Are There Contradictions in the Bible?
(and what to do we do with them?)
Are there contradictions in the Bible? Our answer to that question probably rests on what we think the Bible is. Many of us, me included, were taught from a young age that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God. That being the case, the Bible was thought to be completely free from error or mistake. If while reading the Bible we discover conflicting accounts of events or ideas the problem isn’t the Bible, we were taught. In that case the problem lies with us, the reader/interpreter. Sound familiar?
Then many of us did the very thing we were taught to do: We read the Bible and took it very seriously. It was that earnest endeavor that caused us to realize that the Bible is not a monovocal text, but a multivocal library. Meaning, the Bible isn’t reflective of one author or voice (it’s not a book), but many authors and voices (because it’s a library). As a result we came to see that there are texts, stories, and ideas within the Bible that just do not agree with one other. If you’d like to explore just a few:
How many pairs of animals did Noah take on the ark?
Who incited David to take the census of fighting men?
Who killed Goliath?
Should we beat our swords into plowshares or turn our plowshares into swords?
Who heard the Divine Voice at Jesus’s baptism?
Who were the Twelve disciples?
Where did Jesus’s disciples experience him after Easter?
What was Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus like?
While the answers to these questions might seem obvious, they aren’t. There is more than one answer to all of them, and they are all contained within the same Bible. Also, these aren’t the only examples of issues within the texts. There are many, many more.
The reality is that not everything in the Bible can be reconciled or brought into agreement. Every book doesn’t say the same thing or agree, sometimes on big questions or significant details. Those who hold to the view of “inerrancy,” the doctrine that the Bible is without error, attempt to reconcile them and twist themselves into knots while jumping through hoops to harmonize it all. I know because I used to believe that idea and engage in that attempt. After all, if these texts “seem” to disagree, it’s because I haven’t fully understood them…right? Since that time I have come to understand the opposite. The Bible contains texts that present differing ideas about God, humanity, and the best way to live. It just does.
Once we come to terms with that reality we can ask an even more important question:
What do we do about the contradictions that are in the Bible?
That’s the question, isn’t it? We have a couple of options. We could just throw the Bible away, or chalk it all up to ancient superstition and ignore it. That’s where both conservative Christians and many atheists agree, even though they land on different sides of the question about the contradictions found in the Bible. Some progressives end up sharing this idea as well.
Another response is to look at the incongruencies and irreconcilable texts in the Bible, not as contradictions, but as part of a generations long conversation about the big questions of life and the human experience. I get it, it sounds like semantics at best, or at worst like I am trying to somehow minimize the “errors” in the texts. I promise I am not. The idea that the Bible contains contradictions is based on the assumption that the Bible is supposed to present one perspective, and that every author, because God inspired an inerrant text, tows the party line almost mindlessly in their writing. To put is more succinctly, the reason we see contradictions in the Bible is because we have been so indoctrinated and ingrained with inerrancy that, even when we reject it, it is still the measuring stick for how we view the Bible.
The Bible is a diverse collection of texts from various authors, in different contexts, in a wide span of time. Meaning, everything and every text in the Bible isn’t supposed to agree. Some authors are intentionally interacting, conversing, and even disagreeing with other texts/traditions/ideas. For example, (and this is a conversation I devote a chapter to in my soon-to-be-released book Context: Putting Scripture in Its Place) the book of Ruth is a text that was written to critique and resist the Ezra-Nehemiah reforms of the Post-Exilic period. Specifically, it rejects the idea that Jewish males should divorce and send away their non-Jewish spouses and children. Ruth is not meant to be adjusted or forced into agreement with Ezra-Nehemiah. It is intended to stand in contrast, to be an alternative voice, a challenge to those views.
This is not a one-off, isolated only to Ruth and Ezra-Nehemiah. The Bible is full of conversations and disagreements, texts that push back on other texts, and offer differing visions of God and what our human responsibilities are. When we embrace that truth, we begin to see that our role is not simply to quote a passage or verse of Scripture thoughtlessly, but instead to thoughtfully engage in the conversation that is happening, hear the challenge it presents, and to continue the dialogue from within our context. In that way Scripture really is a living library.
TLDR: The way we have been taught to engage the Bible is often still dictated by inerrancy, even after we have rejected that idea. When we approach the Bible as if each and every text was supposed to say the same thing, we are still playing by the rules of inerrancy. Instead, we are invited to see the Bible as a multigenerational conversation, even a disagreement at times. That then allows us to bring our own voices, contexts, and experiences to the art of interpreting and, if it makes sense, applying the lessons we learn to our own lives, today.