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Question: How can one view contradictions in Scripture in a faithful way?
Question: How can one view contradictions in Scripture in a faithful way?
Introduction to Question
It is claimed that the Holy Bible and other scriptures in the standard works of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contain contradictions. In some cases, the essential argument being made by critics may have merit and, in others, may not. It may become the responsibility of Latter-day Saints from time to time to defend the high authority of scripture.
There Seems to be Historical Contradictions in Scripture
Some of the seeming contradictions in scripture may be termed historical contradictions.
- The Death of Judas: Did he die by hanging (Matthew 27:5)? Or did he fall headlong and have his bowels gush out (Acts 1:18)? Academic attempts to harmonize these two passages ceased at least as early as the late nineteenth century. Scholars today generally see both accounts as irreconcilably contradictory.
- Jesus Calming The Sea: The Gospels differ in the succession of events when Jesus calms the storm at sea. In the Matthean account, the Lord chastises his apostles for not having enough faith and then calms the storm whereas in the Markan and Lucan accounts he calms the storm and then chastises his apostles. The Johannine account lacks the story.
- The name of Moses’ Mountain: The Pentateuch differs in its naming of the mountain from which Moses received the Ten Commandments. In some instances it is “Horeb” (Exodus 3:1; 17:6; 33:6; Deuteronomy 1:2; 4:10) and in others it is “Sinai” (Exodus 19:1–2, 11, 18, 20, 23; 34:2, 4, 29, 32; Numbers 3:1, 4, 14). This is one of the reasons that many scholars see the Pentateuch as the composition of multiple authors/redactors.
- The Timing of the Savior's Crucifixion: The Gospels differ in their timing of the crucifixion of the Savior. Was it during Passover? Before Passover? Or after Passover? Scholars believe that the difference is ultimately irreconcilable, and one simply must choose which account to believe. Generally, Mark is favored since it is considered the earliest to be authored.
There Seems to Be Theological Tensions/Contradictions in Scripture
Some of the seeming contradictions in scripture may be termed theological tensions/contradictions.
- High Christology and Low Christology: It has long been observed by scholars that the Markan account of the Savior portrays Jesus as more human—lowly, and mortal—than the Johannine account which portrays Jesus as godlike from the antemortal realm to the end of his life. Scholars generally believe that the Markan account holds what they term a “low Christology” and the Johannine account a “high Christology.”
- Performing Alms: How can we not perform our alms in public (Matthew 6:1) but also let our light shine before the world (Matthew 5:16)?
- Becoming and Not Becoming A Child: How can we set childish things aside (1 Corinthians 13:11) and become as a child (Matthew 18:3)?
This article will outline principles and procedures for reconciling perceived contradictions in scripture. Many of the principles and procedures laid out in this article apply to the uncanonized teachings and revelations of top leadership of the Church. Thus, this article can also be considered a blueprint for defending the teachings of General Authorities.
Response to Question
Now let's lay out some principles and procedures to consider/follow when evaluating any contradiction.
1. Latter-day Saints should defend scripture as much as possible
It is our sacred duty as Latter-day Saints to defend the faith. For those that have entered the temple and received their endowment, you have pledged everything you have or will have in defending and sustaining the kingdom of God. Scripture admonishes us to always have a reason for the hope that is within us and to call upon our enemies to confound them both in public and private. Thus, defending the faith is a duty we take on as we have covenanted with God to do so.
This is our duty as it relates to defending scripture:
- We should seek to defend scripture as logically, historically, and theologically consistent as much as humanly possible. We should seek to defend scripture as morally justifed as much as humanly possible. We should seek to defend scripture as historically real (wherever historicity is asserted) as much as humanly possible.
Why is this our duty? Well first, as already mentioned, we have covenanted to defend the faith. But people also need to know that the spiritual guides that they look to are reliable as spiritual guides. We are not going to be able to retain members or gain converts by being passive to our critics and allowing them to paint the scriptures and prophets as unreliable spiritual guides. We need to uphold the scriptures and the prophets as reliable guides as much as humanly possible.
If we metaphorize every miracle recorded in scripture, we run the risk of making it appear as if God doesn't really intervene in this world and doesn't actually work miracles.
If we condemn a lot of scriptural morals, what morals of scripture can we actually rely on and trust as morals we should actually live by?
If we affirm every possible contradiction/tension in scripture, how does that affect the reliability of scripture?
Of course, this is not to say that the scriptures are infallible. It's only to say that we should defend it as much as possible. There may be times, as already noted, where it indeed is impossible to defend something as consistent. This isn't an issue. What is an issue is making seeing the flaws our first instinct. Our first instinct should be to defend scripture.
One way that Evangelical and Catholic apologists defend the Bible is by saying that a contradiction cannot be termed a contradiction until all other scenarios that make the two or more passages in question in conflict are ruled out. For instance, "Matthew 28:2 says there was only one angel at the tomb of Jesus, while Mark 16:5 [says] there was one young man clothed in a long white garment. Luke 24:4 and John 20:12 tells us there were two angels at the tomb." But this may mean, instead of the passages being contradictory, that some accounts were simply more detailed in their relation of events after Jesus' resurrection from the tomb than others. The young man in the long white garment may just be a description of an angel that Mark decided to give. We can't say that a passage is truly contradictory until all scenarios for resolving the contradictions are ruled out. Latter-day Saints may consider whether this principle will be useful for them in defending the high authority of scripture.
Let's talk a little bit more about infallibility/inerrancy.
2. Latter-day Saints do Not Believe in Scriptural Inerrancy
Latter-day Saints do not believe in the doctrine of Scriptural Inerrancy where the scriptures must be completely historically accurate, contain no theological tensions, and have no contradictions. That said, Latter-day Saints tend to hold the scriptures with a high degree of authority. How can this be the case? We don’t believe that scripture is inerrant, yet we also don’t want others to believe that we seek to create a God after our own image (Doctrine & Covenants 1:16) or that we believe that truth cannot be found in scripture.
Using the principles below will reveal how we can believe in the reliability of scripture.
3. You need to have an intelligent way to study the scriptures and understanding the nature of prophetic revelation
As several Church leaders have cautioned, the scriptures must be read intelligently. You must have a method for getting the proper interpretation and understanding of scripture. We've outlined a method here. You also need to understand how Latter-day Saints understand the nature of prophetic revelation: how it will be given to us, when it will be given to us, and on what subjects. We've outlined that here.
Having this method in line will help you to recognize when two, seemingly contradictory accounts can either not be contradictory at all or both be equally right even if mentioning two different things.
For example, two friends, David and Michael, go the store. David can report this event to his parents as if only he went to the store: "Oh, this afternoon I went to Wal-Mart." Michael can report the same event as if only he went to the store. Both boys are equally right.
It should be remembered that the presence of contradiction in the relation of a historical event does not negate the occurrence of the event. One should focus on the essential reality of the event being described itself rather than the presence of contradictions in the relation of the event or the ahistoricity of one account of that event. The broad outlines of the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and Book of Moses can be trusted as historically plausible.
Similarly, scriptural authors may be writing from a historical perspective. Scholar Pete Enns gives the example of God’s opinion of the Assyrians: in the book of Jonah, God really likes the Assyrians and wants them to be saved; but in the book of Nahum, God destroys them. Is God contradicting himself? Or are biblical authors just writing from their distinct, historically-situated perspectives? God may certainly like the Assyrians and want to save them, but that doesn’t mean that his justice won’t be brought down on them if they deserve it.
Sometimes differing and competing theological perspectives in scripture were meant to be brought into dialogue so that a synthesis of views could be abstracted. As the author of Proverbs tells us: “iron sharpeneth iron” (Proverbs 27:17). This is one of many reasons that scripture should be read both contextually and holistically.
4. Line upon line and its two features
Citing scripture, Latter-day Saints frequently talk about how revelation comes through the prophets "line upon line, precept upon precept." "Line upon line" has two features or functions:
- It reveals core truths over time directly to the prophet.
- It makes small addenda to previous revelations without threatening the core integrity of the first revelation. It's like reporting to one's parents that they went to the grocery store after school and then, getting futher into the conversation, reporting that one's friend also came with them.
Thus, rather than contradicting a previous passage, a subsequent passage may be complementing or supplementing the first.
5. God commands and revokes as seems good to him
In Section 56 of the Doctrine & Covenants, the Lord states:
- 3 Behold, I, the Lord, command; and he that will not obey shall be cut off in mine own due time, after I have commanded and the commandment is broken.
- 4 Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good; and all this to be answered upon the heads of the rebellious, saith the Lord.
