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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Isn't the Bible full of contradictions?

“Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul,     
and with all your MIND”--Matt 22:37

Faith is a personal act - the free response of the human person to the initiative of God 
who reveals himself. But faith is not an isolated act. 
No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. 
You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. 
The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others. 
Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. 
Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. 
I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith.
--#166, Catechism of the Catholic Church

Question: Isn't the Bible full of contradictions?

Short answer:  only if you read the Bible out of context, and without applying a historical and cultural lens to the text, and if you don't know what a contradiction truly is...then, yes, the Bible is full of contradictions.  

Long answer: 

Here is a list of some apparent contradictions found in the Bible:
  • God dwells in light/darkness; 
  • We must obey God alone/We must obey our masters; 
  • the father of Shelah was Arphaxad/Cainan
  • God is just/unjust or partial/impartial
  • God is/is not the author of evil
  • God gives freely/witholds his blessings
  • God can/cannot be found by those who seek Him
  • God is warlike/peaceful
  • God is cruel/kind
  • God's anger endures for a long/short time
  • God approves/disapproves of burnt offerings
  • Christ preached his first sermon on a mountain/or on a plain;
  • Christ's disciples were commanded to go forth with a staff and sandles/neither staves nor sandles
  • A woman of Canaan/Greek woman sought Jesus
  • Judas/the Chief priests bought a burial plot in Potter's Field
  • Two/one blind men/man besought Jesus
  • Christ was crucified on the third/sixth hour
  • Two thieves/only one thief railed at Christ
(See here for a longer list of apparent Biblical contradictions:

Firstly, one needs to define correctly what a contradiction is.  According to Logic 101, 2 statements "A is B" and "A is not B" cannot both be true at the same time.  That would violate the law of non-contradiction.  So the Bible would need to proclaim, for example, "Mary was a virgin!" and "Mary was not a virgin!" for it to be contradictory.

That pretty much eliminates a lot of the listings of the "contradictions" in the Bible.  Most of the things on the list are factual disputes, and not true contradictions.  For instance, the question of whether the Sermon on the Mount took place on a mountain or on a plain is not an example of a contradiction.  The Bible does not state in one place that it took place on a mountain, and then in another verse "it was not on a mountain"...but rather simply says that Jesus preached in multiple locations.  

One way to address some of these apparent contradictions is to use a parallel from my own life.  If someone were to read all of my emails for factual accuracy, he might find something that said at one time, "My daughter lived in South Bend, Indiana in 2012". But he also might find an email I wrote which says, "She lived in Farley Hall in 2012". 

Someone who is looking for contradictions might say, "Aha!   So there is something less than truthful in her emails! Either her daughter lived in South Bend, or she lived in Farley Hall in 2012.  Which was it?"

Well, both are true, right?  To someone who is unfamiliar with South Bend, it might appear to be a contradiction, but to anyone who knows that Farley Hall is a dorm at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, no questions regarding her residence would be forthcoming. There is no dichotomy between Farley and South Bend.  One could live in Farley, without excluding residence in South Bend.  It's a Both/And answer to the question:  where did you live in 2012?

And truly, for it to be a contradiction, one would have to find an email that said, "She lived in South Bend in 2012" and "She did not live in South Bend in 2012".  

Thus, the proverbial Catholic Both/And is often at work with the alleged Biblical contradictions. Take, for example, the question of the name of the father of Shelah. Was it Arpachshad?  Or was it Cainan?  In Genesis 11:12 it says this:  "When Arpachshad was thirty-five years old, he begot Shelah" yet in Luke 3:36, it says this:  "the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech".  So which one is correct?  It could be they're both correct.  Perhaps the father of Shelah went by 2 names.  Or perhaps the geneology skips a few generations--it was common in ancient Judaism to list someone as a father, when he was actually a grandfather or great-grandfather.

Another example of a Both/And explanation for alleged contradictions lies with the question of whether Judas bought the burial plot in Potter's Field (Acts 1:18 "He (Judas) bought a parcel of land with the wages of his iniquity, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle, and all his insides spilled out"or the Chief Priests (Matthew 27:7 "After consultation, they (the Chief Priests) used it to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners") Answer:  both did.  It was Judas' money, and thus the action could be attributed to Judas, but the Chief Priests actually purchased the plot.

As for the places in Scripture where it actually appears that the text violates the law of non-contradiction, well, it's only if one takes a very, very literal reading of the verses that one could conclude this.  

For example: 
God dwells in chosen temples
"the LORD appeared to him at night and said: "I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple of sacrifices.....I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there."-2 Chronicles 7:12, 16


God dwells not in temples
"However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men." Acts 7:48

The 2 verses are not mutually exclusive.  God does indeed dwell in his temple, and is present in our Tabernacles. Yet he also is transcendent and dwells nowhere.  He is present everywhere, and yet dwells nowhere--a paradox, to be sure, but not a contradiction.  The verse in Chronicles is a statement about the holiness of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The verse in Acts is a statement about the transcendence of God, not a literal statement about the physical residence of the Godhead.

A detailed refutation of all of the "contradictions" can be found at the above website by Catholic Apologist Phil Vaz.

Thus, any "contradictions" that may be offered to Christians can be readily and easily refuted by reading the Scriptures within the context of the historical and cultural times, as well as through the lens of the Church.

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" - 1 Peter 3:15   

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