There’s something about coming to the end of a film or book and finally understanding the baffling details that have previously made no sense. Different incidents are explained, problems are ironed out, and everything comes to a satisfactory ending. Stories that conclude with unanswered questions and inconsistencies are often hated by viewers or readers. For those who study literature, they simply indicate bad editing, but with historians it’s a different matter. Historians love apparent contradictions, inconsistencies and difficult details. Why? Because they can often lead to the discovery of hidden events and new historical facts. Critics of the Bible sometimes mistake it for literature. In their eyes, the Bible narrative should be tidy, consistent, and contain no loose ends or apparent contradictions. However, ancient historians know that potential contradictions and apparent mistakes are normal in historical documents, so they aren’t surprised to find them in the Bible. In fact, if there weren’t any inconsistencies or problems, historians would conclude that it was either made up or over-edited to the extent it’s no longer true. This doesn’t mean that Bible scholars are not keen to get to the bottom of factual difficulties in the text, and every now and then a mystery is solved by new information. For instance, Genesis 2:14 locates Eden in eastern Turkey, at the heads of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. That was a problem because the source of humanity in either ancient or modern thought was not believed to be in that area. We had expected Eden to be in Africa or perhaps in ancient Mesopotamia where human culture first produced towns and agriculture. However, recent excavations at Göbekli Tepe in Eastern Turkey reveal a sophisticated worship centre 2,000 years older than the Mesopotamian civilisation. And on nearby hills, geneticists have pinpointed the origin of the grass from which all varieties of cultivated wheat have descended. In other words, the earliest evidence of human worship and farming is in the area of the biblical Eden.
Although many factual problems are explained by new discoveries, the Bible still contains many problems for biblical scholars to lose sleep over. One such is the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). This census was famous in ancient times as one of the causes of the Zealot revolts, but it occurred in AD 6, ten years after Herod had died. Some theorise that Luke referred to an earlier census because, elsewhere, they occurred roughly every decade; but this was certainly Quirinius’ first census because he didn’t become the governor till AD 6. Others suggest it means “the census before the one by Quirinius…” and that Luke put it this way because he wanted to relate it to the trouble caused by Quirinius’ census. Still others conclude that Luke simply made a mistake. So the puzzle of the census continues, but historians never give up, and a missing piece of information may finally solve this mystery, like so many before.
We know that sometimes the Bible approximates. For example, 1 Kings 7:23 says the round temple basins were ten cubits across and 30 cubits in diameter. However, Pi is actually 3.14, so they must have been at least 31 cubits round. But if the authors of Bible books approximate sometimes, how can we know when they are being accurate? Can we rely on every detail in the Bible? The most authoritative Protestant answer to this question is the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. This says: “Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that…it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses” (Article XI). This is not a simplistic statement that everything in the Bible is true as stated. It affirms that the Bible cannot contain any error on any subjects it addresses, but takes into account that the Bible is not a technical manual and that it often uses poetic exaggeration or metaphor. In practice, however, many Protestants follow the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council in 1964 on the inerrancy of scripture. The Council considered problems such as Mark 2:26 which says David asked Abiathar for the sacred bread when 1 Samuel 21:1 says he asked his father, Abimelech; and Matthew 27:9 which quotes words from Jeremiah that actually occur in Zechariah 11:12–13. They concluded that inerrancy was limited to matters of faith and morals – ie the intrinsic message of God.
When I come across any apparent contradictions, i am keen to try to solve the mystery
God has chosen to communicate his word through fallible humans, and everyone agrees that these human authors are reflected in their various writing styles. Most would also accept that these authors could make errors in grammar, but that this does not affect the truth of the message. So, why shouldn’t the same apply to occasional errors in fact? As long as the message is still clear, why would God allow one type of insignificant error and not another?
The fact that God inspired humans to write in their own style instead of dictating his message to them tells me that the method of personal communication was more important than absolute accuracy in every detail. However, I also believe that God did not allow any errors that would obscure his message since it is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
As well as being about faith and morals, part of the gospel is God’s interactions in history – so historical details are important. This means that when I come across any apparent contradictions, I am keen to try to solve the mystery. In fact, I revel in them because really hard questions are often the tiny crack that opens up hidden truth. They may reveal a hidden doorway into something the Church has forgotten about – such as the importance of women’s ministry in the early Church. Or they may lead us to question the weak scriptural foundations for a doctrine that we accepted for historic reasons – such as the divine authority of kings.
Although God may have allowed these fallible human authors to record occasional insignificant errors, this won’t stop me trying to solve those apparent contradictions. Like any historian – even those investigating secular sources – I know that they are probably due to our ignorance of details that may be explained later. Real history is always complex, and the fact that apparent problems exist demonstrate that the Bible is a collection of real historic documents about events when God intervened. That’s the most exciting kind of history I can imagine.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge