There are contradictions in the Bible. The reason that most churches’ statement of faith says that the Bible is “free from error in the original manuscripts” is because they know that the Bible is not free from error in the manuscripts we have available. To most, that is not a problem because all or almost all contradictions are chalked up to copyist errors.
One early Christian, though, thought there was something much better to do with contradictions and with puzzling verses that seem to make no sense. His name was Origen and, admittedly, he was a controversial guy. Though brilliant and highly respected in his time (A.D. 220-250), he was prone to wild speculation, and later councils condemned him. The condemnations, though, were probably not so much for his actual teachings but because two centuries later a group of “Origenists” arose promoting a false view of the Trinity, which was still a hot topic at the time.
Anyway, controversial or not controversial, the wisdom of this approach to contradictions in the Bible is apparent. Origen wrote:
Since, then, it was the intention of the Holy Spirit to enlighten those holy souls who had devoted themselves to the service of the truth with regard to these and similar subjects, the following purpose was kept in view. … For the sake of those who either could not or would not give themselves to this labor and toil by which they would deserve to be instructed in … things of such value and importance, [God purposed] to wrap up and conceal … in ordinary language—under the covering of some history and narrative of visible things—hidden mysteries. (De Principiis, Bk. IV, Ch. 1, par. 14; brackets in original)
Note: All the quotes from Origen in this post can be read at CCEL.org/fathers.
Origen is saying here that truth is for the diligent. As Psalm 25:14 says, “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him, and he will show them his covenant.” Or, as the writer of Hebrews says, all who have faith know that “the Lord is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6). He is also saying that because truth is for the diligent, the most valuable and important truths are hidden beneath the surface, not lying in plain sight for the casual or lazy reader of Scripture.
Jesus gave a similar reason for speaking parables, saying, “I speak to them in parables because seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear nor understand” (Matt. 13:13).
He goes on:
But if in all instances … the logical connection and order of the Law had been preserved, we would certainly not believe … that anything else was contained in it except what was indicated on the surface. So for that reason, Divine Wisdom took care that certain stumbling blocks, or interruptions, to the historical meaning would take place. He did this by introducing into the middle certain impossibilities and incongruities. (De Principiis, Bk. IV, ch. 1, par. 15)
So Origen says that there are impossibilities and incongruities (i.e., contradictions) in Scripture that are meant to stop the diligent student and cause him or her to look more deeply into the spiritual meaning of the narrative. One example that he gives is the devil taking Jesus on a high mountain to see all the kingdoms of the world.
How could it literally come to pass, either that Jesus should be led up by the devil into a high mountain, or that the latter should show him all the kingdoms of the world (as if they were lying beneath his bodily eyes, and adjacent to one mountain), i.e., the kingdoms of the Persians, and Scythians, and Indians? (De Principiis, Bk. IV, ch. 1, par. 16; parentheses in original)
This example reminds me of a customer service call I took from a lady living on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. I told her that I had heard that a person can see five states from that mountain. She answered, “Yes, you can, with binoculars and a good imagination.”
There is no mountain in Israel, or anywhere else, from which a person can see India and Egypt at the same time. Origen is telling us to stop and contemplate the spiritual truth being revealed in passages like this. Those impossibilities are God reminding his diligent and spiritual disciples to look below the surface.
The contradiction that led me to write this today is found in 2 Kings 8:25 and 9:28. There you will find two different years for the beginning of King Ahaziah’s reign. The two dates are only one year apart, and it is entirely possible this really is a copyist’s error. It has been more than 2500 years since those chapters were written, and we have no Hebrew manuscript more than a thousand years old with 2 Kings in it. That is 1500 years of copies. It is no surprise a little error like that could come in. In fact, it is a surprise that there are not many more such errors.
I doubt we need to dig deeper into the beginning of Ahaziah’s reign. Rather, that minor copyist’s error reminded me of Origen’s teaching. I write much more extensively about this idea at https://www.christian-history.org/bible-interpretation.html. I do want to discuss Bible contradictions just a bit further here, though.
A much bigger error that has to do with Ahaziah’s reign is in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ. You can see a list of the kings of Judah at Bible-history.com. Note that Ahaziah was the son of Jehoram (or Joram). Matthew, however, says that Joram was the father of Uzziah (Matt. 1:8). Maybe this was because Uzziah was also called “Azariah,” (2 Kings 15;; perhaps “Uzziah” was short for “Azariah”?), very similar to Ahaziah, and Matthew (or a list he was using) mixed them up. No matter what the reason, Matthew confused Ahaziah and Azariah, and so he left out Ahaziah, Joash his son, and Amaziah his grandson. So there were not fourteen generations from David to the exile in Babylon, but seventeen (Matt. 1:17).
Now one response to this “incongruity” is to bury our head in the sand and never mention it, hoping no one will notice. Since we are Christians, spiritual and powerful children of God, and not ostriches, I do not recommend this response. I recommend Origen’s response, digging deeper. This is hard to do. It is terrifying for those who believe the Bible is “free from error in its original manuscripts” to face a real contradiction from the original author of a Bible book. Matthew’s oversight is an error. It is a big error. Matthew counted his generations wrong in order to get his three fourteens (1:17).
I hope you are glad that I told you this rather than a scoffing atheist telling you. Now you have time to prepare.
I wish I could give you some great Bible interpretation when I found this contradiction. I did not get a great Bible interpretation out of it; I got a great spiritual truth. (For those who need a good explanation for the inconsistency, here are some given in commentaries.)
I found the contradiction in Matthew at a time in my life when I was getting back in shape and jogging a lot. I had a favorite logging trail to run on, and I ran a few hundred yards down the trail and curled up in the grass, calling out to God. There were several other difficulties I had run across through the previous year, mostly because I was doing a lot of apologetics. As I lay there on the ground, I told God I had to let go of things that I had treasured and defended. I could not argue for or believe a Bible without contradictions anymore.
The most astonishing peace came over me, truly a peace that passes understanding. It was every bit as puzzling as the joy that came over me a few years later when I was told I had leukemia. In that moment, lying there in the grass, I realized that I believe with a deep-down, unshakable belief that has nothing to do with the accuracy of Scripture and everything to do with the power of God. I had doubted some of the most important things I have ever believed, and neither God nor I cared about it. He was the great supporter. My power and the source of my life comes from him. His support is unshakable. I got up with a faith greater than I had ever had. Further, I was free. All the atheist attacks on the faith, all the scientific evidence for evolution … none of it mattered. I was at peace with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I knew him and was owned by him, and nothing else mattered.
Those commentaries I linked will give you some possible explanations for Matthew’s factual error. I no longer care. The books of the Bible have been gathered, and inspired by God, to reveal his will and ways to us so that we can be “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Today, I have a much higher, stronger, and more spiritual view of the inspiration of Scripture than I have ever had. This is all true despite the fact that I believe Matthew, inspired by God, made a historical mistake.
That may not be a satisfying answer for many of you, but by the power of God, it has more than satisfied me.