1 Peter 3:15)
Alice C. Linsley
Supposed "contradictions" are one of the excuses people sometimes offer for rejecting the claims of Jesus Christ. Often these same people have little first-hand acquaintance with the Bible. They are uncritically repeating a lie.
When we consider the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, ministry, death and resurrection we do not encounter contradictions. We find discrepancies that result from different perspectives. In fact, if the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John agreed in every minute detail, we would have evidence of collusion among the witnesses. We would have reason to be suspicious.
J. Warner Wallace is a cold-case homicide detective and a Christian case maker at Stand to Reason. He applied his expertize in forensic investigation to the Gospels and concluded that the testimonies are authentic. Wallace writes, "The Christian life is a rational and reasonable life that is rooted and grounded in the evidence of the Resurrection and the truth of the Bible. Christians are saved by placing their trust in Jesus, but Christians become a powerful force in their world when they commit themselves to being 'case makers' for what they believe."
My father was an attorney who handled criminal cases. He knew how to cross-examine witnesses and how to detect collusion. He was impressed after reading the different Gospel accounts by how they agree on the main events but note different details. Had they all given exactly the same testimony he would have reason to doubt them, as that is a sign of collusion or conspiracy.
That there are different accounts of an event does not mean the event was invented, nor does it indicate fabrication on the part of the witnesses. Recognition of the different contexts of Biblical writers is also recognition that they represent real people in history. Consider how this is so.
Genesis 46:27 in the Septuagint says, "Thus all the souls of Jacob's house who went to Egypt were seventy-five" but the Masoretic says, "....all the persons of the house of Jacob, that came into Egypt, were seventy." There is no contradition here, but rather a significant discrepancy that testifies to different contexts. For the Masoretes 70 represented fullness and was not intended to be taken as an exact number of people. The Sanhedrin, for example, consisted of 70 men, never more and never less. Further, the number 70 referenced the number of appointed ones in their tradition and implies that those who went down into Egypt were appointed.
Numbers in the Bible are usually symbolic and reflect a specific contexts. For example, the number 40, as in the phrase "40 days and 40 nights" has a Nilotic context. The Nile flooded for 40 days and the people who had left their homes waited another 40 nights before returning home. It took "40 days and 40 nights" for the waters to recede. Though the book of Daniel is rich in number symbolism it is significant that the number 40 does not appear in that book. The context of Daniel is Babylonian rather than Nilotic and the Babylonian number symbolism is different.
The Masoretes were Temple scholars of the 6th–10th centuries AD, long after the time of Moses. They had been greatly influenced by the theology and number symbolism of their ancestors who had been in Babylon. For the Masoretes 7 was a sacred number. The number is associated with the ancient Habiru/ Hebrew priesthood. This is evident in the priestly account of Noah's flood where Noah to told to take 7 sets of "clean" animals onto the ark. Contrast this with the older account in which Noah is told to take 1 set: male and female. (Note the binary feature; male-female, a distinguishing mark of the older version of the flood).
What I find most provocative about this discrepancy is the suggestion in the Masoretic text that not all the Habiru went with Jacob down to Egypt. This is certainly the case since many Hebrew clans besides Jacob's remained in Canaan. Among them were the clans of Seir, Elon, Esau and Uz. Uz was Job's clan.
Genesis 38 tells us that Judah, who had gone down to Egypt with his father, came back to Canaan where he had relations with Tamar. It appears that the ruling men of Jacob's clan continued to interact with kinsmen and business associates in Judah, Edom and Beersheba.
When we dig deeply into the Bible we find that discrepancies reveal different perspectives and traditions, but they also point to a shared religious tradition that can be traced to the dawn of human existence. The features of this shared tradition have been of great interest to Biblical anthropologists.
Related reading: Number Symbolism in the Bible; The Life Spans of Methuselah and Lamech; Who Is Jesus Christ?; Noah's Ark; Levi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary Oppositions; Binary Sets