The following is a contribution by Fr. John Whiteford. The original article may be found here.
Recently, in a lecture given by Fr. Thomas Hopko, which has been posted on Ancient Faith Radio, Fr. Thomas made an argument very similar to things I have heard him say previously. He asserted that the Bible is full of contradictions, but that this is no big deal for us as Orthodox Christians, because we don’t have to worry about how to reconcile them. As an example of such contradictions — in fact the clearest example, according to Fr. Thomas — he pointed out that the four Gospels all have different inscriptions on the Cross of Christ. Here are what the four Gospels actually record:
“THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Matthew 27:37)
“THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mark 15:26)
“THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Luke 23:38)
“JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (John 19:19)
And he concludes his comments on this question with the statement “So much for historical accuracy.”
Does this example prove that the Bible contradicts itself or is in error? No. For one thing, if someone gives an approximate quotation of something, and another person gives a more precise quotation, and these two quotations essentially agree, but the more precise quote provides more detail, have they contradicted each other? No… they have corroborated each other.
If someone asked you to tell them about one of your parents, you would probably tell a series of stories, and in those stories there would be no doubt some quotations. The stories would probably not be in chronological order, and the quotations would probably not all be exactly verbatim. Now would it be just or fair if someone who knew that parent jumped up and called you a liar or a spreader of misinformation because your stories were not chronological, or because your quotations were approximate quotations? No. You had no intention of providing a precise chronology, or to provide a Dictaphone account. You were asked to tell what your parent was like, and you did so, selecting the most meaning stories that communicated who they were, and providing quotes that were substantively accurate.
A parent’s obituary may be true and their child’s recollections may also be true. The obituary may be more precise and more strictly chronological, but the child’s recollections are not less true… in fact they tell you a lot more about the person. An obituary has one purpose and the remembrances a child may share have another purpose.
The Gospels do not have the intention of providing a strict chronology, they have the intention of telling us who Jesus Christ was, what he did, and what all that means. If they fulfill that intention accurately, to hold up standards that they did not intend to fulfill is wherein lies the error.
Aside from all of that, we are told in two of the Gospels that the inscription on the Cross was written in three languages: Greek, Hebrew, and Latin:
“And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Luke 23:38)
“Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin” (John 19:20).
Furthermore, we are told who wrote the inscription — Pontius Pilate (John 19:22).
Now if Pontius Pilate wrote this inscription in three languages, we can be sure that he was not equally conversant in all three languages. There would have been very little reason for him to have mastered Hebrew or Aramaic, for example. Therefore, it is quite likely that the three inscriptions were not precise translations of each other. Gleason Archer, in his book “The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties“, suggests the following texts (which I am putting in English, though he puts them in Aramaic, Latin and Greek, respectively) based on a number of factors he details:
Aramaic: This is Jesus, King of the Jews.
Latin: This is the King of The Jews
Greek: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.
I cite this, not because there is any way we can be sure that this is how the inscription was actually written, but simply to point out that there are a number of plausible ways to explain the differences we find in the Gospels, and there is absolutely no basis for taking something like this, and dismissing the historical accuracy of the Gospels.
There are two basic problems with making the concession that the Scriptures contain actual errors:
1. The Fathers never make such a concession. You will never find a single Father of the Church that concedes that there are real errors or real contradictions in the Scriptures. When they encounter things that on surface appear to be contradictions on some level, they always explain how they are not contradictory rather than concede that they are real contradictions.
2. Once you go down that road, it does not stop with inconsequential errors. If you have followed some of the recent discussions about homosexuality that have been going on, particularly within the OCA, you will see that people are suggesting that St. Paul was a misogynist 1st century Jew, who had a limited understanding of sex in general and homosexuality in particular, and so perhaps some of his statements on the subject just got it wrong, or perhaps we was only talking about homosexuality in negative terms because he associated it with paganism. Had he only understood what a loving committed homosexual relationship could be, perhaps he might have come down differently on the question. This is the fruit of those who teach that the Scriptures are full of contradictions.
This is also a fundamental denial of the real inspiration of the Scriptures. If the Scriptures really are entirely inspired by God, then by that very fact, no error could be contained in it, because God does not err. If you allow that the Scriptures contain real err, then you are allowing that the Scriptures are not completely inspired, and then the question is, what parts are inspired, and what parts are not.
Now, we have to ask: In what sense the Scriptures are inerrant? The Scriptures contain quotes from the Devil, which are not truth, but truly quoted. There are differences between passages of Scripture that are not contradictory, but provide different details.
We believe that Scripture does not contain any error in anything that it intends to convey. I think St. Augustine put it about as well as anyone has:
“For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it” (Letter to St. Jerome, 1:3).
St. Gregory Nazianzus also wrote;
“We however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind down to the present day: on the contrary, their purpose has been to supply memorials and instructions for our consideration under similar circumstances, should such befall us, and that the examples of the past might serve as rules and models, for our warning and imitation” (NPNF2-07 St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration II: In Defence of His Flight to Pontus, and His Return, After His Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office , ch. 105, NPNF2, p.225).
St. John Chrysostom wrote:
“Don’t worry, dearly beloved, don’t think sacred Scripture ever contradicts itself, learn instead the truth of what it says, hold fast what it teaches in truth, and close your ears to those who speak against it” (Homily 4:8 on Genesis, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986), p. 56).
