"Belief in Inerrancy May Be Hazardous to Faith (PART 2) — Problems with Biblical Inerrancy" (from: Religious Tolerance.org)
Intentional translation errors: No Bible translation into English is free of bias. Essentially all versions of the Bible are the product of translators who come from a similar theological background. Being human, they sometimes produce versions of the Bible that tend to match their own belief systems. For example:
The original Hebrew and Greek texts contain a number of different concepts for the place where people will live after death: Sheol, Gehenna, and Hades. Some translations transliterate these place names, and so they appear in the English text in their original forms as "Sheol," "Gehenna," and "Hades." The reader is thus aware that they refer to different beliefs about life after death. But the King James Version and some other Bible versions rendered all three locations as "Hell." This makes the Bible appear more internally consistent than it really is, and clouds the meaning of the original text. That may be successful for those people who cannot read Hebrew and who have no access to other English translations of the Bible. But with the multiplicity of Bible translations available today, such techniques are no longer as successful
Many Bible translations contain what appear to be intentional errors in relation to some activities. Exodus 22:18, in the original Hebrew orders the death penalty for "m'khashepah" The word means a woman who uses spoken spells to harm others - e.g. causing their death or loss of property. Clearly "evil Sorceress" or "woman who performs evil, black magic" would be a clear translation. But many versions of the Bible render this word as "witch," thus inverting the meaning of the original text. Witches and many other Neopagans are specifically prohibited by their Wiccan Rede from doing any harm to others.
A similar intentional mistranslation in some versions of the Bible relates to the Greek word "pharmakia" from which the English word "pharmacy" is derived. It refers to the practice of preparing poisonous potions to harm or kill others. "Poisoner" or simply "murderer" would be an accurate translation here. But many versions of the Bible invert the meaning of the original text by again rendering the word as "witch." These inverted translations have caused a few modern-day, devout Christians to persecute Neopagans, believing that they are following the will of God. Although such attacks have been decreasing over the past two decades, they still occur in some areas of North America.
Copying Errors: A small number of conservative Christians believe that a particular English translation of the Bible is inerrant. Often this is the King James Version (KJV). first published in 1611 CE. However, most believe that it is only the original autograph copy as written by the author in Hebrew, Aramaic and/or Greek which is inerrant. This leaves open the possibility that subsequent manual copying introduced mistakes into the book. Thus, copies made after the mistake may be errant. Often, we have no way of detecting where errors or later insertions have occurred.
Symbolic vs. Literal Interpretation: Not all passages in the Bible can be interpreted literally. For example: John 15:1 describes Jesus as saying:
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman." (ASV)
In this case, Jesus is obviously not a vine. He is using symbolic language. Other passages in the Bible are more ambiguous; they might be translated literally or symbolically. For example, Genesis 3:15 describes Jehovah talking to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He says:
"and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou salt bruise his heel." (ASV)
Some Bible scholars interpret the verse literally, that the men and women who are descendants of Eve (i.e. the entire human race) and the descendants of the serpent (i.e. all the snakes in the world) will hate and attack each other. The phrase "he shall" is interpreted in the collective sense to refer to all of humanity. Other Bible scholars interpret the verse symbolically. They believe that it is linked to Romans 16:20:
"The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet."
The "he shall bruise thy head" phrase in Genesis refers to Jesus triumphing over Satan. As a result of this interpretation, Genesis 3:15 is sometimes referred to as the "protean", the first gospel. 1
There are many Bible Passages that have been interpreted literally by some groups and symbolically by others. This generally leads to conflict, and has historically triggered many church schisms.
Multiple Authorship: Some passages in the Bible appear at first glance to be completely written by a single author: e.g. the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy) states that the five books were all written by Moses. The book of Isaiah was written by Isaiah; the Book of Daniel by Daniel; the Gospel of Mark by a single author. But analysis of the books' content and style reveals that the Pentateuch was written by several authors from different traditions over many centuries. The books appear to have been edited later by still other unknown persons. Isaiah also appears to be written by multiple authors. The Book of Daniel appears to have been written circa 180 BCE -- over 4 centuries after Daniel's death -- by an unknown author. The Gospel of Mark originally ended abruptly at Mark 16:8. However:
Some other writer subsequently added verses 9 to 20, to make a "longer ending" to Mark; these additional verses were apparently based on Luke, John and some other sources.
Another writer created a "shorter ending" consisting of two sentences after verse 8. It was also a later addition, probably based on Matthew. Some translations include both endings.
Still other Bible versions include additional material after verse 14.
All of this multiple authorship raises the question whether the later additions by unknown authors are inerrant, or merely attempts by later believers to augment the text to better match some early Christian group's evolving belief system.
Multiple Versions: There appears to have been two versions of Mark: "Secret Mark", "for those who had attained a higher degree of initiation in to the church than the common crowd." 3 and the shorter, edited version that has survived to the present time. The latter was the freely available, public version, and was probably a later, smaller version. This raises the question as to which version should be considered inerrant.
More conflicts in interpretation: Some biblical passages are unclear or ambiguous. For example, the Bible contains many references to parents using physical punishment in order to discipline their children. All but one of these passages come from the book of Proverbs. The book itself says that they were written by Solomon, although many mainline and liberal theologians believe that the book was assembled long after Solomon's death. The author(s) appear to have considered corporal punishment of children as the preferred method of discipline. One can assume that he followed his own advice in the raising of his son Rehab. The son became a widely hated ruler after his father's death. He had to make a hasty retreat to avoid being assassinated by his own people: 1 Kings 12:13-14 and 1 Kings 12:18 describe how he acted in such an evil manner towards his people that they killed his representative. Ultimately, Rehoboam fled Jerusalem to avoid being assassinated by the subjects that he mistreated. The passages from Proverbs and 1 Kings can be interpreted in at least two ways:
Some conservative Christians accept the verses in Proverbs at their face value: Proverbs requires all believers to use corporal punishment on their children as the main method of discipline.
Some liberal Christians might interpret Proverbs as accurately representing Solomon's parenting style, and interpret 1 Kings as indicating the horrible outcome of that form of discipline. Thus, 1 Kings is a warning to parents to not follow Solomon's advice, to avoid hitting their children, and to rely on other, non-violent forms of discipline.
Since these two interpretations are mutually exclusive, at least one is probably false. But a consensus cannot be reached at this time as to which is in error. The secular belief that hitting children is counter-productive appears to be gaining ground at this time, and is supported by studies linking the spanking of children with increased levels youth rage and criminal activities, and of alcoholism, drug addiction, clinical depression and anxiety once they reach adulthood.
Internal Conflicts: Various passages in the Bible appear to be in conflict with each other. To liberal/progressive Christians, these disagreements are consistent with their beliefs that the books of the Bible were written over a period of about 1 millennium, by authors with very different religious views. But to conservative Christians who believe in Biblical inerrancy, conflicts present a problem. If all passages of the Bible were inerrant, then no passage can truly contradict any other passage. Such problems have been resolved using various techniques:
• Many conflicts can be handled by interpreting one passage in its literal sense, and other, apparently conflicting, passages either in some narrow sense or symbolically. Unfortunately, different faith groups will often select different passages to interpret literally.
• Some passages cannot be harmonized in this way. Conservatives usually believe that the latter passages can be resolved in theory, but not with our present knowledge. Books harmonizing hundreds of apparent conflicts have been written. One attempts to solve over 500 such difficulties. 7
• The ultimate resolution method is to assume that errors have crept in to the original autograph copy as it was manually copied and recopied through the years. Religious conservatives are often reluctant to resort to this approach because it throws doubt on some passages in current translations of the Bible.
The nature of Truth - absolute or relative: It is sometimes not obvious whether a portion of the Bible refers:
• Only to a particular society at a particular time, or
• Only to one society for all time, or
• For all societies only at a particular time, or
• For all locations and all times.
In 1 Corinthians, chapters 11 & 14, Paul advises the Christians at Corinth to restrict the roles of women to positions of little or no authority and under the supervision of men. These passages are often quoted in debates over whether women should be allowed to be ordained as clergy.
Other passages, particularly from the Hebrew Scriptures, describe the position of women as greatly inferior to men, and often as an item of property.
Some liberal Christians believe that Paul's instructions to the church at Corinth was in response to a specific problem in that city in which women were disrupting services; they might interpret limits on the roles of women in the Hebrew Scriptures as being accurate representations of the oppression of women within early Hebrew society. But they might also believe that such passages are not applicable in today's society where limitations and restrictions on women have been largely removed after centuries of effort by pro-democracy movements and the feminist movement. Meanwhile, many conservative Christians regard St. Paul's instructions to the Corinthians as being equally valid today; their denominations often deny ordination to women.
The Bible has many references to slavery. Much of the conflict that led to the American civil war was fueled by differences in interpretation of Biblical passages on this topic:
• Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, said that slavery "was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation."
• Rev. Alexander Campbell, a Christian leader at the time said: "There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral."
• A contemporary of Campbell, Rev. R. Furman, said: "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example."
Meanwhile, abolitionists argued that the teachings of Jesus made the ownership of human beings a sin. Many of the arguments over slavery revolved around whether the institution was an acceptable practice for all times and all societies, or whether it was no longer permissible in 19th century North America. Clearly, the matter could not be resolved theologically at the time. In North America, it was eventually settled by a political consensus in Canada and, much later, by a civil war in the U.S.
The combination of source ambiguity, intentional translation errors, copying errors, symbolic vs. literal interpretation, multiple authorship, multiple versions, interpretation conflicts, internal conflicts, the nature of truth, etc. make it quite impossible to prove that a particular passage in an English translation of the Bible is inerrant. Or if the passage is assumed to be inerrant, it is not necessarily obvious how the passage is to be interpreted today.
One can hope to minimize the effect of intentional and accidental translation errors by accessing many versions of the Bible to compare the full range of translations. Many Christians use parallel Bibles for study. These have two, four or eight translations side-by-side on the page. Also, by comparing verses on the same topic in other parts of the Bible we may obtain a consensus of what the Biblical authors intended. But we are largely stuck with the remaining factors.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
1 Christians for Biblical Equality has a home page promoting non-discrimination on the basis of gender. See: http://www.cbeinternational.org
2 S.H.T. Page, "Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons," Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, (1995), Page 20 to 23.
3 C.M. Laymon, "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville TN, (1991) Pages 670 - 671.
4 Robert J. Miller, Ed., "The Complete Gospels", Polebridge Press, Sonoma CA, (1992), Pages 402-405.
"Belief in Inerrancy May Be Hazardous to Faith (PART 1) — Problems with Biblical Inerrancy" (from: Religious Tolerance.org)
Belief in Inerrancy May Be Hazardous to Faith — Problems with Biblical Inerrancy
Why belief in biblical inerrancy can be hazardous to one's faith:
When a person considers the Bible to be totally inerrant in its teaching of theology, morals, beliefs, geology, geography, history, etc., it may leave the person's faith vulnerable. Even one proven error could shatter their entire belief system and make the Bible seem useless.
Mark Mattison wrote:
"If in actual fact Caesar Augustus did not really order a census while Quirinius was governor of Syria [or] if it turns out there really was only one Gadarene demonaic rather than two, then the entire Bible becomes worthless and every tenet of Christian faith falls flat. If one single discrepancy emerges, it's all over. This makes Christian faith an easy target for skeptics, and drives believers to unimaginable lengths to 'defend' the Bible." 1
Fortunately, this need not happen even if the Bible, as we see it today, is shown to be errant. That is because most conservative Christians only consider the original (a.k.a. autograph) versions of Bible books to be inerrant. No such documents exist today. If an error is found, it can be attributed to an intentional or accidental error made when copying a manuscript or when subsequently translating it from Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek into English.
Problems with inerrancy:
Interpretation conflicts: Bible ambiguity is perhaps the most serious problem associated with inerrancy. Some biblical passages can be interpreted in so many different ways, there is no way to know which is the correct one. This renders the concept of inerrancy essentially meaningless.
People bring different foundational beliefs to the Bible. This causes them to reach very different conclusions about what it says. One example involves the roles of men and women:
The folks at The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood believe that men and women should be restricted to very different roles within the family, church organizations, and the rest of society. 2 Typically, they view positions of leadership and authority to be reserved for males only.
Christians for Biblical Equality teach that men and women were both created in the image of God, and that the Bible intends that they function in a full and equal partnership. Talents, including the ability to preach and to lead, exist throughout both genders. 3
Both are conservative Christian groups. Both believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. Both groups are staffed with honorable, devout, intelligent, thoughtful, rational people. But both groups find many biblical passages which support their position and which negate the other group's beliefs.
Another example of ambiguity in the Bible is seen in the series of books published by Inter-Varsity Press and Zondervan. Some are: "Women in ministry: Four Views," "Two views of Hell: A biblical and theological dialog," "Divorce and remarriage: Four Christian views." Each book involves a number of leading evangelical Christian writers explaining their conflicting personal views on a specific topic. They also critique each other's beliefs as being false. Each of the authors is intelligent, sincere, serious, devout, thoughtful theologian and is quite confident that their own belief is the only one that is biblically based. Yet, the authors' conclusions conflict with each other, making the concept of inerrancy meaningless.
Another example involves the Christian faith groups in North America, which number in excess of 1,000. All or essentially all believe that their group's beliefs are based on the Bible. Many take the position that they are the "true" church. Yet their belief systems differ. There appears to be no way to resolve these different interpretations. Worldwide, the situation is even worse because there are on the order of 35,000 Chrisitan faith groups teaching different interpretations of the Bible.
Some have suggested that believers resolve biblical ambiguity by assessing the will of God through prayer. However, this appears to be unreliableaccording to a pilot study that the staff at this web site have conducted.
