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A New Way of Explaining Contradictions in an “Inerrant” Bible

The other recent development in conservative evangelical apologetics – so far as I can discern as an outsider – is a real move to adopt serious historical scholarship on the Bible and apply it to the defense of the reliability of Scripture.   That may seem like a paradoxical move to non-evangelicals, since it is precisely serious historical scholarship that, since the 18th century, has been the major problem when it comes to the reliability of the Scripture.  In fact, it’s the *main* problem.  So, uh, how does that work?

I believe, but I may be wrong, that Mike Licona is at the forefront of this development within evangelical circles.  Two of his most popular books are Evidence for God and The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. His view is that we should not try to harmonize different Gospel accounts in every instance.  Sometimes, of course, it’s perfectly suitable and appropriate (I agree on this).  But sometimes harmonization simply leads to weirdness and implausibility.  At least in the eyes of most reasonable human beings.

And so, for example, in Matthew’s Gospel, at the Last Supper, Jesus tells Peter that he, Peter, will deny him three times that night before the cock crows.   In Mark’s Gospel, he tells Peter that he will deny him three times before the cock crows twice.  Well, which is it?  In the old style of harmonization – I thought this was funny even in my younger days – a standard reconciliation is to say that what actually happened is that Peter denied Jesus SIX times: three times before the cock crowed and three more before it crowed the second time.  Yeah, right.

The problem with that interpretation, apart from being rather risible, is that it means that none of

the Gospels indicates what Jesus actually said or what actually happened, since what *really* happened isn’t what any of the Gospels says.   Do you really want to change, or rather, sacrifice what the authors said in order to make sure they don’t disagree?

Mike has written a recent book taking a very different approach, one that actually is interested in historical research; it’s called Why Are There Differences in the Gospels (Oxford University Press, 2016).  Rather than harmonize the accounts, he tries to explain why they are different.  And they are different because …

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Who Would Invent the Story of Women at the Tomb??
Modern Evangelical Christian Apologetics



  1. Avatar
    craig@corbettlaw.org  October 21, 2019

    I was once asked if I thought the bible is inerrant. I replied, “Who cares? We are not inerrant readers.”

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      Ha! That doesn’t seem to matter to inerrantists!

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  October 21, 2019

        When did the inerrancy doctrine — that you adhered to in your younger days — originate? Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  October 22, 2019

          At the end of the 19th century at the Niagara conferences.

      • Avatar
        pianoman  October 25, 2019

        Of all the apologist, I like Mike Laconia the best. He is a good, kind and thoughtful man, unlike Billy Craig. Dr. Robert Price made the comment something about he thinks it is only a matter of time before Mike throws the towel in and joins the side of Bart! We will see!

  2. Avatar
    francis  October 21, 2019

    Dr Ehrman: I think if there were truly a god it would have used a better means of transmitting its word to all of us than on papyrus or stone or paper. It would deliver it personally don’t you think??

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Interesting question. I ahve no idea what God would do!

    • Avatar
      Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  October 22, 2019

      That question should be asked to the author or authors of that fictional character.
      But I think they will tell you that he will do in each case what they, the creators of that fictional character, wants him to do.

    • galah
      galah  October 22, 2019

      Perhaps god/God started with a big bang, creating matter and the laws of physics, allowing stuff/Us to evolve in space and time. Perhaps we’ll figure it out some day, as our understanding evolves also.

  3. Avatar
    Ficino  October 21, 2019

    Elements of Licona’s view seem to coincide with the current take in the Catholic Church, i.e. that “Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” Dei Verbum (from Vatican II)

    Twists on this have been made since, e.g. by Pope Benedict XVI in Verbum Domini. He made a point of saying that the biblical texts are founded on historical events and not myth, and that exegetes must hold to the historicity of central mysteries of the faith, such as Jesus’ institution of the eucharist and his bodily resurrection. (Sounds a little contradictory to talk about the historicity of a mystery. But maybe it’s not.)
    The inference from the above is that our construal of the literal sense of some utterance may not be the biblical author’s ASSERTION – that maybe the biblical author is asserting something other than the proposition that the text presents on a literal construal.

