Are There Errors in the Bible?

Q: Are there any errors in the Bible?” - Shawn W.


A:  This deals with a very controversial topic, the inerrancy of the bible. In other words, is the bible perfect? Are there errors in the bible? Can there BE errors in it if it’s God’s word?

Well, as I’ve mentioned before, the bible is a collection of books written by specific men at a specific time to specific people for specific reasons. God didn’t just make the bible appear out of nowhere or dictate it audibly to someone to transcribe. Since it was written by men, why do we say it’s the word of God?

Actually, there’s only one place in the entire bible where the term “word of God” refers to anything written, and in that case it refers to the 10 commandments which were literally written by God onto stone tablets and given to Moses. So, no one in the bible refers to anything composed by man as the “word of God”. Usually, the term refers to quotes of things that God Himself actually said.

"You left out the part about not going to dances"

“Um, you left out the part about not going to dances”

That’s not to say that high regard wasn’t given in the New Testament for scripture. But, obviously, they were referring to the old testament since the new testament hadn’t been compiled yet. The early church took the writings of the apostles and eye-witnesses of Christ’s ministry and treated them as scripture. Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, even says himself that his writing comes from Christ through the Holy Spirit. The Gospels are accounts of things Jesus Himself said, so in that case they literally are the words of God.

Revelation is different because it’s literally a revelation from God to John to write down and share with the churches.

The revelation looked a lot like this...only weirder

The revelation looked a lot like this…only weirder

The official New Testament was compiled over the course of many centuries, just like the Old Testament was. There were years and years of debate over which early documents should be considered scripture. Over a long period of time the debates led to a widely accepted grouping of documents to be considered part of the Biblical Canon.

This means there are a lot of documents out there that didn’t make it in. Many of these books were written by a group called the Gnostics and they commonly wrote them in the voice of well-known figures from the Gospels, like Mary or Peter. They did this so that the writing would have more authority. These false gospels and letters are pretty easy to spot because they teach the gnostic philosophy which is contradictory to Jesus’ actual teachings. They also date much later, well after the supposed author died.

Because of this, documents must be able to be authenticated before considered a part of Scripture. There are a few letters whose authorship is debated, but they can be reliably dated to the right time period, they’re consistent with the doctrine of the other books, and we have evidence that the early church used them and considered them authentic…all things that must be also be proven for a book to be a part of the Canon.

Wrong kind of cannon.

Wrong kind of cannon.

It’s true, we don’t have any direct evidence of God calling the entire collection of New Testament books “scripture”, but we do have Peter in one of his letters referring to Paul’s letters as scripture. And since Jesus validated the Old Testament scriptures as being holy and the Old Testament was compiled the same way as the New Testament, and the New Testament is written by actual eye-witnesses of Jesus (unlike the Old Testament, which was information passed down through many generations before actually written down), why wouldn’t Jesus consider the New Testament scripture?

The scriptures might not have been directly dictated by God speaking in an audible voice, but the Holy Spirit did work through the authors when they wrote it. Apparently Paul even knew the difference when a revelation was from the Holy Spirit and when it wasn’t, because there are a couple of times in his letters when he clarifies that what he’s about to say is just his opinion and not necessarily from the Holy Spirit.

In 2 Timothy, Paul says that all scripture is “God-Breathed”. This means that God used the Holy Spirit to inspire the writers. But, does that mean that every word in scripture is inerrant? In other words, does that mean that every word in scripture is “without error”?

The argument for biblical inerrancy is based on the relationship of two facts. God inspired the scripture, and God can’t lie. Those who believe the bible is free from any kind of error deduce that since God inspired the scripture and because He can’t lie, everything in scripture must be completely true.

"Guess I'm not God!"

“Guess I’m not God?”

But, that argument assumes that God inspired every single word and detail. So, the question is, to what extent did God inspire the documents? Did He inspire just the important parts? Did He just inspire the meanings and not necessarily how those meanings were put into words?

I think we can agree that the messages and important details of the bible are all Truth, since God knew that these words would one day be considered scripture. But, what about the human element? For things that weren’t important for doctrine, did God prevent the human errors and perspectives from showing through?

Well, in the case of Paul we know God allowed him to give personal opinions that, according to Paul himself, weren’t the Holy Spirit’s revelation.

"I...don't...like....pickles"

“…and pickles are disgusting!”

The BIGGEST evidence in the debate, however, is from supposed conflicts in the 4 gospels. Because we have 4 different accounts of many of the same events, we can look at how closely the accounts line up. Doing so reveals many details that seem to conflict. There are several reasons behind why these types of conflict occur.

Different writers with different styles, different intents, and different intended readers mean that authors included certain details and ignored others. So, you have a few different people cherry picking a small number of details out of millions. Going only by the few details the writers chose to give, you get different pictures of the scene depending on whose account you read. This happens because our brains naturally fill in all the gaps for us, and usually our brains are inaccurate.

"Hey, back at ya, pal!"

“Hey, back at ya, pal!”

But, if you take all the information from all accounts of a given event and try to piece together the picture in a way that makes all of the accounts true, you get a much deeper picture. In almost all of the cases of conflict you can do this and show a very plausible resolution of the accounts.

It’s also important to note that culture was very different back then, and not everything written is necessarily expected to be chronological. Some writers prefers to group events by theme and by message instead of by the order in which they happened. Jesus did a lot of things, and one writer may choose to explain them chronologically even though the important messages will be random and interspersed throughout many different important events, while another writer may want to group the related messages so that the deeper message can be gleaned in context.

Both types of accounts are important, and one of the reasons God likely chose to have 4 different Gospel accounts instead of one.

But, that being said, there are still a few nagging conflicts that seem impossible to resolve. Fortunately, none of these conflicts involve anything important to our faith, but instead are rather insignificant details, like whether an unnamed person who asked Peter a question was male or female, or the order of events when the first disciples came to inspect the empty tomb.

Would God allow mistakes like that to be made in the bible? Actually, these errors are very important to the Gospel’s credibility. If the accounts in all 4 Gospels were identical down to every detail it would be assumed that they were all copying the same source. But, the Gospels have the little differences that you would naturally expect from different eye-witness accounts. This actually lends credibility to their testimony. They obviously weren’t all copying the same source, and that’s important.

It makes perfect sense that the eye-witnesses would remember the important message of what Jesus said, but might remember the exact wording slightly differently.

Remember, the book we read is a translation of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, etc. And even looking at all the different translations we see how different they all are. Are they not the Word of God just because they have different wording? Even if the difference in wording is significant? What about errors in the translations? We know that there have been errors in past translations, because newer versions have fixed them. And we know there were quite a few errors in the original king james version. They did the best they could with the documents they had to work with, and limited knowledge of the language and culture of the time.

But, it wasn’t perfect. And we know that there are errors in the later copies of the original documents as they differ from the older ones, and a ton of spelling errors and miscopied words (all of which are easily detected and correctable). Do these errors mean it’s not the Word of God? If God prevented all errors during the original writing of the documents then couldn’t He do the same during the translations and copies? If we can accept the errors in the copies and translations, why can’t we accept the possibility that there might be errors in the original accounts?

"Thou shalt commit adultery..."

“Thou shalt commit adultery…”

Over the thousands of years of the bible being copied over and over again by hand and being translated time and time again into different languages it is absolutely nothing short of a divine miracle that it has stayed as intact as it has with such relatively few errors! Only God’s intervention could have made that possible.

And the original King James Version is an absolutely unbelievable achievement considering what they had to work with. The fact that it was as accurate as it was in all the important parts shows that the Holy Spirit was definitely involved in the translation.

So, as you read the bible, don’t be surprised when you come across some questionable details and things that seem to conflict. 99% of the time you just need to know more information about the original language, culture, and context to iron out your misunderstanding. The commentary at the bottom of your study bible will usually help. If not, go to gotquestions.org and they will answer it for you. Not everyone there gives great answers, but the vast majority of them do. If you aren’t satisfied, feel free to ask it again and get a second opinion.

And, hopefully you’ve already come to the realization that you shouldn’t base a whole lot of doctrine on one isolated verse or detail. It’s important to read the entire bible so you can see the big picture and know when a verse or detail seems to conflict with the rest of scripture and thus more information is needed.

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- Jim Graham
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