This scripture does not condone moral relativism. The Lord is indeed bound by a moral law that is factual. All this means is that there are sometimes multiple, equally good ways to bring about the same end, and that the Lord will choose between these ways as adaptions to the conditions of the world and his covenant people. Additionally, there are times where more emphasis needs to be placed one moral end over others. There are many times when—in our quest to bring about individual or communal flourishing—that we have competing moral goods that can be met. Sometimes, our best thinking and tools do not allow us to know what is the most important moral good to achieve and how to structure our behavior nor or in the future as well as individually or communally to achieve that good. Revelation may "contradict" itself and change as we fulfill those moral goods and then have other moral goods that we must meet.
Readers should keep this scripture in mind when evaluating "contradictions" in the commandments and covenants God has given his people throughout time.
6. What we know about the afterlife is likely contingent upon what will motivate us to repent.
- 6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
- 7 Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my glory.
- 10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore
- 11 Eternal punishment is God's punishment.
- 12 Endless punishment is God's punishment.
Prior to this time, Joseph Smith's revelations seem to indicate that "endless punishment" might refer to something like eternal torment in a burning hell. This revelation shows us that what we know about the afterlife though is likely contingent upon what will motivate us to repent and to turn to God.
Readers should keep this in mind when evaluating what sort of "contradictions" exist about the afterlife in the scriptural record.
7. Apostasies and restorations can bring losses of knowledge. That knowledge may need to be restored gradually
Latter-day Saints believe in the concept of dispensations: periods of time in which God reveals his will through a prophet. A dispensation is inaugurated when God calls a prophet to receive revelation on behalf of the human family. A dispensation is ended when the general populace apostatizes or rebels against God. After the period of apostasy, God has called prophets anew.
With apostasies, knowledge about God can be lost from others. In ancient times, scriptural records were preserved on rolls of papyrus, clay tablets, and "writing-boards—flat boards of wood or ivory cut out in such a way that an inlay of wax could be written upon. The boards were hinged together to become a folding book." These might not have been accessible to the next person that God deemed worthy to be called as prophet. Knowledge to that prophet would then have to be restored "line upon line" just as it was before.
8. The Scriptures in Question May Be Focusing on a Specific Question Rather than Historical Accuracy
The narratives of ancient scripture (especially the Old Testament, Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham) are often composed to tell one overriding message. The revelation to tell that message may have been short. "Hey, prophet, I need you to write about the importance of charity." The prophet/author(s) of the different books of scripture may then be composing their narratives around that message and historical consistency may not be their focus when writing. This may explain why some books in the Pentateuch say Horeb and others, Sinai as mentioned above. Indeed, authors of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon are often writing from the third person: talking about revelations received in the past by prophets and recounting them historically rather than receiving a dictated revelation in the style of Doctrine & Covenants. Scripture writers are often doing something closer to the work of historians and recounting what prophets have revealed in the past rather than doing the work of prophets and dictating revelation word for word as they receive it from God. They may be recounting this history based off of oral tradition (like people passing stories or rumors from one person to another) or written tradition (like typical documents that historians work from today to reconstruct the past). Any number of potential discrepancies can arise in a text then since the text is subject to the fallible human processes of historical reconstruction. In cases like these where contradictions arise because of the pitfalls of uncovering accurate history, we can elect to rely on the earliest account and the one with the least amount of bias. Knowing which account of an event is earlier and has the least amount of bias is the main work of scriptural source critics. Their work can be found in commentaries and other scholarly publications on the scriptures. We, as Latter-day Saints, can pay attention to this work in our efforts to learn everything we can from and about scripture.
This may be one of the reasons that the Book of Mormon so strongly emphasizes the importance of preserving records to accurately record how God has dealt with his children.
9. Scripture May Preserve Moral Fallibility So That We Can Learn From It
As an example of this, consider the words of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf regarding a scripture from Solomon:
The ancient King Solomon was one of the most outwardly successful human beings in history. He seemed to have everything—money, power, adoration, honor. But after decades of self-indulgence and luxury, how did King Solomon sum up his life?
“All is vanity,” he said.
This man, who had it all, ended up disillusioned, pessimistic, and unhappy, despite everything he had going for him.
[. . .]
Solomon was wrong, my dear brothers and sisters—life is not “vanity.” To the contrary, it can be full of purpose, meaning, and peace.The healing hands of Jesus Christ reach out to all who seek Him. I have come to know without a doubt that believing and loving God and striving to follow Christ can change our hearts, soften our pain, and fill our souls with “exceedingly great joy.”
One will notice that Elder Uchtdorf 1) declares Solomon wrong; and 2) uses scriptures to establish what he believed was the correct view. Indeed, Elder Uchtdorf uses many scriptures that contradict Solomon's view. But another important element of this is that Elder Uchtdorf didn't state that Solomon was wrong for expressing the view or that the scripture wasn't inspired for having a "wrong" view. Rather, he used Solomon's downtrodden state to illustrate an important principle of life.
Thus, there may be errors of perspective on doctrine and not doctrine itself in the scriptures.
This may be one option to consider when evaluating the contradictions of scripture.
10. There’s a Difference Between a Contradiction and a Paradox
There’s a difference between a contradiction and a paradox.
A contradiction is making a claim and then denying it: stating X and then denying X. If I say it’s raining outside and then say it’s not raining outside I am contradicting myself.
A paradox is making a seemingly contradictory statement but it’s actually just affirming two propositions that can both be true simultaneously: affirming X and then affirming Y. I can affirm that there is an unstoppable force and an immovable object and I won’t necessarily be contradicting myself. If I say there is an unstoppable force and then deny that there is an unstoppable force, then I am contradicting myself.
Scripture may contain paradox that is useful for our instruction.
11. Further revelation from modern prophets may resolve other contradictions in scripture
One of the glorious messages of the Restored Gospel is that the heavens are still open and God still speaks to his children through living prophets. We know that prophets can receive revelation that can then be canonized by the sustaining vote of the Church's membership. We may look forward to future revelation to resolve any uncertainties or seeming contradictions in scripture.
One example of this principle in action may be how the Doctrine & Covenants resolves a contradiction in the Bible. In Exodus 33:11 it is affirmed that "the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend." Just nine verses later, Exodus 33:20 affirms that: "Thou [referring to Moses] canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live." As an even starker contrast from 33:11, John 1:18 affirms that "[n]o one has seen God at any time." 1 Timothy 6:16 (NIV) gives praise to the God who "alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen."
Doctrine & Covenants 84:21–22 reads "And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live." These verses seem to suggest that without the power of godliness intervening and helping man to take in God's glory, no man can see God the Father. This passage makes sense of much of the others from the Bible and may be seen as revelation clarifying previous revelation and resolving an apparent contradiction.
12. There May Be Ideological Purposes Behind Contradictions. There Are a Couple of Principles to Keep in Mind When Dealing With These
There may be certain ideological purposes behind certain contradictions. For instance, some have proposed that David's slaying of Goliath may have actually been done by a man named Elhanan. The contradictions exist, some scholars propose, because writers either wanted to undermine or shore up David's credibility and legitimacy as king of Israel.
Assuming that this is true and that Elhanan was the one that actually killed David (just for the sake of argument), we can extract a several principles that may help us to understand how to deal with these types of contradictions/tensions:
- It may be that one of the writer's position came via revelation from God and the other(s) writer's did not. It may be that the other writer is trying to undermine the first writer's position by arguing against it.
- It may be that neither of the writers' positions came via revelation from God but that they were trying to do something good nonetheless. In this example and assuming that it is true, shoring up David's credibility/authenticity as king of Israel may have actually been a good thing, but the writer that credited Goliath's death to David was doing it the wrong way. One could assume the opposite: that Elhanan was credited with the death of Goliath wrongly but not for a nefarious purpose. We don't necessarily have to see the disagreement as something nefarious.
- The best way to tell which writers' position came from God may be to read the rest of the scriptures and find if other authors agree with one of the writers. Perhaps if more writers agree with one over another, then we can take that position as the true/correct one. Scripture returns to the theme of establishing God's word in the mouth of two or three witnesses many times. If there isn't as good of a consensus, perhaps we can synthesize the two positions somehow.
- It may not be necessary to find consensus nor synthesize. In this case of David/Elhanan, perhaps we can just take the disagreement and find it to be an interesting aspect of the Bible. There really isn't anything major at stake in believing that Elhanan and not David killed Goliath. At most it just means that a tradition about David or Elhanan is wrong. It doesn’t change the more important fact that David was the king of Israel and that the Savior descended from David. The same principle could apply to other controversies: perhaps we don’t need to care whether there’s a contradiction since it doesn’t change more central and important facts about the Gospel.
