Biblical inerrancy

Last week there was an interesting program on NPR’s Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross interviewed Bart Ehrman, chair of the department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, on his book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why in which he describes how the text of the Bible has been modified down through the ages. It was a very interesting interview, worth listening to online.

The fact that the words in the Bible have not come down to us unchanged is beyond dispute. Scholars have had access to various manuscripts written at various times and in various original languages and there are clear discrepancies between the versions.

On one level, it should come as no surprise that the manuscripts differ. It was only after the development of mass printing that we take for granted the idea that all copies of the same text should contain the same words. Before that, copies were laboriously done by hand, by the few literate people who happened to be available to do this tedious work. So simple human error was always a factor to deal with.

But Ehrman explained that not all the changes were inadvertent or simply outright mistakes. Sometimes changes were introduced deliberately. Some stories, for example, started out as contemporary anecdotes that were not part of the text, but the scribes wrote them in the margins as interesting things to be considered. But then later scribes took those marginal notes and added them to the text of later copies.

Other changes were introduced as a result of doctrinal squabbles. As theologians down the ages debated the various characteristics of Jesus and God, there were tussles by each group to try and ensure that their interpretation was reflected in the text and some scribes seemed to have accommodated this by making appropriate adjustments in the wording.

Yet other changes came about as attempts were made to bring the various versions into a coherent form and minimize the discrepancies. For example, Ehrman says that the early manuscripts have greater differences among them than the later ones.

Furthermore, the original authors of (say) the four Gospels wrote them at different times for different audiences and saw them as self-contained, integral works portraying their individual visions of Jesus. But that led to discrepancies between the Gospels that become obvious when the four books are placed in sequence and read together. Ehrman points out that the Christmas story we now have is a composite of the stories found in the different Gospels and that the story of Jesus’ final days are also widely divergent.

Ehrman says that many of these differences are irreconcilable. There is no reasonable way in which the current texts can be read to make them all consistent. One has to learn to live with these inconsistencies by understanding the role that human beings have played in the creation of the Bible.

This view causes no problems for those Christians who see the Bible as addressing deep truths about god’s relationship with the world. Such people do not lose any sleep over differences, seeing them as incidental to the main messages that the Bible seeks to convey.

But Ehrman’s view is anathema to those who believe in the Bible’s inerrancy. Such people, seem to have a need to believe that the Bible has to be accurate in every detail, however minor or trivial, and can be read as a historical and scientific document. Religious fundamentalists believe in an inerrant religious text and so they will go to extraordinary lengths to try and reconcile the discrepancies, even if it requires doing gross damage to common sense. (See here and here for a debate for and against Biblical inerrancy.)

The person debating in favor of inerrancy says that:

“Inerrant” means “wholly true” or “without mistake” and refers to the fact that the biblical writers were absolutely errorless, truthful, and trustworthy in all of their affirmations. The doctrine of inerrancy does not confine itself to moral and religious truth alone. Inerrancy extends to statements of fact, whether scientific, historical, or geographical. The biblical writers were preserved from the errors that appear in all other books.

The original Hebrew and Greek autograph copies of the Bible were inerrant. Certainly the copies of copies which have come down to us contain errors common to the craft of the copyist as do all English versions. However, with diligent study, we can ascertain the original words of the inspired writers. Consequently, the doctrine of inerrancy applies to the biblical text in our day as well – insofar as the Bible has been accurately translated.

Inerrancy is fundamental to the doctrine of biblical authority…If the Bible contains mistakes, then it is unreliable as a true guide to matters of salvation. If mistakes exist in one part, mistakes may just as easily exist in another part. If the Bible is a mixture of truth and error, then it is like any other book and simply not deserving of any special attention.

If the doctrine of inerrancy is not true, then the Bible lacks the very criteria and credentials necessary for authenticating its divine origin. Human beings would be incapable of distinguishing between it and all other religious books which seek acceptance by men (e.g. the Koran, Book of Mormon, the Vedas). If the biblical writers demonstrate incompetency and fallibility in matters of ordinary knowledge where uninspired humans can check their credibility, then their infallibility in all other areas is discredited.

The idea that we can “with diligent study” infer the exact text of the “original” version of the Bible is hard to sustain, given the diversity of its authors and the long period of time in which it was written and the vast numbers of people involved in copying, translating, and selecting the books that we now call the Bible. As Ehrman says, the earlier versions of the texts contain larger discrepancies than the later ones, so picking out the “original” text becomes an impossible task. One can only believe in the inerrancy of the Bible if one feels that god was looking over the shoulders of all these people all the time, either ensuring accuracy, or deliberately creating anomalies for some inscrutable reason.

In this respect, believers in Biblical inerrancy are remarkably similar to those Muslims who believe that the Koran is divinely inspired and written. In his book The World’s Religions, Huston Smith says that the story of the Koran’s creation is that over a period of twenty three years, the angel Gabriel dictated the words of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed who would recite these words, which were then “memorized by his followers and recorded on bones, bark, leaves, and scraps of parchment, with God preserving their accuracy throughout.” (p. 232) It was only after about two hundred to three hundred years that the form of the Koran that exists today was put together.

Salman Rushdie in his novel The Satanic Verses incurred the wrath of the late Ayatollah Khomeini for blasphemy against Islam. Khomeini issued a “fatwah” against Rushdie that basically called, with a three million dollar bounty, for the religious faithful to kill the author, who as a result was forced to go into hiding for many years. In Rushdie’s novel, one of the people copying down the Prophet’s words starts to suspect that the Prophet might be making this stuff up and to test this theory, starts deliberately changing words, and even though he reads the words back to the Prophet later, for a long time the Prophet does not recognize the changes. One can see how this idea would incense those who have a fervent belief in the inerrancy of the Koran.

One can image that Christian believers in Biblical inerrancy are no less annoyed with scholars like Ehrman who flat out say that all kinds of human factors have played a role in creating the Bible we have today and that it cannot possibly be inerrant. Who knows, maybe Pat Robertson (who is the mirror image of Khomeini) might issue a “Patwah” against Ehrman.


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