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Is the Bible inerrant?
David H. Bailey
12 Jun 2014 (c) 2014
The Bible is accepted as the word of God -- an inspired chronicle of mankind's search for existence, meaning and moral guidance -- by virtually all Christian denominations and also by Judaism, who read the Old Testament. Even many secular, non-believing scholars have expressed great respect for the Bible. The Book of Job's remarkable search for meaning in suffering has few peers in world literature [Norwegian2011]. The Book of Ecclesiastes was termed "sublime" by a scholar who otherwise was highly critical of modern religion [Dawkins2006, pg. 383]. The present author has read the Old and New Testaments at least 12 times, gaining new and valuable insights with each reading.
Even among those who firmly believe the Bible to be the word of God, most are willing to accept that the Bible has some imperfections, such as translation errors, copyist errors, omissions and questionable inclusions, and, in any event, the Bible was never intended to be read primarily as a scientific treatise -- see Bible-science. Most of those who do see issues in the science-religion arena view the Bible as a perfect, complete and "inerrant" repository of God's word. One group expressed this strong view of biblical inerrancy as follows: "Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching ... in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God." [Chicago1982].
This literal-inerrant approach to the Bible has also been adopted by many creationist and intelligent design writers, and is the root of the "war" that they perceive between science and religion. Here are some examples of their writings, underscoring how seriously these writers view their position:
It is important to note that biblical inerrancy is a relatively new phenomenon in religious history. As one biblical scholar noted, "There have been long periods in the history of the church when biblical inerrancy has not been a critical question. It has in fact been noted that only in the last two centuries can we legitimately speak of a formal doctrine of inerrancy." [Coleman1975]. In some religious traditions (including the present author's), the term "biblical inerrancy" and the absolute, inflexible approach it represents have never appeared at all, even though the Bible is acknowledged as the word of God.
- The Creation Research Society [CRS2010]: "The Bible is the written Word of God, and because it is inspired throughout, all its assertions are historically and scientifically true in the original autographs. To the student of nature this means that the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths."
- Ken Ham (creationist) [Ham2013]: "When sinful human beings believe the lie that God's Word is not authoritative, they put themselves in a position of authority over God, disregarding and even rewriting His Word. ... Those who question His Word are denying the full authority and accuracy of the Bible from its very first verse."
- William Dembski (intelligent design writer) [Allen2010]: "As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality. ... I accept that the events described in Genesis 1-11 happened in ordinary space-time, and thus that these chapters are as historical as the rest of the Pentateuch."
- James Truck (creationist) [Truck2010]: "When presented with proof of the validity of Genesis and of the Creation -- not by evolutionary processes, but by a God who brought mankind into existence as wholly complete human beings -- you must either accept the Bible for what it says or reject it completely. ... This is an all or nothing proposition -- there is no middle ground to stand on. Either you believe every word, or you might as well throw out the entire Bible!"
Ironically, the notion that the Bible should be viewed as a precise scientific treatise is shared by some prominent atheists on the other end of the intellectual spectrum, who assert that modern science proves that religion is wholly false [Harris2006, pg. 1-10; Armstrong2009, pg. 302-307; Haught1995, pg. 57] (see also
Difficulties with biblical inerrancy
In any event, the consensus of the vast majority of knowledgeable biblical scholars, representing a broad range of sects, denominations and philosophies, is that the literal-inerrant approach to the Bible, particularly the extreme form mentioned above, is simply not defensible [Armstrong2008;
Shorto1997]. This conclusion is supported by a broad range of modern biblical scholarship, spanning such fields as archaeology, history, middle eastern culture, and studies in the underlying authorship of various biblical books. Some of this scholarship, notably the "higher criticism" school of thought, is considered controversial by some. However, the central conclusion that the Bible is not infallible, and that the human element in the Bible must be acknowledged along with the divine, still holds even if one sets aside "higher criticism" and most inter-denominational differences of interpretation, and just focuses on the text of the Bible itself.
