Christian Apologetics Free Course 12, Lesson 01
Analyzing Bible Difficulties 01
The Categories Of Difficulties In The Bible
History tells us that the attempt to find difficulties and contradictions in the Bible is thousands of years old. Over these millennia several thousand alleged difficulties have shaken many Bible-believing Christians, but the actual number of difficulties is far less than it at first appears. Careful analysis shows that these difficulties fall into certain categories, the total of which is not more than about two dozen.
This means that instead of a few thousand different difficulties in the Bible, there are less than two dozen types of difficulties to answer, most of which are not really difficulties at all. The actual number looks so large because hundreds of examples of same type are found, inflating the total number. Of these two dozen categories, only about a dozen are of any serious interest and it is only these we mention in this work.
Difficulties, problems, and apparent contradictions arise because of the following reasons:
1–Difficulties Arising From The Original Text: All of us know that the Holy Scriptures are absolutely infallible and inerrant, but this applies only to the original writings (or autograph). Today we do not have the original autographs with us. What we have are copies which have come to us through centuries of hand-copying.
Any type of copying is bound to introduce errors of spelling, repetition, omission, and others; the problem is compounded when this process of hand-copying is repeated for hundreds or thousands of years without the help of modern writing aids. In fact many of the ancient non-biblical books have altered so much in this process that in some cases up to 90% of the extant text of a book is corrupted. However, those men who copied the books of the Bible knew that they were not handling an ordinary book, so they took exceptional care during hand-copying. As a result, the number of errors that have crept into the biblical manuscripts are minimal, compared to other ancient manuscripts.
The hand-copying process resulted in some errors of translation in the King James Version, that most people use in English. Some of these errors have crept into other languages also because of the same influence. However, the tens of thousands of ancient biblical manuscripts available today have helped Bible scholars to restore the original text with great certainty. Another difficulty of the original text is the language. The ancient Hebrews did not write like contemporary authors. Their written language had only capital letters. Further, their alphabet contains no vowels and, to compound the problem, the words were not separated from one another. Thus the original written form of Genesis 1:1 might have looked something like: NTHBGGNNNGGDCRTD…
and 1 John 1:9 might have looked like:
These examples are given in English, but are sufficient to explain what the biblical text might have looked like in its original Hebrew. The words were finally separated, and vowels inserted, by modern scribes. Even a single wrong division or insertion of vowel by them could drastically change the meaning of the original, though the original text is still intact. Further, instead of numerals, the ancient Hebrews used letters of the alphabet to express numbers. Thus names and words could often be numbers and vice versa, adding to the potential problems.
Interestingly most copyists’ errors are of such a nature that they do not affect the essential nature of the message of the Bible. Nor do any such errors affect any major doctrine of the Bible. This is because most of the errors are related to spelling and numbers (such as some ages mentioned in the chronologies) which do not affect the Bible’s message.
A good proportion of the alleged difficulties are based upon the King James Version of the Bible which was translated about four hundred years ago. But since this translation has been done, archaeologists have discovered thousands of ancient biblical manuscripts, some of which are more than two thousand years old. The science of recovering the original text by comparison of these manuscripts has developed to a high degree of precision, and many scholars have painstakingly worked out the original text with great certainty. All of this has helped scholars to make the newer translations like the New American Standard Bible and the New King James Version more accurate, even in trivial matters like numbers and ages mentioned in genealogies. It must be understood very clearly that there is no other ancient book of comparable age and size which is represented by so many ancient manuscripts and therefore we are fully able to reconstruct the original autographs to a high level of precision without actually having them in our possession. Secondly, even though many errors had crept into the manuscripts used for making translations like the KJV, most of the errors (over 90%) were insignificant in nature. The small number of significant errors do not affect sincere readers because, by comparison of different manuscripts, the original words are being retrieved. In essence, no copyist’s error has affected the essential message of the Bible and the remaining non-significant errors are now being corrected by scholars involved in Textual Criticism.
2–Difficulties Arising Out Of Translation Problems: Translating matter recorded in one language into another is quite difficult. The difficulty increases many fold when idiomatic expressions from an extinct language, representing the speech pattern of an ancient society, have to be translated into present-day speech. The problems faced by Bible translators are beyond imagination, and these difficulties will automatically introduce many unknown errors into the translated text.
Sometimes a Hebrew or Greek word can be translated by many different words in another language, none of which might be adequate for a satisfactory translation. Translators can choose only one word, but that choice might not be fully appropriate. Further, if they use the same word throughout the Bible to translate the original word, they are being to narrow, and their language becomes too rigid. On the other hand, if they use different words in different places (as the context demands) to translate the same word in the original, then they may raise many other possible difficulties to the reader as well as for the expositor. As a consequence, every translation has to depend upon numerous carefully weighed compromises, and this is bound to cause many problems when the translation is widely circulated.
The original autographs of the Bible were verbally inspired by God, and therefore they are inerrant and infallible, but the same is not true of translations. The paraphrases are removed further from the original text. Even the most faithful translation of the Bible contains some paraphrases, biases of the translators, wrong equivalents, and also archaisms. Archaic words are those which have lost or changed their original meaning so that they no longer mean what the translator intended them to mean.
In addition to this, the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament uses hundreds of different figures of speech. It is not always easy for a translator to recognize them, and even after a correct recognition, it is not always easy to convey the full meaning into another language. In I Thessalonians. 4:4 there is an expression about possessing one’s "vessel", an expression not at all easy for the translator. The Greek word used here for vessel may mean not only an actual vessel, but also a ship, the human body, and also one’s wife. Even though all these meanings do not have equal weight for this Greek word, they are all important to understanding the correct meaning of the commandment. This puts the translator in a very difficult position because no other language in the world may have an exactly equivalent word, with all these meanings attached to it. Many difficulties arise out of these problems of translations.
Instances of translation-related problems abound both in the Bible as well as in common life. For example’ "hitting the bull’s eye" is in common use in English. But many non-English translators have translated this expression literally into their languages (when translating books), creating havoc with the message. When translating the Bible it is common to find non-English speakers translating "the lamb of God" into their native languages as "God’s sheep’s child".
Today many wonder about the use of the term "sister" for lover in Song Of Solomon 4:9. The problem has been created by a literal translation of an endearing word that does not make sense to a non-Hebrew. The Scriptures have many sex-related words that sounded perfectly normal to the Hebrews, but that might be offensive to others if translated literally. Thus the translators are forced to substitute euphemisms, or even symbolic words instead of making an accurate translation.
3–Difficulties Arising Out Of False Interpretation Of The Bible: The Bible speaks about numerous subjects: history, geography, politics, ethics, psychology, human relationships, etc. These statements have definite and clear cut meanings because God does not deal in ambiguities. However, this does not imply that every person will necessarily understand everything found in the Bible. No human being can understand all human truth, and therefore it naturally follows that NO human can understand the whole of the divine truth.
Once a difficulty arises in the Bible, the human mind tries to solve the problem by substituting a possible interpretation for the intended meaning. Obviously all interpretations will have a human prejudice in them and therefore the number of such interpretations might increase. Some of these interpretations might violently contradict the ideas cherished by others, and this might upset many people about the Bible. But the problem here is not with the Bible, but with the differing viewpoints of the people who are trying to bring out the possible meaning or implication of the biblical text under consideration.
Many times people’s philosophical backgrounds bias them to such an extent that they start viewing the Bible in the light of these wrong notions. For example, for thousands of years people all over the world were under the influence of the Aristotelian cosmology, according to which the earth is flat and also the center of the solar system. Since this was the most dominant idea, almost all the people who read the Bible (laymen as well as scholars), interpreted many passages in the Bible to imply that the earth is the center of the solar system. Thus when the heliocentric view (according to which the sun is the center of the solar system) was advanced, a number of theologians rose up to oppose this view. They were all labouring under the false notion that the Bible conforms to their Aristotelian philosophy, and that if anyone dared to question this philosophy, he was questioning the Bible.Nothing could be farther from the truth, but this kind of behavior can be seen even today.
Even now there are people who believe that the earth is flat and that all the pictures which show the earth to be a sphere are clever fakes. Interestingly, many of these people claim that they have come to this conclusion about the solar system from their study of the Bible. However, to an honest reader, who is willing to permit the use of figurative expressions in describing natural phenomena, it will become obvious that the Bible supports neither the concept of a flat earth, nor the geocentric/heliocentric solar systems.
When the activities of the infinite God are expressed using the finite language and limited concepts of mankind, difficulties are bound to arise. Most of the difficulties are of predictable nature, and this is why we are studying the categories of difficulties. Once people are familiar with the commonest types of errors, they will be in a good position to tackle old as well as new problems when they are thrown at them.
4–Difficulties Arising Out Of A Wrong Conception Of The Bible: Many people think that when we say that the Bible is the word of God, of divine origin and authority, then it means that every statement in the Bible has come from the mouth of God. But this is definitely a wrong notion. The Bible contains a record of what regenerate AND fallen men have spoken, what the good AND the fallen angels have spoken, and also what God has spoken. Divine inspiration only implies that all that is recorded has actually taken place exactly as stated in the word of God. It does not imply that all of it represents truth. Rather, both the truth as well as the false statements of men and spirit beings, and even of animals, are recorded so that we might be instructed and warned when we study them in the light of the entire revealed word of God.
For example, the fool’s comment that ‘there is no God’ is not recorded to imply that it is true, but to instruct us in what a human heart thinks when it is bent upon foolishness. The story of Jephthah in Judges 11, in which he vows to sacrifice that which comes to meet him, is not to approve what he did but rather to demonstrate the folly of hasty decisions. The story of the unrighteous steward is recorded in Luke chapter 16 not to commend his unrighteousness, but rather to demonstrate how wise the worldly people are in money matters. A good portion of the book of Ecclesiastes demonstrates how regenerated persons think when they are out of fellowship with God.
All kinds of statements uttered by men and spirit beings, and even by animals, are recorded in the Bible, not to approve them but to instruct us in what is right and what is wrong. All statements must be examined in the light of the entire word of God to see what God wants us to learn from them. In Daniel 2:11 we find a very interesting reference to the polytheistic ideas of the wise men who attended King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. But this does not mean that the Bible condones polytheism. Similarly, comparing Isaiah 36:10 with 37:6 brings out a false claim, but it does not imply that the Scriptures endorse it.