Contradictions in the Bible

One of the arguments that’s often thrown against Christianity is that the Bible is full of contradictions. If the Bible is supposed to be God’s word, then we would at least expect it to be consistent, and so the presence of contradictions demonstrates that it’s a purely human work of literature, written by people who, like us, have blind spots and areas of ignorance.

This is a logically valid argument. If the Bible does have contradictions, then it can’t all be true, by the law of non-contradiction (a proposition can’t be both true and false in the same sense). But is it a sound argument? That is, is the premise that the Bible contains contradictions, true? If the Bible did contain contradictions, then I would personally abandon it as a source of authority. But having read a number of books on the so-called ‘contradictions’ in the Bible, I’m yet to find a single one that stands up to scrutiny.

The majority of these so-called ‘contradictions’ are of the form: one gospel account (e.g. Mark) says that X happened, and another account (e.g. Luke) says that X and Y happened. For example, while Luke recounts two angels at the empty tomb (Luke 24:4), Matthew and Mark only mention the one who spoke to the women (Matthew 28:5-7, Mark 16:5-7). History is selective by its very nature, and so the fact that one account includes some details, and another account includes different but overlapping details, is not evidence of a contradiction. If one account said that X or Y did not happen, then that would be a genuine contradiction, but there’s no examples of this in the Bible.

One of the examples that’s put forward as a contradiction, is the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. These are identical up until David, but then while Matthew follows the line of the kings of Judah (see 1 Chronicles 3:10-16), Luke follows another line from different source, or more likely, from a set of different sources (Luke 1:1-4).

If these genealogies were presented as closed genealogies (complete genealogies without gaps), then this would certainly be a contradiction, but both are presented as open genealogies (lines of descent with gaps). Matthew’s language of ‘X became the father of Y’ translates the same phrase used in the Hebrew Old Testament which can also be translated ‘X became the ancestor of Y’, and can even take both meanings in the same verse (Numbers 36:8; Joshua 24:2; 1 Kings 11:43; 15:24; 22:50; 2 Kings 15:38; 2 Chronicles 9:31; Malachi 2:10), and Luke’s language of ‘Y the son of X’ is literally ‘Y of X’. Both indicate a line of descent, but neither are presented as closed genealogies.

Another so-called contradiction concerns the date of Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the evening before the crucifixion as ‘the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb’ (Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7), but John says that on the day of the crucifixion, the Jewish leaders didn’t enter the palace to avoid ceremonial uncleanness ‘because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover’ (John 18:28). The question is: was Jesus crucified on the day of the Passover, or the day after?

According to the Old Testament, ‘On the fourteenth day of the first month the Lord’s Passover is to be held. On the fifteenth day of this month there is to be a festival’ (Numbers 28:16-17). The Lord’s Passover, when Jesus ate the last supper with his disciples, was on the evening of the 14th day of the month (Thursday evening), and the day of the festival, when Jesus was crucified, was on the 15th day of the month (Good Friday), which, being the day before the Sabbath (Saturday), was also the preparation day on this particular Passover (John 19:14). The Old Testament background demonstrates the coherence between John and the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

Another so-called contradiction concerns Judas. Did Judas return the money he had received for betraying Jesus (Matthew 27:3), or did he use it to buy a field (Acts 1:18)? And did Judas hang himself (Matthew 27:5), or did his body burst open in the field (Acts 1:18)? Again, these descriptions aren’t mutually exclusive. Like the book of Acts, Matthew also records that Judas’ payment was used to buy the field (Matthew 27:5-6), and Judas’ body would have burst open because of the tension placed on it by his hanging, indeed, it would be questionable if it didn’t, since bodies don’t burst open for no reason.

The vast majority of the other so called contradictions put forward by atheists are essentially differences in minor details between the historical account in 1 and 2 Kings, and various manuscripts of the later parallel account in 1 and 2 Chronicles (e.g. how old a certain king was when they became king, how long he reigned for etc). However, the Christian doctrine of inerrancy applies to the original autographs, not subsequent copies. If the author of Chronicles copied the earlier account in Kings, then the existence of a few manuscripts of Chronicles with minor differences, alongside other manuscripts with the correct details, hardly constitutes a contradiction.

Another kind of so-called contradiction put forward against Christianity concerns Christian doctrine. The most common example compares Paul’s statement that “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28), and James’ statement that “a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). But Christians aren’t justified by their righteousness, Christians are justified by Christ’s righteousness (Romans 3:21-26), and so they’re described as simultaneously justified and sinful (Romans 7:14-25), yet progressively transformed (Romans 12:1-2) such that they’re saved by faith alone, though faith is never alone.

If there was a single contradiction in the Bible that stood up to scrutiny, I would personally abandon it as a source of authority. However, the more I look into the so-called contradictions in the Bible put forward by atheists, the more I’m convinced that they’re grasping at straws. For example, one such author maintains that there is a contradiction in following: At what time of day did the women visit the tomb? (a) “Toward the dawn” (Matthew 28:1) (b) “When the sun had risen” (Mark 16:2) (Tameka Navarrette, 100 Contradictions found in the Bible, no 83).

When John Lennox found Bertrand Russell’s book Why I’m not a Christian to be a series of straw-man arguments, he testifies that the net effect was “to confirm my Christian faith, not undermine it” (John Lennox, Gunning for God, p189-190). Similarly, after listening to the strongest arguments put forward by atheists on his radio show Unbelievable, Justin Brierley says “Ten years on, I can honestly say that I am more confident in my Christian faith than when I began the show” (Justin Brierley, Unbelievable?, p19-20). This has been my experience in spades. A genuine contradiction would powerfully undermine Christianity, but the lack of any substantive cases only serves to strengthen it.

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