I recently stumbled upon Rabbi Tovia Singer making a claim that Acts 7:16 contradicts the Torah’s narrative.
In essence, the claim is that Genesis shows that Jacob was buried at Machpelah (still in use by Jews and Muslims today, and previously a Christian Church), and that Acts says he was buried at Shechem. Furthermore, it says that the tomb at Shechem was purchased by Abraham, when the Genesis and Joshua say the tomb was purchased by Jacob.
There are hundreds of alleged contradictions in the Bible, and I have encountered many over the years. Some however believe this one to be the hardest. And for my money, it does seem to be challenging compared to most.
There are different philosophical approaches people tend to take when a contradiction like this appears in their reading / listening:
- It must be wrong.
- It must be right (somehow).
- Is it possible that these can be reconciled? If so, how?
It is the last one that seems the most correct.
Let’s take a look at some examples on approach.
Being a convert from Protestant to Catholic, and having dabbled in reading Jewish commentators gives me a broad perspective on who to review for these types of questions.
For Protestant commentators, I have found the most helpful over the years to be:
- Matthew Henry commentary on the whole Bible
- Matthew Poole commentary on the whole Bible
- John Gill commentary on the whole Bible
- Spurgeon’s Treasury of David (commentary on the Psalms)
- Occasionally, I will have recourse to the following:
- ESV Study Bible
- MacArthur Study Bible
- NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible
- NRSV New Interpreters Study Bible
- NRSV The HarperCollins Study Bible
- Lastly, I have just started using the CSV Ancient Faith Study Bible
For Catholics (and Orthodox), the best are as follows:
- Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels
- Augustine’s Commentary on the Psalms
- Chrysostom’s commentaries
- Other Church Father commentaries on the Old Testament
- Thomas Aquinas’ Commentaries
- Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea (a compilation of the Church Fathers on the Gospels)
- Haydock’s Bible Commentary
- A Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (now out of print, but can still be found)
- NAB Bible
- Ignatius Catholic Study Bible
- The Word on Fire Bible
- The Orthodox Study Bible
For Jewish commentaries:
- Rashi’s commentary on the Bible.
- The Talmud occasionally.
- The Chumash (Stone edition)
- The Tanach
A majority of these can be found online for free. Interestingly, I tend to find that I usually find a better answer by comparing all of these then I do by looking at just one. Often, one commentator will have a more solid response to a question on one verse, but will be weaker on a different verse.
The only main tradition not mentioned here that may have some input on these passages is Islam. I have found from my reading of a translation of the Koran (about 1/3 to 1/2) that it often has input on what Christians in the area during the time of Muhammad believed (I.e. the assumption of Mary, Nestorian theology, etc.), but the summaries provided tend to sit in the ‘it must be wrong’ option, as the Koran tends to retell the Biblical stories in a summarised way with new emphases, which is believed to be more authoritative than the prior texts. There is some dispute within Islam as to whether the prior texts are the word of God uncorrupted, but there seems to be no dispute that in the event of a contradiction between the Bible and the Koran, the Koran is to take precedence.
In regards to Acts 7:16, here’s the process I used to assess this:
- A quick Google search provided some unsatisfactory answers, but a person noted that this was believed to be the hardest Bible contradiction of them all.
- An example of ‘It must be wrong’ was seen in Haydock’s (which is uncommon for Haydock’s):
- This purchase made by Abraham must be different from the purchase of a field made afterwards by Jacob. Gen. xxxiii. 19. See a Lapide, the author of the Analysis, dissert. 23. P. Alleman, &c. Wi. — Abraham bought. There must be an error of the copyist in this verse. Either the word Abraham ought to be omitted, or changed into Jacob. For it is plain, from Gen. xxxiii. 19. that the latter bought the land from the sons of Hemor. The Hebrew says, he bought it for one hundred kesitha, which some translate pieces of silver; others, lambs. As for Abraham, and Jacob, they were buried in the cavern of Mambre, which Abraham had purchased from the children of Heth. Gen. xxiii. Calmet. — It is supposed that originally the name of Jacob was given, abridged JAB, and that the first letter having disappeared, the two remaining letters were taken by misprision, for the abridgment of the name of Abraham. Hemor was the father of Sichem, and here the Greek text simply calls him Hemor of Sichem. V. (Source: https://www.ecatholic2000.com/haydock/ntcomment102.shtml)
- Matthew Poole’s commentary (again surprisingly and out of the ordinary) was an example of ‘this must be right (somehow):
- “This place is acknowledged to be most difficult, and the difficulties are better not to be mentioned than ill solved, which the nature of these notes (not to mention other reasons) might occasion…” (Source: https://www.biblecomments.org/c/28/matthew-pooles-english-annotations-on-the-holy-bible/acts/7/16)
- John Gill asked the question, ‘Is this right, and if so how?’ He provided a range of options and solutions, before presenting what he believes to be the best solution.
