Bible Difficulties

from Evidence Unseen By James M. Rochford

Picture1There are various principles in harmonizing Bible difficulties—particularly the four gospels. These principles can help the interpreter to handle the vast majority of Bible difficulties.

PRINCIPLE #1: Context, context, context!

We hate to be taken out of context when we speak. Often, enemies can do this on purpose to make you look cruel or insensitive or stupid. Well, if we hate to be taken out of context, imagine how God feels when we do this with his word!

Context is the primary rule of interpretation, trumping all others. If we believe that there is a break of context, then the full burden of proof rests on us to demonstrate this. For instance, imagine if someone told you, “I saw your wife kissing a man in bed this week.” When you call your wife, you find out that the context was that she was kissing her elderly father on the forehead in his hospital bed. Likewise, when people misconstrue Scripture, we have to ask, “Was this an accident, or were they intentionally violating the context?” For instance, imagine if someone said that the Bible teaches, “There is no God” (Ps. 14:1). If we read this in isolation, we might believe that the Bible is an atheistic text! However, when we read the context, we find that David writes, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” This context changes the message considerably.

PRINCIPLE #2: Harmonizing Scripture with Scripture

If we allow Scripture to contradict itself, then we will have absolutely no restraint on our interpretation. Not only is this logically fallacious (violating the law of non-contradiction), but this would also lead to absurd conclusions. For instance, the Bible teaches that God has an “arm” (Deut. 7:19), “wings” (Ps. 91:4), “nostrils” (2 Sam. 22:9), “mouth” (2 Sam. 22:9), and “eyes” (Heb. 4:13). But it also teaches that “God is spirit” (Jn. 4:24). Without a basic conviction to harmonize these concept, we might conceive of God as a humanoid monster! But when we allow Scripture to harmonize with Scripture, we can discern metaphor from didactic teaching. Moreover, since God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2), he therefore cannot contradict himself. We find it to be theologically disturbing to think of God contradicting himself all over the Bible.

To practice this principle, the interpreter needs to discover the allowable range of meaning for each passage, and then choose the interpretation that doesn’t contradict other scriptures.

When critical scholars find difficulties in Scripture, they automatically assume that these are contradictions. But compare this with other academic disciplines. When a scientist comes across a scientific abnormality, it encourages her to investigate more—not less. If she found a difficulty in the scientific data, she would never throw up her hands in defeat and say, “Well, I guess there’s no way to harmonize this contradiction. I guess it’s time to go back to school for business…” Instead, these scientific difficulties would lead her to further theories and discoveries. In the same way, difficulties in the four gospels should lead us to more investigation, rather than less. Conservative scholars are more intellectual in this sense, because their commitment to the truth of the text causes them to investigate further, rather than just throwing their hands up and calling for contradictions in the text.

Take a classic example of this: The apostle James writes, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). However, the rest of the epistles teach faith apart from works. Since Scripture cannot contradict Scripture, we need to find another possible way to understand James’ words. In this case, building from the context, we see that James is referring to justification before men, whereas Paul is referring to justification before God (see comments on James 2:14-26).

We see secular parallels to this methodology in atheist Richard Carrier’s book Sense and Goodness Without God. In his book, Carrier implores his readers to give him “interpretive charity.” He writes, “If what I say anywhere in this book appears to contradict, directly or indirectly, something else I say here, the principle of interpretive charity should be applied: assume you are misreading the meaning of what I said in each or either case.”[1] If atheist books can be misunderstood, then can’t the Bible? If we should give a modern author like Carrier “interpretive charity,” how much more should we give an ancient text like the Bible the benefit of the doubt? Ironically (or should I say hypocritically?), Carrier extends no such generosity to the Bible.

Apologist Norman Geisler tells a story about one of his colleagues, whose mother had died in a car accident.[2] The man received two phone calls about his mother. The first call told him that his mother was in a car accident, and she was being driven to the hospital in critical condition. The second call told him that his mother was in a car accident, and she was killed on impact. The man was confused, because they were both trustworthy people. He knew that neither person would lie to him, but at the same time, they appeared to completely contradict each other.

As it turned out, the man’s mother had been in two accidents. The first accident left her in critical condition. The ambulance picked her up and drove her to the hospital. As she was being rushed to the hospital, the ambulance got in a second accident, and she was killed on impact. Of course, if a Bible commentator offered a solution like this for a biblical difficulty, he would probably be laughed at. And yet experience demonstrates that these sorts of events are certainly possible.

Furthermore, we have good reason to give the NT authors the benefit of the doubt. As the science of archaeology has progressed, the NT has been repeatedly confirmed over and over. For example, Colin J. Hemer has recorded over 180 historical details that the book of Acts has recorded accurately.[3] This is why the great skeptic Sir William Ramsey came to faith in Christ through his 30 year study of archaeology.[4] A classic example is the pool of Bathesda. For years, critics believed that the pool of Bethesda was fictitious, until it was discovered in 1890 with exactly five colonnades—exactly as the Bible records (Jn. 5:2).[5] Such discoveries have happened so frequently that in his book Archaeology and Bible History, Joseph Free writes, “Archaeology has confirmed countless passages which have been rejected by the critics as unhistorical or contradictory to known facts.”[6]

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