Tuesday, 11 October 2016

What Do We Mean When We Say That the Bible Is Free from Error? Part 1

In 2 Timothy 3:16 the apostle Paul states: 
“All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, for rebuking, for correction, for training in uprightness.”  
(Scripture readings in this article are my own translations of the Hebrew and Greek texts.)

As followers of Jesus Christ, it is essential that we hold fast to what this verse teaches. God has designed the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments to teach us truth that we need to know. The Bible can rightly be called “The Manual for the Human Life.” 

So the Bible teaches what is true. And it consistently teaches what is true. Note how Paul says that all Scripture is God-breathed.


Because Scripture consistently teaches what is true, there must certainly be a deep sense in which it is free from error.

Nevertheless, when we come to closely examine it, we find that its truthfulness is not actually a simple subject. I am not suggesting that the Bible in any way fails to accomplish what 2 Timothy 3:16 says. But when we get into the details, we find that things are more complicated than many think. This will be the focus of the discussion in this article.


The first thing we need to understand clearly about the Bible is that what the authors regarded as true or false does not always coincide with what people regard as true or false today. To an extent, concepts of truthfulness actually vary from culture to culture.

Often modern Christians simply assume that the biblical writers thought and spoke about things like we do. However, there are many ways in which they actually didn’t. And this includes their understanding of what is true or not.

Importantly, in Scripture there is often less of a connection between truthfulness and precision than exists in modern Western culture. The biblical authors were frequently much less precise about things than we tend to be.

This happens in various different ways.

Imprecision in quantity

One way in which the Bible can be less precise than modern Westerners are accustomed to concerns the quantities of things.

A striking example of this can be found in Matthew 12:40.

In this verse Jesus prophesies: 
“For just as Jonah was in the stomach of the sea monster for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” 
The part of this prophecy that we are interested in is the prediction that Jesus will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.

To begin with, we need to recognize that being in the heart of the earth refers to the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The only other conceivable possibility is that it refers to the time between His burial and resurrection. However, all the Gospels agree that Jesus’ burial took place very soon after His death. And there is no reason to doubt that the time between His death and resurrection would have been only about an hour or two longer than the time between His burial and resurrection. And this difference in time isn’t long enough to affect my argument in what follows. So I won’t bother to argue the case here that the time in the heart of the earth is the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection rather than the time between His burial and resurrection. I will just assume this.

Matthew 12:40, then, tells us that the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection will be three days and three nights.

When modern Westerners say “three days and three nights,” they always mean a period of about 72 hours, give or take a few hours. However, when we turn to chapters 27 and 28 of Matthew’s Gospel, we find that Matthew, like the other Gospel writers, portrays the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection as about half that time! 

Matthew implies that Jesus died around or shortly after 3 pm on the Friday (Matthew 27:46-50). And he seems to imply that He rose before about 6 am on the following Sunday (Matthew 28:1-7).

Like the other Gospel authors, Matthew doesn’t tell us the time of day that Jesus rose from the dead. But we could make a rough guess at 3 am on the Sunday. And it couldn’t possibly have been later than 7 am. So according to Matthew 27-28, Jesus was dead for approximately 36 hours, give or take a few hours. And it couldn’t have been for more than 40 hours.

To a modern Western mind, what Matthew has done is nothing short of astonishing. In Matthew 12:40 he tells us that Jesus prophesied that He would be dead for three days and three nights. But when he describes the fulfillment of the prophecy in chapters 27-28, Jesus is dead for only about 36 hours!

It is important to note that we can’t explain the prophecy by saying that three days and three nights means three periods of daytime plus three periods of nighttime. Even if, improbably in my view, Matthew 27:46-28:7 can be interpreted to allow for a post-dawn resurrection and therefore three periods of daytime between Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were only two periods of nighttime. Jesus was dead during the nighttime of Friday to Saturday and during the nighttime of Saturday to Sunday. But there was no third period of nighttime. So the three days and three nights cannot mean three periods of daytime plus three periods of nighttime.

Instead, the three days and three nights must be referring to three consecutive Jewish calendar days. Jewish days began and ended at sunset. So the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection fell on the last part of the day before the Sabbath, all of the Sabbath day, and probably a bit less than half of the day after the Sabbath. Therefore the time between His death and resurrection fell on part or all of three consecutive calendar days.

And Matthew apparently regarded it as true to say that this period of about 36 hours was three days and three nights! But in modern Western culture we couldn’t possibly truthfully describe a period of about 36 hours as three days and three nights!

Suppose a man in a Western country went into a house at 3 pm on a Friday and came out of the house at 3 am on the following Sunday. And suppose he later referred to this, but instead of giving the times of entering and exiting the house, he said, “I was in the house for three days and three nights.” This man would obviously not be telling the truth.

But in Matthew’s culture, a period of about 36 hours, that fell on three consecutive calendar days, apparently could be truthfully described as three days and three nights!

As regards the quantities of things, then, we see that the Bible can use imprecise language that would be considered untrue in modern Western culture, but which was considered true in first century Jewish culture.


Another way in which biblical language can be less precise than we are accustomed to today concerns its use of hyperbole. This is a figure of speech that uses deliberate exaggeration for effect without intending to deceive.

Modern Western culture uses a lot of hyperbole. For example, someone might pick up a bag and say, “That weighs a ton!” In this case, “a ton” is not meant to be taken literally, and both speaker and hearers understand this perfectly. The idea being conveyed is that the bag is extremely heavy, and the exaggeration is used to stress this.

When someone uses hyperbole, the language used obviously doesn’t correspond precisely to reality. There is a difference between the literal meaning of the words and the idea that is being conveyed.

Importantly, when using hyperbole, cultures vary in how much of a difference they allow between the literal meaning and the idea that is conveyed. And the biblical authors sometimes allowed for a greater difference than we are used to today.

A good example of this can be found in Mark 10:29-30, where Jesus promises: 
29 . . . Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, 30 who will not receive a hundred times as much in the present time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields . . .”  
In comparison with the way Westerners use language today, the hyperbole in this passage is really amazing. Jesus promises His disciples that before death they will receive a hundred times more houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields than they have given up!

We can note too that Jesus even emphasizes this promise by beginning it with “Truly I tell you,” yet the promise can hardly be taken literally. He is promising blessing before death to those who give up things for His sake. But the language used to describe this blessing is astonishingly exaggerated when compared with what we are used to.

If someone in modern Western culture were to use the hyperbole that Jesus uses in this passage, they would rightly be accused of dishonesty. However, in first century Jewish culture, it was not dishonest to use this degree of hyperbole.

Unexpressed exceptions

The Bible is also more imprecise than we are used to in the way it allows for unexpressed exceptions to things. This actually overlaps with the issue of hyperbole.

It is surely true that in every culture there are times when someone says something without finding it necessary to mention that there will be exceptions to what they are saying. However, again, different cultures do this to different degrees. And at times the Bible can allow for unexpressed exceptions in a way that would not be allowed in modern Western culture.

A good example of this can be seen in Luke 16:15. Here Jesus states: 
“That which is highly valued by people is hateful in God’s sight.” 
Actually, we can think of many things that would have been highly valued by people in Jesus’ day but which wouldn’t have been hateful to God. For instance, helping someone who has been hurt in an accident is just one of a multitude of examples that could be given.

In line with His ancient Jewish culture, Jesus takes it for granted that there will be numerous exceptions to the principle He is outlining, although He sees no need to refer to these exceptions.

If someone in modern Western culture were to use the words that Jesus uses in this verse, they would rightly be accused of saying something untrue. In our culture the idea that Jesus is conveying would need to be expressed using different words.

In first century Jewish culture, however, there was nothing untrue about the words Jesus uses here.

Quoting the Old Testament

Another way in which the biblical writers could be more imprecise than we are concerns their quotations of the Old Testament.

There is no doubt that the authors of the New Testament had enormous respect for the authority of the OT. But often that didn’t stop them changing the wording to make it more relevant for their purposes!

An example of this can be found in Galatians 4:30, where Paul quotes Genesis 21:10.

In the Septuagint, i.e., the standard Greek OT translation of the first century, Genesis 21:10 reads: 
“Expel this slave woman and her son. For the son of this slave woman will not be an heir with my son Isaac.”    
The original Hebrew underlying our English versions of Genesis 21:10 has a virtually identical meaning.

In Galatians 4:30, however, Paul writes: 
“But what does the scripture say? ‘Expel the slave woman and her son. For the son of the slave woman will not be an heir with the son of the free woman.’” 
Apart from the last few words, the words Paul uses correspond very closely to the Septuagint. And this shows that he is quoting Genesis, not paraphrasing it. His initial question, “But what does the scripture say?” also suggests quotation. 

Note, however, the big change at the end of this passage. “My son Isaac” in Genesis has been changed to “the son of the free woman” in Galatians. 

Paul has altered the OT that he received, in order to help him further his argument in Galatians! At this point in the letter he is concluding his allegorical treatment of Sarah and Hagar. And he wants to emphasize that Christians, whose allegorical mother is Sarah, are free. He therefore modifies the text of Genesis to aid him in making his point.

It is, of course, true that the point Paul is making is a legitimate one. Nevertheless, it tends to strike people of our culture as rather dishonest for him to alter the text he is quoting in this way. But Paul apparently didn’t think it was dishonest at all.

This is another way, then, in which ideas of truth and error in the culture of the biblical authors were not exactly the same as in modern Western culture.

Writing history

The Bible is also more imprecise than we are used to in the way it reports history.

For example, a close examination of the Gospels makes it clear that the authors felt a certain degree of liberty to modify their traditions about Jesus. They held these traditions in very high regard. Yet that didn’t stop them from making alterations when they thought that doing so would be beneficial to their readers.

Given that the NT authors were sometimes prepared to alter the OT text, it shouldn’t actually surprise us that they were also prepared at times to alter their historical traditions about Jesus.

A good example of this kind of modification can be seen when we compare Luke 24 and Acts 1.

Luke 24 has an account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the Sunday He rises from the dead. This narrative includes words of Jesus to His disciples in verses 46-49. And these words are certainly portrayed being spoken either on that Sunday or perhaps in the early hours of the following Monday morning. Then immediately following these words, Luke continues in verses 50-51: 
50 And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. 51 And while He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up to heaven.”  
By far the most natural way of understanding verses 50-51 is that they are portraying Jesus’ ascension taking place on the Sunday of His resurrection or early the following Monday.

If we turn to Acts 1:1-11, however, we find that Luke – the same author! – portrays the ascension taking place forty days after the resurrection!   

To claim that there must have been two ascensions is a very dubious explanation. And this is surely not what the church has believed down through the centuries.

Similarly, trying to force the interpretation of one or both of these passages to make them agree historically is the wrong thing to do. We need to let the Bible stand as it is. Instead, the best solution is that in at least one passage Luke felt a liberty to modify his traditions.

Just as with altering the text of the OT, so altering the history of Jesus strikes us as strange and even dishonest. Besides, it is in the psyche of us modern Westerners to want to know exactly what happened.

But a close analysis of the NT text shows that the Gospel writers were often not as concerned as we are about recording history precisely. If they could modify their historical traditions to a certain extent to make them more edifying for their readers or to simplify things, they frequently did that.

It is important for us to recognize too that the Gospels are first and foremost works of theology. They are aimed primarily at teaching us important spiritual truths. They are only secondarily works of history. Once we understand that, the fact that the history has at times been modified is a bit easier to understand.

Summing up

We have seen, then, that in various ways what modern Westerners typically regard as true and false is not identical to what the biblical authors regarded as true and false.

This is an extremely important point to grasp. When we understand it, literally hundreds of things that modern Western readers of the Bible find problematic can be quickly resolved.

This is one important way in which the truthfulness of the Bible is not actually a simple matter.

See also: