Being honest about glitches in the Bible’s text

Being honest about glitches in the Bible’s text September 17, 2013

20130917-171957.jpgEvangelicals today sometimes overreach in our eagerness to defend the Bible. Please be clear I do uphold the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Bible. But to believe that is not to believe that the text handed down over the centuries is 100% exactly the text originally given. The text is remarkably well preserved. The differences and apparent corruptions are very few and far between, but they do exist. We should not try to deny them or cover them up.

We notice the rare examples most often when certain verses are omitted from modern versions because they seem to have been additions made in some cases perhaps due to the incorporation of what was intended as an explanatory note into the text itself.

The remarkable thing about this is in not one case is any teaching of the Bible affected. It is also remarkable how vanishingly rare this is. But we should be a people of integrity and acknowledge the few and far between problems there are with the text.

An example of this struck me today when reading 1 Samuel 13:1 which differs widely in various translations due to varied attempts to make sense of a troubling text. This in the Hebrew aparently at first glance seems to say Saul was just one years old when he became king and reigned for only two years. Most experts assume the text somehow got corrupted here, perhaps an early smudge meant that copyists left a blank for what they could not read. It’s clearly an old problems as the Ancient Greek translation of the OT (the Septuagint) left the line out altogether.

Once again, the existence of such a minor glitch in this verse should in no way unsettle our view of the Bible. I am pleased that as Christians we can be honest and open about such things without it affecting our faith. Surely, it is an example of integrity. We do well to learn from this how vital honourable speech is in all aspects of life.

Here is how one Bible Translation footnotes this point:

NET translation notes: “The MT does not have “thirty.” A number appears to have dropped out of the Hebrew text here, since as it stands the MT (literally, “a son of a year”) must mean that Saul was only one year old when he began to reign! The KJV, attempting to resolve this, reads “Saul reigned one year,” but that is not the normal meaning of the Hebrew text represented by the MT. Although most LXX mss lack the entire verse, some Greek mss have “thirty years” here (while others have “one year” like the MT). The Syriac Peshitta has Saul’s age as twenty-one. But this seems impossible to harmonize with the implied age of Saul’s son Jonathan in the following verse. Taking into account the fact that in v. 2 Jonathan was old enough to be a military leader, some scholars prefer to supply in v. 1 the number forty (cf. ASV, NASB). The present translation (“thirty”) is a possible but admittedly uncertain proposal based on a few Greek mss and followed by a number of English versions (e.g., NIV, NCV, NLT). Other English versions simply supply ellipsis marks for the missing number (e.g., NAB, NRSV).”

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  • RonSimkins

    You are certainly correct to note that the text is wonderfully, but not perfectly preserved. And, thank God for the people who have risked so much to preserve it so well. I do not understand however why you assume that authoritative and spirit inspired means inerrant. This is a modern claim that has no real basis in the Biblical writers self-understanding of the Biblical materials. I could point out many examples, but an easy one is Paul’s confessed memory lapse about who he did or did not baptize in 1 Corinthians 1. If either Paul, or the early Christians had an inerrant view of the scriptures we have in our canon, wouldn’t they have torn this part of the scroll up or quickly amended it?

    • That’s not what’s meant by inerrant! Paul honestly spoke of his memory lapse and that description is inerrant. God ensured that everything the Bible teaches is without error. Not the same as saying the people in the Bible are without error.

      • RonSimkins

        Actually, the Bible writer said “I thank God I did not baptize any of you.” A statement he then apparently happens to remember is not really quite true. There is then no indication that the memory lapse is a major issue for him or for the truth of his writing – or for God. Obviously, it is better for his argument that he remembers that he has forgotten, but it doesn’t mean he remembered the next time he forgot some detail he wrote about – unless you have already decided that this is a necessary logic imported into the reading of the text. He does not have the papyri or scroll torn up, he corrects, then re-corrects, and then says he doesn’t really remember for sure. And doesn’t really seem to care very much either. All of which seems to indicate that on a straightforward reading of the text, inerrancy of details means a lot more to you than it did to Paul.

  • Stuart B

    Tried tweeting but it’s hard to get across so will try here!
    I think in the post-evangelical, progressive, emergent (whatever you want to call it) camps inerrancy is a often seen as a bad word. It has become popular to discredit it and distance from fundamentalist ideas about the Bible.
    For those that do not try to defend inerrancy, my impression is that this comes more from a desire to be intellectually honest to oneself than to usurp the authority of Gods word. How we read Genesis with regards to evolution, how we see the story of the flood with regards to the Gilgamesh, how we read the Mosaic Law in relation to the Code of Hammurabi, who wrote the Pentateuch and when. At the same time they would absolutely affirm the physical resurrection of Jesus. Do you think if there is extra-biblical evidence that creates uncomfortable questions about the bible we should be honest about it?
    Perhaps one problem is that you could put a group of Christians in a room that all say they affirm inerrancy and they all mean different things. Have you ever done an ‘inerrancy spectrum’ post? I’d be interested to see what you thought 🙂

  • Herman Grobler

    Thank you Adrian for this most interesting verse in the Old Testament. I am studying the causes for the differences between older versions of the Bible like the KJV vs. modern versions like the NIV. In about 100 verses studied, mostly the New Testament, only one touched Christian doctrine. That is Revelation 22:14 ( With great accuracy scribes copied the manuscripts, but mistakes did happen. By studying the more than 6000 Greek manuscripts and more than 18000 manuscripts of ancient translations together with the quotations of hundreds of old Church fathers, the autographs can be established to about 99% accuracy. We need not doubt the Bible and every word in it at all!

  • John W. Morehead

    Thank you for raising this subject, but I wonder if the engagement with the phenomenon of Scripture goes far enough. What would you think of Roger Olson’s definition of inerrancy as “perfect in with respect to purpose,” coupled with the approaches of those like Peter Enns, Carlos Bovell, and Kenton Sparks? And what about leaving room for honest disagreement and debate within Evangelical circles without worrying about the gatekeepers charging heresy and threatening loss of teaching positions in Evangelical institutions? Being honest about inerrancy is far more complex and deep than we might imagine.