by R.C. Sproul
Unbelievers often allege that the Bible is “full of contradictions.” I’ve noted in many places over the years, however, that most of the contradictions people suggest really do not qualify as contradictions but merely reflect the difference in perspective we get when several eyewitnesses describe the same event but give different details. In such cases, the accounts do not contradict one another; rather, each account may emphasize different aspects of the same event, such that we get a fuller picture when we see how the details can be harmonized. Variations in perspective are exactly what we should expect even in a divinely inspired text, for the Holy Spirit did not override the personalities and styles of the individual authors when they wrote. Instead, the Spirit worked through their concerns to give us an inerrant record of what happened even as each writer focuses on some details and not others.
The vast majority of supposed “contradictions” in Scripture are relatively easy to reconcile. However, for the sake of honesty, I must acknowledge that there are a handful of problems in Scripture that are exceedingly difficult. For instance, it’s hard at times to square 1 and 2 Chronicles with 1 and 2 Kings, particularly with respect to when certain kings reigned, how long they ruled, and when they took the throne. Some have done the yeoman’s work of figuring out how these accounts fit together, which requires detailed knowledge of how ancient Near Eastern peoples recorded dates, periods of co-regency when two kings ruled at the same time, and other such things. No universally accepted solution has yet been found for every problem, but the work continues, and there’s every reason to believe we will have better answers as we learn more about how ancient Near Eastern writers, including the authors of Kings and Chronicles, did their work.
I’m confident such problems will eventually be solved because we serve a God who speaks truthfully and consistently, and because archaeological discoveries continue to confirm the biblical account. As an example, for many years all we knew about Pontius Pilate came from the Bible and a few other extrabiblical documents, so some people questioned whether Pilate ever existed. But in 1961, an ancient inscription mentioning Pilate was found in what was once the city Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, thereby confirming that Pilate was indeed procurator of Judea during Jesus’ time. Another formerly “assured result of higher criticism” that “disproved” the Bible relates to the story of Abraham. For a long time, there was no archaeological evidence that camels had been domesticated in the patriarchal period, and many people said that proved the Genesis account to be fictional because the Abraham story includes domesticated camels. But eventually, archaeological discoveries pushed back the domestication of camels hundreds of years—well into the patriarchal period.
Other discrepancies in the biblical account have yet to be resolved, but that doesn’t mean we should doubt Scripture’s truthfulness. Here, I’m simply following the course of ordinary science. Every so often, we see massive changes in scientific theory, paradigm shifts in which there is a change in the overarching model adopted to make sense of the data. Scientific paradigms are structural theories that explain reality, but every scientific paradigm has had to deal with anomalies, for every paradigm suffers from the presence of details that it cannot neatly explain. But you don’t throw out the paradigm the first time you find an anomaly the paradigm cannot explain. You wait, you study, you get more data, and so on.
The paradigm doesn’t shift until you get enough of these anomalies challenging the system. Copernican astronomy did not replace Ptolemaic astronomy because there were only a few details Ptolemy’s system couldn’t explain. The Ptolemaic system worked for many centuries until too many anomalies were discovered. The Copernican model was then adopted because it better explains the data and has fewer anomalies.
Overall, the trend with respect to apparent biblical discrepancies is that the number of them is decreasing. If maybe there were once a hundred such difficulties, that list has been pared down to a handful. At this point, we don’t throw the Bible out based on a handful of unresolved difficulties when everything indicates a greater confidence in Scripture’s truthfulness than we had before.
We tend to be too quick in accusing normal people, let alone the Bible, of contradictions. Now, we’re all capable of inconsistence, incoherency, and contradiction. But common courtesy requires at least that we give others the benefit of a second glance. We should strive to figure out how someone can consistently affirm two seemingly contradictory positions. In giving that second glance, we often find that what others are saying is not as contradictory as it first seemed. If we extend this courtesy to others, how much more do we owe it to the Apostles? Before we accuse Paul of a contradiction, we ought to have enough respect for his importance to see if what he says in Ephesians really contradicts what he says in Galatians.
One of the most satisfying and faith-increasing exercises in my own lifetime has involved giving focused attention to alleged biblical difficulties. That’s because the more I study them and see their resolutions, the more I back away from the text in utter amazement that the Bible can be so coherent and so consistent and so unified at the tiniest level of the fine details. Its symmetry, its complexity, and its harmony are astonishing.