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Alleged problems in the Bible

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Critics have been trying to find fault with the Bible for probably as long as it has existed, and Jews and Christians have provided answers to those alleged problems in the Bible for as long. Despite such answers being supplied, critics frequently repeat the allegations as though new or unanswered.

There are many different types of problems that various people have with the Bible, claiming:

  • The Bible contradicts itself, including misquoting itself.
  • The Bible contradicts known facts of physics and natural history.
  • The Bible contradicts known facts of archeology and history.
  • The Bible propagates unacceptable ethics.
  • The Bible records prophecies that were not fulfilled.

There are also questions of a more theological nature, such as the Trinity, justification by works or faith, and the eternity of the Law, that critics see as inconsistencies.

The range of opinions is great about what the Bible is. On the one hand there are Christians who believe that the Bible is the true word of God, at least in the original documents. On the other side are skeptics who believe that the Bible is demonstrably false. In between are Christians who value the Bible and believe it contains the message essential for salvation, but also believe that it may contain various sorts of errors. These views are based on views of how the Bible came to be. The first group believes that all of Scripture is "God breathed",[1][2] that is, written (by people) under the direct control of God. The second group believes that God had no involvement in the Bible; that it is solely the work of human authors. The final group believes that people recorded what God had said, but also recorded their own ideas.

These groups will view ostensible contradictions very differently. Christians in the first group, convinced of the the inerrancy of the Bible, will be satisfied if they can find just one plausible explanation for alleged contradictions. The skeptic will hold that a passage discredits the Bible if a straightforward reading appears to be contradictory. Each position is logically self-consistent, but they clash, for example, when a Christian argues that the Bible should be accepted as infallible because of its internal consistency. Even if the possibility that the Bible is in error is not allowed, the study of these passages can provide insight into the pitfalls and limitation of Biblical exegesis.

Contents

Lists

There are a number of lengthy collections alleging problems, mostly inconsistencies, in the Bible.

Typically, such lists show extremely little scholarship. For example, apologist J. P. Holding said of the Skeptic's Annotated Bible:

SAB is the internet equivalent to a brick wall scribbled with graffiti, or arguing by saying, "nanny nanny boo boo."[3]

Although the onus is on the critic to demonstrate his claims of errors and contradictions, apologists have also produces lists of answers to the alleged problems. Two such sources are:

Some general principles to resolving alleged contradictions

The variety of genres

Some passages are obviously nonsensical if taken literally.

  • Song of Solomon 5:13 (NAS): ... His lips are lilies dripping with liquid myrrh.

Or unquestionably exhibit a formal grammatical contradiction.

  • Proverbs 26:4 (NIV): Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.
  • Proverbs 26:5 (NIV): Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Although the latter is often cited as a contradiction, the parallelism and juxtaposition makes it hard to consider this contradiction as anything other than an intentional literary device. Most people recognize a variety of literary genres in the Bible, and try to interpret each type of text with the principles appropriate to it, which are not always literal and descriptive.

Unfortunately, this opens up a lot of room for different interpretations, for example between those who take the "days" of creation to be literal 24-hour days, and those that consider "day" to be a poetic way of expressing a longer age. (See Old Earth Creationism.)

Mistakes in copying

Another class of uncontested contradictions involve more or less obvious copyist mistakes. These occur with non-biblical documents as well, but nobody questions the veracity of the documents because of this.[4]

  • 1 Chronicles 20:5 (NAS): And there was war with the Philistines again, and Elhanan the son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver's beam.
  • 2 Samuel 21:19 (NAS): There was war with the Philistines again at Gob, and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver's beam.

The parallelism is nearly exact, and dropping a phrase like "Lahmi the brother of" would be an easy mistake to make. Another example:

  • 1 Kings 4:26 (NAS): Solomon had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots, and 12,000 horsemen.
  • 2 Chronicles 9:25 (NAS): Now Solomon had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots and 12,000 horsemen, and he stationed them in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem.

