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Difficulties in the Bible: 18. Some Important "Contradictions" in the Bible

By Reuben Archer Torrey

      I am constantly meeting men who say that the Bible is full of contradictions. When I ask them to show me one, they reply, "It is full of them." When I press them to point out one, usually they have no more to say. But now and then I meet an infidel who does know enough about his Bible to point out some apparent contradictions. In this chapter we shall consider some of these.


      One of those most frequently brought forward is the apparent contradiction between John 1:18, where we read, "No man hath seen God at any time," and Exodus 24:10, where we are told that Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel "saw the God of Israel." (There are also other passages in which men are said to have seen God.)

      Now this certainly looks like a flat contradiction, and many besides skeptics have been puzzled by it. Indeed, one of the most devout men I ever knew was so puzzled by it that he left his place of business and came miles in great perturbation of spirit to ask me about it. The solution of this apparently unanswerable difficulty is in reality very simple.

      We must remember first of all that two statements which in terms flatly contradict one another may both be absolutely true, for the reason that the terms are not used in the same sense in the two statements.

      For example, if any man should ask me if I ever saw the back of my head, I might answer, "No, I never saw the back of my head," and this statement would be strictly true. Or I might answer, "Yes, I have seen the back of my head," and this statement would also be true, though it appears to flatly contradict the other. The back of my head I never have seen, but more than once when looking into a mirror with another mirror back of me I have seen the back of my head. What I should answer depends entirely upon what the man means. If he means one thing I answer no, and that is true. If he means another thing I answer yes, and that is equally true.

      But someone may object, "In the latter case you did not really see the back of your head. What you saw was a reflection of the back of your head in the mirror."

      But to this I would reply, "Neither do you see the back of anyone's head when you are looking at it. What you see is the reflection of that person's head upon the retina of your eye."

      But everyone knows what you mean when you use language in this common sense, everyday way. They know that when you say you saw the back of another man's head you mean you saw a reflection of it upon the retina of your eye, and they know when you say you saw the back of your own head in the glass that you mean you saw the reflection of the back of your head in the glass. In the one case you see the reflection, in the other case you see the reflection of the reflection, and in both cases what you actually see is the thing that was reflected.

      Now this case is very much like this illustration. God in His eternal essence is invisible ("unseeable," 1 Timothy 1:17). No man has seen Him, nor can we see Him (1 Timothy 6:16). He is spirit, not form (John 4:23-24). John tells us in the passage before us a profound and wondrous truth: "No man hath seen God at any time. The only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." That is, this invisible (unseeable) God is unfolded to us, interpreted to us (the word here translated "declared" is the word from which our word "exegesis" is derived), in the words and in the person of Jesus Himself. So fully is He declared, not only in the words of Jesus but in His person, that Jesus could say, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9).

      But this essentially invisible God has been pleased in His great grace to manifest Himself again and again in bodily form. Moses and the seventy elders saw such a manifestation of God (or a theophany) when they were in the mount. Isaiah saw such a manifestation in the temple (Isaiah 6:1), and in describing it he properly declared, "I saw the LORD." Job saw such a manifestation and was so humbled by the actual coming face to face with God Himself that he cried, "I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). It was God that was manifested in these theophanies, so it was God they saw.

      We see then that both of these apparently flatly contradictory statements: "No man hath seen God at any time" and "Moses [and the others] saw God" are perfectly true.

      Jesus Christ Himself was the crowning manifestation of God. "In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily" (that is, in bodily form, Colossians 2:9). So Jesus said to Philip with perfect propriety, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." The time is coming when all the pure in heart shall behold God permanently manifested in bodily form (Matthew 5:8). The form in which Jesus existed in His preexistent state in the glory was the form of God (Philippians 2:6, see RV marg.). The Greek word which is translated "form" in this passage means "the form by which a person or thing strikes the vision--the external appearance" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament),so we are clearly taught that the external appearance of Jesus in His preexistent form was the external appearance of God, that is, that the invisible God, who is a spirit in His essential essence, manifests Himself in an external, visible form.


      A second "contradiction," of which the infidels make a great deal, and by which not a few believers are puzzled, is that found in the four accounts of the superscriptions on the cross. We read in Matthew 27:37: "And set up over his head his accusation written, This is Jesus the King of the Jews." We read in Mark 15:26: "And the superscription of his accusation was written over, The King of the Jews." We read in Luke 23:38: "And there was also a superscription over him, This is the King of the Jews" (RV). And we read in John 19:19: "And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews." Now no two of these agree absolutely in the words used. How can all four possibly be right? It is said that at least three must be wrong, at least in part. A great deal is made of this difficulty by those who argue against the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures.

