[Like other articles by the prolific R.C. Symes, this article's length makes it unsuitable for a podcast, but I still want to publish it. Good stuff. -Andy]
By R.C. Symes
Article ID: 155
If the Bible has many errors, contradictions and falsehoods, can it truly be the word of an all-wise God? Or is the Bible more a creation of fallible men who are expounding their own messages while claiming God’s inspiration and approval? The answer has profound implications for Bible believers and their claims about biblical inerrancy.
Before we attempt to answer the question whether the Bible was the divine word of God or a man-made myth (only men wrote the Bible – women were viewed as inferior and unworthy), we should first be clear about which Bible we are talking about. Surprisingly, Christian denominations cannot agree on what constitutes inspired Holy Scripture. Is it the Bible of Roman Catholics, Protestants or Orthodox Christians? Roman Catholics claim that the Bible contains 73 canonical (authentic) books, while most Protestants accept only 66 because they reject the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books, and Orthodox Christians accept 76 books. Each denomination claims its Bible is the true word of God. Which one is to be believed?
Christian denominations in the world today agree that the New Testament contains 27 books, however there is little consensus among them as to what God’s word really means. Is it any wonder that with over 20,000 denominations, there are competing Christian interpretations about the means to salvation, atonement, the nature of the sacraments, prophecies, Christ’s Second Coming and other doctrines based on the Bible? If God is not the author of confusion or disorder as the Bible says (1 Corinthians 14:33), how is all this disagreement to be explained? Is it not more likely that the Bible is really the work of men, not an all-wise and all-powerful God? Surely God could have provided better guidance and clarity as to which scriptures should have been included in His book and what they mean.
How was the Bible compiled?
The Hebrew (or Old) Testament of 24 books was written from about 1,000 BCE (Before Common Era) to the beginning of the 1st century CE and was not formally agreed to by Jewish rabbis until about the 10th century CE. These books were accepted as canonical mainly because of traditional use. The early Christians used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint (which included the Apocrypha) that was completed around 200 BCE. The Septuagint translation sometimes varies from the original Hebrew wording (e.g. the Greek version of Psalm 22 claimed by Christians to prophesize Jesus’ crucifixion, says in verse 16, “they pierced my hands and my feet”, but the Hebrew version says “they have hacked off my hands and my feet” (New English Bible translation)). This loss of limbs did not happen to Jesus at his crucifixion.
For the early Christians, deciding on what books to include in the New Testament was complicated. Jesus left no written material before his death about 30 CE. The 27 canonical books of the New Testament were written between about 50 to150 CE. Scholars can determine approximate dates of biblical manuscripts by the material used to write on, the style of writing, historical references in the text, etc. However, there were over 40 other Christian gospels, books and letters in circulation from the second to third centuries (e.g. Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Ebionites, Acts of John, 3 Corinthians, etc.), before the canon of the New Testament was finalized late in the fourth century.
Who decided what was in and what was out?
In the first three centuries there were many versions of Christianity. Even Paul complained of different preaching to his (Galatians 1:6). Theological disagreements grew over the decades with different gospels and epistles supporting one view about Christ over the other. The Catholic faction, which was organized better through its hierarchical leadership and deft use of the Old Testament to strengthen the legitimacy of its teachings, eventually won out and suppressed the other “heresies”. This faction eventually declared which books would be acceptable as God’s word, but for its first 300 years, Christianity did not have the New Testament as we now know it.
The finalization of the New Testament canon was based less on objective criteria and reasoning than on the tradition of which books were widely used in churches and recommended by authorities as being genuinely authored by an apostle. Sometimes curious reasoning prevailed as can be seen by Bishop Irenaeus’ explanation of why there are only four gospels: “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are, since there are four directions of the world in which we are, and four principal winds ….” (Against All Heresies, 3XI8, c.180 CE).There was much competition and confusion in the first few centuries as to what really was the Word of God. Biblical literalists have to admit that this was a strange state of affairs to be tolerated by an omnipotent God concerned about the dissemination of his truth.
Our New Testament versions are not the originals
The original Greek manuscripts of the books of the New Testament have not survived. What are extant are hand written copies of copies of copies – over 5,600 fragments or complete copies in the original Greek, with 94 per cent dating from the 9th century. The earliest is a tiny fragment from the Gospel of John dated to the first half of the 2nd century. The earliest complete copy of the Gospel of Mark which was written about the year 70, dates from the 4th century. Our earliest copies of Paul’s writings come about 150 years after he wrote them. Mistakes in the copying process resulted in thousands of variations in these texts until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. The differences were mostly spelling and grammatical errors, but also there were some omissions, insertions and mistranslations in the New Testament. There are some significant differences and contradictions in the biblical texts that have a bearing on historical accuracy and Christian theology.
