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Errors and Contradictions in the Bible

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This is the third and final article in this short series dealing with inerrancy and with the Bible’s supposed errors and contradictions. In the last article we defined what inerrancy is not and then attempted to adequately define the term. I suggested the following definition: The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact. Today we will look at some common objections to this doctrine as well as some problems that may arise if we deny it. Here are links to the first two articles: Are There Errors in the Bible? and What Does “Inerrant” Mean?

Problems With Denying Inerrancy

We turn first to problems that may arise when we tacitly or expressly deny inerrancy.

First, if we deny inerrancy, we make God a liar. If there are errors in the original manuscripts, manuscripts that testify they were breathed out by God, one of two things must be true: either God purposely lied or he mistakenly lied. Either way this would indicate that God is capable of making or of producing errors. Needless to say, this would destroy our ability to trust any of God’s revelation and cause us to doubt God Himself.

Second, if we deny inerrancy we lose trust in God. If there are errors in Scripture, even if in the smallest detail, and these were placed there intentionally by God, how are we to maintain trust that He did not lie in other matters? When we lose trust in the Scriptures, we lose trust in God Himself and we may consequently lose our desire to be obedient to Him.

Third, if we deny the clear testimony of Scripture that it is inerrant, we make our minds a higher standard of truth than the Bible. At the outset of this series I indicated a concern I felt towards those who deny inerrancy is when they indicate that the doctrine does not “feel right.” But nowhere does the Bible appeal to our feelings or our reason for its authority or inerrancy. We must submit to the Word, for it will not submit to us. We must give to the Bible the place it claims for itself. We cannot stand in judgment over it.

Fourth, if we deny inerrancy, and indicate that small details are incorrect, we cannot consistently argue that all the doctrine the Bible contains is correct. Admitting error in even the smallest historical detail is only the thin edge of the wedge, for we then allow the possibility that there may be error in doctrine as well. And when we allow this possibility, the Christian faith soon crumbles into a mess of subjectivity and personal preference.

So inerrancy is not an optional doctrine—one we can take or leave. Rather, it is a doctrine at the very heart of the faith and without it we impoverish our faith and destroy our ability to trust and honor God.

Objections

There are many objections that are commonly raised against inerrancy. For the sake of brevity I will address only the most common objections, and the ones I have encountered in recent discussions on this topic.

We Do Not Have The Original Manuscripts – The first objection has to do with the transmission of Scripture. Many people argue that since we no longer possess any of the original manuscripts, it is irresponsible to speak of inerrancy. What is the purpose in affirming an important doctrine based on documents we no longer have? I answered this, in part, in the first article of this series, when I quoted John MacArthur. “We possess a wealth of biblical manuscripts in the original languages of Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. John MacArthur writes, “With this wealth of biblical manuscripts in the original languages and with the disciplined activity of textual critics to establish with almost perfect accuracy the content of the autographs, any errors which have been introduced and/or perpetuated by the thousands of translations over the centuries can be identified and corrected by comparing the translation or copy with the reassembled original. By this providential means, God has made good His promise to preserve the Scriptures. We can rest assured that there are translations available today which indeed are worthy of the title, The Word of God.” We can be certain that we have accurate copies of over 99% of the inerrant words as they were first transcribed. When we focus on the less than 1% of the text that contains errors, we must realize that these are human errors and that God is in no way responsible for them. The fact that there are some errors in Scripture as we have it today, does not negate inerrancy which speaks only of the original documents. The Bible as we have it today is worth of our confidence.

Inerrancy is a Poor Term – Generally people who make this objection believe that inerrancy is too strong a term. They believe that such a word demands a type of scientific precision. And furthermore, they may claim that this term is not used in the Bible and was unknown through much of the history of the church.

To the first objection, I point again to the definition of inerrancy, and that it refers to truthfulness and not precision. The Bible claims to be perfectly true, but nowhere does it claim to contain perfect precision. As we saw in the second article, the Bible may round numbers, speak in human terms and contain odd grammatical constructions and still be inerrant. In response to the second objection I would point to any number of terms we use that are foreign to Scripture. The word “Trinity” does not appear within the pages of Scripture, yet the doctrine of the Trinity is clearly affirmed in the Bible and the term is very useful in summarizing the doctrines of the persons of the Godhead. The doctrine of inerrancy is taught within the pages of the Bible as clearly as if the word “inerrancy” was used.

Proving Inerrancy is a Circular Argument – The fourth objection is that we can only prove Scripture’s inerrancy by circular argumentation. After all, we say that the Bible is inerrant because the Bible tells us it is inerrant. This poses a problem for some. In Reason to Believe R.C. Sproul addresses circular argumentation in proving the Bible’s infallibility and we can extend this line of reasoning to inerrancy. Consider the following premises and the subsequent conclusion:

  • Premise A—The Bible is a basically reliable and trustworthy document.
  • Premise B—On the basis of this reliable document we have sufficient evidence to believe confidently that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
  • Premise C—Jesus Christ being the Son of God is an inerrant authority.
  • Premise D—Jesus Christ teaches that the Bible is more than generally trustworthy; it is the very Word of God.
  • Premise E—The word, in that it comes from God, is utterly trustworthy because God is utterly trustworthy.
  • Conclusion—On the basis of the inerrant authority of Jesus Christ, the church believes the Bible to be utterly trustworthy; i.e., inerrant.

