Some Mistakes of Scripture

As most atheists are well aware, fundamentalist Christians generally treat the Bible as a perfect, self-contained whole: missing nothing, containing no errors, and every word written by the infallible inspiration of God. Naturally, this belief leads them to fight to the bitter end against biology, geology, cosmology, and every other branch of science the findings of which imply that the Bible is not literally true. The ignorance and superstition created by this millennia-long war on human progress are still hobbling us today, so it’s no wonder that atheists, skeptics and other freethinkers have strong motivation to oppose the fundamentalist belief in biblical inerrancy.

But it’s not necessary to delve into evolution or cosmological physics to accomplish this goal. We don’t need to go so far afield to show that Christian claims of inerrancy are false; nor do we need to undertake the Herculean task of trying to explain complex science to religious believers who are determined to reject it. On the contrary, the disproof of their claims is staring them in the face from the pages of their own holy book. The Bible is not the flawless, self-contained whole they imagine it to be: the text convicts itself of this, by repeatedly quoting and referring to other writings, evidently considered in their own day to be just as canonical as the surviving ones, but that are now long lost or have long since been rejected as pious forgeries. Nor were the Bible’s authors the inspired, divinely guided saints of Christian myth; on the contrary, they were as fallible and forgetful as any other human being. We can see proof of this in the mistakes they made – mistakes that are preserved in the text as we have it today. Incredibly, these plain and obvious errors of fact have been passed down unchanged through the centuries, surviving many generations of recopying, redacting, and picking and choosing by church fathers and synods.

There are three main categories of textual mistakes in the Bible, and this essay will discuss all three:

  • Quotes of non-existent passages — when the biblical authors give quotations corresponding to no known writings, or reference books that have long since been lost;
  • Incorrect quotes of canonical passages — when the biblical authors quote passages that appear elsewhere in the Bible, but garble their quotations, give an incorrect attribution, or get specific details wrong;
  • and Correct quotes of non-canonical passages — when the biblical authors quote, cite, or otherwise treat as canonical known books that were rejected as untrustworthy by the church councils that assembled the Bible as we have it today.

The majority of these mistakes occur in the New Testament, since those authors were anxious to cite Old Testament prophecy in support of their claims – sometimes anxious enough to be sloppy, as we’ll see – whereas the fulfillment of prophecy was less of a concern in OT times. Nevertheless, the Old Testament has problems of its own which will also be discussed here. Each entry listed below will highlight a particular biblical verse, explain what the mistake is, and where applicable, discuss and refute objections raised by apologists. In almost every case, these objections reduce to ignoring the clearest and most rational meaning of the words and insisting that the Bible’s authors intended to convey something other than what was written.

Oops!: Joshua 10:13 describes one of the Israelites’ miraculous military victories against their Canaanite enemies, then tells us where to go for more information. “And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher?”
        2 Samuel 1:18 adds another endorsement of this mysterious book: “Also he bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow: behold, it is written in the book of Jasher.”
How They Messed Up: There is no Book of Jasher in the Bible. Why does the text direct us to a source which we no longer possess?
        There are only two ways to explain this, both unpalatable to modern fundamentalists. Either the Book of Jasher was a divinely inspired document, but it has been lost – which contradicts the Bible’s claim, in Psalms 12:6-7, that God will preserve his words forever – or it was not a divinely inspired document – which means that infallible scripture endorses as a reliable source a book that is neither infallible nor the word of God!
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: The easiest way out of this dilemma would be to find a document which could serve as the original Book of Jasher, and indeed, some parties claim to have such a thing, most notably the Mormons. In reality, however, the book which the Mormons claim to possess is almost certainly a medieval forgery which has no documented provenance prior to 1625 and is near-universally rejected by textual scholars. There is no document in existence that can credibly claim to be or to contain the true, original Book of Jasher.

