What do we do if we think the Bible is wrong?


I first wrote this post some time ago, in 2014, but the graphic that provoked it is doing the rounds again—and I have thought further about my own response. So I am posting again a revised and expanded version of what I wrote then.

There’s a quotation that did the rounds earlier in the year from a Peter LaRuffa, who is one of the staff at Grace Fellowship Church which is in northern Kentucky:

If, somewhere within the Bible, I were to find a passage that said 2+2=5, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and understand it.

His comments came in the context of an HBO documentary Questioning Darwin which interviewed ‘seven-day creationists’ and was broadcast last February. There is no doubt that, amongst Peter’s theological peers, his comment would get a round of applause, since it expresses an unwavering commitment to the authority of Scripture as the sole arbiter of truth.

The striking thing, though, is that the saying (attached to a dopy screenshot picture of Peter—he really does not look that dopy on the website!) was circulated by humanist atheists to illustrate how manifestly stupid Christians are. How could anyone with a brain say such a thing? If the Bible is wrong (and it often is) then surely the most honest thing to do is admit it—especially on the subject of creation versus evolution? The comment has also received short shrift from a good number of Christian commentators, particularly those from a ‘progressive’ perspective, as it illustrates the problem with a view of the ‘unfalsifiable inerrancy’ of the Bible. James McGrath comments on his blog:

It is less obvious for some people to see the problem when fundamentalist Christians dismiss evidence from history or science that contradicts the Bible. But it is much clearer when it is math that is at issue. Assuming we agree on a particular number system, then we can say what the correct answer is to a mathematical equation.

If the Bible is wrong about the answer, then it is wrong – there is simply no way around it…

No Christian should think that this horrific way of thinking about the Bible, math, science, history, and rationality is anything but a discrace, one that brings shame on Christianity by being associated with it.

It is rather unfortunate that LaRuffa chose this particular mathematical example, since it is one used by George Orwell in 1984 to illustrate the  suppressing of thinking and dissent that happens in totalitarian regimes.

Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, uses the phrase to wonder if the State might declare “two plus two equals five” as a fact; he ponders whether, if everybody believes it, does that make it true? The Inner Party interrogator of thought-criminals, O’Brien, says of the mathematically false statement that control over physical reality is unimportant; so long as one controls their own perceptions to what the Party wills, then any corporeal act is possible, in accordance with the principles of doublethink (“Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once”).

In effect, it makes Creationism look very much like a totalitarian system, controlled by a powerful social conformism to the consensus within that group.

But it is worth staying with this a little longer. Is it the case that ‘If the Bible is wrong about the answer, then it is wrong – there is simply no way around it’? Let’s do a thought experiment where do we come across this (apparently false) mathematical statement. Would we simply dismiss it as being evidently wrong? There are in fact a number of other possibilities:

  • It could be an approximation. 2.4 + 2.4 = 4.8, which when rounded to whole numbers make 2 + 2 = 5. This is exactly what is going on in the measurements for Solomon’s temple, where (for example) the bronze ‘sea’ in front of the temple is ‘ten cubits from rim to rim and…took a line of thirty cubits to measure round it’ (1 Kings 7.23). That makes the value of pi equal 30/10 = 3.0 instead of 3.14159. So it is ‘clearly wrong’. Or is it giving the internal diameter of the bowl, and the external circumference? Or is it just an approximation?
  • Secondly, it could form a part of poetry. When the Beatles sang ‘Eight days a week/I lo-ooo-ove you’ no-one complained that they had their diaries wrong.
  • Or it could be a joke. Or in fact it could be any number of things—because we use language, including apparently mathematical language, in all sorts of ways, not just the mathematical.

In other words, if the Bible says something that looks ‘wrong’, we would be unwise to immediately say ‘it is wrong – there is simply no way around it’ too quickly without some careful thought. This is the mistake that is writ large in Liberal Protestantism. Rudolph Bultmann’s programme to ‘demythologise‘ the New Testament sprung from his conviction that ‘You cannot believe in a world of demons and angels and at the same time believe in electricity.’ Bultmann only needed to meet some of my parishioners (or even read a newspaper) to see how mistaken that view is.

