Contradictions in the Bible?
My years as a Ph.D. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School were certainly a very mind-stretching experience. I took classes with D. A. Carson on the use of the OT in the NT, with Doug Moo on the Second Temple period and on the Septuagint, with Grant Osborne on apocalyptic literature, and many more. In these classes, I came to realize that many issues in NT studies are considerably more complex than the average person realizes. In fact, becoming aware of some of these issues can be confusing, even disorienting, and can leave people bewildered, unless they have the necessary scholarly skills and doctrinal grounding with regard to their view of Scripture. Fortunately, such a framework was provided for me at Trinity as the context for discussing the complex issues related to biblical studies and exegesis. John Woodbridge, D. A. Carson, Kenneth Kantzer, and others were all too aware of these larger issues and addressed them with considerable sophistication and nuance, both in the classroom and in various publications. Those of us who were privileged to learn from these scholars were fortunate indeed to have such knowledgeable guides who could help us steer a safe course navigating the troubled scholarly waters and avoid both the Scylla of fundamentalism and the Charybdis of higher critical (if not skeptical) scholarship.
In an ongoing series on Peter Enns’s blog Patheos, various biblical scholars share “aha” moments which eroded their belief in an inerrant Bible. In one of these accounts, highlighting her own development as a student of Scripture, Megan DeFranza describes not so much an “aha” moment as a gradual process of growing “enlightenment” during which she increasingly realized that the Bible we have is “imperfect” but nonetheless “wholly adequate.” By “an imperfect Bible” she seems to mean at least two things, which need some unpacking: (1) a Bible whose study, upon closer scrutiny, requires much greater sophistication and nuancing than she initially realized; and (2) a Bible that does not “match up every time” in all the details (such as in Synoptic comparisons) and that “does not come wrapped in scientifically proven perfection.” She learned Greek and came to realize that while knowing the original language of the NT helped in some ways, it also opened her eyes to issues that the mere knowledge of NT Greek could not resolve. She discovered discrepancies, for example, between the accounts in Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 of a centurion’s servant being healed. As DeFranza discovered to her dismay, while “they [the characters in the narrative] speak the same words,” “in Matthew he [the centurion] comes in person while in Luke a messenger is sent instead.”
We’ll turn to an exploration of this issue in a moment. And, of course, I realize this is just one example among others DeFranza could have given. But first, let me say that a big part of the issue here, it seems to me, is one of managing expectations. If we expect word-for-word agreement, no wonder we’ll be disappointed when words, or even specific sequences of events, don’t match up in every detail. Also, DeFranza does not adequately acknowledge the many times when there is word-for-word agreement among the Gospels. She also does not address the nature of the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, which Richard Bauckham has demonstrated compellingly in his landmark 2006 work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. We shouldn’t expect word-for-word agreement in eyewitness reports, nor would it be reasonable to expect any one eyewitness to mention every single twist and turn in a series of unfolding events.
That’s why in God’s sovereign providence we’ve been given multiple Gospels “according to” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in order to provide us with a diversity of perspectives that can legitimately be viewed as complementary rather than contradictory. It is here that the distinction between the two senses in which DeFranza discovered an “imperfect Bible” is of vital importance. I would say, yes, the study of Scripture certainly requires greater sophistication than is often realized, something most students discover when attending a good seminary. But I would also say, no, phenomena such as translation from Aramaic to Greek, paraphrase of Jesus’ exact words to convey the essence of what he said, and varying degrees of detail given by the respective biblical writers, to name but a few, don’t necessarily prove that Scripture is “imperfect” in a way that renders Scripture inaccurate if not contradictory, as DeFranza claims.
The Healing of the Centurion’s Servant in Matthew and Luke
Let me illustrate, then, some of these matters by using as a case study the example DeFranza herself cites, the accounts of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10:
5 When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
1 After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” 6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
What are we to make of this comparison? Notice that there is large agreement between Matthew and Luke in terms of the basic narrative sequence and even word-for-word correspondence (indicated by underlining): (1) Jesus enters Capernaum; (2) he is told about a centurion’s servant who requires healing; (3) Jesus goes to heal the servant; (4) the centurion conveys to Jesus at some length that he is not worthy for Jesus to set foot into his house; (5) Jesus marvels at the man’s faith; and (6) heals the servant. We know what happened. It is essentially the same story. The one difference, highlighted by DeFranza (italicized above), is that in Matthew the reader is led to believe that the interaction between Jesus and the centurion was direct while in Luke it is depicted as being transacted through intermediaries sent to Jesus. Personally, I think in the overall scheme this is a rather minor detail, though I can understand that some may be perturbed by the lack of precise “matching up” in this particular detail.
