Toward “Empirical” Evidence of Biblical Errancy? (And Why it Matters)

Toward “Empirical” Evidence of Biblical Errancy? (And Why it Matters) December 30, 2015
Parts of Matthew 6 from Codex Sinaiticus.


There are some people today—many, in fact—who believe that the Bible is totally without error, whether it be moral, historical, or even scientific error.¹ Now in some ways, this view may be on the decline, as more progressive and “personal” forms of Christianity become more popular around the world. Yet in other ways, it’s stronger than ever; and in fact there’s evidence that the doctrine of total Biblical inerrancy is indeed irreformable dogma in Catholicism.²

Of course, for those who aren’t inerrantists, the very idea can seem patently absurd. And, indeed, I think that even if someone doesn’t have the most sophisticated understanding of what might genuinely be considered an error or not in the Bible—and why—almost everyone still has good reason to believe that the Bible does contain error, somewhere.

In many ways, things like the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible exemplify a kind of unsophisticated, incautious error-hunting. (I’ve recently questioned one of the classic purported errors that sources like the SAB often hone in on, relating to “iron chariots” in the Bible. More generally speaking, it’s to this end that I’m slowly working on a from-scratch sort of New Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, integrating skepticism with the best actual academic Biblical research.)

Now, as I’ve said, even people who don’t have this kind of “sophisticated” understanding of the intricacies of the Biblical texts still have good reason to believe that the Bible contains serious error. But—as I also suggested in my post on iron chariots, linked above—skeptical credibility can take a hit whenever it hones in on what are, in effect, straw-men.

In my view, both theists and skeptics/atheists owe it to themselves to adopt a critical attitude toward claims of inerrancy, each in their own way. For theists, being associated with inerrancy, however loosely, is always going to weaken credibility in the eyes of those who approach the Bible academically and critically—being seen as a stubborn vestige of an anti-intellectual mindset. (I’ve highlighted some of the problems with how “progressive evangelicalism” still toes the line of inerrancy in a post here. The place of inerrancy in Catholic dogma seems to be a problem with no real solution other than outright dissent, however.)

For skeptics and atheists, as always, the more seriously we take these kinds of claims, in turn the more seriously we’ll be taken by those making them; and the better we understand the relevant issues, the more effective a criticism we’ll be able to make.

All of that being said, what I’m interested in here is finding the strongest point of entry into the issue of Biblical inerrancy, both in terms of respecting the claims being made, as well as developing the most incisive critique of it that we could make.

I worded the title of my post cautiously because, first and foremost, the very notion of “empirical evidence” is complicated in this particular context. So I hope that my use of toward and the quotation marks around “empirical” alleviates that a little. I’ll return to this a bit later, too.

But it might also be worth noting here that the notion of Biblical inerrancy itself—or at least how the judgment of freedom from error is determined—seems to be highly problematic, even fatally so, in its tautologicality. (That’s probably not a real word.)

Apologetic defenses of Biblical inerrancy rely almost exclusively on what’s in recent times been called the possibiliter ergo probabiliter fallacy. Particularly in the context of inerrancy, the logic used by those guilty of this fallacy goes roughly as follows: if you can come up with some possible explanation that allows us to say that a particular Biblical text is not in error, then this explanation is more likely to be true than an explanation that would suggest that it really is in error.

The problem should be obvious: here it doesn’t matter how implausible the explanation seems, as we might determine “plausibility” based on the usual standards of critical analysis and plausibility. Rather, for apologists here, the mere fact that this explanation is possible secures (or we might say “rescues”) its probability—because then it supports the traditional inerrantist view, not the critical one. Possibly, therefore probably.

But, again, because this so blithely ignores more impartial standards of critical inquiry, it does little more than say that the Biblical authors probably weren’t in error because the Biblical authors could not have been in error.

So from the outset, the notion of inerrancy itself has been problematized. It remains the case, however, that inerrancy will still be upheld, and this sort of logic will be used.

But at least for this particular exercise, I’m taking up the burden of proof in trying to challenge this, even granting several of the major assumptions made here.

In light of this, how could one critique this?

Even if apologists will always find some explanation, any explanation, so that a Biblical text can be relieved of the charge of error, it remains the case that there are some criticisms that are more effective than others, and harder to refute. And this is what really brings me to the crux of the matter here.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was the culmination of the most significant attempt of the 20th century to formalize what exactly is meant by “inerrancy,” and the way that the Bible has this quality.

One of the most important points in the final form of the statement comes in the the course of defining the notion of “inspiration” that underlies and gives life to concept of inerrancy itself. Here it’s suggested that “inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture.”

