A Few Bible Contradictions
Thomas Ash

Particularly relevant essays to this elsewhere on Big Issue Ground are 'What The Bible Really Says: Some Shocking Statements' and 'Interpreting the Bible Today: A modern liberal Christian interpretation of the Bible'

Introduction

The Bible is the bestselling book of all time, but it goes without saying that it's a different kettle of fish than your average John Grisham thriller. For many Christians, the Bible is not 'Just Another Book', it is 'The Good Book', containing the most fundamental truths about life. How many other New York Times bestsellers can make these claims? A few self-help manuals, perhaps, but certainly not many other books.

Of course, the Bible never makes it onto the New York Times bestseller lists. This annoys many on the religious right. But it seems to me that they are missing a rather important problem: does the Bible belong on the fiction list, or the non-fiction list?

Many Christians would claim that it belongs on the latter. When the Bible says that those who have been castrated (presumably while children, by the Church...) will not be allowed into heaven, we are to take that as the literal truth. Likewise, when it tells us that Joseph's father (Jesus' grandfather) was called Jacob, that is how it actually happened.

However the view that the Bible is inerrant (commonly known as 'fundamentalism') faces some important problems, not the least of which is that the Bible appears to contradict itself with alarming frequency. For example, while we are indeed told that castrated men will never enter "the kingdom of God", in Isaiah 56:3-5 God says "Even unto [eunuchs] will I give in mine house and within my walls a place." As for the more simple, factual matter of who killed Saul, the Bible has more than one answer for this too:

SAMUEL 1 31:4 Then said Saul unto his armourbearer, Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me. But his armourbearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it.

SAMUEL 2 1:15 And David called one of the young men, and said, Go near, and fall upon him. And he smote him that he died.

And to think that Paul said that "God is not the author of confusion"! (I Corinthians 14:33) Look it up for yourself... (But bear in mind that most of the quotes given here come from the old King James Bible, or else from a source as close as possible to the original manuscripts, like the New Jerusalem Bible. Some lily-livered modern translations ditch some of the more outrageous language, substituting "servants" for "slaves", so not all of the passages in your Bible will match what I quote.)

Now, it doesn't take a genius to work out that both these answers can't be right, which makes it hard to take the Bible as literally being the word of God. The name of Joseph's dad isn't the most important fact in the world, but that there is an error in at least one of the gospels shows that the Bible cannot be taken as 'Gospel Truth'. And there are many, many such contradictions in the Bible, some on vitally important subjects such as whether or not children should be punished for the sins of their fathers, whether God is forgiving or not, and whether Jesus taught war or peace. On each of these points, the Bible has more than one answer - see for yourself in the list below.

A number of counter-arguments to the problem these contradictions raises have been made. One common response is to say that "the ways of God are strange." While this smacks of cop-out, it does raise a possibility of error in our way of seeing things that has to be taken seriously. But when you take a look at the contradictions below, I think you'll agree that at least some of them are utterly undisputable (simple factual ones like how long Jesus was in the tomb are excellent examples.) Also, surely we can agree that omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God would not make his teachings deliberately obscure (one Biblical verse actually claims that he does, but you can see other verses which contradict it elsewhere in the Bible below!)

The final, and perhaps most desperate, attempt to defend the Bible is to claim that it's all a metaphor anyway. But what metaphors describe don't exist! Just because I use the metaphor 'the dogs or war', that doesn't mean that there actually are some dogs of war somewhere in the cosmos. It's just a rhetorical device. And how can rock-solid moral commandments like 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' be taken as metaphors? What on earth - or in heaven - could they be metaphors for?

To sum up, while my essay 'What the Bible Really Says: Some Shocking Statements' shows that having complete and utter faith in the truth of the Bible - the book brandished as Ultimate Truth by many - is dangerous, these contradictions show that doing so is, to be brutal, stupid. Or if not stupid (I am aware that many decent, thoughtful, intelligent people are Christians), a result of intellectual laziness or a simple ignorance of what the Bible says.

See for yourself...

The creation story

GENESIS 1: The Seven Days Creation Story

Day 1 - Light and darkness: day and night
Day 2 - A "vault" separating the 'waters' that make up the oceans and the (blue) sky
Day 3 - Earth, followed by plants
Day 4 - The Sun, Moon and stars (as calendrical and navigational aids)
Day 5 - Animals
Day 6 - Humans (both sexes at the same time - many of them, apparently)
Day 7 - A day of rest

Note that there are "days", "evenings", and "mornings" before the Sun was created.

GENESIS 2: The Story of Adam in Eden

First, God made earth and heaven.
Then he placed Adam on an otherwise lifeless Earth.
Next he made plants grow in Eden, including the trees of life and of knowledge of good and evil.
Then he placed Adam in this garden.
Only then did he create animals.
Finally, he made Eve from Adam's rib. (The rest is history - or so literalists would say.)

The current scholarly hypothesis as to the Pentateuch's origins is that the divergent stories of different Hebrew tribes were put together at a comparatively late stage. GENESIS 1 is thought to embody the 'Priestly' tradition, GENESIS 2 the 'Yahwistic' (so-called because God is called 'Yahweh', rather than being referred to as 'Elohim', which is a plural literally translated as "the Gods").

Should we own slaves?

vs.

In the American civil war, churches cited the numerous pro-slavery verses in the Bible as justification. And indeed, according to the Bible, slavery is clearly justified as there are only a very few, highly ambiguous, anti-slavery quotes and many emphatic statements in favour of slavery. The word servant comes from the original Greek word for slave - this is just some creative translation.

