One of the interesting challenges to Christians during the twenty-first century has been the challenge to the credibility of the Bible. It is interesting that this challenge has nothing to do with the existence of God. There are atheists who seem to think that if somehow they can find a mistake in the Bible, or a logical inconsistency in what the Bible teaches, they have proven that God does not exist. The basic arguments for the existence of God do not involve the Bible. The big question is whether there is any God, anything out there beyond the physical world that we can perceive through our five senses. If you have examined the material presented by this ministry, you have seen that our material supporting the existence of God does not depend on the Bible. Cosmological, teleological, ontological, moral, and philosophical proofs of God’s existence can be made with no appeal to scripture.

By the same token, those of us who have studied the Bible in depth and with an attempt to be honest with the evidence have seen that there is good support for the Bible not being the work of ignorant men living in an ignorant age. Once you admit to the existence of a God—some higher power, then the next logical set of questions involve which God, what is that God’s nature? how does that God operate? why did that God create us? and what would that God have us do to fulfill the purpose for which we were created? If we are not confident that the Bible is from God, then we certainly will not allow it to control the way we make decisions, and this doubt is at the root of much of the immorality that permeates our society today. We have dealt with this issue previously in this journal (see July/August 2003, page 9; January/February 2006, page 30; November/December 2006, page 8).

Those who claim the Bible is full of errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions make six fundamental errors in their challenges to the credibility of the Bible. We would like to take a look at each of these errors and see an example or two of each. Atheists’ Web sites and books are full of examples of things they consider to be errors, but almost all of them fall into one of these six areas. Before we engage in this discussion I want to be sure to clarify that I do not have every question about the Bible answered, nor am I arrogant enough to believe that I can answer every question that others can ask. By the same token, the level of ignorance displayed in the attacks being made on the Bible is very high, and can be answered by anyone who will take the time to study the claimed errors carefully.

COPYIST ERRORS DO EXIST. For most of the time the Bible has been in existence, manuscripts were copied by hand. Many times the words being copied are very close in appearance, and it is easy to make a mistake in a handwritten manuscript. The number 4, for example, is rbh in Hebrew while the number 40 is rbym. In the King James translation of 1 Kings 4:26, we are told that Solomon had 12,000 horses. Second Chronicles 9:25 confirms that number, but differs from 1 Kings in how many stalls he had. Second Chronicles says there were 4,000 stalls and 1 Kings says there were 40,000 stalls. Any honest reader is going to realize that 40,000 stalls for 12,000 horses does not make much sense. Somewhere in copying there was an error made as the words rbym and rbh were confused. In spite of these errors, as new copies of manuscripts from the first several centuries are found, the consistency and accuracy of the copies of the Bible is remarkable.

READING SURROUNDING VERSES ELIMINATES MANY CLAIMED ERRORS. Sometimes what appears to be a contradiction is resolved if one just reads a little further in the verses that describe the event that appears to be in error. A good example of this is seen in the various quotes of what was written on the sign nailed to Jesus’ cross.

Matthew 27:37 “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”
Mark 15:26 “The King of the Jews”
Luke 23:38 “This is the King of the Jews”
John 19:19
“Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”
These descriptions have been held up as proof that the Bible has errors because a sign cannot have four very different messages written on it. The fact is however, that if one keeps reading John 19 in verse 20 we are told that there were three messages--written in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, which explains the difference in wording.

Another example of this is seen in the charge by skeptics that Jesus erred in Mark 2:26 when He indicated that Abiathar was High Priest when David ate the consecrated bread. The charge is based on the fact that 1 Samuel 21:1-6 tells us that the high priest was Abimelech. Jesus actually says that the event was in the days of Abiathar and if you keep reading 1 Samuel you will see that in 1 Samuel 22:17-19 Saul had Abimelech killed and Abiathar took over.

A CLAIMED ERROR MAY BE ONE OF A SEQUENCE OF EVENTS THAT CAN BE ELIMINATED WHEN THE SEQUENCE IS EXAMINED. One of the favorite claims by atheists of biblical errors involves the visit of “Mary” to the tomb. In Mark 16:2 we are told that Mary came to the tomb very early when the sun had risen, but in John 20:1 we are told that Mary came to the tomb before sunrise while it was dark. In Matthew 28:1 we are told that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” came to look at the tomb. In Luke 24:1 we are told that several women came. As you read these accounts you find the women doing different things and having different experiences. In Mark the women tell no one, while in Matthew they tell the disciples.

To create a conflict, atheists assume that all of these accounts refer to the same people experiencing the same event. You may have noticed that I put quotes around the name “Mary” in the first paragraph. The problem is that there are a number of women named Mary in the biblical narrative. Like the name Smith in America today, Mary was the most common female name in the first century. We have Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Clopas and these different women and their friends came to the tomb at different times and had different experiences. The sequence of events is easy to construct and can only be seen as contradictory if you are unreasonable with what happened and how many people were involved.