Here are just a few features of the biblical text that argue strongly against the literal-inerrant paradigm. These items are not presented out of disrespect for the Bible (quite the contrary), but only to demonstrate that the literal-inerrant paradigm runs afoul of countless facts within the Bible itself:
- Translation errors. The translation of a document from one language to another is always a subtle art. Translation is particularly challenging when, as in the case of the Bible, the original work was written in ancient times and uses names, terms, metaphors whose meanings have changed. Thus there is no such thing as a "perfect" translation, and all widely used versions of the Bible have flaws. Here are four examples from the King James version (KJV):
- Isa. 2:16: "And upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures." The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) renders this passage more accurately rendered as "against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft."
- Isa. 13:15: "Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined [unto them] shall fall by the sword." Here "joined" should be "captured."
- Acts 9:6: "And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord [said] unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do." Everything from the start of this passage through "unto him" was added by a later translator and should be omitted.
- Acts 12:4: "And when he had apprehended him, he put [him] in prison, and delivered [him] to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people." Here "Easter" should be "Passover."
Other, more modern translations also have their detractors. For example, the NRSV renders 1 Cor. 13:11 ("when I became a man, I gave up childish ways" in KJV) as "when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways." And whereas the King James version translates 1 Thes. 4:10 as "And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more," the NRSV renders this verse as "and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more." In such cases, critics argue that the NRSV has sacrificed translation accuracy to be politically correct and gender neutral [Farstad1990].
- Text inserted and/or changed by copyists. In numerous places, text has been added or modified by copyists. Here are a few well-known examples:
See also the example in 1 Corinthians mentioned below under "Women."
- John 7:53 through 8:11 (KJV): The story of Jesus forgiving the adulterous woman does not appear in the earliest manuscripts and scriptural commentaries. Although some scholars hold out for authenticity, the consensus of most scholars is that the passage was introduced in the third or fourth century.
- 1 John 5:7-8 (KJV): "For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one." The text in brackets does not appear in any Bible manuscript prior to the eighth century, and is widely acknowledged to be a later addition [Ehrman2005, pg. 81].
- Missing books and passages. Numerous books are mentioned in the Bible but are not included in the modern canon. Here are some examples, with the biblical reference where they are mentioned in parentheses:
If the Bible is truly inerrant, why is it missing so many books that once were recognized as essential parts of the canon?
- The Book of Jasher (Josh. 10:13).
- The Book of Nathan the Prophet (1 Chron. 29:29).
- The Book of Gad the Seer (1 Chron. 29:29, 2 Chron. 9:29).
- The Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41).
- The Book of Shemaiah (2 Chron. 12:15).
- The prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite (2 Chron. 9:29).
- The visions of Iddo the seer (2 Chron. 13:22, 2 Chron. 9:29).
- The Book of Jehu (2 Chron. 20:34).
- The Book of Enoch (Jude 1:14).
- Questionable inclusions. The establishment of our current canon of accepted biblical books was a long and contentious process, with our current Bible fixed by the Synod of Hippo in 393 CE. But to this day some scholars argue that a few of the omitted books (such as the Apocrypha) should be included, and a few of the included books should not be. As a single example, it is widely acknowledged that the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon) is primarily a work of amorous love poetry, and its inclusion in the Old Testament by ancient Jewish scribes was highly questionable.
- Literary passages. Numerous biblical passages are much more reasonably viewed as literary works than as literal historical records. This is particularly clear of passages in Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job and Isaiah. For example, the Book of Job, with its intricate and scholarly dialogue examining of the meaning of suffering, is widely regarded even by secular scholars as among the greatest of all world literature [Norwegian2011]. Yet to assert the God literally visited the saintly Job with horrible calamities, including the death of his sons, all as a result of an idle wager between God and Satan, is absurd to say the least.
- Ancient cosmology. Numerous biblical passages state or at least presume the ancient geocentric cosmology, namely that the earth is flat, is encompassed by a circle (like a coin), is set on a foundation of pillars and is immovable, with the sun and other heavenly bodies moving on transparent spheres of crystalline material a few thousand feet or so above the earth: 1 Sam. 2:8, 1 Chron. 16:30, Psa. 93:1, Psa. 104:5, Eccl. 1:5 and Isa. 40:22, among many others. Needless to say, most readers today view these verses only as literary devices emphasizing the glory of God, not as literal scientific fact, but literalists are left to explain why they remain in a supposedly inerrant text.
