Bible Contradictions

I  am responding to this post from a blog called Biblical Subjects.

I am responding to that post because it effectively reconciles two verses, Numbers 25:19 and 1 Corinthians 10:8, that seem to contradict each other. Numbers 25:19 says that 24,000 Israelites died in a plague God sent, and 1 Corinthians 10:8 says that 23,000 died.

Good job, Mr. Owen.

But …

It misses the point.

For two reasons:

  1. The explanation still contradicts the beliefs of those who believe the Bible cannot, should not, contradict itself.
  2. There are a lot of other Bible contradictions that cannot be explained except the way a Roman Catholic study Bible explained it: “The writer exagerrated” (e.g., cf. 1 Kings 4:26 with 2 Chr. 9:25).

Defining the Problem

Those whe teach the inerrance of the Scriptures on all subjects (usually called “verbal, plenary inspiration”) believe that God, in some way, directly wrote the Scriptures. Therefore, they conclude, the Bible cannot be in error on any fact which God knows about. If there is such an error, then in their minds the Bible is no longer God’s Word.

I, and many others, believe that when God wants to give Israel a law, or call Israel to repentance, he sees no need to directly reveal scientific and historical facts that the prophet has no way of knowing or perhaps even of understanding. For example, Joshua was told by God, in the midst of battle, to tell the sun to stand still in the sky. He did, and the Bible tells us that the sun stood still in the sky for 24 hours.

We all know that commanding the sun to stand still would not produce the effect Joshua or God wanted. If we are speaking relative to the solar system, there would be absolutely no effect. The sun is already still. If we were speaking relative to the galaxy or universe, then the rest of the solar system, including earth would speed away from the sun at thousands of miles per second, producing rapid freezing temperatures and a rapidly darkening day.

Joshua, and God, wanted an extended daytime period. For that to happen, the earth needs to stop revolving, though it can continue in its orbit around the sun.

God did not, however, bother to explain to Joshua what was really going on. Nor did he explain the extent of the miracle: “Hey, Josh, this is way cooler than you can imagine. The Mediterranean Sea should be washing you into the Persian Gulf, a route the United States will use twice, both times under a president named Bush, to invade this part of the world, which will be called the Middle East then, with machines that you cannot imagine! However, I am holding back the Mediterranean Sea, the oceans—which you don’t even know about—and all the rivers in order to keep life alive while the world stands still. In fact, I’m even holding back the mountains because the earth is coming to a instantaneous stop from a rotation speed, where you’re standing, of around 1,000 miles per hour! Wait, I mean 8,698 stadia per hour. Wait, you don’t know that measurement yet, either. Let’s see, the biggest number you’ve got is 10,000? Okay, think of the earth spinning at 10,000 cubits per hour. Now think of it spinning 352 times faster than that? Not getting it? How about 10,000 cubits in ten seconds? No, you don’t have seconds. Hang on …”

Why The Explanation of Num. 25:19 and 1 Cor. 10:8 Does Not Resolve the Problem

If you read through the blog post I linked through above, you will find that the explanation with the best merit is from the Kyle and Delitzsch Commentary (as usual). They tell us there was a rabbinical tradition that said that 23,000 were killed by the plague and 1,000 were killed by God’s orders to “take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before Yahweh.”

Paul, who would have been very familiar with rabbinic tradition, cites that number, not the number Moses gave in Numbers 25:19.

That’s a legitimate explanation, in my eyes. It’s not a contradiction; it’s two different sources. (The blogger wrote, “It is possible that both men [Moses and Paul] were right. They were just counting different.” That is a strange way to phrase it. Counted different?)

The problem is, with this explanation, the Bible still disagrees with itself:

  1. Paul said 23,000 fell in one day, and Moses says 24,000 were killed by the plague. The text, Numbers 25, seems to indicate that the compromisers were hung up before the plague ended. So everyone died on the same day, including the 1,000 that were hung, assuming 1,000 really were hung. Paul’s math would still be off.
  2. Moses said 24,000 died of the plague. So if 23,000 died of the plague, like the explanation we have been given says, then Moses gave the wrong number!

