During discourse on religion, nonbelievers generally acknowledge that criticism of character doesn’t prove fictionality.
In other words, showing that the Judeo-Christian god is a monster because he murders innocent people for the crimes of others, commands his followers to commit genocide against women and children, orders the execution of nonbelievers, non-virgins, and homosexuals, or simply lies to people (see Absolutely Horrific Things You Didn’t Know Were in the Bible) does not mean he does not exist. Showing God is an evil madman because he crafts a divine plan in which one age calls for followers to destroy their neighbors and the next calls for them to love their neighbors (see Either God Changes or He’s Psychotic: Comparing Testaments Old and New) does not mean he’s complete fiction.
A deity could exist but simply be violent, morally inept, or unpleasant. Or, from the perspective of the religious, God could use violence and oppression out of “love” for his favored creations, wiping out civilizations so the Jews could get their land or destroying sinners so others would be scared straight.
Now, there are many sensible reasons to suppose the Judeo-Christian god, like so many others, is a man-made fiction, but they are not addressed here. Instead, our attention must turn to the common claims that the Bible has never been changed over time by various scribes nor contains internal contradictions.
Showing that it has and does will of course not disprove God either (just as showing changes to or contradictions in Homer’s works will not disprove the Greek gods). It could be a deity exists that does not mind flawed or edited scriptures. Yet showing such common claims are demonstrably false is valuable in itself, because the truth seems important to most people.
The Bible’s internal contradictions vary in their degree of debatability.
Take for example Genesis 6:3, where God says to himself, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” Yet in Genesis 9:29, Noah dies at the ripe old age of 950. Other characters live for many centuries after this as well. Though this is strange, perhaps we can say God changed his mind (if that is even possible for a being that knows the future), only meant average people and not special folks like Noah, or was actually speaking of how many years remained before the flood that destroyed humanity.
When God says “And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female” in Genesis 6:19, but then says “Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate” in Genesis 7:2-3, was he changing his mind? Or was he simply clarifying, in that all creatures would have at least one pair, but some special ones would have more?
Sometimes reimagining the timing of events can help fix contradictions. Why would Matthew 26:17-20, Mark 14:12-17, and Luke 22:7-14 explicitly state that Jesus and the 12 ate the Passover the evening before he was killed, but the pharisees in John 18:28, when Jesus is being convicted and murdered, be thinking of eating the Passover that evening — indicating it hasn’t happened yet? John 13:1 has a last supper, but it isn’t described as the Passover. Well, one can say Jesus simply ate the Passover a day early (on the evening the Day of Preparation begins rather than on the evening it ends, when Jews were supposed to, for those of you who know much about this alleged contradiction). Jesus knew he would be killed the next day, after all, and wouldn’t get to eat the Passover on the appropriate evening. The first three gospels never indicate this is an early Passover, they simply say it was the Passover meal. The last supper in John is described as “just before” the Passover festival, but isn’t called the Passover at all. Still, the gospels never say it wasn’t an early Passover meal, so why not assume it was to avoid contradiction?
Now, consider who went to Jesus’ tomb with Mary Magdalene. Is Mary Magdalene seemingly alone (as in John 20:1), with “the other Mary” (Matthew 28:1), with the other Mary and Salome (Mark 16:1-2), or with Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and “the other women” (Luke 24:10)? Are these conflicting accounts? Or do some authors just not bother to mention some of the folks with Mary Magdalene? Similar questions should be asked concerning who buried Jesus. Was it Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin council, seemingly alone (Mark 15:43-46)? Did Nicodemus, also a member of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1) help him (John 19:39-40)? Or was it seemingly the Sanhedrin as a whole (Acts 13:27-29), even though “all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death” (Mark 14:55)? Why would they all help bury him if they were the ones who pushed Pilate to kill him?
And what of the incident in the temple-turned-market? While Matthew (21:12-13) and Mark (11:15-17) have Jesus driving the merchants from the temple at the end of his ministry, John has it at the beginning (2:15-16), right after Jesus’ very first miracle! The stories are clearly the same: he overturns the tables of the money changers and dove sellers, then says, “It is written…‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers'” (Matthew, Mark) or “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John). Are we to believe the same incident happened twice? And each author ignored one of them? Or does temporal sequence really not matter at all?