This small example is touching on a much bigger question: how do we know the Bible is true? In what sense is that the case? In the end, I don’t agree with LaRuffa’s position. Perhaps he is trying to put his view of the Bible beyond any reasonable questioning, as James McGrath suggests. But perhaps he is doing something even worse—setting up another set of criteria by which the Bible’s truth is to be judged. This is the problem with all ‘apologetic’ approaches to the question of whether the Bible is true and trustworthy: we set up criteria that it must satisfy, then demonstrate that it satisfies these criteria. In doing so, we have assumed that our own criteria are themselves the measure of truth, and in doing so we displace the Bible’s very authority. This, broadly speaking, is the argument of Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrativethe effect of modernism was to set up an alternative set of criteria for truth, which the Bible must now satisfy. For conservatives, it must and does pass the test; for progressives and liberals, it clearly fails. And the answer to this test is both shaped by and shapes our assumptions regarding what the Bible is and how it functions.

Frei’s solution is to remove the Bible from such criteria, and call for the Bible to be accepted in its own terms. But I think this simply replaces one set of problems with another one, and make the truth of the Bible just as untestable as Peter LaRuffa does. Instead, we need to recognise (using Anthony Thiselton’s terms) that in reading a text from another culture and another time, we are seeking to find a ‘meeting of horizons’, the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader.

maxresdefaultResponding to the ‘errors’ in the Bible is currently at the centre of the battle for the soul of evangelicalism. ‘Progressives’ reject the kind of inerrancy expressed above because they can see the contradictions in the Bible, and on the basis of it make a plea to recognise that the Bible is not the kind of book it is often assumed to be—an ‘instruction manual for life’ or a list of propositional doctrines (which, unfortunately, is wrapped up in a lot of awkward narrative from which we need to retrieve it). Peter Enns is a good example of this position, first because he lost his job at Westminster Theological Seminary as a result of this issue, second because he is in conversation with Brian McLaren and cited approvingly by Rachel Held Evans, two notable ‘progressives’, and third because he has wrestled with these questions as an Old Testament scholar.

Peter has run a series of blog posts where a number of scholars write about their ‘aha’ moment, when they realised that the old paradigm of proposition/inerrancy would not work for the Bible, and how they came to see things differently. In response, Michael Kruger has invited some conservative scholars to respond to each of these. One in particular caught my attention: John Byron’s discussion of Mark 2.25–26.

He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

Byron points out what is commonly noticed: that in 1 Samuel 21, David claims he is alone when asking for the bread, and Jesus seems to think his men are with him; and Jesus names the wrong high priest, Abiathar, when in fact it was Ahimelek. Byron is clear that these errors imply something significant:

The problem, however, as I pointed out to my teacher, is that Jesus got it wrong…Over time numerous passages forced me to conclude eventually that the Bible wasn’t a history book, meaning the authors were not trying to give me a blow-by-blow account from creation to the end of the first century.

Instead I came to realize that the Bible was first and foremost a theological book that contains history and uses history to direct me towards God.

In response, Craig Blomberg points out that Byron is mistaken about the mistakes. Yes, David claims he is alone—but he is clearly lying. And the phrase Jesus uses does not mean ‘in the days of’, but ‘In the section which mentions’ (the Greek word is epi). It is the same phrase Jesus uses in Mark 12.26 when he refers to the ‘passage about the burning bush.’ He concludes:

I can understand why some scholars may not be convinced by this solution.  But I am consistently amazed at how few ever even acknowledge knowing about it, much less interacting with it.  I have cited it in several of my books as have other leading evangelical  commentators, who have found it completely satisfactory.  It’s unfortunate that Ehrman, Byron and Enns never once disclose if they are familiar with it and, if they are, what objections (if any) they have to it.  Until they do, it really is inappropriate for them to claim with such confidence that they know Jesus or Mark got it wrong!

I know both John and Craig, and respect them both. I also share Peter Enns’ frustration when people treat the Bible like a car maintenance manual. But on this issue, I am with Craig; I think John has concluded too quickly that the text is wrong, and the Bible unreliable here.

John pointed out, in the original posting of the discussion, that he offered a further response to Craig’s position in a blog post here, and further explanation in a comment. He includes this important observation:

But let’s take a moment and address the “real” issue everyone seems to find with my “aha” moment. It’s that I suggested that Jesus got the name of the priest wrong. Those who take issue with my statement seem to imply that I am suggesting that Jesus was therefore a fallible human being. Perhaps they equate making a mistake with sin. I am not sure, but I suspect that is the case.

