An Ocean of Contradictions

An Ocean of Contradictions
by Dave E. Matson

An ocean of contradictions make it abundantly clear that the Bible is a manmade product. Isn't that exactly what we would expect of a work written by hundreds of different authors over a millennia, a work assembled in stages over the ages by the changing dictates of religious politics?

The Bible-believer nevertheless insists that there is not so much as a single contradiction in "God's own book." Expressions such as "apparent contradictions," "problem passages," "discrepancies" or "difficulties" indicate that those folks do see something that corresponds to our "contradictions." They simply assume that each of our "contradictions" is only an illusion; they firmly believe that further study will erase most of those nasty "difficulties," and Jesus will pass out the answers to the rest when we get to heaven!

In practice, if they are faced with a logically airtight contradiction, they will simply expand on one verse or the other to get the "true" meaning. After all, even good writers rarely give us all the details. On the other hand, if the contradiction is one involving good judgment, they will point out that it is not logically airtight. Therefore, it doesn't count as a real contradiction. It doesn't seem to occur to those folks that they have defined error out of existence! Under such rules, one could defend the existence of Santa Claus and his flying reindeer! That is to say, such "rules" are not very reasonable.

The working brain understands that we must deal with probabilities in life, not certainties, and it immediately accepts a probable contradiction over an improbable non-contradiction. It is not interested in the kind of exotic, improbable loopholes that fill up books and books on Bible apologetics. For each "problem passage" the case for a contradiction must be weighed against the case for a non-contradiction, and the better explanation adopted.

Once we remove those prejudices that define contradictions out of existence, it soon becomes apparent that the Bible is afloat in an ocean of contradictions.

The hard-core believer may still pretend that there are no contradictions in his Bible, but there is another fatal problem here that is not so easily ignored. I first learned about it from Reverend Robert M. Price.

The Bible's authority is based upon the natural, plain, face value of its words. If the Bible doesn't mean what its words plainly say, what on earth does it mean? Do we take a poll? Do we use the standards of reason to guess at what it means? Do we consult the Pope? If so, the Bible's authority plays second fiddle to human authority or to the standards of scientific reasoning. If we are not sure what the Bible is really saying, why should we believe in the miracles reported by it? Perhaps they were not intended to be taken at face value.

Thus, the authority of the Bible is tied to the face value of its words. Poetry, allegory and other uses of the language are, of course, permitted as long as we are clearly tipped off by the context. Otherwise, we must assume that the words are to be taken at face value. That is the foundation of the Bible's authority.

Now, consider what an "apparent contradiction" does. It forces us to disregard the face value of at least one of the conflicting passages. Since there are no instructions in the Bible as to which of those conflicting passages (if any) should be preserved at face value, much less as to what their new meanings should be, we are on our own. That is to say, the authority of all those passages involved in a conflict are now in question. Did we, in fact, get the right harmonization? Did we change the right verse or verses? Perhaps all the verses in that "apparent contradiction" need changing to resolve the conflict and bring out their true biblical meaning. Who knows for sure?

Here is how Reverend (Bob) Price put it:

The moment one admits that the "apparent" meaning of Text A cannot be accepted since it would conflict with Text B, one has surrendered the criterion of biblical authority, i.e., that the plain sense of any and all texts is normative. Thus "apparent contradictions" are actually fatal to the Evangelical schema...
(Beyond Born Again, 1979, [the manuscript], p.142)

Considering the thousands of "apparent contradictions" in the Bible, which are readily acknowledged by unthinking Bible-believers, we may surmise that its authority has more holes in it than a large block of Swiss cheese! "Apparent contradictions" are as fatal to the Bible's authority as real ones.

A real contradiction renders all participating verses (usually two) useless because at least one of them is wrong, and we have no divine means for determining which are wrong. It also implies that God did not write the Bible as he could not err.

An apparent contradiction renders all participating verses (usually two) useless because at least one of them means something other than what the plain text says, and we have no divine means for determining which of those verses to change or even how to change them. It also implies that God did not write the Bible as he would not deliberately cripple its authority.

We may conclude that God could no more write a book containing "apparent contradictions" than he could one containing real ones. Both bring his competence and authority into question.

Reverend Price has since come out with the finished book, which may be ordered by writing: Reverend Robert M. Price, 30 Stockton Street, Bloomfeld, NJ 07003. I highly recommend it!

Let me now show you that there are contradictions ("apparent contradictions" if you wish) in the Bible. We will list several of them from Darrel Henschell's The Perfect Mirror? (The Oak Hill Free Press). He carefully lists about 130 of them in a nice side by side format. Hundreds more can be found in Foote and Ball's old handbook and, more recently, Dennis McKinsey's hefty The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (Prometheus Books). For a variety of materials, one may contact Dennis McKinsey directly.

1. On sending his disciples out into the world to preach, Jesus commanded them to take a staff and to wear sandals.

He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.

(Mark 6:8-9 RSV)

1. Jesus forbade them to take a staff or to wear sandals.

Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff;...
(Matthew 10:9-10 RSV)

After their required training, Jesus endowed his disciples with powers and sent them out into the world to preach. Obviously, like graduation from high school, such a sendoff happens only once. The time was at hand after much preparation. On that momentous occasion Jesus gave his disciples their final instructions. Among other things, they are to carry a staff and to not carry a staff; they are to wear sandals and to not wear sandals.
If that isn't a contradiction, then that word doesn't mean what it used to when I grew up!

2. Jesus cursed the fig tree after "cleansing" the temple.

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,... And he left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there. Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow in thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled,...
(Matthew 21:12, 17-20)

2. Jesus cursed the fig tree before "cleansing" the temple.

...he went out unto Bethany with the twelve. And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it. And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves;...
(Mark 11:11-15)

In order to get around the contradiction, some apologists invoke two temple cleansings. That Jesus, with the element of surprise, might wreak havoc in the temple and yet remain there teaching for some time afterwards is not very convincing. That he should have a free hand to do it all over again the very next day, as though nothing had happened, is something only a hardened Bible-believer can believe. Two temple trashings in two days presents too many problems. How is it that neither Mark nor Matthew reported on, let alone mentioned, both events? That we have a contradiction involving one temple "cleansing" is the best conclusion by far.

The moneychangers, by the way, performed a useful service in that coins with Caesar's head on them could not lawfully be used within the temple. The sellers of doves (and other animals) performed a useful service in that the law of Moses required the sacrifice of such animals for various sins. Such services were performed in the outer areas of the temple, and they were perfectly lawful. Such vendors were entitled to a reasonable profit for their services, and it seems unlikely that they were all overcharging their customers.

According to Mark's account, Jesus entered the temple on the day of his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. But it was late, and Jesus merely looked around before retiring to Bethany for the night. He did nothing dramatic until the next day.

According to Matthew, Jesus wreaks havoc on the temple on the day of his glorious entry, and that he retired that night to Bethany.

Either Jesus had two grand entries into Jerusalem, which is simply ludicrous, or we have an excellent contradiction! Two grand entries into Jerusalem in two days would have been a stupendous event. Surely, neither Matthew nor Mark would have missed reporting it. Yet, each writer mentions only one grand entry. A contradiction is by far the best explanation.

According to Mark, the fig tree was cursed and a day later it was discovered withered up. But Matthew has it withering up immediately so as to provoke astonishment then and there.

Are we to believe that Jesus cursed two fig trees on his way in from Bethany, that one tree took a day to wither up? Was the second tree just tougher or was Jesus' aim bad? Was Jesus so dumb as to think that they were both out of season or was he simply mad at fig trees in general after the first encounter? To what lengths will some Christians go to degrade their Lord in order to worship biblical inerrancy?

Two fig cursings in one morning! How very remarkable! Why was it not reported by either Matthew or Mark? The two men have simply contradicted each other concerning one fig-cursing event, and that is the only intelligent solution.

