Apparent Contradictions in Scripture

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QUESTION 5: Are there in Scripture true contradictions, or any irreconcilable passages, which cannot be resolved or harmonized in any way? Negative.

I. When the divine quality of Scripture, which was argued in the preceding question, has been accepted, its infallibility follows of necessity. But in every age the enemies of true religion and of Scripture have thought that they had found contradictory passages in Scripture, and have vigorously presented them in order to overthrow its authority; for example, Porphyry, Lucian, and Julian the Apostate among the pagans of antiquity, and today various atheists, who in hostile fashion declare that there are contradictions and irreconcilable differences which cannot be harmonized in any way. Therefore this particular question must be discussed with them, so that the integrity of Scripture may be upheld against their impiety by a completed fabric and covering.

II. Our controversy is not with open atheists and pagans, who do not recognize Holy Scripture, but with
others who, although they seem to accept it, yet indirectly deny it in this manner: for example, the
enthusiasts, who allege the imperfection of the written word in order to attract people to their esoteric
word or special revelations; the Roman Catholics, who, although they defend the divine quality of Scripture
against the atheist, yet do not fear to oppose, with powerful weapons, and to the full extent of their ability,
their own cause and that of all Christendom, and to enter the struggle as its enemies, by teaching the
corruption of the sources in order to win agreement for the authority of their Vulgate version; and finally,
various libertines, who, although living in the bosom of the church, never stop calling attention to some
“irreconcilable differences” and “contradictions,” so as to erode the authority of Scripture.

III. To deal with them, the scholars (doctores) follow various paths. Some think the question may be easily
handled by granting that the sacred writers could have made mistakes, by failure of memory, or in
unimportant details. This argument is used by Socinus when he treats the authority of Scripture, by
Castellio in his Dialogue, and by others. But this does not counter the argument of the atheists; it joins
them in a blasphemous manner. Others hold that the Hebrew and Greek sources have been corrupted in
places, through the malice of Jews and heretics, but that the correction is easy by means of the Vulgate
and the infallible authority of the church. This is the teaching of most Roman Catholics. We will argue
against it in a later section, when we discuss the purity of the sources. Others concede that small errors
have appeared in Scripture, and remain, which cannot be corrected by reliance on any manuscript or by
collation, but which are not to be ascribed to the sacred writers, but explained partly by the ravages of
time and partly by the faults of copyists and editors, and which do not destroy the authority of Scripture
because they occur only with regard to unnecessmy or unimportant statements. Scaliger, Cappel, Amama,
Voss, and others are of this opinion. Finally, others uphold the integrity of Scripture and do not deny that
various seeming contradictions–not, however, true or real ones–occur;

[they believe] that these passages
are difficult to understand but not altogether contradictory and impossible. This is the more common
opinion of the orthodox, which we follow as the more safe and the more true.

IV. It is not a question of errors in spelling and punctuation, or of variant readings, which everyone admits
are not infrequent, nor whether the copies that we have agree so completely with the original autographs
that they do not differ in the least. But the question is whether our manuscripts so differ from the originals
that the true meaning has been corrupted, and the original texts can no longer be regarded as the rule of
faith and practice.

V. It is not a question of the faultiness of some individual codices, or of the errors which the carelessness
of copyists and printers may have introduced into the copies of this or that edition. No one denies that
there are various corruptions of this sort. The question is whether there are corruptions and “universal
errors” so distributed through all the copies, whether handwritten or printed, that they cannot be corrected
either by the comparison of variant readings or from Scripture itself and the collating of parallel passages, and whether these are true and real contradictions, which we deny, or merely apparent ones.

VI. The reasons are: (1) Scripture is “God-breathed” (II Tim. 3:16). The Word of God cannot lie (Ps. 19:8 –
9; Heb.6:18), it cannot perish and pass away (Matt. 5:18), it abides forever (I Peter 1:25), and it is truth
itself (John 17:17). How could this be predicated of it if there were deadly contradictions, and if God had
allowed the sacred writers either to err and to forget, or to introduce into it irreparable deceit?

