Proverbs 26:4-5 reads, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly. … Answer a fool according to his folly.”
Readers of the Bible might find themselves confused as to whether Hazor was destroyed in the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 11 says it was, but later in Joshua and in Judges 4 we’re told it was inhabited).
Others might see a contradiction about when Jesus cleared the Jerusalem Temple (John's gospel places it at the very beginning of his ministry while the other three gospels place it at the very end).
Isn’t the Bible full of contradictions? In our missional campus ministry at a diverse public university, I hear this question a lot. And every time I hear it, I feel the pressure from anxious Christians to answer, "No! Of course not! The Bible is the Word of God, so there can’t be contradictions!"
The problem with this response isn’t its faith in Scripture’s reliability. The problem is that it doesn’t respect the person honestly asking the question.
We don’t faithfully engage the Bible by anxiously denying the existence of these texts. Instead, we need to take them seriously as a way of taking people seriously. These kinds of questions are asked by honest and thoughtful Christians, adherents to other religions, and interested skeptics and seekers. How we answer is part of our witness.
Whether the Bible is full of contradictions is a question considered in the massive scholarly field called “hermeneutics”—the theories and methods of how we interpret texts. Some solid hermeneutical principles can help with this question.
First, this question is actually asking about apparent contradictions. The word “apparent” is important because it reminds us that what we think we observe might, upon closer study, turn out to be something other than what we first assumed.
Next, we should ask which genre or type of literature we’re looking at. The Bible is not so much a book as a library of books (at least 66 books in the Protestant version), and each book is filled with different types of ancient literature. We need to read all those different types of literature the way they were intended to be read.
Compare this to scrolling through your social media feeds. You are (often unconsciously) interpreting the different things you see. Your mind is trained to identify and interpret a news report differently than a meme. You know that poetry is read and interpreted differently than prose.
The same is true in the Bible. Parables are different from prophecy and poetry. But here’s the catch: even a kind of literature that seems the same in the ancient world and in today’s world might not be functioning in the same way. Take history books, for example: ancient historians operated with different assumptions and levels of creative license than historians today. This accounts for the differences in Joshua’s portrayal of Hazor and John’s unique placement of the temple clearing in his narrative of Jesus’ ministry. On further study, these aren’t contradictions. We only think they’re contradictions because of the assumptions we’ve brought to the text.
But what about Proverbs 26:4-5? Well, this is wisdom literature. Wisdom is discerning how to live in different circumstances. With some questions, the wise response is to answer. But there are other questions—and other questioners—in which wisdom requires us to just walk away. Those two verses aren’t a contradiction; they are wisdom for living in God's beautifully complex world.