Classes Of Difficulties In The Bible
All the difficulties found in the Bible can be included under ten general headings:
1. The text from which our English Bible was translated.
No one, as far as I know, holds that the English translation of the Bible is absolutely infallible and inerrant. The doctrine held by many is that the Scriptures as originally given were absolutely infallible and inerrant, and that our English translation is a substantially accurate rendering of the Scriptures as originally given. We do not possess the original manuscripts of the Bible.
These original manuscripts were copied many times with great care and exactness, but naturally some errors crept into the copies that were made. We now possess so many good copies that by comparing one with another, we can tell with great precision just what the original text was. Indeed, for all practical purposes the original text is now settled. There is not one important doctrine that hangs upon any doubtful reading of the text.
But when our Authorized Version was made, some of the best manuscripts were not within reach of the translators, and the science of textual criticism was not so well understood as it is today, and so the translation was made from an imperfect text. Not a few of the apparent difficulties in the Bible arise from this source.
For example, we are told in John 5:4 that “an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” This statement for many reasons seems improbable and difficult to believe, but upon investigation, we find that it is all a mistake of the copyist.
Some early copyist, reading John’s account, added in the margin his explanation of the healing properties of this intermittent medicinal spring. A late copyist embodied this marginal note in the body of the text, and so it came to be handed down and got into the Authorized Version. Very properly it has been omitted from the Revised Version.
The discrepancies in figures in different accounts of the same events as, for example, the differences in the ages of some of the kings as given in the text of Kings and Chronicles, doubtless arise from the same cause, errors of copyists. Such an error in the matter of figures would be very easy to make, as in the Hebrew, numbers are denoted by letters, and letters that appear very much alike have a very different value as figures.
For example, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet denotes one, and with two little points above it, not larger than flyspecks, it denotes a thousand. The twenty-third or last letter of the Hebrew alphabet denotes four hundred, but the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, that looks very much like it and could be easily mistaken for it, denotes eight.
A very slight error of the copyist would therefore make an utter change in figures. The remarkable thing when one contemplates the facts in the case is that so few errors of this kind have been made.
2. Inaccurate translations.
For example, in Matthew 12:40 Jonah is spoken of as being in “the whale’s belly.” Many a skeptic has made merry over the thought of a whale with the peculiar construction of its mouth and throat swallowing a man, but if the skeptic had only taken the trouble to look the matter up, he would have found the word translated “whale” really means “sea monster,” without any definition as to the character of the sea monster.
We will take this up more in detail in considering the story of Jonah. So the whole difficulty arose from the translator’s mistake and the skeptic’s ignorance. There are many skeptics today who are so densely ignorant of matters clearly understood by many Sunday school children that they are still harping in the name of scholarship on this supposed error in the Bible.
3. False interpretations of the Bible.
What the Bible teaches is one thing, and what men interpret it to mean is oftentimes something widely different. Many difficulties that we have with the Bible arise not from what the Bible actually says, but from what men interpret it to mean.
A striking illustration of this is found in Genesis 1. If we were to take the interpretation put upon this chapter by many, it would indeed be difficult to reconcile it with much that modern science regards as established. But the difficulty is not with what Genesis 1 says, but with the interpretation put upon it. There is no contradiction whatever between what is really proven by science and what is really said in Genesis 1. This comes out clearly in chapter 4, “Is Genesis 1 Historical and Scientific?”
Another difficulty of the same character is with Jesus’ statement that He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Many interpreters would have us believe that He died Friday and rose early Sunday morning, and the time between these two is far from being three days and three nights; but we shall see later that it is a matter of biblical interpretation, and the trouble is not with what the Bible actually says, but with the interpretation that men put upon the Bible.
We will take this matter up at length in chapter 21, “Was Jesus Actually Three Days and Three Nights in the Heart of the Earth?”.
4. A wrong conception of the Bible.
Many think that when you say the Bible is the Word of God, of divine origin and authority, you mean that God is the speaker in every utterance it contains; but this is not at all what is meant. Oftentimes it simply records what others say—what good men say, what bad men say, what inspired men say, what uninspired men say, what angels and demons say, and even what the devil says.
The record of what they said is from God and absolutely true, but what those other persons are recorded as saying may be true or may not be true. It is true that they said it, but what they said may not be true.