    There’s a 2011 book on this which I waded through a few years ago, sc. For the Sake of Our Salvation:


    I think some obvious questions follow from the view that scripture is inerrant in what it asserts:
    WHAT does it/the sacred author assert?
    WHO gets to decide what it/he is asserting?
    WHAT speech act is being performed by those words that the exegete thinks do not express an assertion? Or are we back to the old notion of Two Truths, condemned in the 13th century, by which an assertion in scripture couched as though it’s made in a literal sense is not true in its literal sense and simultaneously is true on some upper-story level? I mean to exclude here utterances that are presented as though they are simile/metaphor, parable, allegory, precept, etc.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Interesting. Somehow I don’t think Mike would want to be identified with the doctrines of the RCC!!

    • Avatar
      Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  October 22, 2019

      […] “it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.”
      The Catholic Church’s solution to the dilemma posed by this doctrinal statement is very simple: the Bible is inerrant in matters that have to do with salvation, whatever that term is, that nobody knows well.
      Of course, the question immediately comes: and who decides what are these issues relevant to our salvation?
      The Catholic Church has never presented to its parishioners a complete list of those matters of salvation. But when Catholic scholars and hierarchies are asked, they tell you the same thing: “Look at the Catechism of the Holy Catholic Church.” And secondly, they refer you to the Ecumenical Councils and the Pope’s Encyclicals in which the Supreme Pontiff, speaking “ex cathedra”, is infallible.
      This solution of centrally and institutionally controlling the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures has worked well most of the time, except, principally, in the two great Schisms: the Orthodox or Eastern and the Protestant.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  October 22, 2019

      On the one hand, I give kudos to Catholics for allowing the faithful to accept the text as literal in Genesis or as allegory (as long as they accept a real Adam and Eve). But it causes much distress and arguing amongst those faithful as to who is right! And boy, do they argue it! I really wish the Magesterium would just be clear and say it’s allegorical…except Adam and Eve, so that those more fundamental Catholics would not feel so conflicted over the findings of science.

      Plus, it would drive the fundamental Protestants nuts! 😂

      WHO gets to decide what it/he is asserting? For Catholics, it’s the Magesterium and they tend to avoid doing so. They want their cake and to eat it, too.

  4. Avatar
    Danyowell  October 21, 2019

    It’d be great to see a guest post from Mike in response to this!

  5. Avatar
    stokerslodge  October 21, 2019

    Thank you Bart, absolutely fascinating. Forgive me for asking an off topic question. Which books of the Hebrew Bible did the Sadducees regard as inspired scripture?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Certainly the Torah. It’s not clear about the others that later were everywhere accepted.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  October 22, 2019

        And the irony is that the best contemporary source we have to deal with this question is the New Testament, where Jesus seems to side with the Pharisees against the Sadducees on the question of marriage in the World to Come. [mt 22] It’s fascinating to me that Act portrays Paul as arguing that he’s been arrested basically because the Sadducees oppose the doctrine of the resurrection, which he, as a Pharisee teaches. To me the portrays Paul as an utter sophist. Am I being too harsh?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 24, 2019

          Nope, I had a student write his PhD dissertation that the book of Acts does portray Paul precisely as a Sophist — and that the historical Paul reall was one. The book was published: look up Mark Givens.

  6. Avatar
    mb71314  October 21, 2019

    It seems that Mike Licona’s “Gist Inerrancy” viewpoint has created the following Fundamental Scylla and Charybdis: Either
    1) God is a fan of using literary devices that create contradictions or fabrications of the actual space-time record OR
    2) the written Bible isn’t entirely God’s Word.

    What does one do with Hebrews 6: 18 (“…it is impossible for God to lie…) and 1) above?

    And, how does one contend with the double contradiction of false literary devices and God not allowing editing of his Words?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      On Heb. 6:18 Mike would insist it’s not a lie. And God is *inspiring* the authors, not writing for them.

      • Avatar
        mb71314  October 22, 2019

        No matter how one looks at it, the intent to deceive is there (to lie): If God “inspired” Mark to say take the staff, and then God “inspired” Matthew to say don’t take the staff in order to make it “seem” like what Jesus would say, God/God-Inspired-Matthew would be intending to deceive his readers in order to convey something that he thinks significant, which is still a lie. Technically, a space-time lie. More specifically, if Mark’s account is historically true, then the actual sound waves propagated from Jesus’s mouth to the disciples’ ears did not have a similar frequency to the sound “don’t” in Aramaic or Hebrew. That is a lie.