By autographic text here, this is referring to the actual original text that the Biblical authors themselves penned, on papyrus or whatever medium it may have been—the “autograph.”

Of course, none of the autographs survive; what survives is copies of copies of copies (etc.) of the originals. Now, naturally, in the course of this copying, certain errors were made. (You can find a description of the most common types of scribal errors here.) Virtually all surviving manuscripts were affected by these in some way. Yet, as one might expect, different manuscripts accrued errors in different places—though the scribes of some manuscripts would sometimes correct errors in the text they were copying from, too.

But because most manuscripts have some errors, in many ways no single copy among the thousands of surviving ones represents the absolute best. However, through critical analysis, we’ve been able to “reconstruct” a single copy that takes the best elements from all other manuscripts, representing the most error-free text that we can reconstruct, which we hope is most like the originals. (This is called a “critical text” or critical edition; and the wider discipline which studies manuscripts and their variants, as well tries to produce such critical texts, is called textual criticism.)

Having said this, the intended strategy of Chicago Statement should now come into view: since we can plainly pinpoint errors in the copies of the Biblical manuscripts that we have, it’s assumed that there were more original copies that didn’t have any errors—and it’s to those (technically hypothetical) originals that “inerrancy” is really ascribed.

This idea is expressed most fully in the “Exposition” section at the end of the Chicago Statement:

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission.

Of course, once we think about this for a second (or maybe do a little research), we realize that the sort of caution in only ascribing inerrancy to the autographs shouldn’t change things that drastically. Although the original copies are technically hypothetical, we have unimpeachable reasons to believe that they indeed existed—and, more than this, we have good reason to believe that our reconstructed critical texts represent these fairly well.

This is reiterated in the Chicago Statement itself, when it says that even Christians who rely on English translations of the Biblical texts—which, by the way, are translated from these reconstructed critical texts—”have no cause for hesitating to conclude that the true Word of God is within their reach.”

But the problem is that most of the errors that have been isolated by Biblical scholars and critics do occur in the critical text—which, again, is our best guess as to what the autographs looked like. In other words, we can’t just chalk up the errors to bad copying.

So here then, despite whatever advances seem to have been made, the old apologetic principle can make its return: if there appears to be in error in the autograph (or at least in the critical text that’s agreed to most closely represent the autograph), inerrantists can revert to the idea that they’re simply being interpreted erroneously.

This might seem exasperatingly convenient: the texts, as we have currently them—at least insofar as we can reconstruct critical texts that closely resemble the originals—can always be interpreted in a way so that they don’t contain err; and the actual autographs are simply assumed to not err in any other ways, too—despite the fact that they’re now lost and thus in a sense “immune” from criticism in the first place!

But this isn’t the end of the story.

In a way, there’s a certain irony to what I’m about to mention, in that one of the very mechanisms by which inerrancy tries to ensure that it’s viable here at the same time makes it vulnerable to criticism, if we know where to look.

When we talk about reconstructed critical texts, there’s a certain malleability or correctability to these; or I suppose we might say provisionality. Occasionally, over the centuries, there have been certain academic insights that have caused us to radically rethink our reconstruction of a verse or word in the critical text—the sort of insight that, again, we hope gives us a more accurate representation of what the actual first text looked like.

And much the same sort of provisionality applies to any form of Bible or translation that we might come across—the kind we might find in a museum; the kind we can buy at Barnes and Noble, etc.

For example, consider the famous 1631 Wicked Bible, which accidentally omitted the word “not” in Exodus 20:14’s “Thou shalt [not] commit adultery.” We can cherish it as a valuable (and funny) historical object; but of course we know that the original text that underlies the mistaken one was “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Now, there are approximately 10 known copies of the Wicked Bible that survive today. But a Google search for “Thou shalt commit adultery” yields 12,800 hits; and in a sense, as soon as I submit this post, there’s now one more copy of the Wicked Bible’s unique text of Exodus 20:14 out there.

But when we talk about an autograph, we’re talking about a single text.³ Now, this single text is certainly one that could be (and obviously was) copied—and could in fact be copied perfectly. But its singularity also gives it an extreme type of vulnerability, as these are easily lost to history (and obviously were). Of course, in the digital age, and this age of preservation, barring some extraordinary accident it’s unlikely that we’ll lose all the Wicked Bibles—and we certainly won’t lose our precise knowledge of its unique text.

But what if the actual autograph of Exodus 20:14—the one that at least in traditional Jewish and Christian interpretation was in fact originally written by the finger of God himself on the stone tabletshad read “Thou shalt commit adultery”?

Now, even if we take a more critical view, that maybe God himself didn’t actually personally write the Ten Commandments, it may still seem like a hypothetical dead-end. After all, whatever the original autograph was like or whoever wrote it, it doesn’t exist anymore; so it’s just speculation, right?

But here—and exactly what I mean here will become more clear in a second—I can’t also help but think that in some way that inerrantists are banking on the fact that the autographs don’t exist, or won’t be discovered—or at least that ones with errors won’t.

But what if we could know that an autograph contained an error?

I’ve centered the last bit of my post around the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy because, again, in many ways it’s the most robust statement that’s been made on the issue.

We certainly can’t be accused of going after a straw-man here. So, in light of this, and finally in critical response, I’d like to offer an example that I think perhaps most fundamentally strikes at this particular notion of inerrancy, and truly satisfying the criteria for genuine error as laid out in the Chicago Statement and elsewhere.

As mentioned, the Wicked Bible’s “Thou shalt commit adultery” is a misprint of Exodus 20:14, itself part of the Ten Commandments.

Now, despite our thought experiment earlier, by any rational standard we know that “Thou shalt commit adultery” simply could not have been the reading of the original text here. To quote how it would look among the last 5 commandments:

Thou shalt not kill,
Thou shalt commit adultery,
Thou shalt not steal,
Thou shalt not bear false witness,
Thou shalt not covet

I think the error of “Thou shalt commit adultery” here is so obvious that I doubt that there’s any context in which it could ever convincingly be argued that this was the original reading—even if some great, universally revered religious figure came to prominence in the future and claimed to have rediscovered the stone tablets themselves, which happened to include “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

Now, this is all an incredibly far-fetched thought experiment; but if this were to happen, it’d be particularly significant, because the Ten Commandments have been considered among the most important ethical guidelines in the Abrahamic religions; and in the wake of this discover, there’d be the implication that at least one of them had been misunderstood all along (even if the whole world stood in incredulity that this really could be in the original version).

Unlike the hypothetical I just outlined, the example I’ll offer here doesn’t have any significant effect on any important teaching. Yet in many other ways it’s a highly comparable example: the presence of the error constitutes a break in parallelism, in the same way that “Thou shalt [commit adultery]” is a clear disruption in an otherwise uniform pattern of negative statements (“Thou shalt not…”).

Most importantly though, the error I offer has a pretty unimpeachable claim to have been in the autograph of one of the New Testament gospels (if not two).

It’s well known that the gospels of Matthew and Luke share a large number of Jesus’ sayings that aren’t shared with the other gospels. I’ll explain the significance of this in a second; but for now, I’d simply like to quote from two similar sayings that are in close proximity to each other. This pair of sayings appears in nearly identical form in both gospels, with the first of the pair at Matthew 6:26 and Luke 12:24, and the second at Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27.

The sayings read roughly as follows:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin (Matthew 6:28; Luke 12:27)

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow nor reap nor gather into barns (Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:24)

It’s clear that these sayings are connected—both because of their similar forms and their proximity to each other. Yet if we look at these more carefully, we notice one glaring difference between them.

The latter saying follows the format “[objects] do not . . . nor . . . nor…” Yet Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27 break this pattern: instead of “[objects] do not . . . nor . . . nor,” the objects here—lilies—first do something not prefaced by a negative: they “grow”; and only after that “do not . . . nor…”

The saying in Matthew 6:26 and Luke 12:24 refers to three natural processes in harvesting: sowing, reaping, storing. For several reasons that will become clear shortly, Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27 seem to refer to processes in wool-making—and yet, in its current textual form, one of the most obvious processes in wool-making is missing.

Now, that lilies “grow” is of course perfectly sensible. But once we “fill in” the missing process in wool-making, it’s easy to see what went wrong here.

Before I go any further, I should mention something important: to the best of my knowledge, Biblical scholars have overlooked the fact that the Greek word used in Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27, kopiaō, translated here as “toil”—while indeed having this sort of generic meaning in native Greek—is used in the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the one in fact that the gospel authors themselves quoted from!), to translate words like אוּץ, “press,” and חוּל, “twist”—things that are obviously more specific to wool-making, and less general.

Keeping that in the back of the mind for a second, the first process in wool-making is carding the wool, which “disentangles, cleans and intermixes [the] fibers to produce a continuous web or sliver suitable for subsequent processing”; and the word for “to card (wool)” in Greek is xainō.