- Accounts written after the fact. It is clear, even from a light reading of the biblical text, that some accounts recorded in the Bible were written down at a later date than when they actually transpired. This is evidenced by the numerous instances of the phrase "unto this day," particularly in the Old Testament. There are 7 instances of this phrase in Genesis, 6 in Deuteronomy, 13 in Joshua, 7 in Judges, 9 in 1 Samuel, 5 in 1 Kings, 10 in 2 Kings, 9 in Jeremiah, and many others. For example, Gen. 26:33 says, "And [Issac] called it Shebah: therefore the name of the city is Beersheba unto this day." Similarly, Deut. 34:6 says "And he buried [Moses] in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day." There is no issue with after-the-fact accounts per se, but such phrases do raise the question of whether all recorded historical details are exactly correct as written.
- Genealogical discrepancies. Genesis 15:13 says that the Israelites will dwell in Egypt for 400 years. Exodus 12:40 is more specific, saying that the children of Israel dwelt in Egypt for 430 years. In the New Testament, Acts 7:6 and Gal. 3:17 say 430 years. Yet Exod. 6:16-20 plainly gives the genealogy of Moses -- he is the great-grandson of Levi (Levi-Kohath-Amram-Moses) via his paternal line, and the grandson of Levi via his maternal line (Levi-Jochebed-Moses). Other passages, such as Num. 26:59 give the same genealogy: "And the name of Amram's wife was Jochebed, the daughter of Levi, ... and she bare unto Amram Aaron and Moses, and Miriam their sister." Needless to say, two generations do not cover 430 years, even if one accepts at face value the very old ages stated for these persons, and presumes, in an extreme stretch, that each generation was sired in the last year of life of the previous generation [Till2014]. Thus, either there is a large gap in this genealogy, so that Moses is actually 20 generations or so removed from Levi, or else the 430-year figure for the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt is too high by a factor of ten.
The genealogy of Jesus in Matt. 1:1-17 disagrees with Luke 3:23-38, beginning with who was Joseph's father (Jacob versus Heli), and every male ancestor that follows until David, as well as in the total number of generations between Jesus and David (27 versus 42). What's more, Matthew's genealogy omits three persons (Ahaziah, Jehoash, and Amaziah) specifically mentioned in 1 Kings and 2 Kings. Matthew's version, except for the omission, is generally considered more reliable, because the number of generations (42-45) is more in keeping with a 1000-year interval, but there is no way to know for sure since most of these persons are not mentioned anywhere else.
- Numerical discrepancies. Exodus 12:37 says that "about 600,000" Hebrew men (i.e., 2-3 million persons, including women and children) left Egypt in the Exodus. Exodus 38:26 and Num. 1:46 are more specific: 603,550 men. However, there are indications from other passages within the Old Testament itself that this number was much smaller. For example, counting Levi's male descendants through Moses, based on Exod. 6:16-20, gives just 21 men. Multiplying by 12 to estimate for the 12 sons of Jacob gives just 252 men through Moses' generation at the Exodus (even assuming they were all still alive at the Exodus), which is a far cry indeed from 603,550. Also, Exod. 1:15-17 says there were only two midwives for the Israelites; this places an upper limit of about 5,000 on the size of the Hebrew nation at the time of the birth of Moses. Exodus 18:21 describes the organization of the Hebrew host with rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens; there is no mention of groupings larger than thousands. Exodus 15:27 mentions that after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites camped at Elim, where there were 12 wells and 70 palm trees; this is hardly sufficient to provide water and shelter for 2-3 million persons. Numbers 3:40-43 says that there were 22,273 firstborn males among the Israelites, which is a much larger number than the few hundred as discussed above, but still far from being consistent with 603,550 total men. Finally, Num. 20:17-19 describes Moses' attempt to negotiate a safe passage for the Israelites through Edom. He proposed to the Edomite king that they would walk strictly on the king's highway (a one-lane road) while traveling through his land: "we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left." If the Hebrews numbered in the millions, this procession would have taken many months to complete, and Moses' offer would have been both absurd and unreasonable.
