness of Genesis 1 and 2,126 Cain and the murder of Abel,29 Noah and the flood,30 Abraham,31 Sodom and Gomorrah,32 Lot,33 Isaac and Jacob,34 the manna,35 the wilderness serpent,36 Moses as lawgiver,37 the popularity of the false prophets,38 and Jonah in the belly of a whale.39
In matters of controversy, Jesus used the Old Testament as his court of appeals.40 On many occasions where an Old Testament teaching was questioned, Jesus simply believed the clear teaching of Old Testament Scripture and defended himself by saying, “it is written.”41
Some of the most common critiques launched at the Old Testament are in regard to authorship, but Jesus actually named the authors of some
Old Testament books. For example, many Old Testament “scholars” boldly claim that Moses did not pen any of the first five books of the Bible, or that two or three authors penned Isaiah, none of whom was actually Isaiah. But Jesus taught that Scripture was authored by Moses,42 Isaiah,43 David,44 and Daniel.45
Following Jesus’ example, while the New Testament authors often refer to the Old Testament in a rather general way, they also feel confident to appeal to the smallest detail. In Matthew 22:29–33, Jesus’ argument rests on the present tense of “to be” in Exodus 3:6. Matthew 22:41–46 refers to the use of “Lord” in Psalm 110:1. In John 10:34, Jesus’ argument comes from the Old Testament use of the word “gods.”46 Also, Galatians 3:16 rests on the singularity of the Old Testament word translated “seed” or “offspring.”47
The standard for true prophecy was complete truthfulness, which is why Elijah was affirmed as a prophet: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”48 Can the standard for the Bible be any less, if it is truly prophetic?
Because Scripture is God speaking to us because he wants us to understand, Scripture usually speaks accurately in ordinary language.
Typically the writers use popular language rather than technical terminology. So they say, “the sun had risen,”49 or refer to “the four corners of the earth.”50 There are figures of speech like “the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”52 There are also summaries, such as the Sermon on the Mount and Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, which we do not have full transcriptions of but rather only a portion of what was preached.52 Sometimes, the Bible also gives us rounded numbers rather than exact head counts of, for example, the number of men killed each day during a war.53 To interpret the Bible accurately we must consider it carefully. Thus we interpret historical accounts, figures of speech, approximations, summaries, and such according to the author’s intent, taking care lest our cultural and personal presuppositions distort our interpretation.
This does not mean there are no questions to explore. The biggest question from one of my seminary professors, Dr. Gerry Breshears, revolves around the numbers in the Bible book of Numbers. He says, “Compared to archaeological estimates, they are too big by a factor of ten. There are several proposals for what is going on, but at this point, we don’t know. A few decades ago, I also had questions about Jericho. According to the best archaeological reports, it was uninhabited from about 1600 BC to about 1200 BC. The Bible says the walls came tumbling down about 1440 BC. That would be hard if the city was already destroyed. But as excavations were done in a different part of the ancient site, a thick layer of ash containing grain was discovered. Dating by three different methods showed a burn date of (try to guess before you look!)—1440 BC.”54
For good answers to questions about specific biblical “contradictions,” see the New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason L. Archer Jr., or When Critics Ask by Normal Geisler and Thomas Howe.