Oops!: It’s bad enough that the previous entry refers to records that have been lost, but other verses in the Old Testament refer to whole books of prophecy that we no longer possess. Take 2 Chronicles 9:29: “Now the rest of the acts of Solomon, first and last, are they not written in the book of Nathan the prophet, and in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite, and in the visions of Iddo the seer against Jeroboam the son of Nebat?”
How They Messed Up: We have no surviving copies of “the book of Nathan the prophet”, “the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite”, or “the visions of Iddo the seer”. Yet the Old Testament clearly identifies these as divinely inspired prophets. This casts grave doubt on apologetic claims, made by sites like this one, that “God would preserve all of His words” for the benefit of every generation. (A disconcerting thought for premillennialists: Maybe the reason we keep getting the date of the Rapture wrong is because we’re missing some vital verses that were in the lost prophetic books!)
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: Via a convoluted exegesis, this Christian site (which also endorses the idea that God would not permit any inspired document to be lost) claims that these books are not lost, but rather are found in the last few chapters of 1 and 2 Samuel. Their argument is that, since Samuel began writing these books but died before the last events they record, God must have called other prophets to finish writing them.
        First of all, it’s important to note that this is entirely speculative: there is no internal evidence in 1 and 2 Samuel for this presumed shift in authorship. But more importantly, we know that this can’t be right. The verse I cited refers to “the acts of Solomon” as being recorded in the books of Nathan, Ahijah and Iddo. But the books of 1 and 2 Samuel record only events that took place in David’s reign, before Solomon ever came to the throne. In fact, as the verse says, Iddo’s prophecies were contemporaneous with Jeroboam, who was Solomon’s successor in the northern kingdom of Israel. (Here’s a timeline of Old Testament kings.) Thus, the visions of these prophets cannot all be in the books of Samuel.

Oops!: Besides the book of Jasher and the visions of Nathan, Ahijah and Iddo, there are many other references in the Old Testament to lost or unknown books. A more comprehensive list can be found at Wikipedia, which cites these examples among others: “the book of the wars of the Lord” (Numbers 21:14), the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41), “the book of Shemaiah the prophet, and of Iddo the seer concerning genealogies” (2 Chronicles 12:15), the Book of Jehu (2 Chronicles 20:34), “the sayings of the seers” (2 Chronicles 33:19), and more.
        And there are also references to lost writings in the New Testament. In First Corinthians, Paul refers to a letter he previously wrote to that church (5:9), which has not been preserved as part of the NT canon; a similar verse can be found in Ephesians (3:3). Paul also refers to a lost letter to the church at Laodicea (Colossians 4:16), endorsing it as one that’s useful and worth reading in other churches (and presumably, therefore, also worthy of preservation).
How They Messed Up: None of these books are known to exist today, nor do we know anything that might have been written in them. It seems that a great deal of divinely inspired scripture has been lost!
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: http://www.religiousresearcher.org/blog/?p=345 argues that these books were never part of the canon to start with, so it’s not the case that canonical books have been lost. But the obvious counterargument is that the only reason these books aren’t part of the canon is that they were lost! If Christians had original, trustworthy copies of new letters from Paul, or inspired writings by other Old Testament prophets, they would surely treat those with the same reverence as they treat the surviving books which they believe to be divinely inspired.

Oops!: One of the most glaring examples of the Bible misquoting itself appears at the very beginning of the New Testament. Mark 1:2 says this:

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I am sending my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way.”

How They Messed Up: There is no verse like this in the Book of Isaiah. The Old Testament verse whose wording comes closest is in a different prophet, Malachi 3:1:

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.

…which implies that Mark, supposed author of a divinely inspired and inerrant gospel, remembered the quote correctly, but made a mistake and attributed it to the wrong prophet. (The next verse, Mark 1:3, is more clearly a quote of Isaiah 40:3, which may explain the confusion – apparently Mark garbled the two prophets together.)

No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: If you’ve been following along, you may have noticed that the King James Bible gives this verse differently – it begins “As it is written in the prophets…” – which would encompass Mark’s synthesis of Malachi and Isaiah.
        There’s a good reason for the variant wording. As the Bible was passed down through the centuries, prior to the invention of the printing press, the manuscripts had to be laboriously recopied by scribes. Usually they copied it faithfully, including the mistakes. But sometimes, when they noticed a mistake, they were bothered enough to try to correct it. This is one of those cases. Evidently, some medieval scribe tried to cover for Mark’s mistake by changing the inaccurate “Isaiah” to the more general “the prophets”. This “corrected” manuscript was passed on and gave rise to a tradition of variant manuscripts, one of which served as the source for the KJV. Meanwhile, the original manuscript with the error was recopied exactly as written by a more scrupulous (or less observant) scribe and passed down in a separate chain of historical transmission, creating two competing wordings for this passage.
        Although both the “Isaiah” and “the prophets” variants have survived to this day, there can be no doubt that the “Isaiah” wording is the original. Even this essay by Daniel B. Wallace, written from a conservative Christian point of view, defends this conclusion. Wallace points out that of all the variant biblical manuscripts containing this verse, the “Isaiah” ones are far earlier, more numerous and more geographically widespread. Notably, although Wallace still believes in inerrancy, he’s honest enough to admit that this does appear to be a genuine error with no apparent resolution.

