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Is the Bible inerrant?

Indicators of biblical errors: Part 1

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Proving biblical inerrancy or errancy:

As described elsewhere on this site, Proving biblical inerrancy or errancy appears to be impossible. Ultimately, these beliefs must be accepted on faith. However, if proofs are not available, at least we might be able to derive some indicators of inerrancy or errancy. The most promising route may be to study themes and general topics seen throughout the Bible.

We have examined twelve themes. The four described below seem to indicate (but not prove) that the Bible is errant. Five additional themes also indicate biblical errancy.  Three are inconclusive. None seem to support inerrancy at this time. If any reader knows an additional theme that might indicate or prove errancy or inerrancy, please E-mail us.

In each case, we follow the same format:

bulletWe introduce the theme
bulletWe explain what the Bible would say if it is inerrant
bulletWe do the same for the case where the Bible is errant
bulletWe compare the above two cases with the actual Bible text.
bulletWe try to conclude whether the Bible is inerrant, errant or inconclusive.

The themes listed below are described very briefly, and in general terms. We hope to expand each description into a full essay or series of essays in the future.

Note to visitors:

We have had a problem writing this series of essays.

Although our five staff represent very different religions, we are all religious liberals. This situation appears in many groups working in the religious tolerance/religious freedom fields. We have tried to recruit a conservative volunteer to help with proofreading for the past 14 years without success.

We found it particularly difficult to explain the Bible from an inerrant perspective. If you know of anyone who can volunteer to help us out with this series of essays, we would really appreciate it.

Indicator 1: Cosmological evidence:

bulletPossibility 1: The Bible is inerrant. Its description of the world, the solar system and the rest of universe is accurate. As a minimum, the Bible would refer to the earth and planets as spheres, revolving around the sun, with the moon revolving around the earth, and stars at extreme distances from the earth and sun.
 
bulletPossibility 2: The Bible is errant. Biblical authors would have picked up the cosmologies from surrounding Pagan cultures. The Babylonians and other Pagans believed that the earth was more or less flat with mountains around the edges that held up the rigid dome of the sky. The sky was relatively close to the earth - close enough so that the Tower of Babel was a threat to God's isolation. There were vents in the sky that could be opened. Through them, God or angels could pour water to produce rain. At the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, fire and brimstone (molten sulfur) were said to have been poured. There were also drains in the earth that allowed water to flow under the earth into a large cavern, called Sheol, where the dead lived in a sort of shadow existence. The sun, moon, planets and stars all were pushed by angels along the underside of the dome, once every 24 hours.
 
bulletWhat the Bible Actually Says: The books of the Bible reflect the second scenario. 1 None of the factors in the first possibility are seen in the Bible.
 
bulletConclusion: One can argue from archaeological evidence that the Bible authors picked up primitive, pre-scientific Pagan ideas about the nature of the universe from surrounding cultures. This indicates (but does not prove) that the Bible is errant. It is always possible to explain the cosmology of the Bible writers as being purely symbolic in nature.
 
bulletMore info: We have discussed this indicator more fully in a series of essays.

Indicator 2: Archaeological evidence:

bulletPossibility 1: The Bible is inerrant. The Hebrew Scriptures accurately describe the cultures surrounding the ancient Israelite tribes. The books of Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus were written by Moses.
 
bulletPossibility 2: The Bible is errant. The Hebrew Scriptures contain many errors about the surrounding cultures, as events, personalities and cultures were forgotten before being recorded. The first books in the Scriptures was written in its final form circa 900 BCE during the reign of Josiah. This was many centuries after the life of Moses.
 
bulletWhat the Bible Actually Says: At the time that the Bible was written, the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures seem to have known little or nothing about Canaan as it existed during the second millennium, at the time of the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent genocides of the Canaanites.
 
bulletThe Bible refers to the presence of the Philistines in Canaan; but that society did not arrive in the area until long after the second millennium.
 
bulletThe Scriptures speak of events at Beersheva and other towns which did not exist until much later than those events.
 
bulletThere was no mention of the strong Egyptian presence in Caanan at that time. In fact, if the ancient Hebrews left Egypt, wandered in the desert for 40 years, and invaded Canaan as described in the books of Exodus and Joshua, they would not have left Egyptian-controlled territory. 2

The books of the Bible reflect the second scenario.
 

bulletConclusion: One can argue from archaeological evidence that the Bible authors had very little knowledge of the cultures present in Canaan during the second millennium BCE. This is a very strong indicator (but not an absolute proof) that the Bible is errant.
 
bulletMore info: We have a growing section of our web site which discusses the conflicts between the Bible and present-day biblical archaeology.

Indicator 3: Christian beliefs over time:

bulletPossibility 1: The Bible is inerrant and was created under the inspiration of God, so that He could communicate his will to humanity. Since God has infinite intelligence, He would have made certain that:
bulletThe Bible promotes a positive set of morals.
bulletNo internal conflicts existed in its writings.
bulletThe Bible's teachings are clear and unambiguous.
bulletThe Bible's teachings are sufficient for today.

Christians who lived in any century would be able to discover God's will on any moral issue by consulting the Bible. Thus Christians' concept of right and wrong would be constant with time; Christians in the 3rd century CE and the 20th century CE would hold the same beliefs about a variety of moral questions, ranging from abortion access to equal rights for gays and lesbians, to the death penalty, physician assisted suicide, etc. Beliefs about the nature of God, the nature of Jesus, criteria for salvation, Heaven and Hell, etc. would also be constant over time.
 

bulletPossibility 2: The Bible is a collection of books written by fallible human authors, each intended to promote the personal beliefs of its writers. Thus, it would contain ambiguous passages. Since it was written over a period of many centuries of religious change, various of its passages would strongly conflict with others. Thus, Christians of all eras would reach different ethical and moral conclusions from the Bible. They would also derive different religious beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus, salvation, Heaven, Hell, etc.
 
bulletWhat History Shows:
bulletChristians' belief about slavery have reversed during the past two millennia. Slavery was condoned, regulated and approved by the writers of the Bible. The Pentateuch contains rules from God concerning the regulation of slavery, including under what conditions  a slave owner could be prosecuted if he beat his slave to death. In his book Philemon, Paul wrote to a slave owner about one of his slaves. Paul had every opportunity to condemn slavery as immoral, and to ask the slave owner to free his slave. But he apparently believed that slavery was an acceptable institution. With the exception of Christian Reconstructionists, slavery has been rejected by essentially all Christians today. 
 
bulletBeating children with a rod is condoned and recommended in the Bible. But an increasing percentage of Christian parents have abandoned this method of discipline. Various denominations promote spanking, and cite passages in Proverbs about child discipline. Other Christian groups recommend child discipline without violence, and consider beating a child with a rod to be child abuse. They base their decision on the Golden Rule, on non-violent teachings of Jesus. and on the findings of sociologists that disciplining children through physical violence results in lower IQs, and higher rates of adult depression, violence, and criminal behavior.
 
bulletBeliefs about government structure have also changed greatly. The Bible promotes dictatorial monarchies and the divine right of kings. When a delegation of Jewish leaders approached Moses with the request for some elements of democracy, God killed them and their families. Most Christians now promote democracy, in which power is shared by the people. They also value human rights, and oppose (for example) burning some prostitutes alive as is specified in the Bible.
 
bulletThe Hebrew Scriptures frequently promote the genocide of others who hold different religious beliefs. Some Christian fanatics in Bosnia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Nigeria, Northern Ireland and elsewhere have followed these teachings and engaged in mass murder and genocide. Most contemporary Christians promote religious freedom so that others can follow other religions without oppression.
 
bulletChristian beliefs about God, Jesus, salvation, heaven, hell, and many dozens of other theological topics have changed over the past two millennia. For example the nature of Hell as taught by most conservative Christians has changed over the past century from a place of unbearable and eternal torture without any hope of mercy, to a place where one is simply isolated from God.
 
bulletThere is a disturbing theme that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It involves the transfer of sins: the concept that innocent people can be found guilty of, and punished for, the sins of guilty persons. Three of many examples are:
 
bulletGod caused countless newborns, infants and young children to die during the Noahic Flood because of the sinful behavior of their parents.
 
bulletThe second Commandment says, in part: "... I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." That is, if a person worships another God, her or his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and perhaps great great grandchildren will be punished for the sins.
 
bulletHam, one of the sons of Noah, committed an undefined crime against his father. Noah laid a horrendous curse. But it was not on his son Ham who was guilty.  Noah punished that Ham's son Canaan. There is no indication that Canaan was involved in any way or even knew of the event. Still, he was to be enslaved to Shem and Japheth and their children. Further, Canaan's descendents were to be slaves in perpetuity.

