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Inerrancy: Is the Bible free of error?

Problems with biblical inerrancy (Part 2)

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This is a continuation of an earlier essay

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Problems with inerrancy (Continued):

bullet Intentional translation errors: No Bible translation into English is free of bias. Essentially all versions of the Bible are the product of translators who come from a similar theological background. Being human, they sometimes produce versions of the Bible that tend to match their own belief systems. For example:

bullet The original Hebrew and Greek texts contain a number of different concepts for the place where people will live after death: Sheol, Gehenna, and Hades. Some translations transliterate these place names, and so they appear in the English text in their original forms as "Sheol," "Gehenna," and "Hades." The reader is thus aware that they refer to different beliefs about life after death. But the King James Version and some other Bible versions rendered all three locations as "Hell." This makes the Bible appear more internally consistent than it really is, and clouds the meaning of the original text. That may be successful for those people who cannot read Hebrew and who have no access to other English translations of the Bible. But with the multiplicity of Bible translations available today, such techniques are no longer as successful
 
bullet Many Bible translations contain what appear to be intentional errors in relation to some activities. Exodus 22:18, in the original Hebrew orders the death penalty for "m'khashepah"  The word means a woman who uses spoken spells to harm others - e.g. causing their death or loss of property. Clearly "evil Sorceress" or "woman who performs evil, black magic" would be a clear translation. But many versions of the Bible render this word as "witch," thus inverting the meaning of the original text. Witches and many other Neopagans are specifically prohibited by their Wiccan Rede from doing any harm to others.

A similar intentional mistranslation in some versions of the Bible relates to the Greek word "pharmakia" from which the English word "pharmacy" is derived. It refers to the practice of preparing poisonous potions to harm or kill others. "Poisoner" or simply "murderer" would be an accurate translation here. But many versions of the Bible invert the meaning of the original text by again rendering the word as "witch."   These inverted translations have caused a few modern-day, devout Christians to persecute Neopagans, believing that they are following the will of God. Although such attacks have been decreasing over the past two decades, they still occur in some areas of North America.

bullet Copying Errors: A small number of conservative Christians believe that a particular English translation of the Bible is inerrant. Often this is the King James Version (KJV). first published in 1611 CE. However, most believe that it is only the original autograph copy as written by the author in Hebrew, Aramaic and/or Greek which is inerrant. This leaves open the possibility that subsequent manual copying introduced mistakes into the book. Thus, copies made after the mistake may be errant. Often, we have no way of detecting where errors or later insertions have occurred.

bullet Symbolic vs. Literal Interpretation: Not all passages in the Bible can be interpreted literally. For example: John 15:1 describes Jesus as saying:

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman." (ASV)

In this case, Jesus is obviously not a vine. He is using symbolic language. Other passages in the Bible are more ambiguous; they might be translated literally or symbolically. For example, Genesis 3:15 describes Jehovah talking to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He says:

"and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou salt bruise his heel." (ASV)

Some Bible scholars interpret the verse literally, that the men and women who are descendants of Eve (i.e. the entire human race) and the descendants of the serpent (i.e. all the snakes in the world) will hate and attack each other. The phrase "he shall" is interpreted in the collective sense to refer to all of humanity. Other Bible scholars interpret the verse symbolically. They believe that it is linked to Romans 16:20:

"The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet."

The "he shall bruise thy head" phrase in Genesis refers to Jesus triumphing over Satan. As a result of this interpretation, Genesis 3:15 is sometimes referred to as the "protean", the first gospel. 1

There are many Bible Passages that have been interpreted literally by some groups and symbolically by others. This generally leads to conflict, and has historically triggered many church schisms.
 

bullet Multiple Authorship: Some passages in the Bible appear at first glance to be completely written by a single author: e.g. the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy) states that the five books were all written by Moses. The book of Isaiah was written by Isaiah; the Book of Daniel by Daniel; the Gospel of Mark by a single author. But analysis of the books' content and style reveals that the Pentateuch was written by several authors from different traditions over many centuries. The books appear to have been edited later by still other unknown persons. Isaiah also appears to be written by multiple authors. The Book of Daniel appears to have been written circa 180 BCE -- over 4 centuries after Daniel's death -- by an unknown author. The Gospel of Mark originally ended abruptly at Mark 16:8. However:

bullet Some other writer subsequently added verses 9 to 20, to make a "longer ending" to Mark; these additional verses were apparently based on Luke, John and some other sources. 2
 
bullet Another writer created a "shorter ending" consisting of two sentences after verse 8. It was also a later addition, probably based on Matthew. Some translations include both endings.
 
bullet Still other Bible versions include additional material after verse 14.

All of this multiple authorship raises the question whether the later additions by unknown authors are inerrant, or merely attempts by later believers to augment the text to better match some early Christian group's evolving belief system.
 

bullet Multiple Versions:  There appears to have been two versions of Mark: "Secret Mark", "for those who had attained a higher degree of initiation in to the church than the common crowd." 3 and the shorter, edited version that has survived to the present time. The latter was the freely available, public version, and was probably a later, smaller version. This raises the question as to which version should be considered inerrant.
 
