Biblical inconsistency

Ivy talks on her blog about how the Christian Gospels aren’t internally consistent, and that the writers don’t seem to know their own timeperiod. I was going to reply in her comment box and then I realized it was taking up too much space.

There are internal inconsistencies in the Bible. It’s a given. John has the Crucifixion happening on a different day than the Synoptic Gospels, for crying out loud. There’s a sermon on the mount in Matthew and a sermon on the plain in Luke, and there are little additions and subtractions all over the place. 

No, Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives cannot be reconciled. Either Jesus was born in Bethlehem and his parents brought him to Jerusalem to the Temple, or Jesus was born in Bethlehem and then his parents fled with him to Egypt. It makes no sense that knowing Herod wanted Jesus dead, they’d have brought Jesus to Jerusalem to the Temple, had people recognize who he was, and then fled to Egypt.

When Jesus responds about the picking food thing, he doesn’t say, “Hey, guys? This is allowed.” Instead he defends what they did as if it weren’t allowed, which is kind of odd. Gary Rendsburg goes over this in his Genesis lectures, though. Ancient logic is not the same kind of linear logic that you and I use today. It’s okay in ancient logic to have the conclusion happen before the antecedents, or to arrange things nonfactually if it works with the ultimate truth. To insist that the Bible be read through the modern lens of our understanding is to distort the text.

Ultimately, does it matter if Jesus delivered his sermon on a mountain or a plain? Not really, as long as we live the contents of the sermon. If Matthew is trying to give Jesus a sense of majesty, he does it by placing him on a mountain and trusting the reader will then associate “mountain” with “revelation” and there’s your shorthand. Whereas Luke wants to associate Jesus with the poor and the common, so where does he put him? On a plain.

Consider some of these details like the background music you’d hear in a movie to indicate “this is tense” or “he’s very sad” or “wow, something exciting is about to happen.” The writers chose the details they did in order to highlight certain aspects of the Kingdom of God rather than others. The factual details weren’t as necessary to them (in their cultural mindset) as were the spiritual details and the message of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. Getting tied up in knots over inconsistencies in the Bible would be like getting overwrought that there was background music in the movie. “The characters couldn’t really hear that music, so why do we?” Why indeed? Because the readers of the Bible, and the viewers of the movie, needed it in order to get the message.

It takes more faith to see God in an inconsistent and inaccurate document than in one that’s textually flawless, but God likes to be seen in the hidden and the mysterious. The Holy Spirit worked through human beings to create a theologically true text that has withstood three thousand years of history and will be going strong three thousand years from now. But as in most parts of life, God worked through human beings to create it, and it was created for human beings, so the different books are going to have different emphasis and sometimes different details.

The Holy Spirit is smart. Those things are there because we need them, like looking at the same vase from two different angles so you can see the whole thing.

Whether God made the world in six 24 hour days or six trillion days, you know what? God made the world. Whether one thief was redeemed or not, Jesus died to redeem us all. Whether Jesus gave his sermon on a mountain or a plain, Jesus came to us because He loves us and told us to love one another with the same self-giving intensity.

Compared to that, I’m not going to sweat whether a roof was tile or straw.


  1. Ivy

    Thank you for making the point better than I could. The authors were messing with things, as you said, for a specific effect. And that’s perfectly normal for that time.

    Mind, I won’t say Jesus was the messiah, and you will, and we can dance this dance until the messianic age, but the argument that the bible is false strictly because it isn’t perfectly consistent, document to document, doesn’t hold water.

  2. philangelus

    Well, I have a return serve on your argument against Jesus as the messiah, but I value your friendship too much to start a fight. 🙂 Like you say, it would just be a dance.

    It drove me nuts with one of my Bibles where they’d *correct* the text to remove inconsistencies. As if God needs us to protect Him.

  3. Cricket

    They would “correct” the text? Without reference to source documents? Well, one could argue that God was changing methods (or using one from a few centuries back) where he influenced the editor directly, but,…) I know Torah scribes begin each session with a prayer that they do the work as God wants (or something to that effect). I think I’m mixing jobs here: Scribes (copiers) vs Editors (analysts/teachers).

    Which version is this? I won’t remove it from my shelf (if it’s even there). As you said, the different lenses complement each other, but I’ll flag it.

  4. philangelus

    Thomas Nelson study Bible, 1994 NJKV edition. There’s a passage in Samuel or Kings that was amended to change the name of a person in order to reconcile it with two other stories. The change was italicized but no mention of the original text was made. I only knew it was there because Dr. Rendsburg had pointed it out in class, and I wanted to check the text to see what they’d done with it.

    BTW, a Biblical editor (of ancient texts, that is) is called a “redactor.” That’s your vocabulary word of the day. Scribes would just copy. Writers would write. Translators do their job w/o changing, but redactors would take two or three divergent texts and meld them into one.

