Is the Bible free of error?
Belief in inerrancy may be hazardous to faith.
Problems with biblical inerrancy (Part 1)
Why belief in biblical inerrancy can be hazardous to one's faith:
When a person considers the Bible to be totally inerrant
in its teaching of theology, morals, beliefs, geology, geography, history, etc., it may leave the person's faith vulnerable. Even
one proven error could shatter their entire belief system and make the Bible seem
Mark Mattison wrote:
"If in actual fact Caesar Augustus did not really order a census
while Quirinius was governor of Syria [or] if it turns out there really was only
one Gadarene demonaic rather than two, then the entire Bible becomes worthless
and every tenet of Christian faith falls flat. If one single discrepancy
emerges, it's all over. This makes Christian faith an easy target for skeptics,
and drives believers to unimaginable lengths to 'defend' the Bible." 1
Fortunately, this need not happen even if the Bible, as we see it today, is shown to be errant. That is because most conservative Christians only consider the original (a.k.a. autograph) versions of Bible books to be inerrant. No such documents exist today. If an error is found, it can be attributed to an intentional or accidental error made when copying a manuscript or when subsequently translating it from Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek into English.
Problems with inerrancy:
||Interpretation conflicts: Bible ambiguity is perhaps the most
serious problem associated with inerrancy. Some biblical passages can be
interpreted in so many different ways, there is no way
to know which is the correct one. This renders the concept of inerrancy essentially meaningless.
People bring different foundational beliefs to the Bible. This causes them
to reach very different conclusions about what it says. One example
involves the roles of men and women:
||The folks at The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood believe that men and women should be restricted to very different roles
within the family,
church organizations, and the rest of society. 2 Typically,
they view positions
of leadership and authority to be reserved for males only.
||Christians for Biblical Equality teach that men and women were
both created in the image of God, and that the Bible intends that they function
in a full and equal partnership. Talents, including the ability to preach
and to lead, exist throughout both genders. 3
Both are conservative Christian groups. Both believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God.
Both groups are staffed with honorable, devout, intelligent, thoughtful,
rational people. But both groups find many biblical passages which support their position
and which negate the other group's beliefs.
Another example of ambiguity in the Bible is seen in the series of books published by Inter-Varsity Press and Zondervan. Some are: "Women in
ministry: Four Views," "Two views of Hell: A
biblical and theological dialog," "Divorce
and remarriage: Four Christian views." Each book involves a number of leading
evangelical Christian writers explaining their conflicting personal views on a specific topic. They also critique each other's beliefs as being false. Each
of the authors is intelligent, sincere, serious, devout, thoughtful theologian and
is quite confident that their own belief is the only one that is biblically based. Yet,
the authors' conclusions conflict with each other, making the concept of inerrancy meaningless.
Another example involves the Christian faith groups in
North America, which number in excess of 1,000. All or essentially all
believe that their group's beliefs are based on the Bible. Many take the
position that they are the "true" church. Yet
their belief systems differ. There appears to be no way to resolve these
different interpretations. Worldwide, the situation is even worse because there are on the order of 35,000 Chrisitan faith groups teaching different interpretations of the Bible.
Some have suggested that believers resolve biblical ambiguity by assessing the
will of God through prayer. However, this
appears to be unreliableaccording to a pilot study that the staff at this web site have conducted.
||Translation errors due to source ambiguity:
Inerrancy of the Bible refers only to the original, autograph copies of
each book, as written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Hebrew is an extremely ambiguous language. Some
passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) may be interpreted in many different
ways. At most, only one of those translations into English would be correct, and thus be inerrant. But
there is no way in which we can know for certain which translation is the correct one.
Consider Leviticus 18:22. According to one
source, a word-for-word translation is:
"And with a male thou shall not lie down in beds of a woman; it is an
(The word "abomination" is actually a mistranslation into modern English. The
Hebrew word means something like "ritually impure". Some other examples of
"abominations" are: a person eating lobster, the offering of an animal which has
a blemish for ritual sacrifice, a man getting a haircut or shaving his beard, or a woman
wearing jeans or slacks, a person eating a cheeseburger.) This passage is normally interpreted in English as something like:
"You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (RSV)
That rendering would condemn all male-male sexual activity. Or, if the translators
really wanted to stretch the meaning of the passage well beyond what the original Hebrew
states, they might want to include a condemnation of lesbianism into the
translation, as in:
"Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin. (NLT)
But it could be argued that an equally accurate rendering is:
"Men must not engage in homosexual sex while on a bed that belongs to a woman; it is ritually unclean"
"When a man has sex with another man, they must treat each other as equals; otherwise it is ritually unclean."
