Is the Bible “Inerrant” or “Errant”?
(The Problem of Textual Criticism)
Please click here for this website’s most important article: Why the Bible Cannot be the Word of God.
For Christians visiting this website _my most important article_ is The Reception of God’s Holy Spirit:
How the Hebrew Prophets _contradict_ Christianity’s Teachings. Please click here.
05 October 2005
Updates: 02 Feb; 24 May 2006 at end of article
Christians and Jews generally agree that the Holy Bible is without error or “inerrant” as it is understood to be God’s holy word, given to Moses and the Prophets via God’s Holy Spirit.
What many believers are _not_ aware of is that the Bible, both the Old and New Testament exists today in a plethora of _contradicting_ recensions. How can it be God’s holy word if it exists with contradictions between the recensions? How can one determine which recension is error-free? Is any recension error- free? If not, why has God allowed his holy word to be “corrupted” with man- made errors? If all the texts are “errant” this suggests the possibility that the churches built upon these texts may be errant in their espoused doctrines and dogmas. Has Satan and his Demons succeeded in thwarting God by successfully “corrupting” God’s holy word with innumerable contradicting man-made errors?
As will be seen below, many professional bible scholars have acknowleged that _all_ texts to some degree possess errors and variant readings. The “original” pristine texts written by Moses and the Prophets do not exist. I would have to say from a former Fundamentalist Protestant upbringing, that the Bible as we have it today is NOT inerrant, it exists only in errant forms.
Scholars studying the Hebrew Bible have noted that the earliest known copies, dating from the mid- 3rd century BCE and found in association with the Dead Sea Scrolls near Qumran, possess variant readings among themsleves. They have attempted to come up with an explanation as to why these texts possess these variations.
Admittedly, all the below is “speculative,” and there are several competing theories. Some scholars have suggested that in the beginning there was one text, called an “Ur-text,”and that later copyings introduced errors, editings, and consequently a number of variant recensions. Some, holding to this view, attempt to recover the original reading by studying the oldest known examples from the mid- 3rd century B.C. The problem? This century bears witness to numerous variations among the manuscripts. It is probably _impossible_ to determine which variant is to be preferred over all the others in order to recover the original “pristine” text (called an “Ur-text”).
“At some point scholars have to form an opinion on the question of whether or not there once existed an (one) original textual form (“Ur-text”) or several pristine forms of the biblical books…The majority opinion holds that there once existed an Ur-text…Because of these problems, most of the existing critical editions of the OT are not eclectic but “diplomatic”; that is, they reproduce a particular form of the textus receptus (“received text”) of the OT as the base text, while recording divergent readings (or “variants”) from Hebrew and non- Hebrew sources in an accompanying critical appartus. In contrast, most modern translations of the OT are by nature eclectic: while adhering basically to the MT, they often replace some MT readings with parallel ones from the versions (mainly the Septuaginta) and the Qumran scrolls.”
(p. 394. vol. VI. Emanuel Tov. “Textual Criticism (OT).” David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992)
“Except in the case of photographic reproductions of the same text, no two printed editions of the Hebrew Bible are identical. The differences among them generally have to do with minimal, even minute, details of the text (single consonants, vowel signs, accents, text arrangement, numbering of verses, division into chapters and verses, Massoretic notes). In a few cases, however, they concern entire words (e.g., some editions of Prov 8:16 read sedeq, “righteousness,” but other ‘ares, “earth”). Older printed editions contain several misprints and this is even true of many modern editions…Disregarding these printing errors, most variations between the printed editions go back to differences in the manuscripts on which they are based…the differences between the Massoretic manuscripts are small, while the older sources such as the Qumran scrolls often display major variations among themselves.”
