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.”
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.
IT’S NOT QUITE SO SIMPLE
Although it consistently teaches what is true, when we come to closely examine the Bible, we find that its truthfulness is not actually a simple subject. I am not suggesting that Scripture in any way fails to accomplish what 2 Timothy 3:16 says. But when we get into the details, we find that things are a bit more complicated than many assume.
Failure to recognise this is not really dangerous in itself. But there are two problems that often arise when Christians have simplistic assumptions about precisely what they mean when they say that the Bible is true.
PROBLEMS WITH SIMPLISTIC ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE
First, there is the problem of Christians doubting the inspiration of Scripture or even doubting the Christian faith itself.
A Christian may have certain assumptions about what it means to say that the Bible is true. Then, when they come to the view that it is not true in exactly the way they thought, it can make them doubt the Bible’s authority.
One motivation I have in writing this article is to try, in some small measure, to prevent this happening. I want to encourage Christians to see that the truthfulness of Scripture is not a simple subject. If they understand this before they reach the point of having a crisis of faith, then hopefully the crisis will never come. Some who would otherwise doubt the Bible’s authority will hopefully just modify their views on the Bible slightly instead.
It is a real tragedy when Christians abandon the faith over something trivial. Often, all we need is a small adjustment of our views on things.
Second, there is the problem of Christians being hostile to other believers who differ in minor ways on what they mean by the truthfulness of Scripture.
Again, it is a tragedy when this happens. Christians need to accept each other when they take different views on relatively insignificant matters. But this often doesn’t happen.
So another part of my motivation in writing this article is to try to counter this hostility. I want to persuade Christians that the truthfulness of the Bible is not quite so simple a subject as many think. And then I hope that some who are currently hostile to those who take a slightly different view will drop their hostility.
DIFFERENT IDEAS OF WHAT IS TRUE AND FALSE
The first point I want to make about the Bible’s truthfulness concerns cultural variations in ideas about what is true and false.
What the authors of Scripture regarded as true or false ways of expressing things doesn’t always coincide with what people today regard as true or false ways of expressing things. To an extent, ideas about what is an acceptable way to express something actually vary from culture to culture.
Often, modern Christians simply assume that the biblical writers spoke and wrote about things like we do. However, there are many ways in which they actually didn’t.
Importantly, in Scripture there is often much less of a connection between truthfulness and precision than exists in modern Western culture. The biblical authors were frequently far less precise about things than we tend to be.
A good biblical example of this can be found in Matthew 12:40, where 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 recognise 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 portray Jesus’ burial taking place within about two or three hours of His death. And there is no reason to doubt that the time between His death and resurrection would have been only about two or three hours 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 (Matt. 27:46-50). And he seems to imply that He rose before about 6 am on the following Sunday (Matt. 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 Matt. 27:46-28:7, 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 Matt. 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, Matt. 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!
Matt. 12:40 therefore contains an example of wording that was true in first century Jewish culture, but which would be considered untrue in modern Western culture. If modern Western ways of expressing things had existed back in Jesus’ and Matthew’s day, the prophecy in Matt. 12:40 would surely have been worded differently. The same information would have been conveyed, but using different wording.
We see, then, that the Bible can use very imprecise language that would be considered untrue in modern Western culture, but which was considered true in first century Jewish culture.
This example shows clearly that the truthfulness of the Bible is not a simple subject. The wording of Scripture is only true in terms of the values of truth and error in the cultures of those who wrote it. And occasionally these values are very different from other cultures, such as modern Western culture.
MINOR ERRORS THAT WERE NOT IN THE ORIGINAL TEXT
Another way in which the truthfulness of the Bible is not a simple matter concerns errors that have come into its text since it was first written.
You may be surprised to hear this, but even the vast majority of ultraconservative Bible scholars believe that Scripture as we have it today contains some minor errors.
(In this article I will use the term “ultraconservative” to refer to Christians who claim that the original text of the Bible contained not even one minor error. This is a much better term to describe these believers than “conservative,” since there are many Christians, like myself, who are theologically and doctrinally fully conservative, while holding that the original text of Scripture contained some minor errors.)
When ultraconservative scholars say that they believe in the “inerrancy” of the Bible, what they almost always mean is that they believe that the autographs of the biblical books were without error.
The autograph of a text is the original document, the piece of writing that was first composed. And all of the autographs of Scripture are now lost. What we have today are copies of earlier copies.
During the copying process, scribes often made unintentional mistakes. And they also sometimes deliberately altered the wording, when they thought that it read awkwardly or that what it said was theologically problematic.
The result is that today we have thousands of manuscripts of portions of the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, but no two copies of any significant length agree with each other perfectly. And this means that any Bible translation today is bound to contain some minor errors.
An example of an error that has come into the Hebrew text can be found in 2 Samuel 15.
Verses 1-6 of this chapter describe how Absalom made himself popular among the Jews of his day. The passage tells us that he used to stand near a gate in
and speak to many who were involved
in lawsuits. He would say that he agreed with them that they were in the right.
And in this way he won people’s affections. Jerusalem
However, in the Hebrew text as it has come down to us, v. 7 then begins:
“At the end of forty years Absalom said to the king [David] . . .”