      I am surprised that anyone should make so much of it for the answer is found so plainly stated in the very passages cited that it is surprising that any careful student should have overlooked it. John tells us in John 19:20 (RV) that in order that all the different nationalities present might read it, the charge upon which Jesus was crucified was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek; in Hebrew for the common people, in Latin for the Romans, and in Greek, the universal language. The substantial part of the charge was that Jesus claimed to be "the King of the Jews" and was crucified for making this claim, so these words, "The King of the Jews," appear in the Hebrew and Latin and Greek. They also appear in all four accounts of the four Gospels. Matthew (writing for the Jews) would naturally give the inscription as it appeared in Hebrew; Mark (writing for the Romans) would be likely to give it as it appeared in the Latin; and Luke as it appeared in the Greek. Presumably John gives it in the full Roman form, "Jesus of Nazareth" being a full and explicit statement of who Jesus was, and the charge being His claim to be "the King of the Jews."

      The only thing left to account for is the difference between Mark and John. But if we carefully read Mark 15:26 we see that Mark does not claim to give the full wording that appeared on the cross. He simply says, "The superscription of His accusation was written over." The accusation was "the King of the Jews," and this Mark gives, and this alone. The words "This is Jesus of Nazareth" were not the accusation, but the name of the accused.

      So all this difficulty, of which so much is made, disappears altogether when we notice exactly what is said and all that is said.


      Another "contradiction" of which a great deal is made is that which seems to exist between two different accounts of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. We are told in Acts 9:7 that those who journeyed with Saul to Damascus heard the voice that spoke to Saul, but saw no man. On the other hand Paul, in relating to the Jews in Jerusalem the story of his conversion, says, "They that were with me beheld indeed the light, but they heard not the voice of him that spoke to me" (Acts 22:9, RV). Now these two statements seem to flatly contradict one another. Luke, in recounting the conversion, says that the men that journeyed with Paul heard the voice; but Paul himself in recounting his conversion says that they did not hear the voice. Could there possibly be a flatter contradiction than this?

      But this apparent contradiction disappears when we look at the Greek of the two passages. The Greek word translated "heard" governs two cases, the genitive and the accusative. When the voice of a person or thing which is heard is spoken of, it is followed by the genitive. When the message that is heard is spoken of it is followed by the accusative. In Acts 9:7 the genitive is used. They did hear the voice, the sound. In Acts 22:9 the words translated "the voice" are in the accusative. They did not hear the message of the One that spoke. The word rendered "voice" also has two meanings: first, "a sound, a tone," and second, "a voice," that is, "a sound of uttered words" (Thayer'sGreek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). The voice as a mere sound they heard; they did not hear the voice as the sound of uttered words; they did not hear the message.

      So another seeming difficulty entirely disappears when we look exactly at what the Bible in the original says. Instead of having an objection to the Bible we have another illustration of its absolute accuracy, not only down to a word but down to a single letter that ends a word and by which a case in indicated.


      A good deal is made of the apparent contradictions in the various accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. A prominent unbeliever sent to the daily papers the following problem for me to solve. He said, "The account of the visit to the grave is entirely different in the four Gospels. Two of the Gospels state that the women saw two angels at the grave, and two of the other Gospels state that they only saw one angel."

      What is the solution of this apparent difficulty?

      First of all, the objector does not truly state the facts in the case. Far from its being true that two of the Gospels state that they "saw only one angel," not one of the Gospels states that they saw only one angel. It is true that Matthew says that "they saw an angel" (28:1-5), and Mark says: "They saw a young man," presumably an angel (16:5-7); but neither Matthew nor Mark says that they saw "only" one angel. Saying that they saw one does not preclude the possibility of their seeing two.

      Furthermore, it is not true that two of the Gospels state that the women saw two angels at the grave. It is true that Luke says (24:3-4) that after they had entered into the sepulcher two men (presumably angels) stood by them in dazzling apparel. But this apparently does not refer to the incident that Matthew refers to at all, for the angel there mentioned was an angel who was outside the sepulcher. Nor does it seem to refer to the same fact of which Mark speaks, for the young man (or angel) in Mark's gospel was one who was sitting on the right side of the sepulcher. This angel may have been joined later by the one who was on the outside, and these two together may have stood by the women. This seems more likely, as the message uttered by the two in Luke is in part the same as that uttered by the angel outside the sepulcher in Matthew, and by the young man inside the sepulcher in Mark (cf. Luke 24:5-6; Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:5-7). The very simple solution is that there was an angel outside the tomb when the women approached, and they saw another one inside sitting. The one outside entered, and the one sitting arose, and standing by the women they uttered together or after one another the words recorded in Matthew and in Mark and in Luke.

