The Bible is not without error and never has been. In my judgment (and that’s all any of us has—judgment), the evidence against biblical inerrancy is overwhelming. I amaze myself with this claim now, given the fact that I believed in inerrancy for many years. Perspective and frame of mind can seriously affect our interpretation of and response to evidence against anything connected to emotion. That’s a fancy way of saying that bias gets in the way of objectivity. But the fact that I changed my mind about this (as have many others) is proof that bias can be overcome. Objectivity is simply intellectual honesty, it seems to me, and is both possible and morally obligatory in some situations. If you ever serve on a jury, you’ll have a duty to overcome bias and be honest with the evidence. Since religion impacts so many people so deeply and sometimes hurts people, I think we have a duty to be honest with evidence both for and against religious truth claims. Your religious beliefs are not true for you just because they work for you, nor are they true because everyone around you believes them or because you’re so accustomed to them that they seem self-evident. It is also the case that beliefs don’t always work as well as we think they do or as well as other beliefs might. Furthermore, accepting something like biblical inerrancy “by faith” is vacuous. What does that even mean? Why not accept the inerrancy of the Qur’an by faith? So here we go. This article is designed for evangelicals who believe in inerrancy, and for others who are trying to understand why evangelicals have such a lofty view of the Bible.
The Case for Inerrancy
Perhaps I should start by giving a brief overview of the case for biblical inerrancy…the kind of argumentation that I used to accept and promote. It goes something like this for many educated defenders of inerrancy:
- The Bible is the word of God, and God is incapable of error. Christians should believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God because it claims to be and because Jesus believed it was. Christians should believe what Jesus believed because he is the Son of God. Christians should believe that Jesus is the Son of God because he was raised from the dead (thus confirming his divinity and God’s approval of him and his mission). Christians should believe that he was raised from the dead because the historical evidence establishes the resurrection and/or because the Holy Spirit confirms it–along with his divinity (Romans 1:4, 1 John 5:6-12, and the spiritual enlightenment/experiences of Christians).
- Jesus believed in inerrancy. He claimed that he would fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and that even the letters and parts of the letters of the Law would endure until all was fulfilled (Matt. 5:17-18). Furthermore, he said that Scripture “cannot be broken” (John 10:35), and he used it as an authority in his teaching (e.g. Luke 24:25-27). The Bible doesn’t have to be inerrant to know what Jesus taught; it only has to be reliable. It is reliable, so no circular reasoning has been employed here.
- Jesus gave his apostles authority to preach the Gospel (e.g. Matt. 28:18ff). He also promised to give his apostles the Holy Spirit, who would remind them of his teaching and give them more revelation (John 14:26; 16:12-15). Therefore, they spoke the word of God as he did, at least on topics related to the Gospel (John 20:22-23). Paul claimed that both “Scripture” and his own writings were inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16; 1 Cor. 2:13); he claimed verbal inspiration for the latter. Furthermore, he claimed that his religious authority came directly from Christ (Gal. 1:15-17; 1 Cor. 15:8-11). Other New Testament authors used Scripture as a religious authority as well (e.g. 1 Peter 3:10-12). Finally, Paul considered the Gospel of Luke to be “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18, quoting Luke 10:7).
Problems with the Case for Inerrancy
Sounds like a pretty good case, doesn’t it? I think it’s certainly worth considering. My response is twofold. First, there are real problems with it. Second, the case against inerrancy is much stronger. So let’s critique the case for inerrancy.
- The Bible’s claim and the authority of Jesus
A claim is a good place to start, but it’s never sufficient to establish truth. So quoting 2 Tim. 3:16 or other similar passages is of little value here. The Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita also claim to be the word of God. Is that enough to establish their divine inspiration or inerrancy?
The authority of Jesus for Christians is paramount. Of course, in order to accept his teachings as authoritative one must believe that he is the Son of God or at least a true prophet from God. Evidence for the resurrection, in my opinion, only makes the resurrection compatible with the historical facts associated with the end of Christ’s life and the early Christian movement. It does not prove the resurrection. That’s another essay for another day. If one believes that Jesus is the Son of God and/or that the Bible is the word of God primarily (or exclusively) based on the confirming witness of the Holy Spirit in one’s mind and heart, one is acting in accord with Christian tradition for sure. But the claim of spiritual enlightenment and confirmation is not limited to Christian experience and theology. As an ex-Mormon once told me, “I left the Mormon Church when I realized that people in every religion claim spiritual confirmation for their beliefs and that I was in no position to claim unique authority.” I will not engage the debate over Christ’s divinity here, except to say that if it lies at the base of the case for inerrancy, it must be defended and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. There is also the matter of Christ’s humanity that we must consider, and how that humanity may have affected his teaching. More on that below.
- Christ’s view of Scripture
Even if the divinity and authority of Jesus are established, two questions remain. First, what did he actually believe about Scripture? It does appear that he had a “high” view of Scripture. But how high? Letters and parts of letters cannot be “fulfilled,” so clearly this teaching is hyperbolic. He also changes the Law right after claiming that people should obey it (Matt. 5:19-48), which is confusing. The claim that Scripture “cannot be broken” is obscure in meaning. What does that mean? In the end, it’s very difficult to summarize Christ’s view of Scripture. Another complicating factor is that Christ is only referring to the Old Testament, not the New. Does he believe that every letter and every part of every letter of the epistle of Jude is authoritative? No case can be made for this. It is also true that we are reading Christ through the lenses of the Gospel authors, so getting at the historical Jesus is tough. Philosophers, it’s like separating Socrates from Plato in the writings of Plato. Where does one stop and the other begin?
Second, does the Church’s doctrine of Christ preclude any possibility of error on his part? Christians acknowledge the real humanity of Jesus (at least in theory) as well as his divinity, and we all know that “to err is human.” That doesn’t mean that to be human is to err, necessarily. It is logically possible that God could keep someone from error and that He did this for Christ. It’s a question of evidence. I do find it interesting that the Church teaches (as does the New Testament) that Christ was without sin. I don’t know of any explicit teaching in the New Testament or the Christology of the Church that claims he was without error. Christians infer his inerrancy, I think, from his divinity. But clearly Christ speaks from his humanity—at least some of the time—in the Gospels. For example, he acknowledges that even he doesn’t know the day or hour of his own return (Mark 13:32), and yet God is, according to mainstream Christianity, omniscient. Interestingly, Jesus seems to make a mistake regarding the general time of his own return when he claims that (t)his generation would not pass away until all things took place, including his own return (Matt. 24:30-34). If one acknowledges the possibility of error on the part of Jesus, then his view of Scripture—whatever it was—might be questioned as well. Sensitive issue, I know. I remember having a conversation many years ago with a Church of the Nazarene seminary student who wondered whether Jesus ever took the wrong road to Jericho….
- Apostolic authority
According to the New Testament, Christ gave authority to his apostles. But how much authority and to whom remain unanswered questions, I think. Paul, for example, claims to be declaring the word of God early in his first letter to the Corinthians (2:12-13), but six chapters later he acknowledges that he is only giving his opinion on a matter (7:25). Usually he does neither; he just writes! Is it the word of God unless he states it’s an opinion, or is it opinion unless he claims that it’s the word of God? And is a claim to revelation enough to regard it as such? The world is full of revelatory claims, many of which are incompatible with each other. This fuzziness is troubling for any view of apostolic inerrancy. And what exactly is divine inspiration? To what extent does the Spirit influence the mind of the human author? Debates and definitions abound, but no one can be sure. Then there is the canon question. James and Jude don’t claim inspiration for themselves, for example. Do Paul’s claims for himself or for the Old Testament authors apply to them just because the Church later canonized their writings? Canonization is no guarantee of inerrancy. The Bible is a collection of writings created by Israel and the Church, with no claim whatsoever of divine revelation on the matter. Furthermore, the boundaries of the Old Testament have always been fuzzy. Consider the divide between Catholics and Protestants on the Apocrypha. Why should every book in the anthology known as the Bible be considered inerrant? Was the process of canonization inerrant? As far as I know, no one even claims this. And divine providence (over the process of canonization) is no guarantee of inerrancy either, since Providence allows mistakes in the world every minute of every day! Finally (at least for now), there is the problem of biblical pseudepigraphy. Objective historical and literary analyses of the New Testament have concluded that not every authorial attribution in the New Testament is accurate. 2 Peter in particular seems problematic. Most scholars believe that Peter did not write it. The early Church questioned it, too. Many scholars regard other New Testament books as pseudepigraphical, as well, including 1 and 2 Timothy, which contain the Lukan Gospel affirmation and the famous inspiration verse. Scholars may, of course, be wrong, but pseudepigraphy was widespread in the ancient world and scholarship on this issue is substantial.
So the case for inerrancy is worth considering, but it is far from compelling. And what about the evidence against it?
The Case against Inerrancy
The evidence against inerrancy is overwhelming. In what follows I make no significant positive claims for the Bible, although I could. In other words, I do not offer a bibliology for Christians to take the place of inerrancy. Many others have done and will continue to do this. My only goal here is to disprove biblical inerrancy beyond a reasonable doubt. Why? Because deception of this magnitude is dangerous. So here we go.
Many of the errors in the Bible can be inferred from contradictions and inconsistencies within it, and this will be my focus. (Other types of errors may exist as well.) A contradiction is a pair of statements that affirms and denies the same thing. Both statements cannot be true because they are mutually exclusive. One of them must be true because the pair contains all of the possibilities. Here’s an example: I am human/I am not human. Assuming that I mean the same thing by all of the words that show up in both statements, both cannot be true. Either I am or I am not a human being. An inconsistency is a pair of statements that are also incompatible, but in this case both statements may be false. If I point to an animal and say, “that’s a horse,” and then say, “that’s a dog,” I have made a mistake. It cannot be a horse and a dog at the same time. In this case, though, both statements may be false. What if it’s a turtle?
I believe that the Bible contains both contradictions and inconsistencies. To some extent this is only a problem if one assumes that the Bible must speak with one (divine) voice on all matters and that it must be inerrant to be useful. In my opinion, one should not attribute contradiction or inconsistency to God. But if one assumes that as an anthology the Bible represents (and canonizes) a variety of perspectives on a wide range of issues (like the Jewish Talmud), then these tensions become less severe. (This is essentially the view of progressive Christians.) Nevertheless, not everyone can be right about everything in the Bible if these incongruities are real. Inerrantists claim that they are only apparent. I beg to differ. The following list is just a sample of the examples that I could provide and is only loosely organized from the more important to the secondary as I see it. But in the context of the inerrancy debate, an error is an error. I should also say that not every apparent contradiction or inconsistency is real, but I think the following are:
- Descriptions of the resurrected Christ. I am convinced that the New Testament contains (at least) two incompatible descriptions of the resurrected Christ. Many have pointed to little discrepancies in the stories of the empty tomb, like the number of angels at the tomb and the time of the women’s arrival. I want to go deeper. Luke and Paul have incompatible views of the nature of Christ’s resurrected body. Luke tells us that the resurrected Christ was not a pneuma (spirit or ghost) and that he had a body of sarx (flesh) and bone. He also ate fish in the presence of his disciples to prove his physicality (Luke 24:36-43). Paul claims the opposite. He says that the resurrected Christ became a life-giving pneuma and that sarx and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:45, 50)! He says this in the context of a discussion of the intense differences that exist between the earthly and resurrected bodies. Attempts to reconcile this contradiction seem completely artificial to me. As an aside, Paul calls the Corinthians “fools” (15:36) for asking about the nature of the resurrected body, as if the answer were self-evident. Reading both Paul and Luke proves that it is not self-evident and that the Corinthians were quite reasonable in asking the question. So why call them fools? May I be so bold as to suggest that God is not calling them foolish for asking a good question? Paul is. So Paul is not speaking the word of God in this verse. (He does the same thing twice in Galatians 3:1-3 in his response to confusion over the role of the Law of Moses in the lives of Christians. Again, a legitimate debate and genuine point of confusion. Titus 1:12-13 is interesting, too.)