Should we steal?

vs.

God good to all, or just a few?

PSALMS 145:9 The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.

JEREMIAH 13:14 And I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the Lord: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them.

How long was Jesus in the tomb?

MATTHEW 12:40 has Jesus prophesying that he will spend "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth", and MARK 10:34 has "after three days (meta treis emeras) he will rise again". As far as I can see from a quick look, the prophecies have "after three days", but the post-resurrection narratives have "on the third day".

What was Jesus given to drink?

MATTHEW 27:34 says vinegar. MARK 15:23 says it was wine with myrhh.

War or Peace?

EXODUS 15:3 The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name.

ROMANS 15:33 Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.

Is strong drink OK?

See PROVERBS 31:6,7 But... see JOHN 2:11-11

For or against me?

MATTHEW 12:30 He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.
(ie. against)

MARK 9:40 For he that is not against us is on our part.
(ie. for)

LUKE 9:50 And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.
(ie. for)

Which first--beasts or man?

GENESIS 1:25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

GENESIS 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

GENESIS 2:18 And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

GENESIS 2:19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

Is it folly to be wise or not?

PROVERBS 4:7 Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.

ECCLESIASTES 1:18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that in- creaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

1 CORINTHIANS1:19: "For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and wil bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent."

Should good deeds be publicised or not?

MATTHEW 5:16 says "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (NIV)

MATTHEW 6:3-4, though, says "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secert. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (NIV)

Did those with Saul/Paul at his conversion hear a voice?

ACTS 9:7 "And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man."

ACTS 22:9 "And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me."

Who killed Saul?

SAMUEL 1 31:4 Then said Saul unto his armourbearer, Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me. But his armourbearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it.

SAMUEL 2 1:15 And David called one of the young men, and said, Go near, and fall upon him. And he smote him that he died.

When will the second coming come?

MATTHEW 24:34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

MARK 13:30 Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.

LUKE 21:32 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.

See also 1 THESSALONIANS 4:15-18

More a contradiction with facts, this - as far as I can tell, we're still waiting.

Ascend to heaven

"And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven." (2 KINGS 2:11)

"No man hath ascended up to heaven but he that came down from heaven, ... the Son of Man." (JOHN 3:13)

Is (human or other) sacrifice the way to go?

vs.

Is God omnipotent?

vs.

Did Michal have children?

But...

When was Jesus born?

According to Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1). Herod died in March of 4 B.C., so Jesus had to have been born BEFORE that time. According to Luke, Jesus was born during the first census in Israel, while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:2). This census took place in 6 AD and 7 AD, about 10 years after Herod's death.

How old was Ahaziah when he began to reign?

22 in 2 KINGS 8:26

42 in 2 CHRONICLES 22:2

How old was Jehoiachin when he became King?

8 in CHRONICLES 36:9

18 in 2 KINGS 24:8

The number of animals in the ark

GENESIS 7:2 Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.

GENESIS 7:8 Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth, GEN 7:9 There went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah.

Hares

LEVITICUS 11:6 And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

This may not contradict anything the Bible says, but it does clash with reality - hares don't chew cud.

The shape of the earth

ISAIAH 40:22 It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in

MATTHEW 4:8 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them

As everyone now knows, the earth is spherical, so you cannot see its entire surface from any one place. Even the kingdoms the Bible's authors knew of could not have been seen from "an exceeding high mountain."

Should we swear an oath?

HEBREWS 6:13-17 says "For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself . . . for men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath." But JAMES 5:12 clearly says ". . . swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation."

The sins of the father

ISAIAH 14:21 Prepare slaughter for his children for the iniquity of their fathers; that they do not rise, nor possess the land, nor fill the face of the world with cities.

DEUTERONOMY 24:16 The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.

Was Jesus a peaceful man?

vs.

Does God change his mind?

vs.

How are we saved?

"For by grace are we saved through faith...not of works" EPHESIANS 2:8-9.

"...and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works" REVELATION 20:13.

"Ye see then that by works a man is justified, not by faith only. For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also" JAMES 2:26

What happened to Judas?

MATTHEW 27:5 states that he threw down his silver, ran from the temple, and hanged himself. ACTS 1:16-19 states, however, that he bought some land with his money, and that he had a fall, causing him "to burst open in the middle" so that his "bowels gushed out. And it became known to all of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Akaldama, that is, Field of Blood."

Jesus' last words on the cross

"And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?" that is to say, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" [PSALMS 22:1] ...Jesus, when he cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost." (MATTHEW 27:46-50)
But . . .
"And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, "Father, unto thy hands I commend my spirit:" and having said thus, he gave up the ghost." (LUKE 23:46)
But . . .
"When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, "It is finished:" and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost." (JOHN 19:30)

This is clearly a folk legend - the operative word being legend - in the making.

Is God cruel, destructive and unmerciful or good, kind and merciful?

"I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy." (JEREMIAH 13:14) "Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling."

"The Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy." (JAMES 5:11)

"For his mercy endureth forever." (1 CHRONICLES 16:34)

"The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works." (PSALMS 145:9)

"God is love." (1 JOHN 4:16)

"And I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the children of Judah, and they shall sell them to the Sabeans, to a people far off: for the Lord hath spoken it." (JOEL 3:8)

© 2001

About the author...
Thomas Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He is a graduate student studying philosophy at Merton College in the University of Oxford. He received his BA in the subject from the University of Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. As you may have guessed, he is an atheist - a positive one in fact. More information can be found here.

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