Is the Bible Inaccurate?

Level: Intermediate

Reading time: 8 mins

Introduction

Is the bible inaccurate?

The answer to this question for many is, yes. Although it is more likely assumed rather than argued. Most people don’t care because they’ve already made their mind up, not even questioning, not even thinking about the subject.

However, now and again people do talk. And since the question is so foundational it is worth considering. After all, if the Bible is inaccurate, why should we trust it?

Introducing Inerrancy

The question of whether the Bible is inaccurate is central to what Christians call the Doctrine of Inerrancy. The subject is a veritable minefield, but this definition will help us plot our course. In a follow-up book after the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy in 1978, Paul Feinberg wrote what has become the definitive definition on inerrancy. He states:

‘Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences’.[1]

We’ll come back to this definition in due course, but just note those important words at the beginning; ‘when all facts are known’. The problem is many scholars make accusations about the Bible, believing they know all the facts. Of course, knowing all the facts in one sense is impossible. But as historians, we have to be very careful to pronounce fact as ‘fact’ when it could merely be an opinion or an interpretation of the evidence.

Uneducated Disciples

I remember having a discussion with a couple in the café that I use to work in who insisted the Gospels couldn’t have been written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John because they were illiterate and unable to talk Greek, let alone write it. Apart from the fact that at the very least Luke was an educated Greek, this assumption is very wide of the mark.

Though we are wading in to a debate let me quote Eckhard J. Schnabel at length:

‘The calling of the twelve disciples in Galilee must not be burdened with the view that Jesus called uneducated Galileans to the task of preaching and teaching. It is rather probable that Jesus’ disciples, including the fisherman Simon and Andrew, were educated. According to Jn 1:44 Peter, Andrew, and Philip came from Bethsaida, an up-and-coming town that was granted the status polis in A.D. 30 and was located in the vicinity of the Greek city Caesarea Philippi. Rainer Riesner argued that people “who grew up in such close proximity to a Hellenistic city must have spoken more than a few scraps of Greek. Thus Jn 12:21 presupposes that Philip could speak Greek”. Andrew, Philip and Simon had Greek names, which may not be coincidental. Riesner observes, “The Galilean fisherman in Jesus’ group of disciples belonged not to the rural lower class but to the vocational middle class. As the latter had religious interests, we may assume a certain degree of education in the case of disciples such as Peter and John”… A Jew who came from a pious background…could read and write and he could retain large quantities of material in his memory’.[2]

This quote lays out quite a plausible framework for arguing Jesus’ disciples knew how to read and write in Greek. Indeed, although it is debated how much Galilee was Hellenised, fishermen as merchants who needed to trade around the Sea of Galilee would need Greek in order to trade. Matthew as a tax collector would need to know Greek in order to work, and even if their Greek wasn’t amazing, they could always employ help, which is perhaps what Peter did in writing his first letter (1 Peter 5:12).

So Schnabel concludes, ‘the view that Jesus had untutored disciples is a romantic and entirely unwarranted one’.[3]

Copies of Copies

So, we’ve established that the disciples could have written the original documents, especially considering there’s good evidence to date the Gospels and the Epistles within the life-time of the disciples.[4] But what about after they died? The disciples would have written on papyrus, which unless stored carefully, had a shelf-life of a hundred years. We don’t have the originals so what do have?

We have manuscripts of the original autographs. Thousands of them, dating from the 2nd century A.D. to the 16th A.D. In fact, as of 2012 we have over 5000 NT Greek Manuscripts, the majority fragmentary.[5]

Although it is helpful if daunting to trace the amount of change throughout the manuscript tradition,[6] admittedly the amount of important manuscripts up to the 8th century A.D. number over 400.[7] But that is still plenty to play with when you factor in the Latin, Coptic, and Syriac copies – as well as the large amount of quotes from the early church fathers![8] When it comes to ancient history, NT historians have plenty to play with!

What does this all mean? It means that because of how many manuscripts we have over a long period of time, found in various locations, it gives us the framework to see what was added or omitted or edited when the Bible was copied. And the majority of variants are inconsequential, a spelling mistake, a change in wording. Far from being worried, having this many copies should make us confident we can arrive closer to the original autographs.

That being said, our definition above states ‘the Scriptures in their original autographs’ are only inerrant. So, are there any errors in the manuscript tradition?

