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Articles by John S. Gibson, III:
  • The Error of Biblical Inerrancy

  • The Demands of Christian Tolerance

  • The Virtue of Simplicity in The Shepherd of Hermas
  • The Error of Biblical Inerrancy

    By John S. Gibson - August 22, 2013

    I. Brief History of Inerrancy
    II. Errors through Poor Translations/Copyists
    III. What is Inspiration?
    IV. Inconsistencies or Contradictions in Passages
    V. Conclusion
    Inerrancy Articles
  • The Error of Biblical Inerrancy, by JS Gibson
  • Inerrancy: A Response, by RA Baker
  • Why Inerrancy Doesn't Matter, by R Olson

  • See Reader Comments
  • Inerrancy: Reader Comments and Responses
  • I. Brief History of Inerrancy
    As a result of the 18th century Enlightenment in Europe and the United States, a great shift occurred in human reasoning. The Enlightenment produced a revolution in the way mankind thought and viewed the universe. Where God had been considered the source and revealer of truth and center of the universe, mankind, and only mankind, became the determiner of truth, and therefore, the center of his universe. In the Encyclopedia Britannica under the article entitled, Enlightenment, it is written, "Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and the celebration of reason, the power by which man understands the universe and improves his own condition. The goals of rational man were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness." This opened the way for popularizing both Deism, where God is Creator but uninvolved in his creation, as well as Atheism. Also written in that same Encyclopedia Britannica article it states, "At the same time, the idea of the universe as a mechanism governed by a few simple (and discoverable) laws had a subversive effect on the concepts of a personal God and individual salvation that were central to Christianity."

    This philosophical outlook was initially manifested in the academy. From the academic world, this philosophy then began to affect the concept of God and the result of men's philosophy, that is, their faith. The acceptance and interpretation of Biblical Scriptures as inspired became very questionable by most intellectuals. This "enlightenment" or naturalistic way of thinking became known as modernism and it has, to a great degree, caused the rejection of the historicity of the Bible.

    As a response to this liberal deluge, fundamentalists/conservatives declared all out war against modernism. Biblical authority was essential among Christian groups prior to the Enlightenment. Though the Bible was viewed as infallible when it spoke on matters of faith and morals, it was not taught as being inerrant in all of its details, such as in historic narrative. Fundamentalism was born in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fundamentalists, for the most part, in order to fully embrace the Scriptures, began to teach that there was no error in the Biblical writings in any way. They likewise interpreted the Bible literally, wherever they could. It is important to understand that this stance for an inerrant text to be interpreted literally was a stand to defend the biblical text against liberalism. This was not a dogma developed over decades because it was thought to be such a good idea - it was a defensive move.

    II. Errors through Poor Translations/Copyists
    Accepting the modernist, liberal view of the Bible, is not the position of this article. To openly state my position, I do hold to the NT text as being the "inspired Word of God," but I intend to show that the textual traditions contain errors. In this article only the New Testament Scriptures are being considered.

    The fact is, the Scriptures have errors in many of the details. This is primarily because of two things: First, and most importantly, we do not have the autographs, the original documents by the authors. We simply do not necessarily have the exact wording of any of the original biblical writings. Secondly, throughout the last two thousand years, hundreds of copyists often made errors, some significant errors, from the first century until after Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press with the first Greek New Testament being printed in 1516. To this day, even with modern archaeological finds and modern printing we "still" have many variant readings. Most of these variant readings are insignificant, but they are variants (errors) nonetheless. You can see some of these variants in the footnotes of any good modern translation. But modern translations bring out only a few of the total variant readings.

    The best example of a New Testament text with many errors is the Authorized Version itself, the King James Version. The Greek text of the New Testament used for the KJV was called the Textus Receptus, produced by the Dutch Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus in 1516. You will notice that was the same year that the first Greek New Testament was printed. Erasmus prepared the Textus Receptus for that first printing. The problem with the Textus Receptus was that it represents an early compilation of the Greek New Testament, prior to many of the most important archaeological discoveries of more reliable Greek and Latin manuscripts. It is also important to state here that Jerome's Latin Vulgate, used extensively by Erasmus, is considered by scholars to be a completely inadequate translation of the original Greek into Latin. In addition, Erasmus rushed to get his Textus Receptus finished, neglecting the sufficient research because he knew that another Greek New Testament was in the works, called the Complutensian Polyglot. He wanted to make sure his text was the first to be printed on the new press. Because of this, there are several very questionable passages included in the Textus Receptus, and consequently in the King James Version. Two very good examples of questionable passages are Mark 16:9-20 and I John 5:7-8.

    The earliest manuscript to contain Mark 16:9-20 is the Codex Alexandrinus, which is from the early 5th century. The two best early manuscripts of the New Testament are the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, both from the middle of the fourth century, and neither contain those last 11 verses from the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark. The vast majority of Biblical scholars accept that Mark 16:9-20 was not a part of the original Gospel of Mark. A very similar passage to this is John 7:53-8:11, the passage of the woman taken in adultery.

    Then we have I John 5:7-8, known as the "Johannine Comma." The NIV has this passage as, "For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement." The whole passage, with the extra words from the Textus Receptus in italics, is as follows: "For there are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement." This is probably the worst variant contained in all of the Textus Receptus. We have no Greek passage of this variant prior to a manuscript from the early sixteenth century, written around the time of Erasmus's Greek New Testament. It is only found earlier in manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate. That Greek passage is probably Erasmus's own translation into the Greek from the Latin Vulgate. It was almost certainly added because of the obvious emphasis on the doctrine of the trinity.

    There are scores of other passages, from thousands of manuscripts dated throughout the centuries and occurring throughout the New Testament, where scholars just do not know exactly what was in the original manuscript. Modern scholars will all admit to this. I have only brought out the most obvious.

    I want to bring out one other passage that, though subtle, has a very controversial reading and can be validly understood in at least two different ways. That passage is John 3:13. The NIV translates the text, "No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of Man." There are three different possible additions to the end of this verse - the NIV has chosen not to include any of these.
    "...who is in heaven." (the KJV uses this ending)
    "...who was in heaven." And finally,
    "...who is from heaven."
    The last two, though they could be accepted as making even more sense than the first addition, have very weak support from the available manuscripts. So we will not spend further time on them.

    The real problem with these two different possible readings (one without the addition at all and the other with the addition of "who is in heaven") is that it could have an impact on our theology regarding Jesus Christ. Jesus could have been saying that his presence was in heaven while he was here on the earth at the same time. This has significance regarding the testimony of Jesus regarding his own deity.

    This passage is found in many available manuscripts, but without the additional ending. Two of the several manuscripts that support this shorter reading are the two mentioned above, the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. They both have two of our best copies of the very early New Testament. Therefore, this reading has strong support. Yet this passage with the longer ending, "...who is in heaven" has strong support also. It is found in many manuscripts. Also, most of the early church fathers support this longer reading. I personally tend to accept this reading, yet I cannot be sure.

    Just because we as Christians believe what is written in the Scriptures is inspired of the Holy Spirit, does not, and should not mean that everything written in them has scientific accuracy in the modern sense of the term. This includes many passages that do not have questionable copyist readings. The original authors were not stenographers. Except in very rare circumstances, no verse of Scripture in the Old or New Testament claims that the writers were taking dictation in any way.

    III. What is Inspiration?
    We can say with confidence, however, that we do have the gist of the original New Testament writings to a very high degree of accuracy. I will get back to this later.

    What does it mean to be inspired? Let us say that a relatively famous and influential person that you knew very well came to you and commissioned you to write a book or article about him or her. That individual went on to tell you that the only requirements are for you to write what you know and be as accurate as you possibly can be.

    Obviously God inspiring the Biblical writers was somewhat different, in that they were "moved by the Holy Spirit." II Peter 1:21, but other than a situation like that of Exodus 31:18 "When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God" where God wrote the Ten Commandments, Scripture as a whole was written by men in their own language, in their own time, in their own social setting, and in their own words. Even when we have passages like those in the book of Revelation, the writers virtually always wrote in their own words and with their own style of writing. The only exceptions to this would be (like that in Exodus 31) when God is speaking (or writing) in his own words."

    When people write today, in this age of scientific accuracy, there are often errors in what they document. They are giving the information as accurately as they can recall but they are only human. How much more inaccurate were the ancients? As honest and sincere as the Biblical writers were, they were men in an ancient culture who related information the way they knew to relate it. In the modern sense of the term, did they write with scientific accuracy? No, they did not. From their cultural point of view, did they write with a sense of trying to be accurate? Absolutely, they did.

    IV. Inconsistencies or Contradictions in Passages
    Now, let me give two examples of contradictions in the New Testament. The first is when Jesus told the apostle Peter that he was going to deny him three times.

    Matthew 26:34-35
    "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." But Peter declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the other disciples said the same...
    v75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: "Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly.
    [Quoting from NIV - italics mine, and throughout all of the biblical quotations]

    Mark 14:30-31
    "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "today--yes, tonight - before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times." But Peter insisted emphatically, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the others said the same...
    v72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times." And he broke down and wept.

    Both of these accounts cannot be accurate in all of their details. Either the rooster crowed once before Peter denied Jesus the third time or the rooster crowed twice before Peter denied Jesus the third time. One writer, probably the writer of Matthew, omitted a minor detail because it was written somewhat later than Mark.

    May 03, 2014
    Thanks to a reader for correcting us below. We erroneously had before rather than after in the explanation. I never questioned John Gibson on this because I thought he was presenting an argument I have heard before - that there were actually two roosters, thus both accounts can be true. A version of this argument can be found on the Apologetics site. This is where I do agree with Mr. Gibson, "it does not matter how many times any dumb rooster crowed. The point to the whole story is that...Peter will deny...(Jesus) three times." The Apologetics site seems to imply that critics attacking the text on this point simply do not believe the scriptures to be God's word. THIS is actually what Gibson and I are both arguing against - we both believe the New Testament to be God's inspired word, but we do NOT hold to inerrancy.
    Our position (Gibson can add to these comments if he wants) is that such inconsistencies in the biblical text are typically NOT important. The point of the story was NOT how many times (or when) a rooster would crow - the problem is when we miss the real point because we have to strain at an explanation in order to keep our doctrinal position. I find the answer on the Apologetics site to be like carrying water in a bucket full of holes to water a tree that sits by a brook.

    To try to prove the Bible's detailed accuracy some people will use awkward rationalization that becomes absurd. I suppose you could argue that one rooster in the area crowed once after the third denial and another rooster in the area crowed twice after the third denial. First, that is not what Jesus said, and secondly, it does not matter how many times any dumb rooster crowed. The point to the whole story is that before the sun would rise the next day, "You, Peter will deny me (Jesus) three times." That is all it said, no more and no less. It does not matter about any rooster at all.

    Let me give one more example. The most important event in all of Christendom is the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have four accounts of that glorious morning. I have used the New International Version, but though some wording is different in different versions, you can use most any translation and see these differences.
    The first is from Matthew 28:1-10.
    The second is from Mark 16:1-8.
    The third is from Luke 21:1-12.
    The last is from John 20:1-16.
    The next four paragraphs are my version of a loose representation of each account, unless I have quotation marks, relating what each passage contained.

    In Matthew, "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary" went to the tomb. There was one "angel" who sat on the stone (apparently he had rolled back the stone earlier). The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples:…" The women hurried away to tell the disciples and suddenly Jesus met them. They clasped his feet and worshiped him. And he told them not to be afraid and to go and tell his brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see him.

    In Mark, "Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James" (probably the other Mary), and Salome" went to the tomb just after sunrise. They saw one "young man" dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. He said to them, "Don't be alarmed, You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter,…" Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.

    In Luke, "the women" went to the tomb. Suddenly two "men" in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. The men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'" They then remembered those words. They came back from the tomb and told all those things to the Eleven and all the others. They did not believe them but Peter got up and ran to the tomb, bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away wondering what had happened.

    Finally, in John, "Mary Magdalene" went to the tomb while it was still dark. She saw that the stone had been removed and came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple and told them that they have taken the Lord out of the tomb. So Peter and the other disciple went running to the tomb. The other disciple arrived first but did not go in. Then Peter arrived and went in and saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. Peter saw and believed. Then the disciples went back to their homes but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. She bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been. They asked her why she was crying. She replied that they have taken my Lord away and I don't know where they have put him. At this she turned around and saw Jesus standing there. Thinking it was the gardener, she asked him where he had put him. Jesus said to her, "Mary" and she recognized him. He said, "Do not hold on to me…"

    While there are uncanny similarities among all four accounts, there are obviously significant differences. How many women went to the tomb? Was it before or after daylight? Was there one angel or man or were there two angels there? Were they standing are sitting? Did he/they tell her/them to go to the disciples and tell them to go to Galilee or did they simply ask why she was crying? Did she go to the disciples before or after she saw the angel/men? Did she see Jesus before or after she told the disciples? Did Mary grab hold of him or did he forbid her?

    These are real differences. We are not doing service to the Gospels or to the Lord himself by trying to fit the four accounts into one clear story. They will never harmonize in all their details. There is only one explanation. The explanation is that all of those details, as disparate pieces of data do not matter, just like the rooster crowing in the story of Peter's three denials. The main point to these four resurrection accounts is that the women and the disciples found an empty tomb. No account has the body of Jesus lying in the tomb. Other details are consistent across the accounts: the empty tomb was witnessed by at least one woman and later several others would see him. We have these details regardless of whether there were one or more women and whether there were one or two angels, or where those angels were seen on that morning.

    One other thing that is important to say here. Just because the details of the four resurrection stories are not in perfect harmony does not negate the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We still have a significant number of reliable witnesses that saw, talked with, and experienced the resurrected Jesus. It still has to be accepted by faith and it is still something that each and every one must experience spiritually and personally himself or herself.

    V. Conclusion
    In conclusion, it is an error for Christians to make a cardinal doctrine out of biblical inerrancy. Anyone who will take the time to read the Scriptures and to compare passages of the same event from different biblical books must admit that there are often differences in some of the details. Sometimes there are even contradictions between passages. Those differences, contradictions, and therefore, errors are typically minor and insignificant, but they are errors nonetheless. I know there are many who believe that inerrancy is only in the autographs (the original written documents), but there are plenty of fundamentalists, like those who hold that the KJV translation is inerrant. None of this matters - You cannot get away from the differences.

    Christians correctly believe the New Testament is the message sent down to us from the original witnesses of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. There is no reason to believe that the New Testament is anything but reliable. The flaws, errors, and alternate readings from different manuscripts are virtually always minor - they do not affect the main point of God's message to us.

    I am convinced that the New Testament as we have it is sufficient for the spiritual and practical needs of Christians and all mankind. Yet, I also know we must always be open to new discoveries and understandings of the text that a consensus of scholarship may provide. God's Word is perfect, and though it is anathema to say it in evangelical circles, all of the minute details we have in our biblical text today are not perfect. It is made up of very ancient documents that picked up minor errors through all of the copying over the centuries. Yet it also continues to bear the essence of the original writing of all 27 books. Christians can read it and rejoice that in all of its insignificant flaws it is God's message to mankind and to his people.


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