- Women. Numerous Old Testament passages suggest different treatment for women and men. Priests are always male, and a woman is ritually unclean 33 days after the birth of a boy but 66 days after the birth of a girl (Lev. 12:1-8). In the New Testament, women evidently assumed a greater role in the church, but the record is inconsistent. Romans 16, for instance, lists numerous female names (e.g., Phebe, Priscilla, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis and others) as among the leading figures of the Church at the time in Rome. In 1 Cor. 11:5, women are explicitly described as praying and prophesizing. Yet in 1 Cor. 14:33-35 we read, "As in all the churches of God's holy people, Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but [they are commanded] to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." It has been long noted by biblical scholars that this particular passage does not fit in the context of 1 Cor. 14 and does not appear in any early manuscript, and thus is highly suspect [Ehrman2005, pg. 178-186]. But those who adopt an inerrant approach to the Bible are left to explain why any woman, even today, should be allowed to participate in a religious worship service.
- Sins of parents and ancestors. Exodus 20:5, Num. 14:18 and Deut. 5:9 speak of God's punishment extending to the "third and fourth generation" for certain transgressions. Deut. 23:3 says that Ammonites and Moabites are to be banned from the Hebrew congregation "even to the tenth generation." But this is inconsistent with the record of David, Israel's greatest king, since his great-grandmother was Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 4:22). Furthermore, the prophet Ezekiel argued at length that children are not to be punished for the sins of parents or ancestors (Eze. 18-20). This more tolerant view was affirmed by Jesus in John 9:3.
- Violence. The early books of the Old Testament depict a fair amount of violence and retribution, particularly towards neighboring tribes deemed their enemies [Num. 31; Deut. 20:16; 1 Sam. 15]. In sharp contrast, the New Testament, Jesus taught his followers to "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" [Matt. 5:44]. Similarly, the Apostle Paul frequently taught tolerance and love, with love extending beyond one's own people to encompass all of humanity [1 Cor. 13; Gal. 3:28].
- Other internal discrepancies. There are many other instances where one passage disagrees with another. Here are some examples:
- Genesis 6:20 says that two of fowls, cattle and creeping things are to come aboard Noah's ark, while Gen. 7:2-3 says seven of clean beasts and two of fowls.
- Genesis 37:28 says that Joseph's brothers sold him to some Midianite traders, who sold him to some Ishmaelites (who were clearly considered distinct from the Midianites, since both are mentioned in the same verse), who in turn took Joseph to Egypt. A later passage, Gen. 39:1 adds that the Ishmaelites sold Joseph to Potiphar, an officer of the Pharoah. But Gen. 37:36 says that it was the Midianites who sold Joseph to Potiphar.
- Matt. 2:1 states that Jesus was born in the days of Herod, who died in 4 BCE. But Luke 2:2 states that Jesus was born in the days of Cyrenius, governor of Syria, who did not assume office until 7 CE.
- Matthew 12:1-13 and Mark 2:23-28 record Jesus citing the Old Testament passage (1 Sam. 21:2-7) that tells of David, when fleeing for his life, requesting bread from the local high priest. But Mark's account misquotes the passage, saying that the high priest's name was Abiathar (it was Ahimelech).
- Matthew 10:2-4 and Mark 3:16-18 disagree with Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13 in the list of Jesus' original 12 apostles: Matthew and Mark list Thaddeus, while Luke and Acts list Judas the son of James (distinct from Judas Iscariot).
- Matthew, Mark and Luke record Jesus' cleansing of the temple near the end of his ministry, while John (using virtually the same language) records it at the start.
- In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Last Supper was described as the Passover feast, while in John, the Last Supper, arrest and trial occurred on the day before Passover.
- Acts 9:3-7 says that the men traveling with Paul heard a voice but saw nothing, while Acts 22:6-9 says they saw a light but heard nothing.
It should be emphasized again that the above list is not presented out of disrespect for the Bible, nor as evidence that the Bible is not the word of God, nor as justification for not taking the Bible seriously (quite the contrary). These items are, in almost all cases, straightforward factual features of the biblical text that have been recognized for decades, if not centuries. Further, none has any significant impact on morality, charity, salvation or any other matter that is truly in the realm of religion.
However, even this brief list is fatal to the literal-inerrant approach to the Bible.