Errors and Contradictions…  

In one sense, yes there is. Modern Bibles will often show you the most prominent ones in footnotes when the translators are unsure what was in the original. They are very upfront about it. But these are textual mistakes or ‘variants’.

So, what about errors in regard to known facts in history or geography?[9]

Trust me when I say any perceived historical or geographical inaccuracy has been studied in great detail by those opposing and believing the Bible. I know of plenty of potential ‘errors’. Am I worried? No because I think there are always reasonable explanations.

Let me give you one example from the OT. Many scholars doubt the historical credentials of the Exodus – saying there is no archaeological evidence to back it up. Let me state several reasons for why this doesn’t have to be the case:

1: Remember the phrase above ‘when all facts are known’ – and be wary of believing you know enough of the facts to disprove something when it happened so long ago. Thousands of years of destruction and erosion means very little would have survived nearly 3500 years ago!

2: It is curious that in history the Bible is the only source that is treated from the postmodernist angle of suspicion. It’s guilty and needs to be proven innocent. However, I don’t think methodological cynicism is the right way to view historical documents. We should either assume a form of credulity toward the source, so it is innocent until proven guilty, or neutrality.

3: An argument from silence is not an argument. In fact, to say that ‘no evidence’ contradicts the evidence we do have is a historical fallacy. For ‘evidence must always be affirmative. Negative evidence is a contradiction in terms—it is no evidence at all.[10]

4: Expecting the Egyptian’s to have documented something so embarrassing is allowing for a far too optimistic view of how ancients recorded their official documents.

5: There have been good positive cumulative cases in favour of the historical Exodus.[11]

I could make cumulative arguments for many more perceived problems. But this will have to do for now.

However, the voice inside your head might still not be satisfied. For what about these contradictions we hear about all the time? Well actually, we often hear the Bible is full of contradictions without an example being offered. Now there are plenty of examples, most of them terrible. But there’s also plenty of answers, although some are quite tough.[12]

Many examples disappear when we have a better grasp of the context, genre and literary devices used.[13] For example why does John 19:5 and Mark 15:17 say the centurions put a purple robe around Jesus, and Matthew 27:28 say ‘They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him’?

This seems like a contradiction until we realise a couple of things. Proper purple cloth was very expensive, and it is unlikely the soldiers would have used this on Jesus. Second, in most cases the thread of most clothes would have more than one colour, so that it could be they put a poor quality purply, scarlet cloth on him.

A less likely scenario is that Matthew records the scarlet because there’s so much blood on the robe. Either way, there’s good explanations for understanding why both descriptions of purple and scarlet remain.

Maybe in the future I’ll have a look at some more alleged contradictions…

But for now, this will have to do.


[1] Paul Feinberg, ‘The Meaning of Inerrancy’ in Inerrancy, ed. Norman Geisler (1979), p. 294.

[2] Eckhard Schnabel, Early Christian Mission Vol 1: Jesus & the Twelve (2004), p. 278.

[3] Ibid, p. 278.

[4] See as a good starting point Carson & Moo, Introduction to the New Testament (2005).

[5] See, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/an-interview-with-daniel-b-wallace-on-the-new-testament-manuscripts/

[6] There was a growth from the earliest copies to the oldest copies of about 2%. See J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer & Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (2006), p.55.

[7] http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/on-idle-boast-of-having-so-many-new.html

[8] See, Reinventing Jesus, pp.79-81.

[9] Regarding science, the Bible isn’t a science book and shouldn’t be read like one. Reading it within its context and understanding what it is saying, and what it isn’t saying, will quickly make you aware that the Bible doesn’t make scientific mistakes. It might make phenomenological statements, or the occurrence of a miracle might change the natural laws of science. But given God created the universe, he can adjust his laws when it suits him. He is God after all.

[10] Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970), p. 62

[11] See for example, James, K. Hoffmeier “These Things Happened”: Why a Historical Exodus is Essential for Theology in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? (2012).

[12] See a couple of good articles considering the location of the feeding of the five thousand. Mike Licona, http://www.risenjesus.com/mark-confused-pertaining-location-feeding-5000 and Jonathan McLatchie, http://www.answeringmuslims.com/2016/08/is-mark-confused-about-location-of.html

[13] Mike Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (2017).

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp

Recents posts