There is no shortage of atheist or agnostic blogs championing what they believe to be hundreds of contradictions contained within the Bible. It would seem as though Christians are either ignorant of the quantity and validity of these claims, or they’re just turning a blind eye in faith. But are these legitimate claims? Does the Bible really contain hundreds of legitimate contradictions? With this series; Dismantling Alleged Discrepancies, I hope to tackle some of the most commonly cited contradictions and, well, dismantle them.
Three months ago fellow Clear Lens writer Logan Judy posted his thoughts about a particular set of bad arguments against Christianity; Bible contradictions. Logan explained the general complaint that Christianity cannot be true because the Bible is full of contradictions. But then he postulated that the truth of Christianity does not rely on the Bible being free of contradictions. As Logan goes on to describe, this is indeed the case. But, we only arrive at that conclusion if we concede the point that the Bible is full of contradictions. But is that true? Were the original authors not inspired by the Holy Spirit and incapable of producing one cohesive work? Were the scribes copying the original letters so flippant in their work that anything past the original documents is untrustworthy? Are all of the complaints we hear from nonbelievers today about the accuracy of the Bible really grounded in sound reason? In the following months, those are the questions I would like to begin tackling on a case by case basis. But first…
Laying the Groundwork
Moving forward, we’ll need to be sure we aren’t talking past each other in some regards. So it’s helpful to define our terms and lay some groundwork. Let’s start with a word featured in this series.
Discrepancy: A discrepancy is a difference between things that should be the same. An important note here is that a discrepancy is not necessarily the same as a contradiction. Often when people claim the Bible is full of contradictions, the specific things they’re referring to are actually just discrepancies. And even then only allegedly so. When things like context, type of language, and audience are taken into account the alleged discrepancies often go away.
Paradox: A paradox is when something consists of two opposite things which seem impossible, but are actually true or at least possible. This also often gets confused with legitimate contradictions. For example, computers can be a paradox in that they are meant to save people time, but they require a lot of maintenance.
Contradiction: Finally we come to this oft-used word. The easiest way to understand this word is to look at its formulation as one of the most basic laws of logic; the law of non-contradiction. This law states that a thing cannot be both true and not true at the same time and in the same way. So if I told you I am married, then moments later in the same conversation I said I am a bachelor, then I contradict myself since being a bachelor means I am not married. However, if I told you I had a girlfriend, then said I was a bachelor, there is no contradiction because being a bachelor is specific to marriage, not relationship status.
Along with settling on some basic definitions I think it good to also move forward reasonably and fairly. This means of course that the Christian should have a reasonable answer to these allegations, but it also means that the skeptic needs to be fair in their characterization of the alleged discrepancies and stay away from playing “gotcha”. In dealing with people in everyday life we don’t assume that everyone is lying to us. We try to understand what they’re saying and make sense of it, then after some time we can judge their reliability. The same treatment is extended to analyzing ancient texts, including the Bible. Even if you don’t believe it to be God-breathed and inerrant, you’re still faced with the intent and context under which the author was writing. The intent of the author and the context of the writing need to be fairly considered before we can jump to the conclusion that one half of one sentence written 3,000 years ago contradicts six words copied from an original text 1,900 years ago. Even in my early 20’s as a curious agnostic it was easy to distinguish between the reasonable complaints and those cherry picking for specific words ripped out of their context just for the appearance of a wealth of contradictions.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that eye-witness accounts will not and should not mimic each other in every intricate detail. Imagine the complaints of conspiracy if they did! No, what we find in reality is that eye-witnesses are reporting events from their own perspective. That means we will have different details that might not appear to make sense until we understand things like; where the witness was positioned, when the witness is referring to, influences or biases of the witness, etc. J. Warner Wallace, author of “Cold Case Christianity” and a former cold case homicide detective, does an excellent job of explaining how eye-witness testimony works based on his training and years of experience in numerous articles on his website.
With these guidelines in place, let’s start this series with a fairly common alleged discrepancy in the New Testament.
The Death of Judas Iscariot
By way of elaborating further on what makes a contradiction, and to tackle our first alleged discrepancy, let’s examine the death of Judas Iscariot. Many skeptics’ websites will tout this as a contradiction in historical facts. It’s not the most commonly asserted “contradiction”, but I do think it’s one of the more easily dismissed complaints given a correct understanding of what makes a contradiction. We have two descriptions of his death. They are:
“And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself.” Matthew 27:5 (NASB)
“(Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)” Acts 1:18,19 (NASB)
So we have Matthew saying that Judas hanged himself, while Luke (the author of Acts) explains that he fell and “burst open in the middle”. Which is it? Don’t these two explanations contradict one another? Recall, if you will, the law of non-contradiction and ask yourself whether this fits that definition. I think you’ll find that it does not. In order to be a contradiction we would need one writer saying that Judas hanged himself and another writer saying that he did not hang himself. That is not what we have. But doesn’t saying that he fell and burst open in his midsection imply that he did not hang himself? No, not at all. Neither of these explanations negates the possibility of the other. In an effort to be fair I think Christians should do their due diligence and propose a scenario which may harmonize the two descriptions. If that harmonization is likely, or even possible, then the objection to the scripture is dismantled.
The most common explanation, and the one I personally hold to, is that Judas’ death was via hanging, and sometime later his body fell and burst open as a natural result of its decay. Notice that Matthew’s description is short and simple with a clear implication that Judas died when he hanged himself. But in Luke, his description is bookended by comments about the location of his death. A field was purchased and that field came to be called “Akeldama”, or “Field of Blood”. Luke seems to be focused on the reason this field had that name rather than the precise way by which Judas died. In fact, a close reading of Luke reveals that he more than any gospel writer is largely concerned with tying events to their appropriate time and place. He often mentions who the Roman or Jewish rulers were during a specific time, or where exactly things were taking place. So it’s not unlike Luke to make the reader aware of the historical significance of the “Field of Blood” as it relates to the story he’s telling. Additionally we know that Luke was a physician (Col. 4:14), and likely had an in depth knowledge of what happens to the human body after death. So it seems to make sense that he’s either most interested in, or most knowledgeable about such details. After we die our bodies begin natural processes called autolysis and putrefaction. More information can be read here, but to put it simply the bacteria in our bodies escape from the intestinal tract and begin the process of literally melting down the body. In fact, within 36 hours the neck, abdomen, shoulders and head begin to turn a discolored green if proper preservation such as embalming has not taken place. This process can be sped up by heat, like we might expect in Jerusalem. I think it’s entirely reasonable, and consistent with scripture, to believe that Judas killed himself from hanging. That as his body went through natural decay it fell from its place and burst open in a bloody mess. Said mess being so grotesque that it led to the naming of the very place he died.
Continuing the Series
There are a number of alleged discrepancies I hope to tackle in the coming months. I’m hoping to cover two per article and I’ll probably be jumping all over the place. They will range from theological discrepancies (does God tempt man?) to historical discrepancies (was man or animals created first?). What I would love to do is get feedback from our readers in order to feature in some of these articles. So, for our Christian readers, what are some of the complaints against the Bible that you hear most often which put its truthfulness into question? And for our non-believing friends, what are some of the top problems you have with scripture where you believe it contradicts itself or doesn’t comport with reality that cause you to suspend your belief in God being its author? I don’t need an exhaustive list. I’m capable of looking through all 535 alleged contradictions which Skeptics Annotated Bible has online. Just give me your top two or three and I’ll do my best to cover them in the coming months!
If this is your first read in this series and you’re wondering what else has been written thus far, click here for an up to date listing of all posts in this series.