Is the Bible Without Error? Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Christian Epistemology

A common litmus test for Christian orthodoxy is adherence to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, which maintains that the Biblical text, in the original autographs, is completely without error in all that it affirms. The doctrine of inerrancy is fleshed out and carefully defined in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy of 1978, which one can find here. In this article, I am going to explore the concepts of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and carefully flesh out my current understanding of this topic, and in particular how it relates to my evidentialist apologetic method. In a nutshell, while I uphold the inspiration of Scripture and esteem it to be highly reliable, I do not see inerrancy as being deducible from Scripture, at least not with sufficient clarity to warrant dogmatism on the subject. In my opinion, while there are a few instances in the Scriptures that I hold to be candidates for minor errors, they can safely be assumed to be made in good faith, and by no means cast doubt on the general trustworthiness of Scripture.

To begin with, I would like to invite the reader to think about the concepts of inspiration and inerrancy and what they hold these to be.

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).

 

The Bible here very clearly affirms that all Scripture is breathed out by God, and to rule out any confusion, I want to very clearly affirm that I hold to this statement. When you think of the meaning of “breathed out by God,” what comes to mind? Does it evoke images of God, through His Spirit, somehow dictating the exact words, syntax and argument flow to people to write down — in other words, that every single detail in the books of the Bible was determined by God to be exactly as we now possess it? We can call this the “dictation theory” of inspiration. If this scenario is the case, what would you make of the fact that, for instance, the four gospels reveal different authorial personalities? In fact, different Biblical authors often have a liking for specific words more than others (such as Mark’s frequent usage of the word εὐθὺς, meaning “immediately”). Or why do you think God dictated Paul to ask Timothy to bring his cloak (2 Tim 4:13)? In Romans 16:22, Tertius, Paul’s scribe, interjects, “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Scripture even records a memory lapse, since Paul notes, “I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else,” (1 Cor 1:16). Furthermore, the Biblical text utilizes different literary styles, from the down-to-earth language of a Hebrew farmer (Amos), to the exalted poetry of Isaiah. The Bible also reveals a range of different human emotions, including “great sorrow” (Rom 9:2), anger (Gal 3:1), loneliness (2 Tim 4:9-16) and joy (Phil 1:4).

As you can perhaps see by now, the issue of what it means for Scripture to be breathed out by God is not as clear as it might seem on face-value. Of course, for the scholar and theologian this will not come as news, since the dictation theory of inspiration has long been widely rejected among Christian thinkers, largely for the reasons given above, among a host of others. Later on in this article, I will offer my personal opinion of what it means for the Bible to be God’s inspired word. But for now, let us turn to the issue of inerrancy and examine what it is as well as whether it can be deduced from the Bible itself.

Strong vs. Weak Inerrancy

I draw a distinction between a strong form of inerrancy (what I sometimes call dogmatic, or a priori, inerrancy) and a weak form of inerrancy (what I sometimes refer to as inductive inerrancy). The Chicago Statement reflects the strong form of inerrancy, whereby one holds that no Scriptural errors may, even in principle, be admitted by a faithful Christian. In its strongest form, this view sets up an extremely brittle view of Scripture which essentially insinuates that if an error were to be identified in the Bible then Christianity would be proven false. Though this is seldom stated so explicitly, it is often implied. Norman Geisler, for example argues for a strong form of inerrancy whereby not only does the Bible in fact contain no errors, but the Bible cannot contain errors. [1] Generally, when someone asks whether you affirm inerrancy, they have in mind this strong form of inerrancy.

This sets a very low bar for the skeptic to offer sufficient reasons for rejecting Christianity, since the Bible is a big book with many thousands of historical claims that can be critically assessed. This in turn sets up Christians for losing their faith, since doubt about inerrancy is often taken not merely as a prompt for thinking more carefully about the nature of inspiration, but as a compelling reason for reconsidering the truth of the Christian worldview altogether. While proponents of this strong form of inerrancy often argue that the divine inspiration of Scripture entails its inerrancy, this line of reasoning can be employed in two directions — that is, to the extent that the doctrine of inspiration entails inerrancy, the successful demonstration of probable errors in Scripture is epistemically relevant to the question of whether the Biblical text is in fact inspired. In other words, if indeed it is the case that inspiration entails inerrancy, then not only do arguments for inspiration provide confirming evidence for inerrancy, but arguments against the factual accuracy of statements contained in the Bible also provide evidence that is disconfirming of inspiration.

An alternative view, which I take to be more reasonable, is the weak form of inerrancy, which leaves open the possibility of discovering that there are errors in Scripture while maintaining that there are no errors in fact (just as a college textbook could in principle contain errors but may in fact be without error). The latter perspective is closest to my own view, though I think there are a handful of details reported by Scripture for which a reasonable case can be made, all things considered, that an error is the best explanation.

The Consequences of Successful Demonstration of Errors in Scripture

I now turn my attention to assessing the epistemic consequences of identifying one or more errors in Scripture. If you are of the persuasion that there are in fact no errors in Scripture, then I ask that you consider this question merely as a hypothetical one. It should be acknowledged that a demonstration of the falsehood of inerrancy would constitute some evidence against inspiration and in turn against Christianity, since one has to concede that there is some pull toward inerrancy if one holds that a book is divinely inspired in any meaningful sense, though I am not convinced that inspiration necessarily entails inerrancy, depending on the model of inspiration that one adopts (as I shall discuss later). It is important here to distinguish between evidence and proof. A piece of data may tend to disconfirm a proposition (i.e. somewhat reduce its likelihood) without actually entailing its falsehood. Disconfirming evidence can in principle be overcome by sufficient confirming evidence, and it is normal for propositions to have both confirming and disconfirming evidence. [2]

Some may be concerned that God would be expected to ensure that the Scriptures are without error, even though they came to us through human means. However, given that there is some level of ambiguity, at times, even with respect to what the original autograph said, it seems to be a reasonable conclusion that, so far as God is concerned, it is not important for us to have certainty about every minor detail reported in the Biblical text. For example, Jesus is famously reported to have said from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” (Lk 23:34). However, many important manuscripts lack this verse, creating a certain level of ambiguity concerning whether this saying is part of the original autograph. Bruce Metzger comments, “The absence of these words from such early and diverse witnesses…is most impressive and can scarcely be explained as a deliberate excision by copyists who, considering the fall of Jerusalem to be proof that God had not forgiven the Jews, could not allow it to appear that the prayer of Jesus had remained unanswered. At the same time, the logion, though probably not a part of the original Gospel of Luke, bears self-evident tokens of its dominical origin, and was retained, within double square brackets, in its traditional place where it had been incorporated by unknown copyists relatively early in the transmission of the Third Gospel.” [3] For sure, the textual evidence bearing on the New Testament is sufficient to have confidence that what we have in our Bibles is substantially the same as what was written down by the original authors, though there remains some cases where the original reading cannot be confidently asserted. The doctrine of inerrancy, as conventionally understood, applies only to the original autographs. However, if inerrancy were so important in the original autographs, then one may begin to wonder why did God not preserve inerrancy in the textual transmission. Furthermore, given that, as I have already noted, Scripture records a memory lapse (1 Cor 1:16), is it not at least conceivable that God could potentially allow for someone to misremember something relatively minor such as a precise sequence of events, etc?

Since inerrancy is an ‘all-or-nothing’ proposition, once a single error has been admitted (and thus inerrancy falsified), the evidential weight against Christianity that is carried by subsequent demonstrations of similar types of errors is substantially reduced. Some proposed errors would be of greater consequence than others. Some errors would affect only the doctrine of inerrancy (as well as being epistemically relevant to the substantial trustworthiness of particular Biblical books), whereas others (such as the non-existence of a robust historical Adam, for example), being inextricably linked to other core propositions of Christianity, would be much more serious.

Different Sources of Errors and Their Consequences

Another factor that influences the epistemic consequence of Scriptural errors is the source of those errors. Deliberate distortions of fact, for example, have a much greater negative effect on both the doctrine that the book is inspired and the substantial trustworthiness of the document than errors introduced in good faith. A common concern raised by inerrantists is that to admit the presence of one error in Scripture necessarily leads to a slippery slope, since then every text may be considered to be ‘up for grabs’. This objection supposes that there is no reliable way by which we can discern what is true in Scripture unless we assume that everything is. However, this critique seems to be based on a false premise that assuming inerrancy gives you one hundred percent certainty about every statement in Scripture. This, however, is false since it is always a probabilistic assessment. One may object here that those holding to a strong form of inerrancy make an a priori stipulation of inerrancy, which entails one hundred percent certainty about the veracity of every statement in Scripture. However, if this is the case, then it makes little sense to talk about evidence for or against the veracity of any particular propositional claim contained in the Biblical accounts, since evidence by definition raises or reduces the probability of a hypothesis. 

Furthermore, I think we can show inductively (from a cumulative case based on numerous confirmations and corroborations of Scripture) that the Biblical documents are very close up to the facts, habitually truthful, and substantially trustworthy. That means that any claim that these sources make constitutes prima facie confirmatory evidence that these events really happened. One is therefore warranted in believing even details in Scripture for which we currently lack direct confirmation based upon the nature of these documents. A document that has been demonstrated to be substantially trustworthy provides evidence for its content, including those propositions that cannot be independently confirmed. If the gospels and Acts are demonstrated to be substantially reliable (as I maintain they are), therefore, then there remains an inductive basis for trusting the accounts even on those matters that cannot be independently verified. This inductive argument is not incompatible with the existence of some good faith mistakes. A similar case can be made with respect to Old Testament books, though this takes a lot more work to show (since the Old Testament is much bigger than the New Testament, and concerns events that are significantly further removed from us in time than those with which the New Testament is concerned). However, significant indirect evidence can be adduced for the reliability of the Old Testament (or at least the broad contours of Jewish history) from the testimony of Jesus, assuming (as I believe they do) the arguments confirming Jesus’ identity as God incarnate (such as the case for His resurrection) hold. If, on the other hand, it were to turn out that there were cases of deliberate fabrications in the Biblical accounts then this would indeed result in the slippery slope problem that concerns inerrantists. If the authors are prepared to distort the truth on one or more occasions, then one might reasonably wonder what else has been misrepresented.

The Strong View of Inerrancy Comes with a Potential Slippery Slope Too

Moreover, the strong form of inerrancy runs into a similar, arguably more serious, slippery slope problem if one’s harmonizations employ fictionalizing compositional literary device theories (as do those proposed by Michael Licona). [4] For example, if it was an acceptable practice at the time, and also a feature of the gospels, that entire scenes could be invented or details changed in order to make a theological point (as suggested in Michael Licona’s Why are there differences in the gospels?), how can one be sure that any given detail in the gospels has not been subject to this practice? Fortunately, I do not believe the evidence Licona brings to bear warrants his conclusions (e.g. see Lydia McGrew’s response book The Mirror or the Mask for a detailed discussion and critique of Licona’s thesis). [5] 

In my opinion, the epistemically least costly option is to take the view that I am representing in this article. Of course, there is also the option to confess ignorance and openly state that we don’t currently know how to harmonize these texts. However, this in my opinion seems to go against the spirit of evidentialism where one chooses to follow the evidence where it leads.

Does Scripture Unequivocally Affirm Inerrancy?

It is worth noting that nowhere does Scripture unequivocally affirm inerrancy. Probably the strongest text that is suggestive of inerrancy is John 10:34 where Jesus, referencing the Old Testament, affirms that “Scripture cannot be broken.” While this text creates a good prima facie case for inerrancy, it is fairly readily overcome if one discovers actual evidence of particular factual errors in Scripture. In that case, one is probably justified in interpreting Jesus to be referring to the commandments in Scripture, and its moral and theological teachings (c.f. Mt 5:19; Jn 7:23), which is how he is using the Psalm in the context of this verse. A stronger case can be made that Jesus affirmed the substantial reliability of the Old Testament Scriptures, especially when Jesus refers to events. For example, in Mark 2:25-26, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” Though this text (and others like it) fairly strongly suggests that Jesus considered the Hebrew Bible to be substantially trustworthy, even this interpretation is subject to question. What seems to me to be very secure is that Jesus affirmed the broad contours of Jewish history as reported by the Hebrew Scriptures. It should be noted that this does not necessarily require that the Hebrew Bible itself is reliable (though I believe the evidence suggests strongly that it is — see the resource list below).

Whenever interpreting a written text, especially an ancient text, there is generally a degree of uncertainty in interpretation. The intended meaning of some passages is more uncertain than others. The lower the probability of our interpretation, the easier the evidential weight of those texts may be overcome by other evidence. Indeed, this is the basis for the common hermeneutical principle that less clear passages should be interpreted in light of clearer ones. In a sense, then, everything is stratified. Do Jesus’ words imply that the Old Testament is inerrant? Plausible but not very secure. Do they imply that the entire Old Testament is substantially reliable? Quite likely but still debatable. Do they imply that David existed and that certain particular events took place? Extremely strong. To sum up my argument, then, the case that Jesus believed that David existed is obviously much stronger than the case that He believed that the entire book in which that story occurred is reliable. There is a good case for the latter to be sure. But it seems to me unlikely that it is sufficiently strong that we would have to ditch the very compelling evidence for Jesus’ identity (such as the case for the resurrection) if it turned out not to be true. Some may want to note here that another relevant factor here is the probability that the gospel reports are offering an accurate report of the things that Jesus said, in particular in relation to the Old Testament. However, I take the probability here to be quite high, given the sheer number of statements Jesus makes in the gospels regarding the Old Testament, combined with the evidence (which I take to be rather substantial) that the gospels provide substantially reliable accounts of the ministry and teachings of Jesus. In addition, certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry (such as His fulfilment of the Passover symbolism, the relationship of His death to the fall of Adam, His being the Davidic Messiah promised in the Old Testament) imply that at least the broad contours of Jewish history, reported in the Hebrew Scriptures, are true. (To avoid any confusion, I am in this article not discussing the Old Testament reliability per se. What I am examining is what the significance of Jesus’ mentioning Old Testament passages and persons means for Old Testament reliability).

Because of the religiously significant nature of the event of the resurrection, the inerrancy and reliability of the Old Testament, as well as the veracity of the broad contours of Jewish history as reported in the Bible, are epistemically relevant to the prior probability of the resurrection. It is common among apologists to assert that, if sufficient evidence can be adduced to support the proposition that Jesus rose from the dead (an event that is rightly taken to be God’s vindication of Jesus’ Messianic and divine self-claims), then it follows necessarily that the Old Testament must be reliable, since Jesus affirmed the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Hebrew Bible. There is some truth to this argument, since Jesus’ testimony does provide indirect evidence confirming the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Old Testament. However, it must also be recognized that this argument may be applied in both directions. Successful demonstrations of the falsehood of inerrancy, the unreliability of the Old Testament, and the falsehood of the broad contours of Jewish history reported in the Hebrew Bible would be indirect disconfirming evidences of the resurrection (by way of reducing the prior probability — that is, the probability that Jesus rose given only the background information), though their evidential value in disconfirming the resurrection would vary.

An important nuance here that is often overlooked is that it is not necessary for the Old Testament text to even be reliable in order for the general storyline, or even particular details, to be correct (though I myself would maintain that the Hebrew Bible is a substantially trustworthy set of documents and therefore the following discussion should be taken to be purely hypothetical). If the books that comprise the Hebrew Bible were successfully demonstrated to be historically unreliable, it would remove the direct evidence for the events in question, while leaving the indirect evidence (i.e. the testimony of Jesus combined with the case for His deity) intact. Unreliable documents are like “noise”, meaning that their propositional statements do not in themselves provide evidence for what they assert. It does not, however, follow from this that most, all, or even the most prominent statements contained in those documents are false. Thus, even if there were positive evidence that revealed the Old Testament to be unreliable, this would not necessarily be positive reason to conclude that, say, David did not exist or that the Exodus did not happen. A historical novel may be an unreliable source of information for an historian to draw from, but a demonstration to that effect would not entail that various propositions in the novel could not be inferred to be true on other grounds. Thus, even if the historical sources contained within the Old Testament proved to be unreliable, one could still rationally conclude, at the very least, that the key propositions of the Old Testament are true on the basis of indirect evidence, namely, the testimony of Jesus. Therefore, I am of the view that in order to reduce the prior probability of the resurrection sufficiently to overcome the positive cumulative case for it, one would need to do more than simply show the unreliability of the Old Testament — one would also need to mount a strong positive case that the important propositions (such as the historicity of Adam; God’s appearing to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Exodus; the existence of King David and God’s promises to Him, and so forth) are false. The burden of proof associated with negating those propositions would be a challenge to meet.

For the record, I believe a compelling case can be made for the substantial reliability of the Old Testament and above discussion is to be taken purely hypothetical!!!!!!!!!!!!!. For anyone interested in this case, here is a list of books and resources that I would recommend:

  • Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).
  • Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 92–93.
  • Clive Anderson and Brian Edwards, Evidence for the Bible (Leominster: Day One, 2014).
  • Daniel I. Block, ed., Israel — Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention? (North Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2008).
  • James K. Hoffmeier, Alan R. Millard, & Gary A. Rendsburg, ed. “Did I Not Bring Israel Out of Egypt?” Biblical, Archaeological, and Egyptological Perspectives on the Exodus Narratives, Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 13 (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2016).
  • Gleason Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994).
  • Titus Kennedy, “Is the Exodus History? A Conversation with Dr. Titus Kennedy?”, interview by Jonathan McLatchie, Apologetics Academy, May 21, 2020, video, https://youtu.be/czUyRQ6rUXw 
  • Stephen C. Meyer, “Is the Bible Reliable? Building the Historical Case,” TrueU Season 2, Focus on the Family, 2011, video series, https://www.amazon.com/How-Archaeology-Backs-New-Testament/dp/B00XWWV3O0/
There are plenty of other good resources of course, but this should be more than enough to get started on your investigation.
 

A Proposed Model of Biblical Inspiration

If inerrancy is false, then how might that affect the doctrine of inspiration? Clearly, the Biblical concept of inspiration is not like the Muslim concept, which really does entail inerrancy in the strong sense. The traditional view among Sunni Muslims is that the Qur’an has been inscribed in tablets in Paradise for all of eternity (Surah 85:22). All Muslims view the Qur’an as having been dictated by the angel Gabriel to the supposed prophet Muhammad over a twenty-three year period from December of 609 to 632 A.D., when Muhammad died. On the Islamic view, the Qur’an truly represents the direct speech of Allah. We can call this view of inspiration “dictation theory.” Christians historically have not held to a dictation theory of inspiration, and for very good reason, since this view is fraught with very severe problems, as discussed earlier.

If dictation theory is ruled out, then what understanding of inspiration should be preferred? Unfortunately, Scripture is not at all clear on what exactly it means for Scripture to be, as Paul put it, θεόπνευστος (“god breathed”) (2 Tim 3:16). My theory of inspiration, to which I cannot conceive of a plausible alternative after dictation theory is off the table, is that God appointed certain individuals — apostles and prophets — to whom he imparted special revelatory insights. He then entrusted those individuals to write down what God had made known to them in their own voice. That means that in principle the same concepts could have been expressed in completely different words and it would still carry the authority of being God’s Word. Thus, on my view, it is not the words of Scripture that are inspired but rather the meaning of Scripture. Of course, there are exceptions where the Scriptures were dictated by God (notably, the ten commandments and the “Thus sayeth the Lord” passages). Because of the nature of those passages, I would contend that those truly are inerrant in the strong sense.

One objection to the view I am here proposing that I have encountered is that it implies that the locus of inspiration is the authors rather than the Scriptures themselves, whereas 2 Timothy 3:16-17 states that it is Scripture that is “god breathed.” However, this objection seems to me to be splitting hairs. Obviously, whatever view of inspiration one takes, it is the authors who are the subject of inspiration (since the Biblical text was written by men and the text reflects the distinctive personalities and styles of their human authors). If one moves away from a dictation theory of inspiration, as compelled by many factors, then it seems to me that a scenario that is at least similar to the view I have proposed is the only viable alternative.

The Case for Harmonization

Although I am not committed to inerrancy as a matter of principle, I am an avid advocate of the practice of harmonization. Sources that have been demonstrated to be substantially reliable constitute evidence for their propositional claims. This is true whether dealing with a religiously significant text or otherwise. Therefore, if one identifies an apparent discrepancy between reliable sources (such as the gospels), the rational course of action is to search for a plausible way in which those texts may be harmonized. Though this practice is typically disavowed in Biblical scholarship, I think the scholarly bias against harmonization is quite unreasonable. I view harmonization as good, responsible scholarly practice, whether one is dealing with religiously significant sources or secular ones. Different sources that intersect in their reportage of a particular event should be allowed to illuminate and clarify one another. I also think that sources that have been otherwise demonstrated to be highly reliable should be given the benefit of the doubt when there is an apparent discrepancy. In my view, in such cases, reasonable harmonizations should be sought for as a first port of call and the author being in error should be concluded only if possible harmonizations are implausible. Lydia McGrew puts this point well [6]:

Harmonization is not an esoteric or religious exercise. Christians studying the Bible should not allow themselves to be bullied by the implication that they are engaging in harmonization only because of their theological commitments and hence are fudging the data for non-scholarly reasons. To the contrary, reliable historical sources can be expected to be harmonizable, and they normally are harmonizable when all the facts are known. Attempting to see how they fit together is an extremely fruitful method to pursue, sometimes even giving rise to connections such as the undesigned coincidences discussed in Hidden in Plain View. This is why I pursue ordinary harmonization between historical sources and why I often conclude that a harmonization is correct.

 

Readers who are interested in the case for the robust reliability of the gospel accounts are invited to read other articles I have published concerning this topic, or listen to this interview.

An important consideration in regards to the assessment of harmonizations, often overlooked, is that the evidential weight of a proposed error or contradiction in Scripture relates not so much to the probability of any one proposed harmonization but rather to the disjunction of the probabilities associated with each individual candidate harmonization. To take a simplistic example, if one has four harmonizations that each have a 10% probability of being correct, then the evidential weight of the problem is significantly less than if you only had one of those, since the disjunction of the relevant probabilities would be 40%. Thus, the text would be only slightly more likely erroneous than not (and inductive arguments for substantial trustworthiness may tip the scales in favor of giving the author the benefit of the doubt). In reality, of course, the math is rather more complicated than this, since one has to consider whether any of the harmonizations are overlapping or would imply one another in such a way that the probabilities cannot be added to each other. Of course, if some of the disjuncts have a very low probability of being correct, then they will not be of much help.

Strong Candidates for Errors in Scripture

In this section, I want to discuss a handful of examples of historical propositions contained in Scripture that I take to be strong candidates for being actual errors in the original autographs. I am sometimes discouraged by other Christians from publicly discussing evidences that tend to disconfirm Christianity, even though I maintain that those evidences are sufficiently counter-balanced by stronger and more numerous confirming evidences. The reasoning of such dissuaders is that by drawing attention to the more problematic aspects of the evidence I run the risk of causing people, perhaps young believers, to doubt the truth of Christianity. I very well understand and appreciate this concern. I have a particular heart for Christians wrestling with intellectual doubts and have for several years run an online counselling service for Christians struggling with rational doubts. However, I believe that intellectual integrity compels me to make people aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the Christian interpretation of the relevant evidences, express how I interpret the data and allow people to arrive at their own conclusions. It is not the call of the apologist to assume the role of a defense attorney, being committed to defending the veracity of his or her position come what may. Rather, the apologist should assume the role of an investigative journalist, reporting for popular consumption the results of a fair and balanced inquiry. If we are not willing to talk publicly about the intellectual vulnerabilities of the Christian position, then what makes us any different from the likes of the Muslim cleric Yasir Qadhi, who recently said in an interview with Mohammed Hijab that the evidence that challenges the standard narrative of Qur’anic preservation should not be discussed in public? This attitude is of course not limited to religious apologetics, as recent censorship during the recent U.S. election by the news and social media of information that could disincline people from voting for Biden and Harris has made apparent. In 2010, two atheists, philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini published a book that raised various issues that they perceived to be unanswered problems relating to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. [7] In the preface, they note,

We’ve been told by more than one of our colleagues that, even if Darwin was substantially wrong to claim that natural selection is the mechanism of evolution, nonetheless we shouldn’t say so. Not, anyhow, in public. To do that is, however inadvertently, to align oneself with the Forces of Darkness, whose goal it is to bring Science into disrepute. Well, we don’t agree. We think the way to discomfort the Forces of Darkness is to follow the arguments wherever they may lead, spreading such light as one can in the course of doing so. What makes the Forces of Darkness dark is that they aren’t willing to do that. What makes Science scientific is that it is.

 

I quite agree with the spirit of those comments. Indeed, as with evolution, if Christianity is true (which I am persuaded it is) then we should not have anything to fear from people being exposed to all of the information they need to make up their own minds. Of course, this is no justification for recklessness. One should take care to do one’s due diligence in conducting a proper analysis of the relevant evidence before going on record concerning evidence that is problematic, just as one should do before going on record concerning evidence that confirms the truth of Christianity.

In what follows, I shall provide a small handful of cases where I think a reasonable case can be made that the gospel accounts err, though I would maintain that all of those examples are plausibly explicable as the result of a mistake made in good faith, rather than a deliberate distortion of fact. For the examples that follow I am persuaded that the best explanation is a variation in eyewitness memory. Though I have selected examples for which I do not believe any of the traditional harmonizations work (or are at least significantly less plausible than the hypothesis of error), I remain open to being persuaded to the contrary.

Our first example is Matthew’s location of the cursing of the fig tree and its entanglement with the day of the Temple cleansing. Mark 11:12 implies that the temple cleansing happened after the cursing of the fig tree, whereas Matthew 21:18 implies that the cursing of the fig tree occurred the day following the temple cleansing. While the ancients sometimes narrated events a-chronologically (i.e. without chronological precision), there is no reason to believe that the ancients considered it an acceptable practice to narrate historical events dyschronologically (that is, including temporal markers that misrepresent or mislead concerning the chronology of events).

Our second example is the issue of the centurion coming to Jesus in Matthew 8 vs. him sending to Jesus elders of the Jews in Luke 7. Traditional harmonizers often try to draw a parallel between this and passages such as Matthew 27:26/Mark 15:15/John 19:1 where we are told that Pilate scourged Jesus (whereas in fact we know that it wasn’t Pilate himself who did the scourging but rather the soldiers under his command). [8] However, in the latter case we know that nobody would have thought that Pilate personally scourged Jesus, whereas this is quite different from what we have in the case of the centurion. In Matthew there are pretty clear indications (to my mind) that Matthew thought the centurion came in person. Lydia McGrew notes several problems with the traditional harmonization of these texts: “Matthew’s narrative is quite unified in its appearance that the centurion is personally present. The final statement that Jesus said, ‘Go, it shall be done for you as you have believed’ to the centurion, where the command is in the singular, is particularly hard to square with the Augustinian solution. If the centurion were back at his house sending messengers to Jesus, he would not need to go anywhere. And if Jesus were speaking to the messengers, he would not have used the singular.” [9] McGrew concludes, and I am inclined to agree, that the simplest explanation of this discrepancy is “a simple memory variation between witnesses.” [10]

A third instance is the apparent conflict between John 12:1 and Mark 14:3 in that John places the anointing at Bethany six days before Passover, whereas Mark appears to place it two days before Passover. John implies that it took place shortly after Jesus’ arrival in Bethany (before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem), while Mark implies that it took place after the triumphal entry. Craig Blomberg proposes that Mark is deliberately narrating events a-chronologically for thematic reasons since Jesus says that the anointing is for his burial (Mk 14:8; Jn 12:7). He notes that “Mark 14:3…is linked with verse 2 merely by a kai (and) and goes on to describe an incident that takes place at some unspecified time while Jesus ‘was in Bethany’. Once we observe that both Mark and John have Jesus interpreting the anointing as preparation for his burial, one can understand why Mark would insert the story immediately preceding a description of other foreshadowings of his death, including his last meal with the Twelve.” [11] Another idea, which also involves appealing to a-chronological narration, has been proposed by the late Steve Hays, namely, that Mark may have composed 14:1-2 and subsequently broken off his writing before returning to write concerning the anointing at Bethany as another episode that occurred during the Passion week (though not intending to connect it to verses 1-2 which state that the Passover was two days away). [12] However, on the hypothesis of a-chronological narration, one might have expected Mark to supply more information concerning what happened on Wednesday, prior to the discussion of the anointing at Bethany. Instead, there is almost no narrative in Mark between that careful chronological marker and the anointing at Bethany. All Mark tells us concerning that day is that “the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people,'” (Mk 14:1-2), but Mark has already indicated in 12:12 that “they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” Lydia McGrew comments [13], 

Since Mark introduces the day in 14.1, he presumably intends to narrate some substantial events that happened on that day. Why would he make such an explicit time reference in 14.1, narrate only the decision of the Jewish leaders on that day, break off abruptly to tell about something that happened several days earlier, and then return in verse 10 to the narrative of events on Wednesday? This would be an extremely choppy composition process indeed, almost as if he did not even read what he had last written when he began narrating the dinner at Bethany. And even if that were the case, why would he not have some better time indicator when returning to Wednesday in verse 10? Mark has been indicating the days in his narrative of Passion Week from Sunday to Wednesday fairly clearly (Mark 11.11-12, 19-20, 13.1-3, 14.1). It would be surprising if he suddenly began narrating achronologically in 14.3, even as an artifact of breaking off and resuming writing. It is far simpler to take it that Mark intends all of the events at the beginning of Chapter 14 to occur on Wednesday.

 

One final example I will discuss here is what I consider to be the only real discrepancy between the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke (I shall perhaps discuss other alleged discrepancies between these accounts, which I find to be unconvincing, in a future article). Luke apparently is unaware of the flight to Egypt reported in Matthew 2:13-15. This would not be a problem per se, since omission is not the same thing as denial, and Matthew and Luke are evidently drawing on different (though complementary) sources. However, Luke 2:22-38 concerns Jesus’ dedication at the temple and the purification ceremony. When a woman bore a son, she was considered ceremonially unclean for forty days (Lev 12:2-5). After this period, she was to offer a yearling lamb and a dove or pigeon (Lev 12:6), though if she was poor she could offer two doves or pigeons (Lev 12:8). Mary’s offering therefore indicates that she and Joseph were poor (Lk 2:24). Luke 2:39 indicates that “when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” The text strongly implies that it was very shortly after the purification that they returned home, whereas Matthew strongly indicates that Jesus’ family remained in Bethlehem for some considerable time after Jesus’ birth and only returned to Nazareth following the flight to Egypt. One might explain this apparent discrepancy? Personally, I think that the explanation that makes the most sense is that Luke’s sources (which may have been written, oral, or a combination of the two) did not contain an account of the coming of the magi, the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem, or the flight to Egypt. I think plausibly Luke’s principle source for his nativity account was Mary. It is a reasonable conjecture that Mary may have told Luke the story of Simeon and Anna in the temple (Lk 2:25-38) before transitioning to the next account by saying something like “And later, when we were living in Nazareth we used to come every year to Jerusalem to the Passover feast.” Perhaps Luke made the natural assumption that they had returned to Nazareth immediately following the presentation at the temple, and thus wrote a transition connecting the two accounts.

The Problem of Dwindling Probabilities

An important point that is often overlooked when discussing gospel discrepancies and candidates for error is the problem of dwindling probabilities. This problem relates to the fact that we never possess absolute certainty that a given text is not in error, but it is always a probabilistic assessment that is based on considerations such as the general trustworthiness of the relevant text, problematic aspects of the text (such as an apparent discrepancy with other sources), direct evidence bearing on the relevant claim, and so forth. This means that if we have a set of texts that all have a reasonable probability of being in error then the probability of all of the texts not containing an error diminishes with successive examples. Suppose, for instance, that we have a set of four apparent discrepancies between the gospel accounts (as I have listed above). Let us suppose hypothetically that each of those texts, considered individually (taking account of the proposed harmonizations and considerations like the general trustworthiness of the texts) is, on average, 30% likely to in fact be in error. In that case the probability of one of those actually being in error would be calculable by 1-0.74, which would be approximately 0.76. Thus, a demonstration that an individual text is, all things considered, more likely than not to be harmonizable, does not imply that there is not a high probability that at least some of those texts in fact are in error.

The Evidential Weight of Apparent and Actual Discrepancies

I have written before concerning the phenomenon of reconcilable variations, so-named by the nineteenth century Anglican scholar Thomas Rawson Birks. [14] A reconcilable variation refers to when there exist two accounts of the same event, or at least two accounts that appear to cross over the same territory at some point, and at first blush they seem so divergent that it is almost awkward; but then, on further thought, they turn out to be reconcilable in some natural fashion after all. When two accounts appear at first so divergent that one is not sure they can be reconciled, that is significant evidence for their independence. When they turn out, upon closer inspection or upon learning more information, to be reconcilable without forcing after all, one has almost certainly independent accounts that dovetail. Actual discrepancies between accounts, such as those I have discussed above, also tend to support the independence of the accounts. One might therefore say that actual discrepancies between the gospel accounts have multiple epistemic vectors — being negatively epistemically relevant to the reliability of the accounts while also supporting the independence of the narratives more broadly (and independent accounts that overlap concerning an event constitute evidence of its truth).
 

On occasion I have been asked whether, in a similar way to the cumulative case I would build for the substantial reliability of the gospels and Acts (from undesigned coincidences among other lines of evidence), one could build a cumulative case for their unreliability from contradictions between the gospel accounts. However, quite apart from the fact that the positive evidences are far more numerous than the sorts of discrepancies I have documented above, I would argue that there exists an epistemic asymmetry between this positive and the negative evidence — that is to say, the positive evidences that I and others have adduced (such as undesigned coincidences) carry a greater evidential force than the apparent discrepancies that exist between the gospel accounts. To see whether (and to what extent) X counts as evidence for H, one must know how our expectation of X when H is true compares to our expectation of X when H is false. Once we calibrate our expectations like that, the appearance of a parallel in the two arguments evaporates. 

Tim McGrew and Lydia McGrew note various instances where ancient sources, widely considered to be generally trustworthy, involve various minor discrepancies [15]:

Even a passing acquaintance with the documents that form the basis of secular history reveals that the reports of reliable historians, even of eyewitnesses, always displays selection and emphasis and not infrequently contradict each other outright. Yet this fact does not destroy or even significantly undermine their credibility regarding the main events they report. Almost no two authors agree regarding how many troops Xerxes marshaled for his invasion of Greece; but the invasion and its disastrous outcome are not in doubt. Florus’s account of the number of troops at the battle of Pharsalia differs from Caesar’s own account by 150,000 men; but no one doubts that there was such a battle, or that Caesar won it. According to Josephus, the embassy of the Jews to the Emperor Claudius took place in seed time, while Philo places it in harvest time; but that there was such an embassy is uncontroversial. Examples of this kind can be multiplied almost endlessly.

 

Since the hypothesis that a set of historical documents is substantially reliable predicts that there will be minor variations between the accounts (as seen when we look at other documents which are generally regarded to be substantially reliable), then the observation that there do indeed exist minor variations between the said accounts cannot be used as significant evidence against the reliability of these accounts. The eminent legal scholar Thomas Starkie articulates this point well [16]:

It is here to be observed, that partial variances in the testimony of different witnesses, on minute and collateral points, although they frequently afford the adverse advocate a topic for copious observation, are of little importance, unless they be of too prominent and striking a nature to be ascribed to mere inadvertence, inattention, or defect of memory. It has been well remarked by a great observer that ‘the usual character of human testimony is substantial truth under circumstantial variety.’ It so rarely happens that witnesses of the same transaction perfectly and entirely agree in all points connected with it, that an entire and complete coincidence in every particular, so far from strengthening their credit, not unfrequently engenders a suspicion of practice and concert. The real question must always be, whether the points of variance and of discrepancy be of so strong and decisive a nature as to render it impossible, or at least difficult, to attribute them to the ordinary sources of such varieties, inattention or want of memory.

 

The same principle may be applied to the gospel accounts. Even if it is the case that the gospels contain some minor discrepancies concerning peripheral details, it does not follow from this that the accounts are generally unreliable, since we know of many reliable accounts that contain discrepancies.

Conclusion

I have sometimes been asked whether I affirm the doctrine of inerrancy, and I am afraid that my answer requires more nuance than simply a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Both of those answers invite certain assumptions about my views that need to be untangled and clarified. If one answers ‘yes’, the questioner may assume that one’s scholarly approach to the Bible does not allow for one to conclude, on the basis of evidence, the existence of errors in Scripture. It is not difficult to see how that approach would go against the spirit of a robust evidentialist epistemology. On the other hand, if one answers ‘no’, then the questioner may assume that one has a liberal approach to the Bible and considers it to be unreliable, or that one buys into a stream of thought, popular in contemporary scholarship, that decries the project of harmonization when there are apparent discrepancies in Scripture. Neither of those extremes is true of me, and in this article I flesh out the nuances of an approach to the Bible that retains a high view of Scripture while not holding to inerrancy as traditionally understood. Though I would not technically qualify as an inerrantist by the standards of the Chicago Statement, my view is much closer to that of most inerrantists than it is to most non-inerrantists. That is to say, I have a high view of Scripture and affirm that Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, are highly trustworthy.

Footnotes

[1] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume One: Introduction, Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), 264–265.

[2] For a discussion of how anomalous data is assessed in science, see Clark A. Chinn and William F. Brewer, “The Role of Anomalous Data in Knowledge Acquisition: A Theoretical Framework and Implications for Science Instruction,” Review of Educational Research 63, no. 1 (Spring, 1993), 1-49, and William F. Brewer and Clark A. Chinn, “Scientists’ Responses to Anomalous Data: Evidence from Psychology, History, and Philosophy of Science” Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Volume One: Contributed Papers (1994), 304-313.

[3] Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 154.

[4] Michael Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[5] Lydia McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices (Tampa, FL: Deward Publishing Company, Ltd, 2019).

[6] Ibid., 53-54.

[7] Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong (London: Profile Books, 2011), kindle.

[8] Matthew Wilkins, “Matthew,” in The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible — The Gospels and Acts, ed. Jeremy Royal Howard (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2013), 99.

[9] Lydia McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices (Tampa, FL: Deward Publishing Company, Ltd, 2019), 379-380.

[10] Ibid., 380.

[11] Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (England: Apollos, 2001), 175.

[12] Steve Hays, “Projecting Contradictions, Triablogue, January 11, 2018, http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2018/01/projecting-contradictions.html

[13] Lydia McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices (Tampa, FL: Deward Publishing Company, Ltd, 2019), 391.

[14] Thomas Rawson Birks, Horae Evangelicae, or The Internal Evidence of the Gospel History (London: Seeleys, 1852). See also Lydia McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices (Tampa, FL: Deward Publishing Company, Ltd, 2019), 316–321.

[15] Tim McGrew and Lydia McGrew, “The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth”, in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, 1st Edition, ed. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), kindle.

[16] Thomas Starkie, A Practical Treatise of the Law of Evidence, and Digest of Proofs, in Civil and Criminal Proceedings, Volume 1 (J & W.T. Clarke, 1833), 488-489.

3 thoughts on “Is the Bible Without Error? Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Christian Epistemology”

  1. Pingback: A Reply to Bart Ehrman’s Defense of Jesus, Interrupted on the MythVision Podcast – Answering Islam Blog

  2. Disappointed that you would be associated with SES and not hold to a strong form of inerrancy. Belief in errors in the Bible is disappointing considering you are associated with SES.

    1. I am just trying to be honest with the data. Is it your view that a single demonstrable error, no matter how trivial, in Scripture would be sufficient to falsify Christianity?

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