In the context, the forty years apparently refers to the time that Absalom was in the habit of speaking to people at the gate. But the author of 2 Samuel surely cannot have written that Absalom did this for forty years. It seems far too long a time.
Besides, the reader of 2 Samuel has been told that David was king in
before Absalom started to do this (2 Sam. 5:9 etc.). And the reader has also
been told that David’s reign in Jerusalem
lasted for only thirty-three years (2 Sam. 5:5). So “forty” seems to be an
error that has crept into the Hebrew text. Jerusalem
It is likely that the original Hebrew read “four,” and that this was accidentally corrupted in copying to “forty.” Most English translations have “four” in their texts, and this seems to be our best guess of what the author wrote. Nevertheless, “forty” is apparently an error in the Hebrew text as we have it. And even ultraconservative scholars usually agree with this.
The Bible gets its job done
There are numerous other places in the Bible where we find similar minor errors that have come into the text since it was first written. Sometimes we can figure out with a high degree of probability what the original was. But sometimes we can’t. And this means that every translation of Scripture is bound to contain some minor errors.
There is no need for Christians to be troubled about this, however. Although the original text of the Bible has not been preserved perfectly, the overwhelming majority of these errors involve trivial matters. Furthermore, even on those occasions when something more important is in view, it is never the case that a key matter of doctrine or practice stands or falls on the uncertain passage alone. There will be other scriptural passages that teach about the same subject and which are textually not in dispute.
Basically, errors that have come into the text since the Bible was written in no way prevent it doing what God designed it for. Scripture succeeds in getting its job done.
I also think that allowing unimportant errors to enter the biblical text is actually an act of great wisdom on God’s part. Sadly, some Christians unintentionally tend to treat the Bible as an object of worship. But the minor errors in it help to counter this tendency. And yet they don’t stop Scripture accomplishing its purpose. It seems to me that this is perfect planning by God.
The same would have been true in the first century
There is one other point worth making on this issue, which is that the same sort of situation would have existed in the first century as exists today. The copies of the OT used by Jesus and the early church would have contained minor errors. It is completely implausible to think that God chose to prevent the introduction of minor errors into the text for hundreds of years up to the time of Christ and the early church, but that He then allowed this after that time.
This means that when, in the NT, we find Jesus and early Christians implying that the OT text in their day is without error, we should understand them to be simplifying things slightly.
This simplification is perfectly reasonable. As is true today, the errors in the first century text would in no way have stopped the OT doing its job. So there was no need to see them as significant or bother mentioning them. But nevertheless, it is worth noting that there is a bit of simplification going on.
This issue of minor errors coming into the text after it was written, then, is a second way in which the truthfulness of Scripture is not a simple matter.
MINOR ERRORS THAT WERE IN THE ORIGINAL TEXT
Another way in which the Bible’s truthfulness is not a simple subject concerns minor errors in the original text.
As I have studied Scripture closely over the years, I have become convinced that its original text contained errors of this kind. I am sure that the only way of avoiding this conclusion is to take extremely unnatural interpretations of the passages involved or to come up with other implausible solutions. And I don’t believe that God asks us to do anything implausible when dealing with Scripture. So I take the firm view that the original text of the Bible contained minor errors in unimportant matters.
An example of this can be found in Job 37:18, where Elihu challenges Job with these words:
“Can you spread out the skies as He [God] does, hard like a mirror of cast metal?”
Elihu assumes here that the skies God made are solid. Up until the 16th century AD people believed that the sky was a solid dome, and Elihu clearly understands things in this way. But we know today that the sky is not solid. So Elihu has unknowingly made a minor mistake.
It is not reasonable to argue that because this is poetry, the author of Job didn’t intend his readers to take these words literally. Poetry actually often uses a great deal of literal language. And the hardness of the skies was clearly meant to be understood literally here.
The key point Elihu is making in this verse is that God is immensely powerful and wise, and this, of course, is true. And Elihu is also obviously correct to say that God used His power and wisdom to make the skies. So his error here in no way affects his argument in this part of the book of Job. It is a trivial mistake.
In this verse God has chosen to speak using ancient understanding of the world, even though that understanding was not entirely accurate.
The only way to avoid this conclusion is to explain things away, but Christians should never do that.
No need to be troubled
Again, there is no need for believers to be troubled about minor errors like this one. Just as with errors that have come into the text since it was first written, so with errors in the original text, we can be sure that they are all minor ones.
It is unthinkable that God would allow the Bible to mislead us in anything of importance.
The existence of minor errors in the original text of the Bible, then, is a third way in which the truthfulness of Scripture is not a simple matter.
AVOIDING SIMPLISTIC ASSUMPTIONS
I have briefly commented on three ways in which the truthfulness of the Bible is a subject that is a bit more complicated than many Christians might think.
As I said at the outset, my aim is to encourage believers to avoid simplistic assumptions about the nature of the Bible.
If Christians accept that the Bible’s truthfulness is not entirely straightforward, they will surely be less likely to have their faith shaken by things in it that they were not expecting to find. And they will surely also be more generous to other believers who differ from their view of Scripture in minor ways.
For a more in-depth discussion of this issue, see my longer article: