Friday, March 14, 2008

Contradictions in the Bible?

I have been engaged in quite a discussion at one of the political blogs I peruse and the topic of contradictions in the Bible came up. A fellow out there named Joe asked one commenter to address four particular contradictions and he flatly refused. After a discussion with the fellow why he refused, Joe asked if I would be amenable to discussing the contradictions and I agreed. Joe's question and my responses are cut and pasted below. How would you respond? How could I have responded better? I was painstakingly brief and may have in my attempt to use an economy of words overlooked something.


Joe--I copied these from the comment you made. That way we won't have to keep scrolling back.

1. Did Jesus baptize anyone?
John 3:22 says yes, John 4:2 says no.

2. When Jesus first gave the 12 apostles powers of healing and sent them forth, how did he tell them to dress?
Matthew 10:10 and Luke 9:3 says he told them to go barefoot and without a staff. mark 6:8-9 says he told them to wear sandals and bring nothing BUT a staff.

3. What were the names of the 12 apostles?
Of the four lists (Matt 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13), all agree on 11 of the names. However, Matthew and Mark list the 12th apostle as Thaddeus, while Luke and Acts name Judas brother of James (a second Judas, not Iscariot).

4. How many believers were there at the time of the ascension?
Acts 1:15 says they numbered 120, but 1 Corinthians 15:6 says over 500.

My responses (I’ll try to be brief.):

1. In context, a dispute had arisen between John’s disciples and Jesus’ disciples, instigated by the Pharisees (4:1) because Jesus had baptized more than John. This would be in keeping with the gradual diminishing of John’s ministry in favor of Christ’s which John testified would happen (3:30). To reconcile 3:22 and 4:1, many commentators of 150 years ago (the contemporary commentaries I have on John do not address the apparent contradiction) agree that the baptisms of 3:22 took place not by the literal hands of Christ but by the hands of His disciples. The disciples baptized by His orders and directions (4:2) for as Matthew Henry remarks, “his disciples' baptizing was his baptizing. Holy ordinances are Christ's, though administered by weak men.”

2. One helpful way to look at the Gospels are as photo albums. They should not be expected to line up in every detail. If you and I were to take snapshots of the same event it would be from two differing perspectives. What may stand out to you may not be important to me. In many ways the Gospels are incongruous yet what is reported fits with the individual writer’s purpose. Each account stresses to take next to nothing on the journey, emphasizing the disciples’ dependence upon God for provision for the journey. Perhaps Mark made a minor adaptation that would have fit with his Roman audience’s understanding, or perhaps a different geographical setting that would have been important to Mark specifically.

3. All commentaries agree that Judas brother of James and Thaddaeus are one in the same man. I am no textual critic, but there is a variant in the Greek texts of this verse and quite possibly Thaddaeus is a corruption of Judas in the Greek. In some Greek manuscripts, Thaddaeus is actually Lebbaeus. My conjecture would be that these are nicknames, possibly of devotion or endearment, that the individual authors would have been aware of.

4. Acts 1:3 says that Christ remained on earth forty days after his resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15:6 gives no specific time frame of when Christ was seen during that time but only that 500 people saw him at once. So the two events, 120 seeing Him at the ascension and 500 people seeing him at another time, are mutually exclusive.

Those are my take!


Streak said...

Might make it clear that Joe wasn't using these as fundamental issues, right? But merely to point to some problems with inerrancy or literalism?

JoeG said...

Streak -
That is correct, I was not pointing these out as fundamental issues. The fact that there are contradictions in the bible is a fundamental issue. Gary had asked for 3, and I pulled up the first 4 I could think of. There are other individual ones that are much more bothersome to me if you'd like me to pull those up when things here slow down a bit.

Tony said...

Agreed--Joe is just expressing legitimate concerns over a literal approach to the Scriptures and I am attempting to address those.

I believe that the contradictions can be resolved without undermining the authority of the Bible.

