Thinking Cap # 34 - Discrepancies in the Bible
Oops! I think I just said a dirty word. But, please don't shut me down quite yet. For years I was told that God's Word had no discrepancies. There were no errors. But, I kept coming across little nuances that I had trouble explaining. I never doubted God or the Word of God, but my mind sure wonder about what was going on. For us to deny the fact that there "discrepancies" in the Bible would be totally dishonest and also make it virtually impossible to witness to intellectuals who have eyes to see. So how does one who holds to the literal inspiration of the Bible deal with this?
First, allow me to share with you a couple "discrepancies" to set the stage. Mark 5:1-2 tells of Jesus being met by one man possessed by an unclean spirit. But, the parallel passage in Matthew 8:28 tells us that there were two with unclean spirits. Then Mark 10:46-47 tells us that one blind man Bartimaeus was crying out to Jesus for help. And in Matthew 20:29-30 we read that there were two blind men. Read Matthew 27:9 and notice the quotation Jeremiah. But the quote is actually found in Zech. 11:12-13 and not found in the book of Jeremiah at all. Did Matthew get his Old Testament mixed up? James 2:20-24 tells us that Abraham was justified by works and Gal. 2:16 clearly says a man is not justified by works. Which is it? I Kings 6:1 says that Solomon began building the temple 480 years after the Exodus from Egypt. But, in Paul's message in Acts 13:16-22, he gives a time span in the history of Israel of 573 years for the same events. Where are the missing 93 years? II Chron. 22:2 says Ahaziah was 42 when he began to reign. Yet, II Kings 8:26 says he was 22 years old when he began to reign. Which is it? 22 or 42? I'll stop there, but just in case you are interested I have hundred's of other "discrepancies." Here is how I would handle the topic.
A. General Teachings on Bible Discrepancies
That no candid and intelligent student of the Bible will deny that it contains numerous "discrepancies," that it's statements, taken at "face value," not infrequently conflict with or contradict one another, may safely be presumed. This fact has been more or less recognized by Christian scholars in all ages. As a result it should come as no surprise to find skeptical authors fixating upon the "glaring inconsistencies," "self-contradictions," and "manuscript discrepancies" of the Bible, and incessantly urging these as so many proofs of its untrustworthiness and of its merely human origin.
Yet we must guard against the conclusion that, since we cannot solve certain difficulties, they are therefore insoluble. An important preliminary question relates to the Origin of Discrepancies. To what causes are they to be referred? From what sources to do they arise?
B. The Origin of Discrepancies.
In a Bible study class taught at our church, there was a list of eight such sources of discrepancies. Examples were given for each along with the resolution. Sorry, but you'll just have to move to West Palm Beach and attend Berean to get those notes.
1. Many of the discrepancies are obviously attributable to a difference in the dates of the discordant passages. Rules of Bible study to remember include: Before you ask what a verse means, determine the context; and the Bible has proper divisions, and you must put those divisions in the right places.
2. It is important to consider the respective authorship of conflicting texts. We find recorded in the Bible the words of God, of good men, of Satan and of wicked men. The record of the words are accurate, but the statements themselves might well be false. Rules of Bible study to remember would be: Always give the Bible the benefit of the doubt; Never violate a clear passage when trying to understand an obscure passage; and Before you ask what a verse means, determine the context.
3. Some seeming disagreements are occasioned by differences of stand-point or of object on the part of the respective authors. For instance depending on the angle of perspective, man is mortal and also immortal. He is a freeman and yet a servant. Rules of Bible Study to remember would be: The Bible is of no private interpretation. Compare Scripture with Scripture; Always give the Bible the benefit of the doubt; and Before you ask what a verse means, determine the context.
4. Many apparent discrepancies, of a historical character, are a result of the adoption of different principles and methods of arrangement by the various authors. One writer may follow strict chronological order, another follows associations and major events. One writes history in detail, another omits, condenses, or expands to suit his purpose under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Rules of Bible Study to remember would be: Before you ask what a verse means, determine the context; The Bible is written to three groups of people: Jews, Gentiles and the Church; All Scripture has three applications - doctrinal, historical and inspirational; Always give the Bible the benefit of the doubt; and The survey principle - We must see the whole before becoming too immersed in its parts.
5. Other incongruities arise from the use of different modes of computation, particularly in the reckoning of time. Many nations had two or more kinds of calendars in use including the civil and the sacred. Among the Latin Christian nations there were seven different dates for the start of a year. The Jews also counted fractions of a year as a whole year. Rules of Bible Study to remember include: Always give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.
6. The peculiarities of the Oriental idiom are another prolific source of discrepancies. The people of the "East" thought and spoke in poetry. Bold metaphors and startling hyperboles. There is a saying that "The shepherd only speaks in the soul of the shepherd." Without an intimate acquaintance with the customs of the times, you can easily become a traitor to the Bible; when you could have been its staunchest proponent. Read Ps. 78:52; 42:9; and 91:4 for some good examples. Rules of Bible Study to remember would be: Before you ask what a verse means, determine the context; The Bible has proper divisions, and you must put those divisions in the right place; and The law of further mention - God has revealed truth progressively.
