Inerrancy and Bible Contradictions
By Jason Petersen
For years, those who deny the authority and inerrancy of scripture have assailed Christianity by arguing that the Bible has contradictions. In this paper, this student will begin by highlighting two notable Christian scholars and their view of the inerrancy of scripture. This student will then construct a positive view of the inerrancy of scripture and will demonstrate that the Bible attests to its own inerrancy and authority. After the inerrancy and authority of scripture has been established, this student will construct a methodology for dealing with contradictions and will give examples of how that methodology is used.
In response to a question about inerrancy, William Lane Craig, perhaps the most prominent Christian apologist in current times, correctly points out that Biblical inerrancy should be arrived at deductively. He, however, contradicts this correct statement when he writes, “When confronted with biblical difficulties, the inerrantist will attempt to show that alleged mistakes are not really mistakes after all and to provide plausible harmonizations of apparent inconsistencies.” He also writes, “Where this cannot be done, he will honestly admit that he doesn’t know the solution to the difficulty but nonetheless insist that he has overriding reasons to think that the text is accurate and that were all the facts to be known the alleged difficulty would disappear.” In Craig’s answer, ‘plausible’ refers to having good reasons to think that a particular claim is true. Unfortunately, having what one may think are good reasons to accept a claim as true is not enough to resolve a contradiction. If we can only show that what we believe is plausible, it follows that it is also plausible that the Bible has at least one contradiction. This is because the type of answer given by Craig and those who deal with contradictions in the same way that he does leaves open the possibility that there could still be a contradiction in scripture. There is no inductive inference that is forceful enough to override a contradiction. Although Craig says that those who hold to Biblical inerrancy should approach the doctrine deductively, it is clear that his chosen method is inductive because it retreats to the possible.
Michael Licona drew the ire of several prominent Christian theologians and apologists when he suggested an unusual view of inerrancy. In his book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Historiographical Approach, Licona deals with Matthew 27:52-53, due to the rising of the saints being an unusual circumstance, Licona suggests that Matthew 27:52-53 should be regarded as poetic after he compared Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death to the other three Gospels. He also compared the accounts to extra-biblical sources such as Josephus. While Licona states he is undecided on how to interpret Matthew 27:52-53, he suggests that even if one holds to the position that Matthew 27:52-53 is poetic, it is still possible to hold to Biblical inerrancy. There are several glaring errors that Licona makes. First, his hermeneutical method relies on extra-biblical sources. If the Bible attests to its own authority and it is inerrant, why should any Christian subject how it should be interpreted to extra-biblical sources? Second, in Licona’s aforementioned work, he exposed critics of Jesus’ resurrection by showing that their dogma against the resurrection is effecting their conclusion about the Gospel’s testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus; however, it seems that Licona’s dogma concerning the need to use extra-biblical sources to pass judgment on the nature of the Bible’s claims carries a dangerous dogmatism that sets itself against the authority and sufficiency of scripture. The notion that a Christian that holds to the inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency of scripture would test the scriptures against non-inspired history is patently absurd. Third, if one can say that the risen saints mentioned in Matthew 27 are poetic, what is to stop one from saying the same concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ? A metaphorical account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ would send shockwaves throughout the rest of scripture in regards to its meaning. Furthermore, if it is to be regarded as metaphorical, what hermeneutical method would allow us to arrive at this conclusion? Licona gives no way to distinguish between a historical and a metaphorical account aside from looking to extra-biblical sources. Are we to submit ourselves to the authority of fallible scholars that must take an inductive approach to history due to their lack of omniscience? How would one choose which source to trust and which not to trust? Such a method would render the propositional revelation of scripture unintelligible. If there is no propositional truth in which inerrancy refers to, the statement, “The Bible is inerrant,” becomes meaningless.
While it is permissible to use an extra-biblical source to investigate topics relating to the Bible and the claims it makes, no exegete should ever subject the interpretation of the Bible to a fallible source. If an exegete relies on their own judgment concerning the reliability of non-inspired historical sources and judges the veracity of those sources incorrectly, it could result in an incorrect interpretation of scripture. Due to the inductive nature of historical investigation, there is no way to demonstrate which sources are trustworthy and which sources are not trustworthy. This is why the analogy of faith that Paul speaks about in Hebrews 12:6 is important. Christians must let scripture interpret scripture. The exegete must look at the literary structure of passages in scripture to determine whether the passage is a historical narrative or metaphorical. If there is no indication that the passage is metaphorical, it must be regarded as historical.