Now, to make a negative in Greek here, you preface the verb with the particle ou: so, for example, ou speirousin, “do not sow.”

As mentioned, the first part of Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27, as it currently stands, reads “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…” The Greek word translated as “they grow” in Matthew here is auxanousin. However, if we looked toward the parallel saying in Matthew 6:26 and Luke 12:24, with its three negatives relating to harvesting, and were compelled to amend Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27 to conform to this structure—that is, including negative versions of all three processes in wool-making: “they do not card, nor toil, nor spin“—we would first write ou xainousin, “they do not card.”

Now, to those unfamiliar with Greek, this may seem… well, like Greek to you; but in case a side-by-side comparison might give you a better idea of just how similar the Greek words for “they grow” and “they do not card” look, and how easily they can be confused:


(The earliest Greek manuscripts were written in all capital letters with no spacing in between words. Also, I’ve put the letters they share in bold—which is most of them.)

To put it all together, the idea here is that the original saying, which underlies Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27, was something like “Consider the lilies of the field; they do not card nor toil nor spin.”

However, it’s important to note that this isn’t an exclusively hypothetical reconstruction. A 3rd century papyrus designated P. Oxy. 655, containing fragments of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, has a curious variant of our lilies saying, reading only “they do not card nor spin,” lacking the third element. Further, the original text of Matthew 6:28 in the well-known Codex Sinaiticus is very close to our reconstructed saying, only having reversed the order of the last two verbs: “Consider the lilies of the field: they do not card nor spin nor toil.”⁴

(The original reading of Codex Sinaiticus was corrected by a later scribe, but is still visible under ultraviolet light. Of course, you can’t see the original reading without the UV light, but the banner of this blog itself actually has a picture of this very verse from Codex Sinaiticus: look at the last two rows in the bottom left-hand corner.)

Finally, I’ve recently uncovered several pieces of pretty undeniable evidence that the Greek text under discussion here was in fact a translation of an original Aramaic saying, which indeed read “do not card, nor…” (I won’t outline all the complicated details of this; but I’d be happy to give a summary for anyone who wishes.)

So what does it all mean?

At the beginning of the last section, I mentioned that the gospels of Matthew and Luke share a large number of Jesus’ sayings in common that aren’t shared with the other gospels. The “birds of the air” and “lilies of the field” sayings are both examples of these.

In roughly the past century of academic Biblical studies, this phenomenon of unique shared sayings in the gospels of Matthew and Luke has been explained by their authors having independently utilized a hypothetical sayings source (or sources), in much the same way that both gospels also appear to have depended on the gospel of Mark as well.

The existence of this source was inferred from the observation that Matthew and Luke have curious variants of the same sayings; the working hypothesis being that there are various instances in which Matthew appears to have “tweaked” a particular saying that he (presumably) inherited, whereas the parallel saying in Luke was left more “unadulterated,” and vice versa—all suggesting independence of use.

This perspective still dominates, though a slightly increasing number of people have been drawn to the view that the author of Luke’s use of this source may have been mediated through his reliance on the gospel of Matthew.

In this minority opinion, this has even been used to eliminate the “need” for this hypothetical source altogether, suggesting that Luke only needed to have relied on Matthew. However, what’s fascinating is that, in the specific case I’ve been talking about here—the “lilies of the field” saying—even if Matthew were the (sole) source of this saying for Luke, we’d still be forced to suggest Matthew’s reliance on a pre-existing source; and this is because we have to posit some way that the error that accidentally transformed “they do not card” into “they grow” entered into his text.

(The idea that the error originally arose based on erroneous copying of Matthew’s gospel is far-fetched, because Luke also shares the same error. Furthermore, Luke doesn’t replicate the error exactly how Matthew does—something we might have seen had later scribes been responsible for the error in Matthew, and then the parallel in Luke shaped to conform to the erroneous version in Matthew.)

In light of all this, we’re left with two alternatives here: either 1) the Greek source that Matthew took over this saying from had itself already suffered this scribal error in the course of its copying—”they do not card” having transformed into “they grow”—but Matthew didn’t realize the mistake that had been made here (after all, “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…” isn’t nonsensical), or 2) Matthew was responsible for the error, having miscopied the Greek source himself.

Of course, if it’s the latter, there’s no ambiguity that we have the original author of the gospel autograph being responsible for an unambiguous error. (Though, to reiterate, this isn’t an error that has any theological ramifications.)

Yet I think it’s much more likely that scenario #1 is true here—that the saying had already become corrupted before Matthew adopted it for his gospel.

