Great Stuff — What to say when someone says, “The Bible Has Errors”

HT to Matthew Pancake for posting this on Facebook. He found it on the Resurgence:

 

Most people question the reliability of the Bible. You’ve probably been in a conversation with a friend or met someone in a coffee shop who said, “How can you be a Christian when the Bible has so many errors?

How should we respond? What do you say?

Instead of asking them to name an error, I suggest you name one or two of them. Does your Bible contain errors? Yes. The Bible that most people possess is a translation of the Greek and Hebrew copies of copies of the original documents of Scripture. As you can imagine, errors have crept in over the centuries of copying. Scribes fall asleep, misspell, take their eyes off the manuscript, and so on. I recommend telling people what kind of errors have crept into the Bible. Starting with the New Testament, Dan Wallace, New Testament scholar and founder of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, lists four types of errors in Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible’s Origin, Reliability, and Meaning.

 


 

TYPES OF ERRORS

1. SPELLING AND NONSENSE ERRORS
These are errors that occur when a scribe wrote a word that makes no sense in its context, usually because they were tired or took their eyes off the page. Some of these errors are quite comical, such as “we were horses among you” (Gk. hippoi, “horses,” instead of ?pioi, “gentle,” or n?pioi, “little children”) in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 in one late manuscript. Obviously, Paul isn’t saying he acted like a horse among them. That would be self-injury! These kinds of errors are easily corrected.

2. MINOR CHANGES

These minor changes are as small as the presence or absence of an article such as “the” or changed word order, which can vary considerably in Greek. Depending on the sentence, Greek grammar allows the sentence to be written up to 18 times, while still saying the same thing! So just because a sentence wasn’t copied in the same order, doesn’t mean that we lost the meaning.

3. MEANINGFUL BUT NOT PLAUSIBLE

These errors have meaning but aren’t a plausible reflection of the original text. For example, 1 Thessalonians 2:9, instead of “the gospel of God” (the reading of almost all the manuscripts), a late medieval copy has “the gospel of Christ.” There is a meaning difference between God and Christ, but the overall manuscript evidence points clearly in one direction, making the error plain and not plausibly part of the original.

4. MEANINGFUL AND PLAUSIBLE

These are errors that have meaning and that the alternate reading is plausible as a reflection of the original wording. These types of errors account for less than 1% of all variants and typically involve a single word or phrase. The biggest of these types of errors is the ending of the Gospel of Mark, which most contemporary scholars do not regard as original. Our translations even footnote that!

 

IS THE BIBLE RELIABLE?

So, is the Bible reliable? Well, the reliability of our English translations depends largely upon the quality of the manuscripts they were translated from. The quality depends, in part, on how recent the manuscripts are. Scholars like Bart Ehrman have asserted that we don’t have manuscripts that are early enough. However, the manuscript evidence is quite impressive:

  • There are as many as 18 second-century manuscripts. If the Gospels were completed between AD 50–100, then this means that these early copies are within 100 years. Just recently, Dan Wallace announced that a new fragment from the Gospel of Mark was discovered dating back to the first century AD, placing it well within 50 years of the originals, a first of its kind. When these early manuscripts are all put together, more than 43% of the New Testament is accounted for from copies no later than the second century.
  • Manuscripts that date before AD 400 number 99, including one complete New Testament called Codex Sinaiticus. So the gap between the original, inerrant autographs and the earliest manuscripts is pretty slim. This comes into focus when the Bible is compared to other classical works that, in general, are not doubted for their reliability. In this chart of comparison with other ancient literature, you can see that the New Testament has far more copies than any other work, numbering 5,700 (Greek) in comparison to the over 200 of Suetonius. If we take all manuscripts into account (handwritten prior to printing press), we have 20,000 copies of the New Testament. There are only 200 copies of the earliest Greek work.
  • This means if we are going to be skeptical about the Bible, then we need to be thousands of times more skeptical about the works of Greco-Roman history. Or put another way, we can be a thousand times more confident about the reliability of the Bible. It is far and away the most reliable ancient document.

WHAT TO SAY WHEN SOMEONE SAYS “THE BIBLE HAS ERRORS”

So, when someone asserts that the Bible has errors, we can reply by saying:

Yes, our Bible translations do have errors—let me tell you about them. But as you can see, less than 1% of them are meaningful and those errors don’t affect the major teachings of the Christian faith. In fact, there are a thousand times more manuscripts of the Bible than the most documented Greco-Roman historian by Suetonius. So, if we’re going to be skeptical about ancient books, we should be a thousand times more skeptical of the Greco-Roman histories. The Bible is, in fact, incredibly reliable.

Contrary to popular assertion, that as time rolls on we get further and further away from the original with each new discovery, we actually get closer and closer to the original text. As Wallace puts it, we have “an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the biblical documents.” Therefore, we can be confident that what we read in our modern translations of the the ancient texts is approximately 99% accurate. It is very reliable.

FOR FURTHER STUDY

In order of easy to difficult:

 

This post originally appeared on Gospel-Centered Discipleship.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He’s responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord, LCMSsermons.com, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at KNFA.net.


Comments

Great Stuff — What to say when someone says, “The Bible Has Errors” — 11 Comments

  1. I’m not really comfortable referring to textual variants as “errors” in the Bible. We never have taught that manuscript copies are “inerrant” but only that the original autographs are inerrant. Copies are subject to differences and minor textual variations, but in every such case there is absolutely no implication for anything the Biblical texts teach us.

    I’ve heard way too many liberals try to dupe those who do not understand any of this by using textual variants in copies of the autographs to “disprove” the inerrancy and infallibility of the original autographs of the Sacred Scriptures.

    I understand what the persons who wrote this article are trying to do, but I’m thinking it is not the best approach.

  2. I think I will stick with Luther and many other Lutheran theologians who confess the Scriptures do NOT err.

    “Earlier Luther had insisted that the Scriptures do not err, but the fathers, even Jerome and Augustine, have erred. All teachers in the church must prove what they say is the truth by what the Holy Scriptures say. And so we find Luther repeatedly affirming the absolute infallibility and truthfulness of Scripture. “Natural reason produces heresy and error. Faith teaches and adheres to the pure truth. He who adheres to the Scriptures will find that they do not lie or deceive.”17 “Scripture cannot err.”18 Luther is well aware of the fact that often the Scriptures seem to err and especially to contradict themselves (as we shall discuss later), but that is due to our faulty reasoning and our flesh, and should never be construed as an aberration or error in the Scriptures themselves. “The Holy Spirit has been blamed for not speaking correctly. He speaks like a drunkard or a fool. He so mixes things up and uses wild, queer words and statements. But it is our fault, who have not understood the language nor known the manner of the prophets. For it cannot be otherwise; the Holy Ghost is wise and makes the prophets also wise. A wise man may be able to speak correctly; that holds true without fail.”

    To Luther the authority of Scripture involves not only its truthfulness but its utter unity and consistency. Scripture does not contradict itself. This is a basic hermeneutic for the pastor who reads and preaches the Scriptures. One text does not contradict another text. One doctrine does not contradict another doctrine, even though they may seem utterly contradictory, as we shall see in the case of Law and Gospel. Arguing against Oecolampadius who would not take the intended literal sense of the words of institution as they stand, Luther simply says that the texts of Scripture do not contradict themselves no matter how ridiculous they may seem.19 Oecolampadius finds contradictions where in fact there are no contradictions in the Scriptures. What confused Oecolampadius was the fact that scriptural texts which are contradictory must be reconciled and one passage must be receive an interpretation which will accord with another; for it is certain that the Scriptures cannot be at variance with themselves. If only Oecolampadius had understood the principle that “the Scriptures do not contradict themselves” he would have come out right in his Christology and his doctrine of the Sacrament. But rather than do so, he seizes the Scriptures with guile and malice in order to use them as a cloak. And under such a guise he spreads poison among the people. Oecolampadius makes the fatal mistake, Luther says, of asking the wrong questions of Scripture. The usual wrong question is, “Why?” And so he finds hopeless contradictions where none exist and in trying to solve them obscures everything.” -Robert Preus (source)

    I don’t know what one thinks they are gaining by conceding to the skeptic’s claim that Bible translations contain errors. Why not tell them everything contained in the above essay (original posting) without agreeing with them and letting them believe you think that the Scriptures contain errors?

  3. Great article. One caveat, I plead to add. Prior to engaging any: no assumptions, always, always, ask the other person, “the Bible has errors? Really, where?” And open ended questions from there, work best. Neutral ground is a good starting point. But if you choose to engage in this, you had better pray 1st.

    We can’t assume an error is an error, and not a social/cultural/denominational/doubt, issue. Confessionals witness all the time, we just tend not to blow horns about it, when we do. The difference is, with us, we never assume, we know the other person’s knowledge base, upbringing, training, or teachings.

    Lots is lost in translation, & depending on that translation, that is adopted, that can be huge. Never assume you know what “error” means, to another. Open ended questions always, in the beginning. FWIW.

  4. You cannot convince a man that Scripture is the Word of God until after he is converted to faith in Christ. (Franz Pieper)

  5. Some “errors” are a matter of individual perspective. A long time ago (as in the mid-1960s), the pastor at the church we attended preached on “the wind bloweth where it listeth.” On the way out, one of the congregation members, a meteorologist, shook his head sadly and said, “I hate to tell you this, pastor, but the wind doth not bloweth where it listeth. The wind bloweth from a high pressure system into a low pressure system and that’s all there is to it.” Most of the “errors” that bother readers of the Bible are not small technicalities of missing words or translation errors, but come from trying to take a text such as the above, with its moral or symbolic meaning, and read it as if it were an instructional comment on an essentially unrelated matter.

  6. @Virginia DeMarce #6

    The wind may blow from a high pressure system to a low pressure system, but all that meteorologist can do is watch them form and report. He can’t “make” the weather.

    Sometimes our miniscule “area of expertise” makes us miss the larger point of Scripture.

  7. This is the age of the internet and so anyone sincerely concerned with this subject will not be persuaded by just one perspective. He or she will continue to review all of the positions over a life time and form their perspective gradually.

    However, if someone approached a believer with an argument that the Bible contains errors why not just state “I believe that it does not”? After all, as believers we don’t need “proof” that the Bible is the word of God we just believe that it is. We don’t need proof that Jesus is divine or that he was raised from the dead ~ we just believe it.

    http://youtu.be/P0zWbL8Uqfw&w=450

  8. @#4 Kitty #8

    Ehrman is an interesting case, since he is an agnostic who teaches NT studies at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He has all the evidence in front of him and still can’t believe the truth. The scriptures have something to say about “ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of truth.”

  9. Yes, interesting case to be sure. As you probably know he initially became interested in NT studies as an Evangelical Christian.

  10. @#4 Kitty #10

    You’re right, and he found alleged errors in the Scriptures and gave up his faith, so the story goes. He is a good example of a magisterial use of reason leading to skepticism and rejection of the truth.

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