Does the Bible have mistakes in it? For years critics of the veracity and authority of the Bible have referred to the numerous “errors” that can be found in the Bible. So, is the Bible inerrant? Can it be completely trusted as the words of God?
For the sake of space, I will not enumerate the supposed errors in the Bible in this post. Suffice it to say, I have studied these errors for years as well as the very cogent explanations for each made by a wide range of scholars. Instead, I want to focus in a wider perspective why I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. In my experience, I have discovered that many people who champion the position that there are errors in the Bible really do so from an ad hominem perspective rather than an argument of substance. In other words, their insistence that errors are contained in the Bible is merely grounds for their disdain for God and Christians. As Bill Fay said, “Every time someone says to me, ‘I don’t believe the Bible because there are mistakes in it,’ I simply hand my Bible over to them and ask, ‘Would you be so kind as to show me one?’” Most are unable to do so.
At issue is whether or not the Bible is “inerrant.” Many people attempt to make the Bible die a thousand deaths on points that really aren’t related to inerrancy. On his blog, author Tim Challies lists a helpful post about inerrancy by explaining what inerrancy is not.
Inerrancy does not preclude the use of ordinary language. For example, the Bible speaks of the sun “rising.” We know the sun does not rise, but rather the earth rotates to bring the sun into view. The use of colloquialisms is to be expected, and does not invalidate the inerrancy of Scripture. The same can be said here of numbers. If I go to a Thunder game and the announced attendance is 18,261, I will tell people there were 18,000 there. The same is true with distance. Mapquest says the distance from Shawnee to Midwest City is 31.51 miles. If you ask me how far Shawnee is from Midwest City I’m going to say, “About 30 miles.” My response is not as precise as GPS, but nonetheless it is accurate.
Inerrancy does not preclude the use of loose and free quotations. In our culture, quoting someone exactly is of tantamount importance. However, in first century Greek usage, of utmost importance was the content of what someone said. Note that the Greek New Testament never uses quotation marks. If one ancient manuscript reads, “I Am the Truth, the Way, and the Life…” and another reads, “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…” there’s no problem with inerrancy. The content has been accurately conveyed.
Inerrancy does not preclude unusual grammatical constructions. Biblical authors had their own unique style and vocabulary (see previous post on the inspiration of Scripture). Some authors had very proper style and grammar (e.g. Luke) while others did not (e.g. John). However, in no way does this undermine the accuracy or truthfulness of what was being written.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to biblical inerrancy is the question of the original autographs. Some may argue, “I might believe that the original documents recorded by the biblical authors are inerrant, but the Bible we have today, copied for centuries by man, is full of errors.” In reality, this argument is a non-sequitur because none of the original autographs of the Bible exist. Since the Scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and since God is perfect, it makes sense then that the original autographs of the Bible are free from any error.
But what about the Bible we have today? For the first fifteen centuries of the New Testament’s existence, it was passed on by the handwritten work of copyists (called the “transmission” of the text). Did these copyists make mistakes? Absolutely! The earliest copies of the Bible were written mostly on papyrus, a brittle medium that fell apart over time. As copies began to wear out, new ones were copied by hand. Sometimes these copies were made by a lone copyist looking at the document(s) needing to be replaced. At other times a reader would read the document and multiple copyists would record what they heard. This was no easy task. The Hebrew language has no vowels (which must be supplied) and Greek texts were often written with no spaces between the words to conserve space on the papyrus/parchment. What were some of the mistakes that copyists would make?
Mistakes by the ear. If a copyist was recording what was being read to him, he may mishear what was said. For example, a reader might say, “For many years, the book had been read.” However, the scribe may write down “red” instead of “read.”
Mistakes by the eye. Hebrew and Greek letters are similar and copyists may have mistaken them for something different. If a verse had a repeating clause in it, the scribe’s eyes may go from the first one to the last one, skipping the intervening words. They may have also repeated words or phrases moving from one line to the other. Just imagine how tired your eyes get when reading or writing for long periods of time.
Mistakes of confusion by correction. Many times the scribe would catch his own mistake. However, if he made a mistake after a considerable amount of the document had been copied, he would not start over again. Instead, he would go into the margin or between the lines and make the correction. However, future scribes might not know if these marks were corrections or notes added for clarification of the text.
Mistakes of abbreviation. Common words or phrases were sometimes abbreviated, but later scribes might not understand these and attempt to erroneously correct them.
Mistakes of refusal to correct. Scribes would sometimes come across what they knew to be a clear mistake by the previous copyist. However, out of deep respect for the biblical text and process of transmission, they would refuse to correct the manuscript. We should note that biblical scholars, even in ancient times, were aware of the mistakes made by copyists. The vast majority are quite simple to identify. For example, the Masoretes, who preserved the oldest Hebrew copy of the Old Testament we have today, made a comprehensive list of ancient variants and problems with the text.
So, knowing that copyists were prone to mistakes, how can we say that the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and completely true and accurate in all that it says? Let me explain by using the New Testament as an example. Today we have over 5,000 ancient copies, in whole or in part, of the New Testament in the Greek language in which they were originally written. Obviously, these 5,000 copies are not exactly identical. There are variances between the copies in terms of different vocabulary words used, phrases, or sentence structure (called “variants”). However, of these 5,000 copies, the vast majority do have the exact same rendering for every word and sentence in the New Testament (called the “majority text”). If there is a variant reading in a number of ancient copies, or in some of the more important, older copies, then a note to this effect is made at the bottom of the Greek New Testament (called the “textual apparatus”). It is important to note that none of the variances deal with anything that is substantive or theological in nature. They generally deal with conjunctions, determiners, etc.
That the majority of over 5,000 copies, made by different scholars at different times in different places, say the same thing is evidence that the majority text is God’s inerrant Word. Add to this that copyists and ancient scholars used rigorous standards to determine the accuracy of the text. For example, here are two (among many) of the rules they commonly used:
The rule of difficulty. The most difficult text (i.e. to understand theologically or in plain sense) is probably the correct one. It is far more likely that ancient scribes would have tried to simplify a text through editing than to make it more difficult. Thus, difficult texts show that a copyist did not make an alteration. An example I give to my students is this: Let’s say you’re a copyist and you have two copies of the same text which have different renderings and you’re trying to determine which is correct. One copy reads, “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily life is but a dream.” The other copy reads, “Propel, propel, propel your craft placidly down the solution, exuberance, exuberance, exuberance, exuberance existence is but an illusion.” The simpler rendering appears to have been simplified by a copyist. The more difficult rendering appears to be closer to the original.
The rule of antiquity. The oldest text is most likely the best one. Copyists dated their work or dates can be determined by the style of font that was used. The older the text, the less time and opportunity copyists had to make alterations.
But does any of this verify that the Bible we have on our desk today is an accurate and trustworthy representation of the original documents written by the biblical authors? One of the greatest archaeological finds ever made are the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most people have heard of these, but they don’t know why they are so important. They are tremendously important because they stand as evidence of all I have been talking about in this post: Namely, that God was directly overseeing the transmission of the biblical text so that what we have today is truly inerrant. The Dead Sea Scrolls, accidentally discovered by a shepherd boy in 1947 in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea, were copies of the Old Testament written in Hebrew. The scrolls were produced by the Essenes, a monastic sect of Jews living in seclusion, carefully recording and preserving the Scripture. The scrolls date back to 200 B.C. At that time, the oldest copy of the Old Testament was the Masoretic text (from which the Old Testament in your Bible is translated) which is dated around 900 A.D. The absolutely amazing thing is that the Dead Sea Scrolls, over 1,000 years older than the Masoretic Text, are virtually identical. This means that for 1,000 years God was overseeing the transmission of the text. It’s difficult to describe just how amazing this is! Despite the human errors of copyists, God had insured that His Word was being accurately passed on to future generations.
Everything I have written thus far helps to explain that, as far as textual criticism and the problems of transmission, the Bible stands unparalleled in its accuracy. As for the aforementioned “errors” in the Bible- theological, historical, or otherwise- each of these has very plausible explanations. I plan future posts in the “Tough to Tackle Tuesday” feature of my blog to specifically address some of these.
I hope you will join me in trusting that the Bible is divinely inspired by God, completely inerrant and infallible, free of any fraud or deceit, and a trustworthy guide for life.