    Which always makes me wonder why the four Gospels didn’t get redacted down into one Gospel of Jesus. It would have been frighteningly easy to do.

    1. Travis

      It was done, but it wasn’t accepted into the canon, since it was, of course, obviously just a redaction of existing gospels.

  5. Ivy

    We’ll just have to wait until the messianic era and find out then. May it be soon in our days.

    I think one of the reasons the gospels didn’t get redacted is that the final four were chosen in Egypt, and let’s face it, the Ancient Egyptians didn’t give a fig about consistency.

    Cricket, the Kashrut involved in scribing a scroll is mind boggling. It can take up to two years to write one. Let’s see how much of it I recall.

    You bless the commandment of ritual purity and immerse in a mikvah. Do this at the start of every session.

    You bless the commandment of washing hands and wash the hands.

    You bless the ink (black, lots of rules on what is acceptable).

    You bless the commandment to write the Torah scroll. This is repeated every time the sofer writes the name of G-d.

    This must be done with a quill, not one letter can be written from memory (to play this in English, it would be as though you’d written “in the beginnin” and couldn’t write the next “g” without checking first).

    If there is a drip of ink or a tiny smudge, the whole thing is invalid, and while meticulously scribing this in the exact prescribed calligraphy, the sofer is constantly praying and marveling at the wonder that is Torah. In this, it reminds me of the rosary. You have the physical act (moving beads/writing letters), the spiritual act (marveling at the mysteries/marveling at Torah), and the prayerful act (praying for an intention/praying for an intention).

    I’m probably missing about 100 rules. This is about as ritualized as it gets.

    I have heard of groups gathering funds to have a torah scribed by a sofer praying for the healing of a particular person, and I have heard of it working. Once in a while a collection is taken up for something like that, as these scrolls cost thousands of dollars. It’s an amazing amount of work.

  6. philangelus

    Ivy, the process of transcribing a Torah scroll sounds like the process of painting an icon. There’s fasting and prayer beforehand, then the icon media must be meticulously prepared (although that’s for art’s sake not religious) and the iconographer prays continuously through the process of painting the icon.

  7. Cricket

    Neat, how first thy bless the instruction, then follow it. Thinking of what it represents, I can see why they want it technically accurate, of good quality materials, and done with spiritual purity.

    Mom typed a book illustrated by a sofer. At the time, he had completed one copy of the Torah, and was in the early stages of preparing for a second. Incredible work. My cousin’s synagogue has a Holocaust Torah. Watching them open the Arc and carry it during her Bat Mitzvah was breathtaking.

    So much more meaningful than one of thousands off a printing press like most Christian congregations use these days.

    ooooh! Ivy! You’ll love this: I just looked up the author online, and found: Haiku Biblical Commentaries

  8. Ivy

    Cricket, the bless then follow thing is pretty standard.

    “Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, who sanctifies us with His commandments, and has commanded us to light the Shabbos candles.” then light the candles for example.

    The formula is pretty set. In Hebrew it’s:

    “Baruch ata Hashem, eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kiddishanu b’mitvotav vitsivanu…” or at least that’s the best my meager transliteration skills can manage. It would end with something like “l’hadlicner shel yom tov” — “to light the yom tov candles”.

    The part up to “ha’olam” is the standard opening to any blessing. Blessing over wine

    “borei puri ha’golfen”

    over bread
    “hamotzi le’chem min ha’oretz”

    On seeing a head of state
    shenatan m’kvodo l’vasar v’dam

    After surviving (and this is kind of interesting) danger, illness, or childbirth
    ha‑gomel lahayavim tovot sheg’malani kol tov

    On seeing a great secular scholar (someone like Dr. Hawking)
    Vadam levasar mechomato shenatan
    (who has given his wisdom to living flesh)

    Jane, if I’ve gone too far off topic, please feel free to delete this.

  9. philangelus

    Why on earth would I delete it? This is fascinating, and it’s a natural outgrowth of the topic. Bless away. What’s the blessing over an ignorant weblog writer, because I need one? 🙂

  10. Ivy

    shekacha lo baolamo. 🙂 I’ll spare you trying to Google my misbegotten Hebrew “who has this in His universe”.

  11. Hannah

    Interesting point.

    I don’t agree that the gospels are irreconcilable, however, though I’m no scholar myself.

    Case in point, “Either Jesus was born in Bethlehem and his parents brought him to Jerusalem to the Temple, or Jesus was born in Bethlehem and then his parents fled with him to Egypt.” Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and presented to the Temple at 40 days. It was a trip the Jews traditionally made. The Wise Men of the East show up around the time He was 2 (I vaguely remember but say He was a toddler–and traveling took time), and Herod kills every infant 2 or younger in Bethlehem. The events can be rearranged order but cannot be falsified. Another case in point is that Jesus preached the same sermons probably multiple time as He traveled the region so He had sermons on the plains and sermons on the mountains.

    Secondly, Ivy is a modern-day Jew. Does she claim to be a scholar of NT Judaism. There is no way to ignore or separate out the impact of Christianity on the subsequent development of Judaism through the centuries. For example, after the Temple was destroyed in ~70 AD the Jews revised at least some parts of Scripture at the Council of Jamnia.

    1. philangelus

      Hannah, John has Jesus dying on the day of Passover, and the synoptics have Jesus dying the day before. Acts says Judas buys a field and one day has a terrible accident in the field, falls, and dies. Matthew says Judas went and hanged himself. Even in Genesis, there are two creation stories back to back that do not agree with one another. There are irreconcilable accounts in the Bible. This is a given. Even the genealogies are different. I see no reason to turn back flips in order to reconcile things that cannot be reconciled.

      Ivy has read more about Judaism and the history of Judaism than just about anyone, and she’s also one of the most prayerful people I know, so I trust her.

  12. Ivy

    Hannah, the bible is filled with little inconsistencies.

    Genesis 1:21 – 1:23 has the birds created on the 5th day. Genesis 1:26-1:31 has man created on the 6th. So, the order is birds first, then man. Simple.

    Genesis 2:18-2:19 has the birds created as a result of Man having been created, but being alone. So, the order is man first, then birds.

    Then you get little things like Herod pursuing Jesus right after his birth in Mathew (Herod died in 4 CE) but Luke saying Mary and Joseph were answering a census when Quirinus was governor of Syria when Jesus was born (Quirinus took office in 6 CE).

    You’re right that Judaism has changed dramatically in the past few thousand years. Animal sacrifice gave way to prayer as a primary offering, and rabbinical Judaism was born. Rashi brought astounding
    insights into Torah in the 11th century. Then you get Rambam in the 12th century, and again, our understanding changes. No, I’m no scholar, but it’s not that hard to go back to the early writings, to scholars like Hillel and Shammai who Jesus’ contemporaries, and see how the religion was understood at that time.

  13. Hannah

    Philangelus, I wish someone like Mark Shea could weigh in on this as I’m talking off the top of my head and am too rushed to provide links.

    But regarding the discordant dates for dying, there has been research into the Essenes (the community that John the Baptist belonged to). It’s been found that they likely sometimes celebrated Passover on a different date, much like East Orthodox sometimes celebrate Easter on a different date than ours, or Muslims sometimes celebrate Eid on different dates (based on when they saw the moon). So it’s possible Jesus celebrated an earlier Essene Passover.

    Regarding Judas’ fate in Acts, it doesn’t say he had an accident, just that he fell–not knowing the original word used it isn’t necessarily a contradiction. It could be understood to mean that his hanging went awry. I’ve heard of hangings where the rope was too long and the head came off.

    The genealogies can possibly be reconciled if you account for them skipping generations.

    The Genesis Creation account is a wholly different animal, different genre, written in God’s time (kerygma?).

    When I read your post your explanation was based solely on modern-day Judaism, there were no references to scholarship of that era so I’m going by what I read (I’m not questioning your scholarship, you know more than me). It’s like applying today’s standards to the past.

    Regarding Herod dying in 4 AD, and Quirinus in 6 AD, it makes sense if Jesus was born in 4 BC (as is thought).

    I’m not arguing for taking the Bible literally, I agree with both of you. However, the New Testament is recording a historical event, just as the Exodus was a historical event. If the Resurrection didn’t happen Christianity is false, if the Exodus didn’t happen both our faiths are false. And I certainly agree not to trouble my faith over inconsistencies, because the scholarship is always bringing in new data.


  14. Hannah


    I guess what I was trying to say, since I agree with you both on main points, is that I think you give up way too easily and concede way too much on this particular issue. Now do you see what I’m saying?

  15. philangelus

    No, I don’t. What do you think I’ve conceded?

  16. Ivy

    The dates still don’t make sense to me. If Jesus was born in 4 CE, then Mary couldn’t have been on the road pregnant with him in 6 CE.

  17. Hannah

    I apologize if my last comment comes across as an attack or criticism and I can’t say that you’ve conceded anything.

    My rule is I’d draw the line at conceding to any inaccuracies that cast doubt on the honesty of the gospel writers and suggest that they manufactured evidence to bolster their claim that Jesus was the Messiah and God. They did not lie about Jesus being born in Bethlehem. What if it wasn’t your dear friend but an inquiring atheist who had put up the post, wouldn’t you have taken the trouble to look up all the examples and post your response?

