Didn’t the original text have contradictions?

[This article was taken from our book The Bible: You Can Believe It.]


It is often stated you cannot believe the Bible because it is full of contradictions. That is not true. As we saw earlier, the Bible is “God-breathed” and therefore the original would have been absolutely perfect and without contradiction. Any “contradiction” in the Bible is an apparent contradiction not an actual contradiction. Thankfully there are many books that have been written explaining apparent contradictions in the Bible. Occasionally, the serious student of the Bible may see an apparent contradiction in the version of the Bible he is reading. These come from one or a combination of three sources: transmission, translation, or misunderstanding.

Transmission is copying the text in the same language. For example, the Hebrew Bible was copied in Hebrew to make more Hebrew texts available, and the Greek texts were copied in Greek to make more Greek texts available. Errors in transmission occur when the person copying the text fails to be 100% accurate. Perhaps he skipped a word or a line or misread a word. Remember that copying texts used to be a very tedious process. Copying any significant portion of Scripture could lend itself to copying errors. If a copy that contains an error becomes the basis for a version of the Bible, then that version will also contain the error. However, remember that the numerous copies and Scripture citations now available have enabled researchers to identify the vast majority of these types of errors.

A humorous example of a transmission error occurs in codex 109, a manuscript copied in the 1300s A.D. An apparently sleepy scribe was copying the genealogy in Luke 3, which, in the text he was copying from, was in two vertical columns. Instead of copying the names in vertical columns as they appeared in his master copy, he copied them across the columns horizontally. The result was that everyone had the wrong father. God was the son of Aram, and the source of the human race was not God, but Phares. Correcting the manuscript was very easy because of the thousands of correct manuscripts in existence. Other copying mistakes may not be as obvious, but they are corrected by the same process, i.e., comparing manuscripts. [1] If a version of the Bible is based on a manuscript of text that has a copying error, then that version may contain an apparent contradiction.

Translation errors are the second way apparent contradictions get into the Bible. Greek and Hebrew can sometimes be difficult to translate, especially if the translators do not understand what the author was trying to say. It is unrealistic to think that translators have never made a mistake, but it is more unrealistic to stop reading the Bible or say it is unreliable because it has been translated from one language to another. I am not aware of a “perfect” English version. Some English versions are better than others; nevertheless, all of them speak of salvation through Christ and the value of godly living.

An example of a mistranslation occurs in the King James Version of Acts 7:45. The verse is speaking of Joshua bringing the tabernacle of Moses with him into the Promised Land, but the King James Version reads that “Jesus” brought in the tabernacle, not “Joshua.” The mistake is understandable because in both Greek and Hebrew, “Joshua” and “Jesus” are the exact same name. However, in English they are different, and the English translation needs to be accurate. Most modern versions have corrected the error and read “Joshua.”

One kind of translation error occurs because the exact meaning of the Greek or Hebrew word cannot be brought into English. This is not so much a case of an actual error, but is rather the inability of the translator to bring the fullness of the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word into English. An example in the Greek text occurs in Luke 11:8. In the record in Luke, in the middle of the night a man is demanding bread from his neighbor. The NIV says the man was bold, while the NASB says the man was persistent. Why the difference? The Greek word anaideia actually has both meanings. Choosing one meaning or the other is usually necessary, but does not yield a completely accurate understanding of the text. This is one of the reasons that Bible study is necessary, lexicons and concordances are important, and commentaries can be very helpful.

God authored the Bible for our blessing and benefit, and it is up to us to work to know and understand it. The Amplified Bible was written to communicate more of the depth of meaning of some of the Greek and Hebrew words, and instead of a one-word translation of anaideia in Luke 11, it incorporates both meanings and reads, “shameless persistence and insistence.” If you discover a mistranslation in your Bible, it is helpful to make a note of it in the margin so you will read it correctly in the future.

Misunderstanding is the third, and without a doubt the most common, source of apparent contradictions. When a person misreads something in the Bible or misunderstands what he reads, he may interpret it as a contradiction. Misunderstandings can happen fairly easily, and for a number of reasons. Misunderstanding the language of the Bible, failure to note the person or people being addressed, not properly understanding the biblical customs or way of recording information, assuming similar records are identical or identical records are only similar, not getting all the details about something from every part of Scripture and thus making false assumptions about the records, and not recognizing the legitimate figures of speech used by God in the text are some of the major causes of apparent contradictions.

