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.