As we have often discussed on this podcast, one of the convictions we as Christians hold to or should hold to, is that the scriptures are true. When they speak, God speaks and everything they affirm is true. It is accurate. The scriptures are infallible. They are without error.
Now, one of the things that comes up when someone makes this sort of claim is that people will say, “Well, the Bible has contradictions in it,” and before we start to give a reply to that, we should ask the person, “Can you give me an example of one of those contradictions you’re talking about?” For instance, when people say that we can’t trust the Bible or we can only trust the places that are translated correctly, well, “Can you point me to some places that are translated incorrectly?”
Make them give you an example. It’s easy to make the claim, it’s often hard to back it up. Now, there are some common examples people will try to give to show that the Bible appears to contradict itself. One of those is the conversion experience of Paul on the Damascus road. This is included in the book of Acts a few times actually, in Acts Chapter 9, Acts chapter 22 and then partially Paul describes it in Acts 26.
We have three parallel versions of the same thing and what some people will say is, “Well, we’ll see in Acts 9, Paul actually says something that is 180 degrees different than what he says in Acts 22.” Now let’s read Acts 9 in the KJV, and just to set the context here, we see that Paul’s going along the road. He’s approaching Damascus and suddenly a light from heaven flashes around him. He falls to the ground. He hears a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
And he says, “Who are you Lord?” And he replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but stand up and enter the city and you will be told what to do.” And then we come to verse 7, and here’s what it says in the KJV: “and the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no one.” Well, when Paul describes this in Acts 22, here’s what he says: “and they that were with me indeed saw the light and we’re afraid, but they heard not the voice that spoke to me.”
Wait a second. In Acts 9, it’s saying that they heard a voice but didn’t see anyone. And in 22 that they didn’t hear a voice, but they saw a light. Now, the light discrepancy seems a little more easy to address. They saw no man, they didn’t see a physical person speaking in Acts 9, and in 22 it doesn’t say that they saw a physical person, it says they saw a light. That’s not contradictory. Acts 9 doesn’t say that they didn’t see a light and Acts 22 doesn’t say that they saw a person.
So that’s not contradictory. We’re talking about two different types of things. It’s not like Paul was saying that they did see the light and they didn’t see the light or that they didn’t see a person and they did see a person, so that’s not a problem, but what do we do with this hearing type of thing? Paul says that they heard a voice and then it seems like he’s saying, but they did not hear a voice. What’s going on here?
And there are some books out there that actually aim to present four views on the inerrancy, or the trustworthiness and truthfulness of scripture, and this is actually one of the examples that is covered, and many commentators have written on this from conservative to liberal commentators and everyone in between. Some commentators, who claim the name of Christ are comfortable saying that Paul actually contradicts himself here. Or maybe they would say, “Paul knew his story and Luke actually records it incorrectly.”
Now, I don’t see that as an option because as we’ve looked at in proceeding weeks, Paul has said, the scriptures have said that they are the word of God and if they are God’s revelation to us and Jesus affirms that the scriptures are the word of God. If this is true, if that point is truth then scripture, all of scripture cannot err because scripture is God’s revelation to us. God is perfect. God is true. His communication to us is going to be true and we can trust it.
So all of this rests on the character of God. The whole reason or one of the main reasons I should say why we argue and should argue and contend for the truthfulness of scripture is because one step behind that is the reliance on who God is. The attributes of God are what flows to and supports our doctrine of infallibility and inerrancy of scripture. The scriptures are true because God is perfect and true and he communicates truthfully and perfectly.
I don’t think there can be the easy out here of saying, “Well, Luke got it wrong,” or “Paul said it incorrectly at one point.” No, there’s something else going on here. Let’s compare Acts 9 and Acts 22 in a different translation. Let’s look at the New English Translation though the New American Standard Bible and the ESV all read very similarly to what I’m going to read you.
In Acts 9 in the New English Translation, it says, “they heard the voice but saw no one. And in Acts 22, it says, “they did not understand the voice.” Now wait a second. You might be saying, “Okay, one saying they heard it and the other saying they didn’t understand it.” That seems decently different than what the KJV said, where the KJV said they heard it and they didn’t hear it. Where is this concept of understanding coming from and what’s this deal with voice? And in some translations say sound. That they heard a sound, they heard a voice. What’s going on here?
Well, like in English, words can have multiple usages. In fact, words don’t have meaning, words have usages. And so we understand what a word means when we understand how it’s used in its context. So words have a range of meaning and the only way we know exactly what meaning is being used is by looking at how it’s used in its context, and so in the same way that a parent could say to their children who are looking at them and hearing the words they’re saying, “You all are listening to me, don’t go do that thing in the yard.”
What might happen is that the children might go do that thing that the parent told them not to do and the parent might look to a friend and say, “They’re not listening. They didn’t listen to me.” Now, Wait a second. You knew they were listening. They heard what you said. They nodded their heads and then they went and did something different. Why would you say they weren’t listening to you when you know they listened to you?
Because we use the word listen in different ways, and there’s something actually very similar going on here with the word heard or hear. The verb to hear in Greek has the same range. It can mean to actually perceive the sounds that are happening around you. Sound waves coming into your ear that you have heard those. It can also mean to understand and it even has other meanings.
Even in other things Paul has written, we can see how he uses this word sometimes to just mean hear and sometimes to mean understand, and the way we know that is you can substitute sometimes one different synonym in place of the other, and if what you come up with actually makes no sense in the context, then it’s the wrong one.
