Conservatives showed me factual discrepencies in the Bible

Before I began listening to debates between Bart Ehrman and conservative defenders of biblical faith, and before I started (slowly, still) reading Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, I read a paper by a New Testament scholar at the conservative Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.

Rodney Whitaker’s paper, “The Moon of Our Darkness,” was a defense of the Bible as the guide for the Christian’s life. And, the paper offered me the first time I can clearly recall being confronted with a factual discrepency in the biblical record.

Also before I started investing time in Ehrman’s debates and writings, I read C.S. Lewis on Scripture by Michael J. Christensen. That book, which attempts to use Lewis’s perspective to navigate contemporary controversies about the Bible, began with several examples of factual discrepencies in the Scriptures.

Through decades of Christian schools and church attendance, I never heard any of these discrepencies addressed. In fact, I heard, on a few occasions, ministers and teachers suggest their weren’t any discrepencies or contradictions, and they even suggested people who don’t believe the Bible because of contradictions couldn’t point out any.

And so for the better part of 30 years, I believe the Bible contained no factual discrepencies.

Now, as a 42-year-old who went to conservative Christian schools from kindergarten to 12th grade (with only the exception of part of 2nd grade), I want to try to understand a different point of view, and I want to consider its validity or lack thereof.

Part of that process has included considering what Bart Ehrman has to say.

Unfortunately, I think the narrative people took away from this blog is more simplistic: that I just picked up Ehrman and thought he settled everything.

Tim Keller, not aware of my background, once said to me in a blog post, “If you are going to recommend [Ehrman’s] views as the basis for making faith and life choices, you should at least read a couple of books by Bruce Metzger, Ehrman’s mentor.”

Uh, I’ve been basing my faith and life choices on American, Bible-believing fundamentalism. That’s why I should read Metzger.

So Ehrman, who himself has a fundamentalist background, has raised some questions that are interesting to me and relevant to me because I’ve seen how sweepingly literalist interpretations of the Scriptures were applied within social situations, schools, and churches — and the results typically varied between ugly and harsh.

But even the reputedly enlightened Reformed crowd seems to care very little about the way sweepingly literalist interpretations are applied in America each day.

Among some Reformed circles, you can easily become too liberal, but you can’t become too conservative.

Many fundamentalist, Reformed, and evangelical leaders don’t seem to care about addressing discrepencies because they’d rather have their congregations snowed and compliant than well-informed. Besides, admitting actual, plain-sense contradictions could get messy.

Furthermore, those leaders are caught in their own contradiction: God inspired everything in the Bible for a specific purpose, but wait, the factual discrepencies result from conventions of ancient near East literature so the discrepencies don’t matter.

If God had a specific purpose for inspiring an historical record, couldn’t he do it correctly? Couldn’t He do it as precisely as He set so many biological and chemical processes in place? Of course He could.

And, if He wanted the canon to contain certain stories, why include details that will be contradicted later? He could tell a meaningful story without including unnecessary details.

To draw on the Christensen book again:

“There are historical problems. For example, how did Judas kill himself? Matthew 27:3 records that he threw his money at the feet of the priests and went out and hung himself. Acts 1:18 records that Judas bought a field with the money he received and there fell headlong on the ground, his body bursting open and his intestines spilling out. [[Burch’s note: he couldn’t have thrown the money at the feet of the priests and then bought a field with it, even if the stories of Judas’ death could be patched together.]]

“There are genealogical problems. The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 does not agree with the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3. Neither does the genealogy of Genesis 4 square with that of Genesis 5.

“There are factual problems. According to Matthew there was one angel at Jesus’ empty tomb. Mark says it was a young man sitting down. Luke says two men stood by the women and proclaimed the resurrection. And John says two angels sat where the body of Jesus had lain, and appeared only to Mary Magdalene.

“There are numerical problems. 2 Samuel 10:18 records that David slew the men of 700 Syrian chariots. 1 Chronicles 19:18, a parallel account, records that David slew the men of 7,000 Syrian chariots.

