The Anti-Missionary’s Charge:
Acts 7:16 contains two blatant errors proving that the New Testament is not from God.
The objection in question centers around an apparent discrepancy between what Stephen states in Acts 7:16 and what the books of Genesis and Joshua state. The statement Stephen makes in Acts 7:16 is as follows:
- Acts 7:16
“From there they were removed to Shechem and laid in the tomb which Abraham had purchased for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.”
In Acts 7:16 Stephen states that after Jacob and Joseph died they were carried to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. That statement contains two apparent problems: first, the burial cave, according to Genesis, was in Hebron, not in Shechem (Gen. 23:16-20). While Joseph was buried in Shechem, Jacob was buried in Hebron. Second, Abraham bought the cave from the Hittites (Gen. 23:10), and it was Jacob who bought the field from Hamor (Gen. 33:18-20).
The objection could be stated this way. If the New Testament can’t get the facts of the Bible correct how can it be trusted? If this is the case how can you claim a fallible book is reliable?
New Testament Integrity
The apparent “discrepancy” is resolved in two possible ways. One solution is to remember that what is recorded here is what Stephen actually said to the Sanhedrin. Luke, or Acts, or the New Testament does not affirm the truth of what Stephen said. It only affirms the fact that Stephen really did say it. In this speech, under pressure, Stephen may have made some factual mistakes. However, in this suggested resolution, Luke did record accurately and honestly what Stephen said.
This solution is in accord with the principle of New Testament inerrancy because Luke recorded even the mistakes of Stephen without correcting them. If he had “corrected” Stephen’s statement he would be playing around with what actually happened. A “correction” by Luke would completely violate New Testament inerrancy and integrity by manipulating what Stephen truly said.
This proposed resolution is in accord with other errors recorded in Scripture. Scripture often records error without affirming it. Scripture simply records honestly and accurately the fact that the error is stated. For example, Psalms 14:1 and 53:1 record the gross error of the ungodly:
- Psalm 14:1, 53:1 (NASB95)
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
The Bible does not affirm that the statement, “There is no God.” is true. The Bible simply affirms that the wicked really believe that particular error. Note a few more examples;
- Ezekiel 8:12 (NASB95)
- Genesis 3:4-5 (NASB95)
- Genesis 4:9 (NASB95)
- Genesis 18:15 (NASB95)
- Genesis 26:7-10 (NASB95)
Then He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what the elders of the house of Israel are committing in the dark, each man in the room of his carved images? For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.'”
The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Sarah denied it however, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
When the men of the place asked about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he was afraid to say, “my wife,” thinking, “the men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful.” It came about, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out through a window, and saw, and behold, Isaac was caressing his wife Rebekah. Then Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, certainly she is your wife! How then did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” And Isaac said to him, “Because I said, ‘I might die on account of her.'” Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.”
All these examples contain statements of absolute error and untruth. However, they are accurately recorded in the Bible because they were actually stated, not because they are true. The inerrancy of the Bible is upheld in these examples and in Stephen’s statement because the Tenach and Brit Chadasha accurately record what really went on, even to the embarrassment of our revered patriarchs and matriarchs.
This, therefore, is one solution to Acts 7:16. Stephen, in a pressure-cooker situation made some factual errors. However, the New Testament, in line with Biblical inerrancy and integrity, recorded his mistakes accurately because he truly made them. Therefore, the New Testament is trustworthy, just like Tenach is, because even embarrassing errors on the part of godly people are publicly, transparently, and honestly recorded.
A second way of solving the problem is to point out that sometimes events are summarized in Scripture. Here, the two transactions and the two burials are being summarized.
This resolution fits the context quite naturally and consistently. The context is a pressure-cooker defense before the Sanhedrin on charges of blasphemy (Acts 6-7). Because Stephen is caught in a demanding situation, he did not have a lot of time. So, the transaction of Abraham with the Hittites, and the transaction of Jacob with Hamor of Shechem are telescoped together–summarized. Also, the two burials are summarized, for the same reason: the burial of Jacob in Hebron; and, the burial of Joseph in Shechem. This is similar to earlier in this speech where the two calls of Abraham were summarized (Acts 7:4). Stephen simply telescoped them together for efficiency’s sake.
A worthwhile comment comes from Hard Sayings of the Bible, page 522:
What we have to remember is that in speeches like these the speaker does not intend to give a history lesson. Before he started, he would know good and well that his audience knew the history as well as he did, if not better. What he is trying to do is to make a point from that history. Therefore, he can streamline it to fit his purposes.
John Gill in in his Exposition of the Entire Bible adds some cogent thoughts along the same lines:
…what best seems to remove the difficulty is, that the words refer to both places and purchases; to the field of Machpelah bought by Abraham, and to the parcel of field is Sichem bought by Jacob, of the sons of Emmor; for the words with the repetition of the phrase, “in the sepulchre”, may be read thus; “and were laid in the sepulchre, that Abraham bought for a sum of money”, and in the sepulchre (bought by Jacob) “of the sons of Emmor”, the father of Sichem; or the words may be rendered thus, “they were carried over into Sichem, and laid in the sepulchre which Abraham bought for a sum of money, besides” that “of the sons of Emmor”, the father “of Sichem”; namely, which Jacob bought, and in which Joseph was laid, Gen 33:19. And this agrees with Stephen’s account and design, in the preceding verse; he observes, that Jacob died in Egypt, and all the twelve patriarchs; and here he tells us how they were disposed of, and where they were buried, both Jacob and his sons; they were removed from Egypt, and brought into the land of Canaan; Jacob, he was laid in the cave of Machpelah, in the sepulchre Abraham bought of the children of Heth; and Joseph and his brethren, they were laid in the sepulchre at Sichem, which Jacob bought of the sons of Emmor: …
In this resolution the integrity and reliability of the New Testament are not compromised because the point Stephen is making is true. To criticize the rhetorical device he uses to make his point (summation) is simply invalid fault-finding and quibbling.
Rabbinic Resolution of “Discrepancies”
Actually, what we have done here is no different than what the rabbis go through when they resolve apparent discrepancies in the Biblical text. For example, let me share one small example that comes directly out of this historical event. In Joshua 24:32 we read this statement:
- Joshua 24:32 (Tenach):
The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought for a hundred kesitahs from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, and which had become a heritage of the Josephites.
In the Artscroll Tenach Series Commentary, a discrepancy is noted and resolved (Yehoshua, pages 469-470):
The verse in Exodus (13:19) specifically states that it was Moses – not the children of Israel — who brought Joseph’s bones from Egypt. Radak explains that although Moses issued the command to transport Joseph’s body, it was the Israelites who actually fulfilled the act.
The Talmud (Sotah 13b) derives a general principle from the disparity between the two verses. If one person begins a mitzvah and another completes it, the second person is credited with its performance. Although Moses originally brought Joseph’s bones from Egypt, he was unable to enter Eretz Yisrael. Thus, our verse credits the Israelites, who competed Moses’ task by transporting Joseph’s bones into Eretz Yisrael, with the entire mitzvah.
The same discrepancy and resolution is noted in the Soncino Books of the Bible: Joshua and Judges (page 151). Since apparent “discrepancies” such as these noted in Joshua 24:32 and Acts 7:16 exist and can be resolved with reasonable explanations we have no grounds to criticize or doubt Tenach or Brit Chadasha. The Brit Chadasha as well as Tenach can be trusted as the Word of God.