What happened here? As mentioned, the general contours of the story are clear, but what about some of the specifics? It is impossible to know for sure, but this doesn’t mean that no reasonable explanations can be proposed. Interestingly, this is one of the stories included in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Matthew may have been an eyewitness while Luke, though not an eyewitness himself, consulted the accounts of those who were (Luke 1:2). In addition, both evangelists may have used a variety of written and oral sources. If Matthew and Luke shared a common written source (“Q”) in this instance, it is possible that Matthew abbreviated the source by not mentioning the intermediaries while Luke included this incidental detail (note that Matthew does abbreviate accounts elsewhere; see, e.g., Matt 8:28-34; 9:2, 18-26; 11:2-3 and their parallels). Less likely, Luke added this detail to his source (I say “less likely” because there is some non-Lukan vocabulary in the uniquely Lukan portion of the account).
In any case, as a Jew Matthew would have known, and would have expected his Jewish readers to know, that messengers were thought to represent the person who sent them, so that if the messengers conveyed their sender’s message, it was as if the sender spoke these words directly. In fact, there are other places in Scripture where accounts are condensed by omitting the mention of intermediaries or agents who carried out actions on behalf of others. So, in 1 Kings 18:40, did Elijah personally kill each of the 450 prophets of Baal? Probably not, although the text indicates that “Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.” Or, more notably, Pilate would not have scourged Jesus personally, though this is what Mark 15:15 // Matt 27:26 might be read to indicate; he surely used soldiers to administer the scourging. Scriptural examples could be multiplied: Did Pilate personally write the inscription and put it on Jesus’ cross (John 19:19, 22)? Did Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus by themselves take Jesus’ body and prepare it for burial? (John 19:40). Did Nicodemus personally carry the 75 lbs. worth of spices? (John 19:39).
The Reliability of God’s Word
So we’ve seen that it is certainly possible to explain this difference in terms of ancient literary conventions and cultural customs that do not involve the two evangelists in actual inaccuracy or contradiction. I would argue that an “imperfect Bible” with actual contradictions between various accounts, but which is somehow still “wholly adequate” (“inaccurate but adequate”) is not the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the data. If we keep in mind that the genre of the Gospels entails eyewitness testimony, and that it is the nature of eyewitness testimony to leave out some details and to include others depending on the writer’s narrative and theological purposes, why should it surprise us to find a certain amount of variety in parallel accounts? I would argue not only that this Bible is “wholly adequate” but that it is perfectly accurate when the writers’ own genre, purposes, and intentions are taken into account, as they should be.
The psalmist extolled the perfections of God’s Word (e.g., Psalms 19 and 119). Jesus asserted that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35) and took scriptural references to Abel (Matt 23:35), Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 10:15), Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Jonah and Nineveh (Matt 12:38-42), and other persons and data at face value. We don’t have to choose between a perfect Bible and an imperfect but adequate Bible. The scriptural testimony is reliable that the Bible is not only “adequate” but accurate in all it asserts.
To conclude, it does not help to confuse the human phenomena of Scripture with its “imperfection.” The problem with entering seminary students (such as myself years ago) is not that they’re faced with an imperfect Bible but that their expectations at the outset are often inadequately informed. Just because the Bible involves translation and testimonies doesn’t make it imperfect! The Bible is “imperfect” only when measured by the unwarranted expectation that the Gospels convey to us Jesus’ words in the original language and that all four Gospels agree word for word. But then why would we need four Gospels in the first place? And why would we expect or even demand that all the details of a given event are found in every Gospel that narrates it? As we have seen, Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the healing of the centurion’s servant provide a case in point. What we have here is the variegated Gospel witness to a miracle by Jesus that is not only attested in a way that is historically secure but that is coherent and complementary in the way it is told by the two Gospel witnesses who testify to it.
This blog was originally published as a part of a series on Michael Kruger’s blog. You can read the original here.
 See also the discussion in Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 17-24, “An Example: The Centurion’s Servant.” While Poythress concurs with the explanation suggested below, he also details the view that the actual incident occurred in stages, with the friends coming first, and the centurion coming later.
 See Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50 (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).
 Interestingly, Luke does not include Jesus’ saying found in Matthew 8:11-12. If the two evangelists indeed worked from a common source, it seems that they both may have abbreviated at certain points while including fuller detail at others.
 See D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 9:237, who concludes, “Probably Matthew, following his tendency to condense, makes no mention of the servants in order to lay the greater emphasis on faith according to the principle qui facit per alium facit per se (‘he who acts by another acts himself’),” which, as Carson points out, the centurion’s own argument implies (see vv. 8-9).