Next look at Matthew 16:24-28, when Jesus, after describing returning with his angels and rewarding all according to his or her deeds, says to the people with him, “Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (The same is promised in Mark 8:38-9:1 and 13:24-30, with the same context of “after that tribulation” when the “stars will be falling from heaven” with “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”) This very much sounds like the Last Judgement discussed in Revelation, when Jesus will be “coming with the clouds” (1:7), the “armies of heaven” (19:14) with him, but also his “reward,” to “give to each person according to what they have done” (22:12-13).
Yet the people Jesus spoke to are all dead.
They tasted death before the Last Judgement. (The myth of the Wandering Jew, someone from Jesus’ time who is still alive today and will be until Jesus’ return, arose in the Middle Ages to “fix” this problem.) But we shall keep an open mind. Perhaps Jesus changed his mind or was speaking about his crucifixion and resurrection as many believers insist, despite blatant references and similarities to the Last Judgement story.
Consider another example. Although we are assured that “it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:16-18), we are also assured God can in fact “deceive” people (Ezekiel 14:9, Ezekiel 20:25-26), even that “God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie” (2 Thess. 2:11-12). So is it possible for God to “deceive” and “delude” people, but not “lie” to them? Perhaps a believer would insist a lie has to be spoken, whereas a deception or delusion doesn’t, so there is no contradiction. But others would say that because a lie is a deception, and God is capable of deception, that it is possible for God to lie — meaning this is a contradiction.
Excuses become a bit harder to create with other verses.
Mark 15:37-38: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!'”
Matthew 27:50-52: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.”
Both describe the same event: the temple curtain is torn in two when Jesus dies.
Now to Luke 23:44-46:
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
In Luke, the temple curtain is torn before Jesus dies. There is even enough time for Jesus to say his final words in between.
Believers may shrug this off (“What difference does it make?”), but this is precisely what nonbelievers mean when we talk about internal contradictions. Both stories cannot be true — unless we suppose the Bible breaks out of chronological patterns at our convenience (so Luke is accurate, and Mark and Matthew align neatly because “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” refers to an event before Jesus breathes his last, even though it’s positioned after, alongside other events that do happen after, such as an earthquake). In this effort, the word “then” is simply ignored as meaningless.
Other contradictions have even less wiggle room.
- Matthew 8:5, Luke 7:3, and Luke 7:6 are confused as whether the centurion found Jesus himself or if he sent elders (or “friends”).
- In Matthew 27:3-8, Judas hangs himself; in Acts 1:16-19 he falls headlong and his body bursts, spewing his bowels on the ground.
- In Matthew 27:3-10, the chief priests buy a field (the Field of Blood) with the blood money Judas returned to them; in Acts 1:16-19, Judas himself bought the Field of Blood with the blood money, which he kept.
- Mark 5:21-43 and Matthew 9:18-26 tell the story of a synagogue leader (named Jairus in Mark) who comes to Jesus begging him to heal his daughter. Jesus goes with the man, but is interrupted by a woman, who has suffered from bleeding for 12 years, touching Jesus’ clothing to heal herself. The woman is magically cured, and Jesus continues on and raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead. But in Mark, Jairus says his “daughter is at the point of death” (5:23) to Jesus but is informed when he arrives home that “your daughter is dead” (5:35). But in Matthew, Jairus originally says to Jesus, “My daughter has just died” (9:18). Did Jairus believe his daughter was about to die or already had passed?
- Exodus 33:20 and John 1:18 claim no one has ever seen God and lived, forgetting Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 other people (Exodus 24:9-11), Adam and Eve during their time in the Garden, Hagar (who seems amazed to have “stayed alive here after seeing Him,” Genesis 16:13, NLV), and Abraham (Genesis 18:1-13).
- Matthew 21:12-19 and Mark 11:12-17 can’t agree on whether Jesus cursed a fig tree before driving merchants from the temple or the day after.
- 2 Kings 8:26 says Ahaziah was 22 when he began to reign; some versions of 2 Chronicles 22:2 say 42. (Some Biblical scholars, even those at Ken Ham’s ultraconservative Answers in Genesis, admit this may be a copyist’s error!) Biblical footnotes acknowledge this error:
- 2 Kings 24:8 says Jehoiachim was 18 when he became king; 2 Chronicles 36:9 says he was 8. (This difference has likewise been called a copyist error by Christian groups like Third Millennium Ministries.) This is also described as a mistake in Bible footnotes:
- Mark 15:25 says Jesus was crucified at the third hour (9 a.m.), after being convicted by Pilate, mocked, beaten, and made to carry his cross; John 19:14-15 says Jesus wasn’t even convicted by Pilate until the sixth hour (noon). Some apologists insist Mark was using Jewish timekeeping (so the third hour was 9 a.m., three hours after sunrise) and John was using Roman timekeeping (so the sixth hour was actually 6 a.m., six hours after midnight — not noon). Yet two dozen translations of John (NIV, NLT, MSG, etc.) say it was “noon.” Only four say it was “six in the morning” (GW, HCSB, ICB, NOG). Which is it?
- 2 Samuel 6:23 says Michal had no children before she died; 2 Samuel 21:8 says she had five (at least, some versions do; as Answers in Genesis explains, some manuscripts have “Michal” but others have “Merab,” Michal’s sister, which is now widely used in modern Bibles).
- Acts 9:7 says the men with Paul on the road to Damascus heard the sound of the Lord; Acts 22:9 says they did not.
- In Matthew 28:2, the stone of Jesus’ tomb is rolled away by an angel in front of the women who come to visit, during an earthquake; in the other gospels, the stone has already been rolled away when they arrive.
- Matthew 28:2-7 and Mark 16:5 say one angel (Mark actually says “man”) appeared to the women; Luke 24:4 and John 20:12 say it was two (Luke actually says “men”).
- Mark 16:8 says the women said nothing of their experience; in the other gospels they report it immediately.
- In Matthew 28:2-9, Mary does not see Jesus before going back from the tomb to the disciples; in John 20:2-14, she does.
- Jesus first appears to all 11 disciples either on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:5-17) or in a room in Jerusalem (Luke 24:33-39).
- While Matthew 10 and Mark 3 include Thaddeus in the 12 disciples, he is not mentioned in Luke, John, or Acts (instead, there is a Jude/Judas, son of James, who is not in Matthew or Mark). Also, in John chapter 1, it is implied that a Nathanael joins Christ’s 12. He is not mentioned in the other gospels or Acts.
- In John 13-17, the Last Supper scene, Jesus marvels, saying, “Now I am going to the one who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?'” (John 16:5) right after Peter asks him, “Lord, where are you going?” (13:36) and Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going” (14:5).
- As Moses is trying to free his people from Pharaoh, God’s fifth plague is the “plague on livestock,” during which “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Exodus 9:6). But during the seventh plague, the hail, the Egyptians have livestock again: “Those who ignored the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the field” (Exodus 9:21-22). After the hail, the firstborn of the livestock then died in the tenth plague (Exodus 12:29)!
Though the human imagination can conjure explanations for why two stories are radically different (“Judas hung himself, but the rope snapped and his body exploded when he hit the ground”), this doesn’t rule out the possibility that one of the stories, or both, are flawed or fictional.
New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus) was shocked to discover for himself the story of Christ and the adulteress (“Let he who is without sin throw the first stone”) is not in our oldest copy of John. He says:
The story is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John; its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including the stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel. The conclusion is unavoidable: this passage was not originally part of the Gospel.
Likewise, the last 12 verses of the Gospel of Mark are missing in our earliest manuscripts. They end with Mary Magdalene and two women finding the empty tomb and meeting an angel who says Jesus has risen from the dead. The earliest texts end with verse 16:8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
Perhaps we can give these texts the benefit of the doubt, and suppose they were included but were lost over time — even though many New Testament scholars admit this is probably not the case, and Biblical footnotes are quite open about the issue:
In addition, there’s the Comma Johanneum. While later New Testament texts included an explicit mention of a Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8, earlier texts do not. The Latin Vulgate reads:
These are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness on earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.