- “The Syriac version reads in the singular number, “and he was translated into Sichem, and laid” as if this was said of Jacob only, whereas he is not spoken of at all, only the fathers, the twelve patriarchs; for Jacob, though he was carried out of Egypt, he was not buried in Sichem, but in the cave of Machpelah, ( Genesis 50:13 ) . But Joseph and the rest of the patriarchs, who died in Egypt, when the children of Israel came out from thence, they brought their bones along with them, and buried them in Sichem: of the burial of Joseph there, there is no doubt, since it is expressly affirmed in ( Joshua 24:32 ) and that the rest of the patriarchs were buried there, and not in Hebron, as Josephus asserts, may be concluded from hence; because in the cave of Machpelah at Hebron, there are never mentioned more in Jewish writers, than these four couple; Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah; from whence, they say, Hebron was called Kirjath Arba, the city of four; as also, because it is the general consent of the Jews; and if they had not agreed in it, or said nothing about it, the thing is natural to suppose, that the children of Israel brought the bones of all the patriarchs out of Egypt, along with Joseph’s; and since they buried the bones of Joseph in Sichem, it is most reasonable to believe, that the rest were buried there likewise; though it must be owned, that there is an entire silence about them, even when the sepulchre of Joseph is taken notice of: so R. Benjamin speaking of the Samaritans says,
- “among them is the sepulchre of Joseph the righteous, the son of Jacob our father, on whom be peace, as it is said, ( Joshua 24:32 ) .”
- And says another of their writers,
- “from Sichem about a sabbath day’s journey, in a village, called Belata, there Joseph the just was buried;”
- but of the rest, no mention is made:
- and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmor, the father of Sichem;
- the last clause, the father “of Sichem”, is left out in the Syriac version; and the Alexandrian copy reads it, “in Sichem”; as if it was the name of a place, and not of a man: the Vulgate Latin, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions read, “the son of Sichem”; whereas it is certain, that Sichem was the son of Emmor, or Hamor, ( Genesis 33:19 ) ( 34:6 ) unless it can be thought there were two Sichems, one that was the father of Emmor, and another that was his son: but the great difficulty is, how the sepulchre in which the fathers were laid at Sichem, can be said to be bought by Abraham of the sons of Emmor, when what Abraham bought was the field and cave of Machpelah; and that not of the sons of Emmor, but of the sons of Heth, and of Ephron, the son of Zohar the Hitrite, ( Genesis 23:16 Genesis 23:17 ) . Whereas the parcel of ground in Sichem, bought of the sons of Emmor, the father of Sichem, was bought by Jacob, ( Genesis 33:19 ) ( Joshua 24:32 ) . Various things are suggested, to reconcile this; some think the word Abraham is an interpolation, and that it should be read, which he (Jacob) bought; but to support this, no copy can be produced: others observe, that it may be read, which he bought for Abraham; that is, which Jacob bought for Abraham and his seed, as a pledge of the inheritance of the whole land, promised unto him; others think that by Abraham is meant a son of Abraham, that is, Jacob; as children are sometimes called by their father’s name; as the Messiah is called David, and the like; but 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, ( Genesis 33:19 ) ( Joshua 24:32 ) . 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: upon the whole, the charge of several errors brought by the Jew against Stephen appears to be groundless; the sum this sepulchre was bought for was an hundred pieces of money, ( Genesis 33:19 ) . (Source: https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/acts-7-16.html)
It would seem to me from reviewing these that, in order to take the highest defence of Scripture being possibly correct, one would acknowledge that the burial of Jacob is easily resolved. The resolution as to who purchased the plot of land seems to be harder to resolve, and perhaps there are some additional options not listed here. One for example, that I came across in the other books was that Stephen was quoting the Samaritan tradition rather than the Jewish. I’m not personally convinced by that, but it is interesting.
Nevertheless, there are a few things to learn from these types of investigations:
- More often than not, your paradigm of the Bible and its authority will determine the way you approach the question, as will your experience and time availability (for example: John Gill knew Hebrew well, possibly the best of all the Protestants in his time; the author’s of Haydock probably didn’t know it well.).
- None of these questions can be resolved by the Bible alone. They require exploration, research, thinking, induction, etc.
- On some passages you will never find a certain answer. But, you can find several options, some of which are logically more plausible than others.
- Other options could plausibly provide a both/and answer to an either/or question. For example: some of the answers on the Google search, while not convincing to me, claimed that Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 was accurately recorded, but that he got some of the details wrong because he was responding under pressure (at the end of his speech he is stoned to death).
I tend to find a lot of these and like to apply my effort to looking into them, so I may from time to time post others here. Nevertheless, here is my best response within 12 hours of coming across what is believed to be the most difficult passage. And this is an example of the tools and approach I would use to see if / how the question has been answered before by others of various traditions.