One reason that some people give for not putting faith in the Bible being God's Word, inspired by His Holy Spirit, (II Timothy 3:16, I Peter 1:20,21), is that they say it is "full of contradictions," yet, when asked to name some of those, they fail to do so.
When Jesus was teaching in person, "all these things [He] spoke to the multitudes in parables, and without a parable He did not speak to them," [Matthew 13:34]. The purpose of parables, as I understand it, was for listeners to stand or fall, to understand or be confused, based on the attitude in their heart. Those who listened with faith in the good and loving character of God and of Jesus received enlightenment from the Holy Spirit to decipher it. Those whose attitude was combative or hostile, or simply proud of their intellect or their "righteousness" observing the Law, drew a blank without that spiritual assistance.
Should it be a surprise, then, if sometimes the written Word also presents a puzzle which can be understood by believing in the faithful character of God and searching Scripture for more light, but which the antagonistic will seize upon as a contradiction?
One example is figuring out the full sequence of events in the Apostle Paul's life immediately after his dramatic encounter with the risen and ascended Jesus Christ as he approached Damascus. This encounter itself presents challenges, since it is told about more than once, just within Luke's "Acts of the Apostles," in [9:1-8] and [22:1-11] and [26:12-19], but I am focusing on the sequence of events after it.
After Saul of Tarsus was blinded by his encounter with the heavenly light and went into Damascus and was healed by Ananias, his letter to the Galatian church, [Galatians 1:15-21], says that he went to Arabia and then returned to Damascus. Three years passed, in that account, before he left Damascus and visited Jerusalem.
This is not mentioned in any of the three accounts in Acts, neither the way Luke wrote it in chapter 9, nor in Paul's two retellings in chapters 22 and 26. Is this a contradiction? If we approach this wanting to find a contradiction to discredit Scripture as God's truth, we may seize upon certain things as opportunities, but are they really?
In Acts 9:19, just after Paul's salvation and baptism, "Then Paul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus." Verse 20 says, "Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues." Then, in verse 23, "after many days" came the plot to kill him, when he was let down through the city wall in a basket and went to Jerusalem.
Where in that sequence is his trip to Arabia and back to Damascus? Where are the three years he spent in Damascus before going to Jerusalem? These are not excluded by the way Luke wrote the account, just not talked about. Somewhere after the "some days" he initially spent with the Damascene disciples and preaching in the synagogues, he evidently went to Arabia and returned, and the three years evidently fits within the "many days" until the Jews in Damascus got fed up with being unable to refute or silence him and planned his murder. The statement that he immediately began preaching, in Acts 9, is consistent with Paul's assertion in Galatians 1:16, "I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood." Luke's phrase, "after many days were past," allows for the three years of preaching after he came back.
Paul left out the trip to Arabia and his stay in Damascus in Acts 22 because he was speaking to a furious mob who wanted to kill him. He had to dwell on the essentials. In Acts 26:20, he told King Agrippa in his trial in Caesarea that he "declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem...that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance." He did not specify how long he declared it in Damascus, nor whether he left there and came back, but neither did he deny or contradict it. As in Acts 9, there is room for it but by choice it was omitted. We can conclude that he did not preach while in Arabia, as that could be seen as a contradiction of having "declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem," with no one before or between those two cities, and there is no statement in Galatians 1 about preaching during that trip. Indeed, tradition holds that he was in the wilderness with the risen Christ appearing and preaching to him. Saying he went to Arabia certainly allows for being in the wilderness: the Arabian Peninsula has plenty of desert and wilderness.
This is only one example of how apparent "contradictions" in Scripture are sometimes a matter of not understanding its ways of recounting stories and accounting for time periods, or a matter of not looking closely at whether one statement really excludes another. I hope it will be useful as an example of how to deal with apparent contradictions, also.
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