Biblical language can be hard to understand. Words like “atonement,” “sanctification,” “redemption,” etc., are not used in everyday English and can be misunderstood easily. Also, many words have more than one meaning. Even seemingly simple biblical words like “saved” can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. People and places often have more than one name, and, to make matters worse, different people and places often have the same name. For example, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is also called “Reuel” and “Jether” (Exod. 4:18-Hebrew text, but most versions have “Jethro” so readers will not be confused). However, at least five other people in the Bible are named “Jether.” It is easy to see how contradictions could be “found” when, in actuality, no contradiction exists.

Failure to note to whom a passage is addressed causes many apparent contradictions. Different parts of the Bible are addressed to different individuals or groups of people, and God occasionally changed the rules He wanted men to live by. Something God said to Abraham may not apply to the Jews under the Law, or something God said to the Jews under the Law may not apply to Christians. Also, God spoke specific words to many individuals and groups that do not apply except to them. It can cause great confusion if someone just picks up a Bible, opens it, reads a passage and tries to apply it in his life without noting to whom the passage is addressed. Imagine that a man by chance opens his Bible to Genesis and reads God’s command to Abraham that male children must be circumcised or His covenant is broken (Gen. 17:14). However, the next day his Bible happens to fall open to Galatians, and he reads, “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal. 5:2). This man could become completely confused about what God desires for his life. But there is no need for that confusion. If you recognize that God has given different rules at different times, and also has spoken specifically to individuals or groups, then you know that finding out to whom a section of Scripture is addressed can be the most important key to making it fit with the whole of Scripture, and you most certainly want to find this out before applying it in your own life. [2]

Another thing that causes Bible readers to be confused is not recognizing the manners and customs of the people in the Bible. There has been a dramatic change in people’s daily lives and customs since biblical times. For example, the well-known Bible character, Samson, told his enemies a riddle and challenged them to tell him what it meant. They secretly threatened his wife, and said that they would kill her and her family if she did not give them the answer to the riddle. Wanting to save her family, she told them the solution. They then went to Samson and gave him the solution, acting as if they had figured it out for themselves. Samson realized how they solved his riddle, and he proclaimed, “…If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle” (Judg. 14:18c). Samson’s statement about plowing does not make sense to us Westerners, and we wonder what plowing with a young cow has to do with solving a riddle. However, as we study the culture of the Old Testament, we learn the answer. In the Biblical culture, women were occasionally referred to as “cows” (Amos 4:1), and a young woman was referred to as a “heifer.” A somewhat similar usage in our culture is referring to females as “chicks.” In training a heifer to plow, the owner prods it with a goad (a pointed stick), until it learns to plow a straight row. Samson said in a very Eastern way, “If you had not plowed with [threatened with some kind of pain] my heifer [my young wife], you would not have found out my riddle.”

An example of an apparent contradiction involving chronology occurs when we compare Jeremiah 25:1 with Daniel 1:1. In Jeremiah 25:1, the first year of Nebuchadnezzar is the fourth year of Jehoiakim, king of Judah. In Daniel 1:1, Nebuchadnezzar is called the king of Babylon in the third year of Jehoiakim. Although this was once considered an obvious contradiction, scholars now know that far from being a contradiction, it actually proves the accuracy of the text. Jeremiah wrote from Judah while Daniel wrote from Babylon, and the two countries used different systems of counting the reigns of kings. The first months of their respective calendars were six months offset. The start of Daniel’s year in Babylon was Nisan, which usually falls in our March or April (they used lunar years, which are different than our solar years). The start of Jeremiah’s year was the month Tishri, which occurs in our September or October. Thus, an event that started in the summer of the fourth year of Daniel would still be in the summer of the third year of Jeremiah. If the books of Jeremiah and Daniel gave the same information about the years of Jehoiakim and Nebuchadnezzar, then that would have been a contradiction, and not historically accurate. God moved both Jeremiah and Daniel to record information that was historically accurate to them, given the countries in which they were living, and the entire Bible is just as historically accurate as the dates of Daniel and Jeremiah.

False assumptions about the Four Gospels are a common source of apparent contradictions. It is common knowledge that each of the Four Gospels gives different details about Christ’s life. This means the only way to get the entire picture of Christ’s life is to read all four. [3] Scholars have noticed the differences between the Four Gospels, and claimed that the writers contradicted each other. For example in Matthew 21:19, Jesus cursed a fig tree that withered immediately. In Mark 11:14-21, Jesus cursed a fig tree that withered overnight. Doubters are quick to point out this difference and say that Matthew and Mark contradict each other. The simple truth, however, is there were two trees that Jesus cursed. The fig tree was a symbol of Israel, and Jesus cursed two of them to make a point. It was the same point God made to Pharaoh in the book of Genesis when He gave him the same basic dream twice—something done twice is established by God and will certainly come to pass. Jesus knew that Israel as a nation was going to wither after it rejected him, so he cursed two fig trees to emphatically make the point.

