“Contradictions” in the Bible: How Do I Make Sense of Them?

A while back, someone struggling with apparent contradictions in the Bible asked: “How should I deal with inconsistencies in the Bible? For instance, while, according to Luke, the robber to the right of Jesus repented (Lk. 23:42), Matthew said that both mocked Jesus (Mt. 27:53). Also, the account of the death of Judas Iscariot in the gospels and Acts 1:18 seems to differ. Most of the time I am forced to admit that I just don’t know, but sometimes it does affect my reading of the Bible.”

Well, these are not difficult problems to resolve once the inspiration of Scripture is understood correctly (2 Tim. 3:16). While no one knows the exact nature of inspiration, it was neither mechanical (e.g., typewriter) nor dictational (i.e., for the most part). If it were so, then, two or more biblical authors writing about same events should have produced exactly the same accounts, word-for-word. However, the inspired writers were fully in control of their own faculties, as evidenced by Luke’s admission in the prologue of his gospel: “Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus” regarding the life and teachings of Christ (Lk. 1:3 NIV). This is to say, the composition of the Gospel of Luke was guided by the author’s distinct purpose, research method and target audience (likely a Roman official).

That necessarily means that Luke’s gospel is not going to exactly resemble, for instance, the Gospel of Matthew whose purpose is to show the Jews that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah because he fulfilled the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. In addition, the fact that Matthew is a Jew and Luke a gentile, which points to their differing cultural orientations, likely contributed to further distinctions between the two gospels. That may be why Luke mentions three situations involving Samarians (i.e., gentiles) while Matthew cites none of them (Lk. 9:51 f., 10:25 f., 17:11f.)  It bears repeating that these and other factors contributed towards distinctive writing and editing styles among biblical writers; thus, what may appear discrepant is not so in reality.
For instance, consider two accounts of the invasion of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. While, according to Daniel, it occurred in the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah (Dan. 1:1), Jeremiah reports that it happened “in the fourth year of Jehoiakim” (Jer. 25:9). This appears contradictory since the invasion must have taken place either in the third or the fourth year. But when a cultural factor is considered, this difference is easily explained. Whereas the Babylonians counted the ascension year (the actual year the king was enthroned) as the “year 0,” the Jews considered that as the year 1. So, the fourth year according to Jeremiah living in Israel is equal to the third year according to Daniel living in Babylonia. Both accounts, therefore, are true.

If our understanding of inspiration does not allow cultural and individual idiosyncrasies, then we are forced to either question the infallibility of Scripture or come up with an explanation that creates more problems. Once, a renowned theologian, noting the numeric discrepancy between Mark’s and Luke’s account of Peter’s denial of Jesus, said that the apostle denied Jesus six times. What troubled this theologian is Mark’s reporting that the rooster crowed twice upon Peter’s denial (Mk. 14:72) while Matthew and Luke imply that it crowed only once (Matt. 26:75; Lk. 22:60). Instead of recognizing that no two people tell the same story exactly the same way for a reason, the mechanical view of inspiration held by this theologian prompted him to react unreasonably. It can be argued then that Peter, being the main source for Mark’s gospel (1 Pet. 5:13), vividly recalls the details of what was a personally devastating event, while Matthew and Luke simply note the most important aspect of the event: Peter’s denial of Jesus.
All that being said, the two alleged discrepancies that troubled the questioner can be explained in the same way. Given that the objective of Matthew is to testify to the messiahship of Jesus by way of showing how he fulfilled the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, it would seem that Matthew is more interested in showing how Jesus’ dying between the two robbers fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 (“And was numbered with the transgressors”) than showing how one of them turned to Christ. Luke, on the other hand, includes this brief conversation in his gospel since its purpose is to present an orderly account of everything that happened. Evidently, this thief had a change of mind after initially joining the other in mocking Jesus. Perhaps, his heart was so moved after hearing Jesus pray, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Lk. 23:34).

As for two conflicting accounts of the manner of Judas’ death, picture a situation in which the driver of a car is killed due to massive internal injuries as a result of crashing the car into a tree. However, during an autopsy, the coroner discovers that a heart attack would have likely killed him, which, then, led to the accident. In a comparable way, Judas died from having hung himself (Matt. 27:5), likely on a tree at the edge of a cliff.  Later, when the branch was no longer able to support the weight of Judas, it broke off, causing the dead body to fall headlong onto the very field (a.k.a., “Field of Blood”) he, in effect, had purchased (Matt. 27:6-7) with the money obtained for betraying Jesus (i.e., blood money).  Luke probably saw poetic justice in all this.
Seeing the inspiration of Scripture in this way, one can argue that Scripture is a completely human as well as divine book, much like the humanity and the divinity of Christ. This is to say, biblical writers, as “they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21), penned exactly what the Lord wanted them to record without compromising their individualities and cultural orientations. Yes, “your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Ps. 119:105).

Of course, not every alleged discrepancy in the Bible is easy to resolve. So, if you are interested in further pursuing this matter, check out my unpublished work entitled, “Inspiration, Translation and Canonicity of the New Testament” @https://www.dropbox.com/s/mybwbu0bqznv59r/AP3 Inspiration^J Translation ^0 Canonicity.pdf?dl=0