Whereas some people allege that all of the difficulties and apparent discrepancies in the Bible are attributable to errors made in copying the original manuscripts, Benjamin B. Warfield asserts that it is not reasonable to make such allegations. On page 584 of his book entitled The Inerrancy of the Original Autographs, he declares,
That some of the difficulties and apparent discrepancies in current texts disappear on the restoration of the true text of Scripture is undoubtedly true. That all the difficulties and apparent discrepancies in current texts of Scripture are matters of textual corruption [i.e., changes from the wording of the original manuscripts], and not, rather, often of historical or other ignorance on our part, no sane man ever asserted.
Our article entitled “General Problems with Biblical Translations” discusses copying errors. This article will deal with apparent biblical discrepancies that do not result from copying errors. We will consider the following primary types of apparent biblical discrepancies:
- Conflicts with science or logic
- Absence of uniform standards in ancient times
- Partial or differing biblical accounts
- Inexact biblical quotations
- Confusing general statements with universal ones
- Assumption that the Bible approves of everything it reports
- Differences in biblical teachings or principles
- Ideas presented in obscure passages
Conflicts with Science or Logic
On page 43 of his book entitled Is the Bible True?, Basil Atkinson, Ph.D., addresses this issue, as follows:
The God revealed in the Bible is the God of nature. He must know all the secrets of nature. If, therefore, God is behind the Book, there will not be scientific mistakes. If it is really inspired, as it claims to be, . . . it must be correct in its scientific statements when it makes them. It is quite true to say that the Bible is not intended to be a scientific handbook, but it is absurd to say that for that reason it does not matter whether its science is true or not.
On page 159 of their book entitled Inerrancy and Common Sense, Roger R. Nicole and J. Ramsey Michaels provide the following additional perspective:
The Scripture gives accurate and truthful information about science and history, but in a form appropriate to its own purposes. Those who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture have nothing to fear from honest scientific and historical research, for the Lord of nature and history is also the Lord of the Scriptures. This ultimate harmony of science and Scripture is exactly what both common sense and a living faith would lead us to expect.
[For discussions of specific matters pertaining to conflicts with science or logic, see our articles under the category “The Bible Versus Science and Logic.”]
Absence of Uniform Standards in Ancient Times
On page 86 of their book Nicole and Michaels state,
Because a uniformity of standards frequently prevails in the modern scientific world, we usually expect that a well-written book will follow a uniform standard throughout. But this requirement cannot be placed upon the Scripture; we ought to recognize that varieties of standards may well prevail in measurements, in dating the reigns of kings, and in a number of other areas concerning which the ancient world had no uniform standard.
This does not lead us to the supposition that the biblical writers were permitted to incorporate without correction faulty data . . ., but it does emphasize that we are not in a position to project upon their writings the expectation that in terms of accuracy they will conform to present canons of scientific writing.
Gleason L. Archer, on page 14 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, says, “It is clear that the Hebrews often employed ‘round numbers,’ or omitting fractions, made use of the nearest whole number.” And, Allen Bowman, Ph.D., on pages 125-126 of his book entitled Is the Bible True?, notes, “In reckoning periods of time, the Hebrews counted parts of years or of days as full years or full days.”
Partial or Differing Biblical Accounts
On page 301 of the book entitled Inerrancy, which was edited by Norman Geisler, Ph.D., Paul D. Feinberg says, “Inerrancy does not guarantee the exhaustive comprehensiveness of any single account or of combined accounts where those are involved. . . . God has not seen fit to record every detail of every account.”
And, on page 20 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, Geisler and Thomas Howe, M.A., state,
Critics often jump to the conclusion that a partial report is false. However, this is not so. If it were, most of what has ever been said would be false, since seldom does time or space permit an absolutely complete report. Occasionally, the Bible expresses the same thing in different ways, or at least from different viewpoints . . . . Hence, inspiration does not exclude a diversity of expression.
With regard to differing biblical versions of the same event, Atkinson declares on page 121 of his book,
To compare the different accounts . . . lets us a little into the secret of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the Bible. He uses the personality of each writer. . . . Each is an independent witness, but none contradicts the other even in details. This fact is due to the over-ruling and controlling power of the Holy Spirit.
The four Gospels illustrate this point. On page 119 of Explore the Book, J. Sidlow Baxter states,
That there are surface “differences” between the four accounts need not be denied, even though some of these at a first glance might even seem like disagreements. They serve a good purpose, for they are the indications of independent authorship and of genuineness. . . . They are variations but not contradictions. They appear simply because different aspects or points of view are being emphasized.
Likewise, J. Julius Scott, Jr., on page 510 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, says with regard to the four Gospels, “[T]heir similarities and differences, showing the integrity of each writer and the absence of an attempt to standardized reports about Jesus, tend to confirm and enhance their witness.”
Feinberg declares on page 302 of Inerrancy,
[N]one of the evangelists [i.e., the writers of the Gospels] is obligated to give an exhaustive account of any event. He has the right to record an event in light of his purposes. . . . All that is required is that the sentences used by the writer be true.
Carl Blomberg, on pages 134-135 of his book entitled The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, states,
Perhaps the most perplexing differences between parallels occur when one gospel writer has condensed the account of an event which took place in two or more states into one concise paragraph which seems to describe the action taking place all at once. Yet this type of literary abridgement was quite common among ancient writers, . . . and . . . it is unfair to judge them by modern standards of precision which no one in antiquity required.
Previously, on pages 127-128, Blomberg provided the following perspective:
[F]rom at least as long ago as the time of St. Augustine, it has been recognized that the gospels did not set out to supply a detailed itinerary of Jesus’ ministry with every event in its proper chronological sequence, but frequently arrange passages in topical or thematic order instead. . . . Apart from the infancy and passion/resurrection narratives, the gospels simply do not provide enough information about the time and place of the incidents recorded to enable them to be fitted together with confidence into a chronologically precise harmony. . . . [I]f one applies the principle of assuming a chronological connection between two portions of the Synoptics only when the text explicitly presents one, then the apparent contradictions of sequence vanish. This is especially true when one realizes that the Greek words sometimes translated as ‘now’ or ‘then’ in English . . . often need only mean ‘and,’ without implying that one event happened after the one previously narrated.
And on page 4 of his book, Blomberg notes,
St. Augustine’s approach . . . [emphasized] that the gospels often fail to give a clear indication of the location or sequence of the events they are reporting, and that one is to assume continuity of time and place only when it is explicitly mentioned in the text. He also emphasized that parallel passages may vary in wording yet still convey the same sense, whereas highly divergent ‘parallels’ may in fact represent similar events from separate occasions in Jesus’ life.
Therefore, just because two (or more) passages may differ, they are not necessarily contradictory – they may be complementary. No single passage may present a complete account by itself, but the combined passages may do so, or at least they may provide a more thorough report.
In light of the foregoing perspectives, the following approach, advocated by Archer on page 16 of his book, should be given consideration when trying to reconcile differences in parallel scripture passages:
In the case of parallel passages, the only method that can be justified is harmonization. That is to say, all the testimonies of the various witnesses are to be taken as trustworthy reports of what was said and done in their presence. . . . When we sort them out, line them up, and put them together, we gain a fuller understanding of the event than we would obtain from any one testimony taken individually.
[For discussions of specific matters pertaining to partial or differing biblical accounts, see our other articles under the category “Uncertainties Regarding Biblical Accounts.”]
Inexact Biblical Quotations
On page 20 of When Critics Ask, Geisler and Howe say,
Critics often point to variations in the NT’s use of the OT Scriptures as a proof of error. However, they forget that every citation need not be an exact quotation. It was then (and still is today) a perfectly acceptable literary style to give the essence of a statement without using precisely the same words. The same meaning can be conveyed without using the same verbal expressions.
Feinberg, on pages 300-301 of Inerrancy, provides the following additional perspective about this matter:
Quotation immediately gives one the picture of our present linguistic conventions of quotation marks, ellipses, brackets, and references. None of this was a part of the Hebrew and Greek of biblical times. When we quote today, we quote with verbal exactness, or we note that we have deviated from this through one of the aforementioned conventions. However, we cite statements in many ways besides quotation. . . . When we recall a statement or event, we often give only the gist or general idea of what was exactly said or done. Such practice was common in the New Testament . . ., and there are no conventions to advise us which method of citation is being employed in a given passage. Furthermore, citation of any kind in the New Testament involved translation. Since the Old Testament was in Hebrew, it had to be translated into Greek. . . .” [And translations, by their very nature, are often not precise.]
Archer provides additional perspective regarding this matter. On page 307 of his book, he states,
Often . . . a completely literal translation from the Hebrew does not make clear sense in Greek; therefore some minor adjustments must be made for the sake of good communication. But in a few instances the rewording amounts to a sort of loose paraphrase.
What about quotes in the New Testament that don’t involve Old Testament passages, particularly those that cite the sayings of Jesus Christ? On page 301 of Inerrancy, Feinberg says,
When a New Testament writer cites the sayings of Jesus, it need not be that Jesus said those exact words. . . . [M]any of the sayings were spoken by our Lord in Aramaic and therefore had to be translated into Greek. Moreover, . . . the writers of the New Testament did not have available to them the linguistic conventions that we have today [e.g., quotation marks]. Thus it is impossible for us to know which of the sayings are direct quotes, which are indirect discourse, and which are even freer renderings.