(pp. 394-395. Vol. VI. Emanuel Tov. “C. Textual History [Textual Criticism, OT].” David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992)
“Printed editions. Many scholars believe that the most ideal edition would be one based on a single manuscript, since it would be a faithful representation of one existing system. Such editions have appeared recently…In the past, editors composed their respective texts from a variety of manuscripts that they deemed suitable, rarely mentioning their sources for the individual elements of the text. Moreover they allowed their own grammatical ideas to influence the text. Even though the differences between the printed editions are minor, these small variations are important for the grammatical analysis of the text.”
(p. 399. Vol. VI. Emanuel Tov. “C. Textual History [Textual Criticism, OT].” David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992)
“…many copyists took liberty to insert changes in the text…Textual variety was characteristic of Palestine as a whole… (p. 406)…Vulgar texts are known from different places in Palestine. Their copyists took liberty to insert in them all kinds of changes and corrections as well as to innovate the spelling, often drastically, as witnessed in many of the Qumran scrolls. Typical representatives of this group are the texts produced by the Qumran school of scribes. These texts are usually written carelessly, and the contain many corrections and erasures…The nonvulgar texts can also be named “precise” or “conservative,” but these terms may be misleading since these texts differ from each other. These internal differences reflect the textual diversity in the Second Temple period, and all of them reflect elements of the so-called original text which have been changed in the other texts. It is hard to say which text is closer to the so-called Ur-text; if a personal impression may be allowed here, it seems that often the Septuaginta is closer to that text than the Massoretic Text…The vulgar and nonvulgar texts described here were current in Palestine in the last three centuries BC and in the first two centuries AD…After several centuries of textual diversity we note a period of textual unity at the end of the first century AD….caused by political and socioreligious events and developments.”
(p. 407. Vol. VI. Emanuel Tov. “C. Textual History [Textual Criticism, OT].” David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992)
“The relationship between Textual Witnesses: The most important textual witnesses to the Old Testament [OT] are Massoretic [MT] with Hebrew Vorlage and of the Septuaginta [LXX]…independent Qumran texts and those written in “Qumran” orthography and language, the proto-Samaritan sources, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. All other sources (such as the Peshitta, Vulgate, Targums, the Hebrew texts from Nahal Hever, Wadi Murabb’at, Masada, and the many Qumran texts) are less significant for the history of the OT text since they are virtually identical with the MT.
(p. 404. Vol. VI. Emanuel Tov. “C. Textual History [Textual Criticism, OT].” David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992)
My Conclusions on the Hebrew Bible:
The earliest “Witness Texts” to the Hebrew Bible are the Proto-Massoretic, Samaritan, and Septuaginta of the mid third century- 1st century B.C. and they exhibit numerous textual variations. The attempt to reconstruct or recover an original pristine Ur-text has not been successful. Today’s translations of the Hebrew Bible vary from publisher to publisher due to each editor choosing what portions of variant readings from different texts/manuscripts to “include/ exclude” in his version, hence the reason why today’s Bibles possess so many different variants or readings/renderings of verses.
The New Testament:
“The Basic Transmission Process. The discipline of textual criticism is necessitated by the nature of the process by which the New Testament text has been transmitted to us- through manuscripts, that is, through copies of copies made by hand down through the years, Since- like virtually all ancient literature- no autographs [originals] are extant for the NewTestament, its most likely original text must be reconstructed from these imperfect, often widely divergent, later copies.”
(p. 414. vol. VI. Eldon Jay Epp.”Textual Criticism (NT).” David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992)
“Textual criticism has been occasioned by the divergent nature of the texts in our manuscript remains, and is necessitated by the quantity of manuscript evidence. But necessity also arises from scribal errors and alterations in the transmission process. Among our earliest manuscripts, some show signs of being copied with workmanlike care…while others appear to have been copied by rather careless scribes…Scribal habits, including errors and alterations, need to be analyzed carefully. Commonly they are divided into two categories: unintentional and intentional alterations.”