Now, sometimes we have to use more judgment than that, but it’s easy to see in the whole writings of Paul, how he uses the single Greek word, the word that’s translated here both times in the KJV to mean understand and hear, but the word voice and sound actually has the same thing going on for it. That’s how Paul can say that they heard the sound, but they didn’t hear the voice because what he means is they heard the sound, but they didn’t understand the voice.
The word that’s used and translated for sound can also mean voice and speech and it can have more meanings than that, and what we’re talking about here is something that we could refer to with a $10 term and that’s basically semantic range. Semantic dealing with meaning. What is the range of meanings that term can have? Sometimes we’ll say this today when someone says something and then it seems like they’re disagreeing with you, we might say, “Well, it’s just semantics.”
No I will tell you, I can count on about one hand that the number of times when that’s been used and it’s actually been accurate because often what we’re trying to do, even when we think it’s “Just semantics,” is get a different nuance, a different meaning by using the same word. We’re using it differently. Remember, usage determines what we should understand to be meaning, not just dictionary definition.
And so when we understand that here Paul and Luke are just communicating the same way, using the same sorts of ways that we use language as we do today, there’s no contradiction here, and just to make this point perhaps a little more strongly, the word that means sound by default, that may be its first dictionary definition that’s used here and sometimes translated voice, you might say, “How do we know it’s voice? How do we know if it’s sound?”
Well, in this same passage, what Paul says is he fell to the ground and heard, a what, a sound saying to him. Sounds don’t say, but you can hear a voice saying, so once again, based on context and usage, we can understand that this word when used in this context means voice and by extension just giving Paul the benefit of the doubt, he must not be saying that they both heard a voice and didn’t hear a voice, and that takes me to my final point today.
People like to jump on this perceived discrepancy in the biblical text like they’re the first ones in 2000 years to realize that or like the original author was an idiot. Now, people wouldn’t want others to do that to them today. We should read people graciously the way we would want to be understood and that’s not what people do, at least critical people with regards to the scriptures oftentimes.
And it’s sad because they’re creating problems where there aren’t ones and we can give answers for these sorts of things and so it actually looks like people are just straining at gnats when they’re trying to make these sorts of textual perceived issues out to be actual contradictions in the text. They’re not. We speak the same way today, and I think part of what’s going on is what C.S. Lewis has termed chronological snobbery, where we think we’re just so much more enlightened today and those people have the old days, they couldn’t realize having memorized a lot of scripture most likely and quoted it and studied it more than we do today that “Well, gosh! Luke seems to have contradicted himself.”
No, they didn’t. They didn’t think he contradicted himself. They gave him the benefit of the doubt. They understood the semantic range of the terms he used and they moved on. We think today that we’re so enlightened to that we’re the first ones discovering these issues and it’s simply not true. If you were going to write this account three times and it’s perhaps one of the biggest events in Acts, it’s at least top three with Pentecost, Paul’s conversion, and you could probably debate the others.
If you’re going to write that event, it’s huge in your account. He mentions it three times. You’re going to know if you contradicted yourself or not. Scribes are going to know if you contradicted yourself, the church theologians and fathers are going to know and people didn’t have issues with it. It persisted in the text. No one tried to change it because they didn’t have the problems that we perceive existing today because they’re not actual problems.
And so if I had to summarize everything we talked about today, give the Bible the benefit of the doubt, and here’s another tip, give people that you disagree with on social media, the benefit of the doubt and grace when you read them. If there’s a more gracious way to understand what they’ve said, opt for that. Yeah, you might be wrong sometimes, but you’ll actually be interpreting people in a Christ like way. We should even read social media tweets with grace. Everything we do should be marked by grace.
Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t disagree with people. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t wrong. It doesn’t mean that we might not be wrong sometimes, but it does mean that we carry ourselves not with the predisposition to think, someone who disagrees with us is incorrect because that’s what biblical scholars are doing when they see a contradiction here. They have the presumption that the text is incorrect and so they see something that looks incorrect and they jump on it and say, “Well, it must be incorrect.”
No, we should start from the presumption as scripture has said, as we’ve seen in previous weeks, that the scriptures are true. They are God breathed, they’re his revelation out to us. So, they are true and when we see something that seems to be a contradiction, we can have confidence, because God stands behind his word, that it’s not actually a contradiction. That we can work through it and that there will be an explanation. Even if we’re talking with people who do not hold that same conviction about scripture, we can point out to them how many times these sorts of perceived contradictions are just what happens when we don’t afford the text and the biblical writers the same type of grace that we would want extended to us and when we expect them to use language in a fundamentally different way than we even use language.
And what I often find amusing is that if you apply some of the standards that more liberal biblical scholars want to apply to the biblical texts to show that it’s incorrect and can’t be trusted, if you applied that to their work, you would conclude that their work is incorrect and can’t be tested. Because they use the same term in different ways. They use words in a certain context that they used differently in a different context.
Now they’re not contradicting themselves, so oftentimes we actually give more grace to non biblical writers than we do the biblical writers. So this is important for us to understand that not every perceived contradiction is a contradiction. In fact, there are no contradictions in scripture because of the character of God, but more than that, the Bible uses language in robust ways, often more robust ways and complicated ways than we use language today, and we should read the text realizing that it is literature and it must be understood in its context.