Triplet Arp 274 [Courtesy NASA] Spires on west facade of La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]

Is the Bible inerrant?

David H. Bailey
05 Oct 2014 (c) 2014

Introduction

The Bible is accepted as an inspired chronicle of mankind's search for existence, meaning and moral guidance by virtually all Christian denominations and also by the Jewish faith, whose Bible is the Old Testament. Muslims also read portions of the Old Testament, although these are secondary to the Qur'an. 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].

Even among those who firmly believe the Bible to be the word of God, most are willing to accept that the Bible nonetheless 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 or historical treatise -- see Bible-science and Bible chronology. But others disagree, insisting on viewing the Bible as a perfect, complete and "inerrant" repository of God's word: "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:

  1. 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."
  2. 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."
  3. 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."
  4. 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!"
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 many religious traditions, the term "biblical inerrancy" and the absolute, inflexible approach it represents have never appeared at all. 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 Atheists).

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 in the extreme form mentioned above, is simply not defensible [Armstrong2008; Borg2001; Ehrman2005; Ehrman2009; Fox1991; Shorto1997]. This conclusion is supported by a broad range of modern biblical scholarship, spanning such fields as archaeology, history and Middle Eastern culture. 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:

  1. 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):

    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].

  2. 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."

  3. 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 complete and inerrant, why is it missing so many books that once were recognized as essential parts of the canon?

  4. 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.

  5. Literary passages. Numerous biblical passages are much more reasonably viewed as literary works than as literal, act-by-act 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.

  6. 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, almost all 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 an absolutely inerrant text.
  7. Accounts written after the fact. It is clear that some accounts recorded in the Bible were written down at a later date than when they actually transpired, or at the least, were subsequently edited to be more readable to a later audience. This is evidenced by the numerous instances of the phrase "to this day" or "unto this day," particularly in the Old Testament. There are 10 instances of this phrase in Genesis, 6 in Deuteronomy, 14 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." Along this line, Gen. 11:31 and 15:7, while discussing the life of Abraham, refer to "Ur of the Chaldees," indicating that this account was written or edited at a later time, since the Chaldean Kingdom did not arise until the 6th or 7th century BCE. Similarly, Gen. 36:31, written near the end of Jacob (Israel)'s life, includes the phrase "before there reigned any king over the children of Israel," clearly indicating that this text was addressed to an audience that lived during or after the period of kings over Israel. There is no major issue with accounts being written after-the-fact per se, or subsequently being edited for clarity to a later audience, but this does raise the possibility that some biblical accounts might not be absolutely reliable, first-person accounts.
  8. Genealogical discrepancies. 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. Luke's version is generally considered more reliable, because the number of generations between David and Jesus (42) is more in keeping with a 1000-year interval, but there is no way to know for sure.
  9. Chronological discrepancies. There are numerous instances of chronological discrepancies, particularly in the Old Testament:

    See also Bible chronology.

  10. 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). 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. 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 narrow one-lane dirt road by today's standards) while traveling through his land: "we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left." If the children of Israel numbered in the millions, this procession would have taken weeks or even months to complete, and Moses' offer would have made no sense.
  11. 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 this discrepancy, and, more to the point, why women today should be allowed to participate in a religious worship service.
  12. 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. Today, few would dispute that the strict law in the early Old Testament was superseded by a "new covenant" in the New Testament, but the difference remains in the biblical text.
  13. 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]. Again, few would dispute that the New Testament approach is the one we should follow today, but the difference remains in the biblical text.
  14. Other internal discrepancies. There are many other instances where one passage disagrees with another. Here are some examples:

Analysis

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 has adopted a more flexible approach to other passages in the biblical canon, yet who insists on a highly literal interpretation of the Genesis creation scriptures. 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?

Numerous interpretations have been proposed over the years for these anomalies, including the following:

In most cases, such explanations are entirely reasonable, and indeed constitute part of the broader biblical studies literature espoused by numerous denominations. But note that each of these explanations undercuts the literal-inerrant paradigm. Inerrancy cannot be saved merely by interpretation!

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":

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Conclusion

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 Bible archaeology, Bible chronology, Bible-creation, Bible-science and Creation.

References

[See Bibliography].