For example, the devil is recorded in Genesis 3:4 as saying, “Ye shall not surely die.” It is true that the devil said it, but what the devil said is not true, but an infamous lie that shipwrecked our race. That the devil said it is God’s Word, but what the devil said is not God’s word but the devil’s word. It is God’s word that this was the devil’s word.
Very many careless readers of the Bible do not notice who is talking—God, good men, bad men, inspired men, uninspired men, angels or devil. They will tear a verse right out of its context regardless of the speaker and say, “There, God said that.” But God said nothing of the kind.
God’s Word says that the devil said it, or a bad man said it, or a good man said it, or an inspired man said it, or an uninspired man said it, or an angel said it. What God says is true, namely, that the devil said it, or a bad man, or a good man, or an inspired man, or an uninspired man, or an angel. But what they said may or may not be true.
It is very common to hear men quote what Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar said to Job as if it were necessarily God’s own words because it is recorded in the Bible, in spite of the fact that God disavowed their teaching and said to them, “Ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right” (Job 42:7). It is true that these men said the thing that God records them as saying, but often they gave the truth a twist and said what is not right.
A very large share of our difficulties thus arises from not noticing who is speaking. The Bible always tells us, and we should always note it.
In the Psalms we have sometimes what God said to man, and that is always true; but on the other hand, we often have what man said to God, and that may or may not be true. Sometimes, and far oftener than most of us see, it is the voice of the speaker’s personal vengeance or despair. This vengeance may be and often is prophetic, but it may be the wronged man committing his cause to Him to whom vengeance belongs (Romans 12:19), and we are not obliged to defend all that he said.
In the Psalms we have even a record of what the fool said: “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1). Now it is true that the fool said it, but the fool lied when he said it. It is God’s Word that the fool said it, but what God reports the fool as saying is not God’s own word at all but the fool’s own word.
So, in studying our Bible, if God is the speaker, we must believe what He says. If an inspired man is the speaker, we must believe what he says. If an uninspired man is the speaker, we must judge for ourselves—it is perhaps true, perhaps false. If it is the devil who is speaking, we do well to remember that he was a liar from the beginning; but even the devil may tell the truth sometimes.
5. The language in which the Bible was written.
The Bible is a book of all ages and for all kinds of people, and therefore it was written in the language that continues the same and is understood by all, the language of the common people and of appearances. It was not written in the terminology of science.
Thus, for example, what occurred at the Battle of Gibeon (Joshua 10:12–14) was described in the way it appeared to those who saw it, and the way in which it would be understood by those who read about it. There is no talk about the refraction of the sun’s rays, and so forth, but the sun is said to have “stood still” (or tarried) in the midst of heaven.
It is one of the perfections of the Bible that it was not written in the terminology of modern science. If it had been, it would never have been understood until the present day, and even now it would be understood only by a few.
Furthermore, as science and its terminology are constantly changing, the Bible if written in the terminology of the science of today would be out of date in a few years; but being written in just the language chosen, it has proved the Book for all ages, all lands and all conditions of men.
Other difficulties from the language in which the Bible was written arise from the fact that large portions of the Bible are poetical and are written in the language of poetry, the language of feeling, passion, imagination and figure. Now if a man is hopelessly prosaic, he will inevitably find difficulties with these poetical portions of the inspired Word.
For example, in Psalm 18 we have a marvelous description of a thunderstorm, but let the dull, prosaic fellow get hold of that, for example, verse 8: “There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it,” and he will be head over heels in difficulty at once. But the trouble is not with the Bible, but with his own stupid, thickheaded prosaicness.
6. Our defective knowledge of the history, geography and usages of Bible times.
For example, in Acts 13:7 Luke speaks of “the deputy” (more accurately “the proconsul,” see Revised Version) of Cyprus. Roman provinces were of two classes, imperial and senatorial. The ruler of the imperial provinces was called a propraetor, of a senatorial province a proconsul. Up to a comparatively recent date, according to the best information we had, Cyprus was an imperial province and therefore its ruler would be a propraetor, but Luke calls him a proconsul.
This certainly seemed like a clear case of error on Luke’s part, and even the conservative commentators felt forced to admit that Luke was in slight error, and the destructive critics were delighted to find this “mistake.”
But further and more thorough investigation has brought to light the fact that just at the time of which Luke wrote the senate had made an exchange with the emperor whereby Cyprus had become a senatorial province, and therefore its ruler was a proconsul. Luke was right after all, and the literary critics were themselves in error.
