The answer to “Can we believe the Bible?” is very important and deserves careful thought. In our previous lessons we looked at evidence in three areas: the documents, Old Testament archaeology and New Testament archaeology.
This lesson will cover some “Historical and Scientific Problems” that some people have when they investigate if the Bible is a believable book. We should not be surprised that there are Bible difficulties. After all, there are problems in almost every topic of investigation and there are obviously problems people have with the Bible. Of course, if there were no problems then no one would be asking the question “Can we believe the Bible?”
Now there are still unresolved problems with archaeology and the Bible.Many archaeologists say that, for example, camels were not used in the time of the patriarchs even though the Bible says in Genesis 12:16 that Abraham had camels in Egypt. On the other hand camel bones and figurines have been found in several places in the Near East that date from 2300-1200 BC. The question is still being discussed.
There are many difficulties similar to this and it is expected. Of course, the archaeological data is not complete, and the Bible, even though it is an amazing book, does not pretend to be a textbook on the history of early times.
The Bible is not like a simple mathematical table. It is complex and tells about peoples, customs, languages and ideas long before the twentieth century. So, the student, especially one just starting to study, should not give up if he can’t figure out his problem in five minutes.
Some types of problems in the Bible can be generally called “Historical Difficulties”. Actually, some of these problems are only verbal and interpretational difficulties. But even so, some people have real problems with these because, at first look it might seem that two statements in the Bible say two completely different things. Some modern day examples might help us understand this problem better.
Two statements for example can be different but not conflicting:
The President met with his aides at the White House today
The President met with his Cabinet at the White house todayThese statements are different but are not actually contradictions.
What exactly is a contradiction? Aristotle’s law of contradiction says that it is impossible for two things to be and not to be. Either the President met with his cabinet or he did not. Of course the President may have had other meetings but that is a different matter. It is important to remember that statements can be different without being contradictory.
There are different kinds of historical difficulties which we will classify for our study. We will use these 6 categories for our lesson
First, let’s look at some examples of difficulties that come from using general instead of precise reports. Many times, the gospel writers only write down the basic points of the words originally spoken. For example, at the immersion of Jesus, Matthew writes that a voice spoke from heaven saying
This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleasedbut Mark tells us that the voice said
Thou art my beloved son; with thee I am well pleased
Let us take a moment to give another example of this. Let’s say that two reports are given of an accusation of a man in a court of law. One reporter says that the witness said “you are the man” and another reporter says that he said “this is the man” These two reports are worded differently but they are not contradictory. One reporter simply copied the more precise wording than the other.
Now, let’s look at a biblical example of this problem. In the records of Jesus’ crucifixion, each of the gospels records the sign on the cross being just a little different.
The sign on the cross was written in three languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin. This could possibly be the reason for the different wordings in each gospel. But it is more likely that the gospel writers were giving only the basic message of the sign and not quoting the exact wording of the sign. So, some Bible difficulties are caused because the words given for certain conversations or events may be more general than precise.
Other problems, though, are caused because wording in some scriptures is similar but the way the words are used is sometimes different. For example, on one occasion, John the Baptist told the Jews he was not Elijah. But another incident recorded Jesus telling His disciples that John the Baptist was the Elijah that was coming before him. These 2 statements are not contradictory because they are used in two different ways. In the first instance, John was saying that he was not literally Elijah but in the second instance, Jesus was saying that John came to fulfill, not literally but figuratively, the prophecy concerning Elijah.
In the same way, James and Paul are not in complete contradiction when they write about “works”. When Paul says that a man is not saved by works in Ephesians 2:8-9 he means that a person is not saved on the basis of so much work equals so much salvation. No one can achieve salvation only by his own doing.
On the other hand, when James says that a man is justified by works in James 2:24, he is describing the nature of faith. It is not alive if it does not come with works too. So, Paul and James are talking about works in different senses. Paul says, don’t base your salvation on works and James says don’t forget to do good works.
At other times we have difficulties because one Bible account of a story may be more complete than another. In other words, one account may not include certain things about an event that another account does. In this Bible only 20 lines in the book of Mark tell about certain events relating to the cross and crucifixion while Matthew has 29 lines that tell about the same events.
Sometimes, entire events might be left out by one writer that are reported by others. For example, much of the material in the gospel of John is unique. John is the only gospel that records Jesus’ early ministries in Judea and Samaria. These include the first cleansing of the temple and the conversation with the woman at Jacob’s well. But John does not record Jesus’ immersion, his forty days of temptation or his transfiguration... All of which are recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke.
When Jesus came to Jerusalem just before he was crucified, He rode into the city on a young donkey. Matthew mentions that two animals were brought to Jesus and that they were both used in the triumphal entry. Mark, Luke and John though describe the same event but only mention the young donkey that Jesus rode.
In the same way, two accounts of the resurrection of Christ mention 2 angels while the other two mention only one angel. But Matthew and Mark, who mention only one angel, do not say that only one angel appeared. Luke and John are more complete in this point by saying that the disciples saw two angels.
Some of these historical difficulties, and many others in the Bible, are actually interpretation difficulties like what we might encounter when we read a magazine or a newspaper. No sentence is supposed to be read by itself but it is part of a paragraph and the paragraph is part of the whole article or thought. We cannot understand the true meaning of a statement without looking at it’s context
Even a great war hero, in a different context, can be referred to as a man of peace. This can help us to understand Exodus 15:3 that says, “The Lord is a man of war, the Lord is His name,” and Romans 15:33 which says, “The God of peace be with you all.” While these statements say opposite things, when we look at them in their context, we can see that there is no conflict.
This may help us understand even more about God’s nature. It is true that, at times, God is pictured in the Bible as strict and severe, a God of wrath who punishes disobedient people. John 3:36 talks about his wrath but earlier in the same chapter John also says “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son". But God’s wrath is out of his love for us. Showing love does not mean He will not show wrath and vice versa.
Other difficulties are concerning chronology in time. Some copies of the Bible have dates on the side of the text for the different events in the Bible. These are not dates that were found inside the Bible but came from Archbishop Ussher from the 17th century. Ussher put the date of the creation of the world at 4004 BC. But how did he come up with this date? Well, basically, he just counted the generations in Genesis and other places and totaled the years listed.
But Ussher’s method is based on the assumption that the word “begat” that is used in the genealogical tables to refer to someone fathering a child is always talking about one generation only. The Bible itself indicates that the word “begat” or “bare” is used in a wider sense when talking about ancestry and generations.
For example, Genesis 46:16-18 tells about 16 people that Zilpah “bore” to Jacob but the 16 mentioned include her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Matthew 1:8 says that Joram “begat” Uzziah, but Uzziah was actually Joram’s great-grandson as this illustration shows, The genealogy given by Matthew is the genealogy of Jesus. Since Matthew abbreviates Jesus’ genealogy, it is very possible that other genealogies in the Bible are also abbreviated. All of this means that it is not possible to give exact dates for the creation, the flood, the time of Abraham and so forth.
The Bible definitely does not say that the world was created in 4004 BC as Ussher concluded. The dates given to Bible events come from man and not from the Bible text itself. Chronology should not be a barrier for our believing the Bible.
Some problems people have with the Bible are more familiar to us since some have had more attention than others. For instance, one question many people ask is “Where did Cain get his wife?” Many people say that Cain, after he killed Abel, went to the land of Nod and found a wife. But Genesis 4:16-17 only says that Cain lived in the land of Nod and that he had relations with his wife and that she bore him a son. Genesis 5:4-5 also says that Adam lived 930 years and that he had many other sons and daughters. At the beginning of the human race it was necessary for some of Adam’s sons and daughters to marry each other.
Another familiar problem to some people has to do with God’s dealings with the Canaanites. These people not only lost all their lands but, according to Deuteronomy 20:16-18, they were completely and utterly destroyed! It should be remembered that the passage in Deuteronomy gives an explanation
so that they (the Canaanites) may not teach you to do according to their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their Gods.
The people of Palestine were extremely wicked people. They worshipped fertility gods and goddesses, the result being that they practiced all sorts of immorality. The resulting destruction of the Canaanites served God’s purpose. He did not want the Israelites to be addicted to their sins. But then again weren’t innocent, little children also among the people destroyed in the destruction of the Canaanites?
This is a sad case where children suffer for the sins of their parents. Even children today often suffer the consequences of careless and sinful parents and even other adults. For example, it is not unusual for children to be caught in the crossfire of wars.
Another problem is with the genealogy of Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke have listed the genealogy of Jesus, but the names in Matthew's account are not the same as the names in Luke’s account. This is a problem of considerable importance.
When we look at the problem of these two genealogical tables we should consider several points. First, the two genealogies are different and there is no reason to think that Luke tried to make his the same as Matthew’s or that Matthew tried to make his the same as Luke’s. Since public records made genealogies accessible, we must assume that there was a reason for Matthew and Luke presenting the genealogies as they chose to.
Second, the two genealogies both agree in tracing Jesus’ ancestry to David. Matthew chose to cover descendants from David to Jesus while Luke traces from Jesus back to David. The third point is that the genealogies are not contradictory but are merely two different genealogies.
The best explanation for the presentation of the facts in Matthew’s list is that he traces Jesus’ genealogy down through Joseph (his legal father) while Luke traces him back through Mary (his real mother). Mary’s name does not appear in Luke’s list since it was Jewish custom to name only males in a genealogy.
We have looked at some examples of historical problems and difficulties in the Bible.
Of course, some of these continue as problems and need more study. Some are not really difficulties with the Bible but difficulties that people have with casual and sometimes careless reading of the Bible.
