Archives For Inerrancy

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the seriesCan You Trust Your Bible?

Bible ContradictionsWe can be confident that the Bible we have matches the Bible that the inspired authors wrote. But does that matter? If the original manuscripts contain errors, then we can’t trust our Bibles.

We have all heard examples of the Bible contradicting itself or saying something historically inaccurate. Here’s all I have time to say in a blog-length treatment. None of these have to be contradictions. Some of them seem to be contradictions, but don’t have to be.

For example, there are a few places where two different authors describe the same event, and in doing so they assign differing numbers to the same feature in the story. We must make a decision about what is going on in such cases. These could be contradictions, or they could be instances of textual variants (as I described in the last post), or it could be that one account is being precise while the other account is rounding off, or it could be that two similar (not identical) events are being described and the numbers are not meant to correlate.

NooseA similar discrepancy involves the death of Judas Iscariot. He died soon after betraying Jesus, but Matthew says he hanged himself (Matt. 27:5) and Luke says he fell and “burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18). Now, we don’t know exactly what happened, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture Judas hanging himself, only to have the branch from which he was hanging snap and have his entrails gush out. I’m not saying that’s how it went down, I’m just saying these two accounts aren’t incompatible.

Others will point to the color of the robe the Romans put on Jesus before his crucifixion. Matthew says it was scarlet. John says it was purple. Are these colors so different that two people watching the same event might not describe the robe as scarlet and purple, respectively?

The point is, these don’t have to be contradictions. We may not be able to prove that they are not contradictions, but neither can we prove that they are contradictions. There are good and reasonable alternatives to the accusation of contradiction.

Here’s my approach to these potential discrepancies: Given ambiguity, I’m going to side with God rather than a 21st century skeptic trying to poke holes in the most significant book ever written.

Walking on WaterAnother big reason that people discount the accuracy of the Bible is its portrayal of miraculous events. Since modern skeptics tend not to believe in the supernatural, they’re going to say the gospels are inaccurate when they portray Jesus as raising the dead or walking on water or whatever. But that’s only a problem if we begin by assuming that the types of things the Bible describes must be impossible.

Still others have questioned the Bible on the grounds that much of its content cannot be historically or archaeologically verified. This accusation has been around for a long time, but the Bible has never been proven inaccurate in this way. People will argue that there is no evidence for this or that portion of Scripture, but then, years later, evidence will turn up. And though we can be excited when archaeology confirms biblical descriptions, we shouldn’t forget that the absence of collaborating evidence does not equal inaccuracy.

Here’s the takeaway. People will always make accusations against the Bible. But there are answers out there. Skeptics will remain skeptical, but we can answer their questions. If you’re looking for a good source for answering some of the questions that skeptics will raise, along with explorations of some of the “problem passages” in the Bible, I’d recommend the following:

So far so good. But we still have plenty of ground to cover. Since some skeptics try to cast doubt on the Bible by pointing to the process by which it was compiled into a single book, I will examine that reality tomorrow.

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the seriesCan You Trust Your Bible?

Old holy Bible in German little dusty and used.The Bible is of the utmost importance to Christians. This is our foundation for life and godliness; the source for our beliefs about God, ourselves, and our world; and the place we go to hear the voice of God. Whether your Bible is dusty or well-worn, the Bible is essential to your life as a Christian.

But can we trust it? Most of us would say yes. Yet most Christians would be hard pressed to explain why they believe the Bible is trustworthy. When skeptics tell us that the Bible is unreliable, that it has been copied and recopied so many times that it can’t be trusted, that the Bible has been changed by human beings, that it’s old fashioned and irrelevant for today, and many other such accusations, we brush them aside. But deep down, many of us feel uneasy.

So can you trust your Bible? Absolutely you can. I’m going to take six posts to explain why. Here’s my gameplan:

Part 1: Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed Over Time?
Part 2: Doesn’t the Bible Contain Errors?
Part 3: How Do We Know the Bible Is Scripture?
Part 4: Who Put the Bible Together?
Part 5: How Do We Know We Got the Right Books?
Part 6: What Gives the Bible Its Authority?

  So here we go.

 

Part 1: Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed Over Time?

Two accusations against the Bible go hand in hand. One is that the Bible contains errors (we will deal with this tomorrow), and the other is that the Bible has been changed over time. Christians have historically believed that the Bible is inerrant (i.e., it contains no errors). So if the Bible does indeed contain errors—whether historical, scientific, self-contradictory, etc.—and if the Bible has indeed been changed, then we have a problem.

