12 September 2008

Inconsistencies of Scripture

I sometimes have long discussions with people who tell me that my views as a Christian Friend are flawed with respect to the letter of the Bible. They tell that I'm wrong when I say that the Bible has been transmitted with errors, and that some errors are so old that we can't of ourselves even know what the original text was (or even if there was more than one original text by the same author). So here is a a list of some of the places a single family Bible presents different versions of the same story that cannot be reconciled if it is to be taken literally--as inerrant. I have casually compiled this list from my own reading, and I believe that they are important to look at if we are to understand the Bible better, and what it tells us about God. There are lots more, and any computer search will generate volumes of discussion--just search for "Bible inconsistencies" for a list of more examples, both reasonable and otherwise.

The examples I have selected here are generally held by textual critics to have resulted from additions, deletions, or inadvertent changes to the lineages of copied texts over the centuries. There are many more profound ones that affect serious interpretations of scripture, that descend from the variant Hebrew or Greek readings that appear in different text traditions, and will not usually appear within a single printed Bible except in the marginal notes. To compare those requires a knowledge of dead languages to read the variant source texts, although textbooks with translations are easy to find in public libraries. Some of them are the specific passages (such as Prov 8:22, Col 1:14, Acts 6:8, 1 John 5:7, and John 1:1) that are used as proof texts supporting different theologies. The history of heresy in Christianity shows us that traditional proof texts are, of course, often those that creative scribes with different theologies have specifically edited to support their own beliefs. Some of these examples (like the non-synoptic chronology of John) have been debated by Bible students for over 1800 years.

Sometimes apologists have reconciled these differences by adding all the contradictory texts together to make a new, non-contradictory text of their own creation that was never written by anybody. This is a common technique, and is sometimes justified. There have been many of these “harmonizations” over the centuries, that combine selected parts of manuscripts in specific ways to create something new that is self-consistent. But by using the same technique, you can harmonize The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and The Betty Crocker Cookbook into a single self-consistent book. Sometimes harmonizing makes sense, other times it doesn't.

Most scripture references here are from the Jehovah's Witnesses' New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, revised 1984, unless otherwise noted. I have chosen this one because it is the only English Bible currently available that is based on the well-known 1881 Greek New Testament of Westcott and Hort. Most of the errors I list can be found in most Bibles--the NWT is just one of many. A few others are from the 1611 Authorized Version (not the modern 1769 KJV).

Jesus misquotes the Old Testament in Matthew.

Matthew 23:35 Jesus refers “...to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” (Or “Zacharias son of Barachias...”) This is a reference to 2 Chronicles 24:21, but the Zechariah murdered there was the son of Jehoiada, not Berechiah, as it reads in the previous verse, 2 Chronicles 24:20. The son of Berechiah was the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 1:1), and there is no tradition or record that he was murdered.

Jesus either misquotes Scripture, or the Old Testament is in serious and repeated error about the identity of the High Priest during the episode in the life of David when, on the run, he enters the Temple and eats the consecrated bread given to him by Ahimelech, the high priest.

In 1 Samuel 21:1-6, the high priest named Ahimelech cautions David about eating the loaves of presentation: “...Later David came into Nob to Ahimelech the priest, and Ahimelech began to tremble at meeting David...” The hungry David asks for the showbread for himself and his men, and Ahimelech gives him the loaves.

In Mark 2:26, however, Jesus says the event occurred during the time of Abiathar, Ahimelech’s son:

“...entered into the house of God, in the account about Abiathar the chief priest, and ate the loaves of presentation...” NWT,
“...in the time of Abiathar the High Priest...” NEB,
“...in the days of Abiathar the high priest...” NIV,
“...how he entered into the house of God in [the days of] Abiathar the high priest...” Textus Recepticus, English/Greek interlinear.

According to the Old Testament, the event actually took place in the days of Ahimelech, not in the days of Abiathar. Abiathar (Ahimelech’s son), is high priest during much of David’s reign, and is prominent in episodes later in David’s life, in 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, but he is not introduced until 1 Samuel 22:20, and not as priest until 1 Samuel 23:9. Ahimelech his father is the prominent priest through the early exile of David, and he and the entire suite of priests were executed by Saul as result of this very episode. If the Old Testament is correct, then Jesus is wrong. If Jesus is correct as quoted, then the Old Testament authors confuse the the priesthood succession in some 39 additional scriptural references.

It's easy to say that Abiathar was alive at the time of this event, but he was not high priest, played no part in this event, and isn't mentioned until later.

Matthew misquotes the prophets in Matt 27:9, about buying the potter’s field with thirty pieces of silver.

Matthew says, “Then what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying: “And they took the thirty silver pieces, the price upon the man that was priced, the one on whom some of the sons of Israel set a price...” The reference is actually to Zechariah 11:12, “Then I said to them: “If it is good in your eyes, give [me] my wages, but if not, refrain. And they proceeded to pay my wages, thirty pieces of silver.” If the Old Testament is correct, then Matthew is not.

Look it up, please. Jeremiah does seem to talk about a potter’s field in 19:2, and buys a different one in 32:9. Some people conclude this means that Matthew was conflating two scriptures and merely referencing the more important prophet. A more likely explanation is that Matthew or a copyist merely made a mistake.

Mark misquotes Isaiah.

In Mark 1:2, the text reads, “Just as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “(Look! I am sending forth my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way;) listen! someone is crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of Jehovah, you people, make his roads straight.’”

Only the second portion (after “listen!”) is actually from Isaiah. The first portion is from Malachi 3:1: “Look! I am sending my messenger, and he must clear up a way before me...” possibly influenced by Exodus 23:20: “Here I am sending an angel ahead of you to keep you on the road and to bring you into the place that I have prepared.” Sometimes harmonizers say that “Isaiah” actually was a general name for the Prophets at large.



Luke and Matthew disagree about where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived when Jesus was a young child. Luke says Nazareth, Matthew says Egypt. The accounts do not match.

In Luke 2:22, the six-weeks old Jesus is brought to Jerusalem: “ Also, when the days for purifying them according to the law of Moses came to the full, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to Jehovah...” In Luke 2:39-40, it describes how they then returned to Nazareth: “So when they had carried out all the things according to the law of Jehovah, they went back into Galilee to their own city Nazareth. And the young child continued growing and getting strong, being filled with wisdom, and God’s favor continued upon him.”

The applicable "law of Moses" is explained in Leviticus 12:1-4. A mother of a male child is unclean seven days. On the eighth day the boy will be circumcised, and her uncleanness continues for 33 days more. At 42 days, then, comes “the fulfilling of the days of her purification.” Luke 2:22-24 therefore indicates that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus arrived in Jerusalem when Jesus was about six weeks old--42 days. They stay there while Joseph and Mary offer the poor people's sacrifice of two pigeons, as directed in Leviticus 12:6.

When these sacrifices are accomplished, they go directly home, as explained in Luke 2:39: “So when they had carried out all the things according to the law of Jehovah, they went back into Galilee to their own city Nazareth."

The flight to Egypt is not mentioned anywhere in the account--Jesus is born in Bethlehem, and then is taken to nearby Jerusalem when he is six weeks old. The family returns to Nazareth after the Temple sacrifices“...when they had carried out all the things according to the law of Jehovah..."

In Matthew, however, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus have stayed in “a house” in Bethlehem (certainly near enough to Jerusalem for day trips to make temple sacrifices) until Jesus is a “young child,” (Matt 2:11), and then flee to Egypt (Matt 2:14) after the visit of the astologers. Only after staying in Egypt until the death of Herod (and the slaughter of the Bethlehem innocents “two years of age and under,” do they move on to Nazareth.

So Jesus either went home to Nazareth as an infant immediately (Luke), or he went home as a young child much later (Matthew). Both accounts cannot be accurate as written, unless Matthew’s entire story of prophetic dreams, journeys across the desert, and the execution of all the male children in Bethlehem is inserted into Luke’s otherwise very detailed accounts about Mary’s religious purification and the temple sacrifices. Luke must be believed to have missed the whole thing. What happened? Only Matthew records the story. Artificially mixing the two stories together through harmonization can fix it, but it’s a stretch to believe Luke failed to include something so important. The stories don't match.

Luke writes that Paul went directly to Jerusalem after his escape from Damascus. Paul himself says he didn’t go there for three more years.

In Acts 9:25-26, Luke describes how the converted Paul fled Damascus for Jerusalem: “So his disciples took him and let him down by night through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. On arriving in Jerusalem, he made efforts to join himself to the disciples; but they were all afraid of him...”

In Galations 1:15-17, however, Paul says that, “But when God...thought good to reveal his son in connection with me...I did not go at once into conference with flesh and blood. Neither did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles previous to me, but I went off into Arabia, and came back again to Damascus. Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas...”

If both accounts are accurate as written, then Luke (Paul’s long-term scribe and companion) ignored three years of Paul’s journeys, between two sentences, or Paul in Galations is mistaken about his own travels. Harmonizing this is a stretch too. Again, the stories don't match.

Did Jesus eat Passover with his disciples? Mark and John disagree about the day and the time when Jesus was crucified.

This discrepancy was debated by the early church fathers almost two thousand years ago. In Mark, Jesus is crucified the day after Passover. The Last Supper is the Passover supper: Mark 14:14-15: “’...Where is the guest room for me where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room...” And in Mark 14:16, "...And his disciples went forth...and they made ready the Passover." He is crucified the day after Passover, at 9 am, Mark 15:25, “It was now the third hour, and they impaled him.”

In John, however, Jesus is crucified on the same day as Passover, hours before the Passover supper that he never eats. And he is also not crucified until after 12 pm, rather than at 9 am. The Last Supper is merely the unnamed meal the night before: John 13:2: “So, while the evening meal was going on...” and John 13:4, “...got up from the evening meal and laid aside his outer garments...” He is crucified the next day at 12 pm. That the day of the crucifixion is the same day as the Passover is indicated in John 19:14-16: “Now it was preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour [12 pm]. And he [Pilate] said to the Jews, ‘See! Your king!’...At that time, therefore, he handed them over to them to be impaled.” Similarly, in John 19:31, “Then the Jews, since it was Preparation, in order that the bodies might not remain on the torture stakes on the Sabbath (for the day of that Sabbath was a great one) requested Pilate to have their legs broken and the [bodies] taken away.” Preparation refers to the ceremonial cleaning and cooking that takes place before the Passover supper. In John, Jesus is already dead by the time Passover is eaten.

Was Jesus crucified before or after Passover? Both accounts cannot be simultaneously correct. Sometimes apologists suggest that the priests of John 19:31 ate Passover on a later day from ordinary Jews, but there is no evidence for that in history or Scripture that I am aware of. Harmonizing won’t fix it unless parts are ignored. John and the synoptic gospels simply do not agree on the date and the time. Did Jesus eat Passover, or not? Was he crucified at 9 am or at 12 pm?

Some apologists assert that the synoptic Gospels used Jewish clock time, and the Gospel of John used Roman clock time. Even if this is true, it still cannot explain the cricifixion occurring on different days.

Other apologists simply say that Jesus asked the disciples to obtain a room for the Passover, but never intended to eat there. If so, then Jesus deceived his disciples by specifically asking for a room where he "... might eat the Passover ..."

Luke indicates that Jesus ascended into heaven late on the same day of the resurrection. In Acts, Luke says that he didn’t ascend until some 40 days later.

Read Luke carefully, and pay careful attention to the timing of events. In Luke 24:13, Jesus appears “on that very day,” [of the resurrection] to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They asked him to eat because (Luke 24:29), “...it is toward evening...” He ate with them, (Luke 24:33), “And in that very hour they rose and returned to Jerusalem, where they found the eleven and those with them assembled together.” Then, in 24:36, “While they were speaking together...” Jesus appeared, spoke, and 24:50, “...led them out as far as Bethany...” and 24:51, “As he was blessing them he was parted from them and began to be borne up to heaven.” As written, this is a continuous narrative, with Jesus parting with them late in the evening on the day of his resurrection.

But in Acts, Luke refers to almost six weeks of activity not mentioned in his Gospel. In Acts 1:1-11, Jesus speaks, teaches, and is seen “by them throughout 40 days,” and then only later, 1:9, “ ...while they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud caught him up from their vision.” If the first continuous narrative of the Gospel is correct, then Luke 24:51 can only be accurate if everything that happened “...throughout 40 days...” (from Acts) is assumed to belong in the middle of the sentence of Luke 24:33. The sense of the sentence must be distorted to make that believable.

But the Greek manuscripts themselves differ on whether Jesus was also “borne up to heaven” after he parted from them that evening. The final phrase from Luke 24:51 “...and began to be borne up to heaven...” is missing from many reliable Greek manuscripts. Other reliable sources include it, such as the Sinaiticus codex (cited on page 1282 of the NWT as “Aleph.”) Some English versions that include the particle besides the NWT are the NIV and the various descendants of the Textus Recepticus, such as the King James:

“While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” NIV
“...as he was blessing he them he was separated from them and was carried up into the heaven.” Textus Recepticus, English interlinear.
“...he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.” KJV

Other modern Bibles using the alternate Greek manuscripts leave out the phrase about heaven:

“...in the act of blessing he parted from them” NEB

One current explanation is that Luke’s short account (without the particle “..and began to be borne up to heaven...”) is original, and this account never said that Jesus ascended to heaven on the busy day of his resurrection. The advocates of this theory suggest that the ascension reference was added by later orthodox scribes to prevent the passage from being used by Gnostics who liked to emphasize Jesus’s departure, but not to heaven. This is possible. Lots of surviving texts were distorted in just this way by the Gnostics, and have been rightfully discredited.

Why are the stories different? Perhaps Luke learned more from his sources about the Jesus he never personally knew and included the extra information in his second book, by which time his erroneous first book had been distributed and was being copied without his control. We can’t tell anything now except that they are not the same.

How many angels were at Jesus’s tomb? Nobody agrees.

Mark 16:5. “...they saw a young man sitting on the right side clothed in a white robe...”

Matthew 28:2-3. “...for Jehovah’s angel had descended from heaven and approached and rolled away the stone, and was sitting on it. His outward appearance was as lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.”

Luke 24:4. “While they were in perplexity over this, two men in flashing clothing stood by them.”

John 20:12. “...and she viewed two angels in white sitting one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been lying.”

The angel accounts are sometimes reconciled by asserting that ancient writers only mentioned the one angel (of two) who actually did the speaking. This is, again, a creative interpretation that doesn’t actually exist in the scripture. I think it also begs belief to think that the witnesses of such an alarming and life-changing supernatural event would neglect to mention that there were two apparitions, even if only one spoke to them.

I have not attempted to discuss any other contradictory aspects of the visitations, although the most casual reading will show that all the accounts cannot be true at the same time without literary gymnastics that are not even faintly implied in the stories themselves. Certainly it would have been a startling experience and hard for the participants to remember clearly.

Yet all the people involved met together immediately to discuss it, compare experiences, and think about the implications. They had years together to listen to one another and reconcile the events of their joint experience, yet the stories that we read were never reconciled. Are all the the differences between the surviving accounts original to the original witnesses? The gospels had many years of oral history before being written down, in widely separated places, and many participants were dead. Perhaps the stories were changed after the fact by people who weren’t there, and didn’t have copies of the stories told by the other participants. It didn't have to be malicious--lots of old books on my bookshelf have missing pages.

Scripture describes how Jesus was mocked on his last day by being dressed in royal clothing, but contradicts itself on where it took place.

Matthew 27:28. Jesus is costumed by Pontius Pilate.
Mark 15:17. Jesus is costumed by Pontius Pilate.
Luke 23:11. Jesus is costumed by Herod at his palace, not by Pilate.
John 19:2. Jesus is costumed by Pontius Pilate.

If the Bible is accurate as written, then Jesus was costumed twice in two different places and each account ignores the other. The color of the robe varies in Greek, as well. Once, it is "scarlet," another time, "purple." (That sort of difference is immaterial to me.)

Pontius Pilate attached a mocking inscription to the top of the torture stake or cross. All four gospels disagree on what it said.

Matthew 27:37. “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.”
Mark 15:26. “The King of the Jews.”
Luke 23:37. “This is the King of the Jews.”
John 19:19. “Jesus the Nazarene the King of the Jews.”

The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas quotes yet another 5th and different text. The variants are similar, but they are not the same. If the Bible is precisely accurate as written, there were four different texts attached to the top of the pole, and each account must then ignore the existence of the three other inscriptions. I suggest that the inspiration of the writers was not in the form of "automatic writing."

I have heard it said that the various different inscriptions were translations of the words written in the different languages. But Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written in Greek (perhaps Matthew was originally Hebrew), so this answer is not likely.

The author of Hebrews describes the tabernacle incorrectly.

In Exodus 30:1-6, the alter for burning incense is placed outside the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle: Ex 30:6, “And you must put it before the curtain that is near the ark of the testimony, before the cover that is over the Testimony, where I shall present myself to you.” In contrast, in Hebrews 9:3-4, “But behind the second curtain was the tent [compartment] called ‘the Most Holy.” This had a golden censer and the ark of the covenant...”

If the Bible is correct, then the author of Exodus described the tabernacle wrong, or the author of Hebrews did, or the Jews changed their practices from Mosaic law and didn’t record it (not likely). Or it’s a simple error.

Who was it that bought the ground for Joseph’s grave? Scripture says both Abraham and Jacob.

Acts 7:16. Stephen says it was Abraham that bought the tomb for Joseph from the sons of Hamor.

