Last week, in “Cultural Understanding”, we took our first look at non-contradiction – a test which has historically been applied to help determine what does or doesn’t deserve a place within the Christian Scriptures. We discovered (with the help of some archaeological “digging”) that not all apparent contradictions are actually contradictory and considered the importance of taking the time to uncover all of the facts (or at least as many as possible) before passing judgment on conflicting texts. We also learned the importance of being open to our initial judgment being proven wrong – just as any good archaeologist or historian would be. This week, we’ll take our discussion a bit further as we examine the role played by eye-witnesses and the importance of logical non-contradiction within the pages of the Bible. Our focal point? The New Testament.
As we discussed last week, some of the apparent discrepancies in Scripture result not from genuine contradictions, but from our lack of knowledge regarding ancient cultures. A prime New Testament example of this principle can be found in the chronology (timeline) of the Gospels. Take a moment to flick through their pages and you will quickly notice that the events don’t always take place in the same order in each account. Nor does every account contain the same details of each event. While some might be tempted to discard the lot as “contradictory”, this is far from the case.
Unlike modern biographers, the goal of ancient writers was not to present a chronological account of the life of an individual, i.e., to tell their tale from birth through death, but to convey a point about that life. Each historian considered not just the raw events (as modern journalists aspire to do), but their implications for the lives of their chosen audience. When audiences differed, so did the material presented. The result is that two authors each giving an account of the same historical figure might include radically different details and in a distinctly different order – yet both be quite accurate in their reporting.
This isn’t a case of “spinning” the events in favor of one particular view or another, but of selecting the most pertinent material for a given audience – much as a professor might share the same concepts in an High School class or a college class, but with different “supporting” information. For example, because his audience was primarily Jewish and was deeply familiar with the Torah, Matthew focuses his Gospel on the ways in which Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophesy. Mark, on the other hand, was more interested in sharing with a Gentile audience who would have been bored stiff by such details. Instead, he focuses his account upon Christ’s practical influence upon the lives of those who surrounded Him. The result of these considerations (as well as others) is that we find differences between the accounts such as Matthew telling the story of two men beside the Jericho road (Matthew 20:29,30) while Mark relates the tale of only one (Mark 10:46). This apparent discrepancy in numbers is not a contradiction, since Mark does say that Jesus healed “one man” (which is entirely true) and not that Jesus healed “only one man”.
Sound like a bit of verbal wrangling designed to get Christians out of a sticky position? Not at all! In fact, we all do the same thing on a daily basis, but (likely due to the fact that most of what we say doesn’t have the potential impact of Scripture) don’t think twice about it. Take for example, the statement that, “The four of us went to gym class.” Likely, there are more than four people in your gym class, but if the focus of your dialogue is upon you and your three best friends, your phrasing will reflect that. Your statement isn’t a lie, a contradiction, or a twisting of the truth even if there are thirty people who actually attend the gym class at your school – the four of you (the stars of the story) did go to class. The same principles apply to Scripture.
While cultural context and a healthy dose of logic are really all that are needed in order to resolve many of the seeming conflicts contained within the pages of the Bible, clear, provable contradiction (like one book saying there were only two men present while another says there were five) has always been considered sufficient cause to discard any claimant to Divine authority.
Next week, we’ll take a look at one more form of non-contradiction which has played a key role in the formation of the Christian canon: doctrinal non-contradiction, but for now, feel free to share your comments in the box below!