- The impact of God’s Law. David plainly tells us that the Law of God (i.e. the Torah, Law of Moses) gives life. In Psalm 19 he declares, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul…the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes…” (NRSV). Paul says the opposite: the Law brings sin to life and sin brings death. “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (Romans 7). These commentaries on the Law of God are not compatible. Furthermore, the difference is profoundly significant in the real world. The different interpretations of the impact of Torah are at the heart of the disagreement between Jews and Christians. Could it be that Paul drew such a drastic conclusion about the impact of the Law because it had not kept him from persecuting Christians earlier in his career? Could it be that Christianity has turned one man’s guilt into a universal doctrine?
- The post-resurrection instructions of Christ. In Matthew 28, the angel at the empty tomb tells the women that Christ will meet his disciples in Galilee. Then Christ appears to them and instructs them to tell the disciples to go to there to meet him. The disciples do so, see him in Galilee, and react to him in different ways. Some worship him, but some doubt what they seem to be witnessing. There is no legitimate room in the passage for any encounter with Christ before Galilee. However, in Luke 24, the first appearance of Christ to his followers occurs in Jerusalem, and he explicitly tells them to wait there until they receive “power from on high” (presumably the Holy Spirit). These passages are incompatible. Any attempt to force them into some overarching narrative is completely artificial.
- Signs or no signs? The New Testament is inconsistent on the subject of eschatology (last things or the end times). Some passages teach that there will be clear signs before the end, and others teach that it will come as a complete surprise. Dispensationalists have suggested that there are two “comings” of Christ and that no clear signs precede the first one (the Rapture), whereas signs will be present before the second one (the Return). The notion of two comings is beyond the scope of this article, but this claim is full of its own problems and does not represent the traditional eschatology of the Church universal. For now, the Bible never says that Christ will come back twice. For a clear example of this discrepancy between signs and no signs, compare 1 Thessalonians (e.g. 5:2/no signs) and 2 Thessalonians (e.g. 2:3/signs). It’s no wonder that Christians cannot agree on eschatology.
- Eternal security or not? Protestants have disagreed from the beginning of the Reformation about this question. Once a person is “saved,” can he or she lose their salvation through apostasy or willful and continuous sin? Years ago I concluded that both sides were “right” in the sense that the Bible taught both. It’s not a matter of one side interpreting the Bible properly and the other misinterpreting it—which is how each side portrays the disagreement. Both sides have certain passages that DO support their view. For example, John 10:28 strongly implies eternal security, while 2 Peter 2:20-22 strongly implies a loss of salvation. Each side has LOTS of proof texts; these are merely two of them.
- Narrative inconsistencies in the descriptions of Ahaz and the Assyrians. Ahaz was the late eighth century BCE king of Judah who was afraid of the northern alliance of Israel and Syria. The latter was threatening to attack Judah, and Ahaz was shaking on his throne. In Isaiah 7, Ahaz doesn’t seem to know or care about the Assyrians who are threatening both the northern alliance and Judah. Isaiah informs him that the Assyrians will conquer the northern alliance and that Judah will escape their clutches (barely?). In 2 Kings 16 the northern alliance attacks Judah but cannot conquer it. Ahaz sends messengers to Assyria, asking for military assistance. Assyria does assist and takes care of the northern alliance. But in 2 Chronicles 28, the northern alliance does, in fact, conquer Judah, and Assyria refuses to help. In fact, they also attack Judah! Kings and Chronicles are inconsistent, and it’s difficult to fit the Isaiah passage into either of the other two accounts.