(p. 416. vol. VI. Eldon Jay Epp.”Textual Criticism (NT).” David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992)
“”Changes made intentionally by scribes as they copied texts were motivated, in virtually all cases, by a desire to improve the text or to correct it in accordance with what they believed to be its true reading. Purposefully destructive change, at least as perceived by the scribe, is unknown. Moreover, it is customary to say that a slavish scribe- and better still, one of only modest intelligence- is to be preferred to one who thinks for himself. It is the thinking scribe who is more likely to make intentional alterations in the text, inevitably in good faith and out of worthy motivations, including occasional changes made to introduce or promote a viewpoint not in the text being copied. As a class, intentional alterations are far fewer than accidental ones, yet they can excercise far more influence in the transmission process.”
(p. 417. vol. VI. Eldon Jay Epp.”Textual Criticism (NT).” David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992)
03 Feb 2006 Update:
Professor Steibing on three different and _CONTRADICTING_ dates for God’s creation of the world found in the book of Genesis calculated by Jewish, Catholic and Protestant scholars:
“Most scholars [prior to the 19th century AD] agreed that the world was only about six thousand years old, though there was considerable disagreement over the exact date of the creation. Jewish rabbinical calculations from the Hebrew Massoretic Text showed that the world began 3,740 years before the Christian Era. Roman Catholic tradition, based on the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, placed the creation in 5199 B.C. And most English-speaking Protestants accepted the seventeenth-century Archbishop James Ussher’s calculation of the time of creation, 4004 B.C. Ussher’s dates were placed in the margins of early eighteenth-century editions of the King James version of the Bible, making them seem even more authoritive.”
(p. 32. “The Discovery of Prehistory.” William H. Steibing Jr. Uncovering the Past. New York & Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1994 [1993 Prometheus Books])
For all the details on various Bible recensions possessing DIFFERENT CREATION DATES and FLOOD DATES please click here for all the details and scroll down to the 28 Jan 2006 Update.
Like the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, no pristine original manuscripts exist of the New Testament. All possess variant texts. Some exhibit scribal carelessness, and others reveal deliberate alterations. The present day translations reflect choices made by the translator, who does not usually advise his readership that the text they are reading is in reality a “composite” of readings made from variant manuscripts; hence the reason for the differing versions which exist in modern editions of the New Testament.
Many “of the faithful,” Jewish and Christian, are unaware of all of the above- that the texts they believe to be the “inerrant” word of God are in fact drawn form earlier copies known by scholars to be “errant” and possessing all kinds of copyist errors, including alterations of the texts. They in good faith accept these _errant texts as “proof” of the inerrancy_ of God’s holy word.
For me, the “proof” that the Bible is God-inspired (of the Holy Spirit) and inerrant would be that no error would exist within its pages or in its various recensions (God is NOT impotent and unable to preserve his holy word) and _all_ the prophecies were fulfilled down to the smallest details _exactly in the manner predicted_ in the lifetimes of the audiences hearing them so that these audiences would know if a false prophet was speaking or not (God does not make mistakes). The fact that the various recensions do have errors and contradict each other in various details is “proof” for me this is not an “inerrant” text, its a creation of fallible men who do make mistakes and who do err, and the claims to the existence of a Holy Spirit, a God, a Satan and Demons are all bogus unsubstantiated “speculation.”
That is to say, the “imaginary” Satan is understood by Christians to be “the father of error”, it follows that _any_ composition created by Satan or written under Satanic influence, will, by necessity, be FULL OF ERRORS, as “Error is Satan’s HALLMARK” in all that he does. It is then, quite “impossible” for Satan to create a composition and pass it off as God’s handiwork, because Satan’s works will ALWAYS POSSESS ERRORS. We should expect that God’s written documents or compositions inspired by the Holy Spirit SHOULD BE DISTINGUISHABLE FROM SATAN’S by possessing NO ERRORS WHATSOEVER. The problem? _ALL_ Bible recensions POSSESS ERRORS, _ergo_ ALL BIBLES are SATANIC CREATIONS. IF the Bible was _really_ God’s or the Holy Spirit’s creation it would be distinguishable from Satan’s work by having NO ERRORS WHATSOEVER _FOR ALL OF ETERNITY_.
