An Explanation of Some of the Most Common Biblical Contradictions

The Bible does not have any definitive logical contradictions. A contradiction occurs when a proposition conflicts either with itself or an established fact. In other words, it happens when one or more claims cannot be true at the same time. Take for example the claim, “Cookie butter is always the best spread.” If this statement is followed up by another, “but cookie butter is sometimes not the best spread,” then a contradiction has taken place. Cookie butter (or speculoos, for those of you who demand complete accuracy), cannot be both universally the best spread and also sometimes not. (And for the record, it objectively is the greatest of human inventions to be spread on anything.)

If the aforementioned definition constitutes what a contradiction is, then what is not a contradiction? Pete Enns, a Harvard PhD and Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University, explains how to tell the difference: 

“1) If I say, “I hate oatmeal” and then turn to someone else and say “I love oatmeal,” I am contradicting myself. 

2) If I said 20 years ago “I hate oatmeal” and now say “I love oatmeal,” I am not contradicting myself. Rather[,] my view of oatmeal changed over time.

 3) If I say “I hate oatmeal” but my son says “I love oatmeal,” that would not be a contradiction. We are two different people voicing our opinions.”1

People often point to the first oatmeal-loving-statement when they think that the Bible contradicts itself. It appears as though because God reverses or revokes certain commandments, that He must be engaging in self-contradiction. The truth is, however, that most seeming contradictions one can point to in the Bible fall under the second two categories listed by Enns. God may either change a commandment for a people group over an extended period of time or in reaction to certain events, or human beings may engage in behavior that violates His commands. Neither of those two instances constitute legitimate logical contradictions in God’s convictions or in Biblical credibility. With this in mind, then, here is a list of three notorious biblical “contradictions” that skeptics and nonbelievers point to, and the corresponding proof that rather than being self-rebutting, they are actually internally consistent.

Contradiction #1: God demands circumcision in the Old Testament but disregards it entirely in the New Testament

In Genesis 17:10, God tells Abraham, “Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.”2 This statement becomes one of the cornerstone bases of the Abrahamic covenant and law. Yet, in Galatians 5:2, the Apostle Paul declares that, “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.”3 What is happening here? Is the Bible completely contradicting itself? No, because what is missing here is the fact that the Covenant between God and His people had changed from that in the Old Testament when this verse was written by Paul. Consider the second example Enns gave – if he declared 20 years ago that he hates oatmeal, but after a period of time, tells a friend today that he loves it now – he hasn’t acted in a contradictory manner. Why did God alter requirements under the Old and New Covenants?  Because of Christ’s sacrifice. 

Paul explains in Hebrews 10:3-10 that where under the Mosaic law, the blood of sacrificed animals had to be continually offered up as a propitiation for sin, the sacrifice of Jesus, an infallible being, was able to propitiate for all human iniquity once and for all.4 Thus, with the death of Jesus, the New Covenant under Christ replaced the Old Covenant that God established with the Israelites.

The replacement of the Old Covenant for the New renders this situation a necessity; new covenants or circumstances necessitate new commands or requirements. If God had instead expressly commanded circumcision under the Mosaic Law and, while that Law was still in place, informed them that circumcision was unnecessary, then He would have been contradicting Himself. But as evident from the above analysis, Jesus’ sacrifice fulfilled the Mosaic Law and ushered in the New Covenant between the time God uttered Genesis 17:10 and Paul wrote Galatians 5:2.

Contradiction #2: The Old Testament presents a vengeful justice system; the New Testament advocates mercy instead

In Exodus 21:23-25, God commands the Jews, “[I]f there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”5 Yet, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:39, Jesus famously declares, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”6 

It seems like Jesus is directly rebutting the previous commandment; however, Jesus does not contradict the law in this instance – he clarifies it for His Jewish audience. Exodus 21:23-25 was not a commandment given to all lay citizens to exercise, it is a commandment on the extent of legal and capital punishment for criminals given to Jewish leaders. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount however, was given to average citizens. He was responding to the larger cultural problem of citizens engaging in personal vengeance based on a mistaken understanding of the previous verse. As Bill Fortenberry, a Christian philosopher and historian, states: “Had the Jews considered the implications of these passages, they would have realized that the eye for an eye instructions were given to the judges of the land because they were the emissaries of God… placed in their positions as judges specifically to carry out God’s vengeance… They should… have realized… that the common citizen was not the emissary of God’s vengeance.”7

Contradiction #3: Though God forbade human sacrifice in the book of Leviticus, Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter as a burnt offering unto the Lord

God expressly prohibited any form of human sacrifice in Leviticus 18:218. Yet, in Judges 11:29-34 the Jewish warrior Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering to God. The context of this sorry tale is that Jepthah vowed to the Lord that if he gained military victory, he would sacrifice the first thing he saw come out of the door of his home when he returned. Tragically, the first thing to run out was his daughter.9 

Although most individuals would see this as an egregious moral contradiction on God’s part, there is one notable feature of this story which demonstrates that Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter does not controvert the Lord’s previous commandment to never engage in human sacrifice – God’s silence. Not once, in the duration of Jepthah’s promise to God or his execution of this promise, does God express any approbation or even response. This tragic biblical tale, like so many others before and after, represents one in which the Lord permits men, in their free will, to engage in sin, even though it deeply grieves Him.

There is no doubt that Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter did offend God as it violated the Levitical code expressed in Leviticus 18:21; this fact alone however, does not prove that the Bible is contradicting itself in showing that an individual did break God’s commandments. Jephthah’s offending God through violation of His commands is no more unique than any other instance of human sin, including that of other biblical personages. For example, God explicitly forbade premarital fornication unless it was immediately followed by marriage between the two parties in Exodus 22:16.10 Yet, Jacob’s son, Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar, committed fornication and never married.11 In fact, despite this obvious violation of God’s standard regarding sexual ethics, they both still ended up in Jesus’ lineage.12 Does the fact that God did not destroy them both or at least express his disapprobation mean that He is contradicting Himself? The fact that patriarchs or biblical characters violate the rules God established does not contradict that the rule existed in the first place. God frequently allows sin, corruption, and evil – all of which violate His universal moral law. Thus, the fact that Jephthah’s foolish promise did so in this instance is not proof that the Bible is contradicting itself. That’s like claiming that because murder still happens all murder laws all illogical and contradictory – the criticism simply does not hold water. 

These are but three contradictions presented to Christians as seeming examples of lack of Biblical credibility. However, historical and scriptural context support the cohesive and consistent nature of Scripture, demonstrating that all seemingly inconsistent statements, passages, or themes in the Bible do not constitute legitimate contradictions.

Njomëza Pema 2022

Sources and further reading:

  1. Enns, Pete, “There are No Contradictions in the Bible (Yeah You Heard Me).
  2.  Genesis 17:10-14
  3. Galatians 5:2
  4. Hebrews 10:3-10
  5. Exodus 21:23-25
  6. Matthew 5:39
  7.  Fortenberry, Bill, “An Eye for An Eye: Did Jesus Contradict the Law of Moses?” 16, September, 2018
  8. Leviticus 18:21
  9.  Judges 11:29-34
  10.  Exodus 22:16
  11.  Genesis 38
  12. Matthew 1:3
  13. Deuteronomy 1:17
  14. II Chronicles 19:6 
  15. Romans 13:4

Picture credit: “Priest reads from Bible to Leanne” by Jeroen Kransen is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.