Friday, 9 March 2018

What Do We Mean When We Say That the Bible Is Free from Error? Part 2


Another point we need to consider has to do with errors that have come into the text of the Bible since it was first written.

You may be surprised to hear this, but even the vast majority of ultraconservative biblical scholars believe that the Bible 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 the Bible 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 something 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 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 Jerusalem 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.

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 Jerusalem before Absalom started to do this (2 Samuel 5:9 etc.). And they have been told that David’s reign in Jerusalem only lasted for thirty-three years (2 Samuel 5:5). So “forty” seems to be an error that has crept into the Hebrew text.

It is probable 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 agree with this.

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 the Bible 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.

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.


Yet 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.

Here are four examples of this:

Job 37

In Job 37:18 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.

Matthew 23

Another example can be found in Matthew 23:34-35. Here Jesus threatens the scribes and Pharisees in this way: 
34 Therefore, behold, I am sending prophets and wise men and scribes to you. Some of them you will kill and crucify, . . . , 35 so that all the upright blood shed on the earth might come upon you, from the blood of the upright Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” 
It seems highly likely that in this passage Matthew has made a minor mistake as regards the name of the Zechariah that he has in mind. He presents Jesus referring to Zechariah the son of Berechiah, but it appears that he meant to say Zechariah the son of Jehoiada.

Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, is the prophet whose prophecies are found in the OT book that we know as Zechariah (see Zechariah 1:1). Neither the OT nor Jewish tradition, however, provides any evidence that he suffered a violent death.

In 2 Chronicles 24:20-21, by contrast, we are told that Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, was murdered in the temple courts. This fits well with the description in Matthew 23:35.

Importantly, when Jesus refers to the blood of Abel and the blood of Zechariah, He is apparently referring to the first and last pertinent murders in the Hebrew Bible of His day. Abel is the first person to be murdered in Scripture (Genesis 4:8). However, today 2 Chronicles is the book that concludes the Hebrew Scriptures as they are commonly used by Jews, and there is no good reason for believing it did not conclude them in the first century too. It seems highly probable, therefore, that in Matthew 23:35 Matthew is attempting to portray Jesus referring to the Zechariah who was murdered near the end of the Hebrew Bible in 2 Chronicles 24.

Explanations that attempt to get round the difficulty are all unconvincing. To say that the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, was also murdered in the temple courts without any evidence for this, and that it is just coincidental that the murder in the temple courts of another man called Zechariah is found at the end of the Hebrew Bible, fails to convince. Similarly, to suppose that the Zechariah of 2 Chronicles 24 was actually the grandson of Jehoiada, who was the father of an otherwise unknown Berechiah, looks very contrived.

It seems highly likely that Matthew has made a mistake, although just a trivial one.

Mark 2

A further example can be seen in Mark 2:25-26, where Jesus states: 
25 Have you never read what David did . . . , 26 how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the loaves of presentation . . . ?” 
Here Mark presents Jesus referring to the account in 1 Samuel 21:1-9, where David eats the sacred bread. In this OT passage, however, we are told that Ahimelech, Abiathar’s father, was actually high priest when David ate the bread.

It is true that a few Greek manuscripts of this passage in Mark omit the reference to Abiathar. But this is hardly a warrant for missing out these words from the text, and I am not aware of any English version that omits them.

The approach usually taken by those anxious to harmonize Mark with 1 Samuel on this point is to suppose that “in the time of Abiathar the high priest” just means “during the lifetime of Abiathar.” If the words are interpreted in this way, then the passage in Mark need not actually be saying that Abiathar was high priest when David ate the bread.

This, however, seems a very forced way of taking the text. In 1 Samuel, David talks to the high priest (Ahimelech) at the time he eats the sacred bread, and we can be confident that Mark intended Jesus to be referring to the man David talked to. There is no other plausible reason for Mark mentioning the high priest at all.

It seems, then, that Mark has made an error in this passage, albeit a trivial one.

