Especially if you’re reading the Bible for the first time, you might find yourself raising an eyebrow as you come across what might seem like conflicting Bible verses.
The Bible is supposed to be the Word of God, right? Isn’t it an inspired work of literature meant to guide people into a relationship with Him?
So why would it sometimes say one thing in one place, and then contradict itself in another?
Well, that’s what this page is all about.
Does the Bible contradict itself? Short answer, no. But that answer is worth developing a bit, especially since it can really seem like it contradicts itself.
Here’s what you can expect to learn about biblical contradictions from this post:
- Common “contradictions” in the Bible
- Contextual factors to guide our reading
- Helpful tools for studying scripture
Let’s jump right in with some topics that seem like contradictions in the Bible—but actually, when explained, are in harmony with one another.
Common “contradictions” in the Bible
When skeptics construct lists of Bible contradictions, one thing is usually ignored: context. Context is one of the most important things to consider when reading the Bible.
Often, the Bible is misused as a grab-bag. Some people, while they may have good intentions, tend to pull out verses that might sound abrupt, definitive, or finger-pointy when separated from their context.
But when readers do that, they ignore the fact that the Bible is unified. It is meant to be read as a multi-faceted narrative and not as a glorified list, or as a collection of sections that are independent of one another.
That’s why, for all of these seeming discrepancies, context is the solution.
It can start with the simplest of questions: Why?
Why would the Bible say this?
Because that logically means we need to look more closely in order to figure that out.
What is the reasoning behind these words? What are the circumstances in which this was said?
Because when it comes down to it, two verses cannot truly contradict each other unless they are also claiming to apply to the same context, which could mean:
- Relationship to speaker/author
- Intended audience
We’ll dive further into those specifics of context later on (so stay tuned!), but for now, knowing that context is key will help us parse through sections of the Bible that seem like they don’t get along.
Let’s start by looking at some seemingly contradicting verses about Sabbath.
Two different passages about the Sabbath
The 10 Commandments seem pretty clear about the Sabbath. In fact, the Sabbath commandment—the fourth one—is the longest one in the entire section.
Written specifically for the newly-liberated children of Israel, the fourth commandment begins,
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your GodExodus 20:8-10, ESV
Yet, in Romans 14:5, Paul writes to the church in Rome:
One person esteems one days as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (ESV)
While there is no specific mention of the Sabbath here, it would seem, just from reading those two verses separately, that Paul’s telling the Christian church in Rome that the Sabbath isn’t all that important. Even though the 10 commandments clearly highlight it. After all, it’s a day that we’re to treat as a special blessing above the other days each week, right?
So what’s Paul getting at here?
Let’s look at the context.
In the letter to the Romans, particularly in chapter 14, Paul is addressing a common social problem among the early believers in this area. And he’s also seeing that this could be good a lesson for anyone.
Paul is telling the early believers not to judge each other for their habits and traditions. That is, he’s telling them not to categorize people’s spiritual worth or growth by their cultural activities.
Why would he be doing this? Well, it’s likely that Paul was trying to help unite the Jews and Gentiles that were now worshiping together.
The Jewish members of the early Christian church had a very strong foundation of traditions and very specific laws. These often caused conflict between the Jewish members of the church and the “gentile,” or non-jew members of the church, who weren’t as familiar with these traditions.
Paul actually isn’t talking about the Sabbath, then. He is talking about Jewish holy days, ceremonies, and feasts, like Passover.
Paul is essentially saying this: Keep the holy days and traditions you want to keep, especially if they help you grow closer to God. But don’t let these traditional differences cause conflict and judgment among you. The important thing is that you’re joining together as Christ followers, promotion the Gospel message.1
A little bit of context goes a long way!
Differences between the gospel books
There are four different gospel accounts with four different writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And in some places, it can seem like they don’t line up perfectly.
Some people wonder if there’s a contradiction in the gospels about the healing of the blind man.
Jesus heals many people with various ailments throughout the gospels, but in this specific situation, Jesus is healing a blind man…or two?
It depends on which gospel book you’re reading.