Christian Apologists of course are LOATHE “to impute error” to the Holy Spirit or God so they dismiss the errors found in all Bible recensions as man-made and of no big-deal, not compromising God’s message. Error is blamed on human fallibility not the Holy Spirit. Only the original compositions, called “autographs”, now univerally acknowledged to be lost, were INFALLIBLE and FREE OF ERROR. This of course is “_pure speculation_” on the Christian Apologists’ part.
The Apologists think they are absolving God and and Holy Spirit of blame in claiming the errors in today’s Bibles are man-made. The reality is that this Apologetic is a slap-in-the-face to God and his Holy Spirit, for it implies both were _impotent or didn’t care_ and were UNABLE to preserve the holy word from Satan who led the scribes and translators down through the ages into making numerous textual errors and deliberate alterations, in defiance of the Holy Spirit.
So, in the final analysis, ALL BIBLE RECENSIONS ARE FULL OF ERRORS, revealing they are Satan’s handiwork, and the Bible is not the handiwork of God or his Holy Spirit, for God’s handiwork _ought to be_ distinguished from Satan’s handiwork by an absence of ALL ERROR FOR ALL ETERNITY. Why? because Christian Apologists claim the Holy Spirit is still alive today and guiding the scribes and translators of todays Bibles, and this Holy Spirit also guides the Church in correct doctrines from the Biblical texts. The errors in today’s Bibles are proof the Holy Spirit does not exist and is bogus. The contradictory dogmas and beliefs embraced by hundreds of Christian denominations, each in the past accusing the others of being in error and led by Satan, reveal Christianity’s notion of a Holy Spirit’s existence is false. For why would the Holy Spirit allow Christianity to fragment into so many contradicting denominations and give them Bibles full of man-made errors and alterations? In past ages Christians tortured fellow Christians into confessing heresy, then they burned the heretics alive at the stake in public pageants called Auto da Fe’s (Roman Catholic). Protestants returned the favor (in England Catholics wre burned alive by Protestants). The wars of the Reformation of the 1500’s and 1600’s witnessed the savage butchery of Protestant against Catholic, each claiming the Holy Spirit led them into victory over each other, and that torture and burnings were with the Holy Spirit’s blessings! What nonsense! The Holy Spirit told Christians to “turn the other cheek to their enemies and to pray for them”, not torture, burn alive and kill fellow Christians! No, dear reader, there is NO Holy Spirit, NO God, NO error- free Bible. All of the foregoing Christian behaviors better fit the God of this earth, Satan.
Of course, I am being “tongue-in-cheek facetious” (playing the Devils’ advocate) in the above discussion of the Bible being Satan’s work, for I am a Secular Humanist who understands _all_ religions are bogus, they are the creations of men’s imaginations, projecting man’s loves, hates, fears and lusts onto imaginary gods.
24 May 2006 Update:
Professor Ehrman has recently authored a book detailing the evolution of the New Testament. After years of study he has concluded that the New Testament has evidence of later deliberate alterations by some scribes. He began his research as devout Christian believing in the inerrancy of the Bible. His quest to establish this notion eventually led him to doubt the Bible being God’s Holy Word.
Ehrman (emphasis mine):
“There was an obvious problem, however, with the claim that the Bible was verbably inspired -down to its very words. As we learned at Moody in one of the first courses in the curriculum, we don’t actually have the original writings of the New Testament. What we have are copies of these writings…none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. All scribes did this. So rather than actually having the inspired words of the autographs (i.e., the originals) of the Bible, what we have are the error-ridden copies of the autographs. One of the most pressing of all tasks, therefore, was to ascertain what the originals of the Bible said, given the circumstances that (1) they were inspired and (2) we don’t have them.”