    Also, speaking for myself, just accepting that “the gospels can’t be reconciled” would bother me a lot and cause me cognitive dissonance that inhibited me from further studying and meditating on the gospels.

    Ultimately, and this is what I tell everyone in my own discussions: we don’t believe in Jesus because we believe the Bible, it’s the other way around. We have a living relationship with Jesus Who is not an abstract concept or a ghost but is Someone who is more real than you and me. He is so real that it’s like someone bringing you copious proofs that your husband doesn’t exit. You’d listen politely, go uh-huh, but you also know that the proofs can all be explained away so you’re not afraid of those proofs.

    Now do you see what I mean?

  18. Ivy

    Oh, but inconsistency doesn’t prove that Jesus didn’t exist. If I said that Jane was born in Tokyo, and you said that Jane was born in Paris, we’d both be wrong, but that would in no way mean there is no Jane.

    Claiming Jesus never existed would fly in the face of a huge body of evidence, and our understanding of that time. Jesus followed a well-worn path. He claimed to be divine. So did Alexander, the Pharaoh’s of Egypt, the Emperors of Japan… Appolonius of Tyre made the same claims, and he was said to have performed miracles like raising the dead and healing the sick. This was a common pattern back then. Had the gospel writers invented him whole cloth, that would be very strange. Anyone making that claim would have to explain the works of writers like Josephus, who made passing references to Jesus, and most of the Nag Hammadi library.

    We’re post-Enlightenment people reading a text from a pre-Enlightenment world, and the tremendous shift in mindset brought about by the Enlightenment makes it a challenge to approach the works as they were intended. We expect literal truth; the authors never intended that.

  19. Ivy

    Er Pharaohs not Pharaoh’s I always notice things like that right after I click post.

  20. philangelus

    I see what you mean, but I don’t understand why it’s an issue at all. As you said, you don’t believe in Jesus only because of the Bible. That was your jumping-off point. Once we have a one-on-one experience of God and Grace and we’ve felt the Holy Spirit, that infuses the Bible with extra meaning and wonder. The experience and the text move hand in hand, then.

    I’m sorry if anything I wrote has caused you issues that would keep you from drawing closer to God and His Word.

  21. cathrl

    What worries me more is when people insist that everything _is_ reconcilable, and it’s just that I’m looking at it wrong. I’m a scientist. I recognise “these two things are not the same”. And I’m perfectly prepared to accept “they mean the same but people wrote them down differently”. But it makes me deeply nervous when I see some Christians insist that yes, they really are the same, it’s crucial for them to be the same. It’s the Bible. It _must_ be right in every detail.

    Because I can see that it isn’t. And where does that leave me? It leaves me choosing between faith, which tells me that it’s true, and what my eyes tell me isn’t consistent or scientifically accurate, which, if it has to be, means it isn’t true. The only way I can live with that is for it not to matter that it isn’t consistent or scientifically accurate.

    You can’t “explain away” scientific proof. You can’t “explain away” two accounts which say different things. You can accept that, in fact, the Bible contains inconsistencies and errors. And some people won’t or can’t believe that it’s possible to both accept that and be a Christian.

  22. philangelus

    My overall POV is that God is bigger than a few inconsistencies. That the overall deep and spiritual truth is INTACT in the accounts.

    Let’s say I have four letters from friends telling me about my husband’s trip to Origins.

    Letter 1: “Dear Jane: Your husband and I met with ten friends for pizza this afternoon. We had a great time, but he says he loves you and misses you.”
    Letter 2: “Dear Jane: We’re having a great time. Ten of us got together for pizza this afternoon. Your husband says to tell you he loves you and misses you.”
    Letter 3: “Dear Jane: Your husband met with ten of us this afternoon for burgers, and he asked me to write you to say he loves you and misses you.”
    Letter 4: “Dear Jane: Tonight a bunch of the guys got together to have pizza. We had a blast, but your husband wanted me to tell you he loves you and misses you.”

    What did they eat for their meal? When did they eat it? How many people got together? And in the end, what’s the REAL material of those letters? And isn’t it consistent throughout?

  23. cathrl

    Exactly. And I’m equally uncomfortable with both

    “Look! One person says they had pizza and another says they had burgers, and they have different numbers of people! Therefore everything else they say is also wrong”


    “Since everything they say must be true, we have to postulate that they ate food that can be described both as pizza and as burgers. I know nobody’s ever seen or eaten such food, but if you want to believe anything in the letters you have to believe that too.”

  24. philangelus
  25. Julianna Matthew

    Weavers may intentionally create handmade rugs with slight inconsistencies as proof that the rug was not machine made. Julianna Matthew

  26. Pingback: The Bible, literal vs symbolic « Seven angels, four kids, one family