In 2 Timothy 3:16, the Apostle Paul wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” In Timothy 3, Paul is speaking to Timothy about being faithful to God even when the rest of the world is not. In verse 16, Paul writes that the Bible is sufficient for instruction and correction. Some may believe that verse 16 only refers to correction and instruction in a moral sense, but prior to this verse, Paul writes in verses 14-15, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” From these passages, it is clear that Paul viewed the knowledge that was given from the scriptures as the basis for living a Christ-like life. It is also clear that Paul views the scriptures as authoritative. If the Bible were not inerrant, there would be no way to distinguish which of the propositions of the Bible are true and which are false. The proclamation in verse 16 is universal. All scripture is God breathed. Every proposition that is declared true in scripture must be so. Christian philosopher Gordon Clark wrote, “And if the Bible contains errors here and there, as those who deny inerrancy hold, we cannot trust the Bible’s assertions of Jesus’ sinlessness, for these could be some of its errors. If those who reject inerrancy claim that these verses are not errors, we ask, How do you know? By what epistemological criterion do you distinguish between the Bible’s truths and the Bible’s mistakes? For if the Bible makes false assertions, there must be a criterion independent of and superior to the Bible by which its assertions must be judged. We challenge our opponents to state their epistemological criterion. Unless we know their method first, we cannot accept their theology.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith states in Chapter I, Article V, “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” Clearly, the Westminster divines held that the Bible is without error. In this paper, when it is said the Bible is inerrant, it means that the propositional revelation of the Bible is without error.
In logic, a contradiction is two stated propositions that are mutually exclusive. Some unbelievers will appeal to two verses that they claim cannot both be true. Others will argue that the Bible contradicts what is known about history. Some also will claim that the Bible contradicts what is known about science. It is not difficult to find sites that claim to have found 1,000 contradictions. It is easy for Christians to be intimidated by such sites, but the Christian must keep in mind that claiming there is a contradiction in the Bible and demonstrating that there is a contradiction in the Bible are two different things.
Given what the Bible and the Westminster Confession of Faith says, there is no room for contradictions in the scripture. Every Christian needs to know how to address these contradictions. In this paper, the three categories of contradictions that were mentioned in the first paragraph will be broadly addressed.
There are several principles that this student will give for dealing with Bible contradictions that will be drawn from what has been established so far. First, there is only a contradiction when the claims made in a passage of scripture results in two mutually exclusive claims in the same time and sense. Second, the Bible should have primacy over any extra-biblical source. Third, resolutions to contradictions should rely upon the propositions of scripture and what can be validly deduced from them. Fourth, God, who is the author of the scriptures, does not lie; therefore, if interpreting a verse in a certain way leads to a contradiction, the interpretation of the verse is incorrect.
Some unbelievers have claimed that the Bible contradicts what is known about history. For instance, some have asserted that while the Book of Exodus attests to the plagues causing the Pharaoh to tell Moses and Aaron to take the Israelites and go, historians know that the event never happened. In a Huffington Post article, an atheist named Stak Rosch points to an article by Rabbi David Wolpe. In this article, Wolpe argues that the Exodus of the Israelites was not a historical event. Wolpe accepted this on the basis of what archaeologists have said. The archaeologists argue this position by appealing to “settlement patterns” that show that there was not a large influx of people in the land of Israel around the time of the Exodus. How large of an influx could we expect from an Exodus? One could only guess. How many belongings did the Israelites have? Did they initially use some of the Canaanites belongings until they could craft their own goods? Would an influx of people be apparent if there were already an entire civilization that was living at what was to be the Land of Israel prior to the Jewish people’s occupation of the land? It took the Israelites at least 40 years to reach the Land of Canaan. This does not count the time it took for the Israelites to conquer Canaan and claim it as the Land of Israel. Even if we were not to consider the timeframe in which the Israelites began their journey from Egypt to the promise land (this was at least a 40 year journey), the method that these archaeologists use is not epistemologically sufficient to demonstrate that the Bible’s account of the Exodus is incorrect. Because historians and archaeologists are not omniscient, they rely on induction to draw their conclusions. Induction does not guarantee the truth of the conclusion even if the premises that precede the conclusion are true. It is not possible to know about history from an inductive method. Since it is not possible to know about history from an inductive method, it is not possible to demonstrate that the Bible contradicts what is allegedly known about history. If there is no knowledge of history, there is no knowledge of history that the Bible can contradict. This is applicable to all allegations that the Bible contradicts what is known about history.
Next, some unbelievers have charged that the Bible contradicts what is known about science. For instance, Islamic scholar Zakir Naik said in a debate, “The Bible speaks about the creation of the universe. In the beginning, 1st Book, Book of Genesis, 1st Ch., it is mentioned – It says… ‘Almighty God created the Heavens and the Earth, in six days and talks about a evening and a morning, referring to a 24 – hour day. Today scientists tell us, that the universe cannot be created in a 24 hour period of six days.” Naik and the scientists he relies upon err by not considering that the creation of the universe was the act of an omnipotent God. One cannot rightfully place restrictions on the creator of the universe, especially if he is omnipotent. Naik’s objection, therefore, amounts to a category error.
Another example concerning science and the inerrancy of scripture comes from atheists who accept universal-common descent. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins have suggested that the Bible’s attestation to a literal Adam and Eve is nonsense because we already know that we evolved from a common ancestor. Just as it is with the historical method, there are philosophical problems that the scientific method faces that demonstrate that relying on science to discern truth from error results in epistemological skepticism. First, the scientific method faces the problem of induction. Second, the scientific method involves a fallacy known as asserting the consequent. This fallacy is committed when one reasons from the consequent to the antecedent. Third, the empirical method relies on observation, but the investigator must be able to demonstrate that he can get propositional truth from a non-propositional source such as sight before he can demonstrate the truth of his claims. Because of these flaws in the scientific method, the authority of scripture must take primacy over the scientific method. When a fallible and in infallible source contradicts, one must always favor the infallible source.
So far, it has been shown how to use some of the principles that were given in this paper to refute claims that the Bible contradicts science and history. Since the methods that scientists and historians use to attack the Bible are not epistemologically sufficient, the claim that the Bible is incorrect in either of those areas remains unsubstantiated; however, there is another type of alleged contradiction that unbelievers use to attack the Bible. This particular objection involves arguing that the Bible attests to propositions that contradict one another.
Bart Ehrman is perhaps one of the most revered New Testament scholars in the world. Those who reject the authority of scripture hold his critiques of the New Testament in high regard. Indeed, Ehrman makes many claims concerning contradictions of scripture that he says are irreconcilable, and a lack of space does not allow this student to respond to all of them. This student will, however, use some of Bart Ehrman’s claims as an example of how to apply the first and fourth principles for handling Bible contradictions that was shared in this paper. In his book, Jesus: Interrupted, one of the arguments he makes that is that the Bible contains contradictions concerning why Judas betrayed Jesus. He writes, “The four accounts [the four Gospels] differ on why Judas did the foul deed. There is no reason stated in Mark….Matthew states explicitly that Judas did it for the money. Luke, on the other hand indicates Judas did it because “Satan entered into him….In John, Judas is himself called “a devil, and so presumably he betrayed his master because he had an evil streak.” If one were to look at all of the claims about Judas’ motives from the Bible closely, one would find that none of these propositions contradict one another. Judas wanted money, the devil influenced him, and he had an evil streak. None of these propositions are mutually exclusive. One cannot assert the Bible has a contradiction if they cannot demonstrate why these propositions are mutually exclusive.
Another example from Ehrman is found in the same section of his book. This alleged contradiction concerns the death of Judas. Ehrman writes, “More interesting yet is the question of what happened to Judas after he performed the act of betrayal. Mark and John say nothing about the matter: Judas simply disappears from the scene. So too, the Gospel of Luke, but Luke wrote a second volume to accompany this Gospel, the book of Acts. Acts gives an account of what happened to Judas after the betrayal, as does the Gospel of Matthew, but it is striking that the two accounts stand directly at odds with each other on a number of points.” According to Ehrman, Matthew and Acts give two irreconcilably different accounts and states that exegetes have had a “field day” with trying to resolve this alleged contradiction. Matthew 27:3-10 gives an account of Judas hanging himself whereas Acts 1:18-19 claims that Judas’ guts spilled out when he fell onto a rock. Since Matthew says that Judas hung himself and Acts says his guts spilled out, the exegete must rightfully conclude that both of the events occurred; therefore, there is no contradiction. Rather, in God’s providence, when the writers were lead by the Holy Spirit to write, these two writers gave different details of the same event. Ehrman also claims that there is a contradiction concerning who purchased the potter’s field in which Judas was buried in. Bart Ehrman contends that Acts claims that Judas purchased it whereas Matthew claimed the Jewish priests purchased it. Given the two accounts, Judas was not happy with what he had done and gave the money back to the Jewish priests. The Jewish priests could not keep the money because it was tainted with blood; therefore, Judas acquired the field with his blood money because the Jewish priests bought it with his money. Ehrman also claims that the origin for the naming the field “The Field of Blood” involves two different accounts and therefore is a contradiction. This also is not the case. The potter’s field was named “The Field of Blood” because Judas bled all over it and it was tainted with blood money. There is no contradiction to be found when comparing these two passages. The temple was not authorized to keep the money (Matthew 27:6) so Judas was considered the benefiter of the purchase (Acts 1:18).
Most of the accusations that Bart Ehrman makes are fueled by the Gospels and other writings in the New Testament giving different details about the same story. It is easy to pick differing details in the different books of the Bible and then allege that there is a contradiction, but when the passages that are claimed to contradict are examined more closely, the Bible acquits itself.
