Aristotle offered the clearest formulation of what has come to be known as the Law of Noncontradiction: “The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously” (Metaphysics 4.6.1011b 13-14). In other words, Aristotle asserted that opposite statements cannot both be correct at the same time. This Greek philosophical idea remains foundational to modern Western thought, but the ancient writers of Israel’s Scriptures were not beholden to the Law of Noncontradiction. When today’s readers identify what they deem to be contradictions in the Bible, such instances can either trouble the believer or galvanize the critic. However, to apply the notion of “contradiction” to the biblical text constitutes a basic misunderstanding of an ancient Jewish worldview in which opposite assertions could coexist. Although it is difficult for modern minds to conceive of such a worldview, the biblical authors were not constrained by the contemporary issue of contradiction.

Israel’s proverbs provide one of the clearest instances of what present-day readers might understand as a “contradiction,” but what the ancient Israelites saw as perfectly logical. In Proverbs 26:4-5 the first statement is followed by its diametrical opposite: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly (על תען כסיל כאולתו; al ta’an kesil keivalto), lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly (ענה כסיל כאולתו; aneh kesil keivalto), lest he be wise in his own eyes.” In an effort to reconcile this apparent “contradiction,” modern readers might suggest that one should answer a fool according to his folly in some cases, and refrain from doing so in others—but the text itself doesn’t offer this explanation. These kinds of harmonizing readings go beyond what the text says in order to posit speculative solutions. A more historically accurate response is to realize that the ancient Jewish approach to literature allowed for this kind of variance. Instead of “contradiction,” it’s better to speak of “didactic divergence”—the statements diverge, but they are both of heuristic value for the original author and audience of Proverbs.

The New Testament follows the same Judaic literary conventions that appear in Proverbs. For example, the Acts of the Apostles presents the same event in two irreconcilable ways. Describing Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Luke says that “the men who were traveling with [Saul] stood speechless, hearing the voice (ἀκούοντες μὲν τῆς φωνῆς; akoúontes mèn phones) but seeing no one (μηδένα δὲ θεωροῦντες; medéna dè theorountes)” (Acts 9:7). Conversely, when Paul retells the event later in Acts, he states, “Those who were with me saw the light (φῶς ἐθεάσαντο; phos etheásanto) but did not hear the voice (δὲ φωνὴν οὐκ ἤκουσαν; dè phonèn ouk ekousan) of the one who was speaking to me” (Acts 22:9). These precisely opposing descriptions are written by the same author. Clearly, first-century believers in the God of Israel did not have the kind of aversion to narrative nonconformity that the modern West has inherited from Greek philosophers. If these variances exist unproblematically in the same New Testament text, how much more should we expect to see differences between the various Gospels! Modern readers should not view these so-called “contradictions” as problems to be fixed, because they weren’t “problems” for the original authors.

The presuppositions of classical Greek philosophy continue to have strong influence over current assumptions. However, biblical authors did not share such presuppositions; Israel’s Scriptures are not controlled by the Law of Noncontradiction. The French (and Christian) mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote, “Contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the lack of contradiction a sign of truth” (Pensées, 384). This statement captures the spirit of ancient Jewish thought, and contemporary Bible readers can avoid unnecessary cognitive tension if we are receptive to the ancient Jewish way of seeing the world.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. I presumed this statement is not a contradiction. They are statements with different situations as deemed fit. It is an expressions that conotes to different situations. It is not contradictory. The word of God cannot contradict itself when seeing with a Godly/Spiritual perspective.
    • Thanks for your question, La Verne. The Bible only makes passing reference to David's mother (see 1 Sam 22:3-4; cf. Ps 86:16). The Talmud identifies her as a woman named Nitsevet (see b. Bava Batra 91a), but this is a post-biblical Jewish tradition that doesn't originate in Israel's Scriptures. To this end, it's not possible to do any substantive research on David's mother.
  2. I believe the word of God is God Himself and God can't be an author of confusion. I guess we should focus more on what the word can do than to investigate it fault. And I submit that this is no fault or false in God's word
    • True. God is not a God of confusion. But when God inspired His people to write, He allowed them to write in their own hands . The Bible is like an ancient literature like other ancient stories filled with lessons and wisdom. It is part of history, not outside it.
  3. Even if the writers did not follow the law of noncontradiction, yet their lives would be governed by that. What would cause them want to write in a contradictive way instead of a noncontradictive way to achieve the same purpose?
    • Nothing would make one want to write contradictively. The Dr. doesn't know the Bible is a dream only Joseph's son can interpret to build the House of Prayer for all nations in the end days. Ask him who Zoroabel's grandpa is- Luke's gospel says "Neri,"(Luk.3:27), and Matthew's(Matt.1:12) says "Jechonias".
    • The biblical writers wouldn't have understood themselves to be writing in a contradictory way. We think in terms of contradiction vs. noncontradiction because we're governed by an Aristotelean worldview; the ancient Israelites and Second Temple Jews were not.

      + More answers (6)
  4. The apparent contradiction in Proverbs is an intentional method of making one actually think. On the one hand we are not to copy a fool's way of talking. On the other hand, we are to give an appropriate rebuttal to his foolish talk.
  5. Dr. Schaser, Logic is not exclusive to any one group, it doesn't belong only to "western" thought. Luke was a doctor, therefore well educated. Is it plausible that he understood Aristotelian principles? yes! (Keep in mind, Hellenistic culture was ubiquitous during his time). Can you please document your resources that account for your comment "A more historically accurate response is to realize that the ancient Jewish approach to literature allowed for this kind of variance"? I've read the two narratives from Acts many times, and they are indeed perplexing. If Luke, whether Jew or not, he was still Greek by culture and language, understood the law of excluded middle (an unambiguous statement cannot be true and false at the same time), why write in a way that violates this principle? It would be very helpful to me if you can provide sources and/or suggest publications concerning ancient Jewish literary styles. Thank you and Shalom brother. May you have an easy fast.
    • Thanks for your questions, Gadi. To offer answers in order, (1) there's no evidence that "Luke the physician" in Col 4:14 wrote the Gospel of Luke; (2) the writer of the Gospel almost certainly understood the Aristotelean principle, but that doesn't mean that the writer accepted the validity of Aristotle's supposition. There are many suppositions of the Hellenistic world that the writer of Luke rejects -- e.g., the worship of many gods, the unknowability of the One, the immortality of a "soul," the creation of the world by a demiurge, etc. Insofar as the Gospel rejects several Hellenistic notions, it would make sense that the Law of Noncontradiction would be added to the list. For more on the relationship between Greek and Jewish thought, see this IBC webinar, which will be available later this fall: https://israelbiblecenter.com/roundtable-talks/jewish-and-greek-thinking/ Thanks for studying with us.

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