The interpretation as a copyist error is supported by the fact that some manuscripts give the number as 4,000 in both passages, and that 4,000 horses for chariots would be a number in reasonable proportion to the 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses for cavalry mentioned elsewhere.[4] Some English translations render both verses with 4,000. There are, however, some commentators who suggest that there were 40,000 horses housed 10 at a time in 4,000 stalls, or that Solomon had 4,000 horses for chariots at the time that Chronicles was written but 40,000 at the time that Kings was written.

The difficulty with allowing this explanation is that there is no guarantee that the uncorrupted version has survived in any manuscript known to us. Furthermore, the number of passages that can be cross checked because they are doubled, like the example with Solomon's horses, is limited, although usually much greater than any other ancient document. There are good reasons to believe that there are very few copyist mistakes in the Bible, but there is no way to eliminate the possibility that any given verse has been corrupted.


Archaeology

The consensus among contemporary archeologists is that the archaeological evidence is at odds with the Biblical narrative at a number of points. The most critical time period spans the 15th to 7th centuries BC, including the conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon. The Biblical account of events around and after the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC seems for the most part to be independently verifiable and accurate. The achaeological evidence for the events up to and including the Exodus from Egypt is thought to be too sparse to provide unambiguous evidence for or against the events depicted.

Perhaps the most famous claim of a discrepancy is the destruction of Jericho. According to the Bible, Jericho was destroyed by the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua around 1400 BC. The consensus of modern archaeologists is that the walled city of Jericho was destroyed about 150 years earlier and the site was apparently uninhabited at the time of Joshua. These dates were originally determined by examination of pottery styles, the classical method of archaeology, but were later confirmed by radiocarbon dating.

A similar case, although less well-known than Jericho, is the city of Ai, which according to the Biblical account was also destroyed by Joshua, but which archaeologists believe had already been uninhabited for 1000 years by that time.

Paula M. McNutt summarizes the archaeological evidence concerning this period of Israeli history in this way:[5]

In the past, archaeologists and historians depended heavily on the Hebrew Bible for sorting out the complex puzzles the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I peoples left behind in the archaeological record. But the biblical descriptions of invasions and conquest from outside Canaan are not supported by the archaeological information. Although there is evidence that some of the major Bronze Age centers were destroyed at the end of the period, the biblical assertions about conquest and destruction do not correspond with the archaeological record in some important ways. For example, a number of the sites said to have been conquered by the Israelites, or mentioned in some other context (for example, Heshbon, Arad, Hebron, Gibeon, and especially Jericho and Ai), have not yielded any significant sign of occupation in the Late Bronze Age. It is also clear from the archaeological record that the decline of the Late Bronze Age urban centers was a gradual process, lasting more than a century, not the swift Military defeat depicted in Joshua 1-12. Many of the lowland sites, in fact, were destoyed in the late twelfth, rather than the thirteenth, century B.C.E. It is also telling, given the clear indications in the archaeological remains of a strong Egyptian influence in Palestine well into the twelfth century, that there is no mention of any Egyptian presence in the biblical stories. And there is the fact that the Transjordanian kingdoms of Ammon and Moab, which in the biblical traditions are already present at the time of the conquest, were not established until late in Iron Age I.

Thomas L. Thompson writes in a similar way about the following period of Israeli history:[6]

There is no evidence of a United Monarchy, no evidence of a capital in Jerusalem or of any coherent, unified political force that dominated western Palestine, let alone an empire of the size the legends describe. We do not have evidence for the existence of kings named Saul, David or Solomon; nor do we have evidence for any temple at Jerusalem in this early period. What we do know of Israel and Judah of the tenth century does not allow us to interpret this lack of evidence as a gap in our knowledge and information about the past, a result merely of the accidental nature of archeology. There is neither room nor context, no artifact or archive that points to such historical realities in Palestine's tenth century. One cannot speak historically of a state without a population. Nor can one speak of a capital without a town. Stories are not enough.

