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The Bible does have apparent contradictions

There do appear to be places where the same event is described differently by different writers. There are places where the New Testament quotes an Old Testament passage in a way that doesn’t seem to be consistent with the original Old Testament context. But such passages are clearly in the minority. Scripture is not filled with these kinds of problems. If it were, we might reconsider our views on the inerrancy of the Bible.

How to approach apparent contradictions

The ancient theological Augustine developed a three-part approach when he came across an apparent mistake in the Bible.

  • Is there a manuscript problem? This is rarely a problem today, because we have the benefit of thousands of manuscripts and excellent scholarship on them.
  • Did the translator get it wrong? This was more common centuries ago. Modern translations are very reliable, based on better understanding of translation theory and practice.
  • Is my understanding of what I’m reading limited? This is most likely the case. We are separated by centuries of cultural and historical differences from the original text.

Often what seem to be errors in the Bible are resolved as our knowledge about biblical culture, history, and language increases. For example, a number of archaeological findings have explained what were once seen as problem passages, and have confirmed the Bible’s reliability.

Everyone brings assumptions to the Bible

There are two basic approaches when a problem passage is discovered. The reader either assumes that there is an error or that there is an explanation. A liberal or atheistic scholar would assume an error and write it off with no more thought. An evangelical scholar would recognize the difficulty and look for ways to explain it. Evangelical students and scholars solve problems because they have a high view of scripture. They keep doing research and most often eventually find the answer. Liberals don’t do the research because they are already sure that an error has occurred.

A problem passage solved

Mark 1:1-2 says, “It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you….” But that quote is not from Isaiah, but from Malachi 3:1. Verse 3 continues: “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!'” This quote is from Isaiah 40. Liberal scholars have always written this off as Mark’s poor understanding of the Old Testament, resulting in an error in Scripture. But an evangelical student at Cambridge University recently did a PhD dissertation on the use of the Old Testament in Mark’s gospel. He studied the way Jewish rabbis and commentators used the Old Testament in Mark’s day. He discovered that these commentators would often explain one Old Testament text by another text. They would commonly quote the main text second and a secondary, supportive text first. So when Mark cited Isaiah, offered the Malachi text as a lead-in, and then got to the primary quote from Isaiah, he was following a method of explaining Scripture common in his era.

A high view of Scripture leads to these kind of discoveries, while scholars who are confident that such passages are in error aren’t motivated to do the scholarship.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. Are you troubled by apparent contradictions in the Bible? Why or why not?
  4. What do you think of Augustine’s approach to difficult Bible passages?
  5. Do you agree or disagree: “Everyone brings assumptions to the Bible.” Explain. What assumptions do you bring?
  6. How does a high view of Scripture lead to new scholarly discoveries?
  7. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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