VII. (2) Unless unimpaired integrity is attributed to Scripture, it cannot be regarded as the sole rule of
faith and practice, and a wide door is opened to atheists, libertines, enthusiasts, and others of that sort of
profane people to undermine its authority and overthrow the foundation of salvation. Since error cannot be
part of the faith, how can a Scripture which is weakened by contradictions and corruptions be regarded as
authentic and divine? Nor should it be said that these corruptions are only in matters of little significance,
which do not affect the fundamentals of the faith. For as soon as the authenticity of Scripture has been
found wanting, even if it be a single corruption [of the text] that cannot be corrected, how can our faith
any longer be sustained? If corruption is conceded in matters of little importance, why not also in others of
more significance? Who will be able to give me faith that there has been no forgetfulness or deceit in the
fundamental passages? What answer can be given the subtle ‘atheist or heretic who persistently claims
that this or that text, unfavorable to him, rests on falsehood? The reply should not be that divine
providence has willed the [Scripture] be preserved from serious corruptions, but not from minor ones. For
not only is this an arbitrary assumption, but it also cannot be made without grave insult [to Scripture],
implying that it lacks something necessary for its full self-authentication, nor can it easily be believed that
God, who spoke and inspired every single word to God-inspired men, would not have provided for the
preservation of all. If human beings preserve their words with the greatest care so that they will not be
changed or corrupted, especially when–as is the case, for instance, with wills and contracts–they are of
some importance, how much more should God be thought to have taken care for his Word, which he willed
to have the status of testament and public notice of his covenant with us, so that nothing could corrupt it,
especially when he could have easily foreseen and prevented such corruptions, to uphold the faith of his

VIII. There are four main arguments for the integrity of Scripture, and the purity of the sources. (1) Above
all, the providence of God, who, since he wished to provide for our faith, could be expected to keep the
Scripture pure and uncontaminated, both by inspiring the sacred authors who wrote it, and by protecting it
from the efforts of enemies who left nothing untried to destroy it, that our faith might always have a firm
point on which to rest. (2) The religion of the Jews, who were always careful guardians of the accuracy of
the sacred codices, even to the point of superstition. (3) The diligence of the Masoretes, who, by their
marks, placed, as it were, a fence around the Law. (4) The number and completeness of copies, with the
result that even if one codex could have been corrupted, all could not be.

IX. Whatever contradictions seem to be in Scripture are apparent but not real. [They appear] only with
respect to the understanding of us who are not able to perceive and grasp everywhere their harmony.
They are not in the material itself. If the laws of true contradiction are observed, so that seeming
contradictions are brought together in accordance with simple identity of qualities (secundum idem),
circumstance (ad idem), or time, the various so-called contradictions of Scripture can readily be
reconciled, for either (1) they are simply not discussions of the same things, as when James ascribes
justification to works, although Paul disparages them. One speaks of an explanatory justification of effect,
a posteriori; the other of a justification of cause, a priori. So also in Luke 6:36 mercy is required, “be
merciful,” while it is forbidden in Deuteronomy 19:13, “you shall show no mercy.” One commandment is
for private citizens; one for magistrates. Or (2) the same thing is not described according to the same
qualities, as Matthew in 26:11 denies the presence of Christ in the world, “You will not always have me/,
while in 28:20 he promises it, “I am with you always, to the end of time.” One statement is made with
respect to the human nature [of Christ] and his bodily presence; the other with respect to the divine
nature and his spiritual presence. Or (3) the statements are not made with regard to the same
circumstances, as when one is absolute and the other relative. “Honor your father,” but, Luke 14:26, “if
anyone does not hate his father.” One statement is to be understood as absolute; the other as relative, in that our [earthly] father must be loved less and placed after Christ. Or the statements do not refer to the same time, whence the maxim, “Distinguish the scriptural times and relationships.” Thus circumcision is both exalted, as the great privilege of the Jews (Rom. 3:1- 2), and deprecated as a thing of naught (Gal. 5:3). One statement refers to the time of the Old Testament, when it was the ordinary sacrament and seal of the righteousness of faith; the other to the time of the gospel after the abrogation of the ceremonial law. Likewise the apostles were sent on a special mission to the Jews alone before Christ’s passion, and were forbidden to go to the Gentiles, “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles” (Matt. 10:5), but after the resurrection [they were sent] on a general mission to all people (Mark 16:15).

X. Although we attribute absolute integrity to Scripture, we do not hold that the copyists and printers have
been inspired, but only that the providence of God has so watched over the copyists that, although many
errors could have entered, they did not, or at least they did not enter the codices in such a manner that
they cannot easily be corrected by comparison with other copies (ex collatione aliorum) or with [other
parts of] Scripture itself. So the basis of the purity and integrity of the sources does not rest on the
inerrancy of human beings but on the providence of God, who, although the men who copied the sacred
works could have introduced many errors, always carefully looked after them and corrected them, or else
they can easily be corrected either by comparison with the Scripture itself or with better codices. Therefore
it was not necessary to make all the scribes infallible, but only so to guide them that the true reading can
always be found, and this book far surpasses all others whatsoever in purity.

XI. Although we cannot quickly find an obvious harmonization, free from all obscurities, between Scripture
texts which involve names, numbers, or dates, these problems, are not to be quickly classed as insoluble,
or if they are called insoluble, they are such because of human ignorance, and not because of the problem
itself, so that it is better to acknowledge our ignorance than to accept any contradiction. These records are
not written so exactly that all the circumstances were included. Many facts were certainly condensed into
an epitome; others, which seemed unnecessary, were omitted; and it is even possible that these passages
have various relationships which were well known to the writers, although now hidden from us. Hence Peter Martyr says very well concerning II Kings 8:17, “Granted that there are obscure passages in
the chronologies, it is not to be conceded that, for the purpose of reconciling them, we say that the sacred
codex is false. For God, who in his mercy willed that the holy (divinus) books be preserved for us, gave
them whole and not corrupted. Therefore when we are not able to explain the number of years, the
ignorance under which we work must be admitted, and it must be remembered that the sacred book is
written with such brevity that it is not easy to find out from what point the reckoning of time was begun;
the Scripture, which, if it failed in one or another place, would also be suspect in others, remains
uncorrupted.” And again, about I Kings 15:1 [he says], “It is not uncommon, in this record, for the
number of years which is attributed to the kings to appear to have little consistency. Doubts of this kind
can be dispelled on manifold grounds. It may be that one and the same year is attributed to two persons,
when it was not lived through its entirety by either. Sometimes sons ruled jointly with their parents for
some years, and these years were assigned now to the reign of the parents, and now to that of the
children. An interregnum sometimes took place and the empty period was attributed, now to the earlier
king, and now to the later. There are even some years, in which the sovereigns ruled illegally and without
religious sanction (tyrannice et impie), which are therefore disregarded, and not added to the other years
of the reign.”

XII. Luke 3:36, concerning the younger Cain who is placed between Arpachshad and Shelah,
contrary to the truth of the Mosaic record (Gen. 11:13), offers indeed a difficult problem, which learned
scholars interpret in different ways, but it should not be regarded as an insoluble one, since various forms
of solution are possible. For our part, not mentioning other opinions, we consider most appropriate that
which regards this Cain as a suppositious and spurious

, who crept in, through the carelessness of copyists, from the Septuagint version, in which he had existed before the time of Christ, as the chronology of Demetrius quoted in Eusebius’s De praeperatione evangelii witnesses; or through some pious intent [of copyists], who did not want to oppose Luke to the Septuagint, whose authority was then considerable. The following data support this: (1) the authority of Moses and of the Books of Chronicles, which make no mention of him in their genealogies, in which there are three places where clearly he should have been included (Gen.10:24 and 11:13; I Chron.1:18). (2) The Chaldean paraphrase, which altogether omits this Cain both in Genesis and in Chronicles. (3) Josephus does not mention him, nor does Berosus to whom he refers, nor [Julius] Africanus whom Eusebius quotes. (4) [If his existence is upheld] the sacred chronology would be confused, and the Mosaic record would be brought into doubt, if Cain is inserted between Arpachshad and Shelah, and Noah becomes the eleventh after Abraham, not the tenth as Moses states. (5)[This Cain] is not found in all the codices. Our Beza witnesses to his absence from his oldest manuscript, and Ussher states (Dissertatio de Cainane, p.196) that he has seen a copy of Luke in Greek and Latin on a very old parchment, in large letters without breathings and accents, which was long ago taken from Greece to France and placed in the monastery of Saint Irenaeus near Lyons, and in 1562 removed, and then taken to England and given to Cambridge University, in which Cain in not listed. Scaliger affirms, in his prologue to the chronicle of Eusebius, that this Cain is lacking in the oldest copies of Luke. Whatever may be the facts, although this passage in Luke may be said to contain an error, Luke’s authenticity cannot be brought into doubt on account of it, for (1) the corruption is not universal; (2) little falsehood is contained in it, and the correction for that is easily supplied from Moses, so that there was no need for the learned Isaac Voss to be concerned over the purity of the Hebrew codices, that he might defend the authenticity of the Septuagint.