(pp. 4-5. Bart D. Ehrman. Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. HarperSanFrancisco. 2005)
“Learning Greek was a thrilling experience for me…I came to see early on that the full meaning and nuance of the Greek text of the New Testament could be grasped only when it is read and studied in the original language (the same thing applies to the Old Testament, as I later learned when I acquired Hebrew). All the more reason, I thought, for learning the language thoroughly. At the same time, this started making me question my understanding of scripture as the verbally inspired word of God. If the full meaning of the words of scripture can be grasped only by studying them in Greek (and Hebrew), doesn’t this mean that most Christians who don’t read ancient languages, will never have complete access to what God wants them to know? And doesn’t this make the doctrine of inspiration a doctrine only for the scholarly elite, who have the intellectual skills and leisure to learn the languages and studying the texts by reading them in the original? What good does it do to say that the words are inspired by God if most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only to the more or less clumsy renderings of these words into a language, such as English, that has nothing to do with the original words?
...I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help to say the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by scribes -sometimes correctly (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies…”
(pp. 6-7. Ehrman)
“Most of the differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today…If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of scripture, what would be the point if we don’t have the very words of scripture? In some places, as we will see, we simply cannot be sure that we have reconstructed the original text accurately. It’s a bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don’t even know what the words are!
This became a problem for my view of inspiration, for I came to realize that it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place…The fact that we don’t have the words surely must show, I reasoned, that HE DID NOT PRESERVE THEM FOR US. And if he didn’t perform that miracle, there seemed to be no reason to think that performed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words.
In short, my study of the Greek New Testament, and my investigations into the manuscripts that contain it, led to a radical rethinking of my understanding of what the Bible is. This was a seismic change for me. Before this -starting with my born-again experience in high school, through my fundamentalist days at Moody, and on through my evangelical days at Wheaton -my faith had been based completely on a certain view of the Bible as the fully inspired, inerrant word of God. Now I no longer saw the Bible that way. The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied and changed, the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end…Many of these authors no doubt felt they were inspired by God to say what they did, but they had their own views, their own needs, their own desires, their own understandings, their own theologies; and these perspectives, beliefs, views, needs, desires, understandings, and theologies informed everything they said. In all these ways they differed from one another. Among other things, this meant Mark did not say the same thing that Luke said because he didn’t mean the same thing as Luke. John is different from Matthew -not the same. Paul is different from Acts. And James is different from Paul. Each author is a human author and needs to be read for what he (assuming they were all men) has to say, not assuming that what he says is the same, or conformable to, or consistent with what every other author has to say. The Bible, at the end of the day, is a very human book.
This was a new perspective for me, and obviously not the view I had when I was an evangelical Christian -nor is it the view of most evangelicals today.”
(pp. 11-12. Ehrman)
“It is a radical shift from reading the Bible as an inerrant blueprint for our faith, life and future to seeing it as a very human book, with very human points of view, many of which differ from one another and none of which provides the inerrant guide to how we should live. This is the shift in my own thinking that I ended up making, and to which I am now fully committed…Occasionally I see a bumper sticker that reads: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” My response is always, What if God didn’t say it? What if the book you take as giving you God’s words instead contains human words? What if the Bible doesn’t give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age -abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy, and the like? What if we have to figure out to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol -or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty?…as I’ve been pointing out, in many places we (as scholars, or just regular readers) don’t even know what the original words of the Bible were.
My personal theology changed radically with this realization, taking me down roads quite different from the ones I had traversed in my late teens and early twenties.”
(p. 14. Ehrman)
Farrell Till, a former Protestant Minister who “left the fold” after realizing that contradictions within the Bible were evidence it was not God’s word, has an excellent article on the discrepancies between the Septuagint and the Jewish Masoretic text for the Book of Jeremiah which challenges inerrancy claims for the Bible’s miraculous error-free transmission down through the ages. Please click here to access that riveting article.