Revelation, inspiration, and infallibility (29): Discrepancies and apparent contradictions

Over against the Reformed believer’s confession of the infallibility of Scripture, it is often alleged that the Bible contains contradictions. The line of argument of these critics is that since there are contradictions in the Bible, it cannot be the Word of God—the Word of God in the words of men. The response of the Reformed Christian must be to insist that there are no real contradictions in Scripture, but only apparent contradictions. This is the presupposition of faith. There may be discrepancies in the Bible, but there is always an explanation for these discrepancies. As the Word of God, Scripture cannot be inconsistent and contradictory. Whether or not we can harmonize the discrepancies, God always can.

From the Old Testament: David’s sin of numbering the people
In one Standard Bearer article we cannot possibly harmonize all the apparent contradictions in Scripture. But we can give examples, which present some guidelines for reconciling other instances of apparent contradiction in the Word of God.

In the Old Testament, we find two accounts of David’s sin of numbering the people. The two accounts are found in II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21. Both are detailed accounts of this sad event that took place towards the end of David’s reign. II Samuel 24:1 says that God moved David to number the people; I Chronicles 21:1 says that Satan provoked David to number the people. In II Samuel 24:18, Araunah the Jebusite is interjected into the account; I Chronicles 21:15 speaks of Ornan the Jebusite. There are different totals in the two passages for the number of fighting men in Israel and Judah. II Samuel 24:9 reports that there were 800,000 valiant men that drew the sword and the men of Judah were 500,000. That would give a total of 1,300,000 soldiers. In I Chronicles 21:5 we read that there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword in Israel, whereas in Judah there were 460,000. Whereas II Samuel 24:13 speaks of one of the choices God put to David as seven years of famine, I Chronicles 21:12 speaks of three years of famine. II Samuel 24:24 speaks of 50 shekels of silver as the purchase price of the spot purchased from Araunah on which David built his altar to God; I Chronicles 21:25 informs us that David paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold.

II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21 do not contradict each other; the discrepancies can be harmonized. The main explanation for the discrepancies is that the accounts complement each other. Each account is written from a somewhat different perspective. Although both passages are inspired by God, each passage has its own viewpoint from which it looks at David’s sin of numbering the people.

With regard to the matter of God or Satan moving David to number the people, the explanation is that God is sovereign. He decreed David’s sin in order that through his sin David would be purged and purified of the pride that motivated him to number the people. God moved David to number the people. At the same time, the sovereign God used Satan as the instrument in His hand to tempt David to sin. Regarding the different names given for the native Jebusite from whom David purchased the land for his altar, the two names are actually very similar. “Ornan” means “strength.” “Araunah” is far richer in meaning. It means “Jehovah is strong,” or, “Jehovah is my strength.” It may very well have been the name to which this man changed his birth name, when as a Jebusite he converted to the true religion and became a member of the nation of Israel.

With respect to the different totals for the soldiers who were numbered, there are several possible explanations. Here is one explanation. The lower total in II Samuel 24:9 may refer to the men who could draw the sword and fight in battle. The larger number may include, in addition to those throughout the realm who could be summoned to fight in battle, the standing army. Many of these soldiers were stationed in Jerusalem protecting the capital city and the palace.

As to the length of the famine, it appears that the larger number included the three years of famine that had already taken place, according to II Samuel 21:1, because of Saul’s slaying of the Gibeonites. “Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.”

Then there is the matter of the discrepancy between the 50 shekels of silver and the 600 shekels of gold. This discrepancy is very likely due to the fact that, after initially purchasing the spot on which David built the altar and the oxen for sacrifice as well as the wood of the yoke for the fire, David returned and purchased a much greater tract of land so that on it Solomon his son might build the temple of the Lord.

It is plain to see that although the suggestions made may not be the solution to the discrepancies in the two accounts of David’s sin of numbering the people, there are reasonable solutions to these apparent contradictions. Some study and careful searching of the Scriptures often yield reasonable explanations for the differences between multiple accounts of the same event. Any who are interested in a solution to discrepancies that they have come across in their Bible reading can also be aided by good commentaries or by the books that deal with biblical discrepancies.

From the New Testament: The account of the superscription on Jesus’ cross
An example of a discrepancy in the New Testament is the account of the superscription that was affixed above Jesus’ head on the cross. The wording of the superscription differs in all four of the gospel narratives. In Matthew 27:37 we read, “And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” The account in Mark 15:26 says, “And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” The superscription, according to Luke 23:38, was: “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” And John records the superscription as, “JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

It is worth pointing out that although there are four different statements of the wording of the superscription, there is no contradiction between what is recorded in the four gospel narratives. All four are fundamentally the same, though differing in certain details. It is not the case, for example, that three say Jesus is the King of the Jews, while one states that He is the King of the Egyptians. That would be a flat contradiction. Nor do two state that Jesus is the King of the Jews, while the other two that He is the runaway slave of a Jewish master. That, too, would be a flat contradiction. Though different in their details, the four accounts of the superscription are in fundamental agreement. What they all have in common is the statement that Jesus is the King of the Jews, as is the precise wording of the superscription as found in Mark. Mark captures the essence of the superscription, the main contention of the placard that was placed above Jesus’ head. Jesus is the King of the Jews.