In Matthew 20:30, Jesus heals two blind men. But in Mark and Luke, only one man is being healed. Yet it sounds like they’re all describing the exact same situation.
So what’s going on?
First, it’s important to note that the gospels are not meant to be voice-recorder, verbatim accounts of the life of Jesus (more on that later). Rather, these are personal accounts of Jesus’ life by some of His closest followers. These authors were compelled to take notes and share what they wrote.
Secondly, can’t all of these accounts be true at the same time? Given that the ill, diseased, and disabled members of society were terribly discriminated against at that time, it’s likely that Mark and Luke simply didn’t care to include both. They may have easily thought that describing the interaction with one blind man accurately describes what was happening at that time in general.
But it’s also important to note that minor omissions such as this, or differences in chronology don’t qualify as contradictions. Each of the gospel writers focused on different events, people, and topics based on their experiences, intent, and audience.2
Is there a contradiction about calling on the name of the Lord?
The verses below have been called out by some as showing a discrepancy between something Jesus says during His earthly ministry, and something Peter says later.
Let’s check it out.
In Matthew 7:21, while Jesus is preaching, He says:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven… (ESV)
But when we continue reading the New Testament and get to the Acts 2:21, we read:
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (CSB)
Wait a minute… These verses say things that seem totally opposite.
There must be more to the story.
Let’s begin by unpacking the verse in Matthew. What’s the context?
Well, first of all, Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount. He’s teaching a multitude of people about what it really means to live a godly life.
By the time you reach chapter 7, Jesus is cautioning people about how to be a sincere follower of God, rather than just putting on an outward appearance.
Why would He do this?
This is where the context comes in.
During Jesus’ time, there were leaders in the church (particularly the Pharisees) who would offer only lip service when it came to following the Bible’s teachings. But inside, their hearts were hard to the preaching of Jesus.
These religious leaders preferred their own checklist of rules as opposed to what Jesus modeled—because it was easy for them to fake it. So their commitment to God only went as far as tradition and custom.
So let’s look at the surrounding verses too:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness!’Matthew 7:21-23, ESV
Looking at the whole picture, we can get a better understanding of what Jesus was talking about.
Think about a “friend” who is nice to your face, but is never there when you need them. We probably wouldn’t call that person a friend at all.
This is the kind of insincerity Jesus was calling out, especially toward the Pharisees, in this instance.
The Pharisees lacked commitment and sincerity. They claimed to be doing God’s work, but instead of loving others and sincerely having God in their hearts, they merely pretended so that they could gain respect in their society.
And that’s also a lesson every human being can benefit from learning. So we can be grateful that Jesus addressed it!
Now let’s look at the verse in Acts. Peter—Jesus’ disciple—is quoting the Old Testament book of Joel, specifically Joel 2:32.
Within the book of Joel, the people were facing military and political foes. More than that, however, the prophet Joel was imploring them to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Lord.
He called them to repent and look toward Jesus. To reach up and communicate with their Savior.
So when Peter uses the concept of “calling on the Lord” in Acts, he’s noting that those who sincerely call upon God’s name above all other names will be saved.
Of course Jesus wants us to call upon his name! But He also knows our hearts and wants us to sincerely desire Him and His help.
Context certainly makes a difference.
So while these Bible verses, when pulled out of their surrounding verses and placed next to each other, seem to disagree, we can understand that they actually work well together.
Sincerely calling on the name of the Lord is what believers must do, rather than living out a false, performative faith.
And here’s another way we can look at two seemingly different messages.
Have you ever told one person to do something specific, but then advised another person differently? For example, if someone who struggled with weight gain asked you for advice, you might recommend they adjust their meal portion size or look for low-fat food choices, etc. But you might say something completely different to someone who was, say, trying to regain strength and appetite after being sick for a while.
If we pulled out those two different pieces of advice and put them together, would we say they’re contradictory? Yes.
But do the opposing pieces of advice cancel each other out? Of course not!
You would reasonably point out, “Well, it depends on the situation.”
As we keep saying here, context is everything.
Now that we’ve covered some of the common verses that seem to contradict each other, explained them, and highlighted the importance of context, let’s talk in detail about some of the different kinds of contextual factors that can help guide our reading of God’s Word.
Clues of context to consider
We’ve established that context is important. It’s also important to know the different kinds of context to look for.
In fact, most verses have multiple facets that make up the total context. That’s why discussing the historical situation can help us study the Bible in a more meaningful way.
Let’s talk about
The Bible is situated within a specific (or a few specific) cultural lenses. For the most part, the Bible is best understood when we remember that it is ancient Jewish literature.
For example, much of the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time was based on an honor-shame paradigm that had a tendency to only value male members of society who were healthy and rich. It was also largely based on works and keeping certain traditions and ceremonies.
When we acknowledge that fact, we can see how the ministry of Jesus was meant to challenge these cultural norms and reverse the honor-shame paradigm. For example, it was a big deal for Jesus to state that the first will be last and the last will be first (Matthew 20:16).
A good example of this is Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery.
In John 8, the scribes and Pharisees had seized a woman and threw her down in front of Jesus to test him. They tell him that the law of Moses orders that she must be stoned for engaging in prostitution (even though there is no mention of stoning the man who actually paid for the prostitution). Jesus simply responds, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7, ESV).
Within this context, the scribes and Pharisees had forgotten that the law of God, above all, is love. They kept the letter of the law and desired to entrap Jesus in it. They had the whole situation rigged from the beginning.
While Jesus was not claiming that the law of Moses was worthless, He was exemplifying the importance of grace, forgiveness, responsibility, and mercy. And just as importantly, He was revealing to the Pharisees the importance of keeping the spirit of the law over the letter of the law.
There are several instances in the Bible that sound vastly different from how things are done today—especially in what are considered first-world countries. But the sentiment and principles are timeless. Sometimes it just takes some study of context to get the full breadth of the principle being addressed.
It’s important to consider that Bible writers are not like court reporters. They are more like journalists.
What does this mean?
Well, a court reporter documents exactly, word-for-word, what is happening in a courtroom. There is no room for personal interpretation or noting additional background details, etc. Everything that is said is copied down, verbatim.
And this is appropriate, because the purpose of court reporters is to correctly document the testimonies of the people involved in a particular case.
A journalist, on the other hand, may witness a situation or collect eye-witnesses. Then, through the lens of their collected knowledge and experience, etc., they will carefully compile the story as completely as possible.
Yes, God inspired the writing in the Bible. And we believe that the Bible is an accurate and credible source of information that introduces us to God and tells the story of humanity, sin, love, redemption, and salvation.
But we also should acknowledge that the books of the Bible, written by at least 40 different authors, follow the journalist model and not court reporter model. Each writer has unique points of view, unique experiences, and their own encounter with Divine inspiration.
A good example of these differences between authors is the four books of the Gospel we looked at earlier: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
While each of them cover the same overall story of the life of Jesus on earth, they give us four very different perspectives. Each focused on different aspects of Jesus’ ministry and influence during His life, death, and resurrection while on earth.
Just comparing gospel writers Matthew and Mark can tell us a lot.
Matthew was one of Jesus’ disciples. He was also a Jew and a tax collector—a profession that made him hated by his own people.
(Tax collectors were known to take an extra cut of money for themselves, causing them to collect more from the citizens than was necessary. Plus, they worked for the Romans—a ruling power the Jews fervently resented.)
This explains why Matthew’s writing often included Jewish terminology and several references to the Old Testament, especially the book of Isaiah. He seemed to focus on getting the right message across to other Jews, or those already familiar with Jewish history. He wanted to make it clear that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament.
Mark, however, seemed to write for an audience that included the Romans (or “Gentiles”). His wording was more concise. He focused on what was happening right then and highlighted the immediacy of God’s work on Earth through Jesus.
Then we look at Luke and John.
Luke is the third synoptic gospel—”synoptic” meaning that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written and structured similarly. In Luke’s gospel, his audience is broader: he’s speaking to Christians in general. And since he was a physician, he naturally tended to write for a more educated audience.
Each of these synoptic gospels served different purposes:
- Matthew used his Jewish heritage to speak to the Jews
- Mark focused his writing toward the rushed Roman citizens who likely cared little for background details, especially when it came to cultural traditions.
- Luke wrote with the well-educated, Greek-speaking Christian in mind.
Each of these authors present the same stories differently because they themselves are different, notice different things, and are part of different communities.
For John, there are even more differences.
The gospel of John is not considered synoptic. It didn’t focus on different sides of the same story. Instead, he pointed out aspects of Jesus the other gospels didn’t touch on—like Jesus’ saving power rather than the kingdom of heaven. He didn’t include the parables, but he provided analogies or metaphors.
John’s gospel gives us a new perspective of Jesus and His significance as our Savior.
Differing perspectives can be helpful for us in constructing the big picture. The time period when Jesus was on earth was a big deal, as you can imagine. It took four different authors to cover the necessary details.
Throughout the rest of the Bible, other authors portray different periods of history and demonstrate different types of relationships with God and the world. This creates a rich, colorful, multi-faceted experience in studying the Bible.
This also shows us why the author of the book is an important element of context when reviewing the meaning of God’s word.
Different people need different information for different times.
A doctor wouldn’t give all of their patients the same medical advice—even though any medical advice would be true and generally helpful. It’d be much more useful to give each patient the advice that directly relates to their diagnosis, or the specific health challenges they need to look out for.
The same is true for many books of the Bible.
While the Bible is indeed written for all God’s created people, there are books, chapters, or specific verses that were intended to address a certain ethnic group, belief group, stage of life, stage of spiritual development, or even a type of personality or group behavior.
So when we read the dietary restrictions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy but then read in Romans 14: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him,” it’s important to recognize the intended audience of that message.
For example, the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written by Moses for the Israelites (later to become the Jews).
This large group was considered God’s chosen people at the time—but after years of living as slaves in Egypt, many had forgotten their heritage, their responsibilities, their standard of living, or even how to properly relate with others.
They were no longer living like Israelites. Over time they ended up adopting the culture of their oppressors.
So you can imagine why God would encourage them to change their methods and habits! Their own physical, mental, and spiritual well-being was at stake.
That’s why some Old Testament books contain rules or guidelines that seem rigid, unnecessary, or just plain strange. They can even seem to directly contradict the later teachings of Jesus, or how He interacted with people during His earthly ministry.
But for the audience of that time, the instructions of Leviticus were exactly what the Israelites needed to remind them that they were children of God, not slaves of the world.
They were unruly, primitive, and immature. Just like we often make more rigid rules for children than we do adults, the Israelites needed guidance that corresponded to their state of collective development.
In the New Testament, on the other hand, we can read spiritual guidance intended for many different audiences.
For example, throughout the book of Romans, Paul is writing to (of course) the Romans. But he’s also writing in the context of a fledgling church that was trying to reconcile past Jewish tradition with new Gentile believers that grew up differently.
Even though many modern Christian traditions uphold the Levitical dietary laws or hygiene laws, Paul’s intended message is for an audience that needed to focus on the bigger issue. Unity in belief was higher in priority than which traditional activities were followed to the letter.
It’s not that tradition or history isn’t important. It’s that it’s not supposed to be a stumbling block toward unity, collaboration, and mutual love and respect. And during that time, it most definitely was a stumbling block.
So by looking at the intended audience, even if they differ from us as the current readers, we get a glimpse of the full significance of the underlying principles and lessons.
We can also begin to see how intricately God cares for humanity. One-size-fits-all advice can feel impersonal and even be unhelpful. By addressing different types of audiences with varying circumstances, we ultimately end up with a more complete understanding of the Bible’s message.
It’s fairly well-known that the Bible isn’t written all in one cohesive literary style. And yet, it’s all too common that we try to interpret each passage of Scripture as if it was.
This is unfortunate, because different literary genres are meant to express different ideas in different ways.
Some distinct genres in the Bible include: letters, wisdom literature, genealogical or historical documentation, prophecy, poetry, parables, and apocalyptic literature.
If we compare different verses from different genres, we should acknowledge that one might have very literal language, while another might use metaphors or symbolism. Some might be describing events as they were happening, while others reflect on past events and their results.
Because of these differences, some passages, when isolated, might seem inconsistent or even at odds.
For example, in the book of Ecclesiastes, the author—believed to be Solomon—writes, “See, this alone I found, that God made man upright” (Ecclesiastes 7:29, ESV).
However, in Psalms, David writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity” (Psalm 51:5, ESV).
While these two verses may seem to say opposite things, the genre of their respective books helps us unpack that they aren’t in opposition—both things are actually true.
Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, written by Solomon to provide guidance and knowledge to its readers. The Book of Psalms, on the other hand, is personal poetry, written by David, often in times of emotional highs and lows. When we read through the Psalms, we can experience David’s emotions alongside him.
This specific Psalm was written after the prophet Nathan called out David for rape and adultery with Bathsheba and killing Uriah, her husband. Naturally, David would be feeling distraught and shameful. Who could, after committing such heinous acts, claim that “God made man upright”?
He was lamenting the consequences of humanity’s sinfulness. He was recognizing just how true it is that every human has the capacity to commit evil acts. And he was seeing this by looking inwardly at himself.
Furthermore, the verse in the book of Ecclesiastes continues, and says, “See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29, ESV. emphasis added).
Solomon was calling back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Humanity was “upright” then. But after allowing sin to be part of our existence, we certainly have “sought out many schemes.”
The context, of the book itself and of the writing style, can change the ultimate meaning of a passage.
Prophetic books (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation), books of poetry, (Psalms and Song of Solomon), and letters (Romans, Corinthians, Hebrews, and Galatians) are all going to have different intents, different audiences, and different writing styles.
That’s why it’s important to notice the kind of literary genre the author chose to use.
Helpful tools for studying scripture
Now that we’ve seen different examples of contradictions and why they seem like contradictions but aren’t, let’s explore some study tools we can use to gain a more thorough understanding of the Bible.
This can be found in book form or online. This kind of resource defines various words and phrases with the context considered. This can even give insight into the original language and give us a deeper understanding of the full meaning.
A Bible encyclopedia, online or in print, can help flesh out different subjects that the Bible talks about, like exile, communion, the law, etc.
This is an easy-to-use source that provides an alphabetical list of terms accompanied by each mention of them throughout Scripture. Some Bibles even include a short version of a concordance in the last few pages.
Sometimes it can be so helpful to have insight from scholars, pastors, and other reliable sources. A Bible commentary can provide this insight and guidance to your study.
A Bible commentary is an excellent supporting resource when it comes to context. They often include:
- References to the original language and how a passage was translated
- Details about cultural norms
- Information about the historical situation and philosophical landscape
- Tips on identifying literary structures and themes that may be different from what you’d typically learn in a 100-level literature class
After all, the Bible is meant to be studied, tested, and discussed with others. We can see in several instances how that’s a big part of the way early believers worshiped together. They’d gather in the temple, synagogue, or one another’s homes, and read together (Luke 4:16; 1 Timothy 4:13; Colossians 4:15, 16; Acts 13:14, 15, Acts 15:21, etc.).
So when you encounter passages of Scripture that make you pause, it’s worth it to prayerfully dig deeper and find out the context. And there are plenty of resources, guidance, and assistance available to help you do just that.
It can even be fun!
Often the result of your in-depth study can reveal a profound truth that can greatly add to your spiritual perspective and to your relationship with Jesus. There is always something new to learn.
The Bible always points to Jesus
While the Bible is a unique piece of literature—written over thousands of years by different people, in different styles, under different circumstances—it was still all for one ultimate purpose: to lift up God as the loving ruler of the universe, and His Son Jesus Christ as the Savior and Redeemer of the Earth.
Although it can be confusing or overwhelming at times, next time you come upon a part of the Bible that seems to contradict a verse you read earlier, you can check out these study methods and resources. Combined with prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they can help you discern their purpose and their application in your own life.