3. Solomon has 40,000 stalls of horses.

And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.
(1 Kings 4:26)

3. Solomon has 4,000 stalls of horses.

And Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.
(2 Chronicles 9:25)

Quite a difference, huh? Claims that some copyist slipped a digit overlook the fact that in ancient times Hebrew numbers were always fully spelled out. In several cases numerical contradictions go hand in hand with non-numerical contradictions, something that the "slipped digit theory" can't begin to explain. A lot of these errors are much better explained as original errors rather than as copyist error.

4. The pillars in front of the temple, named Jachin and Boaz, were 18 cubits (27 feet) high.

For he cast two pillars of brass, of eighteen cubits high apiece: and a line of twelve cubits did compass either of them about...the right pillar called...Jachin: and he set up the left pillar, and called the name thereof Boaz.
(1 Kings 7:15,21)

4. The pillars in front of the temple, named Jachin and Boaz, were 35 cubits (53 feet) high.

Also he made before the house two pillars of thirty and five cubits high... And he reared up the pillars before the temple...and called the name of that on the right hand Jachin, and the name of that on the left Boaz.
(2 Chronicles 3:15,17)

The first account is part of a lengthy description of Solomon's temple in all its new glory. The second account also gives data for Solomon's new temple. Both accounts are obviously referring to the original brass columns. Since the columns to Solomon's temple are listed as both 27 feet tall and 53 feet tall, we have a firm contradiction.

The best "defense" that I can think of is to claim that the second account gives the sum of the measurements. However, if that were the case, the Bible should have said something like: Also he made before the house two pillars whose sum was thirty and five cubits high... Was that so difficult? This "defense" succeeds only in making God an incompetent author. That is just another way of saying that the Bible is not God's own words. Finally, some excellent translations, such as Today's English Version, make it extra-clear that a sum is not involved.

Barker, Dan. 1992. Losing Faith In Faith

Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.
P.O. Box 750, Madison, WI 53701-0750

Foote, G.W. and W.P. Ball. The Bible Handbook

(It first came out near the turn of the century. An expanded version is also available from the American Atheist Press)
The Pioneer Press, 103 Borough High Street, London, S.E.1.

Henschell, Darrel. 1996. The Perfect Mirror? The Question of Bible Perfection; The Oak Hill Free Press,
P.O. Box 61274, Pasadena, CA 91116

Hinton, Richard W. (editor) Arsenal for Skeptics

A.S. Barnes & Company, Inc.
11 East 36th Street, New York, NY 10016

Mattill Jr., A. J. 1995. The Seven Mighty Blows to Traditional Beliefs; The Flatwoods Free Press,
Route 2, Box 49, Gordo, Alabama 35466-9517

McKinsey, Dennis (editor) Biblical Errancy

2500 Punderson Drive, Hilliard, OH 43026

McKinsey, Dennis C. 1995. The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy; Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, NY 14228-2197; p.206-208

Price, Reverend Robert M. Beyond Born Again
30 Stockton Street, Bloomfeld, NJ 07003

Till, Farrell (editor) The Skeptical Review
P.O. Box 717, Canton, IL 61520-0717

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. I especially like your analysis of the fig tree. Just a quick correction...

    You say:
    "Claims that some copyist slipped a digit overlook the fact that in ancient times Hebrew numbers were always fully spelled out."

    I can tell that you didn't actually look to see what the difference between 40,000 and 4,000 is in Hebrew. If you had, you would have seen a "slipped digit" / "copyist error" is indeed a perfect likely explanation.

    ארבעיםאלף arbaimeleph
    ארבעאלף arbaeleph

    As you can see, just dropping "im" (ים)results in a change from 40,000 to 4,000 and is precisely the equivalent of a "slipped digit" in English.

    I actually believe copyist errors are the most damaging to inerrancy because they are the easiest to prove and one version MUST be wrong.