The Myth of the Inerrant Originals

walter martin quote on the Bible

Most every Evangelical church member believes that the Bible that they carry to church on Sunday is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. If you ask them if the Bible has any errors, mistakes, or contradictions, they will likely says, absolutely not! While they  know that their Bible is a translation of ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, they assume that there is a perfect word line from God, to the writers of the manuscripts, to the translation they use.

Ask any college/seminary trained Evangelical pastor if the Bible has any errors, mistakes, or contradictions, and they will likely not say anything at first and then will say, well, you need to understand _________________________________ (insert long explanation).   They will likely tell you that modern translations are faithful, reliable or that there are no errors, mistakes, or contradictions on any matter that is important to salvation. If you press them hard enough they will tell you that no translation is perfect. (remember, inerrancy demands perfection) At about this point in the discussion, the Evangelical pastor will say, I DO believe the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts are inerrant. (perfect, without error, mistake, or contradiction)

The next obvious question is, so where are the original manuscripts? Well, uh, l-o-n-g pause, the original manuscripts don’t exist, the Evangelical pastor says. That’s right, the original manuscripts don’t exist. No one has ever seen or read an “original” manuscript of a book in the Bible. In fact, most of the extant manuscripts are dated hundreds and thousands of years after the events they record. According to Wikipedia, the oldest Old Testament manuscript dates back to the 2nd century BCE and this is just a fragment. The rest of the Old Testament manuscripts are dated from the 3rd century CE to the 11th century CE. Most of these manuscripts are NOT written in Hebrew.

But what about the Dead Sea Scrolls? Uneducated Evangelical church members erroneously think the Dead Sea Scrolls “prove” the Bible is the Word of God. Here is what Wikipedia says:

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 972 texts discovered between 1946 and 1956 at Khirbet Qumran in the West Bank. They were found in caves about a mile inland from the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, from which they derive their name. The texts are of great historical, religious, and linguistic significance because they include the earliest known surviving manuscripts of works later included in the Hebrew Bible canon, along with extra-biblical manuscripts which preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism.

The texts are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Nabataean, mostly on parchment but with some written on papyrus and bronze. The manuscripts have been dated to various ranges between 408 BCE and 318 CE…

Due to the poor condition of some of the Scrolls, not all of them have been identified. Those that have been identified can be divided into three general groups: (1) some 40% of them are copies of texts from the Hebrew Bible, (2) approximately another 30% of them are texts from the Second Temple Period and which ultimately were not canonized in the Hebrew Bible, like the Book of Enoch, Jubilees, the Book of Tobit, the Wisdom of Sirach, Psalms 152–155, etc., and (3) the remaining roughly 30% of them are sectarian manuscripts of previously unknown documents that shed light on the rules and beliefs of a particular group or groups within greater Judaism, like the Community Rule, the War Scroll, the Pesher on Habakkuk and The Rule of the Blessing.

The oldest manuscripts for the New Testament date back to the 2nd century CE. Most of extant manuscripts are dated from 9th century CE forward. Here is what Wikipedia says about the New Testament manuscripts:

Parts of the New Testament have been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, having over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian. The dates of these manuscripts range from 125 CE (the John Rylands manuscript, P52; oldest copy of John fragments) to the introduction of printing in Germany in the 15th century. The vast majority of these manuscripts date after the 10th century. Although there are more manuscripts that preserve the New Testament than there are for any other ancient writing, the exact form of the text preserved in these later, numerous manuscripts may not be identical to the form of the text as it existed in antiquity. Textual scholar Bart Ehrman writes: “It is true, of course, that the New Testament is abundantly attested in the manuscripts produced through the ages, but most of these manuscripts are many centuries removed from the originals, and none of them perfectly accurate. They all contain mistakes – altogether many thousands of mistakes. It is not an easy task to reconstruct the original words of the New Testament….”

As you can see, there are no originals, so any talk of inerrant originals is just a smoke screen that hides the fact the extant manuscripts and EVERY Bible translation is errant. Any Evangelical who says that the Bible is inerrant in the originals is making a statement that can not be proved. Every college/seminary trained Evangelical pastor knows this, but few of them are willing to tell their congregation this. Why? They fear that their congregation will lose “faith” in the Bible and that the Bible will lose its authority if they tell them the truth.  They would rather lie, and they ARE lying if they don’t tell their congregation the facts about the origin, translation and text of the Bible, than have people doubt the Bible or God.

If there are no inerrant manuscripts, then there can be no inspiration. Most Evangelicals believe that God inspired (breathed out) the Bible. If you ask an Evangelical church member exactly WHAT God inspired, they will likely point to their Bible. Ask an Evangelical pastor the same question and he will likely start praying for the rapture to happen immediately. Why? Because the Evangelical doctrine of inspiration is based on the notion that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts. Since there are no original manuscripts and there are thousands of variations in the extant manuscripts and translations, then there is no such thing as an inspired Bible. At best, all that Evangelicals have is a flawed, errant translation of old, flawed, errant manuscripts.  Inerrancy and inspiration, as defined by Evangelicals, are myths, lacking any proof whatsoever.

This does not mean that the Bible has no value, but understanding that the Bible is not an inspired, inerrant text  keeps a person from giving the Bible supernatural, God-like power. It is a good book, a useful book, an inspirational book, but it is not a book that is straight from the mouth of God to our ears.

Our culture is awash with men and women who say they speak for the Christian God. What is the one belief that these speakers for God have in common? That the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God.  Every Sunday, Evangelical Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest church in America, leads his congregation in:

joel osteen this is my bible

The culture war that continues to rage in the United States is based on the belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. When the Evangelical culture warrior quotes a proof-text from the Bible, they believe they are speaking the very words of God, in English of course.  What they are really speaking are the words of an errant, fallible text that may or may not be the words of God. Since the original manuscripts no longer exist, it is impossible to know if the words of the Bible are God’s words.

And even if the original manuscripts did exist, how could anyone prove that they were the words of God? Would there be an endorsement statement on the last page that said,  This is God and I approve of these words?   Of course not.

The Evangelical Christian says, the pastor says, the denomination says, the Bible says, but there is no way of knowing what God said. And this is why the foundation of Christianity is not the Bible but faith.

Let me close this post by illustrating how pervasive the belief that the Bible is inerrant/inspired is. The following Gallop Poll charts tell a depressing story about how Americans view the Bible:

views of the Bible

belief about Bible by sect

Gallup concludes:

The percentage of Americans taking a literal view of the Bible has declined over time, from an average of 38% from 1976-1984 to an average of 31% since. However, highly religious Americans — particularly those of Protestant faiths — still commonly believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

In general, the dominant view of Americans is that the Bible is the word of God, be it inspired or actual, as opposed to a collection of stories recorded by man. That is consistent with the findings that the United States is a predominantly Christian nation and that Americans overwhelmingly believe in God.

Perhaps it is time for Christian churches to stop studying the Bible for a year so they can focus on reading and studying a few of Bart Ehrman’s books. Of course, if pastors did this they might risk being fired because their congregations would know that they’ve been lying to the them about the Bible. (and it IS a lie to omit facts about the origin, nature, and history of the Biblical text)

Until Evangelicals are disabused of their errant beliefs about the Bible, they will continue to arrogantly think that they have THE truth, that their God is the one, true, living God, and that the words of the Bible are God directly speaking to us. Until they understand that the Bible is not what they claim it is, any hope of a rational discussion is lost.  The Evangelical position can be summed up like this, God said it, end of discussion.

Notes

Some groups take inspiration and inerrancy a step further and say that the King James Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. The followers of Peter Ruckman even believe the italicized words added by translators to improve  the reading and understanding of the King James translation, are inerrant and inspired. Ruckmanites believe the italicized words are an advanced revelation given to the translators by God.

Some Evangelicals believe that God has preserved his Words down through history. These Evangelicals admit that the original manuscripts do not exist, but they believe God, down through the centuries, has preserved (kept perfect) his Word, and the King James Bible is the preserved Word of God for English-speaking people.

If you want a complete, detailed understanding of what most Evangelicals believe about the the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, read the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Here is a  Who’s Who list of Evangelical scholars who  signed the Chicago Statement.

