Faulty Assumptions in Biblical Interpretation

I’ve noticed that, when non-Christians point out certain apparent contradictions or alleged historical errors in the Bible, those contradictions or errors only appear that way because of some unwarranted assumptions they are making.  Here are a few.

And these you shall detest among the birds; they shall not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the falcon of any kind, every raven of any kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind, the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat. (Leviticus 11:13-19)

God says that a bat is a bird!  Apparently he’s too stupid to know the difference between a bird and a mammal.

The assumption a person is making when he points this out is that the ancient Hebrews had the same species categories that we do today.  There is no reason to think this.

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. (John 20:1)

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. (Matthew 28:1)

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. (Mark 16:1)

This seems to be a plain contradiction.  They clearly disagree with each other on how many women went to the tomb.  This is another reason to distrust the Biblical accounts.

The assumption a person is making when stating this challenge is that the Gospel writers were trying to give a complete account of every single detail of the event.  There is no reason to think this.  Different people emphasize different things or might leave information out that they do not think is important to the point of the story. I do this when I tell the same story multiple times.

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matthew 2:16)

Herod had kids in an entire village killed, and yet no historical sources from the time even mention this event.  This means that the Gospel writer here likely made up the whole story.

The assumption here is that 1) no extrabiblical writers wrote about it and 2) any historians at the time would have written about it.  As for (1), we still have very little  information on the first century.  We have very few writings from that time.  How do we know that no one wrote about it?  It is simply an argument from silence.

As for (2), why would anyone have written about it?  While the murder of children is a horrible event, Bethlehem was a small, backwater village and it’s not likely that there were more than a dozen children below the age of two.  This would not have been a huge event.  The fact that historians didn’t mention it isn’t shocking. The eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 was a very large event, but we only seem to have one written account on it from Pliny the Younger.

When people point out historical errors or contradictions in the Bible, try to see if there are any unwarranted assumptions they are making.  In some cases, the passages only appear mistaken or contradictory because of these assumptions.

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3 Responses to Faulty Assumptions in Biblical Interpretation

  1. Ken Coughlan says:

    An example I give sometimes of your second point is the statement, “I went to the movie theater and saw Film X on Saturday.” Now I only listed myself in that statement, but does that mean I was the only one in the theater? Does it even mean that I went there alone and my wife, for example, did not accompany me? If my wife turned around and said, “My husband and I went to the movie theater and saw Film X on Saturday,” do we start screaming contradiction? Of course not. This type of speaking is extremely common even today. We do not insist that someone give us every gory detail about an event; only what they mean to convey. But if someone is determined to find a contradiction, they will resort to tactics they do not employ in every day life.

    • Thank you for the post, Ken. It’s helpful to note that John 20:2 quotes Mary saying “WE do not know where they have laid him.” Though John only mentions Mary, this implies that she did indeed have company.

  2. Sam Harper says:

    Another example that comes from my own life is when I coordinate social gatherings. For example, if I’m trying to get a group of people together to see a movie or whatever. It involves phone calls. Sometimes what will happen is I’ll call somebody, but they won’t answer. I’ll leave a message. Then they call back, and we have the conversation. But then later, when I’m talking to somebody else, instead of saying, “I called So&So, but they didn’t answer, so I left a message, and when they called back, we agreed to meet at such & such time,” I’ll saying, “I called So&So, and we agreed to meet at such & such time.” It’s just easier. There’s no reason to explain the game of phone tag.

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