XIII. If there is a great difference in the genealogies of Christ which are recorded by Matthew and Luke,
both as to the persons and the number of persons, this ought not to seem remarkable, because they do
not record the same matters, but different ones. Matthew gives the genealogy of Joseph, whose family
derives from David through Solomon. Luke traces the family of Mary to this same David through another
son, Nathan. Matthew, after the Hebrew custom, included the wife’s family in the husband’s; Luke,
however, wished to supply what had been omitted, by reporting Mary’s family tree, so that the genealogy
of Christ would stand out, so to speak, full and complete, from both parents, so that there would be no
place for the doubts of the weak or the scoffing of the enemies of the gospel, and that the former would be
upheld, and the latter won over, to the conviction that according to the predictions of the prophets Christ
was the true and natural son of David, whether reference was made to her husband Joseph, into whose
family Mary passed by marriage, or to Mary herself. It is most certain that heiresses (virgines, epiklhrous)
such as the blessed virgin was, who received a dowry from the family inheritance, could not marry outside
their own tribe and family. Luke’s genealogy also, therefore, refers to Joseph, not to Mary, for it was not
customary to prepare a genealogy through the women, for they were listed either with their parents and
brothers if they were unmarried, or with their husbands if they were espoused; hence the maxim of the
Jews, “the mother’s family is not the family.”

XIV Although the father of Joseph is called Jacob by Matthew, and Heli by Luke (Matt. 1:16; Luke 3:23),
there is no contradiction, because this is to be understood as of two different matters (kat’ alla kai allo).
First, it is not absurd for one son to have two fathers in different senses, when one is the natural father
who begat the son from himself, and the other the legal father who adopted him to himself from another
family by full process of law. In this way Manasseh and Ephraim were natural sons of Joseph but legal sons
of Jacob by adoptions; and Obed the grandfather of David had one natural father, Boaz, but also a legal
one, Mahlon, the former husband of his mother Ruth, to whom Boaz the second husband raised seed
according to the law. Thus Jacob was the natural father of Joseph, but Heli may be called the father of
Joseph. This may be either in a legal sense, as [Julius] Africanus supposed, because on the death of Heli
without children, Jacob had married his wife according to the law (Deut.25:5) and fathered Joseph, Mary’s
husband, from her. Or it may be that Heli was the natural father of Mary and thus in a civil sense the
father of Joseph by reason of the marriage contracted by his daughter, through which he became a father[-in-law], in which sense Naomi speaks of her daughters-in-law as her daughters (Ruth 1:11-12), which
manner of speaking is in use among all people. Or it may be said that not Joseph, but Christ, is son of
Heli, the phrase “as was supposed” being indeed parenthetical, not meaning, however, as commonly read,
“being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph,” but rather, “Jesus, who was supposed to be the son of
Joseph, being the son of Heli,” that is, his grandson, through the Virgin Mary, nor is it improper to pass in
this manner from grandfather to grandson, especially if the fathers have died, and all the more in this
case, because Christ was without father according to his human nature….

XXII. In II Samuel 24:24 David is said to buy a threshing floor and oxen from Araunah for 50 shekels of silver. In I Chronicles 21:25 reference is made to 600 shekels of gold. A reconciliation is easy from the nature of the transaction: he gave 50 shekels for the part in which he first built an altar, but after he learned, through a heavenly fire that came down, that this was the place God had chosen for the temple, then, not satisfied with the small area, he bought the whole field, and the hill, for 600 shekels….

XXXIV. When Christ forbids swearing “at all” (Matt. 5:34), he does not intend to condemn the oath
absolutely and simply, for elsewhere it is allowed and approved, and it is required by God (Exod.22:8, 10 –
11; Lev. 5:4; Num. 5:19 – 20; Prov. 18:18; Heb. 6:16), but rather certain forms of oath which were used
by the Jews, and which are mentioned in the same place, namely, those by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, the
head and other created things of that nature, all of which are condemned by Christ as rash and forbidden.
In this way universal terms often are restricted to some particular (ad certam speciam), [for example] John 10:8: “All who came before me are thieves”; all, that is, who were not called or sent, or who said
that they themselves or some other was the shepherd of the sheep. And I Corinthians 10:23, “All things
are lawful to me,'” and 9:22, “I have become all things to all”; that is, in matters that are lawful and
indifferent. Evil and sinful acts are not lawful to anyone…

XXXVI. From the above it is clear that the various difficult passages which are used to deny the authority
of Scripture, which we have illustrated, are not irreconcilable contradictions, although they are indeed
difficulties. There are also many others which the Roman Catholics use to argue the corruption of the
sources by Jews and heretics, but they will be better dealt with later, when we discuss the authoritative

About the Author:

I hold to the historic Confessional view of Scripture as found in Chapter 1 of the WCF/2LBCF. I reject Restorationist Textual Criticism and affirm Preservationist Textual Criticism

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