Isn’t the Bible full of contradictions?

Part VI of Bites on the Bible with Darrell Bock.



Part VI of Bites on the Bible with Darrell Bock.

Darrell Bock, Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, discusses the apparent contradictions in the Bible, both textual and theological.


DARRELL BOCK: Now you may have heard that the Bible is full of contradictions, that the stories don’t agree, and it is true that some of the accounts have different details. For example, with regard to the resurrection, in the end of Mark (which is a short ending), basically all you have is the resurrection, you don’t have any appearances by Jesus, whereas in the other gospels you do. And sometimes the question is: why these differences? And does that undercut the story?

There are really two parts to the answer. The first is that the core story that’s being told, no matter which gospel you’re in, is basically the same fundamental point that’s being made. That’s the first thing to remember. But the second thing is, that if you ask anyone about their recollection of an event, different people are going to remember different details, because they’re just built differently and see things differently and recall things differently, et cetera. And that’s what you have going on between the gospels, are these recollections that were a part of, initially, oral tradition, because things were passed on by word of mouth as opposed to being written down, and eventually they got recorded, and the people who did the recording had different concerns and considerations that feed into the details that go into the story. At no point did someone sit down and say: we’re going to put all these together and fuse them all into one account. The church made the choice of saying: no, we’re going to tell this story from four different angles, because four different angles give us a better look at what’s going on than merely telling one story in one way. It’s a little bit like instant replay in a sporting event – the more cameras you have, the better look you have at the play that you’re looking at.

Now some people will say: no, these really are contradictions, you can’t just smooth over things this way. And frankly, some texts do present a real challenge in thinking through what’s going on. Perhaps the most classic example theologically, in the Bible, is the debate that exists between salvation being by faith, and salvation having an element of works attached to it. In Paul, it’s by faith, and he’s very clear about it – it’s by faith, not by works, lest anyone should boast. But if you read James 2, he will talk about the fact that faith without works is dead, and the expectation is that there are works on the other end. So those look like two guys, at the top of the early Christian movement, who literally are running into each other in terms of what it is that they’re saying.

But in fact, upon further review and a closer look, that’s actually not what’s going on. Paul is emphasising the start of faith, and the start of salvation – the start into salvation has to do with believing God for what it is he’s provided in the forgiveness of sins, and, as a result, receiving the enablement and the power of the Spirit indwelling someone as a result, that’s part of the gift. Because the Spirit indwells us, we have a product of works that are pleasing to God on the other end. So, Paul’s looking at the front end, and James is looking at the experience that grows out of that front-end experience. Their language looks like it’s clashing, but they’re actually looking at the question from different angles, and in that way, we see there is a fuller picture, when you put both of them side by side to one another and allow them to complement one another, as opposed to viewing them as contradicting one another. And many of the differences that people raise in the Bible operate in that kind of a way, where a closer look will show you there’s a slightly different angle that’s being undertaken here, and that slightly changes the emphasis of what’s being said.