It’s a common question and heated issue between religious fundamentalists and nonbelievers:
“Does the Bible have contradictions?”
The short answer is, yes, it does. But it’s important to avoid making mistakes about what is indeed a contradiction, and how severe it is. So I want to help explain the topic in more detail by looking at the types of Bible contradictions and ways to interpret them; how much they really matter; and conclude with examples of a few severe contradictions.
Contradictions actually aren’t necessarily important
The first thing I want to point out is that internal contradictions within the Bible don’t even really matter to the issue of whether its stories are true or not. Having internal contradictions only shows that the collection of books that made their way into the Bible is not divine truth. And of course it matters to many current Christians who may find such contradictions jarring enough for them to realize Christianity is a man-made invention.
But contradictions do not matter much to the debate over which parts of the Bible are true or not. Having internal contradictions or being free of them, is not the only factor, or even primary factor, that the Bible’s validity rests upon. The truth or falseness of the Bible rests upon its contradictions with, or lack of evidence in reality.
For example, I don’t care if there was one angel at Jesus’s tomb, or two angels, or 100 angels. What I care about is why I should believe there were angels at all! Even if the Bible had zero contradictions, then why would that matter? I don’t know of any contradictions in the Iliad, but that doesn’t make it a true story.
‘Direct’ versus ‘probable’ contradictions
The Bible has many places where it appears to have a contradiction, and most likely the meanings intended by the authors were indeed contradictory, but technically it cannot be 100% proven. And in some cases I have actually agreed with apologists that there was no contradiction at all.
However religious people should be honest and follow what the evidence indicates is probably true, rather than argue for a presupposed conclusion that the Bible is “infallible”. In many cases, despite not being able to prove it 100%, the evidence is quite substantial that the authors did intend things that happened to contradict each other.
For example, if two people tell you a story and one said a rooster crowed before dawn and the other person said a rooster crowed after dawn, then do the stories contradict each other? Well technically no. It’s possible that there were two roosters, or the same rooster crowed both before and after dawn. But the fact each version of the same story mentions only one rooster and one time it crowed is pretty good indication that the storytellers actually meant completely different things. The Bible has a fair number of cases like this, most notably among the gospels (Examples include Mark 16:8 and Matthew 28:8; and the angels at the tomb in Matthew 282-3, Mark 16:5, Luke 24:4, and John 20:11-12).
There are also cases where the phrasing to allegedly describe the same event is vastly different – to the point where it actually appears the authors actually meant two utterly contradictory things. An example of this would be the different accounts of Judas’ death:
In one account of Judas’ death he hangs himself:
And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.
But in Acts 1:18 he is said to have fallen headlong and exploded in the center:
Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.
Apologists try to explain this contradiction by claiming that Judas hung himself then his body decomposed and thus his intestines spilled out when the body tore in half under the weight. This is clearly wrong for 3 obvious reasons:
1. If the author of Acts meant that Judas hung himself, then why would you say something so misleading by saying his guts spilled out? No one describes hanging that way. The author obviously meant to describe something very different.
2. Judas is portrayed as feeling differently in each story and thus his manner of death fits his attitude in each account. In Matthew 27:3-4 Judas is described as feeling remorse and guilt and thus committing suicide. But in Acts it mentions Judas’ wickedness then simply says he fell headlong and died, thus implying that God killed him similar to the way God killed Ananias and his wife in chapter 5 of the same book. The account of the death of Ananias and his wife reads exactly like the account of Judas: it describes a person as bad and then says they fell and died, implying that God killed them. No one claims that Acts 5 describes Ananias and his wife hanging themselves and that’s because the language does not describe hanging.
3. The text even in the original Greek includes the phrase “fell headlong” so that cannot fit with a decaying body ripping apart. And who would describe hanging that way? No one, because it would be a totally nonsensical way of describing it and would lead the reader to believe that a totally different event occurred.
In these cases it can be confidently asserted that if the authors had really meant the same thing then their descriptions would have been much more similar.
Consider this: let’s say you read one part of the Bible and you interpret it pretty clearly as having a certain meaning. And the only way you would interpret it differently was if you saw the contradictory counterpart elsewhere in the Bible then tried to make them match by interpreting it so that they match.
So I think it’s worth noting that for Christians to get the Bible to be free of logical and ethical contradictions, it requires a ton of complicated explanations and far-reaching interpretations. That alone should make us suspect of it.
Examples of direct contradictions
There are some clear, legitimate contradictions in the Bible. As you can see in these examples, there is just no way around it.
Let’s start with a pretty benign one; verses that aren’t very central to Christian belief, but which still demonstrate direct contradiction:
The soldiers of Israel and Judah
In 2 Samuel, a census is taken of the number of soldiers in Israel and Judah. Chapter 24 verse 9 tells us there are 800,000 in Israel, and 500,000 in Judah. But 1 Chronicles 21:5 describing the same event, says there were 1,100,000 in Israel, and 470,000 in Judah. There is no way to interpret that which resolves the contradiction. Since the numbers in each verse are not both higher or both lower than described in the other verse, it can’t be argued that one verse included the count of supply units, or cavalry etc. The accounts are just different.