bullet More conflicts in interpretation: Some biblical passages are unclear or ambiguous. For example, the Bible contains many references to parents using physical punishment in order to discipline their children. All but one of these passages come from the book of Proverbs. The book itself says that they were written by Solomon, although many mainline and liberal theologians believe that the book was assembled long after Solomon's death. The author(s) appear to have considered corporal punishment of children as the preferred method of discipline. One can assume that he followed his own advice in the raising of his son Rehab. The son became a widely hated ruler after his father's death. He had to make a hasty retreat to avoid being assassinated by his own people: 1 Kings 12:13-14 and 1 Kings 12:18 describe how he acted in such an evil manner towards his people that they killed his representative. Ultimately, Rehoboam fled Jerusalem to avoid being assassinated by the subjects that he mistreated. The passages from Proverbs and 1 Kings can be interpreted in at least two ways:

bullet Some conservative Christians accept the verses in Proverbs at their face value: Proverbs requires all believers to use corporal punishment on their children as the main method of discipline.

bullet Some liberal Christians might interpret Proverbs as accurately representing Solomon's parenting style, and interpret 1 Kings as indicating the horrible outcome of that form of discipline. Thus, 1 Kings is a warning to parents to not follow Solomon's advice, to avoid hitting their children, and to rely on other, non-violent forms of discipline.

Since these two interpretations are mutually exclusive, at least one is probably false. But a consensus cannot be reached at this time as to which is in error. The secular belief that hitting children is counter-productive appears to be gaining ground at this time, and is supported by studies linking the spanking of children with increased levels youth rage and criminal activities, and of alcoholism, drug addiction, clinical depression and anxiety once they reach adulthood.
 

bullet

Internal Conflicts: Various passages in the Bible appear to be in conflict with each other. To liberal/progressive Christians, these disagreements are consistent with their beliefs that the books of the Bible were written over a period of about 1 millennium, by authors with very different religious views. But to conservative Christians who believe in Biblical inerrancy, conflicts present a problem. If all passages of the Bible were inerrant, then no passage can truly contradict any other passage. Such problems have been resolved using various techniques:

  • Many conflicts can be handled by interpreting one passage in its literal sense, and other, apparently conflicting, passages either in some narrow sense or symbolically. Unfortunately, different faith groups will often select different passages to interpret literally.

  • Some passages cannot be harmonized in this way. Conservatives usually believe that the latter passages can be resolved in theory, but not with our present knowledge. Books harmonizing hundreds of apparent conflicts have been written. One attempts to solve over 500 such difficulties. 7

  • The ultimate resolution method is to assume that errors have crept in to the original autograph copy as it was manually copied and recopied through the years. Religious conservatives are often reluctant to resort to this approach because it throws doubt on some passages in current translations of the Bible.

bullet

The nature of Truth - absolute or relative: It is sometimes not obvious whether a portion of the Bible refers:

  • Only to a particular society at a particular time, or
  • Only to one society for all time, or
  • For all societies only at a particular time, or
  • For all locations and all times.

For example:

bullet In 1 Corinthians, chapters 11 & 14, Paul advises the Christians at Corinth to restrict the roles of women to positions of little or no authority and under the supervision of men. These passages are often quoted in debates over whether women should be allowed to be ordained as clergy.

Other passages, particularly from the Hebrew Scriptures, describe the position of women as greatly inferior to men, and often as an item of property.

Some liberal Christians believe that Paul's instructions to the church at Corinth was in response to a specific problem in that city in which women were disrupting services; they might interpret limits on the roles of women in the Hebrew Scriptures as being accurate representations of the oppression of women within early Hebrew society. But they might also believe that such passages are not applicable in today's society where limitations and restrictions on women have been largely removed after centuries of effort by pro-democracy movements and the feminist movement. Meanwhile, many conservative Christians regard St. Paul's instructions to the Corinthians as being equally valid today; their denominations often deny ordination to women.
 
bullet

The Bible has many references to slavery. Much of the conflict that led to the American civil war was fueled by differences in interpretation of Biblical passages on this topic:

  • Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, said that slavery "was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation."

  • Rev. Alexander Campbell, a Christian leader at the time said: "There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral."

  • A contemporary of Campbell, Rev. R. Furman, said: "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example."

Meanwhile, abolitionists argued that the teachings of Jesus made the ownership of human beings a sin. Many of the arguments over slavery revolved around whether the institution was an acceptable practice for all times and all societies, or whether it was no longer permissible in 19th century North America. Clearly, the matter could not be resolved theologically at the time. In North America, it was eventually settled by a political consensus in Canada and, much later, by a civil war in the U.S.

Conclusions:

The combination of source ambiguity, intentional translation errors, copying errors, symbolic vs. literal interpretation, multiple authorship, multiple versions, interpretation conflicts, internal conflicts, the nature of truth, etc. make it quite impossible to prove that a particular passage in an English translation of the Bible is inerrant. Or if the passage is assumed to be inerrant, it is not necessarily obvious how the passage is to be interpreted today.

One can hope to minimize the effect of intentional and accidental translation errors by accessing many versions of the Bible to compare the full range of translations. Many Christians use parallel Bibles for study. These have two, four or eight translations side-by-side on the page. Also, by comparing verses on the same topic in other parts of the Bible we may obtain a consensus of what the Biblical authors intended. But we are largely stuck with the remaining factors. 

References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Christians for Biblical Equality has a home page promoting non-discrimination on the basis of gender. See: http://www.cbeinternational.org 
  2. S.H.T. Page, "Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons," Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, (1995), Page 20 to 23.
  3. C.M. Laymon, "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville TN, (1991) Pages 670 - 671.
  4. Robert J. Miller, Ed., "The Complete Gospels", Polebridge Press, Sonoma CA, (1992), Pages  402-405.

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Copyright © 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2011-DEC-24
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