But what can explain four different accounts of the superscription? By comparing the passages, we take note of the fact that the superscription was written in three different languages: Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. We are informed of this in Luke 23:38, “And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew….” The fact that the superscription was written in three different languages may explain, at least in part, the differences among them.

Greek was the language commonly spoken throughout the empire. Even though the Romans had wrested the empire from the Greeks, the Greek language was still the language of the people, the lingua franca. Everywhere throughout the Roman empire, Greek was spoken, and Greek was understood. Because this was the language of the day, the Holy Spirit inspired the human writers of Scripture to write down the Word of God in the Greek language. Latin was the language of the new empire, the Roman Empire. Latin was the official language, the language of politics, the language of the courts, and the language of education. And Hebrew, of course, was the language of the Old Testament, the language of the Jews, the language of the temple and synagogues. The three main people groups in the time of Christ were represented in the superscription that was posted above Jesus’ head. The fact that the superscription was written in three different languages likely contributes to the explanation for the slight differences among them.

And then, the target audience of each of the gospel narratives must also be factored in. Matthew wrote his gospel account for the Jews especially. That explains the many references in Matthew to fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures in what Jesus said and did. In his account of the superscription, Matthew, under the inspiration of the Spirit, concentrated on that in the superscription which spoke loudly to his Jewish readers. That which spoke most loudly to them was that Jesus is the king of the Jews, which is exactly what Matthew included in his account of the superscription.

Mark’s epistle is addressed primarily to the Romans, the empire of the caesars that was in power. Contrary to the thinking of many in that day, Jesus Christ is “THE KING,” not caesar. He is King of kings and the Lord of lords. He is not subject to caesar, but caesar is subject to Him. Caesar does Jesus’ bidding and is His servant to accomplish His will.

Luke’s gospel account is addressed to the Greeks. His gospel account is addressed specifically to a man named Theophilus (Luke 1:3), which is a Greek name meaning “God-lover.” To the Greeks who had lost their bid for a worldwide empire, the empire of Alexander the Great, to the Romans, no Greek hero nor Latin caesar was the world ruler. The ruler of the world is Jesus, “THIS [ONE] IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

John’s gospel account is unique. It is not addressed to a specific nationality, but to all peoples. In his gospel account, John underscores the great truth that matters most, no matter whether you are Jew or Gentile, whether you speak Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. That is the great truth of the gospel that Jesus of Nazareth is the divine Son of God, and therefore the King of the Jews.

All these considerations help to explain the different accounts of the superscription. Taken together they make plain that the different accounts do not contradict each other, but instead supplement one another. Taken together they explain the heart of the gospel—who Jesus is and what He has done. It is all there in the superscription.

By way of conclusion
This concludes my lengthy series on the doctrine of Holy Scripture. It is my hope that the articles have not only explained clearly the Reformed doctrine of Scripture, but have also confirmed your faith that Scripture is the Word of God—the Word of God in the words of men, as we have stated repeatedly. This is the distinctively Reformed view of Scripture. It is the view that regards Scripture as a stupendous miracle. Have we lost our awe of that miracle because of our familiarity with Scripture? Is the effect of our daily reading of Scripture, the teaching we receive out of Scripture, the weekly reading of and preaching of the Scripture in the public worship services of the church, the instruction we receive from Scripture in our Christian homes, at catechism, and in the Christian schools that we have lost the sense of the divine in Scripture?

I confess, as one who consults Scripture frequently, likely more often than most members of the church, in all the courses that I teach in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary, my preaching and teaching in the churches, the catechism instruction that I am able to do, that the sense of the miraculous in Scripture is something I often take for granted. I seldom hold Scripture in my hands and think about the fact that I hold in my hands a miracle. Probably—and comparisons are always dangerous—the only miracle that is greater than God giving us His Word in the written Scripture is the miracle of His sending the Word into our flesh—God in our flesh in order to make known to sinners the truth of God.

As important as it is that we have a right understanding of Scripture, it is equally important that we read the Bible. Among us this is the greater danger, I fear. I doubt that there are very many reading this article who do not agree that Scripture is the Word of God. But do we read the Bible? Does Scripture reading and mediation have a place in our personal lives? Do we read the Bible regularly in our family devotions—you do still have family devotions, do you not? Are we eager to study God’s Word in the Bible study societies of the church? Children and young people, are you eager to learn the truths of the Word of God in catechism and in the Christian school? The miracle of the Word of God in the words of men stands in the service of knowing this God who has revealed His word and will to us. May our prayer ever be, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Psalm 119:18).