We hear a lot about Bible “contradictions” from people these days. Many say that because of these discrepancies the reliability of the Bible cannot be trusted. Especially brought up are the four gospels, since they have many parallel accounts that have surface disagreements with one another. But these supposed contradictions in the Bible need not destroy your faith. Quite to the contrary, if approached properly, supposed contradictions in Scripture can actually help strengthen our faith.
Let me give you six different ways you can explain these supposedly fatal contradictions.
1. Biblical Authors Sometimes “Paraphrase”
In first century culture, it was permissible to vary the exact wording when you quoted someone, as long as the meaning of the quote remained intact. They could vary the amount of detail given for a specific account also.
For example, “Two cars collided in the intersection” might be said also as “The first car crashed into the second car as they both were moving through the intersection of First and Second Street.” Each describes the same event. One gives more detail, but the basic meaning is not changed. If the second quote said: “There was only one car in the accident, and it hit a pole,” then that would be a contradiction. But we find nothing like this in the gospels.
2. Biblical Authors Use Different Witnesses to the Same Event
The fact that there are differences in the biblical text is actually evidence of its historical accuracy. The seeming disagreements in Scripture show the absence of collusion.
Some of the Bible’s verses, when carefully studied in the proper context, exhibit superficial discrepancies and conflicts which resolve themselves on closer examination. This kind of evidence is exactly what is looked for in a court of law to establish credibility and independence of witnesses. If things agree too well they look artificial and contrived.
3. Biblical Authors Didn’t Always Put Things in Order by Time
Some of the Bible writers record historical events out of chronological order to fit whatever theme they are trying to emphasize, but this does not detract from the historicity of the events themselves.
4. Some Teaches Were Spoken More than Once
Another simple explanation would be that Jesus gave the same essential teachings more than once, with slightly varying words each time. Surely over three years of ministry he repeated certain teachings! So while one Gospel has Jesus saying one thing, and another Gospel has Him saying something similar but with different wording, this does not mean that there is a contradiction in what Jesus said. Instead, it is seems possible that Jesus may have taught similar things on different occasions.
5. Some Bible Critics Take Verses Out of Context
Also, a large number of perceived discrepancies are the result of taking a Bible verse out of context. Many are also due to the prejudice of the critic. Many of these contradictions are “much ado about nothing.”
6. Biblical Authors Sometimes “Compress” the narrative
If every little detail in a Biblical account were given, it might clear up the discrepancies, but the Bible itself would be so bulky and hard to follow that it would not be nearly as useful to the reader.
“Fair or Fowl?”
An example “contradiction” that is often brought up are the accounts of Peter’s denial of Christ and the roosters crowing. All four gospels contain this account. In Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus seems to be telling Peter that before the cock (rooster) crows once the next morning, Peter will deny Him three times, but in Mark, Jesus tells Peter that he will deny Him before the cock crows twice. So some say since the accounts disagree, they can’t be trusted.
But is this fair? First of all, as we saw above, in that time period the use of paraphrase, even for memorization of sayings, was considered acceptable in recounting an event. Rather than the exact quotations required today, they could vary the wording and detail level, as long as the essence of the account was preserved. In the Greek and Hebrew, quotation marks did not even exist.
In this case, Mark may be giving more detail, while the others are speaking more generally. “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” is less detailed than “before the rooster crows twice you will deny me three times,” yet both convey the same event to historians, namely that after Peter denied Jesus three times, the cock would crow.
We should not let such a minor discrepancy keep them from taking this account as historical. Indeed, other ancient literature that historians give credibility to has much more significant differences than this one. So it was the practice of the writers of that day to vary wording and amount of detail, and it is not fair to judge their writing by modern standards.
The critics also don’t seem to fairly consider possible reconciling explanations. For example, there was a certain time period early in the morning known as the “cockcrow” or “cockcrowing,” when most of the roosters would be in full voice (If you grew up on a farm, you might be remembering that natural alarm clock!)
This term is used as such in Mark 13:35. The term could be translated in various ways: ‘At even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning.” So when in Matthew and the other gospels, Jesus says, “before the cock crow,” He could very well mean that before the time in the morning when the usual cockcrowing takes place, Peter will have made three denials. Mark simply adds more detail by informing us that a rooster or two crowed right after Peter’s first denial as well. How long was the time gap in between this early rooster crow and the normal “cockcrowing?”
Luke gives the information that the time between Peter’s first and second denials was “about the space of one hour” (Luke 22:59). So we see that rather than the gospels contradicting each other, all of the accounts blended together give a fully picture of what went on that evening.
So when these discrepancies are used to call the historical reliability of the gospels into question, I am tempted to cry: “Fowl!”
The Bible can be trusted, and when the supposed “contradictions” are studied within their contexts and from a historical perspective, we see that most of the apparent contradictions disappear, and in fact, even support the reliability and accuracy of the Bible.