The following is from chapter 26 in Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2013). To get additional help in answering LDS questions, we recommend purchasing the book. Click here to see more.
Biblical “contradictions” are often cited by skeptical Mormons as evidence that the Bible should not be considered trustworthy. While there are certainly a number of apparent difficulties, the problems generally dissipate once the facts are known and the evidence is considered. Instead of allowing anyone to discredit the entire Bible with the charge that it is filled with contradictions, ask for specific examples.
The problem with most critics of the Bible is that they usually don’t want to trust or believe its message, and therefore they do not take the time to carefully research the issue. Although there are hundreds of possible passages that might be cited, there are several dozen used over and over again.
When a problem passage is introduced, turn to it in your Bible. Most of the time, the answer to the difficulty can be discovered by merely considering the context of the passage in question. Pulling a verse out of its original context often makes it look like it contradicts the rest of the Bible.
Take, for instance, Ephesians 2:8–9, a passage even some Christians have improperly used to show that good works have no importance at all in the Christian’s life. It says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” Reading just one more verse (v. 10) answers those who say works are optional in the Christian’s life: “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
This idea that works are an important aspect of one’s professed faith is consistent with James 2:14–26, which explains that “faith without works is dead.” Again, good works is a part of sanctification, not justification, in a true believer’s life. Recognizing the following points will help the Christian not only solve the majority of so-called discrepancies but also help clarify common interpretive mistakes as well.
- Filling in the gaps with new information. While full details may not always be available, sometimes history and archaeology bring to light issues that help the interpreter grasp the meaning of a passage. For example, the early Old Testament Hebrew texts of Psalm 22:16 were translated, “For dogs have encircled me, an evil congregation surrounded me; like a lion my hands and my feet.” The Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek that was completed several centuries before Jesus) used the Greek word for “pierced” instead of “lion.” However, before the middle of the twentieth century, the oldest texts available in Hebrew (the Masoretic Text), which dated only as far back as the tenth century A.D., contained the word ka’ari (lion), not ka’aru (dig or pierce). Even though “lion” doesn’t make sense in the psalm’s context, there was no evidence in the Hebrew manuscripts that the translation should have read “pierced.” In the 1950s, an ancient Hebrew portion of Psalm 22:16 surfaced in a cave in Israel, showing that ka’aru was the right word and fitting perfectly with the prediction that the Messiah would suffer by being pierced.
- Giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt. The Book of Mormon has had a number of changes to it—including changes in people’s names to fit the chronology and the insertion of the word not to change the entire meaning of the text—yet rarely do Latter-day Saints say they believe this scripture is true only “as far as it is translated correctly.” Just as a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, all we ask is that the critics consider the possibility that the ancient Bible is truly God’s Word without allowing bias to affect their consideration of a text.
- Basing doctrine on more than just one verse. A single verse often can be turned into a proof text when the original intent of the author is ignored. An improper interpretation is almost always the result. Hence, Mormons use 1 Corinthians 15:29 to argue that vicacrious baptisms for those who have died can lead to salvation, even though Hebrews 9:27 and 2 Corinthians 6:2 explain that decisions for God must be made in this life.
- Expecting different perspectives from eyewitness accounts. Two news reports on the same incident often explain the events in a different way. In such cases reporters are generally given the benefit of the doubt because they focused on different aspects of the incident. This doesn’t mean they were contradictory. The same approach needs to be taken when interpreting the Bible. For example, Matthew 28:5 says that there was an “angel” at the tomb of Christ, while John 20:12 reports that there were “two angels.” How many angels were at the tomb? The answer is two, because the rule of thumb is wherever there are two angels, there will always be one. Read the Matthew passage closely, and you will see that he did not say there was “only” one angel. The apostle merely mentioned one because that angel was the focus of his writing.
- Knowing the difference between what is and what should be. The reader should never assume something is approved just because the Bible reports the event. For example, the Old Testament describes polygamous relationships that depict one man being married to more than one wife. The mere reporting of it does not constitute tacit approval of this practice. Like divorce, God merely tolerated it. There is no instance where polygamy helped a man draw closer in his relationship with God. Another example of this is Genesis 3:4–5, where the serpent told Eve, “Ye shall not surely die” for breaking God’s command and then added that Adam and Eve would “be as gods, knowing good and evil.” While Mormons have considered the fall a necessary act that led to the positive outcome of becoming “as gods” (2 Nephi 2:25 says “Adam fell that men might be”), Jesus said in John 8:44 that Satan is the father of lies, who cannot be trusted. That his words are recorded in Scripture does not give approval to them. Original sin affects all (Rom. 5:17) in a negative way, for it is responsible for both physical and eternal death (Rom. 6:23).
- Recognizing when language is meant to be figurative rather than literal. Some have claimed that the Bible is a flat-earth book because Psalm 113:3 reports, “From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same the Lord’s name is to be praised.” While it is a fact that the earth rotates as it revolves around the sun, even contemporary meteorologists use the terms sunrise and sunset in their daily reports. The Bible also should be allowed to use the ordinary language of appearance.
- Allowing for numbers to be rounded. Suppose you went to a ball game where 53,322 were in attendance, and someone asked you, “How many were at the game?” If you said 53,000, would it be fair for your friend to accuse you of lying since the number was 53,322? Even if you said 55,000, isn’t it understood that rounding numbers up or down is a common occurrence? We find the same thing in the Old Testament books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, which tell the same stories but sometime use different numbers for the same events. It should also be pointed out that the varying numbers do not change the meaning of the accounts or hinder essential doctrines.
- Understanding the genre of a book. There are different genres in the Bible, including poetry, parables, and allegory. This needs to be taken into consideration when determining the meaning of any passage. When God is mentioned as having a face, hands, and a side, that doesn’t mean He is to be literally pictured as a glorified human being who has flesh and bone. These are simply poetic figures of speech. Different approaches must be taken when interpreting the different poetical, historical, or doctrinal books.
- Realizing copies of the Scriptures were made by hand and cannot be considered perfect reproductions of the original. There is no doubt that there are imperfections in the copies (apographs) of the Bible we have today, and we do not have the original manuscripts (autographs). Through the practice of what is called “textual criticism,” however, scholars have a good understanding about where these imperfections are located, and they clearly do not affect a single essential doctrine. Imagine picking up a bottle floating in the ocean with a note containing these letters: “Yuo mus# loook bot# ways be#ore cros#ing thee stret.” It’s not perfect, but the message can be deciphered and comes through loud and clear. The wealth of manuscript evidence is most helpful in determining the original wording of the Bible in those few places where there is any doubt.
- Differentiating between a general statement and a prophecy. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” This verse is merely a truism and was never meant to say that B will result every time A is completed. Generally, a child who has been properly disciplined will turn into a godly adult, but there are many children who become embarrassments to their parents despite their godly upbringing.
- Referencing the Old Testament with the New Testament. Critics love to reference the Mosaic law and show how absurd (at least from the perspective of our modern world) some of its regulations sound, including dietary rules, clothing restrictions, and types of discipline in the theocracy of ancient Israel. Temporary theocratic standards must be separated from the more encompassing message of the New Testament. For example, Peter’s vision of the unclean food in Acts 10 explains why Christians no longer follow the dietary laws of the Old Testament.
There is no doubt that studying the Bible requires effort. This is why 2 Timothy 2:15 urges Christians to be diligent in always correctly handling “the word of truth.” Whenever a Mormon points out an assumed discrepancy in the Bible and you don’t have an immediate answer, don’t stress. You might say, “I’ve never heard that passage explained like that before. Could I go home and look it up and get back to you?”
And don’t forget to do your homework so that you have an answer when you do get back to your Mormon friend. In our zeal to defend the Bible, however, we must always be careful that we do not fall into the trap of misusing Scripture ourselves. For example, Revelation 22:18 says, “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.” Some Christians use this verse to show Mormons that other LDS scriptures (Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Book of Mormon) should not be “added” to the Bible. But the books of the New Testament had not yet been compiled by this time, so this is not a fair use of this passage. John was referring to “this book,” or the book of Revelation. We would agree that unique LDS scriptures are not authoritative, but we utilize other arguments to show this to be true. There is no benefit in “cheating” by improperly interpreting Scriptures, even when our interpretation may benefit our cause.
 Jewish translations still use the word lion in Psalm 22:16.