These items also call into question anyone who insists on a very literal interpretation of the creation scriptures in Genesis, and yet who accepts a more flexible approach to other passages in the biblical canon. After all, if one agrees that the passages, mentioned above, that reflect the ancient flat-earth cosmology, are only literary devices extolling the greatness of God, but not to be read as literal scientific fact, then why should Gen. 1-2, which also describes the physical creation, be singled out for a highly literal interpretation? And if one acknowledges that the genealogies and chronologies recorded in the Bible have significant gaps and omissions, as is clear from the above examples, then why should one insist that the creation of the earth literally transpired 6000 years ago, according to a strict reading of biblical chronology?
Numerous interpretations have been proposed over the years for these anomalies, including the following:
Such explanations are entirely reasonable, and are part of the broader biblical studies literature espoused by numerous denominations. But note that each of these explanations still undercuts the literal-inerrant paradigm. Inerrancy cannot be saved merely by interpretation!
- One of the conflicting passages is thought to be more reliable than the others.
- Some of the passages are literary or were intended to mean something different than what a straightforward literal reading would suggest.
- Some of the passages have not have been translated or copied correctly from the original.
- Some contextual material is evidently missing.
- The New Testament supersedes the old covenant taught in the Old Testament.
Ancient and modern commentaries
The conclusion that the Bible must be approached with a more flexible philosophy, one that recognizes the human element as well as the divine, is hardly a new conclusion. Nearly 1600 years ago, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), in his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis, warned the early Christians [Augustine1982, pg. 42-43]:
With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures.
It is also important to note that this general conclusion is not limited to "liberal" scholars, or to writers from "liberal" religious denominations. Here, for example, are some excerpts from writers affiliated with denominations that are generally regarded as relatively "conservative":
- Paul W. Powell of the Truett Seminary at Baylor University (affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas) recently wrote [Powell2005]:
Since no two languages have exactly the same words to express an idea, it is impossible to translate the scriptures in an absolutely literal fashion ... In addition, before the printing press was invented, the scriptures had to be hand-copied. This was a long and tedious task, and copyists occasionally missed a word or line in carrying out their work.
- In 2010, evangelical scholar Kevin Sparks wrote [Sparks2010]:
When the voice of creation is taken this seriously, and when we add to the mix that Scripture is written by inspired but finite and fallen human beings, then it becomes clear that Christian approaches to theology and scholarly inquiry should never pit "God's word in Scripture" against "human science." Rather, we must listen carefully to what God has said through the sacred but broken Bible and to what he is saying through his beautiful but broken world.
- Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS faith in the 19th century, taught that the Bible is not complete, and that "Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors." [Roberts1912, vol. 6, pg. 57]. More recently, LDS Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith (a descendant of Joseph Smith's brother Hyrum Smith), although he was reluctant to accept certain precepts of modern science such as evolution, nonetheless acknowledged [Smith1956, vol. 3, pg. 188]:
Even the most devout and sincere believers in the Bible realize that it is, like most any other book, filled with metaphor, simile, allegory, and parable, which no intelligent person could be compelled to accept in a literal sense. ... The Lord has not taken from those who believe in his word the power of reason. He expects every man who takes his 'yoke' upon him to have common sense enough to accept a figure of speech in its proper setting, and to understand that the holy scriptures are replete with allegorical stories, faith-building parables, and artistic speech. ... Where is there a writing intended to be taken in all its parts literally? Such a writing would be insipid and hence lack natural appeal. To expect a believer in the Bible to strike an attitude of this kind and believe all that is written to be a literal rendition is a stupid thought. No person with the natural use of his faculties looks upon the Bible in such a light.
- Pope John Paul II added the following on the specific question of how one should view the creation scriptures [Pope1986, pg. 161-164]:
The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and makeup of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.
In summary, while some creationist and intelligent design writers even today teach that the Bible is absolutely inerrant and, by implication, that Genesis must be read as a complete and technically precise scientific treatise, abundant evidence even within the Bible itself shows that such notions are indefensible. Once one backs away from a literal-inerrant approach to the Bible, most of the difficulties that are typically mentioned in the context of science and religion either disappear or fade into relative insignificance.
For additional discussion, see