The concept of punishing innocent people for the crimes of the guilty is profoundly immoral by any current religious or secular system of ethics.
 

bulletConclusion: Many of the positive changes in Christian moral positions over the past two millennia have required that we abandon some specific Biblical teachings as being contrary to the will of God. It seems unreasonable that if God intended the Bible to be a guide in all matters, that it would promote a standard of ethics that is profoundly immoral when compared to today's religious and secular moral systems. This indicates, but does not prove, that the Bible is not inerrant.
 
bulletMore info: We have an essay that describes biblical passages that are profoundly immoral when compared with today's religious and secular systems of morality.

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Indicator 4: Uniformity of Christian beliefs at the present time:

bulletPossibility 1: As in the previous example, the Bible is clear, unambiguous, and consistent. Devout, thoughtful, serious Christians would be able to discover God's will on any moral question by consulting the Bible. Thus beliefs about theological and moral questions would be similar among all denominations. Devout, intelligent, serious, careful Southern Baptist students of the Bible would reach the same conclusions as would similar students from the United Church of Christ or the United Church of Canada. A consensus would be simple to reach among all Christians on the nature of God, heaven, hell, and perhaps thousands of other theological matters. Christians would agree on all of the important ethical questions of today: access to abortion, access to physician assisted suicide, the death penalty, equal rights for homosexuals, roles of women in the family, church and society, etc.
 
bulletPossibility 2: The Bible is a collection of books written by human authors over a long time period. Each writer promoted his own religious beliefs. Thus, the Bible contains many conflicting passages and concepts. Conservative, mainline and liberal Christians are able to support their very different beliefs on theological and moral questions with Bible quotations.
 
bulletWhat History Shows: There is currently very little agreement among the worlds 35,000 or so Christian groups about the Bible's message:
bulletChristian faith groups differ on all key moral questions: from abortion to the role of women.
bulletMany different Christian denominations hold varying ideas about religious rituals, the nature of God, heaven, hell, salvation, etc.
bulletAn interesting example are two active Evangelical Christian agencies which deal with gender roles:
 
bulletThe Council on Biblical Manhood and Womenhood promotes promotes Biblical manhood, which they interpret as requiring inequality in the authority of men and women. They are seen as having different roles to play. 3
 
bulletChristians for Biblical Equality (CBE) believes "that the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women of all racial and ethnic groups and all economic classes..." 4
 
bulletBoth agencies quote at great length from the Bible to justify their conflicting positions. They sincerely believe that their view is correct and biblically based.
 
bullet Zondervan publishes a series of books in which three or four Evangelical Christians argue what the Bible has to say about a single doctrinal matter, such as the rapture, sanctification, salvation, the rapture, how to interpret Revelation, criteria for divorce, etc. Each contributor takes opposing points of view; each believes that their view is what the Bible means. Each writes in support of his -- it is almost always a male theologian -- viewpoint and attacks all of the others.
 
bulletConclusion: One can argue from the lack of a consensus within Christendom that the Bible's message cannot be unambiguously determined on many topics. The Bible's  clearly teaches conflicting views on many vital matters. It seems unreasonable that if an all-knowing God intended the Bible to be a guide in all matters, that sincere Christians today would come to such opposite decisions over what is right and wrong. This indicates, but does not prove, that the Bible is not inerrant.
 
bulletMore info: One section of our web site discusses "hot" religious topics about which Christians are not in agreement

Five additional indicators are in a separate essay

Conclusion:

Although it appears to be impossible to absolutely prove the errancy or inerrancy of the Bible, there appear to be at least eight strong indicators that it is errant in at least some places. 

Related essays on this web site:

bulletTwo inconclusive indicators of Biblical inerrancy/errancy.
bulletFive additional indicators of Biblical errancy

References:

  1. Adrian Swindler, "The Flat-Earth Belief of Bible Writers" at http://infoweb.magi.com/~godfree/flaterth.html
  2. Karen Armstrong, "In the beginning: A new interpretation of Genesis," Ballantine (1996), Page 7. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  3. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) has a web site at: http://www.cbmw.org/
  4. Christians for Biblical Equality have a web site at: http://www.cbeinternational.org/

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Copyright 1998 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-OCT-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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