- Who carried the cross of Jesus? In Luke 23, Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross of Jesus. In John 19, Jesus carries the cross “by himself” “to” (Greek eis, literally “into”) Golgotha (where he is crucified). “By himself” is from the New Revised Standard Version and accurately translates the Greek in John 19:17. So who carried the cross? If we treat both Luke and John as historical sources, they cannot both be right. At this point I should say that if one reads John’s Gospel as a more symbolic/theological account of the life of Christ and not as a historical source, then the inconsistency vanishes. Is John merely saying that Christ carried the “weight of the world” on his shoulders? Was he carrying the sin of the world—symbolized by the cross–on his shoulders, and not the wooden cross itself? Inerrantists generally use John as a historical source, but technically this could be a genre question. At any rate, attempts to harmonize these accounts historically are artificial. To say that Jesus and Simon took turns seems to destroy the point of each account, especially that of John.
- Worship or hardness of heart? According to Mark 6 and Matthew 14, Jesus walked on the water. His disciples were in a boat and were astonished to see the miracle. In Mark’s account, they were surprised that he could do this because their hearts were hardened. In Matthew, Peter exercises faith and walks on the water too before his faith gives way to fear and he starts to sink. Christ describes him as one of little faith, and those in the boat actually worship him (Christ). Hardness of heart or worship? To say that they worshipped with hard hearts is artificial. Mark and Matthew are giving very different and incompatible accounts of the spiritual status of the disciples at that point in the ministry of Christ.
- The infamous staff one. In Luke 9:3, Jesus instructs his disciples to take nothing on the missionary journey upon which they are about to embark. On the list of things they are not to take is a staff. “Take…no staff….” In Mark’s account of the same episode, Jesus commands them to take nothing “except a staff” (6:8). Not the foundation of all truth, but both passages cannot be right according to the normal canons of textual interpretation. (One could say that Jesus changed his mind, first saying one and then the other, but once again this is artificial and has no textual basis. Inerrantists are generally uncomfortable with the notion that God changes his mind, anyway.)
- Lots of other little discrepancies, like… Who has ascended into heaven? In 2 Kings 2:11 we are told that Elijah ascended into heaven. In John 3:13 Jesus claims that he is the only one to have done so. (The meaning of the latter is obscure since Jesus had not done so literally at that point in the Gospel story, but it sure seems incompatible with 2 Kings.) Did King Solomon force Israelites into labor or not? Unless one is prepared to make a distinction between forced labor and slavery—which seems artificial—1 Kings seems hopelessly disjointed on the topic. In 5:13-18 and 12:4-18 Solomon is portrayed as having made slaves out of Israelites. But 9:22 denies it. These are two of countless little discrepancies that seem to have inspired Gleason Archer, an evangelical biblical scholar, to write an entire book designed to clear them up. The book is entitled, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. At some point in my evolution from fundamentalist to progressive—after having struggled with a long list of difficulties in my own mind—I concluded that the need for such an encyclopedia was a statement in and of itself! Enough!
The biblical authors weigh in on many historical and theological issues in incompatible ways. The contradictions and inconsistencies documented above—and many others, as well—show that some of the material in the Bible cannot be true. The Book is not inerrant. It has some truth, virtue, and wisdom in it, but it is not perfect. When biblical inerrantists see such incongruence in the sacred books of other religions, they cry foul. I’ve seen this double standard repeatedly. And I remind the reader that other types of errors may also be present in the Bible. They might include false claims of divine revelation, factual errors, and misguided moral teachings. I plan to write about some of those soon. I’ve just chosen to write about one particular type of error here (incompatible statements).
Calling the Bible “the word of God” lies at the root of this confusion among conservative Christians. A theologian at a prominent evangelical seminary once admitted to me that when evangelicals call the Bible “the word of God,” they are using “shorthand for a lot of complexity.” I think it’s worse than that. It’s the source of so much confusion in the Christian world. If you believe in divine revelation and that it can be found in the Bible, you should say that the Bible contains the word of God and proceed from that assumption. Figure out what is and what is not divine revelation if you can. Make suggestions. But don’t promote falsehood for the sake of simplicity.
Finally, I’m not inerrant either. If you think that I’ve made a mistake here, respectfully point it out. But do your homework first, and make sure that reason trumps emotion.