7. Other difficulties in Bible understanding are attributable to the Eastern custom of applying a plurality of names to the same person or object. Let's see now, was his name Simon, Simeon, Peter, Cephas, Simon Peter, Simon Bar-jona or Simon son of Jonas. Rules to apply would be: Always give the Bible the benefit of the doubt; and Never base a doctrine on one verse of passage.
8. Some contradictions arise from the use of the same word with different, sometimes opposite meanings. The Hebrew word "barak" is used as "to bless" and "to curse." The Latin word "sacer" means both "holy" and "accursed." The Greek word "erchomai" means "I come" and "I go." The English word "let" can mean "to permit" or "to hinder." That is complicated by the fact that the same Greek words are often translated into totally differing English words in our Bible, and conversely differing Greek words often end up as the same English word. Rules of Bible Study to keep in mind are: Never violate a clear passage when trying to understand an obscure passage; Always be prepared to change whatever you have been taught or you have believed when it goes contrary to the Bible. Never make the Bible line up with what you believe. Always line yourself up to what the Bible says; and Never forget the consistency of the Bible.
C. The Design of the Discrepancies
Why were the discrepancies permitted to exist? To what good end do they contribute?
1. They were doubtless intended as a stimulus to the human intellect, as provocative of mental effort. From the Bible, we have countless commentaries and other texts on a plethora of subjects; some shedding light and complimentary and others attacking and antagonistic. The Bible, like no other book stimulates the intellect (can that be said of the Koran?). The seeming contradictions in the Bible are too numerous not to be the result of design; and not as mere difficulties to try our faith and patience, but to instruct us by mutually explaining, and extending one another's meaning. The "discrepancies" of scripture often keenly stimulate and richly reward intellectual effort. They prompt us to "search the scriptures" (Acts 17:11) and dig into those things which are "hard to be understood" (2 Pet.3:16).
2. They were meant to be illustrative of the analogy between the Bible and nature. The "self-contradictions" of the Bible are produced on a grander scale in nature. The universe declares unmistakable traces of infinite wisdom, power, love and beauty. The green of spring, the warmth of sunshine, the balmy breezes, the refreshing dew and gentle rains; the sweet song birds, .... all proclaim the attributes and speak forth the praise of the Creator. But then, we have sorrow and suffering; frost and fire, famine and pestilence, earthquake, volcano, and hurricane, war; a thousand diseases and ten thousand accidents are doing their deadly work on the world and mankind. All this devastation in going on in a world created and governed by infinite wisdom, power, and love. The world and the Word proceeded from the breathe of God and mirror each other.
3. The disagreements of scripture are a strong incidental proof that there was no collusion among the sacred writers. The inspired narratives exhibit substantial agreement with circumstantial variation. This is precisely what a court of law requires in respect of the testimony of witnesses. If the witnesses had agreed precisely in every word and syllable, this would be viewed as proof of conspiracy and collusion. Our manuscript copies of the Gospels, several thousand of them from all over the world, have not been mutilated or interpolated with any sinister design; they have not been tampered with by any religious sect, for the sake of propagating any private opinion as the Word of God. These discrepancies are, in fact, evidences of the purity and integrity of the sacred text.
4. They lead us to value the spirit beyond the letter of the scriptures, to prize the essentials of Christianity rather than its form. We have no portrait of Jesus; no authentic description of His person; no wood of the true cross remains to our day; and no original manuscript from the hand of Paul. Suppose that such an item had been miraculously saved to this day. The world would have gone mad over it. Idolatry of the worst kind would accumulate around it. Men would have worshipped the letter in flagrant opposition to the spirit of the sacred book. The numerous manuscripts with their trivial discrepancies, the so-called imperfections of our present text, together with the "self-contradictions" of the Bible --- all afford a fresh application and illustration of Paul's statement, "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Cor. 3:6).
5. The discrepancies are a test of moral character and serve an important judicial purpose. The Gospel becomes a touchstone to test the honesty of men's attitudes and hearts. Many of Jesus' teachings were clothed in forms which would become obscure or offensive to those with unteachable spirits. To the skeptical Jews, He spoke many things in parables, that seeing, they might see and not perceive, and hearing, they might hear and not understand Mark 4:12). Read Jo. 6:53. Jesus intentionally used phraseology as would be repugnant to insincere and squeamish hearers. He thus tested and disclosed men's character and motives and sifted out the chaff among His hearers. Jo.6:66 indicates that many stopped following Him at that point. The seeming harshness and obscurity of His sayings served to rid Him of those followers who were not of teachable spirit, and who would not look beneath the surface to understand the significance of His words. The proud and superficial were discouraged and repelled by the rough husk in which the doctrinal kernel was encased. In a similar fashion, the apparent contradictions of the Bible give an "opportunity" to an unfair mind and a skeptic for explaining away the Bible and hiding from themselves the evidence which they might otherwise see. Our treatment of the discrepancies of the Bible bear an intimate relation to our moral character.
If we disparage Scripture, and treat it as "any other book," then Almighty God, who is the author of Scripture, will punish us by our own devices. Our presumption and our irreverence will be the instruments of our own punishment. In the divine government of this world, sin often carries its reward in its own bosom.
When the difficulties of the Bible are approached with a reverent and trusting mind, they may well strengthen our understanding and our faith, but when dealt with from a position of doubt and distrust, they become judicial agencies of our lives and even our souls.
Let's dig deeply and trust implicitly.
Berean Baptist Church
West Palm Beach, FL
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