Tackling Charges of Biblical Inconsistency: Putting the Pieces Together to Form the Big Picture
by James J. S. Johnson, J.D., Th.D. *
When critics accuse the Bible of "inconsistency," do not expect their logic to be legitimate. In courtroom contexts, it is not unusual for truthful witnesses whose testimony is both sincere and accurate to appear to contradict one another.1 Careful attention to what they say (or do not say) can be like connecting together a jigsaw puzzle--all of the pieces need to be fitted together to form the whole picture.2
It should be no surprise when the whole-truth explanation of biblical text comes from those who revere the Bible's teachings enough to sort out the "puzzle pieces" necessary to form the entire biblical picture.
Ignoring the Puzzle-maker's Picture
In any case of seeming inconsistency, the real question is how do all the pieces fit together? The picture on a jigsaw puzzle box cover shows what the end result will be. This makes working the puzzle a lot easier. It helps to have the right picture to rely on for guidance. But pity the puzzler who refuses to make proper use of the puzzle-maker's box cover! This is just what Bible critics routinely do as they try to match life's puzzle pieces without carefully relying on the Bible's "big-picture" answers.
Ignoring the visual clues on a puzzle's box cover can cause delay and frustration. But the stakes are much higher when the "puzzle" to be solved is how to rightly match together the true answers to the big questions in life--Who am I? Why do I exist? How did I originate? What will my future be? And, quite practically, how will my current decisions and actions affect my future destiny?
Missing Puzzle Pieces
This puzzle-piecing challenge is illustrated in the careless mismatching (and the sloppy reading habits3) that drive accusations of biblical error. For example, one skeptic's website posted what it suggested was a "Bible inconsistency," arrogantly denying that the Bible is 100 percent reliable:
But a careful review of all of the relevant evidence readily resolves skeptic Donald Morgan's puzzle-piecing "problem." Revealingly, he carelessly ignores two pieces of the puzzle, one from Matthew and one from Mark.5
The first missing piece is Matthew 27:34:
They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink.
The evidence shows that the puzzle's solution requires appreciating the difference between painkiller and pain enhancement.
Christ was given vinegar by itself in Matthew 27:48 at "the ninth hour" of the day, just before He died.6 Morgan cites this verse, as the above quote shows. However, Morgan ignores the earlier event reported in Matthew 27:34, when Christ refused an offered drink that would have acted as a drug-like painkiller.
So why, in Morgan's summary above, does he imply (when he says "whatever it was") that Jesus was offered only one drink? Why does Morgan ignore the analytical importance of Matthew 27:34 as relevant evidence? Was this a willful omission in order to imply a so-called "Bible inconsistency"? Only by this under-representation of the relevant evidence can Morgan imply that the four Gospel accounts are presenting "inconsistent" reports.
The Testimony of Mark
But this is not the only evidence that Morgan evasively dodges when he implies that Jesus was offered (supposedly) only one drink, which He "either" accepted or rejected. If Morgan read Mark's Gospel, he would discover additional proof that more than one drink was offered to the dying Christ, because Mark 15:23 (Jesus refusing a painkiller drink, wine mixed with myrrh) contrasts with Mark 15:36 (Jesus accepting a pain-enhancing drink, vinegar alone).7
Jesus the Messiah experienced unimaginable pain in the punishment He endured on the cross as the substitute for our sins.8 Yet, while He suffered, Jesus did not accept relief from painkillers because He was voluntarily accepting this awful punishment in its fullest measure. This shows how resolved He was to accept the full penalty for our sins, so that a full pardon would be available to "whosoever" trusts Him as his or her personal Redeemer.
Piecing Together the Whole Puzzle
Thus, if skeptic Donald Morgan had carefully reviewed all of the evidence, he could have arrived at this biblically consistent explanation, which Dr. Henry Morris provides in his New Defender's Study Bible footnote to John 19:29:
When Jesus was first being nailed to the cross, the soldiers offered to give him a drink of vinegar and gall (Matthew 27:34), and also a drink of wine and myrrh (Mark 15:23), each designed as a drug to alleviate the pain. He would not accept them, for it was His intention to drink the full cup of God's wrath on sin (John 18:11). Now, however, it had been fully accomplished, and this one Scripture [i.e., Psalm 69:21] remained to be fulfilled. The thirst associated with crucifixion was very intense, and was a real part of His sufferings (note Luke 16:24), for it is part of the torment of Hades. In contrast, and as a result, He has made wonderful, eternal provision to relieve our thirst (John 7:37; Revelation 22:17).9
Is it any surprise that Dr. Morris, a scholar who role-modeled loyalty to the living Word of God (the Lord Jesus Christ) and to the written Word of God (the Holy Bible), was careful enough to analyze all of the relevant evidence in order to get to the truth--to answer the puzzling questions about what drink(s) Christ rejected and what He accepted as He was being crucified?
This kind of careful observation and logical analysis is vital when truth is being sought in the study of God's Word, and His world.
Real-world apologetics does not try to dodge truth-claim controversies. When God's truth is challenged by scoffers (of any stripe) who claim to care about "truth," shine the spotlight of scrutiny on whatever "evidence" is put on the table. And do not be shy to look for other relevant evidence. There may be some "inconvenient truth" the skeptics have conveniently swept under the rug in their efforts to discredit the authority and accuracy of the Word of God.
- When complicated events are described by different witnesses, it is actually a mark of authenticity that there be some apparent-yet-reconcilable differences in their reports and viewpoints. Verbal equalities in testimony are more likely evidence of rubber-stamping or collusion. See pages 34-35 in Simon Greenleaf's The Testimony of the Evangelists: The Gospels Examined by the Rules of Evidence, originally published in 1874 and reprinted in 1995 by Kregel Publications. See also accord, Dallas I.S.D. v. Panlilio, TEA Dkt. # 028-LH-396 (CIHE decision of 9-16-1996), in Finding of Fact # 15b (includes discussion of how credible testimony of reliable trial witnesses, which superficially appeared to be inconsistent, was reconciled after clarification).
- Of course, in law courts, the "pieces" (of evidence) need to be accurately and sincerely reported, and that requires some truth-testing (but that aspect is not analyzed in this article).
- We are commanded to study God's Word with great care. (See 2 Timothy 2:15 and Acts 17:11.)
- Morgan, D. Bible Inconsistencies: Bible Contradictions? Posted on atheism.about.com, accessed May 14, 2010.
- Ironically, those who reject Christ as Creator routinely have two problems when trying to "calculate" reality: adding non-existent "facts" (e.g., evolutionary "missing links," that are still missing after 150 years), and subtracting puzzle pieces of reality's big picture (i.e., scoffers are "willingly ignorant" of big-picture clues about nature, such as evidence of the Genesis Flood).
- Luke 23:36-37 indicates that vinegar (oxos) offered by Roman soldiers was part of their mockery of Christ; this cruel ridicule fulfilled Psalm 69:21 and illustrated Proverbs 10:26.
- Actually, it appears that Christ was offered three drinks on the cross, the earlier two with painkiller, and the last as a pain-increasing mockery: 1) wine with myrrh, rejected by Christ (Mark 15:23); 2) vinegar with gall, tasted but not swallowed; i.e., rejected by Christ (Matthew 27:34); 3) vinegar by itself on a hyssop-reed, accepted by Christ "at the ninth hour," immediately after He quoted from Psalm 22:1, a Messianic prophecy He was then fulfilling (Matthew 27:48; Mark 15:36; John 19:29-30). Because wine (defined by its key ingredient CH3CH2OH, ethanol) can sour into vinegar (defined by CH3COOH, ethanoic acid, also called acetic acid), some have suggested the explanation that the earlier offering was a blend of souring wine (which could thus be accurately called either wine or vinegar) laced with both myrrh (smurna) and gall (cholê).
- See Romans 5 and John 3:14-21.
- Morris, H. M. 2006. The New Defender's Study Bible. Nashville, TN: World Publishing, Inc., 1616-1617.
* Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Apologetics at the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Johnson, J. J. S. 2010. Tackling Charges of Biblical Inconsistency. Acts & Facts. 39 (7): 8-9.