        And re: inspiration, I have never really seen this other than a distinction without a difference from “God wrote it.” Because, if God inspired the NT authors, as opposed to affecting them to write EXACTLY what God wanted them to write (word for word), then inspiration of Scripture seems to allow for some of the non-God approved words to make it onto the papyrus, which would then contradict 2 Tim 3: 16-17, assuming those verses included the NT as Scriptures.

  7. Avatar
    Jeff  October 21, 2019

    Glad to see Licona open to a more objective approach in biblical scholarship here. Besides him there are a couple more conservative scholars who I believe don’t always follow the party line which I am sure is a risk within their environment. Bart, with your rather extensive exposure of that community can you name any more like Licona who you more or less have an appreciation of? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Well, I like nearly all of them, except the rabid types. Craig Keener who was also there is obviously a very serious scholar. But I think both of them go only so far in their scholarship, and stop only when it starts getting dicey for their faith claims/views, and for me that’s not satisfactory.

  8. Avatar
    jeremy  October 21, 2019

    CS Lewis made *similar* arguments, according to Wheaton’s Philip Ryken:
    “Although Lewis was careful not to use the word error in the Kilby [Clyde Kilby, Former Chair of Wheaton’s English Department] correspondence, he did use it in one of his earlier letters. “Errors of minor fact are permitted to remain” in Scripture, he wrote. “One must remember of course that our modern and western attention to dates, numbers, etc. simply did not exist in the ancient world. No one was looking for that sort of truth” (Letters, vol. 3, 961, emphasis original). Thus, the Bible is not the word of God “in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science of history” (Psalms, 112).

    To give a more specific example, the large numbers given for the armies of Israel in the Old Testament led Lewis to rule out “the view that any one passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same sense as any other.” “The very kind of truth we are often demanding was,” in his opinion, “never even envisaged by the ancients” (Letters, vol. 3, 1,046, emphasis original).

    Minor factual errors were not troubling to Lewis; nor did they diminish his confidence in the overall truthfulness of the Bible. In his book The Problem of Pain he claimed, “If our Lord had committed himself to any scientific or historical statement which we knew to be untrue, this would not disturb my faith in His deity.”

    In saying this, Lewis did not actually attribute any error to the words of Jesus, but he was saying that discovering certain errors would not threaten the core of Christian orthodoxy. He went further in his essay “The World’s Last Night.” There, in addressing the seeming discrepancy between the disciples’ expectation of the imminent return of Jesus Christ and the actual timing of the second coming, Lewis said that Jesus “shared, and indeed created, their delusion” (98).”

    Source: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/inerrancy-and-the-patron-saint-of-evangelicalism-c-s-lewis-on-holy-scripture

  9. Avatar
    AstaKask  October 21, 2019

    Maybe the argument is that it’s inerrant in what matters? The important thing, the essence of the passage, is that Jesus sent out his disciples and that he gave them instructions to take as little as possible. That is true – the rest is detail.

    Have you branched out? I found recently that you can buy “Ehrman protein pudding” here in Sweden? :o)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Right! And the question is: who gets to decide what matters? For me the walking on the water doesn’t matter. So does it matter if it didn’t happen?

      Hmm… I always wanted to produce protein pudding….

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  October 23, 2019

        Maybe you could do commercials for them. “Being a Bible scholar means you sometimes eat on the job, and it’s obviously bad for you not to get regular meals. That’s why I always carry a can of Ehrmann’s protein pudding with me.”

  10. Avatar
    Nichrob  October 21, 2019

    I am having great joy watching this entire social experiment. I like you Bart was taught the full blown: no mistakes, no contradiction fundamentalism. But look what has happened over the last 30 years. 1). Scholars finally wrote and distributed books to the masses. (And I say shame on academia for not doing so earlier…!!). 2). The access of information to the “youth” through the internet eliminates the fundamentalists ability to cut off information and distribute exclusive information (brain washing). And with these factors, fundamentalism is on the defense. And I think it is hysterical…!!! Finally, I wonder how “liberal” the fundamentalist will become in the next 30 years (compared to my and your starting points)? I predict a lot… And I believe it’s because of you and many other incredible scholars AND the internet…. So thanks for your hard work….!!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Yes, I’ve wondered about that too — the mass availability of reasoned and reasonable scholarship pretty much forcing a shift…

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  October 22, 2019

        This may explain the decline in regular church attendance and growth in The “non religious” category among younger Americans.

  11. epicurus
    epicurus  October 21, 2019

    Faith based reasoning strikes again!

  12. Avatar
    Thespologian  October 21, 2019

    Mike’s technique may be proving pursuasive to his acolytes in appearing to reconcile rather than actually create strong arguments against biblical contradictions. I find there are times it’s effective to string a line from one thing to another. Even if that line seems tenuous, it’s still a line. And unfortunately, for some, a line is good enough.

  13. Avatar
    Hormiga  October 21, 2019

    Are there any instances of passages that, in your opinion, can be seen as contradictory not only in details but also in their gist/essence/teaching?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      I think the teachings of Jesus in John are very much at odds with his teaching in the Synoptics.

      • galah
        galah  October 22, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman,
        Have you ever detailed some of the differences between the synoptic Gospels and John in a single post? If not, that would be a great read here on the forum.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 24, 2019

          Uh, probably. I’ll look to see and repost it! but just this *one* issue would take a few posts to establish, so it’ snot as simple as pointing out a contradiction in a detail.

  14. epicurus
    epicurus  October 21, 2019

    Here is a quote on the problems of defining inerrancy from a Charles Ryrie Study Bible from 1979, but I think it’s actually from an earlier book he wrote in the 1960’s. Anyway seems like not much has changed in trying to define the slippery fish of inerrancy:

    Just to illustrate how times have changed, not many years ago all one had to say to affirm his belief in the full inspiration of the Bible was that he believed it was “the Word of God.” Then it became necessary to add “the inspired Word of God.” Later he had to include “the verbally, inspired Word of God.” Then to mean the same thing he had to say “the plenary (fully), verbally, inspired Word of God.” Then came the necessity to say “the plenary, verbally, infallible, inspired Word of God.” Today one has to say “the plenary, verbally, infallible, inspired, and inerrant-in-the original manuscripts Word of God.” And even then, he may not communicate clearly!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Ha! I was a big Charles Ryrie fan back in the day….

  15. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  October 21, 2019

    If the conclusion is required to be that the Bible is inerrant (just because) (because it IS, dammit, shut up!), then they have to conclude that it is inerrant.

    It would be very polite for you to stand back and let them acknowledge modern scholarship and give them some room to work out how to reconcile it with their requirement of inarrancy. You will inevitably get to “win” in the end. You can even say “I told you so,” if it makes you feel better when the time comes.

    But right now, the guys who are trying to make sense of modern scholarship are taking giant scary chances with fate, and it is just mean to taunt them. You might even add to their burden enough to drive them back underground, leaving the congregants in turmoil for yet another generation. I vote that you should take pity on them and hold back while they work it out.

  16. Avatar
    Salmonguy  October 21, 2019

    It seems to me that the Evangelical movement have painted themselves into a corner going down the rode of inerrancy. Surely before the Holiness Movement at the turn our century they did not think like this?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      It all started at the end of the 19th century at the “Niagara Conferences”

  17. Avatar
    mathieu  October 21, 2019

    ” So the stories themselves are accurate in the gist of what they are saying. The details may vary, but the details are not what matter to the author. It is the gist of the story that matters. And there are no mistakes in the gist of the matter.”

    So the gist of the bible may be Do good to others but the detail that Jesus is God may be wrong?

    Works for me, actually.

  18. Avatar
    Stephen  October 21, 2019

    But doesn’t the fact that Matthew felt able to make changes to Mark’s text indicate that he didn’t think Mark was inerrant?


  19. Avatar
    RAhmed  October 21, 2019

    It’s what conservatives these days would call “alternative facts”.

  20. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  October 21, 2019

    Nothing, not light nor heat nor anything else, can escape from a black hole within its event horizon. But this violates the 1st law of thermodynamics. So Steven Hawking used quantum physics to explain, that, yes, energy at least in the form of heat CAN escape (quantum tunneling). Hawking used equations which required his INTUITING the existence of “gray body factors.” Without this assumption, the equations don’t work, no reconciliation.
    Einstein invented his “cosmological constant” to explain contradictions within relativity. Etc.
    So this sort of clever inventiveness is hardly limited to proving biblical inerrancy.
    The difference is that, at least for most of us, whether-or-not energy can escape from a black hole has no bearing on whether we will enjoy eternal blissful life (or eternal torment) after death, or whether Jesus was raised from the dead. If ya gotta hold onto this, good luck convincing (with) these guys and gals.

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