I was raised to believe in the literal infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures. If someone told me the Bible was “full of contradictions”, I was taught to hand them a Bible and say, “ok, show me one.” This usually works because most people don’t know the Bible all that well. But, demonstrating that the accuser doesn’t know his Bible well doesn’t negate his or her claim.
The more I’m learning, the more I realize that the Bible – though not full of contradictions – has quite a lot of them. And of these, though most are insignificant, several are quite significant.
The traditional orthodox response to these contradictions has been either to deny them, to attempt to reconcile them (i.e. explain them away) or to claim they weren’t in the “autographs”. Denying them is impossible for anyone who has seriously looked into the accusation. The claim that they aren’t in the autographs is just not helpful… and if it is true that the autographs are different than what we have, it throws the reliability of what our Bible contains into question.
This leaves us with the reconciling option. Usually, people who don’t want to admit to contradictions in the Bible will vastly overstate how this works by picking passages that are very easily reconcilable and then claiming that all the “apparent” contradictions are like that. For example, they may compare the sign that Pilate put on the cross, where the wording is slightly different, but the meaning is the same. If this were the worst contradiction in Scripture, I wouldn’t have anything else to say on this post. However, this type of argument is nothing but a “straw man” argument.
Though it is occasionally possible to reconcile contradictions, as above, I am not sure that it is necessary or even faithful to the Bible to do so. It requires us to synthesize Scripture in a way that I do not believe is faithful to Scripture. If we allow Scripture to speak as it has been given to us, we must allow it to speak in the tension and in the contradiction. The desire to reconcile these things is a distinctly Western instinct that comes from the enlightenment, not from Jesus, the disciples, or the Jewish tradition. In fact, the “doctrine” of infallibility and inerrancy are quite recent as well. We cannot assume that the Biblical writers were Western American Christians with our same sense of historical textbook non-biased fact only with no non-literal material writing.
Here are just a few contradictions in the Bible to consider: Compare 1 Kings 4:26 and 2 Chronicles 9:25. How many stalls of horses did Solomon have (40,000 or 4,000)? Compare 2 Samuel 24:13 and 1 Chronicles 21:11. How many years of famine were there (seven or three)? Compare Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18. How did Judas die? Of course there is the classic contradiction between Proverbs 26:4 and Proverb 26:5. Compare 2 Kings 24:8 and 2 Chronicles 36:9. How old was Jehoiachin when he began to reign (eight or eighteen)? Compare Matthew 1:16 and Luke 3:23. Who is Joseph’s father? Compare 1 Kings 9:23 to 2 Chronicles 8:10. How many overseers did Solomon have? (There are several more especially between Kings/Samuel and Chronicles and between the synoptic gospels… but they get redundant.)
And there are also contradicting (or at least multiple) theologies in Scripture. For instance, there are large sections in the Old Testament that tell us that God blesses those who do good with land and wealth and whatnot. But there are other sections (e.g. the book of Job & several psalms) that say exactly the opposite.
These are only a few representative contradictions among many. I’m sure some of these contradictions could be resolved. But I don’t think all of them can be.
Does this discredit the Bible? In my opinion it does not. What I think it does is discredit our tendency to read the Bible as though it is a history textbook where the reader is supposed to read dispassionately and from a distance. This tendency is engrained into our culture, no doubt. But it also militates against reading the Bible fully. We must learn to enter into the Bible more fully. It is difficult to get ourselves out of the assumption that our version of perceiving and understanding and communicating the truth was different from the writers and original audience of the Bible.
We ought not to read the Bible without letting the Bible read us. In our pursuit of the easy facts, we abandon what kind of book the Bible actually is. A professor of mine recently described the Bible as “faithful memory” rather than “history.” The difference does not hinder its ability to speak, but help it. History is fixed and static, whereas the observer shapes memory. Memory also allows for shaping the observer and the one who is raised with the ancestral memory.