(6) Does the Bible contain errors?

To declare that the Bible is ‘inerrant’ has become a kind of touchstone for Christian orthodoxy. And especially so in recent times, when recent scientific discoveries contradict what the Bible seems to say about the origins of the universe and of life on Earth. Those of us who believe the Bible and hear God speak through it want to leap to its defence, and ‘inerrant’ is the word that immediately springs to mind. “Every word of God is flawless.” (Proverbs 30:5) So surely our God cannot be the Author of error!

But when we use a term like ‘inerrancy’ it really is important to define exactly what we mean by it – otherwise it can become a stick to beat ourselves with. Its obvious meaning is ‘without error’. But what exactly constitutes an error? Do we mean anything short of exact precision, for example in dates and measurements? Yet the Biblical writers, just like most of us in everyday conversation, often use rough approximations and round figures. Dates are particularly difficult, as in ancient times there was no ‘year zero’ to count from, and people had to use relative dating (e.g. from the beginning of a king’s reign); inevitably this leads to discrepancies (of which there are plenty in the books of Kings and Chronicles).

Even when we consider the words spoken by people in Scripture, I would hesitate to claim that they are always, in every place, absolutely verbatim records of what was said, with nothing edited or left out. The early Christian sermons recorded in Acts, for example, are likely to be summaries (Acts 2:40). It is also blatantly obvious that there are many variations between the three synoptic gospels, but should these be classed as ‘errors’? Jesus spent three years teaching His disciples, and they must have heard His parables and other sayings many times over. I don’t doubt that Jesus would have told what was essentially the same parable in slightly different forms on different occasions over the three-year period. Then there is the fact that almost everything He said has been translated from Aramaic into Greek (the one exception being at His trial, when presumably He spoke to Pilate in Greek). There is often more than one ‘correct’ way of translating a sentence, and so yet another source of variation is introduced.

Finally, there is the fact that we do not have the original documents of the Bible – only copies. Admittedly, the earliest copies and fragments of copies date back to within a few decades of the writing of the New Testament – far closer in time than the earliest copies of other ancient documents (whose reliability is generally unquestioned). But they are still copies, and all hand-produced copies contain spelling mistakes, duplications, and occasional insertions and omissions. Some people get round this by declaring that the Bible text is inerrant ‘as originally given’. The problem is, that by this definition nobody has ever read such a Bible. For nobody has ever possessed a complete set of all the original Old and New Testament manuscripts. That being the case, just how important can these minor ‘errors’ be?

For these reasons, the term ‘inerrancy’ has to be accompanied by so many caveats that I for one prefer not to use it. I do, nevertheless, believe that the Bible is true and reliable. “The words of the LORD are flawless,” means that God’s words have been tried and tested – “like silver refined in a furnace of clay” (Psalm 12:6) – and have proved to be thoroughly trustworthy. This trustworthiness is so absolute that it can easily survive a few copying errors and omissions – and then translation into another language! If a house is properly built, a cracked brick or loose roof-tile will not bring the whole building crashing down. And if you’re embarking on an ocean voyage, what matters is not the ‘perfection’ (real or imagined) of your ship, but whether it’s sufficiently seaworthy to get you all the way to your destination without sinking.

My belief that the whole Bible is “true” does not mean that I believe every word in the Bible is “literally true”. To make a statement like that would be getting oneself into a straitjacket. “The true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning” (Calvin) – not necessarily what we would call the ‘literal’ meaning! When Jesus said to His disciples at the Last Supper, “This is my body,” (Mark 14:22) not many of us Protestants think that He intended His words to be taken literally!

In fact, the Bible is stuffed full of metaphor and symbolism. What about Psalm 19:4, for example, which talks about God “pitching a tent for the sun”? It’s a poetic expression, surely – and I don’t think any modern reader who takes the Bible seriously would say otherwise. But if some parts of the Bible are ‘poetic’ or ‘metaphorical’, while others are ‘historical’ or ‘literal’, how do you decide which parts are which? Some are easy to define, others not. Genesis 1 is a case in point: the poetry of it is (so I understand) more obvious in the Hebrew than in the English translation. If it’s poetic, then it doesn’t conflict with modern science after all. Which of course is why the militant atheists are so keen to interpret it literally! Inerrancy, like beauty, turns out to be in the eye of the beholder.

Do faithful Christians take the Bible literally?

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