Spiral galaxy in Coma Cluster [Courtesy NASA] Ceiling of La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]

Is the Bible inerrant?

David H. Bailey
09 Jan 2014 (c) 2014

Introduction

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 Judaism, whose "Bible" is the Old Testament. Even many highly secular, non-God-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 ten times, gaining new and valuable insights with each reading.

For the majority of Judeo-Christian adherents, modern science poses no fundamental challenge to religion in general or to the Bible in particular because these two worlds are, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, "nonoverlapping magisteria" [Gould1999, pg. 1-10]. 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 insist on viewing the Bible as a perfect, complete and "inerrant" repository of God's word, with inerrancy extending even to historical, cultural and scientific matters. 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:

  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 the annals of 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.

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 the extreme form mentioned above, is simply not defensible [Armstrong2008; Borg2001; Ehrman2005; Ehrman2009; Fox1991; Shorto1997]. What's more, even those inerrantists who are relatively more flexible in their approach to biblical scholarship, but who nonetheless still insist on reading the first chapters of Genesis as a literal, complete, and technically precise account of the creation, are highly inconsistent in their approach.

This conclusion is derived from 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 certain scholars and denominations. 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 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:

  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:

  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 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 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.

    Along this line, 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 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. Nowadays virtually everyone concedes that such passages were intended only as literary figures of speech, not as assertions of scientific fact. But why then should Gen. 1-2, which also describes the physical creation, be singled out for a very literal interpretation?

  6. Internal discrepancies. There are many instances where one passage disagrees with another. Here are some examples:

  7. Violence. In 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]. Such teachings are in stark contrast with the violence and retribution that is frequently seen in the the early books of the Old Testament, where the Israelites "utterly destroy" neighboring tribes deemed their enemies [Num. 31; Deut. 20:16; 1 Sam. 15].

The above list is certainly not presented here out of disrespect for the Bible, nor as evidence that the Bible is uninspired, nor as justification for not taking the Bible seriously (quite the contrary), but only to underscore the utter hopelessness of the literal-inerrant approach that is favored by leading creationist and intelligent design writers, among others. Note that with rare exceptions, none of the difficulties listed above has any significant impact on doctrine or morality. It is worth noting that the ancient editors and scribes who compiled the Bible clearly recognized many of these difficulties, such as discrepancies between different passages, yet they did not regard them as particularly troublesome. It is only in our modern era, with the rise of biblical inerrancy, that these anomalies have become an issue for some.

Traditional explanations for biblical anomalies

Numerous explanations and rationales have been proposed over the years for these anomalies, including the following:

Although some rationales of this type are questionable in light of modern biblical scholarship, many others have considerable merit and constitute a standard part of biblical scholarship, representing a wide range of denominations. However, note that in each case these rationales themselves undercut the literal-inerrant paradigm, so that from an inerrant perspective it is not clear that there is anything to be gained by pursuing them.

Intellectual consistency

At the very least, it is clear that those who advocate the more extreme forms of biblical inerrancy, including the creationists mentioned above, are really not being intellectually consistent. After all, if they truly hold the Bible to be absolutely inerrant, then among other things they should agree that:
  1. Unruly or rebellious children should be stoned to death (Deu. 21:18-21).
  2. Wholesale killing of noncombatants is justifiable in war (Num. 31; Deu. 20:13-17).
  3. The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is precisely 3.0, not 3.14159... as taught by mathematicians (1 Kin. 7:23; 2 Chr. 4:2).
  4. The earth is fixed and immovable, and the sun moves around the earth (1 Chr. 16:30; Psa. 93:1; Psa. 104:5; Ecc. 1:5).
  5. Joseph (Jesus' father) somehow had two different fathers, Jacob and Heli, each with distinct lines of ancestry (Matt. 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38).
  6. Women should not be permitted to give prayers or otherwise participate in worship services (1 Cor. 14:33-35).
Needless to say, no one, not even creationists and inerrantists, hold such positions. And therein lies the problem: Creationists and others who go to great lengths to defend an absolutely literal reading of Genesis, for example by insisting that the six creative periods are literally six 24-hour days (or 6000 years, if one interprets 2 Pet. 3:8 as referring to the creation), and yet who dismiss a host of other difficulties with various rationales (reasonable or not), are being highly inconsistent in their approach to the Bible.

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-creation, Bible-science and Creation.

References

[See Bibliography].