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Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation

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Differences Do Not Demand Discrepancies

by  Eric Lyons, M.Min.

Sometimes statements differ because they are contradictory. The fact is, nothing can both be and not be for the same person, place, or thing, at the same time, and in the same sense (cf. Jevons, 1928, p. 117; Aristotle, 3:4). It is impossible for a single door to be completely shut and completely open at the same time. It is contradictory for a man to say, “Yesterday I never left my house to go to the store,” if indeed he did leave his house yesterday to go to the store. Differences in stories may very well be the result of lies and contradictory statements.

At the same time, differences do not necessarily mean that various accounts are discrepant. For example, a person may affirm, “I went shopping with my daughter yesterday.” That same person might also tell someone, “Yesterday, I went to several different stores with my best friend.” Both of these statements, though different, easily could be true. Perhaps the mother went shopping with her daughter and her best friend, Melissa. Or, it could be that the daughter is the mother’s best friend. Either way, it would be irresponsible and unreasonable to interpret such differences as contradictions.

People generally understand that differences can abound in various accounts without a person needing to resort to charges of discrepancy. Imagine how long an employee would keep his job if he operated under the assumption that every time one of his colleagues said something that differed from a previous comment or from what another colleague stated, “someone was lying.” Such an employee would soon find himself unemployed. Generally speaking, people who make accusations without sufficient evidence to prove their case are quickly marginalized and distrusted.

Sadly, when it comes to the Bible, many people leave behind reason and fair-mindedness. Different accounts must be “contradictory.” Different wordings by different writers must mean someone was wrong. Though unproven and unprovable assertions in nearly every other area of life are quickly exposed as baseless allegations, when it comes to the Bible, differences are often thought to equal discrepancies.

The fact is, the different but truthful wordings in Scripture are exactly what a person should expect to find in a book composed of 66 smaller books written by approximately 40 different writers, who wrote to different people, at different times, and in different places. Furthermore, the differences in Scripture are parallel to the justifiable differences we expect from each other’s accounts in modern times.

  • Why must Luke be mistaken about the temptations of Jesus because he wrote them in a different order than Matthew (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13; see Lyons, 2004)? Can a person not give an honest description of something without everything being in chronological order? If a person never said the details are in the precise order in which they occurred, would he not have the freedom to arrange his story however he chose (e.g., climactically or thematically)?
  • Was it essential for the apostle John to mention every woman who came to the tomb of Jesus on the morning of His resurrection, or was he at liberty to mention as few as he wanted (John 20:1; cf. Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1; cf. Butt, 2004)? If Mary Magdalene was at the tomb on that Sunday morning, and John recorded that she was there, without ever denying that others also were there, could his record of the events be truthful? Of course. Differencesexist among the gospel writers’ accounts, but no one can prove that they are dischordant. Just as a person might say, “I went to the park with Bill, Bob, and Bubba,” he might also truthfully say, “I went to the park with Bill and Betty.” These statements are not contradictory. One merely supplements the other. A person may only mention Bill and Betty in one setting (e.g., at worship where the church knows the married couple), while at another setting (e.g., at the office where only the men are known) he may truthfully just mention the men.

The fact is, if the apostles and prophets wrote independently of each other, and penned their accounts at different times, in different places, to different people, and for different reasons, differences should be expected. However, the differences are not demonstrated discrepancies. They are only “contradictions” in the minds of those (1) who reject reason, and/or (2) who refuse to “retain God in their knowledge” (Romans 1:28).

REFERENCES

Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. W.D. Ross, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.4.iv.html.

Butt, Kyle (2004), “Addition Does Not a Contradiction Make,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/AllegedDiscrepancies.aspx?article=541.

Jevons, W. Stanley (1928), Elementary Lessons in Logic (London: Macmillan).

Lyons, Eric (2004), “In What Order Did Satan Tempt Jesus?” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/AllegedDiscrepancies.aspx?article=746.




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