- We can know that something more important is at stake when the controversy in question centers around a moral/ethical question. Believers are more interested in knowing how to be a good person in the eyes of God. They need clear communication in knowing how to do that. They don't need to fret about every historical controversy about scripture.
13. Scripture Can Still Be Instructive and Valuable as Scripture Even When it Contains Contradictions
This is especially true when dealing with mere historical contradictions rather than moral and theological ones, but scripture can still be instructive and valuable as scripture even when it contains contradictions.
Scholars have argued, and not without merit (and also not without some informed pushback), that the story of Joseph being sold into Egypt in Genesis 37:18–36 can actually be divided into two separate, unified narratives about how Joseph was sold. There seem to be narrative hiccups as one reads the story as currently contained in the Bible and this can be resolved by disentangling the two accounts. Verses 19, 20, 23, 26, 27, 31–35 can function on their own as one account and the rest of the verses—18, 21, 22, 24–25, 28, 29–30, and 36—can function as another narrative. It resolves the contradictions and clunky narrative seams that seem to be present in the current account as contained in our Bibles today.
The two accounts, however, when separated out, can still be instructive and valuable on their own as scripture and teach us true doctrine. We shouldn’t need to demand a pristine text in order to consider the text true and instructive.
Further insights about how to understand contradictions/tensions will come as one understands how the biblical authors constructed narratives and thought about history. Two of the best books on this subject are Philips Long’s The Art of Biblical History and Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Suggested reading for any interested.
Using the principles and procedures laid out above, it is the author's belief that virtually all contradictions/tensions are reconciable and lead to a clear picture about God that we can use to become like him and adopt his nature.
- Kevin Barney, “The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient Texts of the Bible,” in The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 152–53.
- Thomas M. Mumford, Horizontal Harmony of the Four Gospels in Parallel Columns (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 48.
- Frank Daniels, "When was the Passover? When was the Resurrection?" Friktech, accessed August 10, 2021, https://www.friktech.com/rel/passover.htm.
- James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 1–3.
- Julie M. Smith, The Gospel According to Mark (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2018), 17–20.
- 1 Peter 3:15; Doctrine & Covenants 71:7–9.
- "How many angels were at the tomb of Jesus after His resurrection?" NeverThirsty, accessed September 26, 2022, https://www.neverthirsty.org/bible-qa/qa-archives/question/how-many-angels-at-the-tomb-of-jesus/.
- Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering Challenges to Evangelical Christian Belief (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016); K.H. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006); Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2006); ESV Archaeology Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Crossway, 2018); Craig S. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019); John Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2013); Brant Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John Welch, ed., Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2017); Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997). For an overview of evidence for the Book of Abraham, see here. For evidence for the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014).
- Pete Enns (@theb4np), “Does the Bible contradict itself? From Pete Enns. #InstaxChallenge #theologytok #bibletok,” TikTok, March 27, 2022, https://vm.tiktok.com/TTPdmdLFDA/.
- A volume built on this insight has been created for Latter-day Saints. Julie M. Smith, ed., As Iron Sharpeneth Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016).
- Isaiah 28:10, 13; 2 Nephi 28:30; Doctrine & Covenants 98:12; 128:21
- Doctrine & Covenants 56:3–4. Emphasis added.
- Lenet H. Read, "How the Bible Came to Be: Part 2, The Word Is Preserved," Ensign 12, no. 2 (February 1982): 32.
- An msn.com poll listed Solomon as the fifth richest person to ever live. “According to the Bible, King Solomon ruled from 970 BC to 931 BC, and during this time he is said to have received 25 tons of gold for each of the 39 years of his reign, which would be worth billions of dollars in 2016. Along with impossible riches amassed from taxation and trade, the biblical ruler’s personal fortune could have surpassed $2 trillion in today’s money” (“The 20 Richest People of All Time,” Apr. 25, 2017, msn.com).
- See Ecclesiastes 1:1–2
- See Ecclesiastes 2:17
- See Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 24:7
- 1 Nephi 8:12
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "Believe, Love, Do," Ensign 48, no. 11 (November 2018): 46–49.
- Emphasis added. For an insightful critique of the Evangelical interpretation of these verses, see James Stutz, "Can a Man See God? 1 Timothy 6:16 in Light of Ancient and Modern Revelation," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 8 (2014): 11–26.
- Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:5; Matthew 18:15–16; John 8:12–29; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 2 Nephi 11:3; 27:12–14; Ether 5:2–4; Doctrine & Covenants 5:15.