Article by Casey McFall
Note: This article is part 2 of the fourth lesson in a series of apologetics-related articles that are a condensed version of an apologetics class that I taught. You can read the first one here.
One of the easiest ways for a person to disprove the Christian faith is to prove that the Bible contains errors and/or contradictions. This is because the Bible is the foundation of our faith; so, if we cannot trust the Word of God, then our entire faith falls apart into shambles. Thus, a good apologist must learn how to handle supposed errors and contradictions.
Before anything else, several questions must be asked about the supposed error or contradiction. For example, one of the first things that I ask people is to show me in the Bible where the error or contradiction is. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, a lot of people assume or have heard that there are lots of errors and contradictions in the Bible but don't actually know any details. Another reason is to be able to see the context that is associated with the passage.
That reason leads to the next question that needs to be asked; namely, what is the context? In my personal experience, 80-90% of all examples people give of errors or contradictions can be resolved simply by looking at and understanding the context of the passage. So before trying to craft some kind of response or answer to a challenge about a contradiction, it is always good to first check if the Bible provides that answer in the context.
Another important question to ask, possibly even more important than the two prior ones, is: “Is the error provable?” This question is so vitally important, because if the error is not provable then it can be accepted by faith to be true due to the overwhelming quantity of provable statements in the Bible. There will be more on this later on in the article.
The final question to ask, would be: “What assumptions are here?” This question is important partly because of the presuppositions that people may have; presuppositions, which need to be pointed out before any real discourse can happen. It is also important because an assumption may color the perspective and understanding of a person, and it is precisely that assumption which is causing the statement to be seen as erroneous or contradictory. For example, a “contradiction” which I’ve heard many times is the different order of creation from Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. This entire contradiction is built on the assumption that just because Genesis 1 was written in chronological order, Genesis 2 must be written in chronological order as well. Once the assumption is cleared up and people understand that Genesis 2 is not written chronologically, then it becomes immediately apparent that there is no contradiction at all.
I cannot possibly list out every single answer that could potentially be given to explain why an error or contradiction is not truly an error or contradiction at all; simply because there are way too many misunderstandings that people could have about the Bible. There are a couple of common ways to respond generally speaking, however, and the following is a list of some of those ways.
-Not actually provable
First of all, one could indicate that an error or contradiction isn't provable. Remember that if an error is not provable then it cannot truly be an error and we can have faith that it is true. A perfect example would be most of the historical errors that people will present. These errors usually, if not always, revolve around one of two potential situations. Either proof of the event hasn’t been found, or some evidence has been found and it indicates that something happened other than what the Bible says.
An example of an event for which proof has not been found would be that of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. The argument that this is an error posits that if there were that many people wandering around for such an extended period of time, archeologists should be able to find pieces of evidence of that travel. There should be refuse heaps, broken pots, or some other proof of their passage. This is not a provable error however, because an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence! In other words, a lack of proof does not prove that something didn’t happen. Especially in instances of history, because it may be that the evidence simply has not been found yet. A perfect way to illustrate this would be to point towards the Hittites. Scholars scoffed at the Bible for many years because there was no proof that there was ever a Hittite empire. That is until an archeologist found a Hittite city. Now, there is no one who would doubt that the Hittites were actually a people and did actually live.
As for the other situation, in which some historical evidence has been found but seems to point in a different way than what the Bible said; this is also not definitive proof. An example of this type of error can be found in Luke. The New Testament describes Jesus having been born while Herod the Great was still alive; while Luke mentions that Cyrenius (identified as the Roman Quirinius) was the governor of Syria during that time. History tells us that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. while Cyrenius wasn't governor over Syria until 6 A.D. Thus, both of these cannot be true and it would seem as though the Bible has an error.
A good way to prove that such cases of partial evidence do not prove an error, would be to point to the example of King Louis XVI. If one were to ask a group of people "By what count was King Louis XVI condemned?"; approximately 70% of them would probably reply that he was condemned by 1 vote. A full 29% might say that he was condemned unanimously; while a mere 1% could reply that he was condemned by a minor majority. The interesting bit is that all of these answers would be correct. This is because there were three separate times when the condemnation of King Louis XVI was voted on. First, they voted on whether or not he was guilty of crimes against the French people. This vote was unanimous with 693 deputies voting guilty and 23 abstaining. There a moderate amount of information about this trial, so a decent amount of people would likely come up with this answer. After finding him guilty, they then voted upon his punishment. In this case, 361 people voted for immediate execution, 72 for eventual death, and 288 voted against death. Thus, his immediate execution won the majority by a single vote. This round of voting is what history focuses on the most, and is thus the most likely answer that people would come up with when answering the question about King Louis XVI's condemnation. After this vote, however, some of the deputies put forth a motion for a reprieve. In this motion, 310 voted for mercy while 380 voted for immediate execution of the death penalty. And thus, he was finally condemned by a minor majority. Information about this final vote is a bit hard to find. Even with the internet and knowing what I was looking for, I still had a difficult time finding information about this third and final vote.
So how does the case of King Louis the XVI help indicate that some historical evidence to the contrary does not prove an error in the Bible? Well, imagine that the French revolution was not as well recorded and documented as it is, and imagine that the Bible claimed that King Louis XVI was condemned by a minor majority. As historians and archeologist uncovered information about that time period and specific person, they would first find evidence of the second vote which condemned him by 1 vote. Many, if not most, of the people would begin pointing to this piece of history and declaring that the Bible had made an error; while some people would suggest that the history does indicate a previous vote and that maybe that previous vote was won by a minor majority. As time goes on, and more is uncovered, information about the first vote would eventually surface. This vote; however, would indicate that King Louis XVI was condemned unanimously! It would seem as though the final piece necessary to completely seal the deal and absolutely prove the error in the Bible had been given. Now, looking on this situation with the knowledge that we have, we know that the historians and archeologists have simply not found proof about the whole picture yet, and may never find that evidence. This does not mean that the Bible is wrong, but rather that we just don't understand the full picture of history. Now apply this understanding to the example of Cyrenius in Luke. Is it possible that there is some explanation about the history of the time that we simply don't understand and which could explain the apparent dilemma between the death of Herod and governorship of Cyrenius? Of course it is possible! Thus, we can see that our small understanding of history does not definitively prove the Bible as wrong. Moreover, time has proven this possibility to be true and valid and more evidence about Cyrenius has been uncovered in recent years. This newer evidence indicates that while Cyrenius was instituted as governor of Syria in 6 A.D., he was the military governor in the area before that time! During his time as military governor, he was not only recognized as the person with actual power in the area but was also tasked with running the census that was necessary for taxation.
-A different perspective
Another general category of answer, would be the perspective of the issue. This could be the writer catering to the perspective of the audience (Matthew listing genealogies in a method familiar to the Jews while Luke, who wasn’t writing to the Jews, took a more relaxed approach to genealogies) or it could be the Bible giving us only a piece of the story rather than the whole story. Additionally, there are times when the Bible will accurately record what a person saw or said even when that person was wrong. After all, the Bible does tell us that Ananias told Peter that he had given to the church the entire profit from selling a piece of land. We know that this isn’t true because the Bible informs us that this is a lie. But we wouldn’t know that it was a lie if the Bible hadn’t told us. Or what if a person mistakenly counted enemy soldiers to be 100,000 men and informed the king of that number? The Bible may accurately record the person as having informed the king that the enemy army numbered 100,000 without ever informing us that the person was actually mistaken about the number of enemy soldiers.
The final example of how a perceived error may be the result of perspective would be how definitions and/or systems of measurements change. If in one chapter of a book, I were to say that a plane is a flat, two-dimensional surface that extends infinitely far; and in another chapter, I talk about a plane flying and carrying people, everyone would understand that I'm talking about a different type of plane. There is no contradiction or error here because the definition is different. Sometimes, such changes in the way things are defined is not as immediately obvious in the Bible however. Additionally, the systems of measurements used back then and now may be different. For example, many people believe that Daniel's prophecy of 69 weeks (which were weeks of years) started when Artaxerxes’ gave the decree to “restore and rebuild Jerusalem” in Nehemiah 2:1-8, and ended with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Multiplying 7 by 69 to get the total number of years and multiplying that by 365 to get the total number of days puts the date way off. Past the crucifixion of Christ in fact. But if one were to do that math using the Chaldean calendar of 360 days that Danial was familiar with, the math lines up perfectly.
We know that the Bible is true and without error. There are times, however, when the perfection of the Bible is questioned and challenged. This may be done by someone who really isn’t interested in hearing the answer to the question and simply wishes to cause others to stumble, or it may be done by someone who is genuinely confused and seeking answers. The good Christian must be prepared to answer these challenges and explain why a supposed error or contradiction is in fact not a mistake. This can take time and patience, but is always worth the effort!