Hebrews 9

The final example comes from Hebrews 9:3-4. Here the author says: 
3 Behind the second veil was the part of the tent called the Holy of Holies, 4 which had . . . the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was the golden jar containing the manna and Aaron’s staff which budded . . .” 
In this passage the author states that the jar containing the manna and Aaron’s staff were in the ark of the covenant. In the OT, however, we read that these items were actually located in front of the ark, not inside it (Exodus 16:33-34; Numbers 17:10).

To argue on the basis of this passage in Hebrews that there must have been a time in Israelite history when the jar and the staff were placed inside the ark seems a very drastic course of action to take. There is no evidence at all in the OT that the jar and staff were ever inside the ark. Besides, in Exodus 16:33-34 we are told that God instructed Moses to place the jar in front of the ark, and in Numbers 17:10 God instructs him to place Aaron’s staff in front of the ark.

We must bear in mind too that the OT has very precise commands about how the tabernacle should be arranged, and it is difficult to imagine that deviations from this pattern were permitted. Let us be clear too that the ark of the covenant was located not just in the tabernacle, but in the Holy of Holies. If there was any part of the tabernacle where we would expect there to be strict adherence to what the Law of Moses required, it would be the Holy of Holies.

It seems that the author of Hebrews’ memory has served him poorly as regards these details and that he has made a trivial mistake.

We can’t just appeal to error-free autographs

There are also other examples like these, where the evidence strongly suggests that a biblical author has made a small error.

Importantly too, we cannot reasonably explain away all these mistakes by arguing that the text has changed over the centuries, and that the autograph, i.e., the original text, was error-free.

It is true, as I noted above, that some minor errors in Scripture are ones that have come into the text since it was written.

However, in other cases where there seems to be an error, two things are true. First, there is little or no textual evidence in our surviving manuscripts that the original text was different. And second, the structure of the text makes it implausible that the original avoided the error.

It is therefore not reasonable to claim that all of the errors in the Bible as we know it have come into the text since it was first written.

What about 2 Timothy 3:16?

As I have already said, in 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul says: 
“All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, for rebuking, for correction, for training in uprightness.”  
I have already said too that Paul is strongly implying here that the Bible consistently teaches what is true.

So how can we reconcile what Paul says in this verse with the existence of minor errors in the original text of Scripture? Doesn’t this verse show that there can’t be any such errors?

Actually, this thinking is too simplistic.

When Paul says, “all Scripture is God-breathed,” he is surely not referring specifically to the autographs of the OT writings, which would have been composed some centuries before his time. Rather, he is referring to the OT as he and his readers knew and read it. The present tense verb “is” especially points in this direction.

It is true that Paul would have believed firmly that what he says about the OT in this verse would also have applied to the autographs. But in this verse he is referring to the OT as it existed in his day.

However, as I have already noted, in the first century the OT would have contained some minor errors that had come into the text since it was written. Even ultraconservative biblical scholars almost always agree that the Bible as we have it today contains minor errors of this kind. And 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.

So this means that what Paul says about the OT in 2 Timothy 3:16 stands despite the existence of minor errors that would have come into the text before the first century. These errors were unimportant enough that they didn’t stop the Bible accomplishing what Paul says it accomplishes in this verse. So Paul quite rightly saw no need to bother mentioning that they existed.

But if minor errors that came into the text after it was written don’t contradict 2 Timothy 3:16, then why should we think that other minor errors that were in the original text should contradict this verse? That would be inconsistent.

2 Timothy 3:16 can therefore quite easily be reconciled with the existence of minor errors in the original text of the Bible.

Summing up

The evidence is very strong, then, that the original text of Scripture contained some minor errors. The only way to avoid this conclusion is by repeatedly explaining things away. But it just seems wrong to think that God wants us to explain away anything that we find in the Bible.

This is a third way in which the truthfulness of Scripture is not a simple matter.

See also: