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The Problem of Differences in the Bible
When Paul wrote to Timothy he was most anxious to instruct the young man to show respect for the Scriptures. In doing so he makes perhaps the strongest and clearest statement to be found on the function and purpose of the Scriptures. "From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Notice the following claims that the Scriptures:
From this we would conclude that the Bible is trustworthy and reliable to fulfil the purposes that God intended. It is perfect for the purposes listed above. All who follow the biblical teachings will find Jesus, correct teachings on doctrine and principles on how to live the Christian life. There is a danger that we may impose upon the Bible our own set of expectations—expectations the Bible does not claim for itself.
In the Bible are to be found differences in details that seem to put some parts of the Bible at odds with other parts. Over the years discerning readers of the Bible have noticed these differences. The following are a few examples: After Christ's resurrection Matthew and Mark say that one angel appeared at the tomb of Christ. On the other hand Luke and John say there were two. Regarding Christ's healing of the demoniac in the area of the Gerasenes, Mark 5:2 and Luke 8:27
say He healed one. Matthew 8:28 says He healed two demoniacs. How far had the disciples rowed when they saw Jesus coming to them on the water (John 6:19)? Did the Holy Spirit not know exactly how far? Why was this exact distance not imparted to John?
When Jesus sent the twelve to the villages, Mark 6:8 records He told them to take nothing for the journey—except a staff. Matthew 10:10 tells them to take no staff. When reading John's gospel, where do the words of John finish and the words of Jesus take over? For example, did Jesus or John say the famous words of John 3:16?32 Who has the correct chronology for the life of Christ? There are differences within the gospels themselves. For example Matthew, Mark and Luke put the cleansing of the temple at the close of Christ's ministry; while John puts it in early and states the resurrection of Lazarus as the reason for the death plot against Jesus.33 Numerous examples of chronological differences between the gospels can be added to the few listed.34
What Do We Do with These Differences?
Many books written against the inspiration of the Bible list the differences between the gospel stories as some writers attempt to use these discrepancies to show that the Bible is full of mistakes and cannot be trusted. Those with a mature better understanding of the purposes of Scripture—as stated by Paul to Timothy—respond by stating, "These differences are not central to the message of the Bible." The differences do not affect the teachings of the Bible. John tells us why he wrote his gospel (and it is true of the rest of the Bible as well): "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). None of these differences affect our believing in Jesus and finding life in His name. John had more in mind than just reporting the facts; he aimed to change the lives of his readers.
We err when we try to impose our Western ideas of logic upon a book written with an Eastern-mindset. In the culture of Bible times, it did not matter to them if the details of a story did not fit exactly so long as the essential ideas were preserved.35 Everett Harrison says, "The scientific age in which we live has put a premium upon precise accuracy. Must we impose our standard on an ancient book?
We think we know what truth is. The chances are we are thinking in Hellenistic terms, identifying truth with what corresponds to reality. But the writers of the Scripture were not as greatly influenced by this conception of truth as by the Hebrew conception which identifies as truth what corresponds with the nature and purpose of God. . . . If the gospel writers had been interested in presenting records which would meet the test of verbal agreement, they would certainly have labored to harmonize their accounts. There is nothing superficial or flippant about these accounts. Clearly they were written with all soberness and in the consciousness of handling truth. But that was capable of multiform expression which gained its unity from its great Subject and from its Author, the Spirit of Truth."36
We can see this illustrated for us in the book of Proverbs by comparing the person who has wisdom with the person who is considered a fool. The wise person is not the intellectual giant, rather it is the person who knows and obeys God. The fool on the other hand is not a person who lacks information, it is the person who does not live in harmony with God.
The inspiration of the Bible may be compared to parts of our body. What is considered more important, an eye or a little toe? Which would you sooner lose if you had to choose? The answer is obvious. Our eye is far more precious to us than our little toe. So it is with the inspiration of the Bible. The parts of the Bible that deal with the central message of the Bible, are preserved for us in a trustworthy and reliable manner. Some of the lesser details can be portrayed differently within various books of the Bible. We come to this conclusion by reading the Bible itself. Remember, all Scripture is inspired, but not all scripture carries the same redemptive value. If we lost the genealogies of the Bible, would we miss them as much as the Sermon on the Mount?
Some Christians find this unsettling. Sometimes they will respond with the statement that if the Bible can have these differences of detail then how can it be inspired? They will try to explain away the many examples that can be produced. However, they are attempting the impossible. It is not necessary to try. If you find yourself straining to try and explain away so much data you should be prepared to accept that your position should be modified in harmony with the facts coming out of the Bible itself.
Some will respond by saying, "Perhaps the original copies of the Bible did not have these differences in them." This effort is also futile. Those who spend their time studying biblical manuscripts tell us that while there are some variant readings in the ancient manuscripts, only a tiny percentage of them have variations in readings. Usually they do not affect the problem areas of differences of detail.37 Let us rejoice that God has preserved His Word for us. The Bible is the best preserved book from the ancient world. He has preserved the essential message of the Bible in a trustworthy and reliable manner.
Rather than seeing these differences of detail as problems, we ought to see them in a more positive light to strengthen our faith. The fact that they are still in the Bible shows they have not been covered up. The Bible is dealing with real people and real events. In many places it is history as we commonly have it recorded. When we read historians writing on real life events we expect to see some differences of detail. In fact, the differences are evidence that the descriptions come from genuine eye witness history. We would be inclined to question the authenticity if we had witnesses who had exact agreement in every detail. In real life, genuine witnesses usually have some variation on minor matters of detail. The Bible stories are for real.
Allowing for Human and Cultural Elements
Remember, God meets people where they are to give them His life giving messages about Jesus. In the Bible are some cultural statements that we may not think are accurate for us today. In fairness to the Bible, we must keep in mind that the language used was the popular language of the Ancient East and not that of the scientific world of the 21st century. The Bible is written for common people using the language of the market place and social gatherings. The language within the culture of the times was the medium God used to get across the spiritual truth He wishes His people to understand. If the Bible had been written in the language of science today, it would not have been understood by the millions who have read it prior to our age.
God never offers anything faulty or imperfect, however He has to work with the best material He can find—humanity with all its strengths and weaknesses. No wonder Paul wrote, "But we have this treasure
in jars of clay." (2 Corinthians 4:7). The following, for instance, only makes sense in certain cultural settings: Was it true that the gospel had been proclaimed to every creature under heaven as Paul claimed in Colossians 1:23? If that was so, why was he still planning to go to Spain? How could John see four angels standing on the four-corners of the earth (Revelation 7:1)?
Can the heart really believe as expressed in Romans 10:9-10? Boyce Bennett observes: "People think with their brains, but not all cultures have known this. The ancient Hebrews believed that people thought with their hearts. That does not mean that they believed people 'thought emotionally.' The center of emotion was located elsewhere in Hebrew folk psychology. But the center of thinking was believed to be in the heart. . . . The rise of scientific investigation over the past few centuries has shown that folk psychology is no longer an adequate way of understanding human beings. People think with their brains."38 Can our liver be greatly distressed as expressed in Lamentations 2:11? Can Paul have love for others in his bowels as expressed in Philippians 1:8? The mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds but it was considered so by the Semites of the first century (Matthew 13:31). Could not Paul's advice regarding the covering and uncovering of the head also be considered cultural (1 Corinthians 11:1-16)?
How then do we determine what is cultural and what is trans-cultural in the Bible. Bernard Ramm offers the following advice:
"1. Whatever in Scripture is in direct reference to natural things is most likely in terms of the prevailing cultural concepts;
"2. Whatever is directly theological or didactic is most likely trans-cultural;"39
In other words, Ramm is telling us that the Bible is a book dealing with salvation through Jesus Christ, but it will do so frequently through the cultural concepts of the age in which it was written. The Bible is perfect for the purpose that God intended it to function.
32 Carl F. Henry ed. Revelation And The Bible, Article by Everett F. Harrison: "The Phenomena of Scripture." (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1976), p.247. "A striking feature of John's gospel is the discourse material. Here Jesus makes not use of the typical parabolic medium of the Synoptics. The addresses are mainly occupied with his own person and credentials. Sometimes they become dialogues between himself and his auditors. In many ways they reveal contrast to the discourses in the other gospels. It is significant that Jewish scholars have experienced less difficulty in receiving these discourses as authentic than many critics of Christian persuasion, for they recognize how closely they parallel Rabbinic examples. Verbatim reporting was not expected on the part of a faithful disciple as he made available the sayings of his esteemed master. This freedom of expression did not necessarily involve unfaithfulness in the fulfillment of his task." [back]
33 Even a cursory look at the gospel of John makes it clear that it is not a history textbook—much less a biography—the historical trustworthiness of the gospels is not to be described in terms of modern historiography, which stresses clear and strict chronological sequence, balanced selection of material, verbatim quotations, and so on. In the real sense the gospel writers are preachers. They select the events of Jesus life and his teachings, guided not by comprehensiveness but by their purpose in writing. They arrange the material not always on the basis of sequential order but with a view to impress upon the readers certain specific truths. Moisés Silva, But These are Written That You May Believe, from An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, Walter Kaiser and Moses Silva, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994). [back]
34 For further examples the reader should study "The Question of Inerrancy in Inspired Writings." A paper presented at the 1982 International Prophetic Guidance Workshop by Robert Olson. See appendix A. [back]
35 "Many of the seeming discrepancies vanish once we understand the literary conventions for writing history or biography in the ancient world. Neither Greek nor Hebrew had any symbol for our quotation marks, nor did people feel that a verbatim account of someone's speech was any more valuable or accurate than a reliable summary, paraphrase, or interpretation. The order of events described in a famous person's life was often arranged thematically rather than strictly chronologically. So we should not be surprised to find minor variations in both the sequence of episodes in Jesus' life from one gospel to the next and in the actual words attributed to Him on any given occasion." Jesus Under Fire. Craig Blomberg "Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?" p. 35. [back]
36 Carl F. Henry, Editor, Revelation And The Bible, Article by Everett F. Harrison "The Phenomena Of Scripture", (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976), pp 239-243. [back]
37 Sir Frederick Kenyon in his book Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscript, p. 55 has as a footnote the following observation "Dr Hort whose authority on the point is quite incontestable, estimates the proportion of words about which there is some doubt at about one-eighth of the whole; but by far the greater part of these consists merely of differences in order and other unimportant variations, and 'the amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation . . . can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text" (Introduction to The New Testament in the Original Greek, p. 2). [back]
38 Boyce M.
Bennett, An Anatomy of Revelation: Prophetic Visions in the
Light of Scientific Research, (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1990), p. 3. [back]