“There are major and minor inconsistencies. Who commanded King David to take a census of Israel — the Lord or Satan? 2 Samuel 24:1 claims ‘the Lord.’ 1 Chronicles 21:1 claims ‘Satan.’ Whom did the voice from heaven address at the baptism of Jesus? Matthew 3:16 reads, ‘THIS is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ Luke 3:22 reads, ‘THOU art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’”

I realize most people, myself included, haven’t read the Bible in a “horizontal” way, comparing parallel accounts and such.

However, in light of the above excerpt from Christensen’s book, why would God use particular details if He was also going to provide contradictory details? He could have provided differing accounts in which details did not conflict.

In other words, two different eyewitness accounts of any type of incident could rely on two different sets of details — instead of having conflicting information going head-to-head.

I’m still having trouble with the idea that something is factually inaccurate yet truthful — at least in the context of saying God inspired certain writings.

8 responses to “Conservatives showed me factual discrepencies in the Bible

  1. Pingback: Conservatives showed me factual discrepencies in the Bible … | Christian Dailys

  2. Since we have similar backgrounds, I grew up thinking the Bible was God breathed and Holy Spirit inspired. Interpreted in the way I was taught – God just needed a willing body to move a hand to write down words. People were only conduits sorta like the aliens movies with Will Smith and good ole Tommy Lee. But if that were true, why didn’t God just write the Scriptures himself and drop them down for us to find, a little like the book of morman.

    But I’ve come to think that God is so much bigger than our humanness and is not inhibited, bothered, or worried about trying to control it. He doesn’t need to put us in a box just like we don’t need to put him in a box. Thus I’ve come to see the Bible as real humans writing about their experiences with a raw, powerful, and living God. Were they divinely inspired? Yes, just as anyone would be who experiences God in a powerful way, just as anyone who is humble and broken enough to let God move and breath into his or her life. I think God delights in all the personalities and perspectives that come to life in the Bible and is not bothered by human memory faults, different memories of the same event, etc. If he divinely corrected all these things, it would take all the humanness and free will out of the Bible. God has never wanted drones or robots. He wants love and relationship which only comes with freedom.

    So is the Bible divinely inspired? Yes, but I think God gave humans freedom when writing. He didn’t want a stilted book. What I think is most divine about the Bible is its preservation throughout history. And I think this paradox of divinely inspired but humanly written is like the free will versus the elect of God. They are two parallel lines that never meet.

    I haven’t read as much as you, but I’ve thought about this issue a lot in the past couple years. It is just my take, and it has changed for the better how I read the Bible. It has been more powerful for me as I read it as people’s raw experiences with the living God. I relate to it better and understand it better than as a drone written message from God. Thus to me, the contradictions become interesting tools to understand that writer’s perspective or personality, or to help get a bigger picture of a particular event. If you were trying to reconstruct an event, different people all see, remember, and place importance on different things. Maybe my point if view is too simple or I’m missing something important. But contradictions only disprove to me the fundamentalist perspective of how I was taught the Bible was written.


  3. A bit of your insight: “Among some Reformed circles, you can easily become too liberal, but you can’t become too conservative.”

    Work with that – there is much there, perhaps more than you now realize.


  4. Freetoken — Thank you. I will work with that. I’ve begun to think it through. Thanks again.

    Morgan — Thanks! I loved, “People were only conduits sorta like the aliens movies with Will Smith and good ole Tommy Lee.” So true, from biblical inspiration to “prophetic words” back in the day, no? I’m so glad someone else sees it that way because I frequently felt like the “spiritual” route (implicitly encouraged in some churches) was to become a mindless puppet for God: achieve a “no-mind” state and let God pull your strings. In fact, I’m not sure how a child would not take away such a message from certain religious environments.

    I really appreciated the rest of what you said, too. It all helps. I like the idea of the Bible as a collection of individuals’ struggles with God. And it seems like the application of that realization would be somewhat practical: instead of going verse by verse to seek out new emotions or to extrapolate new rules (like some Bible studies), maybe look at the entire set of biblical books thematically.

    Thanks again,


  5. Colin, after reading your post here I think I’m finally able to state something that I haven’t yet been able to put to words. Namely that the argument (I understand you aren’t arguing this) that the Bible isn’t a trustworthy source because of its factual discrepencies can’t be refuted because it isn’t actually an argument. Rather, it is a bundle of arguments. In other words, when talking about these discrepencies, each one needs to be addressed individually. If someone says “what about all the places the Bible is wrong,” the best I can say is “no its not,” unless we break the instances down and deal with them individually. Your list is a perfect example. It can’t be answered as a whole. Rather each one needs to be dealt with individually. Some are the effects of different authors writing about the same event and emphasizing different aspects of it (such as in the case of the resurrection accounts or David’s census). Some are possibly the result of different reporting styles (such as in the case of David’s chariots. One could be the number of actual chariots, the other the number of horses, chariots or crew. Or Matthew and Luke’s geneologies which list different ancestors because they are making different theological points). Some are simply not discrepencies at all (the geneologies in genesis ch 4 and 5 are simply tracing two different lines and thus should not be the same). To say that “the Bible has too many factual discrepencies to be believed” needs to have a catalogued and verifiable process of identifying the supposed discrepencies. Unless you’ve gone through that process and sifted out the weaker objections it’s a bit like cleaning the Aegean Stables. I’ve legitimately struggled with these issues over the years. And while I still don’t have all the answers, none of these instances pointed out to me singularly has convinced me that the Scriptures are anything other than trustworthy for life and faith. If Luke or Matthew were actually wrong about Judas’ death, would that bring Jesus’ betrayal and death into question? Would it mean His life was not laid down as a substitute for sinners? To sum it up, I would simply state that arguing that the Bible is unreliable because of its discrepencies is simply impossible to defend against because in my experience there is no end to what can be thrown up as a discrepency. My challenge (of course not to you because I understand your point is quite different from this) would be to stop throwing up a deluge of points, but to find one serious discrepency that actually overthrows some central tennet of the Christian faith. In all my doubtful wanderings, I still have not found that one.


  6. Hey Iain — Thank you very much for those comments. I think you’ve expressed the problem best by saying that the problem of Biblical discrepencies is a bundle of arguments. First, there are genres; second, there are different theological emphases, and so forth.

    Part of the rub here is the Protestant vision of making the Bible accessible to all people. While of course I think that’s a good thing, I also know that Bible studies and (especially unaffiliated) pastors will some times draw big points from small details in the Scriptures — and a powerful point rests on a fact that doesn’t match up with a fact in a parallel account. So imagine a literate plumber with a high school education and enough common sense to run his own business. He loves to read his Bible. Sure, ideally, he would sit under the pastoral care and teaching of one of the greats, but this is America — here, he may very well “moonlight” as a pastor of a storefront church. He doesn’t have a seminary education. He tries to match up certain accounts in the Gospels. He doesn’t know much about genre or about writers how emphasized different things for different theological points or about how the books of the Bible were written at much different times and under much different cultural influences. All he knows is the accounts don’t match up. This plumber is the type of guy the Reformers and translators wanted to have a Bible — they would rejoice at the idea of the common man having his own Bible and the ability to read it — but the plumber has enough sense to see discrepencies within the accounts. So the existence of D.A. Carson and Bruce Metzger and N.T. Wright and F.F. Bruce and on and on don’t really matter because this plumber has always believed that the Bible is the Word of God, the God in whom there is no falsehood or error, and now it seems this singular Voice of God sounds (intentional hyperbole) like Washington, D.C., talking out of both sides of its mouth. While Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthdoxoy might not hold the answers, the plumber illustrates the Protestant crisis, because in my experience, the plumber isn’t that much of an exception to reality.

    I can’t imagine I’m saying anything new here, and yet I’m not sure any congregation with a high view of Scripture adequately lives out this simple principle: All the Bible studies and verse memorization and scrutiny of phrases and individual words is worthless if the themes of Scripture and its basic narrative aren’t understood and first taken for granted — Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Redemption, Resurrection, Paraousia.

    And, of course, the liberal response will be that individual discrepencies undermine those themes and those selected turning points in the narrative.

    Well, if you’ve read this, Iain, I’ve taken enough of your time. I still trust Lewis when he says that the Gospels don’t read like the stuff of legends and myths. A scholar who has only read the New Testament and New Testament criticism needs some experience with good old legends and myths before he makes unwarranted comparisons, etc.


    • Thanks for the reply Colin. In my experience, the problem with the layperson (many folks went to college and still don’t understand genre, etc) who doesn’t really understand literature is a bit different. The issue rises not only when discrepencies come up, but when any kind of difficulty comes up. Generally, lay people who believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures react in one of two ways. I really believe that most folks in the pews when they run into problems, whether they’re the supposed differences in the resurrection accounts or the divine mandate to destroy all the Canaanites, just give up. They know that the Bible is true, but they can’t make sense of it so they get discouraged and quit. The other reaction for lay folks who read the Scriptures is that they run across difficult issues in the texts and they come up with (or cling to) naive and shallow answers to the problems. Perhaps they continue reading the Scriptures, but their understanding of certain aspects of the Bible is stunted because they aren’t willing to wrestle with the text and have their assumptions about what the Bible says be questioned. These people tend to walk away from the Scriptures more than the former, because they sometimes run into something that doesn’t have a simple explanation and it shatters them. I believe that Bart Ehrman falls into this class. The irony in his works is that he still reads the Bible like a fundamentalist, he just doesn’t believe it like one anymore. In other words, because the Bible doesn’t give simple declarative answers to his questions like he was led to believe at Moody Bible College, it must be false.
      The question is, what do you do with this dilemma. The RC and Orthodox churches have answered the problem by emphasizing the authority of either Scripture or the Church. The result is that very few of their people actually read the Bible because it’s easier to listen to what Father tells me to believe. In my opinion, the modern Protestant answer isn’t classicly Protestant. None of the Magisterial Reformers ever advocated Jesus and Me in my closet with my Bible. The Scriptures were to be read and interpreted within the community of Christ. My encouragement, then, to the person who’s struggling with the Scriptures is to sit under good teaching (simply defined as teaching that is about God and His Son and not about us and our effort) and continue to wrestle with the problems in the text until God makes them clear. Ask questions about your interpretations. Ask questions about others’ interpretations, and do it all with the humility that understands that no one person, denomination, or era in church history has ever gotten everything right about the Scriptures.
      Of course, with this solution, you’ll have to slog through lots of wrong interpretations from folks. You’ll have to deal with spiritual immaturity and hubris that doesn’t accept complicated answers. But I truly believe that these are simply unavoidable. To discourage people from reading the Scriptures because they might get them wrong seems a bit like discouraging a toddler from walking because he might skin his knee. Rather, the role of the church and the pastoral ministry is to balance freedom and pastoral oversight in such a way that nobody (or as few people as possible) falls down the stairs.
      I’m curious, as you brought up the issue, Colin, do you have any suggested solutions?


  7. I brought it up because I’m not sure about solutions. Thomas Sowell once said that it’s not enough to recognize there is a problem. One also has to answer whether one has the tools to resolve the problem.

    Thanks again for taking the time. I’ve kind of been yelling into the void about these issues for a while. I genuinely want to come to peace about the Bible. In light of that, I know you won’t take my questioning and pressing too personally. At least I hope you won’t!

    I like what Jacques Ellul said about the Bible: it’s a “book of questions God asks us.” I take that to mean, the heart and mind are confronted and must answer. That actually works quite well for me, although I have this intuition that many of your heroes would not find Ellul’s definition precise enough or full enough.

    I also like what Morgan (in the comment above) said: the Bible is a record of man’s encounters with God.