Time and again further researches and discoveries, geographical, historical and archaeological, have vindicated the Bible and put to shame its critics. For example, the book of Daniel has naturally been one of the books that infidels and destructive critics have most hated.
One of their strongest arguments against its authenticity and veracity was that such a person as Belshazzar was unknown to history, and that all historians agreed that Nabonidus was the last king of Babylon, and that he was absent from the city when it was captured; so Belshazzar must be a purely mythical character, and the whole story legendary and not historical. Their argument seemed very strong.
In fact, it seemed unanswerable. But Sir H. Rawlinson discovered at Mugheir and other Chaldean sites clay cylinders on which Belshazzar (Belsaruzar) is named by Nabonidus as his eldest son. Doubtless he reigned as regent in the city during his father’s absence, an indication of which we have in his proposal to make Daniel third ruler in the kingdom (Daniel 5:16). He himself being second ruler in the kingdom, Daniel would be next to him. So the Bible was vindicated again.
The critics asserted most positively that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch because writing was unknown in his day. But recent discoveries have proved beyond a question that writing far antedates the time of Moses. So, the critics have been compelled to give up their argument, though they have had the bad grace to hold on stubbornly to their conclusion.
7. The ignorance of conditions under which books were written and commands given.
For example, to one ignorant of the conditions, God’s commands to Israel as to the extermination of the Canaanites seem cruel and horrible, but when one understands the moral condition to which these nations had sunk, the utter hopelessness of reclaiming them, and the weakness of the Israelites themselves, their extermination seems to have been an act of mercy to all succeeding generations and to themselves.
We will go into this more fully in chapter 9, “The Slaughter of the Canaanites by God’s Command.”
8. The many-sidedness of the Bible.
The broadest-minded man is one-sided, but the truth is many-sided, and the Bible is all-sided. So, to our narrow thought one part of the Bible seems to contradict another.
For example, religious men as a rule are either Calvinistic or Arminian in their mental makeup. And some portions of the Bible are decidedly Calvinistic and present great difficulties to the Arminian type of mind, while other portions are decidedly Arminian and present difficulties to the Calvinistic type of mind. But both sides are true.
Many men in our day are broad-minded enough to be able to grasp at the same time the Calvinistic side of the truth and the Arminian side of the truth; but some are not, so the Bible perplexes, puzzles and bewilders them. The trouble is not with the Bible, but with their own lack of capacity for comprehensive thought.
So, Paul seems to contradict James, and James seems sometimes to contradict Paul; and what Paul says in one place seems to contradict what he says in another place. But the whole trouble is that our narrow minds cannot take in God’s large truth.
9. The fact that the Bible has to do with the infinite, and our minds are finite.
It is necessarily difficult to put the facts of infinite being into the limited capacity of our finite intelligence, just as it is difficult to put the ocean into a pint cup. To this class of difficulties belong those connected with the Bible doctrines of the Trinity and of the divine-human nature of Christ. To those who forget that God is infinite, the doctrine of the Trinity seems like the mathematical monstrosity of making one equal three.
But when one bears in mind that the doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to put into forms of finite thought the facts of infinite being, and into material forms of expression the facts of the spirit, the difficulties vanish. The simplicity of the Unitarian conception of God arises from its shallowness.
10. The dullness of our spiritual perception.
The man who is farthest advanced spiritually is still so immature that he cannot expect to see everything yet as an absolutely holy God sees it, unless he takes it upon simple faith in Him. To this class of difficulties belong those connected with the Bible doctrine of eternal punishment.
It often seems to us as if this doctrine cannot be true, must not be true, but the whole difficulty arises from the fact that we are still so blind spiritually that we have no adequate conception of the awfulness of sin, and especially of the awfulness of the sin of rejecting the infinitely glorious Son of God. But when we become so holy, so like God, that we see the enormity of sin as He sees it, we shall have no difficulty with the doctrine of eternal punishment.
As we look back over the ten classes of difficulties, we see they all arise from our imperfection, and not from the imperfection of the Bible. The Bible is perfect, but we, being imperfect, have difficulty with it. As we grow more and more into the perfection of God, our difficulties grow ever less and less, and so we are forced to conclude that when we become as perfect as God is, we shall have no more difficulties whatever with the Bible.
Torrey, R. (1998, c1996). Difficulties in the Bible: Alleged errors and contradictions. Willow Grove: Woodlawn Electronic Publishing.