Joshua 24:32. Joseph was said to be buried in a plot of ground that Jacob, not Abraham, had bought from the sons of Hamor.

Some interpreters assert that the ground was bought twice. Maybe so, but neither account says or implies that.

There are historical discrepancies between numbers, usually involving Chronicles, Kings, and Samuel. For example:


The numbers of horseman captured by David from Hadadezer are different between 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles.

2 Samuel 8:4 says 700 horsemen (KJV), or perhaps “one thousand and seven hundred horseman” (RSV)

1 Chronicles 18:4 says 7000 horsemen.

Following the return to Jerusalem, Ezra and Nehemiah contradict each other for census numbers of the Hebrew families.

Ezra 2:64 and Nehemiah 7:66 both give the total to be 42, 360. But adding the numbers up gives 29,818 men for Ezra, and 31,089 men for Nehemiah. The difference comes from the two books sometimes giving contradictory numbers for the same sons within the same families.


The count of the singers is also contradictory.
Ezra gives 200 singers in Ezra 2:65, but Nehemiah 7:67 gives 245.

In his summary biography, the chief of the mighty men of David “wielded his spear” but killed different numbers of men:


2 Samuel 23:8: “These are the names of the mighty men whom David had: Josheb-basshebeth, a Tahchemonite; he was chief of the three. He wielded his spear against eight hundred whom he killed at one time.”

1 Chronicles 11:11: “This is an account of David’s mighty men: Jashobeam, a Hachmonite, was chief of the three. He wielded his spear against 300 whom he killed at one time.”

Joab reports contradictory census numbers to David in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles.


2 Samuel 24:9: “And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000.”

1 Chronicles 21:5: “And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to David. In all Israel, there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword, and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword.”

Gad the prophet gives David different choices for punishment from God in different books: three years or seven years of famine in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles.


2 Samuel 24:13: “Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? or wilt thou flee three months before thy enemies…”

1 Chronicles 21:11,12: …”Choose thee either three years famine, or three months to be destroyed before thy foes…”


David is reported as buying the threshing floor from Ornan the Jebusite for two different prices.


1 Chronicles 21:25: “So David gave to Ornan for the place six hundred shekels of gold by weight.”

2 Samuel 24:24: "So David bought the threshing floor and oxen for fifty shekels of silver.”

This one might be straightened out by saying that Ornan actually owned a larger “place” worth six hundred shekels of gold, and the threshing floor was a smaller part of the deal. But there is no indication in the Scripture that two separate transactions took place.

There are many explanations for various of these number problems, some better than others. Most can be easily figured out as simple typos.

And so it goes.

I have listed just a few of the internal contradictions in the Bibles (not Bible), that we have available to us today, and that I hope you hold in your hands to check what I have written. Again, these examples are a particular subset that you can be see within your very own Bible--you do not have to compare different translations, or Greek or Hebrew variant texts to see them for yourself. If you have an interest in comparing the many, many more contradictions, errors, omissions and differences that appear between the variant textual families of the Bible, then the nearest public library or internet search has lots of material to look through. Any study Bible with extensive footnotes will list many variant readings, as will a 1611 King James Authorized Version. Look for yourself. Believe nobody until you read it yourself.

If you choose to look at these problems within an Authorized King James Version, you really ought to choose a complete, original rendition, available for about US$20.00. You can tell because it will include the Apocrypha, in the middle, and a long critical preface, both of which are usually deleted without comment in modern Protestant printings of the King James. Most modern post-1769 King James Bibles also omit the original marginal notations, edit them to say things they didn’t originally say, or manufacture new ones. The original marginal notes were important; they weren't commentary, they were notes from the translators to the reader about problems with the text that they couldn't reconcile. They often listed both translational differences for Greek words or passages, and different readings of those passages from different source texts available to the Committee. Modern editions with edited notes often confuse these very different pieces of information, so that it becomes difficult to tell where the editors are adding a clarifying alternate translation to a word, or where they are pointing out that they have more than one equally believable source texts that disagree on what the Bible should actually say.

Read it for yourself, and listen to the Inward Light of Jesus Christ for yourself. Don’t take my word for any of this. But remember, we are called to follow a Guide, not a book. The road map helps you on the journey, but the road map is not the road.

And don't get too excited about the flaws--the message of the Bible is clear, in spite of the endless lists of flaws that anybody with a little time can come up with. An flawed book does not a flawed religion make.

2 comments:

Errancy said...

A Christian arguing against inerrancy! How refreshing!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight and brave honesty.