Translation errors due to source ambiguity: Inerrancy of the Bible refers only to the original, autograph copies of each book, as written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Hebrew is an extremely ambiguous language. Some passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) may be interpreted in many different ways. At most, only one of those translations into English would be correct, and thus be inerrant. But there is no way in which we can know for certain which translation is the correct one. Consider Leviticus 18:22. According to one source, a word-for-word translation is:
"And with a male thou shall not lie down in beds of a woman; it is an abomination.”
(The word "abomination" is actually a mistranslation into modern English. The Hebrew word means something like "ritually impure". Some other examples of "abominations" are: a person eating lobster, the offering of an animal which has a blemish for ritual sacrifice, a man getting a haircut or shaving his beard, or a woman wearing jeans or slacks, a person eating a cheeseburger.) This passage is normally interpreted in English as something like:
"You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (RSV)
That rendering would condemn all male-male sexual activity. Or, if the translators really wanted to stretch the meaning of the passage well beyond what the original Hebrew states, they might want to include a condemnation of lesbianism into the translation, as in:
"Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin. (NLT)
But it could be argued that an equally accurate rendering is:
"Men must not engage in homosexual sex while on a bed that belongs to a woman; it is ritually unclean"
"When a man has sex with another man, they must treat each other as equals; otherwise it is ritually unclean.”
That is, same-gender sexual activity between men is not intrinsically unclean, but only if it is done in the wrong location -- on a woman's bed -- or in a manner where one man is considered inferior.
Bible translators, scholars and individual believers debate endlessly over the precise meaning of individual passages such as this one. If people attribute multiple meanings to various verses, then only one (perhaps none) could be inerrant. We can try to compare a passage with other similar verses in the Bible in order to determine which interpretation is most likely. But, we have no absolutely reliable method of determining which interpretation is correct.
The inclusion/exclusion of the Apocrypha: The Bible used by Jesus, his disciples, and the early Christian movement was the Septuagint (a.k.a. LXX). This was a Greek translation from the original Hebrew. It included a number of books that are commonly called the Apocrypha. These books appear in the translations of the Bible used by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and some Anglican churches. They have been deleted in the translations used by Protestants and most Anglicans. One reason for their removal was a passage which implies the existence of Purgatory. Thus, the range of books in the Bible which are to be considered inerrant is open to debate among Christians. However, in any given denomination, the official canon is firmly established.
The selection of the Christian Scriptures: There were three main movements within early Christianity:
• The Jewish Christians, who formed a reform movement within Judaism centered in Jerusalem, with James -- a brother of Jesus -- as their leader;
• Pauline Christians who were mainly former Pagans who followed the teachings of Paul, and
• Gnostics who had a unique religious belief based on knowledge.
Among the three groups, there were on the order of forty gospels, probably hundreds of epistles (letters), and a few examples of apocalyptic literature similar to Revelation. All were considered authoritative by various early Christian groups.
When the bishops fixed the official canon centuries later, they selected the Hebrew Scriptures, and 27 books. The latter consisted of only four gospels, Acts, 21 epistles, and Revelation. The concept of inerrancy requires that they did not make any errors in their selection: that the authors of the 27 books that were selected were all inspired by God and written without error. This would imply that the Bishops' selection process must have been guided by God so that errant books were not chosen. The Gospel of John was almost rejected by the early Church because of its heavily Gnostic content. Revelation almost did not make it into the Bible either, because it described God in angry, hateful terms that seemed incompatible with the loving Abba (Dad) that Jesus prayed to. When Emperor Constantine ordered 50 copies of the Bible to be copied, they included The Letter of Barnabas and The Shepard of Hermes -- two books that do not appear in today's Bibles.
Author Richard Nicholson wrote:
"The Canon evolved obscurely over many centuries. Books were accepted by some and banned by others. Books accepted for centuries were rejected later. Rival church factions excluded each other's scriptures. Personality clashes and rival ambitions were responsible for the disappearance of much that scholars would like to read today." 4
The extreme animosity, political armtwisting, and banishing or exiling of non-conforming bishops would seem to indicate that the book selection process was a very human one and not inspired by God.
Grammatical errors: Biblical scholars have noted that almost every page of the Bible, whether written in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek contains both spelling and grammatical errors. Although some spelling errors could be attributed to mistakes by later copyists, it appears reasonable to assume that some of the grammatical errors were in the original copy. If one assumes that the Bible is not inerrant, then one would expect errors of all types to creep into the Bible: errors in fact, errors in belief, errors in spelling and errors in grammar. But if the Bible is inerrant, one wonders why the original writings were not free of errors in grammar.
(NEXT WEEK — PART 2)