Oops!: In Mark 2:26, Jesus answers the Pharisees, who demand to know why he’s breaking the Sabbath prohibitions, by quoting the Old Testament. “Have ye never read what David did… how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests?”
How They Messed Up: As you can readily confirm for yourself by reading 1 Samuel 21:1-6, it wasn’t Abiathar but Abiathar’s father, Ahimelech, who was high priest when David did this. Has Jesus forgotten his Old Testament?
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: Eric Lyons of Apologetics Press insists that Jesus didn’t make a mistake, oh no! He simply says that this happened “in the days of Abiathar the high priest”, which Lyons interprets as meaning that this incident didn’t necessarily happen while Abiathar actually was the high priest, but merely while Abiathar was alive.
        Using this same logic, if I said that “the War of 1812 began in the days of President Abraham Lincoln”, I wouldn’t be wrong! After all, according to Eric Lyons, this statement doesn’t have to mean that the War of 1812 began while Abraham Lincoln actually was president, only that it began while he was alive (he was three years old at the time). Try that one on your history professor!
        The reason my Lincoln example is implausible is the same reason Lyons’ argument is implausible: when we refer to a period of time as defined by a person who held a title, in almost all ordinary cases, we mean to refer to the period of time in which that person held that title. Statements such as “X was witnessed by Abraham Lincoln” might acceptably refer to any event that happened while Lincoln was alive, but “X was witnessed by President Abraham Lincoln” makes little sense if X was an event that occurred before Lincoln’s ascent to the presidency.

Oops!: In John 7:38, Jesus quotes scripture to describe the rewards promised to his followers: “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”
How They Messed Up: There is no such verse anywhere in the Bible. What “scripture” is Jesus referring to?
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: http://bible.cc/john/7-38.htm quotes several commentaries which say that “the reference is not to any single passage”, but to various passages throughout the Old Testament that use water as a metaphor for holiness and cleansing. But the specificity of this wording casts doubt on that: why would Jesus bother to tack on “as the scripture has said” if he wasn’t quoting anything in particular? Why wouldn’t he just present this as a new teaching of his own that he was introducing, as he does on many other occasions?

Oops!: In Matthew 1:23, the gospel author writes that Jesus’ birth fulfilled a famous prophecy from Isaiah. “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”
How They Messed Up: The prophecy Matthew cited can be found in Isaiah 7:14. The problem is, it wasn’t a prophecy of the distant future. Isaiah was speaking to people in his own time. More specifically, he was speaking to King Ahaz of Judah, who was at war against an alliance of Israel and Syria. The birth of this child would serve as a sign to Ahaz that his enemies would not defeat him. “For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings” (7:16, continuing the same prophecy).
        And as generations of atheists and textual scholars have recognized, the Hebrew word that Isaiah used, almah, carries a meaning more like “young woman”. The word that means virgin in the technical sense, bethulah, is not used in the original passage, making Matthew’s citation of it a twofold error. (Even well-known Christian apologists like Craig Blomberg concede this point: he says it is “no longer controversial” that almah “simply refers to a young woman of marriageable age”).
        In fact, as the ultimate proof that no miraculous conception was meant, Isaiah then goes on to “fulfill” his own prophecy by seeking out and impregnating a suitable woman, and proclaiming that the child she bears is the sign Ahaz had been promised (Isaiah 8:3-4). Clearly, whatever this prophecy envisioned, it was not that a virgin would become pregnant without having sex.
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: This article by Michael Gleghorn concedes that Isaiah’s prophecy referred to events in his day, but claims that it also had a “dual fulfillment” in the birth of Jesus seven hundred years later. “In this view the almah, or young maiden of Isaiah’s prophecy, is a type of the virgin Mary, who later conceived Jesus through the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit.”
        This kind of patent nonsense is what modern apologists routinely resort to in order to excuse the clumsy misreading or deliberate misuse of Old Testament prophecies by New Testament authors. As already stated, Isaiah’s original prophecy didn’t envision anything unusual about the birth per se. And even if it did, why was it only that detail that had a dual fulfillment? For this to be a true dual fulfillment, shouldn’t every detail of Isaiah’s prophecy come to pass twice? Shouldn’t Jesus’ birth have been a sign to a good king that two evil kings who were conspiring against him would be defeated? Of course, no such thing happened in New Testament times.