Also, with regard to differences in the accounts of the sayings of Jesus Christ, Blomberg provides the following explanation on page 118 of his book:
[M]odern concerns for accurate quotation make many uneasy with certain examples of free paraphrases of others’ speech. The ancient world, however, had fewer such qualms. . . . So long as what he wrote was faithful to the meaning of the original utterance, the author was free to phrase his report however he liked, and no one would accuse him of misquoting his source or producing an unreliable narrative. Even defenders of Scripture’s infallibility freely admit that the evangelists [i.e., Net Testament writers] usually record only Jesus’ ipsissima vox (actual voice) rather than his ipssissima verba (actual words).
Scott, on page 513 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, notes that one of the possible explanations for the similarities and differences in the words and sayings in the synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is that “during the course of his ministry, Jesus probably repeated the same material at different times, places, and settings.”
Similarly, Baxter explains on page 132 of Explore the Book, “[O]ur Lord probably uttered different parts of His teaching on more than one occasion – with differing phraseology. . . .”
[For a discussion of specific inexact biblical quotations, click on “Quotation Discrepancies in the Bible.”]
Confusing General Statements with Universal Ones
On page 25 of When Critics Ask, Geisler and Howe assert,
Critics often jump to the conclusion that unqualified statements admit of no exceptions. They seize upon verses that offer general truths and then point with glee to obvious exceptions. In so doing, they forget that such statements are only intended to be generalizations.
The Book of Proverbs is a good example of such an issue. Proverbial sayings by their very nature offer only general guidance, not universal assurance. They are rules for life, but rules that admit of exceptions.
Assumption That the Bible Approves of Everything It Reports
Statements made by Jesus Christ and statements that specifically indicate they are from God are teachings worthy of our respect. However, other statements must be carefully scrutinized to determine if they are teachings, rather than merely reports. Geisler and Howe, on page 22 of When Critics Ask, declare, “It is a mistake to assume that everything contained in the Bible is commended by the Bible. The whole Bible is true . . ., but it records some lies. . . . The truth of Scripture is found in what the Bible reveals, not in everything it records.”
Likewise, on page 132 of Inerrancy, Kaiser says, “The interpreter must distinguish what the Bible teaches and approves from what it merely reports or records.”
Feinberg states on page 297 of Inerrancy,
Scripture accurately records many things that are false, for example, the falsehoods of Satan and of human beings. This point is often made in differing ways. Sometimes it is stated in terms of what the Bible approves as contrasted with what it merely affirms. Another way of putting it is to distinguish between historical or descriptive authority and normative authority. Historical or descriptive authority applies equally to every word of an inerrant Bible. It merely means that whatever was said or done was in fact said or done. No judgment is passed as to whether it should or should not have been said or done. [In contrast, normative authority indicates approval of what was said or done.]
James T. Draper, Jr., D.D., on page 67 of his book entitled Foundations of Biblical Faith, asserts,
What the Bible teaches is without error. Not everything the Bible contains is without error. There are some false sayings contained in the Bible, such as the false saying of the serpent when he told Eve that if she disobeyed God, God would not punish her, and she would not die as God had said (Gen. 3:4). That certainly is not the truth. The Bible contains false sayings of Satan. We need to be very careful as we study the Word of God to allow the Spirit of God to pinpoint for us the areas where false sayings and false prophets are quoted. However, what the Bible teaches is without error.
Differences in Biblical Teachings or Principles
Some people believe the Old Testament teaches that God is quick to express His wrath or vengeful anger, whereas the New Testament teaches that God, because of His love, is slow to express His anger. There are various explanations that help to reconcile this type of apparent discrepancy, depending upon the specific matter. [For a more comprehensive discussion of this matter, click on “Has God’s Nature Changed?”]
Ideas Presented in Obscure Passages
Geisler and Howe, on pages 18-19 of When Critics Ask, offer the following comments in this regard:
Some passages in the Bible are difficult because their meanings are obscure. This is usually because a key word in the text is used only once (or rarely), and so it is difficult to know what the author is saying, unless it can be inferred from the context
When we are not sure, then several things should be kept in mind. First, we should not build a doctrine on an obscure passage. . . . If something is important, it will be clearly taught in Scripture and probably in more than one place. Second, when a given passage is not clear, we should never conclude that it means something that is opposed to another plain teaching of Scripture. God does not make mistakes in His Word; we make mistakes in trying to understand it.
In other words, care should be taken not to rely too heavily on obscure passages when they do not seem to be consistent with other biblical teachings.
We have attempted in this article to briefly address a number of the primary types of apparent scriptural discrepancies. We realize that much more could have been written about the matters that we have addressed. Therefore, we have not attempted to reach a conclusion for each apparent scriptural discrepancy. Our overall conclusion, however, is that there is a plausible explanation for each of the primary discrepancies. Furthermore, as previously indicated, a wide variety of specific apparent scriptural discrepancies are addressed in other articles we have written.