Internal consistency

Examples from the early Old Testament

For claimed contradictions on a somewhat deeper level, there are a few sections of the Bible that seem to be cited especially often. One of these is creation, and another is the Flood. Both of these receive a lot of attention, both because they are at odds with the naturalistic worldview regarding the course of natural history, and because they have theological consequences. The differences between various passages has led many secular scholars to conclude that there were at one time two different versions of each of these stories, which were then interwoven when Genesis was written. However, the differences are not clear contradictions, and Jesus treated the accounts as complementary.[7]

A third is the Exodus. The Book of Exodus goes to great lengths to emphasize the all-encompassing nature of the plagues.

  • Exodus 7:19-21 (NAS): Then the LORD said to Moses, "Say to Aaron, 'Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their reservoirs of water, that they may become blood; and there will be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.'" So Moses and Aaron did even as the LORD had commanded. And he lifted up the staff and struck the water that was in the Nile, in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants, and all the water that was in the Nile was turned to blood. The fish that were in the Nile died, and the Nile became foul, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. And the blood was through all the land of Egypt.

It is clear that the plague was complete, leaving no drop of potable water. That the transformation lasted a long time is made clear in Verse 24, which has the Egyptians trying to find drinkable water by digging around the Nile. And yet in the verse immediately following Aaron's miracle, water that has not yet been transformed is apparently available again.

  • Exodus 7:22: But the magicians of Egypt did the same with their secret arts; and Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

A number of explanations have been proposed to reconcile these passages.

  • Perhaps, despite the long list of water reservoirs, there was still water somewhere, maybe as ground water.
  • Perhaps, despite the direct juxtaposition in the text of the two acts of Aaron and the Egyptian magicians, and despite the following reference to Egyptians digging for water, there was sufficient time between the two events for fresh water to be brought, whether by the natural flow of the Nile or by human action.
  • Perhaps it was not meant that the Egyptians did the feat then and there, but that they were able to do so, or that they had done so at some time in the past.

This example illustrates the difference between the approach of those who believe the Bible to be inerrant and that of the critics. The critics feel that if it is too difficult to reconcile ostensibly conflicting passages, then that is as damning as not being able to reconcile them at all. If verse 22 were missing from this story, it would be a very curious reading to claim that ground water, or water in metal vessels, was exempted from Aaron's miracle, and most people would argue, not that we simply don't know, but that we can conclude from the language that it is very likely that this was not the case. Verse 22 provides additional information that requires one to reconsider this interpretation. The question asked by the critic is how we can know that there is not critical information missing from other Bible stories as well, the lack of which leads us to an incorrect interpretation. If that is possible, he argues, then we can never be sure that we have interpreted any passage correctly. Those who believe in inerrancy are satisfied with the logic that as long as a plausible explanation can be offered, then the inerrancy of the Bible has not been disproved and can continue to be upheld.

Peter's denials

A final example is the events around the crucifixion and resurrection. One could expect these to be the most detailed and accurate passages in the Bible, both because they were written by eyewitnesses or people who knew the eyewitnesses, and because the events depicted are the essence of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, skeptics look for inconsistencies. As examples, the story of Peter's denial and of Mary Magdelene's Easter experience will be considered here.

All four gospels recount that Peter, on the night Jesus was arrested, vowed he would remain loyal to Jesus, but Jesus responded that Peter would deny him three times that very night, which then came to pass. There are, however, a number of differences in the details.

