When Scripture “Contradicts” Itself

Contradicitons in the BibleThis past week I was talking to a former professor who told me an experience with two contentious students of his ruined his joy in teaching. He taught at a Bible college, and these two students, instead of being interested in learning, were only interested in splitting theological hairs. As a result of their constant criticizing, their professor was unable to keep on topic for the course, and the class had to sit through back and forth debates every day instead of learning the course material.

This is what happens when we “answer fools,” as Proverbs 26:4 warns, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” I love this verse for its practical wisdom, perhaps because I see so many examples of it in life today. When Christians respond in outrage to some cultural development, political issue, or media image that offends them, I think sometimes we look as ridiculous as the very people we are trying to disprove.

But I was surprised to read the next verse, which I discovered is one of the often-quoted contradictions within the Bible. Proverbs 26:5 reads, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.” These two verses are back to back, and in plain and simple language, the messages appear as opposites. How am I supposed to interpret that?

Scriptural Contradiction by Solomon?

Considering that Proverbs is written by Solomon, the wisest man in the history of the world (1 Kings 3:12), I doubt that this strange couple of proverbs are some kind of glitch or typo on his part. In fact, Proverbs is distinctive in its clever use of language, so I would assume that this back to back “contradiction” is somehow strategic, serving to prove a point.

I find my study note from Charles Ryrie to be clarifying, “These verses are complementary rather than contradictory. Although it is unwise to argue with a fool at his level and to recognize his foolish suppositions, there are occasions when it is best to refute him soundly, lest his foolish opinions seem to be confirmed.” This sounds like wise application to me, but I want to dig a little deeper to confirm this interpretation.

Because these verses share many words and phrases, I looked up a few of them in the original Hebrew using Strong’s concordance. The word “folly” used in both verses has the obvious meaning of foolishness, but Strong’s records another translation, that this word means power, from the root. Giving the example of Proverbs 14:24, Strong’s says, “The writer appears to have played on the double significance of the word.”

I don’t know if there is a similar wordplay happening in Prov. 26:4-5, but I think it is a possibility considering the literary genius displayed in this book. Perhaps there is a double meaning of the word “folly” at work here. But I do know that Jesus often dealt with fools in His earthly ministry, and His response seems to be in line with Ryrie’s interpretation. Jesus often answered the questions of His opponents with another question (Mt. 21:25, Mark 3:4, Luke 20:23, 44), and in these situations His dissenters were rendered speechless in their confusion. Answering a fool’s question with a wise question allows the wise man to preserve his wisdom without stooping to the fool’s level, and it also serves to expose the folly of the fool’s question.

Other Contradictions in the Bible

What other Contradictions in the Bible  do you find, and how do you approach these apparent Contradictions?

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About the Author

Stephanie S. Smith is a freelance writer and book publicist through her business (In)dialogue Communications at www.stephaniessmith.com. After graduating with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry from Moody Bible Institute, she now lives in Upstate New York with her husband where she has the privilege of working on projects for Moody Publishers and serving as Editorial Assistant for Relief Journal: A Christian Literary Expression.

7 Responses to When Scripture “Contradicts” Itself

  1. vickie jackson says:

    I like to use this to help with my bible study and inspiration.

  2. Ky says:

    I see that folly also means wickedness. Perhaps its saying do not answer based on their foolishness but on their wicked or ungodly behavior.

  3. Ky, thanks for sharing that. When you put it that way, the proverb reads more clearly.

  4. BP says:

    If we respond to a fool there’s no end to the argument because a fool can’t be convinced with facts. Arguing with them only adds insult to injury.

    But if we don’t respond to a fool then they think they’re foolishness is right. This wouldn’t be such an issue if fools arguments only harmed themselves.

    Hence the old saying “Darned if you do, and darned if you don’t”.

    A fool refuses to admit when they’re wrong and change their ways, that’s what a wise person does (Pr. 9:8 “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.”).

    A fool never obeys because they’re convinced but only conform when enough external pressure is applied (Pr. 26:3 “A whip for the horse, a halter for the donkey, and a rod for the backs of fools!”).

  5. crystal says:

    on Proverbs 26:4-5, I would like to know what bible you used. KJV states this: 4Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.

    5Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

  6. Stephanie S. Smith says:

    Crystal, you caught a critical typo! Thank you for alerting me to this, I have changed it. You are right, it should be “unless you will be like him” in v. 4.

  7. michael esosuakpo says:

    God words are powerful to put you on the right path

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