Christians often respond to Biblical contradictions like this by claiming that only the current, existing copies of the Bible have contradictions due to human error in copying the flawless originals. But this is of course a completely unsubstantiated claim that they have no evidence for. And on top of that, why would their god deliver a message he intended to be clear and free of contradiction so people would accept it, then not bother to protect the originals? As usual, religious belief is based on presuppositions, not evidence.
But there are cases that are a bit more worrisome for Christianity because the contradictions appear in well-known stories like that of the creation story and Noah’s flood, and the contradictory issues are more central to the story:
The order of the creation of humans and animals
Genesis 1:20-27 claims that birds and land animals were created prior to humans:
20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. 21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth. 23 And the evening and the morning were the fifth day. 24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. 25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
However, Genesis 2:7-19 explicitly describes humans being created prior to birds and land animals:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul…. And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
Animals on the ark
In the story of the great flood in which Noah is commanded to build an ark, different verses record different numbers of animals Noah had been told to bring onto the ark. In chapter 7, verse 2, we are told that Noah was commanded to take 7 pairs of ceremonially “clean” animals and 1 pair of ceremonially “unclean” animals: “Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.” But then just a few sentences later in verses 8 and 9 we are explicitly told that Noah was ordered to bring 1 pair of both clean and unclean animals onto the ark: “Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth, there went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah.” The verses cannot be reconciled. Both of them explicitly mention the numbers of both clean and unclean animals brought onto the ark. (And we know that Noah did not mess up God’s orders and forget to bring seven pairs of clean animals, because verse 9 mentions that bringing two of each kind, male and female, was what “God had commanded Noah.”)
Now let’s look as some more damning examples that are quite critical to Christian belief:
The following verses all describe people having literally seen God himself face to face: “And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him.” (Genesis 12:7); “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:30); “Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel: And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink.” (Exodus 24:9-11); “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle.” (Exodus 33:11). But all this directly contradicts the New Testament in John 1:18 and 1 Timothy 6:16 which respectively say, “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”; and “[God] who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen.”
Micah 7:18 says that God does not remain angry forever: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance. You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” But this is directly contradicted in Jeremiah 17:4 where God declares, “Through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you. I will enslave you to your enemies in a land you do not know, for you have kindled my anger, and it will burn forever.”
The Bible seems unable to decide how much God knows. Isaiah 42:9 claims that God knows the future: “Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them.” And Psalm 44:21 seems quite clear that God knows our true nature and thoughts when it says, “God would surely have known it, for he knows the secret of every heart.” Yet in Genesis 22, God tested Abraham to learn if he would sacrifice his own son if commanded. When the angel of God stops Abraham, it even says, “…for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son.” If Genesis were consistent with passages like Isaiah 42:9 and Psalm 44:21, then it would make no sense for God to make Abraham do this. And it would make no sense for God to perform this test just for the angel to learn this information since angels are merely subordinate servant beings and God could simply tell him anyway. It would be completely nonsensical. Perhaps this is just another example of the Bible’s characteristic poor story-telling, but it certainly qualifies as a contradiction. (Additionally it may be noteworthy that the angel is depicted as saying “…for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son…” angel is presumably speaking on God’s behalf, but this may indicate one of the places where the Bible was altered by later scribes. The wording seems like it should coming from God himself, and possibly God was indeed the original speaker in the scene. An angel was likely substituted to try to avoid it seeming like God did not know how Abraham would act. However as I explained, the contradiction remains) And you can find other verses out of sync with an mind-reading, future-knowing god such as in Genesis 18:20-21 where God says, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” So like a human king, God receives news of goings-on in his kingdom, and he actually needs to go down and inspect the situation for himself to know what is occurring.
Children die for parent's sin
In Ezekiel chapter 18, God rejects a proverb about children suffering for their parent’s sin, and spends the chapter declaring that only those who sin will be punished and die for their sins. Most noteworthy are verses 19-10 where he specifically says, “Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.” But this is not the case in 2 Samuel chapters 11-12 (specifically 12:13-18) where God makes David’s son suffer for 7 days then die as punishment for David’s sin. And in Exodus 34:6-7 God says of himself, “…he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” And Romans 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 mention that the sin of Adam results in punishment for everyone: “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”; “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.”So apparently God changed his mind a few times (so we also have a contradiction with verses that claim God does not change his mind) and this also shows an example of how God’s so-called “objective” morality changes.
Who has been to heaven
In John 3:13, Jesus himself declares that no one has been to heaven except himself: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” But in the Old Testament, 2 Kings 2:11 clearly says that Elijah was taken up into heaven: “And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.“ The Bible is a large book, so the authors of the gospels probably were not familiar with many things in their own scriptures, so they didn’t realize they were contradicting them.
To greet or not to greet
Matthew 5:47-48 and 2 John 1:10-11 seem to have pretty opposite views on how to treat people. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says “And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But the author of 2 John has a different opinion: “If anyone comes to you and doesn’t bring these teachings [of Christ], don’t take him into your home or even greet him. Whoever greets him shares the evil things he’s doing.”