Comments (11)

  1. Lana

    I took five semesters of Greek as an undergrad. Don’t remember much as half a decade, but I remember well all the passages where the manuscripts contradicted themselves. Even as an evangelical, it impressed me. I’d revise what you said a bit when I talk to friends. It’s possible that god inspired every word of the original text. The question people have to ask themselves is why a god would go through all that trouble if he was not going to preserve. Grasping that was the point when I was able to let the old doctrine go.

    Reply
  2. Dale

    And after he inspireth Ye King James Bible, the LORD did sayeth, “Whoa, WE done here.”

    Reply
  3. August

    I get a kick out of people who say that they believe the Bible is literally true and then immediately prove that false by showing they don’t believe what the book says, that lots of it needs to be interpreted just so.

    On a related note, I was introduced to the Law of Double Reference recently, in which Old Testament passages can be interpreted as prophecies in addition to being relevant to the context in which they’re found. Does anyone know where this Law of Double Reference comes from and when it was formulated? The ‘why’ I can pretty much guess.

    Reply
  4. Steve

    Bart Ehrman! Bart Ehrman!! GRRRRR!!!!

    Don’t you REALIZE this man is sent from the devil to deceive people??

    (Wait, he’s one of my heroes, too. I guess that’s why I like him; he’s of the devil!!!)

    Reply
  5. MichaelL65

    Many Evangelical denominations are now stating as a part of their Doctrinal Statements the whole idea of the Bible being inerrant in the original manuscripts.

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  6. Obiron

    This was the start of my walk away from Christianity. Studying the origins of the bible is pretty sure to make you wonder about how little God cared about preserving his word.

    Reply
  7. John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    I remember one of the students , with whom I was studying theology back in the 90′s, telling me that he was losing faith in the reliability of the bible because of all the variant readings in the NT. Any study of the Nestle-Aland Greek NT shows thousands of variant readings and which MSS support each reading.

    His Baptist church had taught him that the bible was inerrant in the original MSS which, of course, he discovered in NT exegesis lectures that we don’t have. His pastor had never mentioned all the qualifications that leading Evangelical scholars placed on inerrancy, so he was in a quandry when he discovered that things were not what he had been taught at church.

    Another student with whom I was studying theology gave up the faith when, in a unit called Gospel Traditions, students were asked to colour code Kurt Aland’s “Synopsis of the Gospels” (Greek Text): red for Mark only, blue for Matthew only, yellow for Luke only and grey for John only, then combine colours for those gospels where there were agreements in 2, or 3, or 4 of the gospels,

    Students had for find explanations for the agreements and differences. This exercise caused this student to lose faith completely because his whole theory of inspiration was, in his eyes, overthrown. What the exercise showed was that even where there are no variant readings in the MSS of the Gospels it is impossible to reconcile all the differences.

    I know of NO church pastor that would suggest to his congregation to undertake such an exercise but it is worthwhile because ( it seems to me) to overthrow inerrancy in a way that the missing “original MSS excuse” cannot be reverted to. There are errors between the texts of the Gospels even where there are no variant readings.

    The same exercise can be done on the OT looking at the differences between 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles.

    Inerrancy cannot be supported by an examination of the text and, if pastors actually respected the text they would tell their congregations to be unafraid to undertake such examination. But they are likely to be fired or they are afraid that their Evangelical churches will empty, so they don’t do it.

    Shalom,
    John Arthur

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      John,

      Thanks for sharing these personal stories. They really help illustrate the point I was making in this post.

      Bruce

      Reply
  8. richardmarlowe236

    Bruce,

    Did you ever have a church member challenge you on these issues about inerrancy when you were a pastor? If so, how did you deal with it?

    On a side note… Do you remember the big rift in fundyland when Schaap said the KJV was preserved, but not inspired?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I never had a member challenge me on inerrancy. Not one time. Most challenges came over church standards, music, eschatology, Calvinism, and politics.

      Yeah, I remember the Schaap hullabaloo. I think Bob Gray blames Schaap’s downfall on his view of the KJV. I’d rather blame it on, in the words of an old crusty preacher I heard in college, a stiff prick has no conscience.

      Reply
  9. Ian

    In the paper I wrote on my deconversion, I used the example of the resurrection story to help show Christianity was false. There is no way you can put all of the different versions together. I actually got the idea from Dan Barker.

    Bart Ehrman is one smart guy and I am thankful for the research he has put into his books on the Bible and the problems therein.

    Reply

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