There is yet another accusation that challenges the Deity of Christ by arguing that Mark did not present Jesus as God. Bart Ehrman is also a proponent of this position. Many Christians have said that they have trouble dealing with this claim, but there are several things to keep in mind. First, God intended for the Bible to be read in a way that keeps all of the propositions that it attests to be true in mind. Just because one book of the Bible gives a detail that the other does not give does not mean that the Bible contradicted itself. God knew that one author that he spoke through would cover a detail that another would not. Christians know this because the Bible clearly teaches that God, through the Holy Spirit, has spoken through the writers of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21). B.B Warfield writes, “God is Himself the author of the instruments He employs for the communication of His messages to men and has framed them into precisely the instruments He desired for the exact communications of his message.” God, being sovereign over all things, decreed that his revelation to us through scripture would be given exactly in the way in which he desired it. Any overlaps in details between differing books of the Bible were God’s will, and any differing details that were shared were also shared as a result of God’s will. God’s will was for the church to be the benefit of a complete revelation from him that would be sufficient for the knowledge that Christians need to acquire and to live faithfully. The Westminster Confession of Faith states in Chapter I, Article VI, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” Second, although it is now known that it is not necessary for a specific Gospel to say anything about the Deity of Christ, Bart Ehrman’s objection is easily dispatched by Jesus forgiving the sins of a man in Mark 2:1-12. If only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7), and Jesus forgave sins (Mark 2:5), it follows that the Gospel of Mark taught that Jesus is God. There are other examples as well, but a lack of space prevents this student from going any further.
This paper has established a Biblical view of inerrancy and this student gave four general principles that give a methodology for dealing with any allegation of a contradiction in The Bible that an unbeliever may bring to a Christian’s attention. It has also refuted erroneous views of inerrancy and specific allegations concerning Bible contradictions. Christians must keep in mind that the Bible is not to be viewed only as separate books that are written by various authors. It must instead be viewed as the complete Word of God. There is no need for every book in the Bible that overlaps in covering events to have the same details. Having one detail in one book of the Bible is enough for the reader to be assured that the particular detail in question is true.
 Craig, William Lane. What Price Biblical Errancy? Reasonable Faith. Accessed January 4, 2017. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/what-price-biblical-errancy.
 It should also be noted that the metric for ‘plausibility’ is arbitrary.
 Mohler, Albert. The Devil is in the Details: Biblical Inerrancy and the Licona Controversy. Albert Mohler. Last modified September 14, 2011. Accessed January 4, 2017. http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/09/14/the-devil-is-in-the-details-biblical-inerrancy-and-the-licona-controversy/.
 Licona, Michael R. When the Saints Go Marching In (Matthew 27:52-53): Historicity, Apocalyptic Symbol, and Biblical Inerrancy. Risen Jesus. Accessed January 04, 2017. http://www.risenjesus.com/wp-content/uploads/2011-eps-saints-paper.pdf.
 Licona has admitted that this question does follow from a poetic interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53.
 There are also cases, such as typological passages, where an Old Testament passage of scripture could point to an antitype, but this is not a case of a metaphorical passage. Typological passages are distinguished from metaphorical passages. The exegete must take care to not confuse the two.
 In this paper, all citations from the Bible will be from the English Standard Version (Crossway, Copyright 2001).
 Clark, Gordon H. What is Truth? Accessed January 04, 2017. http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=309.
 This principle is derived from the definition of ‘contradiction.’
 This is because whatever the Bible claims is guaranteed to be true (John 17:17).
 An inductive method of dealing with Bible contradictions will always leave room for the notion that the Bible does have contradictions because the conclusion drawn from inductive arguments are never conclusive. Since the propositions taught in scripture are true, we must rely on scripture to answer allegations of contradictions.
 In 2 Timothy 3:16, “God breathed” refers to speaking through the writers of the scriptures and Titus 1:2 teaches that God cannot lie.
 Wolpe, David. Did the Exodus Really Happen? Beliefnet. Accessed January 04, 2017. http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/judaism/2004/12/did-the-exodus-really-happen.aspx?
 Despite what many claim, there is evidence of the Exodus, but this paper is not primarily concerned with archaeology.
 Naik, Zakir, and William Campbell. Bible’s Scientific Errors. Discovering Islam. Accessed January 05, 2017. http://www.discoveringislam.org/bible_scientific_errors.htm.
 This is an example of the use of the second principle that this student gave.
 In logic, one must always reason from the antecedent to the consequent.
 Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009, p.45-47.
 This is an application of the 1st principle given in this paper.
 Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009, p.46.
 The Greek word used in Acts 1:18 can mean to buy, possess, and win. Some synonym of ‘possess’ would be the most appropriate translation of this passage. Given the fourth principle, translating this word as some variant or synonym of ‘buy’ is not an option.
 Warfield, The Biblical Idea of Revelation, p. 92-94.