Many skeptics of Christianity allege that there are thousands of errors and contradictions in the Bible. For example, how many angels were at the tomb of Jesus? Matthew 28:1-8 seems to indicate that only one angel was at the tomb. Whereas John 20:1-8 states that two angels were present. Or how Jesus, in Mark 8:31, claimed he would be killed but three days later would rise from the dead. However, he wasn’t technically in the grave for three 24-hour days. Aren’t these errors or contradictions? Critics point to these supposed mistakes as proof that the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God and that Christianity is demonstrably false. This assumption that the Bible disagrees with itself in many ways and places has become extremely popular across our society today. But is it true? It’s very easy to claim that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions, but actually proving it is quite another matter.
Before we look more closely at some specific examples of alleged errors and contradictions in the Bible, we must first answer two preliminary questions;
(1) what do we mean by the phrase, ‘the Bible is without error’ or ‘inerrant’ and
(2) what constitutes an error or contradiction?
Christian apologists Josh & Sean McDowell note that when Christian theologians claim that the Bible is without error they mean that, “…the Scriptures as they were penned by the authors in the original writings and as properly interpreted will be shown to be true and not false in all they affirm.” It stands to reason that if God is the ultimate author of Scripture, if he truly inspired the biblical authors to write down and reveal His message to the world, His word would be without error or contradiction. The problem is the original writings of the Bible, called autographs, no longer exist. We do however possess thousands upon thousands of manuscript copies that have survived from throughout history. For example, we have over 5,500 Greek manuscripts alone of the New Testament.
For centuries, scribes preserved the text of the Scriptures by producing handwritten copies. The production of these copies was an extremely serious task and treated with great respect. Scribes had to follow many stringent methods and procedures when producing a new copy. While the accuracy of the scribes was exceptional, we know for sure that errors were made. But the fact scribes made slight mistakes while producing new copies does not mean the Bible we read today is full of errors and contradictions, rendering it totally untrustworthy. Why? because upon examination of the supposed ‘errors’ in the Bible it becomes clear how they were made and that they do not alter the intended meaning of the text.
So, what sort of errors or mistakes did the scribes make? One common mistake is the misspelling of a word. For example, some manuscripts of the New Testament spell the name John with one “n”; others spell it with two (Johnn). This technically constitutes an error or contradiction. And when this error occurs in multiple copies, say 3,000 manuscripts, it counts as 3,000 errors. However, it is clear this ‘error’ does not in any way alter or contradict the meaning of the text. Other copying errors just like this one can be found in both the Old and New Testaments.
Old Testament Errors
In 2 Chronicles 9:25 some manuscripts read that Solomon had 4,000 horse stalls for the 14,000 chariots he owned. But in 1 Kings 4:26 other manuscripts say he had 40,000 horse stalls. Clearly this is a copying error. 40,000 stalls is an unnecessary amount to accommodate 14,000 chariots. Another example is in 2 Chronicles 22:2, most manuscripts say that King Ahaziah was 22 years old. But in 2 Kings 8:26 some manuscripts report that he was 42. Again this is clearly a copying error, because if he was 42 he would have been older than his father. Given the fact there are many copying errors in the Old Testament how then can we be confident that the Old Testament is true and reliable? In other words, how can we trust the copies we have of the Old Testament?
The discovery of the dead sea scrolls in 1947 is a pivotal event for the historical reliability of the Old Testament. Until the mid-twentieth century we had no way of knowing just how amazing the preservation of the Old Testament had been. At that time the oldest complete Hebrew manuscript dated to 900 AD, over a thousand years after the Old Testament was written. However, in 1947 shepherds exploring caves on the west side of the Dead Sea found jars filled with ancient manuscripts now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. 223 Biblical manuscripts and many more partial manuscripts and fragments were discovered. These manuscripts have been dated by palaeographers to approximately 125 B.C, over a thousand years earlier than any previously known manuscripts.
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were compared with modern versions, the modern Hebrew Bible proved to be identical, word for word, in more than 95 per cent of the text. The other 5 per cent consisted mainly of spelling variations, similar to the earlier example. Christian apologist Norman Geisler notes that of all the variations in the manuscript copies of the Old Testament not one affects the central message of the Bible. Christian apologists Josh and Sean McDowell note that, “…the greatest manuscript discovery of all time revealed that a thousand years of copying the Old Testament had produced only excruciatingly minor variations, none of which altered the clear meaning of the text or brought the manuscript’s fundamental integrity into question.”
New Testament Errors
One alleged contradiction from the New Testament that has produced much controversy, involves the angels who were at the tomb of Jesus. In Matthew 28:2-3 it is recorded that one angel addressed the women; whereas Luke 24:4 refers to two angels being present at the tomb. These appear to be two incompatible versions of the same event. Is this a valid contradiction? You’ll find It’s no more of a contradiction than this example...Imagine two friends, Bruce and Steve. Bruce tells Steve that he went to the movies over the weekend. Later that day Steve finds out from another friend Tony that Bruce, Tony, and Stuart all went to the movies together over the weekend. The first statement may have left Steve with the impression that Bruce went to the movies alone, while the second statement revealed that others were with him. But these two statements do not contradict each other. The same can be said of the gospel accounts. Matthew does not claim categorically that only one angel was present at the tomb, but rather that only one angel spoke to the women; thus, the angel who spoke was emphasised and the focus of Matthew’s account. This in no way contradicts Luke’s claim that two angels were present at the tomb.
Another example of a supposed error or contradiction from the New Testament is the account of Jesus predicting he would be killed but in three days would rise again (Mark 8:31). Skeptics raise the objection that technically Jesus wasn’t in the grave for three 24-hour days. Is this an error or contradiction? The answer is no, because in the Jewish culture any part of a day was considered a whole day. These are but two examples, but all the alleged contradictions in the New Testament can be reconciled in a similar fashion to this.
It must be noted that the thousands of manuscript copies of the New Testament are not identical. In fact, there are approximately 400,000 differences or technically speaking, ‘errors’ between them. How then can we be confident that the New Testament we read today is true and reliable?
To answer this question it’s helpful to use a diagram:
Copy 1: God is #ust and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Copy 2: God is j#st and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Copy 3: God is ju#t and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Copy 4: God is jus# and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus
Reconstruction of original:
God is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
In this example, we can compare and contrast the four copies to determine what the errors are, where they are, and easily work out what the original said with a great deal of confidence. In the same way New Testament scholars have compared and contrasted the thousands of manuscript copies of the New Testament writings to discover with certainty what the originals said.
When addressing objections and challenges regarding the reliability of the New Testament it’s important to remember that Biblical scholars have determined that less than one per cent of all the variations have any real significance for the meaning of the original text. And that none of these, not a single one, affects a core doctrine of the Christian faith.
One final question many skeptics may ask is, “If God is all-powerful and all-knowing why didn’t he just preserve the original autographs throughout history?” Christian apologist Frank Turek notes that if one person or group had the original they could secretly alter it without anybody else knowing. However, if there are thousands of copies dispersed amongst thousands of individuals/communities and some copies get altered, we can compare and contrast all the available copies to quickly and easily determine which copies have been altered and are false. By not preserving the originals, God actually better protected and preserved His message to the world.
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Further reading recommendations
'On the reliability of the Old Testament' by K.A. Kitchen
'The historical reliability of the New Testament' by Craig L. Blomberg
'Can we trust the gospels?' by Peter J. Williams
'Why I trust the Bible' by William D. Mounce
'Why trust the Bible?' by Amy Orr-ewing