The earliest surviving version of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus (circa 300 CE), contains the book the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas that had been read in churches for years. They were eventually expunged from the canonical New Testament for not reflecting orthodox thinking. There are other books that are actually referenced by New Testament writers that are missing from the canon. For example, Paul urges believers to read his letter to the Laodiceans (see Colossians 4:16). It is disputed as to whether the surviving Latin copy, originally in some Bibles, is genuine. Also, the writer of Jude references the Jewish apocryphal book of Enoch as though it was authoritative (Jude 14-15). It is ironic that Jude is accepted into the Biblical Canon, but the book he quotes from is not. The early New Testament was a fluid entity for many decades and determining what was really the Word of God was controversial. Ultimately, men who did not personally know the authors of the scriptures made the decisions.
Biblical text variations and forgeries
In the Old Testament there is a curious case of Biblical plagiarism (compare Chapter 37 in Isaiah with Chapter 19 in 2 Kings). Was the text about King Hezekiah asking for Isaiah’s prayers so important that God chose to inspire another writer to repeat the story almost word for word over a hundred years later? Or is it more probable that one author copied the words of another without admitting his source? (Also compare the copying of 2 Kings 20:1-19 with Isaiah 38:1-8 and chap. 39). So much for divine inspiration and textual integrity!
In the New Testa ment there are a number of verses that we now know were not part of the earliest manuscripts. For example, the authors of the most famous English Bible (the King James Version of 1611, or KJV) did not have access to the earliest Greek manuscripts. The difficult doctrine of the Trinity is supposedly confirmed by the KJV wording of 1 John 5:7: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” This wording is not in the earliest manuscripts, but was added to some texts in the early 16th century, to support the doctrine of the Trinity (i.e., although the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each God, there are not three Gods, but only one God consisting of three persons).
Likewise in the earliest Gospel, Mark, the final verses (chap. 16: 9-20) that describe the resurrection appearances of Jesus are an interpolation (i.e. forgery). These verses do not appear in the earliest manuscripts and the writing style is different, as is the choice of words and phrases compared to the original Mark. Mark abruptly ends his gospel with the women seeing an empty tomb, but there are no resurrection appearances. They are told by a young man to tell the disciples that Jesus is risen and will meet them in Galilee, but they flee in terror and tell no one. This ending was unsatisfactory for the forger, so he added verses reflecting Jesus’ appearances now listed in the other gospels. As well, he added references to believers conducting exorcisms, charming snakes, and having immunity to poison. Is this addition not by Mark still God’s word?
Not only are there additions to the New Testament, but also there are textual gospel variations due to omissions. For example, to avoid contradictory accounts about Jesus’ ascension to heaven, some manuscripts delete the reference to Jesus’ ascension on Easter Sunday evening found in Luke’s gospel. The phrase “and was carried up into heaven” found in Luke 24:51 was removed because it conflicts with the assertion that Jesus did not ascend until forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:3, 9-11; 13:31). Which is true – Luke or Acts?
Modern translation bias
Variations in the Bible’s text are not just a result of limited access to the earliest manuscripts or poor translations of the original Hebrew or Greek. One modern translation, namely The New International Version (NIV), is a product of translators who are committed “to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s word in written form.” (NIV Preface, p. xxxiv). These translators have access to the best manuscripts, yet it is disturbing to note what they sometimes choose to leave out or deliberately change in the accepted manuscript translations used in most modern Bible versions.
For example, the NIV changes a contradiction in the received manuscripts by omitting words from the original text. In Genesis 2:17. Adam is warned by God in the original Hebrew text that if he eats fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “…you will die the same day.” (Good News Bible). The NIV translation removes the time reference to imminent death and says “…for when you eat of it you will surely die.” This is done to remove the contradiction in the Bible that says Adam, after he ate the forbidden fruit did not die but instead lived to the age of 930 years (Genesis 5:5) and therefore God who cannot lie (1 Samuel 15:29 and Titus 1:2) indeed must have been a liar.
Is it too much to ask that the God of Truth would ensure, through inspiration or otherwise, that His word would be accurate in its original revelation and free of errors, additions and omissions in all subsequent translations? How does the fundamentalist believer explain that all these variations in Bible versions are still the literal and true word of God?
What do Churches say about inerrancy?
According to the Pew Center for Research (April 4, 2006), 76 per cent of American Christians believe the Bible is the word of God (with 36% of those believing it contains His actual words to be taken literally). Most biblical scholars have abandoned the claim that God dictated the words of the Bible (in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek) to its many authors. There are just too many stylistic and historical differences in the texts to claim one Author for them all.