And commenting on the Apostle John’s use of Isaiah, he wrote:
“He desires hence to establish by many proofs the unerring truth of Scripture, and that what Isaiah foretold fell not out otherwise…” (Homily 68 on the Gospel of John).
St. Clement of Rome wrote:
“Ye have searched the scriptures, which are true, which were given through the Holy Ghost; and ye know that nothing unrighteous or counterfeit is written in them” (1 Clement 45:2-3).
The Fathers would never attribute error to Scripture, but unlike the Fundamentalist Protestants, they did not feel the need to be able to explain everything in Scripture. There are questions one can ask about Scripture, particularly with reference to apparent contradictions, and affirm that the Scriptures are without error, but not claim to know with any certainty how to explain a given problem.
That the Scriptures are the inspired word of God is a faith affirmation for which we can give reasons and evidence, but which is incapable of empirical verification of falsification. And so for example, I do not have to reconcile Genesis 1-2 with the current science of the day. I can try, but since I am not inerrant, my conclusions on that may or may not be accurate. But I can confess with St. Augustine that “…if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.” The Truth of Scripture does not depend on my ability to fully comprehend it, but to be faithful to the Orthodox Tradition I must confess that the Scriptures are fully inspired, without error, and that it is I who need to be corrected by the Scriptures, rather than the Scriptures that need to be corrected by me.
Now some contemporary Orthodox writers accuse anyone who says that the Scriptures are without error of being Protestant and/or Fundamentalist. The problem with this claim is that the position these people espouse has no basis in the Orthodox Tradition, but rather is itself a position taken wholly and uncritically from Protestant Liberalism… and Protestant liberalism and Protestant fundamentalism both have much more in common with each other than either has with the Orthodox Tradition.
As St. John of Kronstadt put it:
“When you doubt the truth of any person or event described in Holy Scripture, then remember that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” as the Apostle says and is therefore true, and does not contain any imaginary persons, fables, and tales, although it includes parables, which everyone can see are not true narratives, but are written in figurative language. The whole of the word of God is single, entire, indivisible truth; and if you admit that any narrative, sentence, or word is untrue, then you sin against the truth of the whole of Holy Scripture and its primordial truth, which is God Himself. “I am the truth,” said the Lord; “Thy word is truth,” said Jesus Christ to God the Father. Thus, consider the whole of the Holy Scripture as truth; everything that is said in it has either taken place or takes place (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, trans. E. E. Goulaeff (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994) p. 70).
I should also state that I respect Fr. Thomas Hopko. I have heard him say things that were so insightful that I have regularly quoted him to others. However, I could not disagree with him more on this question.
THAT THERE ARE NO CONTRADICTIONS IN HOLY SCRIPTURE
Whenever a person even slightly illumined reads the Scriptures or sings psalms he finds in them matter for contemplation and theology, one text supporting another. But he whose intellect is still unenlightened thinks that the Holy Scriptures are contradictory. Yet there is no contradiction in the Holy Scriptures: God forbid that there should be. For some texts are confirmed by others, while some were written with reference to a particular time of a particular person. Thus every word of Scripture is beyond reproach. The appearance of contradiction is due to our ignorance. We ought not to find fault with the Scriptures, but to the limit of our capacity we should attend to them as they are, and not as we would like them to be, after the manner of the Greeks and Jews. for the Greeks and Jews refused to admit that they did not understand, but out of conceit and self-satisfaction they found fault with the Scriptures and with the natural order of things, and interpreted them as they saw fit and not according to the will of God. As a result they were led into delusion and gave themselves over to every kind of evil.
The person who searches for the meaning of the Scriptures will not put forward his own opinion, bad or good; but, as St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom have said, he will take as his teacher, not the learning of this world, but Holy Scripture itself. Then if his heart is pure and God puts something unpremeditated into it, he will accept it, providing he can find confirmation for it in the Scriptures, as St. Antony the Great says. For St. Isaac says that the thoughts that enter spontaneously and without premeditation into the intellects of those pursuing a life of stillness are to be accepted; but that to investigate and then to draw one’s own conclusions is an act of self-will and results in material knowledge.
This is especially the case if a person does not approach the Scriptures through the door of humility but, as St. John Chrysostom says, climbs up some other way, like a thief (cf. John 10:1), and forces them to accord with his allegorizing. For no one is more foolish than he who forces the meaning of the Scriptures or finds fault with them so as to demonstrate his own knowledge — or, rather, his own ignorance. What kind of knowledge can result from adapting the meaning of the Scriptures to suit one’s own likes and from daring to alter their words? The true sage is he who regards the text as authoritative and discovers, through the wisdom of the Spirit, the hidden mysteries to which the divine Scriptures bear witness.
The three great luminaries, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom, are outstanding examples of this: they base themselves either on the particular text they are considering or on some other passage of Scripture. Thus no one can contradict them, for they do not adduce external support for what they say, so that it might be claimed that it was merely their own opinion, but refer directly to the text under discussion or to some other scriptural passage that sheds light on it. And in this they are right; for what they understand and expound comes from the Holy Spirit, of whose inspiration they have been found worthy. No one, therefore, should do or mentally assent to anything if its integrity is in doubt and cannot be attested from Scripture. For what is the point of rejecting something who integrity Scripture clearly attests as being in accordance with God’s will, in order to do something else, whether good or not? Only passion could provoke such behaviour.