Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Bible contains many contradictions

The Bible, when carefully examined, contains many contradictions. Some people put the number of such contradictions in the hundreds. (The largest number I have seen on any single Internet web site is 143.) This is a problem for Biblical literalists because an author who wrote a book with contradictions can hardly be omnipotent and omniscient.

For the Bible to have a contradiction, the same information must be presented in different ways in two different places in the Bible. If an account is only given once in the Bible then, by definition, it cannot contain a contradiction. (Though it can contain an inconsistency – see the next section.) Since most of the accounts in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, are only given once, the number of contradictions present within the text is really quite high.

Some of them are very straightforward, if not particularly significant. Among the straightforward examples are a few that involve numbers. Contradictory numbers tend to make the examples very cut and dried. Here is one example.

1 Kings 4:26 –

And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.

2 Chronicles 9:25 -

And Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen; whom he bestowed in the chariot cities, and with the king at Jerusalem.

“Forty thousand” does not equal “four thousand”[1].

A comparison of the Biblical books 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles is particularly interesting because those two books give long accounts of the same set of events involving King David. Yet there are many contradictions, some of which involve contradictory numbers.

First of all, a census of the fighting men of Israel was ordered. But who ordered it?
One book says that God did so.2 Samuel 24:1 -

Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.

The other book says that Satan inspired the census (possibly because he knew of the inevitable contradictions).1 Chronicles 21:1 -

Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.

But that’s far from the only problem. In fact the census came back with different numeric results, depending on which book you read.

For example, how many fighting men were found in Israel and Judah by the census?One book says that there were eight hundred thousand in Israel and five hundred thousand in Judah.2 Samuel 24:9 -
Joab reported the number of the fighting men to the king:

In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand.

The other book says that there were one million, one hundred thousand in Israel and four hundred and seventy thousand in Judah.1 Chronicles 21:5 -

Joab reported the number of the fighting men to David: In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who could handle a sword, including four hundred and seventy thousand in Judah.

Note that both books say that Joab reported the totals so these couldn’t be varying counts from two different sources, and also note that even the totals for each of the two groups of soldiers are different.

Those contradictions are very straightforward, though admittedly insignificant in the grand scheme of the message that people should take from the Bible.

A more significant contradiction, particularly relative to the debate with creationists, is the order of creation. There are actually two contradictory accounts of the creation in the first two chapters of Genesis.

Here’s a portion of the account from Genesis 1 -

[25] God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
[26] Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
So Genesis 1 undeniably tells us that animals were created first and man was created later.

Then here’s the account of the same events from Genesis 2 (I’m using the King James Version here, explanation to follow) –

[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.
[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.

So in Genesis 2 man was created before the animals. The animals were added later in order to be helpful to him.

Clearly that is a contradiction.

How do Biblical literalists explain the many contradictions? Remember that there are many others that I am not including here.

In regard to numeric errors, many apologists don’t refer to them. In general they say that a particular difference, such as this one regarding the number of stalls for horses that Solomon owned, is simply a transcription error. See, this explanation for example[2].

“Though the Hebrew scribes took tremendous care when copying the Scriptures, some mistakes should be expected due to human error. Many languages of antiquity did not contain vowels, spacing, paragraphs, or even punctuation. Whereas today we would write I love you very much this would be written in antiquity as LVYVRYMCH. Naturally this became the cause of much confusion once vowels and punctuation were later added into the texts as the written language progressed. It was at the scribe's discretion to best determine each word and number. If a word was spelled BN, the scribes had to determine if this word was bone, ban, bane, etc.

“Though the scribes could usually find their answer using tradition or context, this still left room for occasional human error. If we pretend for a moment that 4 is a consonant and 0 is a vowel, should a certain number be considered 4 thousand, 40 thousand, or 400 thousand? This was one of the difficulties scribes had to consider.”

Many of the other numeric errors are handled similarly.

I don’t doubt that transcription errors might be the cause of many such contradictions. But, in fact, at least many of the books in the Bible were transcribed time after time after time after the original source was written. But if transcription errors are true – and they probably are - how do we know that there aren’t similar transcription errors throughout the rest of the Bible? To think that they only occurred in passages where there were potential contradictions with other passages in the Bible is surely na├»ve. In many, possibly most cases, a scribe copying one of the OT books had no knowledge of any of the other books. We don’t have the original texts, so how can we possibly determine where such errors occur? It seems likely that they would occur at about the same rate throughout the Bible. In other words, how can we trust anything in the Bible?

The problem with the contradictory accounts about the order of creation is more significant, at least in regard to a discussion of scientific subjects. So how are those two accounts reconciled with each other?

The way that at least some apologists answer that question is by finding another translation that works better for them.

In this case, the New International Version contains a translation that leaves them some wiggle room.

Here is Genesis 2:19 in that NIV translation:

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

Note the “had formed” phrase in the NIV translation that doesn’t appear in the KJV. The KJV leaves out the word “had” putting the sentence into the present tense. Apologists say that this “past tense” phrase in the NIV handles the problem because it shows that the animals were created prior to Adam, as Genesis 1 clearly says, and only refers here to having Adam name the animals. After all, Adam couldn’t name them until after he was created.

Right?

Of course.

But again we have an implicit problem. From my own experience, most evangelicals prefer the NIV, but in some cases Biblical apologists prefer the KJV over other translations. In fact, some say that the KJV was divinely inspired[3]. Some point to faults in the NIV compared to the KJV. For one thing, evidently, the NIV apparently diminishes the divinity of Christ[4]. Furthermore there are at least 20 different versions of the Bible that differ to some extent from each other.

If there are occasions that one version of the Bible gives us the correct message while there are also other occasions when another version gives us the correct message, how can anyone possibly know what to believe? Note that we don’t always have an apparent contradiction to help us decide which version best matches the original message. As with transcription errors, errors in translations should persist at about the same rate throughout the Bible.

If there are no internal contradictions within the Bible but differences between versions, how can anyone possibly know which one to trust? Doesn’t such indecision diminish the value of the Bible as the source of a “clear message”?
The argument is simply this: the books in the Bible were largely written independently of each other. If we need to read version A to understand passage 1 correctly in order to explain one contradiction, but need Version B to understand passage 2 in order to reconcile yet another contradiction, which version do we use to read and properly understand those parts where there are no contradictions because the Bible only has one account of a particular set of events? If 10% of the Bible should be read with the NIV, and 10% with the KJV and, presumably other parts should be read with yet other versions, how do we determine which is the proper version for any particular passage?

[1] http://www.answering-christianity.com/101_bible_contradictions.htm (referenced on November 10, 2008) contains dozens of numeric contradictions.
[2] http://www.thedevineevidence.com/skeptic_contradictions.html , Referenced on November 10, 2008
[3] For example, at http://www.scionofzion.com/kjvinsp.htm (referenced on November 26, 2008) a scholar named Dr, Ken Matto gives his reasons for insisting that the KJV is the only proper version of the Bible to trust.
[4] http://www.prca.org/pamphlets/pamphlet_61.html, referenced on November 10, 2008

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