The claim of most Christians is that the authors were “inspired” by God to write what they did (2 Timothy 3:16). Many believe that because the Bible comes from God, it has to be inerrant, that is without any errors or contradictions with respect to history, science, morality and matters necessary for salvation. Other Christians qualify this inerrancy to pertain only to the original manuscripts. However, the originals are no longer extant and therefore there is no way of proving this claim. We are asked to believe that an all-powerful God preserved the original manuscript writers from error, but kept these texts hidden from us so that we have to rely on unreliable copies filled with mistakes. Why would God allow confusion of his word in this way?
The Roman Catholic Church has modified its position on the inerrancy of the Bible. Proclaimed by church Councils, and reaffirmed by Pope Leo XIII in 1893, it was held that all the canonical books “are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; … it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.” (Providentissimus Deus, Encyclical Letter). In more recent times the Church’s position has moved to the more ambiguous “we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” (Dei Verbum, Article 11, Second Vatican Council, 1965). This statement can be interpreted as meaning scripture is totally inerrant or only inerrant with respect to matters of salvation.
A group of 300 international evangelical Protestant leaders met in Chicago, USA in 1978 and upheld the inerrancy of the Bible. They affirmed in part: “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives” (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Short Statement, #4). More progressive Christians do not consider the Bible as inerrant, but rather a product of fallible authors writing in the context of the beliefs, knowledge and mores of their times.
Biblical errors and contradictions
Those who believe that every word of the Bible is true because the Bible is God-made, not man-made, have their work cut out for them to explain its many errors and contradictions. Some key problems, to name but a few, are found in the following areas:
History and Archaeology
The Old Testament has many historical errors confirmed by archaeology. For example,
Joshua’s destruction of Jericho (Joshua, chapter 6) by blowing horns to make its mighty walls come tumbling down and then massacring the city’s inhabitants, is an historical impossibility. According to the Bible’s chronology this took place around 1450 BCE, but multiple archaeological digs in recent decades have confirmed that Jericho was no more than a ghost town between 1550 to 1200 BCE.
Archaeologists have also failed to find any tangible records of the Israelites’ Exodus out of Egypt after God sent seven plagues and natural disasters on Egypt (for which, by the way, there are no records in Egyptian history). Moses led about 600,000 men (double that counting women and children – an unbelievable total; Exodus 12:37) in the Sinai wilderness for 40 years according to the Bible. Most of that time was spent at Kadesh-Barnea (Numbers 13:26, 20:1), but detailed examinations of the area have revealed that there was no occupation there before the 10th century BCE. This is about 300 years after the supposed Exodus!
Primitive Science and Cosmology
There are two contradictory stories of the Creation of the earth and the heavens in the book of Genesis, written either by different authors or an author drawing on different sources. In chapter 2:4-24, which is probably the oldest version of the story, creation takes place in the space of one day, and man was made before any plants and animals, and woman was made later after animals failed as suitable helpers for man. However, in chapter 1, creation occurs over six days, with plants, fish, birds, and animals created before man and woman, who were created at the same time. Which Bible version is the true word of God? Or does it not make more sense to regard these Bible stories as creation myths collated in the first millennium BCE, especially in light of modern scientific evidence about the age of the earth and the evolution of species?
Biblical cosmology portrays a three tier universe (the heavens, earth, and the underworld). The basic observations of primitive man are related in the Bible as God’s word – the earth is described as flat (Isaiah 11:12; Matthew 4:8), stationary (Psalms 93:1; 104:5) with the sun moving back and forth across the heavens (Ecclesiastes 1:5). Earth is also covered by a vault (inverted dome) held up by pillars (Job 26:11; Psalm 104:3) in which are fixed the stars and windows to let down rain (Genesis 7:11). Biblical literalists who accept all this as God’s true word (as did Jesus) are ignoring proven knowledge. And those who try to make the words mean something different in order to conform to scientific reality are distorting the original language and meaning.
The Flood Myth
Many fundamentalists still try to prove that the great worldwide flood at the time of Noah as related in Genesis chapters 6-9 is literally true. However, the geological record shows no signs of the earth covered in water 8.8 km (5.5 miles) deep which is the height of the earth’s highest mountain. Also, the wooden ark which was about 168 meters long (the length of about one and a half football fields) would have been too structurally unstable and leaky not to capsize. At the same time it would not have been large enough to hold over 45,000 species of the phylum Cordata (mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians), or 90,000 paired individuals, as well as food and water for them. Also, how some unique species could have made their way from the Americas and Australia to Noah’s ark in the Middle East remains unsolvable. There were also over a million species of insects that needed to be accommodated as well as salt water fish species needing sea water (greater than the volume of the ark) for survival after the oceans were diluted by the rain. Feeding and waste removal for all these creatures for over a year had to be handled solely by Noah and his family! This is not history, but myth.
Yet what is most disturbing about this myth is the morality related to it. The Bible tells us that God was angry with human wickedness and therefore decided to kill almost all living creatures on the planet (not just humans). If this is true as fundamentalists claim, then this is the worst human genocide in history (only 8 people survived), and was a near mass extinction of all life, ostensibly carried out by a just and loving God.
But was it worth it? God appears to have been a poor judge of character when He decided to spare Noah, whom he thought was “a righteous man, the one blameless man of his time; he walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). After the flood was over and life began anew, the 600 year old Noah, the righteous favourite of God, was found drunk and naked in his tent by his youngest son Ham. For this discovery, Noah cursed not Ham, but Ham’s innocent son Canaan and condemned him to be a slave for Ham’s brothers (Genesis 9:20-29). Canaan’s offspring established the Canaanite nation that was mercilessly exterminated by the Israelites. Humans carried on after the flood in their usual wicked ways. How then does a moral and omniscient God justify wiping out most of life in the worldwide flood if mankind was only to continue on as before?
In the realm of mathematics the Bible gets it wrong when determining the value of (pi), the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. In 1 Kings 7:23-26 and 2 Chronicles 4:2-5, a large container (the molten sea) is described as ten cubits in diameter and 30 cubits in circumference, therefore the value of pi would be 30/10 or 3.0. We know that pi is not 3.0, but an irrational number 3.14159, and it has to be exact as possible for uses in engineering, global positioning, etc. Over 1,000 years before 1 Kings was written, the ancient Egyptians calculated pi as having a value of 3.16049 as revealed in the Ahmes (or Rhind) Papyrus. This value is 0.6% off the modern value of pi compared to the 4.5% error in 1Kings. Biblical apologists try to rationalize the error by saying the measurements were only approximate, or were taken at different places on the vessel, or that the numbers have a mystical interpretation. These excuses rule out one another and can’t get around the obvious mistake in the plain reading of the Bible.
Those who take the Bible literally often point to its many prophecies that supposedly have been fulfilled in history, especially with respect to Jesus, as proof of its truth. This is a false assertion when it is realized that the authors of the Gospels, who were not eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, selected passages of the Old Testament to flesh out their concept of the Messiah. There were too few biographical details of Jesus in the oral tradition or in the earliest written texts, namely the letters of Paul. Gospel authors, especially Mark who wrote the first biography of Jesus and whom Matthew and Luke copied to a large extent, turned to the Old Testament to flesh out the life of Jesus based on their assumptions of what must have happened.
For example, in describing Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, all the gospel authors except Matthew have Jesus riding on a donkey (e.g. Mark 11:1-11). However, Matthew has Jesus riding on two donkeys simultaneously (Matthew 21:1-7)! This is because Matthew misinterpreted the parallelism in the original source of the story, Zechariah 9:9. In Matthew’s case the importance of the Old Testament as a source of information about Jesus overrode common sense and the other Gospel authors’ descriptions of the event. Events in the life of Jesus, based on plagiarized details from the Old Testament, often taken out of context, were easily turned into prophetic “proofs” about the Messiah.
For a more detailed discussion of these issues please see my articles:
Bible prophecies and myth
Jesus’ miracles, religious myth and biblical contradictions
Humans throughout history have invented gods in their image – from Yahweh to Baal, from Zeus to Thor, from the Trinity to Allah. The Bible’s authors are no different. They borrow themes and myths from other cultures and over time develop their own fallible views about God, and ponder man’s relationship to the divine.
Unfortunately, the Bible soon begins with the terrible genocide of the world-wide flood and ends with the promise of another end of the world scenario at the Second Coming of Christ to judge mankind. Believers in Christ (only about 30% of the world’s population) will obtain eternal reward in heaven, but non-believers and sinners will suffer not just death (the ultimate punishment of the Old Testament), but this time they will face eternal punishment and torture in hell (Matthew 25:41-46; Revelation 14:9-11). Is this not more reflective of the word of vengeful men at a certain moment in history, than the eternal word of a loving and compassionate God?
To read the Bible as the literal, unerring, prophetic word of God rather than as a man-made religious myth, insults our knowledge of history, science and rational thought. The Book is more a history of the struggle of humans to make sense of their place in the world and the moral issues of their times. As such, the Bible is not the ultimate word, but only a tentative beginning. In essence, it is not God speaking, but man.