It’s these kinds of assumptions that I think go right the heart of our understanding Jesus’ humanity. What does it mean to say that Jesus, was human? That he was God incarnate in human flesh? Does this mean that Jesus never got confused and called one of the disciples by a different name? Or that he forgot where he laid something? Did Jesus ever get so tired from travelling and teaching that miscommunicated something? Did he ever make a mistake when measuring a stone or a board? Did he ever hit his thumb with a hammer?

I am not sure, but I suspect that for some the idea of Jesus making a mistake like those named above equates him with sinful humanity. Again, I am not sure, but I think that is what they are thinking. I do not, however, understand Jesus to be someone who, as a human, was incapable of making mistakes. Making a mistake doesn’t make him sinful, it makes him human.

This leads me to my further reflection on this question—and three observations in particular.

First, the reason why I am inclined to agree with Craig here rather than John is that I notice how often those who say ‘The Bible is obviously wrong’ have not taken the time or the patience to explore the issues. (That is not the case here, as you can see from John’s response—but in my experience it very often is in other conversations.) A classic example of this is the so-called ‘hardest case’ of the death of Judas, where both popular and scholarly readings claim the accounts in Matt 27.5 and Acts 1.18 are clearly contradictory and irreconcilable. I explored this briefly, and showed how they were actually perfectly compatible accounts, and James Bejon has offered a more detailed exploration of what is going on in the different gospels and their theological concerns.

Some would respond to James’ exploration and conclude that he is going to an awful lot of trouble to avoid the obvious contradiction. But this is about reading Scripture in its own theological and cultural terms; all too often the so-called ‘plain reading’ of a text is reading it plainly on our terms, rather than taking it seriously on its own terms.

This seems to be even more important eight years on from the original post; it feels to me that things have changed considerably even in that time. I think this is because of the continued decline in biblical literacy, the rise in importance of social media, which makes patience engagement and exploration more difficult, and the often shallow debate about sexuality in my context. All too often people say ‘The Bible obviously supports slavery…Jesus obviously prohibits divorce…The Bible clearly knows nothing of faithful same-sex relationships…’ when none of those things is obvious at all to the patient reader.

That leads to my second observation: this whole debate is a hermeneutical one, that is, about our approach to biblical interpretation. And the key to all this is to note the need for a ‘hermeneutical circle’ or, more accurately, a ‘hermeneutical spiral’, in which we bring our interpretive assumptions and expectations to the text, and not only use these to interrogate the text, but allow the text to interrogate our assumptions. John Byron does hit this nail on the head in comment on his blog post when he notes:

The point of the series on Enns’ blog that I contributed to, this was a moment for me when I realized that not everything in the Bible lined up the way I wanted and/or wished it would. I live in the 21st century and expect that details like this will be accurate. Historiographers in the first century, however, didn’t have the same concerns that I do.

So the $64,000 question here is: what expectations did the writer and first readers have for this text? I am not convinced that accuracy of reference is merely a modern concern; I think many of Mark’s readers would have known the story of David well, and it would have caused problems if they thought that his citation was in error. The whole history of people thinking ‘The Bible is obviously wrong’ travels in only one direction: it is our ignorance that made us think this, and archaeological evidence offers surprising confirmation. (F F Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: are they reliable? is still worth reading in this regard.)

But the irony of Peter LaRuffa’s position is that it shares something with Rudolph Bultmann’s scepticism: neither will allow the Bible itself to challenge their assumptions.

My third observation flows from the first two: as a faithful reader of Scripture, I need to be open to revising my assumptions about what it means for Scripture to be consistent and reliable. And yet there could, in principle, come a point where I might say ‘No, actually I don’t think the Bible is reliable—and this matters.’ If so, then I think the logical thing to do is reconsider our whole approach to Scripture and whether God can indeed speak to us through it.

But my repeated experience, in testing the hardest cases, is that Scripture is in fact reliable and trustworthy. This is not foundationalist belief, free from any possibility of failure, but a warranted belief, which has been tested and confirmed by the evidence.

We need to take the humanity of the Bible seriously. But this implies not that it is fallible and mistaken, but that it is expressed in terms particular to the human context of the time—a context where it is fine to speak briefly, approximately and in shorthand terms which would have been understood then, but (at least on a superficial reading) do not make sense to us—unless we think hard, read carefully, and take advice from others who have done their homework.

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47 thoughts on “What do we do if we think the Bible is wrong?”

    • Whoop’s- sorry Ian – I’ve just realised that you linked to that.

      Still interested to know what you thought of his moving rock exposition though.

  1. Sorry to keep adding comments, but James Kugel in his book ‘The Great Shift -Encountering God in Biblical Times’ argues that ancient people had a “sense of self” that was fundamentally different from the one modern Westerners have—and that this enabled them to experience and interpret prophecy differently than we do.


    I think this probably true and may account for some of the apparent disparities in interpretation that we encounter in our contemporary settings.

  2. In the incident if the incorrectly identified High Priest, is there not another possibility – that Mark’s source, or Mark himself, offered the wrong name?

  3. This is a great article. Thank you Ian.

    I got something completely new out of it – I have never before thought of the idea that Jesus could have been capable of a making a mistake of memory – and I don’t have any concern about the possibility. It irritates me when I see the media make a joke about a politician who gets a name wrong – treating it as evidence of the person’s inability to do their job (please don’t misunderstand – there are of course other kinds of vagueness and inaccuracy of mind which very much makes someone incapable of doing their job!).

    There were I believe four separate areas of discussion (which all have some interrelationship) in this article:
    – the relationship of faith to the mind and to logic
    – the nature of biblical inerrancy
    – issues relating to interpretation – and the need for humility in interpretation
    – the relationship of Jesus’ humanity with his divinity.

    I only wish to comment on the first and second – I believe the first area is currently a source of major confusion – this causing the second area (biblical inerrancy – and how to respond to doubts) being affected by that confusion.

    There is little understanding I believe among first world Christians about the parts that make us up:
    mind – intellectual
    heart – emotional (although words translated heart in the bible don’t usually refer only to our emotions)
    will – volitional
    conscience – moral
    body – physical
    spirit – relational

    Particularly in the US (where there is a less established charismatic presence in the mainline church?) there is little recognition of our having a spirit – that being something which is distinct from our soul (as proven by both being mentioned in the one verse in Luke 1:46-57, Hebrews 4:12, and 1 Thess 5:23). My current definition for our spirit is “that which makes us alive to God” – and my definition for soul is “that which makes us alive”. The confusion between the two then helps to add to additional confusion between mind and spirit. To clarify that confusion now – one’s mind cannot be the supervisor of one’s faith. The mind is fallen. This means that if the way in which we know God is Mind to mind – and if the mind is to be renewed – it would have to involve introducing new ideas to replace old ones – it would mean that the mind would have to say to itself “you know – you ought to think this – not that”. If that’s the case we are doomed – because even the new thought is potentially fallen. The only way for the mind to be renewed is if the PRIMARY means by which we relate to God is not fallen – and is independent of our minds – while informing and when necessary contradicting our minds – this being its renewal. Such a way exists – we RELATE to God Spirit to spirit (and the reverse – see Luke 1 where Mary’s spirit rejoices in God her saviour). We find out that this means of relating to God is not fallen in Galatians 5 which says that the Spirit desires what is contrary to the flesh – and the flesh what is contrary to the Spirit. And combine that with Romans 8:16 which reveals that God is relating to our spirit. Romans 8:16 shows that way that God relates to us should not be thought of as his TEACHING us Spirit to spirit – the Spirit to spirit channel is not merely for communicating data – instead the Spirit TESTIFIES to us. Testifying is like when we share our testimony with someone – it is embodied truth – yes the truth becomes words – but we embody it. The Spirit is Jesus’ present – his presence, word, and power – not just his word. He leads us into all authoritative truth and also gives us wisdom in applying that authoritative truth to life situations.

    With that in mind – if asked by someone “why do you believe that the bible is the word of God?” what should an evangelical say? While there are rational arguments to believe (historical documents show that Jesus rose from the dead, proving him to be God, he believed every word of the Old Testament was the word of God, he promised to reveal his word through the disciples who selectively described particular early church letters as scripture) the authentic believer should not give as their primary reason for belief a logical reason. Instead they should say “I believe the bible is the word of God because God used the bible to reveal to me that I was of spiritually darkened understanding – I did not realise that I was a sinner without his help. This has led me to realise that in all spiritual matters I have no choice but to look first to God for understanding. So there is a very real sense that if the Bible had been a rock – and God had spoken from the rock – I would have no choice but to look from then on to the rock as part of looking to God for understanding”.

    With that in mind it becomes clear how we should view believers having intellectual doubts about the bible. The authentic believer’s reason for believing the bible is independent of their intellectual doubts – whatever one thinks about the bible’s inerrancy one has no choice but to recognise that one has been revealed to be a sinner – who is reliant upon God’s mercy. The intellectual doubts must therefore be engaged with SIMULTANEOUSLY with responding in repentance to God. The person whose faith collapses because they act as if they are seeking to ESTABLISH instead of preserve it by examining scripture to decide whether it is divine (a decision which could only be made if one was oneself divine – rendering faith unnecessary!) is speaking as one who never had authentic faith – or who – separate from their declared difficulties – has chosen to walk away from faith.

    Does this then mean that the authentic believer must say that 2 + 2 =5 if the bible appears to say that? No – it means that the bible would have to be considered so unreliable that it could no longer be considered reliable in explaining their Spirit to spirit experience – or the person must conclude that it still does but the person must reconsider their understanding of what inerrancy is in the light of what they encounter. On that issue – now briefly focusing specifically on inerrancy – there are reasons why believers cannot eliminate historical accuracy from their understanding of biblical inerrancy. It cannot be quickly dismissed because Paul makes clear that Christianity rests or falls on whether Jesus rose from the dead – this is a historical event. It follows then that the history of God’s relating with people must also be accurate for those dealings to create an accurate picture of who God is. It is however conceivable that some element of history could be wrong if it didn’t have any relationship at all to our knowing God rightly – however the problem then becomes that without our knowing God now as richly as we might in the future we have no way of knowing when the historical data might become relevant to relationship with God.

    Thanks again for this extremely concept rich article Ian.

    • The devil is absolutely committed to ensuring that word and Spirit not come together in any believer and therefore any church. As I look at the first world church this is my conclusion. If word and Spirit come together – if the church is neither Pharisaical (welcoming God’s word without welcoming his presence – John 5:39) nor liberal (welcoming God’s presence without welcoming his word) – these being the two ways to sin against God – Jesus is faithfully represented – and the devil is toast.

      Every believer whose godly ambition sees them engage on both fronts becomes “a person of interest” – they will feel the full force of spiritual opposition. In the absence of their being engaged in both areas the devil need only take a more ambivalent approach – why stand in opposition if people are doing a good job of failing to faithfully represent Jesus without his help?

  4. I’ve started to notice that for some evangelicals “inerrancy” is just a loyalty test. In some sense they don’t believe any of it – the bible is the book they must declare inerrant or they get shunned by their people.

    • and lose their jobs, at least in the US. Mike Licona is another scholar who lost his job because he dared to suggest the ‘raising of the saints’ episode in Matthew may not have been a literal, historical happening but rather Matthew was using apocalyptic language. Rather ironic that he was sacked as Licona is one of the strongest defenders of the physical resurrection of Jesus.


  5. Very informative. People like Ehrman dont seem to understand nuance or even literary techniques, but view themselves as competent to comment on the reliability of the NT, leading a significant number of people to believe wrong things about the Bible. They want everything to be black or white, and throw their rattles out of the pram when it doesnt appear so.

    Though Im still not sure about the talking donkey, then again in Shrek…


    • Don’t believe in talking donkeys!? And sometimes you even reply to my posts!

      I think much of what gets written in the comments proves God’s point.

      Eeeeh aww

  6. Hi Ian. There is also Jesus’ reference to the violent death of Zechariah son of Berechiah in Matthew 23, apparently confusing the prophet Zechariah with another martyred Zechariah centuries earlier… (I know some people have found explanations for this, but I don’t find them convincing.)

  7. Maybe Peter Enns will write a popular work of apologetics, “Who Moved The Rock?” 🙂
    I don’t think I’ve often had much of a problem with ancient Jewish exegetical methods popping up in the New Testament; what else should we expect? They loved the very words of the Scriptures and created an intertextual world of echoes.
    Another example may be Matthew 2.11, ” he shall be called a Nazarene”. Gerald Bray in his “God has spoken: a History of Christian Theology” discusses how midrashic methods interweaving elements from the birth narrative of Samson may be behind this text and the Matthean concept of “fulfilment”, which isn’t simple predictive prophesy.
    In any case I do not think Paul believed the rock literally *was Christ (inpetrification?). Maybe Origen had a better approach to unterpretation than has sometimes been appreciated.

  8. What do we do if we think the Bible is wrong?… Get on your knees and repent.

    Okay, I know dealing with these kind of doubts is more complicated than that but ultimately, like Job, people of faith will recognise their thoughts were foolish and allow God to be God and his Word to be his Word.

    In my youth inerrancy was the burning issue. People like Carson, Woodbridge, Nicole and others defended it vigorously in a series of written symposiums. In those days Clark Pinnock of Open Theology fame who was a leading antagonist. The word inerrancy was coined because the normal word ‘infallibility’, which for most implied inerrancy, was having the ‘inerrancy’ component disputed. Infallibility for a variety of reasons was no longer carrying the weight it once did and inerrancy was coined to express the accuracy and reliability of Scripture not only in faith and practice but in matters of science, history, geography etc. It was argued if Scripture could be wrong in these areas which were verifiable then it could also be wrong on these matters of faith and practice which were non-verifiable. Scripture’s inerrancy covered all aspects of Scripture.

    It is interesting that it is becoming a live issue once again though I would guess it has never been very far away. Allowing for issues of hermeneutics, translation, flawed historical constructs and the like I think we must insist on inerrancy.

    That being said, when Scripture comes into conflict with science (the secular inerrant text) or some other secular infallibility it is sometimes hard how to reconcile them.. Like Peter LaRuffa my first instinct is to believe the bible rather than science or any competing authority. It is the right instinct. The instinct of a believer. It may be that we can live with the conflict. However, it may be important to judge where the error lies. Is it my hermeneutic? If the hermeneutic seems solid then I’d want to examine the sure result of scientific inquiry; science’s history of fallibility is plain for all to see.

    I personally think the Bible teaches a literal seven day creation and a young earth. The biblical evidence points strongly in this direction. Yet I am aware that the fairly uniform view of science is that the earth is millions of years old. I hear this and suspend belief. Science may yet be proved wrong. I also remember that Gen 1 is so heavily stylised that it is possible some framework hypothesis is being employed; possible but not probable. I am in the position that I need not have a firm view and can leave this matter too the Lord, For those active in the sciences this is a more pressing question and one that may well challenge faith.

    The issue of the historicity of Adam more and more presses itself upon the believer. Without a literal Adam and Eve we have no unfallen world (only an evolving one), no fall with death as a consequence of sin. Of course we have no Cain and Abel, Seth, no Lamech, no Enoch, no Noah…

    I think the healthy position in many issues is to doubt scientific theories, doubt personal hermeneutics, doubt present knowledge before doubting Scripture, Only if we have made ourselves familiar wit Scripture, its claims and above all its divine author will our faith stand against secular onslaughts.

    Re 2 + 2=5, there is a huge difference between the precision of mathematics and the science of cosmogonies; some sciences are more equal than others. Many disciplines that carry the label ‘science’ have nothing like the accuracy of mathematics and their assured orthodoxies are not nearly as assured as they would have us believe.

    Thanks for a very helpful post on this Ian.

  9. “However, it may be important to judge where the error lies. Is it my hermeneutic?”

    I suspect that is where the error lies in most cases.

    • The error is with us. We spread out the Bible like a map then with binoculars survey the way ahead then try to identify the symbols with the shimmering ‘reality’ in the distance. We identify irregularities . However, if we made a start on our journey, using the map to make decisions along the way, much hypothetical speculation may never need to happen at all.
      Oh and you can get something for hermeneutics at your local chemist.

      • Oh, I’ve just read the link about a mobile drinks dispenser. Surely one knows when engaging people in talk that as soon as you find out where on the spectrum someone is you modify your use of language to suite. I get the terrible feeling that most academics are slightly autistic.
        Someone should do a religious version of The Big Bang Theory , with theologians.

    • You beat me to it Ian! Logical truth is only as good as the premises on which it is based. Scientific truth is empirical, but nevertheless has close links with mathematical formulation. Biblical truth, whilst having a close affinity with the empirical, is founded primarily upon revelation. In the words of 2 Timothy3: 16 it is *theopneustos* -expired, breathed out by God. And in the words of one biblical commentator: ” The power of the Scriptures is *directed to a particular end* to make you one wise for salvation.”

      • Expounding various reasons why 2+2 ≠ 4 is simply unconvincing to the neutral observer, sorry.

        LaRuffa’s statement became a meme because he simply and clearly expressed what atheists already believed about fundamentalist Christians – that they have no problem being completely divorced from what is glaringly factual.

  10. I think a problem here is just that counterfactuals are silly. The Bible is inerrant and does not contain the phrase “2+2=5”. If in an alternative world, the Bible did say “2+2=5” and the Bible was innerent, then there’d be an explanation for the 2+2=5. If in an alternative world, God did not give us an inerrant Bible allowing falsehoods like “2+2=5” in, then we shouldn’t think that there would be a good explaining. And if there were, then that would suggest our methods we use on the real Bible are eisegeses; explaining away the Bible.

    In our world with the Bible that we have, the ‘hermeneutical spiral’ (good phrase) works. To make up an alternative world and assume that inerrancy doesn’t. (And I think the idea that the Bible has to be inerrant belongs more to Islam than Christianity. The Bible is a gift that God has given to us and when we apply our reason to it, then we observe that it as inerrant and the technology of inerrancy allows us to get more and discover more out of it.)

    • 2+2=5 is a real thing in the Bible. It is followed by 3+3=5. I’ll explain : The sun did not set whilst the battle raged; this is a 2+2=5 moment. The shadow went forward on the steps of Ahaz. This is a 3+3=5 moment. The whole Bible is an equation but we don’t see the whole sum, we tend to notice only the parts that look wrong. Nothing will be left undone or suspended in limbo. In the end God will add the final sum and bingo! All will be well.
      …perhaps the first 6 days of creation await fulfilment yet! Perhaps the Day of the Lord will not so much be strange to physics but the extension into infinity that the creation is waiting for.

    • “The Bible is a gift that God has given to us and when we apply our reason to it, then we observe that it as inerrant and the technology of inerrancy allows us to get more and discover more out of it.”

      I really don’t understand this at all. How can we observe or discover that a text is ‘inerrant’? A very large part of the texts in the Bible are narrative. Only those present when events occured or who heard words spoken can determine that a record of the events or words is without error. We, at a distance of 2000 years or more, cannot.

      • Statistics!

        We cannot evaluate every statement – far from it. But we can evaluate an arbitrary set. We can evaluate them for such things as difficulties, comparisons with the other gospels etc. We can see then if those properties match a book produces from an inerrant book producing process or not.

        It is like brewing. I cannot know that the taste is like in those sealed cans. However, I can take a sample and know whether the yeast was sour or the carbonation failed or the vat was too hot, or many other issues.

        We can take the information we have and look to see if we find the errors that we would expect to find if God permitted the Gospel-writers to just do their best and produce an errant book. But we don’t find errors. Instead we find the sort of things that you would expect to find if errant people were looking at an inerrant book.

        • Nope.
          Specific events each have to be considered on their own merits. It’s impossible to use ‘statistics’ to evaluate whether a particular event actually took place as described.

          Your brewing analogy is clearly faulty in that in brewing, one might expect one fault to be generally replicated in a batch. Events occurring as described? Not so much. One mistake only is entirely possible, and one mistake is all that is necessary for inerrancy to fail.

  11. Very interesting if Jesus made a factual error and the gospel writer didn’t edit it out. Brave. He must have had people proof read his tablets before he went to codex.

    It’s these sort of details that give me more confidence in the authenticity of the texts not less. I heard a criminal psychologist on the radio the other day. Contrary to popular belief, if witness evidence is identical in the details it’s far more likely to be false.

    On inerrancy my beef with many arguments it that they’re comparing modern science with Genesis 1. That’s apples and oranges. Compare it with any other document written around the same time, or even before the last 200 years or so and the Genesis poem is remarkably open to lots of our science of today. (I think it’s highly likely likely that in a predominantly oral society the days were to make it memorable.) We expect the bible to jump through hoops that no one would expect of hieroglyphics for example, or Greek philosophers, so we can’t appreciate it for it is. Instead of being amazed that they thought things happened in stages, that the door is open to the idea of continental shift, “and the earth brought forth” and so on, all without any gods getting in a fight or exchanging bodily fluids, they pick holes in petty things. Ditto we look for the gnat in the gospels but we swallow the camel of Julius Caesar’s self worship without barely chewing.

  12. On the Gospel writers conflating OT texts, see also Mark 1.2 which combines and alters slightly Malachi 3.1 and Isaiah 40.3 to show how they are fulfilled in the coming of Christ.

  13. One last question on conflation.
    If Jesus conflated two prophets does the new entity thus created become a legal person? I’m thinking of our use of ‘person’ to describe a corporation. If so, is Adam both a real individual and a ‘person’?
    Hope you haven’t all moved on yet…

  14. Hello Steve,
    I’ve be only skimmed this and have not fully followed it but your last comment drew me in.
    I don’t see that drawing together of prophets is necessarily a conflation, certainly not a conflation of persons, though the prophets have a cummulative oneness if message pointing forward to the Prophet, Jesus just as he is fulfillment of the offices of Prophet Preist and King. ( Hebrews).
    However, I’d be extremely wary of drawing any likenes to any legal persons of a limited company, corporation, as that is in reality a *legal fiction* and see nothing of a legal fiction in scripture, even as New Perspectives, press that perspective in opposition to the doctrine of Justification.
    I’d. Be even earlier of pressing the corporation- legalh- person- point into the doctrine of the Trinity!
    Anyway, I could be well off the point you are looking to expand upon.

    • A further thought, Steve –
      maybe some biblical scholars should pay regard to an inclination to pedantry and to a legal maxim:
      De minimus non curat lex.
      It may help to negate a legal spirit as it pertains to some scholarship, in a quest to undermine the doctrine of the scripture – a doctrine I was unaware of until much later after my conversion, which played no part in it, though scripture itself ( enlivened by the Holy Spirit) did.
      Maybe, we have too easily jettisoned the term, Holy Bible and ask, why?

      • I’m with David who although being king did not bother himself with loftiness.
        It’s an interesting thing though to mix quotes from different prophets but then ascribe the synthesis to only one. I suppose Jesus is the source of both inspired prophets so by mentioning only the major prophet He is handing down an accreditation for reference only. A midrash of quotes would be available for scholars to cross reference?

        • A key example of Jesus using the main categories to refer to the whole (there’s probably a technical name for it) is on the road to Emmaus – a key hermeneutic for all of the canon, old and new and for the avoidance of neo Marcionism in all of its present day forms.
          While there is much good stuff on what inerrancy is and isn’t, what remains is that the whole of scripture is ” uncorrectable”, hence the clamour for subjective – alone- revisionism and , *what it means to me* interpreted by the *spirit of the age*.
          It was ever thus. Postmodernism from the beginning, gone astray, estranged from the Truth.

  15. Gosh, the machinations that people go through is perfectly illustrated by this article. I’m so relieved I no longer have to agree with all that inerrancy claptrap.

    But where does this idea come from in the first place? We’re all told in church that we have to believe in the Bible, but why? Some point to the circular reasoning that the Bible itself says it’s inspired by God. This is like the so-called ‘rev’ writing in a Grove booklet that it is the word of God and so it literally becomes the word of God!

    The Bible is only the word of God because people think it is! It’s a faith thing. Muslims also believe that their holy book is the word of God too. If fundamentalists were to jettison these restricting chains that bind them then the world would be a much safer place for everybody.

    Evangelicals are completely hypocritical anyway, they cherry pick the Bible to suit their bigotry but completely deny they do so to themselves and others. Look at the ‘rev’ and his support of women in leadership and contrast that to the word of God which explicitly says that women shouldn’t be in authority over men.

    Rescuing the bible from fundamentalists can be really inspiring. No longer do you have to accept that two and two is five, but you can concentrate on really being a disciple of Jesus and help the people that he helped and be the best version of yourself, practicing the fruit of the Spirit instead of crushing others and grieving the Spirit.

    • Hi Origen,
      Read my long comment for the answer to your question about where a belief about the inerrancy of the bible comes from.

  16. A moment:
    Setting aside the main theme of this post, and focusing on a little detail:
    Re: Mark 2:25-26: where in 1 Samuel 21 is Ahimelech specifically called the “high priest”? With the rules of the Law of Moses (in Leviticus 21:17-23) in play, is it not possible that an injury had been incurred by Abimelech which disqualified him from actively serving as high priest, and so his son Abiathar served as de facto high priest in his place? And is it not also possible that an oral tradition about this survived to the time of Jesus? I see no compelling reason to treat this as a demonstrable error in the text, regardless of how many times it has been assumed to be one.


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