Another classic example seen on many atheist Web sites is the fig tree incident of Matthew 21 and Mark 11. Matthew 21:12-19 says that Jesus cursed the fig tree after cleansing the temple. Mark 11:12-14 and 20-24 claims He cursed the fig tree before cleansing the temple. The problem in this case is that Jesus made two visits into Jerusalem, but Matthew skipped the first visit. Both Matthew 21:1-9 and Mark 11:1-11 tell us that Jesus entered Jerusalem. Mark tells us in verse 11 that Jesus entered the temple the first time but did nothing. In verses 11 and 12 Mark tells us that Jesus went back to Bethany. On the way back to Bethany Jesus curses the fig tree recorded in the Mark verses 13-14. None of this is recorded by Matthew who was not concerned with an uneventful visit to the temple.

In both Matthew 21:12-14 and Mark 11:15-17, Jesus enters the city and cleanses the temple, overturning the money changers. In verse 17 of Matthew and verse 19 of Mark He leaves the city the second time. The third time into the city is recorded in verses 18-20 of Matthew and verses 20-21 of Mark and the tree has shriveled in 24 hours. The next lesson is the mountain moving lesson in verse 21 of Matthew and verse 23 of Mark. The flow of events is pretty clear when you read all the verses involved, and the sequence of events makes good sense.

There are multiple examples of sequences of events that make claimed contradictions disappear. A simple example is the claimed contradiction between Matthew 27:44 and Luke 23:39. Matthew says that both robbers reviled Christ, but Luke says that one believed in Jesus. Are the two descriptions describing the same time in the crucifixion process? Reading the passage makes it pretty clear that the robbers were together at the start of the crucifixion, but near the end, one repented and came to believe that Jesus was the Christ. Another example, Song of Solomon 6:8, says that Solomon had 140 wives and concubines while 1 Kings 11:3 says he had 1,000. These two verses refer to different times in Solomon’s life and in fact, Song of Solomon tells us he had unnumbered “virgins” which undoubtedly referred to wives or concubines in waiting. Not looking at the sequence of events can be a factor in everything from forensics to resumes, and certainly applies to the Bible.

SOME THINGS ARE ALLOWED BY GOD THAT ARE NOT COMMANDED BY GOD. One interesting property of human beings is that they frequently want severe judgment on others, but do not want the same kind of judgment on themselves. God does not operate that way, and critics of the Bible seem to struggle with that. A good example of this is the polygamy of the Old Testament. God’s plan for marriage from the very beginning was one man, one woman for life. The whole concept of marriage is missed by the media and a majority of people in the modern world. Commitment and a true oneness that God designed cannot be fitted into the “survival of the fittest” mentality. In Genesis 2:21-25 God spends an entire chapter of His Word explaining the relationship that He wants man and woman to have. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall be one flesh” (verse 24). The oneness is not just a sexual union, but a helping, supporting relationship where each esteems the other higher than himself or herself. A unity in purpose and function brings them joy and fulfillment in all they do. Jesus emphasizes all of this strongly in Matthew 19:1-12. The qualifications of church leaders called bishops and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12 was that they only have one wife. God never commands or sanctions polygamy.

If that is true, why does God not strike down the first polygamous relationship which is in Genesis 4:19-26? God commands the Israelites in Deuteronomy 17:17 not to have multiple wives, and in 1 Kings 11:1-9 we see God’s warnings and the fulfillment of those warnings. The point here is that God is very patient with His chosen people in spite of what Jesus calls “the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8 and Mark 10:5). God tolerates individual destructive behavior to allow mankind a chance to rectify and even experience the consequences of that behavior. One cannot help but marvel at God’s tolerance of Samson’s sexual affairs in Judges 14-16, but even the rankest atheist realizes that God’s patience with Samson did not mean He approved multiple visits to prostitutes.

REPORTING HISTORY DOES NOT MEAN CAUSING HISTORY. Much of the cruelty and abuse that is seen in the Bible is objective reporting of what happened--not what God did. A classic example of the horrible story of a concubine who was gang raped and left dead at the door of the home where her “husband” was staying (see Judges 19:22-30). He cuts up her body into parts and sends them to the various tribes that he wants to support him in avenging her horrible treatment. The story is horrid and tragic and should turn the stomach of any thinking Christian, but none of the events described were commanded by God! This is history, and the old idea of “don’t shoot the messenger” certainly has to apply here.

Another example is the view of Jepthah recorded in Judges 11:30-40. This is a case where a man makes a vow to God not commanded by God. The point of the story is that we should not make emotional promises. What happens in this story is that Jepthah vows to sacrifice the first thing that comes to him when he returns home from battle if God will help him win that battle. The first thing that comes to him is his daughter. There is considerable evidence, and in fact almost certainty, that he was not to murder his daughter because that would violate God’s commandment (see Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10; Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5). The daughter also grieves her never being able to marry, not her death. The point here, however, is that this is not a commandment of God that is being discussed, but the folly of a man who makes a rash, human promise.

CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS ELIMINATE MANY CLAIMED ERRORS. By far the most common error made by those trying to find mistakes in the Bible is to assume that the Bible is an American book written to Americans by Americans. (You could substitute English, German, Russian, etc., in that sentence.) Even within the books of the Bible it is important to look at who is writing and to whom. A classic example of this is the difference between the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. Many people do not seem to understand that one of the reasons for there being four gospels is to address the needs of the different cultures that existed at the time of their writing. Matthew is a Jewish writer writing for a Jewish readership. Luke is a Greek writer writing for a Gentile readership.

This is really evident in the genealogies of Christ from Abraham to Jesus where Matthew uses Jewish symbols and numbers. Seven and its multiples indicate levels of completeness to a Jewish reader, so Matthew (1:1-17) uses three sets of 14 to indicate the completeness of God’s plan to send His Son. This adds up to 42, which is not the point that Matthew is making. He even leaves out major characters in his listing, such as Joash. Luke (3:23-38) on the other hand is writing from a Greek perspective and has no such symbol, so his genealogy adds up to 55.

Another example is the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Mark 15:25 says Jesus was crucified at the third hour, while John 19:14 says it was the sixth hour. Mark is using the Jewish time scale and John is using the Roman scale, and they are referring to two different events in the trial/crucifixion sequence.

Another example is the question of how long Jesus was going to be in the tomb. Matthew 12:40 clearly states that it would be three days and three nights. If Jesus was crucified on Friday, the best you can do is three days and two nights. The problem here is that there were many kinds of Sabbaths (which just means “to cease from work”). The seventh-day Sabbath is the one we are most familiar with, but there were many other special days when a Sabbath was declared (see Leviticus 23:4-8; Exodus 12). John 19:31 indicates that one of these special Sabbaths was taking place when Jesus was crucified. This was almost certainly a 48-hour Sabbath, meaning that Jesus was crucified on Thursday. One of our consultants, Wayne Leeper, has a detailed treatment of this topic in his book titled Prelude to Glory (which can be borrowed from us, see our address on the Contact Us page of this Web site).

The final example that I would like to explore briefly which is a cultural problem, is the issue of slavery. In this case we are not dealing with a Bible contradiction or mistake, but the question of how God could tolerate slavery and in fact, give rules that would seem to sustain it. Thinking Christian people especially have to abhor any enslavement of a human being. In our twenty-first century culture any notion of a human owning another human is beyond comprehension. In the Old Testament in addition to military enslavement, slaves could be purchased (Genesis 17:12,13,27; 37:36; 39:1; Leviticus 25:44 ff), acquired by restitution (Exodus 22:3), acquired by the paying of a debt (Exodus 21:2-11, Deuteronomy 15:12-18), or self-sold for security (Lev 25:39-43). How can a God of love, justice, kindness, and fairness allow this?

Once again we need to remember that this was not twenty-first century America. This was a primitive people who were always on the edge of extinction. What did they do when life caved in on them? There were no churches or shelters to run to nor any benevolent societies who would take care of them. These alternatives are a part of the New Testament, and have no connection to primitive people living in a harsh land. If someone will take them in, feed them, provide a place for them to live, and protect them, it is a positive alternative. Did slave owners abuse it? Man is capable of abusing everything. Slave owners who had no rules or higher power to control what they did, caused some horrible misery in other humans. God’s rules blunted that, but in the Old Testament slavery was not the ultimate evil and having a kind and just slave owner was a blessing.

When Jesus appeared on the scene, He introduced a system that struck at the roots of slavery. Jesus did not create mass chaos by immediately overthrowing slavery, but you cannot read John 13:4-17 without seeing that slavery did not fit into this teaching. In Galatians 3:26-29 the equality of all men and women is taught and further emphasized in Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1, and 1 Corinthians 7:21-24. At the end of the New Testament we see Paul writing to a slave owner named Philemon who had a runaway slave returned to him. The message is warm, forgiving, and unifying. It eliminates the traditional concept of slavery. God’s method of removing this horrible vice was to teach it away, unifying all of humanity in a gospel of love and forgiveness. When evolution came on the scene and men had a scientific basis of trying to teach that one race was more able to survive because it was more fit, slavery had an intellectual rebirth. The fact is that slavery is incompatible with any of the teachings of Christ, but is not incompatible with some interpretations of organic evolution.

Our purpose in this discussion has been to establish methods of approaching challenges to the integrity of the Bible. The number of examples that can be given are huge, but these six are general helps that can answer most challenges skeptics raise.

--John N. Clayton

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