The Even Deeper Problem with These Explanations

A very popular explanation for the contradiction I introduced above, between Solomon’s four thousand chariot stalls in 2 Chronicles and his forty thousand in 1 Kings, is that this was a copyist error. The “original autographs,” written by the “inspired” writer, was actually flawless, and the two numbers agreed.

One problem is that this is pure assumption. It’s wishful thinking based on a belief system that has no support and a lot of very serious problems.

The main problem, however, is motive.

If God thought it was so important for the inspired writers of Kings and Chronicles to get every detail right, why did he let the original, correct manuscripts get lost? Doesn’t it seem easier to protect at least one or two copyists from error and thus to transmit the ultraimportant lack of contradictions down to us, the readers?

What good does it do to inspire Jehoshophat and Joah the recordkeepers (1 Kings 4:3; 2 Kings 18:18) to be flawless, then not to inspire copyists—at least a few of them—to be equally flawless. The end result is the same as if “the original autographs” were not flawless.

I just find it hard to believe God does useless things.

Two Final Arguments for Bible Contradictions

1. Our Experience with Men of God Today

Do you judge modern “inspired” speakers by whether they get all their details right?

Maybe you do. Maybe you jump up in the middle of a rousing sermon with the Holy Spirit convicting the hearts of hearers and converting souls, and you shout, “Stop, preacher! You are obviously not from God because that anecdote you just related occured over two months ago, not a few days ago. You are not inspired! You are not delivering the word of God!”

I have a friend whose teaching is often life-changing. The power of his speaking is obviously, to me and many others, a gift of the Holy Spirit.

His memory, however, is a gift of optimism and his wonderful, inspiring visionary attitude. In fact, I blame God for his remarkably inaccurate storytelling. Because God has granted him such vision, the only details he remembers of any story are those that relate to the vision God gave him.

If he gets other details wrong, he doesn’t care. The proof of his stories that he wants to show you is the fruit of his ministry. As long as he can show you that what he is saying is exactly accurate and true because, behold, the results are right here in front of you. See the unity; see the love; see the zeal for the glory of God that these people have.

My friend is an inspired, powerful man of God. No, he has no authority to write new Scripture. But why should I assume that those who did have the authority to write new Scriptures were any different than my friend? If God doesn’t care to inspire my friend with accurate details of true stories that he tells from his past, the why would he care to inspire the apostles and prophets with those details? God hasn’t changed, has he?

It’s not just my friend. You know that. It’s every inspired man of God today. If the man of God you hear the most has a terrific memory, he tells stories in glowing, accurate detail. If has a lesser memory, you shake your head because you were there and you know the true details, but you listen to and trust the man, anyway. Not only that, you go to work the next day and tell people, “Wow, I really heard the word of God yesterday from so-and-so.”

2. Where do YOU Draw the Line?

Mark and Luke both quote Jesus as telling his disciples that he needed to go to other cities to preach the Gospel. In Mark 1:38, he says (KJV):

“Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth.”

In Luke 4:43, he says:

I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also: for therefore I am sent.”

Obviously, God did not inspire both Mark and Luke to get Jesus’ every word exact. Not only do they quote him using different word order, but the crucial words are different even in the Greek.

Mark quotes Jesus as using kerusso for the word “preach.” Luke quotes euangelidzo. Mark quotes Jesus as saying he came forth (erchomai); Luke quotes him as saying that he was sent (Gr. apostello).

Which one quoted him accurately?

Does it not matter in this case? If not, why not? Is there any reason that it doesn’t matter here other than you know that with a little searching I could produce dozens of such situations, some with more problematic details?

I would really like to coax out the part of our brains that understands that Mark, hearing from Peter, and Luke, hearing from who knows what source as part of his research, were helped by God to get the idea right, not the details. I’d like to breathe some life into that part of our brains.

God cares about the idea, not the details. He is teaching us, and he is not going to pause to make sure Mark and Luke know whether Jesus described his preaching with kerusso or euangilidzo. (They’re synonyms, though the latter may carry more of a “good” news connotation. I don’t trust the sources I’ve seen for that, though.)

He’s also not going to pause to tell Jehoshophat or Joah that the sky doesn’t really rest on pillars of the earth (1 Samuel 2:8) or the writer of Job that the sky is not solid (Job 37:18).