But earlier Greek manuscripts read:
These are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.
Christian sites like Compelling Truth admit:
The evidence for this longer, more direct statement as part of the original text of 1 John, however, is not strong. Its presence was not known in Greek until manuscripts of the fifteenth century. Even then, most versions are found only in Latin translations. The Greek linguist Erasmus did not include this longer ending in his earlier editions of the Greek New Testament, yet included it in later editions (beginning with the third edition) after pressure from the Roman Catholic Church.
Today, some Bibles stick with the original Greek, admitting in footnotes that the later Latin Vulgate speaks of the Trinity but that it’s “not found in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century”:
Finally, as Ian McEwan notes in “The End of the World Blues,” one of the earliest copies we have of Revelations 13:18, the Oxyrhynchus P115, gives the number of the beast as 616, not 666!
The same is true of a few other younger manuscripts (Codex C/04 from the 1500s, for example). So even while Christian writers point out that many more manuscripts contain 666, they must admit that “two equally old papyri have both readings – 666 and 616” — our two oldest papyri, to be specific, both from the 3rd century. A famous bishop named Irenaeus, writing Against Heresies around 175-185 A.D., even had to argue that 666 was the correct number: “I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one.” Whichever number came first is up for debate (perhaps we can trust Irenaeus had seen the original texts or was incapable of error, though we have zero evidence of this), it doesn’t really matter to our purposes here.
What matters is that someone, at some point, changed something. Bibles with errors existed — and still do.
For more of the thousands of changes enacted accidentally (through translation and copy errors) and intentionally (to serve personal preferences and beliefs, and to try to create a consistent doctrine) by Christian scribes and church leaders, see Misquoting Jesus.
Indeed, the scriptures are still changing in substantial ways today, from the English Standard Version making it sound like women are the source of marital conflict to the Christian Standard Bible replacing male-centric language with gender-inclusive language (or “political correctness,” as critics put it). There have also been efforts to make the text less explicitly sexist. For example, most translations of Isaiah 19:16 (NLT, KJV, NASB, ESV, etc.) say that Egyptians will become fearful “like women,” accurately using the original Hebrew word nashim (women), the NIV changes it to “weaklings.” It does the precise same thing with Nahum 3:13.
The places where different translations of the bible substantially change the text are indeed too numerous to list here in full, but one common one is 1 Samuel 6, where God either kills 70 people or 50,000 people. Another is 1 Chronicles 20:3. Some translations have David putting captives “to work with saws” (NRSV), others say David “cut them with saws” (KJV).
The Most Interesting Contradiction of All
Finally, a closer look at one of the most fascinating contradictions in the Bible.
The lineages of the Hebrews offered in 1 Chronicles 1-3, Matthew 1:1-17, and Luke 3:23-38 are radically different, in the number of generations between certain people, and the people included.
Matthew has 28 generations from David and Jesus, Luke has 44 from David to Jesus, only a few names in these lists are the same, and different people are given for Joseph’s father (Jacob v. Heli). 1 Chronicles doesn’t go all the way to Jesus, but after David it includes 5 people Matthew leaves out, and has only 3 people Luke mentions.
Believers explain Matthew was documenting the passing of the title of king (not always biological descendants, nor direct between generations, as time could go by without a king), Luke was documenting Mary’s lineage (biologically, using the males), and Chronicles the direct, biological descendants of Adam.
Plausible enough. After David, the royal line goes one way with one of his sons, Mary’s ancestors another way with an unlucky son. Different lists, different people. Some people could end up on both lists, like Shealtiel and Zerubabbel, through adoption, marriage, remarriage, incest — the typical shuffling around of a royal family in ancient times. Zerubabbel is called Shealtiel’s son in Matthew, Luke, and elsewhere, but in Chronicles it’s his nephew; believers speculate that Shealtiel adopted Zerubabbel. There is no problem imagining an adopted son would be called “son” in a lineage.
