The contradictions game
Three times I have debated skeptics of the Bible, and each time they raised Bible contradictions. I knew they would and I was prepared. I am rather good at reconciling contradictions. Give me a long list of apparent contradictions, and I can usually think of explanations. The difficulty is that the explanations are often contrived, and can seem like a desperate attempt to explain away the problem. They satisfy the believers, but unbelievers remain unconvinced. Unless you really want to believe that there is no contradiction, you will probably not find the explanation plausible.
Now when I look at the explanations I proposed, I feel like I was just trying to explain the contradictions away. A more likely explanation is that the documents were not inspired and some of the contradictions are real.
To give a flavour of the problems involved with reconciling biblical contradictions, I will discuss two passages that I have previously attempted to explain. There are websites dedicated to listing biblical contradictions1, but the issues involved are similar for other passages.
The death of Judas
During a question session after one debate, someone in the audience asked me to explain the contradictory accounts of Judas’ death. In Matthew’s gospel we are told that Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5), whereas Acts says that he fell headlong and burst open and his intestines gushed out (Acts 1:18). I retorted “Perhaps the rope broke” which the largely believing audience applauded, and which left the questioner speechless. But it was not really a valid explanation. I’ve seen someone fall to their death from the twelfth story of an office block, landing on the concrete pavement below. Bodies do not burst open unless they are rotting and bloated.
It is not just the manner of death which differs. Here are the two accounts in full; spot the differences:
3 Now when Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus had been condemned, he regretted what he had done and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders, 4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood!” But they said, “What is that to us? You take care of it yourself!” 5 So Judas threw the silver coins into the temple and left. Then he went out and hanged himself. 6 The chief priests took the silver and said, “It is not lawful to put this into the temple treasury, since it is blood money.” 7 After consulting together they bought the Potter’s Field with it, as a burial place for foreigners. 8 For this reason that field has been called the “Field of Blood” to this day. (Matthew 27:3–8)
18 Now this man Judas acquired a field with the reward of his unjust deed, and falling headfirst he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. 19 This became known to all who lived in Jerusalem, so that in their own language they called that field Hakeldama, that is, “Field of Blood.” (Acts 1:18–19)
There are some similarities, such as the fact that Judas committed suicide and that the field was called “Field of Blood”. But there are also some irreconcilable differences: who bought the field, when it was purchased, the manner of Judas’ death, and the reason for the name.
In classes that I taught, I would try to reconcile these accounts with an explanation that involved Judas hanging himself, then becoming bloated over several weeks before his rotting carcass disintegrated and fell to the ground. (Although he must have hung himself by the feet if he fell “headlong”.) Later, the priests bought the field with the money that Judas had thrown into the temple, and so in a sense it could be said that Judas “bought” it. I suggested that the name “Field of Blood” was appropriate because it was bought with the blood money, and because Judas died there. It is such a tortuous and unlikely explanation, that I eventually admitted to myself that I was simply trying to concoct a story to bolster my faith. In any context outside the Bible, two such stories would be recognized as contradictory accounts by unreliable witnesses.
It is much more likely that the two records are simply reporting different oral traditions about the death of Judas.
Numbers in the Old Testament are notoriously unreliable and many contradictions involve numerical information. For example, consider the following two records of the size of David’s army.
Joab reported to David the number of warriors. In all Israel there were 1,100,000 sword-wielding soldiers; Judah alone had 470,000 sword-wielding soldiers. (1 Chronicles 21:5)
Joab reported the number of warriors to the king. In Israel there were 800,000 sword-wielding warriors, and in Judah there were 500,000 soldiers.(2 Samuel 24:9)
They are from exactly the same time, but cannot be reconciled even allowing for some rounding.
In the past2 I have speculated that there may have been 300,000 men in a reserves force, and the different words used (soldiers vs warriors) may be purposeful. Similarly, perhaps an additional tribe has been added to the numbers of Judah in 2 Samuel 24:9 — we are told that Levi and Benjamin were not counted in 1 Samuel 21:5–6, and we can speculate (without evidence) that one or both of them were counted in the account in 2 Samuel. It is almost always possible to construct some explanation, although sometimes they stretch credulity.
A few verses later in 2 Samuel, David buys some land:
But the king said to Araunah, “No, I insist on buying it from you! I will not offer to the my God burnt sacrifices that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty pieces of silver. (2 Samuel 24:24)
The parallel account in 1 Chronicles tells a different story:
King David replied to Ornan, “No, I insist on buying it for top price. I will not offer to the what belongs to you or offer a burnt sacrifice that cost me nothing.” So David bought the place from Ornan for 600 pieces of gold. (1 Chronicles 21:24–25)
Ignoring the different names for the vendor, was it 50 pieces of silver or 600 pieces of gold? It simply is not possible to reconcile the two accounts in a way that convinces anyone except a believer immune to contrary evidence.
Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible difficulties attempts to reconcile many of these contradictions, and provides what he thought were the most likely explanations. On this one, he suggests (p.190) that David actually bought the entire mountain from Ornan for 600 pieces of gold, having earlier purchased just the threshing floor (with some oxen) for 50 pieces of silver. However, no evidence for this speculation is provided at all, and it is contradicted by the text. The only reasonable way to read 1 Chronicles 21:25 is that “the place” refers to “it” in the previous verse. To read it any other way is disingenuous, and reflects the desperation behind many attempts to preserve a consistent biblical record.
What is more likely?
Answering apparent contradictions in the biblical record has become something of a game for apologists. Who can dream up the most plausible account that is consistent with the different biblical passages assuming that each of them leaves out some important details? Provided somebody can imagine some elaborate story that brings all the details together, the contradiction is deemed “answered” no matter how implausible the story.
However, the question should not be whether the accounts can be reconciled with a possibly elaborate story, but what is the most likely explanation for the differing biblical accounts? Is it more likely that two parallel historical accounts should preserve such widely differing details, or that we are reading two alternative versions of an oral history that has changed many times in the re-telling over many centuries?
People who believe in biblical inerrancy never ask that question, because they start from the premise that the Bible is historically accurate, and so they assume that any apparent contradictions can be reconciled. The only difficulty is finding the right explanation out of the many that can be imagined.
The reverse of contradictions is coincidences. A popular line of evidence that believers will use, and which I have also used in the past, is to point to apparently “undesigned coincidences” in the biblical text. An example from my Way of Life book (p9) is the link between the Anakites and Goliath.
|Numbers 13:33 (KJV)||There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants. And we were in our own sight as grasshoppers.|
|Joshua 11:21–22||At that time Joshua attacked and eliminated the Anakites from the hill country … No Anakites were left in Israelite territory, though some remained in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod.|
|1 Samuel 17:4||Then a champion came out from the camp of the Philistines. His name was Goliath; he was from Gath. He was close to seven feet tall.3|
The three passages, written by different authors at different times, harmonize perfectly. At the time of Numbers, there were giants in the promised land, the descendants of Anakites. When Joshua went on his genocidal rampage, almost all of the Anakites were killed apart from those in Gaza, Gath and Ashdod. Much later, in the time of David, we find a giant living in Gath.
The argument is that such alignment across different passages written at different times is unlikely unless the passages are historically accurate. Certainly, if three different authors produced such alignment independently, that might be impressive. But no-one is suggesting that. Even believers assume that later authors knew of writings of the earlier authors. But more problematic is that historians consider all of the books of the Bible to have been written much later than the events they record, and are based on various oral traditions that had developed over time. It is hardly surprising if those oral traditions lead to similar elements appearing in different texts.
The huge men of Gath and neighbouring towns could easily have led to a mythical history that made its way into the books of Numbers and Joshua. All we can say is that the books are consistent with a belief (held at the time the books were written) that there was a race of giants whose descendants included Goliath3. Whether that belief had any historical basis is a different issue.
We cannot assume the historicity of the text, and then use the same text to argue for its historicity, especially when there is good evidence that it was written much later.
There are many examples where the text appears to have been copied inaccurately. These are often corrected in modern translations, but the problems exist in the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.
For example, 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles describe events in David’s life, and they do not always agree. Compare the following:
David became famous when he returned from defeating the Arameans in the Valley of Salt, he defeated 18,000 in all. (2 Samuel 8:13)
Abishai son of Zeruiah killed 18,000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt. (1 Chronicles 18:12)
We could probably explain the change of name by noting that Abishai was a general in David’s army, and so was acting on David’s behalf. But the switch from Arameans to Edomites is a simple copyist error. In Hebrew, Aram is spelled ארם while Edom is spelled אדם. Look carefully to see the difference. It would be easy to write the ד carelessly, or for the tiny stroke to the right to be smudged or fade, and then it looks like ר. Some translations correct Arameans to Edomites in 2 Samuel 8:13 to avoid the apparent contradiction. There are many copyist errors like this in the Bible.
Because this causes problems for inspiration, it is common to argue that inspiration only applies to the original manuscripts which no longer exist, and that such errors are not God’s fault. That raises the question as to why God has not bothered to preserve his words more accurately if they matter to him. Presumably it would have been easy for him to ensure that the words were copied correctly over time, but he has not done so. He has not attempted to ensure the transcription of his scriptures are accurate, but he has allowed human errors to occur.
Does it matter?
Many Bible believers will claim that such contradictions and errors do not matter. They do not alter the essential message of the Bible. What is a small numerical difference here or there? The underlying gospel is unaffected.
However, if God has not bothered to ensure that history has been accurately recorded, or that his word has been accurately preserved, then why should we believe other parts? A book with errors looks like a book of human origin, not a book we should treat as God’s message to us.
Is there anything in this collection of writings that we call the Bible that would suggest it was not of human origin? I asked myself that question, and I could not come up with anything that was sufficiently convincing for me to continue to be a believer.