  • First, the location of the conversation. In Matthew and Mark, the exchange takes place after the Last Supper, when Jesus and the disciples have gone out to the Mount of Olives. In Luke and John, it is during the Last Supper, before they go out to the Mount of Olives.
This claim ignores that the Bible writers did not always relate their accounts in chronological order.
  • Second, to whom Peter denied knowing Christ. Some of the details are recounted in three or four of the gospels, such as that the first person to whom he denied knowing Jesus was a servant girl, and that the accusers in the third denial recognized him as being a Galilean. Who was involved in the second and third denials is more ambiguous. The descriptions of the second denial, for example, appear to describe four different accusers.
  • Matthew 26:71: When he had gone out to the gateway, another servant-girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
  • Mark 14:69: The servant-girl saw him, and began once more to say to the bystanders, “This is one of them!”
  • Luke 22:58: A little later, another saw him and said, “You are one of them too!” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!”
  • John 18:25: Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You are not also one of His disciples, are you?” He denied it, and said, “I am not.”
However, it is not as straightforward as that. It seems that the Jews employed female servants as doorkeepers.[8] Between the first and second denials Peter had moved from the courtyard to the street entrance. "The servant girl" of Mark likely means the servant girl at a different doorway, which would, of course, be "another servant girl", per Matthew. In any case, as John indicates, there was more than one person, even though each of the other authors only selected one to mention. So there is no contradiction.
  • Third, the number of times the cock crowed. Three evangelists speak of a single crowing, in the prediction by Jesus, the actual course of event, and the recollection of the prediction by Peter:
  • Matthew 26:34: Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”
  • Matthew 26:74: Then he began to curse and swear, “I do not know the man!” And immediately a rooster crowed. [first and only mention, after the third denial]
  • Matthew 26:75: And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, “Before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
  • Luke 22:34: And He said, “I say to you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me.”
  • Luke 22:60: But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” Immediately, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. [first and only mention, after the third denial]
  • Luke 22:61: The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.”
  • John 18:27: Peter then denied it again, and immediately a rooster crowed. [first and only mention, after the third denial]
In contrast, Mark speaks of the cock crowing two times in all three contexts:
  • Mark 14:30: And Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, that this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will deny Me three times.”
  • Mark 14:68: But he denied it, saying, "I neither know nor understand what you are talking about." And he went out onto the porch, and a rooster crowed.
  • Mark 14:72: Immediately a rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had made the remark to him, “Before a rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” And he began to weep.
Some commentators suggest that the two crows are nothing more than an additional detail provided by Mark.[9], or, more accurately, a detail that was thought to be unnecessary by the other authors.[4] It is also worth noting that the manuscripts and translations seem to be split on the question of whether the final clause of Mark 14:68, mentioning the (first) crow, was in the original document or not. Some manuscripts do not have the "twice" in Mark 14:30 and 14:72, either. One commentator[4] summarizes, "But what it runs down to, in terms of weight of evidence, is that 14:30 and 14:72 are likely to have been part of Mark originally, whereas the key verse in 14:68 ("and the cock crew") is not, and was likely added to make the fulfillment of Jesus' prediction more exact." Note that this commentator is proposing a something more than a copyist error: "Bear in mind that within this context, this is not considered "contradiction" or "error" -- no ancient reader would have thought this. Compromises in narrative presentation were often necessary to make a text more memorable for a population that was 90% illiterate. Intentional, structured changes for a purpose are not, under such a semantic contract, an error."

Mary Magdalene

In the story of the crucifixion and resurrection, Mary Magdalene plays a prominent role. She was present at the crucifixion. John places her and the other women near the cross, while the other evangelists have them watching from a distance.

  • Matthew 27:55-56: Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.
  • Mark 15:40: Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.
  • Luke 23:49: But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
  • John 19:25: Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

John does not mention it, but the other gospels agree that she witnessed the burial. She went back to the tomb Sunday morning around sunrise and saw that the stone sealing the tomb had been moved. (Only Luke does not mention her by name at this point.) Here, the various gospels all mention angels and the empty tomb, but they start to diverge on the details.

Easter in the Synoptic Gospels Matthew Mark Luke
When did the women buy the spices with which to anoint the body of Jesus? (no mention of spices) when the Sabbath was over before the Sabbath
Who accompanied Mary Magdalene to the tomb around dawn on Sunday morning? the other Mary Mary the mother of James, and Salome Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others
How many angels were there to tell them Jesus was risen? one angel, sitting on the stone one angel, sitting in the tomb two angels, standing in the tomb
Did the women meet Jesus before they got back? yes (*) not that was mentioned
Did they tell the disciples what they had seen? yes, or at least they were on their way (*) yes

(*) The story as told by Mark is somewhat confusing. The story seems to finish after they talk with the angels:

  • Mark 16:8: Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

But in the following verses the story seems to start over:

  • Mark 16:9-10: When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping.

The differences between John and the synoptic gospels are greater than the the differences among the synoptic gospels themselves.