First of all, it is important to clarify that when we say the Bible is inerrant, we mean that it contains no errors in its original manuscripts. We don’t have any of the original manuscripts for any of the books of the Bible (this seems like a good thing considering how easy it would be for these manuscripts to become idols). We have many (I mean that: many!) manuscripts that are very old, but none that are original. So if we find a minor mistake here and there (and we do find minor inconsistencies), we don’t need to be unsettled—we’re only claiming inerrancy for the original documents.

Coptic ManuscriptNow, I just mentioned two scary things: (1) we don’t have any of the original manuscripts, and (2) our copies contain minor errors. Don’t be afraid. In reality, the diversity of the manuscripts we have actually strengthens the reliability of Scripture. Early on, the books of the New Testament were copied, translated, and spread across the known world. So if someone was going to tamper with the words of Scripture, they had a narrow time frame in which to do it. The reality is that we have many manuscripts in a handful of languages. So there are “families” of Greek manuscripts that are very similar to one another. There are also “families” of Coptic manuscripts that are very similar to one another, etc.

Let’s put this into perspective. We have somewhere north of 20,000 manuscripts of the New Testament in museums and collections around the world. That’s a lot. And if that doesn’t sound impressive to you, consider that many of other works we have from the ancient world are considered reliable even though they are based on no more than a few manuscripts.

And here’s the impressive thing. These diverse manuscripts agree with each other more than 99% of the time. So the Bible spread around the world, was translated into a handful of languages, and was copied like crazy. And all of these copies agree with one another almost completely. That less than 1% disagreement is not scary in number or in content. It is significant that we know exactly where these discrepancies are located. You can see them as you’re reading your Bible. Most English translations mark these with footnotes that indicate “Some manuscripts read “_____.” Pay attention to these while you read, and you’ll find that they are rare and that none of them are very significant.

Dead Sea Scroll IsaiahWe’ll talk about the Old Testament a bit in Part 4, but it’s worth pointing out the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls were discovered in 1948 in caves near the Dead Sea. They contained a lot of things, but significantly, archaeologists found several copies of the Old Testament. Prior to their discovery, the oldest manuscript of the Old Testament that we had was dated around 1000 AD. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, were dated around 200 BC. This means that they were written, sealed up, and hiding in the darkness long before Jesus and his followers were born, just waiting to be discovered in the 20th century. In many cases, these Old Testament scrolls match our Bibles very closely. In some cases, the scrolls differ. What this means (and this was not news to scholars) is that a handful of textual traditions were in circulation even at that early date. In any case, this finding confirms that our Old Testament has not been reworked wholesale since the time of Christ. (For more on the reliability of the Old Testament, stick around for Part 4).

So we can be confident that the Bible we have matches the Bible that the inspired authors wrote. But does that matter? If the original manuscripts contain errors, then we can’t trust our Bibles. I’ll address that possibility tomorrow.

 

In the last post, I mentioned that I’m finishing up a book titled Paul and Judaism Revisited, which compares Paul’s understanding of salvation with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So I thought I’d back up a bit and give a layperson’s overview to two things: (1) what are the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and (2) what was my conclusion about salvation in Paul and the Scrolls. We’ll cover the first one in this post and then talk about Paul in the next post.

In 1948, tons of ancient manuscripts were discovered in 11 different caves near the Dead Sea in Israel—a find that was quickly labeled the most significant archaeological discovery in history. Over 900 different scrolls were found, some were very fragmentary (like the size of a stamp), while others were large scrolls preserved with little decay. Among them we found tons of copies of the Old Testament, and also many other religious writings produced by the members of the Jewish sect (probably Essenes) that lived around the time of Jesus. This community of Jews believed that they were the remnant of Israel and settled in a small monastic-type community at a place called Qumran near the Dead Sea.

Journalistic activity buzzed like a swatted beehive in the wake of the discovery, so most people have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unfortunately, the popularity has lead to many misconceptions about them. So here’s a couple correctives; the first one is quick, while the other is more complicated.

First, the DSS did not contain any portions of the New Testament, nor do they interact with Christianity. Jesus is not mentioned among them, and neither is Paul, John the Baptist, or any other early Christian leader. I say this because some people have argued that the DSS contain references to Jesus, John the Baptist and others (e.g. Barbara Thiering, Robert Eiseman), but these theories have not been taken seriously by other scholars. So if you hear one of your unbelieving friends argue that the DSS have disproved Christianity, you don’t have to worry for a second. Just smile and ask for proof. You won’t get any.