That is, same-gender sexual activity between men is not intrinsically unclean, but only if it is done in the wrong location -- on
a woman's bed -- or in a manner where one man is considered inferior.
Bible translators, scholars and individual believers debate endlessly over
the precise meaning of individual passages such as this one. If people attribute multiple
meanings to various verses, then only one (perhaps none) could be inerrant.
We can try to compare a passage with other similar verses in the Bible in
order to determine which interpretation is most likely. But, we have no
absolutely reliable method of determining which interpretation is correct.
||The inclusion/exclusion of the Apocrypha: The Bible used by Jesus, his disciples, and the
early Christian movement was the Septuagint (a.k.a. LXX). This was a Greek
translation from the original Hebrew. It included a number of books that
are commonly called the Apocrypha. These books appear in the
translations of the Bible used by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and
some Anglican churches. They have been deleted in the translations used
by Protestants and most Anglicans. One reason for their removal was a
passage which implies the existence of Purgatory.
Thus, the range of books in the Bible which are to be considered inerrant is open to
debate among Christians. However, in any given denomination, the official canon
is firmly established.
The selection of the Christian Scriptures: There were three main movements within early Christianity:
- The Jewish Christians, who formed a reform movement within Judaism centered in Jerusalem, with James -- a brother of Jesus -- as their leader;
- Pauline Christians who were mainly former Pagans who followed the teachings of Paul, and
- Gnostics who had a unique religious belief based on knowledge.
Among the three groups,
there were on the order of forty gospels, probably hundreds of epistles
(letters), and a few examples of apocalyptic literature similar to
Revelation. All were considered authoritative by various early Christian
When the bishops fixed the official canon centuries later, they selected the
Hebrew Scriptures, and 27 books. The latter consisted of only four gospels, Acts, 21 epistles, and
Revelation. The concept of inerrancy requires that they did not make any errors in
their selection: that the authors of the 27 books that were selected were all inspired by God
and written without error. This would imply that the Bishops'
selection process must have been guided by God so that errant books were not
chosen. The Gospel of John was almost rejected by the early Church because of
its heavily Gnostic content. Revelation almost did not make it into the Bible either,
because it described God in angry, hateful terms that seemed
incompatible with the loving Abba (Dad) that Jesus prayed to.
When Emperor Constantine ordered 50 copies of the Bible to be copied, they
included The Letter of Barnabas and The Shepard of Hermes -- two
books that do not appear in today's Bibles.
Author Richard Nicholson wrote:
"The Canon evolved obscurely over many centuries. Books were accepted by some
and banned by others. Books accepted for centuries were rejected later. Rival
church factions excluded each other's scriptures. Personality clashes and rival
ambitions were responsible for the disappearance of much that scholars would
like to read today." 4
The extreme animosity, political armtwisting, and banishing or exiling of non-conforming bishops would seem to indicate that the book selection process was a very human one and not inspired by God.
Grammatical errors: Biblical scholars have noted that almost every page
of the Bible, whether written in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek contains both spelling and
grammatical errors. Although some spelling errors could be attributed to mistakes by later
copyists, it appears reasonable to assume that some of the grammatical errors were in the
original copy. If one assumes that the Bible is not inerrant, then one would expect errors
of all types to creep into the Bible: errors in fact, errors in belief, errors in spelling
and errors in grammar. But if the Bible is inerrant, one wonders why the original writings
were not free of errors in grammar.
This topic is continued in a separate essay
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Mark Mattison, "Is the Bible inerrant?," at: http://www.auburn.edu/
- The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) has a web site at: http://www.cbmw.org/
- Christians for Biblical Equality has a home page promoting non-discrimination on the basis of gender. See: http://www.cbeinternational.org
- Richard Nicholson, "Constantine, Eusebius and Jerome," at: http://www1.xlibris.com/
Copyright © 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2011-DEC-24