Reading the Bible with misplaced expectations

“The Bible is full of contradictions.”

So say many critics of God’s Word. When asked to provide examples, however, critics often reveal a gross misunderstanding of the writers’ purposes, according to Douglas S. Huffman, a contributor to In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture.

While alleged contradictions come in many forms, one of the most common is that of misplaced expectations; that is, critics approach the Bible from angles that are foreign to the author’s intent.

Huffman offers five examples:

Selection vs. denial. Authors must select what they choose to include in their accounts. Their selections are related to their purpose for writing. Just because they leave some details out does not mean they deny their existence. For example, each of the four Gospels has information not contained in any of the others. But this does not mean these records are in conflict with one another.

Even the gospel writer John alludes to this: “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

Difference vs. discrepancy. A difference in perspective, theme, or details is not necessarily a discrepancy. For example, some argue that the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ death disagree with one another because Matthew and Mark report the temple curtain being torn after Jesus dies, while Luke records it the other way around. But this ignores the fact that all three Synoptic Gospels note that both events occurred at “the ninth hour.”

Accuracy vs. precision. Accuracy and precision are not completely synonymous terms. You may be accurate in saying, “It rained last week,” but not be precise as to which day and time it rained. Matthew and Mark report that the transfiguration happened “after six days,” while Luke reports that it happened “about eight days after …”

Precise claims may be false, and imprecise claims may be true. It’s important to notice how the terms are used. In the gospel accounts of the transfiguration, Luke uses “about” and Matthew and Mark use “after.” It’s the event that is important; the exact time is secondary.

Paraphrase vs. quotation. Quotations in the gospels vary from one another. For example, the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism in Matthew says, “This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him!” Mark and Luke, however, record the voice as saying, “You are My beloved Son; I take delight in You!”

Of course the voice did not speak English at all, or perhaps even Greek, but possibly Aramaic. Therefore the record in Greek is a paraphrase of the words spoken. The quotation mark is a fairly recent literary invention. What writers are concerned about in the New Testament is getting the message right. Few of us expect exact quotations when we ask, “What did the pastor say today?”

Chronology vs. theme. Ordering events by theme, and not merely by chronology, does not mean the author is being dishonest. The four gospels largely are chronological, but not exclusively so. They each begin at the beginning – either of Jesus’ life or ministry – and end after His resurrection. Still, none claims that each story is told in chronological order.

Reporting today, whether news accounts or book-length biographies, often set aside strict chronology to enhance the story telling or to follow themes. The temptation of Jesus as reported by Matthew and Luke features different orders. Matthew uses the more sequential connecting words “then” and “again” and apparently lists them in order.

Luke, however, lists the temptations in a different order. But there is no contradiction when we notice Luke’s apparent desire to end the list with a climactic emphasis on the temple in Jerusalem. Luke uses the non-sequencing words “and” and “but” to connect the three items.

We expect the Bible to be accurate since it is divinely inspired. That doesn’t mean the human writers are prevented from using their own writing styles and organizing their accounts of Jesus’ life thematically.

“When we think we have found a contradiction between reports in the Bible, we should be willing to double-check our potentially errant expectations,” says Huffman.