Oops!: In another prophetic misfire, Matthew claims that Jesus’ living in Nazareth “fulfilled [that] which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene” (2:23).
How They Messed Up: There is no such prophecy in the Bible.
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: Generations of Christian apologists have exercised their creativity in trying to figure out what Matthew might have had in mind here. Christian Courier gives not one but three explanations:
        (1) Matthew was recording something a prophet literally said, not something that was ever written down. Even the apologist site dismisses this as “not the most-likely explanation”. (And doesn’t this still contradict the idea that God would preserve all of his words?)
        (2) Matthew may have meant this as a play on words on Isaiah 11:1, which used the Hebrew word netzer (“branch”) to describe the coming messiah. The problem with this, of course, is that this would mean this was not a prophetic fulfillment at all; the connection was the product of the gospel author’s imagination. It would be as if some ancient prophecy said “The coming messiah will be a Jew”, and I claimed that this prophecy was fulfilled by the political career of Rudy Giuliani, because the first syllable of his last name is pronounced to sound like “Jew”.
        (3) The third explanation, which Christian Courier actually favors, seems the least likely of the three: that in Jesus’ time, “Nazarene” was used in a pejorative sense as a general term for an outcast or disdained person (this is pure speculation on their part), and thus Jesus’ being from there fulfills the prophecy that the messiah would be despised and rejected (Isaiah 53:3) (which actually isn’t a prophecy at all). It’s true enough that John 1:46 suggests some people were skeptical of Jesus because he came from Nazareth (evidently the town had a country-bumpkin kind of reputation), but the idea that “Nazarene” was used as a general descriptive label for a reviled person is utterly without foundation.
        The Christian Courier site betrays its preconceptions when it concludes, “In view of these various possibilities, it is not a reflection of scholastic integrity to dogmatically charge Matthew with a mistake”. This is nonsense, because “possibilities” that excuse a text from error can always be dreamed up for any mistake in any book. This line of reasoning would lead to the conclusion that we should never accuse any author of being wrong about anything. To properly defend an author against a charge of errancy, one must show that a reading which resolves the difficulty is more likely than the conclusion that they just made a mistake, and this is a standard which has not come close to being met.

Oops!: Matthew bungles again in 21:7, where his misinterpretation of the Old Testament causes him to say that Jesus entered Jerusalem riding two animals, an ass and a colt, simultaneously. He doesn’t explain how this is possible, which leads to some amusing images (did Jesus have one foot on each animal’s back like a stunt rider?).
How They Messed Up: The prophecy being quoted is Zechariah 9:9. Its writer was using repetition as a form of emphasis, as biblical translations like the American Standard Version make clear: “Behold, thy king cometh unto thee… riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass.” But Matthew’s misreading of this verse led him to believe that it prophesied the king would come riding on two animals at once.
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: This article by Eric Lyons repeatedly flogs the argument that “Mark, Luke, and John did not say that only one donkey was obtained for Jesus” (as if any document, ancient or modern, would ever be written in lawyer-like language that would rule out all possible alternative readings), and invents convoluted and speculative scenarios for how Jesus might have ridden both animals at once. But it misses the larger point: the only reason Matthew claims there were two animals in the first place is because he misread the prophecy. The original verse from Zechariah describes the promised king as riding upon one animal, not two.

Oops!: In one of the most blatant examples of biblical writers getting it wrong, Matthew forgets which prophet said what. After Judas throws down his thirty pieces of silver in the temple and commits suicide, Matthew writes in 27:9 that this event “fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value; and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord appointed me.”
How They Messed Up: The verse that Matthew was citing isn’t in Jeremiah, but in Zechariah (11:13). Considering this entry, the previous one, and the next one, Matthew seems to have a bit of a blind spot regarding this book.
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: This article from Apologetics Press offers several explanations. Some are simply too silly to bother with – such as that the Holy Spirit originally inspired Jeremiah to speak these words, but he didn’t bother to write them down, and then some time later, the Holy Spirit inspired Zechariah to say the same thing again, presumably to make sure it was written down this time. (Am I the only one who notices how lazy the modern apologists are accusing the Old Testament prophets of being? They received divine revelations from God and never bothered to jot down some notes?)
        Their somewhat more substantive argument is that Jeremiah begins the section of the Old Testament scrolls that record the writings of the prophets, and that “Matthew merely referred to this whole division of the Old Testament by naming its first book”. This argument, however, is presented in a question-begging way. What other, non-disputed examples of this alleged literary technique can the apologists point to? There are plenty of New Testament verses that say “as it is written”, or “as the prophets said”, but those generic references are not the same thing as specifically naming one prophet but quoting another. Is this ever done in the writings of the church fathers, for example?
        In fact, the apologists contradict themselves by saying: “Another example is found in Mark 1:2-3 where Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 are blended and attributed to Isaiah” – an instance already discussed by this essay. But by their own argument, that verse cannot be an example of this technique, because Isaiah wasn’t the first member of the set of prophetic writings, Jeremiah was! By their argument, this verse would have to cite Jeremiah, not Isaiah, for it to be doing what they say. The fact that they cite it as an example anyway shows that their arguments are being deployed not according to any strict principle, but on an ad hoc basis to suit the apologetic needs of the moment.