    I’m not quite sure I agree with your assessment of Ehrman, which has to do with much more than just Ehrman in my opinion. To elaborate, I don’t really think of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship as a fundamentalist organization, but when I went to their retreat to become a small group leader at N.C. State, they taught a close scrutiny of phrases and words in biblical texts, followed by questions about each piece of a verse, sort of along the lines of the “inductive study” fad. So I’m not sure what the difference is between a fundamentalist scrutiny of the Scriptures and a non-fundamentalist scrutiny of the Scriptures, and maybe that’s my major lack. Ehrman got a knack for Greek at Wheaton, and eventually, his scrutiny of the Scriptures led him to leave the faith, even after studying under Metzger.

    Whether in Intervarsity or Trinity, close scrutiny of a passage with a detail that’s contradicted elsewhere doesn’t make sense. It’s value seems diminished because we can only learn from one coherent set of facts. Whether dealing with historical details or abstract theological terms, sooner or later the law of noncontradiction is inevitable — unless one changes his epistemology to something more Eastern, like a “both-and” approach, or some other available option I don’t know. Perhaps a solution to discrepencies in historical details would be simply that you, as a preacher, do not lean heavily on moments in Scripture that are contradicted elsewhere. That’s not intended to be flippant, but rather just a good way of handling ancient historical material. However, I’ve known some people who will turn every detail into big things.

    Furthermore, something’s not quite lining up within your comment: on the one hand, Ehrman reads the Bible like a fundamentalist; on the other hand, we have to wrestle with discrepencies. So if we didn’t read the Bible like fundamentalists, we wouldn’t see discrepencies? I realize that’s not your intended meaning. Having watched/listened to three or four debates between Ehrman and various conservatives, and having read some of his work, Ehrman’s evidence, generally speaking, is not in doubt. Even Daniel Wallace, from darn-near-fundie Dallas Theological Seminary, agrees with most of Ehrman’s assessments but not his applications. A reasonable person could come to several different conclusions when encountering a discrepency.

    You’re a fan of John Owen, right? Michael J. Christensen claims that Owen believed God directly, mechanically controlled each stroke and dot of the Scriptures. If that’s true about Owen, that doesn’t make Owen a bad guy, but it makes every discrepency problematic. If God had that much control over the Scriptures, he would have not contradicted himself at all, anywhere, because that’s how we look at God: truthful, honest, not misleading like the enemy.

    If Owen’s (alleged) view was the case for the “original autographs” and not what we have now, then what we have now is not of use, because we don’t know how much or what is different. I mean, that’s just common sense. I’ll give you a television set but I don’t know how many original parts are in it, or missing.

    I like and probably even agree with much of what you wrote in your comment, but I really, sincerely, cannot consider it to be a direct result of Bible reading. Everyone seems to have an interpretative stance situated and decided-upon from outside the text, and then they bring it into the text.

    And that brings us closer to another sincere problem.

    Most believers say that the Holy Spirit guides and illuminates their reading of the Scriptures, so this entire subject becomes almost impossible to discuss intellectually.

    And what is required for indwelling of the Holy Spirit? Traditionally, the answer is belief in Christ, confession of sins, baptism, those basics.

    Maybe my biggest problem is just this: I was submerged in two very different cultures (both charismatic churches and Independment Missionary Baptist schools) in which neither seemed to arrive at points of view anywhere similar to yours, Iain. If they were saved, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and read the Scriptures in faith (they did, perhaps simpleminded reading and simpler faith, but they did), then they should have come to your conclusions, right? Or, I mean, Calvin’s or Luther’s or Cranmer’s or Spurgeon’s or whoever’s. But they didn’t, Iain. Something didn’t work in the trusted formula of salvation-indwelling-Spirit-Bible-reading, despite tenacious, public belief. I witnessed this first hand. People grew old and died and never knew they were off course.

    On a lighter note, here’s a paradox: As you said, the Roman Catholics find it easier to believe what Father Priest says, but Protestant pastors preach a lot longer, which would suggest the Protestants are more concerned with getting their point across to the flock. The priest has a more authoritative position, but the pastor strives for a more authoritative impact. 🙂

    Too long again. Thanks for listening.