I have been talking about the contradictions in the Bible and why they matter – not simply to problematize assumptions about the inerrancy of the Bible (“See: there are contradictions!”) but also for other things.  My overarching point is that they matter both for understanding the historical value of the biblical narratives and for appreciating their literary quality.

In terms of historical value, many people read the Bible to know what actually happened in biblical times.  But if the accounts are contradictory, how can we know what happened?   I’ll later be pointing out how that is a difficult question for the New Testament, but I thought it might be useful to show how it is a fundamental problem with the Old Testament as well – right from the beginning, with the stories in Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch.

It was the contradictions that made scholars originally come to think that the Pentateuch (i.e., the first “five books” of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were not written by one person (Moses) at one time, but instead comprised a number of different sources from different authors written at different times, filled with contradictory claims.   Here is how I talk about the matter in my college-level textbook on the Bible, in the context of discussing how discrepancies began to make scholars of the nineteenth century reconfigure their understanding of the Pentateuch as something other than “objective history.”


The internal tensions came to be seen as particularly significant. Nowhere were these tensions more evident than in the opening accounts of the very first book of the Pentateuch, in the creation stories of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. Scholars came to recognize that what is said in Genesis 1 cannot be easily (or at all) reconciled with what is said in Genesis 2. These do not appear to be …

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