The above examples are just two illustrations of so called “contradictions” often cited by critics of the Bible, that are nothing of the kind. There are also times when God places pieces of a story throughout the Bible so that only the diligent reader will see all the details. For example, different parts of the history of Israel are found in Kings, Chronicles, and the Prophets, so someone reading just one part will not get the whole story and may make false assumptions.

Before we close the discussion on apparent contradictions, it is essential to cover the very important area of figures of speech. A figure of speech is a deviation from the literal usage of language, or an unusual use of language to make an impact on the reader or catch his attention. The Bible should be taken literally whenever and wherever possible, but there are occasions when it is not literal, and a knowledge of figures of speech is essential in order to make sense of some difficult parts of Scripture. The field of figures of speech is not guesswork or haphazard. It is quite technical and exacting. There are more than 200 different figures of speech that have been identified in Scripture. The milestone work that has been done on the subject is the book, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, by E. W. Bullinger. Sadly, it is often the case that whenever someone does not understand a verse, or is unwilling to take it literally, he calls it a figure of speech. This is simply not the proper way to handle God’s Word.

It should not be thought unusual that God would use figures of speech. We use them all the time, and God uses them to enhance His communication to us. Interestingly, most of the time when we humans use them, we do so instinctively and haphazardly. God always uses figures of speech for a specific purpose, so it is important to recognize them. An example of how knowing the figures of speech in Scripture can help us correctly interpret the Bible occurs in Malachi. The prophet Malachi said that Elijah would come before the great Day of the Lord (Mal. 4:5). When the disciples finally realized that Jesus was the Christ (the Messiah), they were confused because, to them, Elijah had not yet come. They asked Jesus, “…Why then do the teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?” (Matt. 17:10b). These disciples had been taught in the Synagogue that the Christ could not come until Elijah came, and since Elijah had not come, then how could Jesus be the Christ? Jesus corrected their misunderstanding and said, “…Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him…” (Matt. 17:12a). “Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist” (Matt. 17:13).

John the Baptist was not Elijah, but there were so many similarities between the two men that God used the figure of speech Antonomasia, or “name change,” to describe John. Antonomasia is used to import the characteristics of one person onto another person. When my son was young, he would occasionally jump up and down on the couch. If I caught him, I would say something like, “Cut that out, Tarzan.” I know my son’s name is not Tarzan, but by calling him “Tarzan,” I was attributing Tarzan’s characteristics to him. This is a common figure, and one that we use all the time. Elijah did not have to come back from the dead to fulfill Malachi’s prophecy. One like Elijah needed to come—and John was similar to Elijah in so many ways that it was appropriate to prophetically call John “Elijah.”

The use of Antonomasia in Malachi is a good example of a non-literal figure of speech. Another is Hyperbole, or exaggeration. Exaggeration was a common way of making points in the biblical culture, and so it appears in the Bible. Christ said, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…” (Matt. 5:30a). He would be horrified if anyone actually cut off a hand. In a very Eastern way, Christ was making the point that we need to be prepared to take drastic measures to stop sinning.

An example of a figure of speech that uses unusual patterns of language to get the reader’s attention is Polyptoton, or “many inflections.” Polyptoton uses the same word more than once in a passage, but uses it in different parts of speech. A good example is 2 Kings 21:13b: “…I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” In this verse it is the unusual repitition of the words that God uses to catch the attention of the reader. Knowing the figures of speech used in the Bible resolves many apparent contradictions, and also points out to us things to which God wants us to pay special attention. Anyone wanting to understand the Bible better will profit by taking some time to study Bullinger’s book on figures of speech.

It has been proven over and over again that “contradictions” in the Bible are only apparent contradictions, which study and research can resolve. The original God-breathed Word first given to the writers was without contradiction, and things that are hard to understand or at first seem like contradictions can be explained in light of the whole scope of Scripture.


[1] It occasionally occurs that the ancient manuscripts are quite evenly divided in their different readings, and in those cases the professional textual critics have other ways to determine the original besides comparing manuscript to manuscript, although that is the most common way.
[2] That God changed the rules by which men live at various times in history is vital to know, and absolutely essential to understanding the Bible. Our booklet by Mark Graeser, Defending Dispensationalism, (Christian Educational Services, Indianapolis, IN, 2001) is very helpful in gaining an understanding of the basic concepts of the different “administrations” in the Bible. For further study, go to TOPIC: Administrations.
[3] For a clear presentation of Matthew presenting Christ as the king, Mark as the servant, Luke as the man, and John as the Son of God, see One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith (Christian Educational Services, Indianapolis, IN, 2003) chapter 6.

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