Second, the biblical scrolls discovered in the loot do not necessarily prove that the Old Testament was translated with uniform accuracy down through the ages. Let me explain. Until the scrolls were discovered, our earliest Hebrew manuscript dated back to around 1000 AD. That’s more than 1,500 years after  the Old Testament was written (the last few books, anyway). Naturally, critics of the Bible have argued that surely such a distance between the original writings and our earliest copy of those manuscripts has allowed tons of discrepancies (changes, alterations, copy errors, etc.) to creep into the current (namely, 1000 AD) version of our Old Testament. But the discovery of the Scrolls, which contains portions of the Old Testament dating back to 200 B.C., correlates with near uniformity to our 1000 AD manuscript, thus confirming—so the argument goes—the accuracy of preservation.

Is this true? Did the DSS confirm that the Old Testament that we read from (which is a translation of the 1000 AD manuscript) matches up with the original writings of the OT?

Yes and no. It is true that some of the biblical scrolls line up with remarkable closeness to our 1,000 year old OT, but other DSS do not. The scroll of Isaiah, for instance, found at Qumran is very close to our 1000 AD copy of Isaiah, scrolls of Jeremiah and Samuel were revealed quite a few differences (some minor, a few major). The biblical scrolls discovered by the Dead Sea really just confirmed what scholars had already known, that there were different “textual traditions” (versions of the OT) in and around the first century. And we can see clear evidence of different versions of the OT among the Scrolls.

 

I know this may be getting a little technical, and a bit off track, but hang in there, it’s important to know.

 

Even the New Testament confirms that the OT that we read and the OT that the NT writers read has some minor differences. This demonstrates, again, that there were different versions of OT in existence in the first century (similar to our different translations today). Have you ever compared, say, New Testament quotations of the Old with the original context and seen some differences? If not, check out Acts 15:16-17 and then look at Amos 9:11-12, the passages that James (in Acts 15) is quoting from. It’s slightly divergent. This is because the version of the OT that James is quoting from is comparable to, but not exactly the same as, the Hebrew manuscript (the one from 1000 AD) that forms the basis of our English translation.

I’m not sure if this is old news, new news, or faith-shaking news for our readers, so let me close with a few practical points. First, since it’s the original writings of the OT (and NT) that are inspired and inerrant, we should not expect the copies of those writings to be totally uniform. They’re not. And this doesn’t affect our view of inspiration or inerrancy, since Evangelicals never (or shouldn’t) claim that the copies of the original writings are without error. Second, none of the divergences among manuscripts change any major doctrine in the Bible. The way of salvation, existence (or non-existence) of other gods, the person and character of Jesus all remain the same, even though there are differences in the manuscripts. Third, praise God for the scholars two devote tens of thousands of quiet hours translating, comparing, and analyzing all the different copies of our Old and New Testaments. Because we need them to sort out all the mess that is needed in order to produce our English translation (or whatever language you’re reading from). As I’ve said in some previous posts, I really think that the anti-intellectual wing in the Evangelical Church (which runs rampant on the West Coast where I live) bites the hand that feeds it when they want to read their English translations, preach the gospel, and look down on those who pursue Christian academics.

Now, I’ll be the first one to say that there needs to be a serious renovation in the way Christians pursue scholarship. Staring deep into the Scriptures should only magnify your passion for Jesus, fuel your worship, and ignite a greater love for the people around you. But sometimes this isn’t the case; there’s a bit of truth to the dictum that Seminary can easily become Cemetery for the soul. But this doesn’t mean that the inherent problem is too much study. I don’t think that the most effective way to know God more is to study His word less. You don’t need to be a scholar, but you do need scholars. You wouldn’t be reading the Bible or (probably) know Jesus had not God raised up a few men and women to study Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Ugaritic, Akkadian, and other ancient languages to hand you your English translation of the Bible. Others have done the tedious work of studying the culture, history, and background of the Bible to help our pastors and teachers understand the Bible and therefore teach it more effectively.

All in all, we are a body. The church of God is a community of believers, with many different gifts and callings. And we need each other. Scholars and evangelists should join arms and constantly thank each other for the unique way in which God has wired them.

Next up, Paul’s understanding of salvation—and why I think Calvin got it right. Stay tuned!

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