The Bible and Contradictions in the Text

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When it comes to defending the claim of inerrancy in the realm of Christian apologetics, the sneaky objector will often insert the accusation of contradiction into his argument. The unprepared will sometimes be put back on their heels for one of two reasons: 1) they’ve not been diligent in their reading and study of the text and its history so they have not encountered these issues on their own and had to work through them or, 2), they’ve never really thought that such a thing exists because they’ve never heard about them.

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmis- sion. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved, so that”we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free. (p.7, Chicago Statement of Inerrancy, emphasis added)

Let’s be honest, there are some difficult passages that, at first blush, seem contradictory, others that present as contradictions, and then there’s those passages that are just hard.

Most of the time when an objector presents what appears to be a “contradiction”, say when someone tries to put the Apostles Paul and James at odds over the issue of grace and faith and works and their interrelated nature, the objector often doesn’t recognize, because of their presuppositions, that the Apostles are answering the same questions from two different directions and arriving at the same conclusions: grace gives faith that prompts works.

Another area where an objector can see a contradiction is when two writers use different metaphors to describe the same thing. For example, God is described as dwelling in unapproachable light by one author, and as dwelling in deep darkness by another. Superficially, these appear to be contradictory, but these are merely how each writer has chosen to use metaphor to describe a reality.

A third area where contradictions seem to crop up is when translators, especially in the King James Version, were inconsistent in their translation of specific terms. This issue is one that the average reader will overlook, naturally allowing the context to define the terms. However, as the saying goes, if all that you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.

A final issue, just for this post, that needs to be addressed is the issue of numbers. We modernists tend to take numbers for granted, that they are simply quanitifications. However, especially in Hebrew contexts, numbers had many meanings. While numbers could refer to actual amounts, they could also be used symbolically. Ancient writers could also use rounding of numbers. These are just matters that need to be taken into consideration when reading the biblical texts. But, what about where there are clear contradictions in the amounts given? These can often be tricky, but a sincere and thoughtful person is willing to dig.

For example, two texts where there are just don’t seem to be any textual issues are the account of David buying a threshing floor where he can set up an alter for worship, in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 18. Not only are the amounts different (50 shekels vs 600 shekels) but even the money itself is different (silver vs gold). Just cruising around the internet, I couldn’t find a textual variant, or a footnote. I was really concerned about this until I went to the original language, and there I saw the problem: in Hebrew, the difference between not only the amounts, but the money itself is a letter difference. Whoever wrote the book of 1 Chronicles, seems to have misread the words. Now skeptics will immediately launch into a tirade about that refuting inerrancy, but it doesn’t really effect it, because this a simple scribal mistake. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that at one time the amounts agreed, but at some point, a scribe accidentally either inserted a letter, or misread a letter. It’s a big error, yes, but it’s not something that I am going to lose sleep over because David bought the threshing floor to build an altar for the worship of the God who would one day step into history in the person of his Son, in the form of Jesus Christ, to die for David’s sin as well as mine, and for the sins of any who will repent and place their trust in Him.

So, are there contradictions? Yes. Can they be reasonably worked out? Yes. Is there a problem here? Only if someone is looking for a superficial and simplistic reason to not believe.

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