Free Bonus

Kerusso and euangelidzo both mean to preach or proclaim. In the apostles writings, they are always used of proclaiming a new message to unbelievers. In Jesus’ case, they are used of proclaiming his message of the Kingdom to the Jews.

When the apostles wanted to talk about the instruction of Christians, they used teach (didasko) or catechise (katechiso). (I’m afraid I don’t really understand the difference between the two words except by historic practice. According to Strong’s, they are synonyms.)

In other words, proper Biblical terminology would be that we “preach” to the lost. We “teach” the church. Christians don’t need a public proclamation, which is what “preach” means. They have already heard it, and they have come in from the public into the family of God, where they are “taught” primarily by elders and teachers. Apostles have to be both preachers and teachers (Acts 15:35; 28:31; Col. 1:28; 2 Tim. 1:11). Elders (pastors) have to be able to teach as well as shepherd (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9). Evangelists preach. (“Evangelist” comes from the noun form of euangelidzo, one of the words for “preach.”)

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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2 Responses to Bible Contradictions

  1. Ben says:

    Hi Paul, I’ve been a keen follower of your websites since a Catholic friend introduced me to the Church fathers (I’m from an evangelical background, so naturally my prior knowledge was zilch) and I stumbled across your Christian history website whilst researching online. I’ve always admired your quest for honesty, and it’s encouraged me to emulate it.

    Recently, due to developments in the Church I grew up in, I have been trying to really honestly determine what God thinks about homosexual sex. From my study of the scriptures and history, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Bible absolutely calls homosexual sex in all forms sinful (which part of me doesn’t like because it’s probably another example of God calling us to be radically different from the world, but hey gotta grow up and deal with that). However like yourself, honesty has led me to conclude that there are contradictions and probable minor factual errors in the Bible too (which most of me doesn’t like because it challenges my core beliefs as an evangelical!).

    So my question is this – how do you reconcile your (at least apparent, but please correct me if wrong) belief that the Bible without error teaches God’s moral values (e.g. that homosexual sex is sinful) with your belief that, in a few cases regarding factual information, the Bible is errant and self-contradictory? (Also, this particularly given we can’t be entirely sure of Canon? But maybe that’s another question…)

    Many thanks!

    • Paul Pavao says:

      You have put me on the spot, but since I put others on the spot as well, I’m glad to answer. I do believe the Bible is inspired and God speaks through it. I also believe that Jesus, as the Word of God, is the ultimate interpreter of the Bible, not only by his words but by his life. I believe he commissioned and sent his apostles into the world, including Paul, and thus I believe they were inspired, both in their preaching and writing. This does not mean I think they were errorless in any other way than the overall content of the Gospel message. The Law of Moses and the apostles definitely regard homosexuality as sin. Paul, in fact, in Romans 1, says it is the result of refusing the worship of God. Jesus is silent on the matter, but it is safe to guess that he would have shocked the unbending in treating homosexuals with love and mercy the same way he shocked the Pharisees by treating the adulteress with mercy and love. That said, sexual sin will be judged by God. If a man is not married to a woman or a woman is not married to a man, they should avoid sex or get married.

      That said, I do not believe that homosexual activity is an automatic ticket to hell. Is a girl who has been repeatedly molested by her father, brother, uncle, or some other man going to grow up looking forward to sex with a man? There are extenuating circumstances. I would ask a homosexual who came to our church to refrain from homosexual activity if they want to be in the church, just as we would ask a single man or woman to be chaste as long as he or she was a member of the church. I do not sneer at or despise homosexuals any more than I sneer at or despise any other sinner. All I can do is give them the Gospel, tell them what the Bible says, and encourage them to KNOW God through Jesus; to experience him. He is our healer, even of our sexual issues, and he heals by miraculous touch and the loving support and guidance of brothers and sisters. Loving care for a homosexual is in short supply in Christian circles, unfortunately. I would be more concerned about the Christian who denied a homosexual, even a practicing one, Christian love, understanding, and kindness than about the homosexual who continued practicing that particular sin.

      I don’t encourage compromising in obedience to God, Jesus, the apostles, or the Bible. I do not encourage condemnation, either. Jesus will be our Judge, not me. I will tell a person how Jesus judges, but I will not be the judge myself.

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