The Bible contains a number of apparently contradictory statements that have led skeptics to proclaim that God couldn’t possibly have inspired it because an all-knowing God would surely not have allowed factual errors to appear in His holy Word! That seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s one of the more controversial topics even among Christian theologians.
And the fact is that there are numerous statements in the Bible that appear to contradict one another. This especially tends to be the case where two or more writers cover the same stories. A case in point is the story of Jesus healing a man of demon possession. Matthew tells us that Jesus encountered two demon-possessed men “in the region of the Gadarenes” (Matthew 8:28), while Mark and Luke say that He met only one (Mark 5:2; Luke 8:27). So which way was it?
Christian theologians offer two explanations for this problem, and they have two words to express these two explanations. One is that the Bible is inerrant, meaning that it contains no errors or contradictions, for any errors would raise the question of its authority as the Word of God. The other word is infallible, meaning that the Bible is reliable as a guide to salvation, with minor differences being irrelevant to its authority as the Word of God.
The Resurrection story
Another excellent example of these apparently contradictory statements in the Bible concerns the women who went to Jesus’ tomb on the Sunday morning following His crucifixion. Matthew tells us that
“after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).
Mark, on the other hand, says that “when the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body” (Mark 16:1). “The other Mary” that Matthew spoke of could be the same person as “Mary the mother of James” in Mark’s account, but why did Matthew leave out Salome?
Luke simply identifies those who went to the tomb as “the women” (Luke 24:1) without naming any of them. John, on the other hand, mentions only Mary Magdalene going to the tomb, and he says that she went
“running to [tell] Simon Peter and the other disciple [probably John]” the news while Matthew says that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary “ran to tell His disciples” the wonderful news (John 20:1, 2; Matthew 28:8, emphasis added).
One attempt to preserve inerrancy in the light of these three different accounts says that there must have been three separate visits to the tomb. However, that almost certainly was not the case, especially given the fact that Mary Magdalene would have been present at each visit!
The cleansing of the temple
Another apparent contradiction in the Bible is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple and driving out the money changers. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have this incident taking place during the final week before the Crucifixion, but John’s gospel places it as much as three years earlier, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. That obviously is a very significant difference.
One explanation is that Jesus would have cleansed the temple twice, once near the beginning of His ministry and the second time near the close. That solution to the problem is fairly easy for believers to accept, but it makes little sense to critics, especially those who are looking for ways to discredit the Bible.
The original manuscripts
Those who hold to inerrancy reconcile these problems by saying that the Bible was without errors of any kind “in the original autographs,” that is, on the papyruses and parchments the inspired prophets themselves actually wrote on. However, the original manuscripts that were written by the Bible writers have long since been lost, so they aren’t available for us to compare. All we have is later manuscripts produced by people who made copies of the originals. The argument by those who hold to the inerrancy view is that the discrepancies we encounter in today’s Bibles are the result of “copyist’s errors.”
While this explanation supports the idea of inerrancy, it’s only a theoretical solution to the problem since we don’t possess the original manuscripts—and even if we did, we would have no way to verify that they really were the originals written by the Bible writers themselves.
As if what I’ve told you so far weren’t bad enough, critics of the Bible, atheists, and others have compiled long lists of supposed discrepancies in the Bible, some of them numbering more than 2,000! Insisting on biblical inerrancy not only demands that each of these variations be accounted for and explained but also leads some who once held inerrancy to lose their faith.
A notable example is Dr. Bart Ehrman. In his youth he fervently believed in inerrancy. He learned the biblical languages so that he could study the earliest manuscripts that are available. He specialized in textual criticism, and eventually, the sheer number of discrepancies he found led him to become what he calls an “agnostic atheist.”
The fact is, however, that many of these 2,000 variations are quite trivial and probably can be attributed to copyists’ errors. But when a person starts out believing that God preserved His Word from all errors, finding even one can shake his or her faith. Finding scores can be devastating. I know, because that’s where my faith journey began.
My personal journey
I don’t think anyone ever explicitly said to me, “The Bible contains no errors,” nor did I learn about the idea of inerrancy until well into my spiritual journey. The idea of a God-inspired book simply seemed to exclude the idea of errors. But then I began to encounter some of these discrepancies, and they forced me to ask serious questions—and to seek answers.
And to my surprise, I could find no biblical author who made any claim even approaching the idea of inerrancy. In fact, the Bible tells us very little about the process of inspiration and how God communicates His Word to the humans who then write it down. In 2 Timothy 3:16 we are told that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Of course, “God-breathed” is exactly the same idea as
“inspired.” The text goes on to tell us what the Bible is useful for, but it doesn’t tell us how this process of “God-breathing,” or inspiration, works.
However, Peter, in his second letter, gives us some good insights into how God inspired the Bible. He said that “prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). First, we see that “prophets, though human, spoke.” Notice that it was the human prophets who spoke, not God. This means that the words in the Bible are the words of those human prophets. They are the ones who did the speaking and writing, but the ideas and concepts they shared came “from God as they [the prophets] were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
And, of course, prophets, being human, make mistakes. From Moses striking the rock to David committing adultery to Peter denying Jesus, the Bible has many accounts of prophets who made mistakes. That being the case, it seems almost inevitable that some of these mistaken statements would make it into the Bible from the hands of the Bible writers themselves.
Does it matter?
And how important are these differences anyway? Does it really matter whether one demon-possessed man or two met Jesus at Gadara? Do we really care precisely which woman or women made it to the tomb on Easter morning and found it empty? Does it matter whether two women or one met Jesus following His resurrection?
Here is where the concept of infallibility comes in. When we say that the Bible is “infallible,” we mean that, although it may contain minor errors, none of those errors affect the Bible’s central message—that it is utterly trustworthy and totally reliable concerning salvation and living a godly life here on earth.
God gave us the Bible to prepare us for eternal life, not to make us experts on every detail concerning the present or the past. And that helps us to understand the difference between “inerrancy” on the one hand, which so easily diverts our attention from that central message to largely irrelevant details, and “infallibility” on the other hand, which keeps us focused on accepting Jesus as our Savior, living a godly life now, and experiencing eternal life later.
Inerrancy has to concern itself with the number of demon-possessed men, whereas infallibility focuses on the fact that Jesus can set us free from any addiction, any sin, even demon possession. Inerrancy must account for the differing numbers of women who were said to have come to Jesus’ tomb at different times, whereas infallibility directs our attention to the glorious fact that the tomb was empty, which means that Jesus has conquered death for everyone and for all time.
Inerrancy distracts our attention to minutiae that make no difference to our salvation. Infallibility assures us that the Bible is utterly reliable and totally trustworthy as a guide to salvation and Christian living.
There is simply no question in my mind that God inspired the Bible writers. My life has been transformed by its teachings, especially the story of Jesus’ death to save me from my sins and His return someday to take me to a land where there will be no sin. Given all the problems associated with the inerrancy theory of biblical inspiration, I find the infallibility explanation of the Bible’s few conflicting stories much more satisfying.
And I hope what I’ve said here makes sense to you.
Ed Dickerson is a freelance writer who lives in Garrison, Iowa, USA. He is the lay pastor of the HomePage Seventh-day Adventist company in Marion, Iowa, and a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.