Where this model of linear reasoning may break down, is that some of what we accept about the Bible we accept by faith. Faith does not render reason invalid, but the Holy Spirit helps us believe in what our sinful, human minds will not accept. Therefore, I do not believe that an unbeliever—one who does not have the Spirit’s help—can accept the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. But this line of reasoning ought to be sufficient for the believer. I trust that all Christians believe in the first premise, as even most non-Christians, who have made the effort, can see that the Bible is basically reliable and trustworthy. But what the unbeliever cannot do is accept that Jesus is the Son of God and that He is thus an inerrant authority.

The Bible is Full of Errors and Contradictions – This is a common objection that has been leveled at the Bible too many times to count. It has been answered just as often. It is the question that motivated me to post this series.

As often as not, this objection is made by people who really have no clear idea of where these errors can be found, as they are merely passing along what they have heard from others. They read a web site with a long list of contradictions and allow that to feed their disgust for the things of God. For those who are honestly seeking information on the alleged contradictions, there is a wealth of resources available to prove that there are no errors or contradictions within the text of the Bible. For example, Answers in Genesis answers many of these objections. So many of the objections can be answered so easily. For example, here is one I have seen on some sites:

[The Bible claims that] one day can last 930 years.

  • “And YHWH God commanded the human, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’” [Genesis 2:16-17]. The original text makes it clear that God is not speaking metaphorically or spiritually. Isn’t it lucky that since death hadn’t been invented yet, the human (“ha’adam,” pronounced “ha ah DAHM”) had no idea what God was talking about! “When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years.”— Gen. 5:3-4

This, of course, ignores the obvious—that humans really did die on the day they ate of the fruit. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit they died spiritually and made physical death a horrible reality. They did not drop dead at that very moment, but already, at that very moment, death had begun to stalk them. And their perfect communion with God had been killed. When we see that inerrancy allows for normal human speech and that it relates to truthfulness more than precision, we see that it can easily account for such “errors.”

Many of the alleged errors within the Bible have to do with historical facts. Allow me to provide one example. Only a couple of generations ago, scholars pointed to the Bible’s claim that there was a king of Assyria named Tiglath-Pileser as an obvious error, for archaeological evidence had not proven that any such king existed. But a few years later, archaeologists excavated Tiglath-Pileser’s capital city and found his name carved into bricks which read, “I, Tiglath-Pileser, king of Assyria…” It is a fact that “the results of sound scholarship have not tended to uncover more and more problems…Rather they have tended to resolve problems and to show that what were once thought to be errors are not errors at all” (James Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace). R.C. Sproul writes, “The Christian has nothing to fear from rigorous historical research. Rather, we have everything to gain” (Reason to Believe, page 27).

Consider the following quote from Dr. William Foxwell Albright. “For much too long a time the course of New Testament scholarship has been dictated by theological, quasitheological, and philosophical presupposition. In far too many cases commentaries on New Testament books have neglected such basic requirements as up-to-date historical and philological analysis of the text itself…The result has often been steadfast refusal to take seriously the findings of archaeological and linguistic research. We believe that there is less and less excuse for the resulting confusion in this latter half of the twentieth century. Closely allied with these presuppositions is the ever-present fog of existentialism, casting ghostly shadows over an already confused landscape. Existentialism as a method of interpreting the New Testament is based upon a whole series of undemonstrable postulates of Platonic, Neo-Platonic, leftwing scholastic, and relativistic origins. So anti-historical is this approach that it fascinates speculative minds which prefer cliches to factual data, and shifting ideology to empirical research and logical demonstrations” (emphasis mine). The Christian has nothing to fear from scholarship, science or archeology.

Truly, in my experience, the vast majority of supposed errors and contradictions fall into the realm of what we saw in “What Inerrancy is Not.” They point to a lack of precision that may be found in ordinary language or in a language that had no capacity to provide verbatim quotes. Those that do not fall into this category, most often simply reflect a misunderstanding of the Bible’s historical context or language. There are some that really are difficult and for which there are no easy answers. But even then, they have been dealt with by scholars and have been answered well.

So how do we answer charges of error and contradiction? First, I think we assure ourselves that the Bible is inerrant and then we ensure that what we believe about inerrancy is correct. We read what the Bible says about itself and express faith that what God says in Scripture is true. Having done that, it is often valuable to turn to the many resources available for those wrestling with apparent errors or contradictions. Most of these questions have been dealt with very well in the past—well enough to give you assurance that they reflect contemporary arrogance or misunderstanding more than error. When challenged with a list of contradictions I believe there is often little value in answering the charges of error point-by-point and engaging in lengthy dialog about each of them. Anyone who is really seeking the truth will find not only the contradictions but the many answers to them. Rather, it is better, I think, to point people to what is true. Point people to the Bible’s claims of truth—what it claims about us, as humans, and what it claims about God. Point people to the gospel and ask God to do His work in them.

Conclusion

My intent for this series was to do two things. First, I wanted to define inerrancy and separate it from the other doctrines of Scripture such as authority, inspiration and transmission. While the basic sense of the word “inerrancy” is clear, the theological meaning is not always so easy to grasp. Second, I wanted to answer some objections to inerrancy and show why this is a critical doctrine and why it is important that the church continues to affirm it.

Ultimately, inerrancy is true because perfection is consistent with God’s character and because He has told us it is true. We must be careful with any objections to this doctrine, for if we indicate that we believe there are errors with the original manuscripts, we strike at the very character of God. The Bible is inerrant because it was breathed out by an inerrant God. Because of this we can have full confidence, today and always, that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.


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