I will say though that what Joe has pointed out does not have any overall bearing on any doctrine or orthodox theological understanding and neither will the resolution of those contradictions have any bearing on theology.

Joe--when things slow down, I would like to hear about the others.

Steve Sensenig said...

Of the answers you gave, Tony, I think that #2 is the only one that leaves me feeling a bit lacking. While it is true that both passages indicate "take next to nothing", it doesn't really address the difference between "don't take a staff" and "take a staff".

But, as has already been pointed out, this is hardly a significant theological point.

I can understand why these types of apparent contradictions leave some people unsettled. I can't say it makes me very happy, either ;)

Tony said...


You're right. However, the commentaries, etc. I have were loathe to address it beyond "Matthew and Luke say 'don't take a staff'" and "Mark says 'take a staff'". They didn't address the incongruity. I felt like my answer was insufficient of the four but really couldn't come up with anything on my own.

Joe brings up an important point and I don't think he would mind me quoting him, These may seem like small details, but if the bible is truly the unedited, perfect word of God, then even details this small should not be in conflict.

This affects a literal approach, in my estimation, a lot more than I think many are willing to give credit.

Incidentally, out at the other blog, Joe actually said my answers to #'s 2 and 3 were the most reasonable and accurate.

P.S. I did find this though still not very helpful.

Steve Sensenig said...

actually, your P.S. link was more helpful to me than it must have been to you.

Don't take two tunics, two pairs of sandals, two staffs.....that makes perfect sense to me and is entirely consistent with other teachings of Jesus (don't worry about tomorrow, what you shall eat or what you shall wear, etc.)

But Joe is right that Christians should be willing to be a bit more honest about what we actually have in our hands that we call the Bible. I find this is the case even when it comes to things like textual variants. When translators make choices as to which variant to use in their translation, they are making an educated guess. It is not an exact science, and we almost look foolish to not acknowledge that part of the process for what it is.

As for me, I am completely comfortable recognizing both a divine and a human element in the pages of scripture. Like, for example, when Paul says that something he is writing is his own opinion, and not the Lord's command. If the Holy Spirit were truly dictating every word of scripture through Paul in that case, that would seem like the Holy Spirit were playing some weird sort of game with us.

But if we just take the approach that God was guiding the thoughts of Paul as he addressed the churches, and yet Paul was free to include his own opinions, does that cheapen scripture? Or just our traditional view of scripture?

Maybe it would actually force us to be more dependent on the Holy Spirit ourselves -- something I would definitely think is a good thing ;)

Tony said...


As for me, I am completely comfortable recognizing both a divine and a human element in the pages of scripture. I am becoming more and more comfortable with this idea.

As you well know, I was indoctrinated with inerrancy doctrine. However, after a lot of private study and discussions with guys like you, Joe, and Streak it isn't as necessary a doctrine as it is purported.

Don't get me wrong--I believe the Bible is sufficient but little things like have been addressed in this post do not undermine theology nor the authority of the Bible; but they do do damage to a literal approach.

Literalism and inerrancy, at least in my estimation, are used for two particular reasons--as an intellectual crutch and a political wedge. Should we claim something for the Scriptures that they do not claim for themselves?

JoeG said...

I actually like Tony's explanation better than the weblink myself. :) But actually both get the point across. Tony gave a reasonable, human perspective explanation, while the one on the weblink seemed to me to be stretching things to make them fit together.
If you are interested, there are a bunch of contradictions listed here:
Just for the record, there are several in that list that I don't think should be there or may be construed as "digging for problems". But the underlying thought goes back to the quote that Tony posted from me. If the bible is the perfect, inerrant word of God, then even the small details should matter. My point in bringing out these contradictions is not to prove that the bible is a load of hooey. It is to show exactly what Tony and Steve are discussing above, that there is a human element to the bible and it must be considered when determining the legitimacy of a literal reading. I think the contradictions prove nothing more than human thought and fallibility, and that a literal reading is not necessary to prove or understand the message behind the bible stories.
My greater issue that I would like to discuss with you guys at some point (since you all seem a bit more open than Gary!) is the (in my view) pagan origins of the gospel stories and what that means to Christianity and Christ's divinity. Tony, if you want to discuss that here or open another thread on your blog, I'll leave that up to you. But that could be a fun discussion, and one I think is well worth having.

Steve Sensenig said...

Should we claim something for the Scriptures that they do not claim for themselves?

Nope. And that is actually my beef with "sufficiency" as well. Sufficient for what? And on what basis?

This is, I think, where a lot of confusion has come from. If inspired by God, it must be inerrant. That's the first major assumption and the first statement that scripture does not make for itself (inerrancy). And I think it comes from a particular assumption about what "inspiration" is.

Steve Sensenig said...

Sorry, had a toddler trying to get my attention, and I rushed through that last comment. It's not exceptionally written (as if any of my comments are!), so let me know if it made no sense to anyone!! ;)

Tony said...


As soon as that toddler quits tugging on you (ain't that grand, btw??) I would like to hear some further thoughts on sufficiency.

My assumption, and I am not convinced quite yet it is an assumption, but from the locus classicus on inerrancy, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, actually would teach more closely sufficiency rather than inerrancy. I am basing that on the word "profitable."

Is it a stretch to say profitable implies sufficiency? Moreover, you can add in Peter's view on Scripture in 2 Peter 1:19-21; when Peter says the prophetic word has been made "more sure" could sufficiency not be part and parcel?


BTW, welcome to my blog. I don't think I properly greeted you. We have talked out at JP, but I think this is the first time I have had the privilege of your company here. I will check out that link you provided and I look forward to further conversations with you.

If you would like to share some of your thoughts on your views on the pagan origins of the gospel stories, I would be obliged to hear them.

After hearing from you, I may post some stuff in response in a separate post and then more discussion could follow; so if you are up for it, so am I. Perhaps some of my other readers will jump in. And I can promise, there is no belligerence out here. :)

JoeG said...

Tony -
Glad to be here! :) Nice to be able to have controversial discussions in a "belligerence free zone".
My views on the pagan origins of some of the gospel stories are what I have posted on JP. Basically, they center on the church's early battle for acceptance among pagans. In order to win converts, the written stories of Jesus incorporated many of the elements of the gods Mithra and Horus. The number of links between Jesus and Horus is uncanny, and can be read about here:
Mithra and Osiris also had many similarities, even some quotes also found in the bible. For example, an inscription to Mithra dated before Christ reads: "He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made on with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation." Osiris was called Messiah and "The Way, the Truth and The Life" long before Christ ever existed. All performed miracles, healed the sick and raised the dead.
For the record, I believe that Jesus existed, that he was a highly evolved soul close to God, much like Buddha, Mohammed, and others. I believe Jesus was a Reiki Master, and that he was able to channel God's healing energy unlike anyone else in order to do so. And I believe there is much to be learned by all of us from Christ's teachings and his way of living. I just don't think following Christ is the only path to an eternity with the divine power.
Back to work, more later. I look forward to your comments on this much, I'll look out for another thread should you open one.

Steve Sensenig said...

Tony, great discussion here. And I must say it's the first time this subject has been discussed in my presence where there is true openness to outside the box thinking.

I do think it a bit of a stretch to take "profitable" and read "sufficient". It's funny you brought that up because I almost mentioned that passage as the "proof text" always given.

If my friendship with you is profitable to you in terms of encouraging you, challenging you, uplifting you, etc., does that mean that you have no need of other friends? Is my friendship "sufficient" for you to be encouraged? Or is it one possible source of encouragement?

I do not see "profitable" as in any way exclusive.

Furthermore, I believe that when Peter talks about the "more sure", it appears contextually that he is talking about the same thing as in Hebrews 1:1-2.

