Bible scholar Ronald Youngblood tells of a personal struggle in ministry with alleged contradictions in the Bible.
Several years ago when I was an interim pastor, a member of my congregation came to my office greatly agitated. He’d learned that a seminary instructor had said some numbers in the Old Testament are simply estimates, and he was concerned that this would cast doubt on the Bible’s inerrancy.
The verse in question had to do with the battle in Judges 20:46, in which the casualty count is given as 25,000.
I asked, “Don’t you think 25,000 could have been a round number — that the count was somewhere between 23,000 and 27,000?”
My friend insisted this couldn’t be so. “Well, what would be reasonable from your standpoint?” I asked. “That it was somewhere between 24,000 and 26,000?”
“Somewhere between 24,990 and 25,010?”
“How about between 24,999 and 25,001?” I asked. “Or are you saying it has to be right on the money?”
In those days, the war in Vietnam was in the news daily. “The casuality counts the newspaper are obviously estimates. Why can’t it be that way in the Bible?” I asked.
“Because the daily paper isn’t my Bible,” he replied.
“Good enough. But what if I showed you verses in the Old Testament describing the same incident where different figures are used? I asked.
“Is that right? Are there such passages?”
At this point I showed him the story of King David’s census of fighting men, which is recorded twice, in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. In the first account, Joab reports: “In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand” (v. 9).
This 1.3 million total in Samuel does not square precisely with the same story in Chronicles. There, Joab reports the number of men to David: “In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who could handle a sword, including four hundred and seventy thousand in Judah” (v. 5).
When we closed the Bible, my friend sighed with relief. “I’m glad we’ve talked,” he said. “It takes a big weight off my shoulders. I’d always wondered why counts in the Bible come out in round numbers so often.”
Alleged contradictions usually fall into four areas: Alleged contradictions in historical accounts, numbering, advice, and statements.
ALLEGED CONTRADICTIONS IN HISTORICAL ACCOUNTS
Mt. 27:5 says Judas hanged himself and Acts 1:18 says Judas fell and killed himself. “Falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst and all his bowels (entrails) gushed out.” There are two explanations. Youngblood provides the first.
Knowing the cultural differences between our day and the first century explains this apparent contradiction. When some of us hear of someone being hanged our minds race to an old John Wayne western, where a lynch mob hangs a guy with a noose around his neck and the victim dies by strangulation.
In the Bible, hanging was not by strangulation but by impalement. The word “hanged” in the Judas story means “impaled.” In Gal. 3:13, Paul referring the death of Jesus wrote: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.”
When Jesus was executed it was not with a noose around his neck, but by spikes driven through his hands and feet into a wooded pole or impalement.
One possible explanation for the two accounts of Judas death is that he jumped or fell onto a sharpened wooded pole and killed himself by impalement.
Ryrie’s simple explanation in chapter 14 of Basic Theology that has been around since the time of Augustine is also very believable: “He did hang himself but something happened that caused his body to fall and break open.”
ALLEGED CONTRADICTIONS IN NUMBERING
Sometimes there are simple explanations for the alleged differences in numbering. In 1st Cor. 10:8 says 23,000 died in the plague referred to in Numbers 25:9. The Numbers passage says that 24,000 died.
John Calvin believes round numbers were used and accounts for the differences:
But although they differ about the number, it is easy to reconcile their statements. For it is not unheared of, when there is no intention of making an exact count of individuals to give an approximate number. For example, there were those whom the Romans called the Centumviri, The Hundred, when if fact there were one hundred and two of them. Therefore, since about twenty-four thousand were destroyed by the hand of the Lord, in other words, over twenty-three thousand. Moses gives the upper limit, Paul the lower, and there is really no discrepancy. This story is to found in Numbers 25:9” Calvin, John. The First Epistles of Paul The Apostle to the Corinthians (ed. Avid Torrance and Thomas Torrance; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1960), pp. 208, 9.
Another explanation is the simple one found in Original Scofield Reference Bible on page 1220: Cf. Num. 25:9. A discrepancy has been imagined. 1 Cor. 10:8 gives the number of deaths in “one day”; Num. 25:9, the total number of deaths “in the plague.” Some discrepant statements concerning numbers are, however, found in the existing manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures. These are most naturally ascribed to the fact that the Hebrews used letters in the place of numerals. The letters from Koph to Tau express hundreds up to four hundred. Five certain Hebrew letters, written in a different form, carry unit letter: e.g. the letter Teth, used alone, stands for 9; with two dots it stands for nine thousand. Error in transcription of Hebrew numbers thus becomes easy, preservation of numerical accuracy difficult.
Another example of a scribal error is in 2 Sam. 24:13 and 1 Chron. 21:12. 2 Sam.24 says David chose seven years of famine and 1 Chron. 21 says David chose three years of famine. The Bible Knowledge Commentary responds in its comments on the 2 Sam. 24 passage on page 482: “Though the Hebrew reads ‘seven’ years of famine, 1 Chron. 21:12, probably a better-preserved text, reads ‘three,’ as the NIV has it.”
Ryrie explains in Basic Theology on page 99: “When God gave David a choice of punishment, He offered as an option seven years of famine according to 2 Sam. 24: 13 and three years of famine according to 1 Chron. 21:12. The Septuagint translation says three years, so likely the figure in 2 Samuel is a scribal error. Though copies were very carefully made, errors inevitably crept in. This seems to be one, but it is not an error in the original —- that was inerrant when it was written but inerrancy cannot be extended to the copies.”
I highlighted the last words of Ryrie’s quote because we must remember that scribal errors in our English translations is not an argument against inerrancy. Inerrancy only applies to the original autographs.
ALLEGED CONTRADICTIONS IN ADVICE
Proverbs 26: 4, 5 say, “Answer not a fool according to his folly lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.”
Sometimes it is inappropriate to answer a fool as Prov. 26:4 says or as Jesus taught in the Sermon of the Mount, “Neither cast your pearls before swine” (Mt. 7:6) and as Jesus exemplified in Mk. 15:3-5 before Pilate.
Other times it is appropriate to answer a fool as Prov. 26:5 commands. The same principle is found in Tit. 1:10-12: “For there are men unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision; whose mouths must be stopped.” Again Jesus provides an example. Jesus answered the Herodians, Sadducees, and the Pharisees in Mt. 22:15-46.
In Proverbs 26:4, 5 are suggestions to be used in differing situations, not contradictory advice.
ALLEGED CONTRADICTORY STATEMENTS
2 Sam. 24:1 says that God moved David to number the people and 1 Chron. 21:1, the parallel account, says that Satan moved David to number the people. The solution is that both statements are true.
- God does not tempt any person to sin (James 1:13).
- Man and Satan are under God’s sovereign rule (Job 1:12; 2 Cor. 12:7).
- Satan caused the action, but God allowed it.
This would be an excellent sermon or S.S. lesson to be taught or preached. Your sermon or lesson could strengthen students who are in universities that attack the credibility God’ Word or to equip all believers to answer questions in order to better present the gospel.