Oops!: Yet again, Matthew has Jesus threaten the Pharisees: “Upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar” (23:35).
How They Messed Up: Those niggling little Old Testament details can be so hard to remember. The Zechariah who was stoned in the temple by the faithless Jewish people was the son of Jehoiada, not the son of Barachias (2 Chronicles 24:20-21). Interestingly, there’s a different Zechariah, a minor prophet of the Old Testament, whose father is named Berechiah (Zechariah 1:1) – suggesting the possibility that Matthew has just gotten his Zechariahs confused.
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/3229 suggests a multitude of different apologetics, including (a) Barachias was Jehoiada’s nickname, (b) Jehoiada was actually Zechariah’s grandfather, (c) Jesus was referring to the prophet Zechariah who also coincidentally died this way, even though no such event is recorded in the Bible, (d) Jesus was referring to some other, unknown person named Zechariah, and (e) Jesus was using his miraculous foreknowledge to refer to a future person named Zechariah who hadn’t been born yet (!).
        There’s not a scrap of textual evidence for any of these speculations, but strictly speaking, they’re not possible to disprove. But the same is true of any statement which is retroactively redefined to refer to something unknown to the reader. It’s as if I said, “Herman Melville wrote the novel War and Peace,” and when this is challenged as inaccurate, I resorted to claiming that I wasn’t referring to the famous author or the famous book known by those names, but some other, unknown person coincidentally named Herman Melville who coincidentally wrote a completely different book by that same title that no one has ever heard of. Is this impossible to disprove? Yes. Should a rational person consider it in any way plausible, much less more plausible than the hypothesis that I simply made a mistake? Of course not.

Oops!: James 4:5 asks, “Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?”
How They Messed Up: Once again, there is no such scripture in the Bible. Apparently, the author of the Epistle of James was quoting from a book which he believed to be sacred scripture, but which was not judged to be canonical by later church councils – leading unavoidably to the conclusion that either he was wrong, or they were.
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: This apologetics page concedes that this passage “does not refer to a word for word or even an approximate quotation” of something else in the Bible. Instead, it argues that “scripture saith” can be taken to mean “scripture in general conveys the message that” and describes this lesson as “[the] distilled teaching of numerous passages”.
        But as with the verse from John, the specificity of this passage casts doubt on that stretched interpretation. The verse is clearly phrased as a quotation, not as a new lesson or a generic distillation of many separate verses. The writer of the epistle cites it to support a point – that war and greed arise from sinful desire – which implies that it was a teaching he expected his readers to be familiar with. This would not be the place to introduce a “distilled teaching” condensed from many verses, because it would provoke the same response from them as it does from us: “Hey, what scripture are you talking about?” For it to have evidentiary value in this context, it must have been something identifiable to the target audience.