Jesus is the "more sure" thing -- above the prophecies, above recorded scripture, above written word. It is precisely that revelation of God in Jesus that enables us to be "more sure" in our faith.

Now, the usual counter to that is, "but how would we know about Jesus if it weren't for the written Bible?" My question is, how did people know about him before the letters of Paul and the Gospels and the letters of Peter, etc. were written? The testimony of those people who saw him.

And yes, that is written for us. But it is not the writing of those in which we find our faith. It is in the one to whom they point.

Jesus told the religious leaders of his day that they search the scriptures "thinking that in them you find life". In other words, I think it would be accurate to say that they thought the scripture was "sufficient" for living a life that pleases God and knowing God.

But, Jesus said, they point to him. He is the life.

And so, no, I do not believe the scripture is "sufficient" for anything other than pointing to Jesus. It is profitable for things, yes, per Paul. But not sufficient. If they were sufficient, our churches would be full of godly men and women, mature in the faith, and our culture would be turned upside down by the church.

But for all our emphasis on the written word in western Christianity, we have actually seen the opposite effect. Morality has declined. Christianity has become a religion of legalism and hypocrisy. And people use "the word" to cause all kinds of evil and division.

Now, I recognize that abuse of something does not negate its usefulness. But I'm simply saying that an emphasis on the written word as the all-sufficient rule for living has failed miserably.

Paul says in Colossians 3 that if we set our mind on the Bible, we will not fulfill the deeds of the flesh.

Oh, oops, I'm sorry! ;) He says, "Set your mind on things above and not on things of this world, and you will not fulfill the deeds of the flesh."

Old Testament mentions of "your law" and "your word" are not what our focus should be today. Our focus is (should be) on the one who fulfilled the law and who IS the word, and who alone can cause us to be righteous in the eyes of our Father.

Again, I point to Hebrews 1:1-2. That initial statement in that letter is very much undervalued, I fear.

Tony said...


I am glad we are having this discussion as well. This is something I have been mulling over for quite some time.

I guess I have been indoctrinated to accept inerrancy (and its counterparts) carte blanche with no real inspection.

Honestly, I have never really thought about the "doctrine" in this way nor practical outworkings such as you have mentioned; particularly that a concentration on what is supposed to unite Christians is actually dividing us, and doing a fairly good job of it.

As I have been evaluating this position, it has actually increased my faith and made me that much more trusting. I have actually heard that to reject inerrancy and its complementary language is to do damage to faith. Granted, I do believe God has spoken clearly in the Bible and that we should follow it.

But, I also am coming to understand dependency upon the Holy Spirit so much more now--its almost as if we (the proverbial we, not you and I) have replaced the Spirit in the Trinity with the Bible; you know, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Bible.

Your analogies are very helpful and I see your points on both Scriptures I cited. This is something I am going to continue to mull over and pray about. Thanks, bro!

Tony said...


Thanks for hanging out here for a while. Wow, you have given me a lot to chew on!!! I have read through the web pages you pointed me to and I am thinking those through. I haven't abandoned our discussion. I may open a new thread to address some of this stuff in a fresh setting. See you soon.

JoeG said...

Tony -
My pleasure, thanks for your honest, heartfelt involvement in the conversation. Where intellectual discussion goes, I will follow! :) I'm also enjoying the exchange between you and Steve. Very thought-provoking.

Steve Sensenig said...

Joe, glad you're enjoying it. Tony is a really good friend of mine, and is a great one to have these types of discussions with.

I'm very interested in your perspective, too, so I hope you hang out with us some more.

Tony, I'll probably write more later in response to your comment.

ron said...

Morning Bro. Tony,

Just wanted to wish all a Happy Easter with lots of fun !

As for the contradictions in the Bible " The True Word Of God " , my parents always taught me to respect my elders ?


Tony said...

Hey Brother Ron!

Its good to hear from you and thanks for the well-wishes for Easter. I hope your Easter is blessed as well.

Do you have any additional thoughts on this topic? I would like to hear them. Thanks!