      But how about the account in John? John does tell us that there were two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had lain (John 20:12-13). How can we reconcile that with the other three? Very easily. It was not the group of women at all that saw these two angels, but we are distinctly told it was Mary alone. Mary started out with the other women for the sepulcher, got a little ahead of the group, was the first to see the stone rolled away from the tomb (John 20:1), immediately jumped at the conclusion that the tomb had been rifled, and ran at top speed to the city to carry the news to Peter and John (John 20:2). While she was going into the city, the other women reached and entered the tomb, and the things recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke occurred. These women left the sepulcher before Mary reached it the second time. Peter and John had also left it when Mary reached the sepulcher; and two angels, the one who had been on the outside and the one who at first had been sitting on the inside, were both sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet where the body of Jesus had lain.

      All the other apparent contradictions in the four accounts of the resurrection--and they are quite numerous--also disappear on careful study. But these apparent contradictions are themselves proof of the truth and the accuracy of the accounts. It is evident that these four accounts are separate and independent accounts. If four different persons had sat down to make up a story in collusion of a resurrection that never occurred, they would have made their four accounts appear to agree, at least on the surface. Whatever contradictions there might be in the four accounts would only come out after minute and careful study. But just the opposite is the case here. It is all on the surface that the apparent contradictions occur. It is only by careful and protracted study that the real agreement shines forth. It is just such a harmony as would not exist between four accounts fabricated in collusion. It is just such an agreement as would exist in four independent accounts of substantially the same circumstances, each narrator telling the same story from his own standpoint, relating such details as impressed him, omitting other details which did not impress him but which did impress another narrator and which the other narrator related. Sometimes two accounts would seem to contradict one another, but the third account would come in and unintentionally reconcile the apparent discrepancies between the two. This is precisely what we have in the four accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We may heartily thank God that there are these apparent discrepancies among them. And even if we cannot find the solution of some apparent discrepancies, the fact that we do by careful study find a solution of what appeared to be an inexplicable contradiction will suggest to us the certainty that if we knew all the facts in the case, we would also find a solution of the apparent discrepancies which we cannot reconcile as yet. The more one studies the four accounts of the resurrection, the more he will be convinced, if he is candid, that they are separate and independent accounts, and a truthful narration of what actually occurred. They could not have been fabricated in collusion with one another--the very discrepancies urged prove this. Much less could they have been fabricated independently of one another. Four men sitting down independently of one another to fabricate an account of something that never occurred would have agreed with one another nowhere, but in point of fact the more we study these four accounts the more clearly we discover how marvelously they fit in with one another.

      What has been said about the apparent discrepancies between the four accounts of the resurrection will apply also to other apparent discrepancies in the different gospel narratives of the same event. They are very numerous, and to take them all up in detail would require a volume, but the illustration given above will serve to prove how these apparent discrepancies can be reconciled one by one if we take them up thoroughly.


      Another apparent "contradiction" of the Scripture of which a great deal is made and which has puzzled a great many believers follows.

      We read in Malachi 3:6, "For I am the LORD, I change not"; in James 1:17, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning"; and in 1 Samuel 15:29, "And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent." But in apparently flat contradiction of these we read in Jonah 3:10, "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not"; and in Genesis 6:6, "And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart." Here it not only says "it repented God," but "it grieved him at his heart." Now this appears like a flat contradiction. What is the explanation?

      What the first set of passages says is absolutely true, that God is absolutely unchangeable. He is "the same yesterday, and today, and for ever" (Hebrews 13:8). But the second class of passages is also true, for if God does remain the same in character, infinitely hating sin and absolutely unchangeable in His purpose to visit sin with judgment, then if any city or any person changes in attitude toward sin, God must necessarily change in His attitude toward that person or city. If God remains the same, if His attitude toward sin and righteousness is unchanging, then His dealings with men must change as they turn from sin to repentance. His character remains ever the same, but His dealings with men change as they change from the position that is hateful to His unchanging hatred of sin to one that is pleasing to His unchanging love of righteousness.

      We may illustrate this by the direction of a railway station that remains stationary, relative to a train that moves along the track in front of the station. When the train begins to move it is to the east of the station, but as the train moves westward it is soon west of the station. The only way in which the station could maintain the same direction relative to the moving train would be by moving as the train moves. If the station is unchangeable in its position, its direction relative to the train must change as the train moves. So it is with God's attitude toward man. If God remains unchangeable in His character, His purpose and His position, then as man moves from sin to righteousness, God's attitude relative to that man must change. The very fact that God does not repent (change His mind), that He remains always the same in His attitude toward sin, makes it necessary that God should repent in His conduct (change His dealings) with men as they turn from sin to righteousness.

