We should definitely reserve the careful study of alleged Bible contradictions for “going deeper.” If you are still navigating “the Shallows,” however, here are three principles to keep in mind.
- Carefully define “contradiction.” – Two statements are not contradictory unless they cannot both be true. If I say that it rained all day on Saturday and you say that it was sunny all day on Saturday, are these statements contradictory? Would it make a difference that you and I were in different states on Saturday? Would it matter that we are not talking about the same Saturday? The “works” of Romans 4:1-8 differ from those of James 2:14-26.
- Allow for missing details. – When you give reports about the walk you just took, you might tell one person what you saw in the park and tell another what you looked at in the store window. These two people might have very different ideas about your walk, even though you reported accurately but not exhaustively. Compare Acts 18:8 with 1 Cor. 1:14 (Was Crispus baptized or not?). Compare Luke 24:1-11 with John 20:1-2 (How many women went to the empty tomb?).
- The context is king. – Two statements that seem to be exact opposites (such as “I am a good student” and “I am a poor student”) might both be true in their original contexts (“I am a good student when it comes to music” and “At nuclear physics, I am a poor student”). The context makes all the difference. See Proverbs 26:4-5 (Is it true there are times you should and should not answer a fool according to his folly?).
These three principles will take you far in sorting out alleged Bible contradictions. You may still find a few that lack enough clues to enable you to arrive at a decisive answer. In those cases, the Bible is innocent until proven guilty.
Want to go deeper? – The following are useful resources for pursuing your study of alleged Bible contradictions:
Recommended for purchase:
John W. Haley. Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (originally publ. 1874; new printing). Reprinted so often because it’s that good!
James Montgomery Boice – Dealing with Bible Problems: Alleged Errors and Contradictions (2000).
Enclyclopedia Apologetica (for specific passages – note: this covers such a wide range that I cannot possibly endorse everything it teaches. Think for yourself!)