We still have to look at some of the problem that can be called “scientific difficulties”. For many people the problem in believing the Bible has to do with what seems to be a conflict with science. Twenty-first century man often feels that he has advanced far beyond old ways of thinking and what he perceives to be false ideas in the Bible. It should be made clear that a Christian is not opposed to scientific investigation or scientific progress. For the Christian it is not a matter of deciding between believing the Bible or believing science. Although many scientists today are not Christians it is still true that there are several scientists that are Christians and they do not find that their faith goes against their scientific work.
One major problem between the Bible and science is focused on Genesis 1:1 which says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth". Is this a scientific description? No, this would be better described as a pre-scientific statement, since it was written long before the origins of modern science. But in recent years, scientists have been saying that everything in the universe has a history. This includes even space and time and the stars. The whole universe has had a beginning and it will all have an end. Whatever is born will ultimately die.
But if science says that the universe was born ten to twelve billion years ago, isn’t that in conflict with what the Bible says? There are many, many scientific theories on the origin of the universe and many estimates as to how old it is. But two things must be remembered.
First, all the estimates on the age of the universe are made on the basis of observing processes that are used today. It is only an assumption to say that these processes have been accurate and work now as they would have throughout the entire history of the universe.
Secondly, the Bible does not say or imply how old the earth is. Genesis 1:1 simply describes the original creation “In the beginning…” but, who is to say how long it was before God said “Let there be light.”?
Since Genesis 1 tells us that God made the sun and moon and stars on the 4th day of creation, how could God cause light to appear on the 1st day? There are many evidences to show that light exists apart from the sun but it is possible that on the first day God created the heavenly bodies and it was on the fourth day that he caused them to work as they do now.
Are the Bible and science in conflict with the origin of life? It is true that some scientific theories at this point conflict with the Bible. But, the Bible plainly states that all life comes from God and, there is nothing established by science that goes against this. Even if in the future, science is able to create life, there is a great difference between something that was meant to be done and the idea that life originated by mere chance.
In 1859, Charles Darwin published his famous book, “The Origin of Species”. In this book he attempted to show that evolution of plant and animal life has happened in many aspects and that it was the concept of “survival of the fittest” that brought about these changes. Although, Darwin had much to say about evolutionary changes in different species, he did not have much to say about where these species originated.
In contrast to Darwin, Genesis 1 says that God created all vegetation and all living things “after their kinds”. The word “kind” is not the same as using the word species. The term “kind” is sometimes used in the Old Testament to refer to a larger classification. Still, God created things in their “groups” or “divisions” and no scientific evidence goes against that.
Also, understanding the meaning of the word “kind” helps us to better understand the Biblical record of Noah and the flood. Noah took beasts and cattle and birds into the ark “after their kinds”. This does not mean that he took with him every species we have today.
Genesis 1 states that God created man. Even though Genesis says “let the earth put forth vegetation” it does not say “let the earth put forth man” It does say that God said “let us make man in our image, according to our likeness”
As to the question of how long man has been on the earth, Genesis does not say. It is not likely that man has been on the earth for millions of years or even thousands upon thousands of years. The genealogies in Genesis may be in some ways incomplete but if they skipped tens of thousands of years then they would be practically worthless.
Accepting the idea that man has existed for millions of years made it easy for some people to accept false evidence. “Piltdown Man” which had been included in schoolbooks as an example of early man, was revealed later to be a hoax. While it is true that scientists themselves disproved “Piltdown Man” their original conclusions show us that we need to remember that “millions of years” theories of the origin of man are highly speculative.
Genesis 4 and 5 show men in a civilized society, but a careful reading of these chapters show that they are closely connected with Genesis 2 and 3. This seems to indicate there was not room for a gap of thousands of years between man’s origin and man’s civilization.
Difficulties in the Bible continue to confuse many people today. But each person must remember that, just because he can not solve a Bible difficulty whether it is historical, scientific or anything else, it does not mean that the problem cannot be solved. More study on the subject will usually result in the answer to the problem. If in the end this is still unsatisfactory, we can wait for further research and scientific explorations to clarify confusing questions we might have.
We would be making a big mistake if we were to only study those Bible passages we find difficult or confusing. If we only concentrate on the problems we see we will miss seeing the more beautiful things in life… like a sunny day… or like someone missing the beauty of a painting because they keep staring at a perplexing speck. After all, many things in the Bible are easy to understand and much that is confusing at first can be understood after more careful reading and studying. The Christian believes that the most beautiful picture of all is a Christian life based on the Bible
Many of the problems between the Bible and science relate to the problems of the supernatural. For this reason “miracles and divine revelation” will be our next subject when we ask again “Can we believe the Bible?”
Original text and slides from "Can We Believe the Bible?", ©1983 Gospel Services, Inc. Used by permission. Various edits and new audio recordings by the Bible Study Center 2006-2014.
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