Oops!: In verses 14 and 15, the Epistle of Jude quotes from an apocryphal work called the Book of Enoch, endorsing it as a true prophecy given by God: “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them…” (compare to Enoch 1:9).
How They Messed Up: Unlike the Old Testament authors who quoted from books lost to us, the Epistle of Jude does the opposite – quoting from, and treating as inspired, a book that has survived but was explicitly not included in the canon of the Bible by later church councils. (The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which diverges from all other Christian denominations by including Enoch in its canon, does not have this problem.) Church fathers such as Jerome, in chapter 4 of De Viris Illustribus, argued that Jude itself should also be considered uncanonical on those grounds.
No, Wait, It’s Not a Mistake: Wayne Jackson of Christian Courier writes that Paul quoted from several Greek poets and authors, yet the original works need not be considered divinely inspired. True enough, but Paul did not identify those Greeks as giving prophecies from God – and Jude does make this claim of Enoch. As with James, either the author of the epistle was wrong, or the church fathers who assembled the canon of the Bible were wrong, about whether this book was written under divine inspiration.
        Jackson also argues that we don’t know the actual source of Jude’s quotation: “There is no phrase such as, ‘it is written in the book of Enoch.’” True enough – but given how specifically Jude’s quote matches Enoch’s wording, and given that the church fathers specifically identified Enoch as Jude’s source, this is by far the simplest and most rational conclusion. Again, this is an example of how Christian apologists expect the Bible to be written in lawyer language to rule out their convoluted interpretations (“It is likely that the quotation in the ‘Book of Enoch’ reflects the echo of an ancient tradition that has its roots in the events of the Patriarchal period, and that the inspiration of Jude, and the tradition of the ‘Book of Enoch,’ merely merge at this juncture”) when the simplest, most obvious, and most common-sense reading would lead to a conclusion they want to avoid.

In closing, one thing I find striking is the great lengths to which Christian apologists must go to defend their claim of inerrancy. You would think that a truly inerrant book would stand on its own, needing no complex defense to justify it, with any question or doubt easily defeated by pointing to the explanations in the appropriate verses. Whenever one verse referred to another, the reference would be clear and the connection impossible to doubt. There would always be one obvious answer, and no reason to suggest several merely possible or speculative harmonizations. Instead, when apologists are challenged with these scriptural errors and misquotes, what stands out again and again is how malleable, how rubbery they assume the text can be, and how liberal and creative they are with their interpretations. Just consider some of the tactics discussed in this essay:

  • Do the gospels refer to a person named X who did Y, when in fact the person named X in the Old Testament isn’t the one who did Y? No problem! Just combine these separate elements in one and assume that there was a person named X who did Y – just not the one we’ve always taken the name X to refer to, but someone else, someone we’ve never heard of.
  • Do the gospels introduce an act of Jesus and describe it as fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy, even though no such prophecy exists? No problem! Just assume that the prophets did speak this prophecy, but it was never recorded, and then the Holy Spirit inspired the gospel authors with miraculous knowledge that the prophecy was made! (What good it would do to introduce a previously-unknown prophecy and simultaneously claim its fulfillment is not something that needs to be addressed.)
  • Do the gospels introduce an act of Jesus and describe it as fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy, even though that particular prophecy was clearly meant to apply to events in the prophet’s own lifetime? No problem! Just say that this prophecy had a “dual fulfillment” – one fulfillment in Old Testament days, another in Jesus’ lifetime. If any specific details of the original prophecy don’t match up, well then, those details obviously weren’t part of the dual fulfillment.
  • Do the gospels or the epistles introduce a teaching with “scripture teaches us that X”, even though no other scripture says X? No problem! As long as X can be derived, distilled, inferred, implied, or hinted at in any other verse or set of verses in the Bible, this quote is completely accurate!

And if none of those tactics avail, there are all the other tricks in the apologists’ expansive and well-equipped toolbox: retroactively redefine words to something other than their usual meaning; synthesize different accounts of the same event by assuming that each author must have intended to present only part of the story; extrapolate or invent new details freely on the basis that anything not explicitly contradicted by scripture can’t be ruled out; assume that a verse which makes a certain claim is accurate if a different but somewhat similar claim is true; invent exceptions to a general rule or principle on the basis that such exceptions would have been “obvious” to the people of the time; and last but not least, that old mainstay: accuse skeptics of being motivated by prejudice and irrational hatred of your religious beliefs.

All this slipperiness and rhetorical fancy footwork shows that, for Christian apologists, infallibility is a “term of art”: a word or phrase used by professionals to convey a specialized meaning, which may be very different from the way the general public understands the term. When the average, scripturally naive Christian layperson hears that the Bible is “infallible”, they doubtless imagine a perfect-in-itself, unassailable book such as I described above. In reality, the apologist definition of “infallible” is highly specialized, involves a great number of loopholes, qualifications and legalese exceptions in fine print, and rests on the bedrock assertion that the text’s “infallible” status should be maintained if any harmonization can be invented for a given discrepancy, regardless of how far-fetched it is or how much violence it does to the meaning of the words. Of course, for a sufficiently creative interpreter, that’s a test that’s impossible to fail. By these lax standards, a claim of infallibility could be made for the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, or indeed, practically any book. Naturally, this is a double standard that Christian apologists show no interest in delving into.


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