  • According to John, the body was prepared with spices when it was first put in the tomb, so the women (He only mentions Mary Magdalene.) did not bring spices with them.
  • Mary Magdalene makes two trips to the tomb. On the first one she sees that the stone is gone and runs to tell the disciples. Two of them return with her and then leave her there. There is no mention of other women on either of these trips.
  • It is then that she sees two angels, sitting in the tomb. There is no record in John that the angels told her Jesus was risen.
  • Immediately thereafter she sees Jesus but mistakes him briefly for the gardener. She then goes and tells the disciples.


Moral principles

Many people find a number of incidents and moral precepts in the Bible to be repugnant.

Killing children

There are many accounts of military conquests in the Old Testament where the Israelites "utterly destroyed" a people or killed "all" the people in a city. In many of these, it is specifically stated that the women and children were also killed, or at least the young boys.

For example, Chapter 31 of the Book of Numbers relates that God commanded Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites. This they did, killing all the men, capturing the women and children, plundering the livestock and goods, and burning the cities and camps. When they returned Moses rebuked them for sparing the women, since they had intentionally drawn the Israelites into sin. Moses commanded his army to kill the Midianite women and male children, but to take the virgins for themselves.

The action that most offends critics' sensibilities is the killing of the small boys.

Further examples are these:

  • Deuteronomy 2:34: And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.
  • Deuteronomy 3:6: And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city.
  • Joshua 6:21-27: And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.
  • Judges 21:10-11: And the congregation sent thither twelve thousand men of the valiantest, and commanded them, saying, Go and smite the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead with the edge of the sword, with the women and the children. And this is the thing that ye shall do, Ye shall utterly destroy every male, and every woman that hath lain by man.
  • 1 Samuel 15:3: Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.
  • 2 Kings 15:16: Then Menahem smote Tiphsah, and all that were therein, and the coasts thereof from Tirzah: because they opened not to him, therefore he smote it; and all the women therein that were with child he ripped up.
  • Ezekiel 9:4-6: And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof. And to the others he said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity: Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. Then they began at the ancient men which were before the house.

Sometimes the killing was done at the direct command of God, at other times the context makes it clear that the killing was approved of by God. There are also several incidents where God killed a number of children more directly, without using the Israelite army, such as

  • during the plagues of Egypt and other plagues sent by God, or
  • the incident related in Numbers 16:27-33 where Dathan and Abiram, because they rebelled against Moses and Aaron, were swallowed up by the Earth along with "their wives, and their sons, and their little children", or
  • the 42 children who were torn apart by bears for mocking Elisha's baldness. (2 Kings 2:23-24).

Natural sciences

The most dramatic discrepancies claimed to exist between the creationist interpretation of the Bible and the natural sciences are those related to natural history, specifically

Beyond that, the Bible has relatively little to say about science. Often criticized are:

  • The topology of the heavens and the Earth, including suggestions that the Earth is flat and stationary, that the moon shines with its own light, and that the stars are small and nearby objects.
  • Biology and genetics, including influencing the color of goats by streaked rods that were nearby during their conception (Genesis 30:37-39), the statement that rabiits chew the cud (Leviticus 11:5-6 and Deuteronomy 14:7-8), and the mention of four-legged flying creatures (Leviticus 11:20).
  • Medical prescriptions, including elaborate cures for leprosy (Leviticus 14:2-52), curing snakebite by looking at a brass snake, and curing boils with figs (2 Kings 20:7).

Reference

  1. 2 Timothy 3:16
  2. MacArthur, John, Our God-Breathed Bible, 1997
  3. James Patrick Holding Commentary on the Skeptics' Annotated Bible
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Holding, J. P., Copyist Errors, Estimations, and the Biblical Text
  5. {{{1}}}
  6. Thomas L. Thompson. The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past. 1999. As quoted in a book review by Danny Yee, 2001 http://dannyreviews.com/
  7. For example, in Mark 10:6-8 Jesus quoted from both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.
  8. John 18:17 ASV, Acts 12:13, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary on Mark 14:66, Clarke's Commentary on John 18:17
  9. Answering The Atheist
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