      As to Jehovah's repenting of having made man on the earth and its grieving Him at His heart, this too is necessitated by the unchanging attitude of God toward sin. If God does not repent (change His mind about sin, His attitude toward sin), and if man's wickedness becomes great, then God's unrepenting, unchanging hatred of sin necessitates that the man whom He has created, who has fallen into sin so great and so abhorrent to Himself, should become the object of great grief to Him, and that He should turn from His creative dealings with man to His destroying dealings with man. This was necessitated by man's sin. An unchangeably holy God must destroy man who has become so hopelessly sunken in sin. The only condition upon which He could spare him would be that God Himself change from the holiness of His character as it was when He created him to become an unholy God.

      So again we see that what appears at the first glimpse like a flat contradiction is really no contradiction at all but an entire agreement in fact and thought between passages that seem to contradict in words.


      Another apparent contradiction of Scripture is found in 2 Samuel 24:1 compared with 1 Chronicles 21:1. In 2 Samuel 24:1 (RV), we read that "the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them, saying, Go number Israel and Judah." But in 1 Chronicles 21:1 we read, "And Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel." In one passage, therefore, we are told that Jehovah moved David against the people when He said, "Go number Israel and Judah"; in the other passage we are told that Satan moved David to number Israel. Which is the correct account?

      The very simple answer to this question is that both accounts are correct.

      We need not suppose that an error has crept into the text and that "he" appears instead of "Satan," so that what really was recorded in Samuel would be "And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and Satan moved David against them," meaning that the anger of the Lord was kindled because David yielded to Satan's moving him. Of course it is possible that such an error may have crept into the text, or it is possible that the pronoun "he" really refers to Satan, who is not mentioned; or the "he" might be interpreted "one," without any designation as to who the "one" was. If this were so there would be no difficulty whatever in the passage.

      But there is no insuperable difficulty in any case to anyone who understands the Bible teaching regarding God's relation to temptation, and the attitude that He takes toward Satan. In 2 Corinthians 12:7 (RV) we are told by Paul that lest he should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations made to him there was given him a thorn in the flesh, "a messenger of Satan," to buffet him. Now as the purpose of this thorn in the flesh, this "messenger of Satan," was most salutary, to keep Paul from being "exalted overmuch," evidently it was God who gave him the thorn in the flesh, the "messenger of Satan"; but nonetheless the messenger was a messenger of Satan. In other words God uses Satan, evil as he is, for our good, for our moral discipline. Just as God makes the wrath of man to praise Him (Psalm 76:10), so He makes even the wrath of Satan to praise Him. What Satan intends only for evil God uses for our good. It was Satan who tempted David, but it was by God's permission that Satan tempted him; and back of the testing and consequent failure of David and the salutary humiliation of David that came out of it was God; and in this sense it was God who moved David to the act that David might discover through his failure what was in his own heart.

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See Also:
   Difficulties in the Bible Introduction
   Difficulties in the Bible: 1. A General Statement of the Case
   Difficulties in the Bible: 2. Classes of Difficulties
   Difficulties in the Bible: 3. How Shall We Deal with the Difficulties of the Bible?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 4. Genesis One-Historical and Scientific?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 5. The Antiquity of Man According to the Bible and According to Science
   Difficulties in the Bible: 6. Where Did Cain Get His Wife?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 7. Jehovah's Command to Abraham to Offer Up Isaac as a Burnt Offering
   Difficulties in the Bible: 8. God Hardening Pharaoh's Heart
   Difficulties in the Bible: 9. The Slaughter of the Canaanites by God's Command
   Difficulties in the Bible: 10. Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still
   Difficulties in the Bible: 11. Deborah's Praise of Jael, the "Murderess"
   Difficulties in the Bible: 12. The Sacrifice of Jephtha's Daughter
   Difficulties in the Bible: 13. "Impure" Bible Stories
   Difficulties in the Bible: 14. David's Sin
   Difficulties in the Bible: 15. The Imprecatory Psalms
   Difficulties in the Bible: 16. Does the God of Truth and Love Send Lying Spirits and Evil Spirits to Men?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 17. Jonah and the Whale
   Difficulties in the Bible: 18. Some Important "Contradictions" in the Bible
   Difficulties in the Bible: 19. "Mistakes" in the Bible
   Difficulties in the Bible: 20. The Two Genealogies of Jesus, the Christ
   Difficulties in the Bible: 21. Was Jesus Really Three Days and Three Nights in the Heart of the Earth?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 22. How Could Jesus Commend the Action of the Unrighteous Steward?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 23. Were Jesus and Paul Mistaken as to the Time of Our Lord's Return?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 24. Did Jesus Go into the Abode of the Dead and Preach to the Spirits in Prison? Is There Another Probation After Death?


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