Believers speculate, also, that a son-in-law would be called a son; so while in Luke it says Joseph was Heli’s son, perhaps he was Heli’s son-in-law, and the actual son of Jacob. They conclude Heli was Mary’s father, and though the Bible doesn’t say this anywhere, it is possible.
Believers also claim part of the reason why Matthew has so few generations from David to Jesus is because the royal line could pause. If the king died and there was no heir, it could be a while before a new one was found or decided upon. Plausible, but the main reason believers give is that Matthew left out generations on purpose. And this is more sensible, though not for the reason they suppose.
If you study the lineages closely, you will notice four things:
First, Matthew leaves out 5 kings from Chronicles. Why doesn’t really matter. Believers claim it was no human error (because that’s impossible when it comes to the Bible), that there were valid reasons: 3 of the kings were evil and thus stripped of their royal title, for example.
But perhaps it was on purpose for a different reason. By leaving out names, Matthew is able to say (Matthew 1:17): “All the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” Implied in this is some sort of significance.
But the author created the pattern, by leaving out people from the Chronicles lineage. It’s both technically inaccurate (there were more generations in the royal line, they were just evil) and makes one suspicious that Matthew is trying to concoct a pattern and make it sound miraculous.
Second, Matthew speaks of 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus. If you include Abraham’s generation and Jesus’ generation, Matthew speaks of 14 individual generations in 3 eras, 14 x 3 being 42. Yet he only mentions 41 names, including Abraham and Jesus. If you included Abraham and Jesus and everyone in between in your total time period in Matthew 1:17 (42 generations in all), you should list 42 specific names to match. The names don’t align with the generations.
- Abraham to David: Verse 1:17 says 14 generations. The name list confirms: Abraham to David, including David, is 14 people.
- David to Exile (which begins in Josiah’s generation): 1:17 says 14 generations, but you shouldn’t count David twice, in two generations. It must mean after David. So we don’t include David. The list says Solomon to Josiah is 13 people.
- Exile to Jesus: 1:17 says 14 generations. Obviously, we can’t count Josiah again. Leave him out. Jechoniah to Christ is 14 people.
41 people total.
The only way to get to 42 names between Abraham and Christ (including Abraham and Christ) is to count someone twice. You can count anyone twice, but it’s usually David, since he is mentioned by name in 1:17. One has to say, “David counts for one person, but two generations” to make it all fit.
Perhaps Matthew meant us to do this, but that’s not convincing. We know Matthew was willing to add people to his list (he names people absent in Chronicles) and remove others. If he wanted the special 14, 14, 14 why not simply count David once and put in another name? Why not throw in someone from Chronicles he left out? That’s much cleaner than pretending one man “represents” or lived through two generations of people. Perhaps he simply left someone out accidentally. A human error, dropping his name count to 41.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Matthew is supposed to be documenting the royal line. Yet names he mentions do not exist in Chronicles. For example: 1 Chronicles lists Zerubabbel’s children as Meshullam, Hananiah, Shelomith, Hashuba, Ohel, Berechiah, Hasadiah, and Jushab-hesed…folks Matthew doesn’t mention. He offers Abuid as Zerubabbel’s son. Luke says Rhesa is Zerubabbel’s son.
Neither Abuid nor Rhesa is mentioned in Chronicles. Chronicles tracks Hananiah’s family after Zerubabbel. If Abuid is of the royal line, why isn’t he mentioned? If Chronicles isn’t purposefully ignoring the royal line, where is Abuid? If it is documenting all of Zerubabbel’s biological children, as believers claim, where are Abuid and Rhesa?
Fourth, Luke is supposed to be writing a biological lineage. In other words, it is not supposed that he leaves people out like Matthew does. Yet long before David (that is, before Mary’s ancestry went in another direction than the royal line), Luke mentions Cainan as being between Arphraxad and Shelah. In Chronicles (also documenting a biological lineage), Cainan does not exist!