I’ve recently brought this up in a discussion on a Facebook textual criticism group for scholars and hobbyists. I guess I should include a caveat here that this particular conversation involved several conservative Christians; because when I suggested this—about this clear error in the text of Matthew—one person tried to “disqualify” this from being a legitimate challenge to the inerrancy of the autographs, because

it doesn’t really matter what [the gospel authors’] alleged exemplar said, only what they wrote. The original text is the “autographs” not the source behind the autographs.

Now, I think there’s a sort of underlying principle lurking somewhere in the background here that might have slight validity, though it’s bound up in some very complicated debates.⁵

But beyond this, I think there’s a palpable sense of special pleading here; and from just a moment’s thought, we can realize how extremely weak this argument is.

For one, there’s an important sense in which the reliability of the original “sources” was the very basis for the authority of the gospel authors in the first place, as ascribed to them in traditional Christian theology—evangelists who, although they might not have directly witnessed the events that they wrote about, nonetheless managed to ascertain the truth of the matters (and indeed were thought to have been divinely guided in so doing)!

One could only imagine the absurdity of, say, claiming that the original witnesses to the resurrection were mistaken in some way, and yet that their inaccurate reports somehow magically became “accurate” when they were enshrined in the gospels. And I see no reason why it should be any different for the individual sayings of Jesus—even if, again, the theological stakes aren’t nearly as high.

It’s hard to have sympathy for the view of those who’d argue otherwise. In fact, it’s much easier to think that their resistance to this simply comes from the dissonance resulting from their views on inerrancy—the realization of just how much upholding this principle truly demands, and their torn allegiance between ideology and rationality.

Further, if on one level a Biblical text or saying can be in error—in this case, in its having been taken over rather directly from an earlier source which was the real source of the error—and yet simultaneously not be in error, too—by virtue of the fact that, in this theological view, all canonical Biblical texts are automatically “inerrant,” regardless of their sources, and/or that the “sum is greater than the whole of the parts” or whatever—why can’t this apply beyond the case of a reliance on earlier sources?

That is to say: why can’t an error originated by the gospel authors themselves just really be called an error—a historical inaccuracy, or whatever it may be—and yet still not be taken to diminish the Bible’s ultimate authority, or perhaps not even its infallibility, either? (For more on this, refer to my comments on “progressive inerrancy,” again discussed in this post.)

To begin to sum up here: again, I only hesitatingly speak of “empirical” evidence of errancy. I think to many people, the suggestion about the original form of the saying from Matthew and Luke still falls into the category of “conjecture.” (More technically, we might call it a “conjectural emendation”; but as mentioned, we do have actual early manuscripts which attest to this reading.)

But one thing that might be overlooked here is that this sort of conjectural emendation is in fact an integral part of establishing the original text of the Bible; and everyone does it. Even translations like NIV—produced as they were by committees that had obvious evangelical and even inerrantist commitments—have made great use of conjectural emendation in their translations, in conjunction with their reliance on the critical texts.⁶

Yet I also want to really hone in on this parallel with the Wicked Bible.

Although there are several reasons that we can be sure that “Thou shalt commit adultery” was not in fact the original reading of this commandment, one of the most important ones is that it would represent an extreme rupture from the syntactical structure of its parallel commandments, which all were phrased negatively (“Though shalt not…”). As mentioned, it’s not substantially different with the “lilies of the field” saying from the New Testament, which can—and in my view should—be amended to conform to the syntactical structure of its close parallel.

I think this should give us the confidence to assert what we might say is at the very least sort of “quasi-empirical” evidence of the soundness of our analysis of the “lilies of the field” emendation, at least insofar as poetic parallelism seems to be an integral feature of human literary composition, at least in certain regions of the ancient world, and manifests certain typical forms here (and the “lilies of the field” saying can and should be amended in accordance with the form of its parallel).

In conjunction with the broad and typical presence of scribal errors in both ancient and modern Biblical manuscripts—as well as the fact that the particular emendation put forth here is eminently plausible, and supported by several independent lines of evidence—the conclusion I’ve suggested becomes virtually unavoidable. In light of other considerations I’ve raised, I think that here we indeed have (quasi-)empirical evidence for the presence of genuine error in the autographic Biblical texts.

Really, though, if we were to take up a truly principled objection against this line of reasoning, at the end of the day could we ever truly accept any correction or emendation—even of Biblical manuscripts that are universally regarded as erroneous? After all, again, in the absence of the autographs, we can never really be certain that the Wicked Bible’s reading of Exodus 20:14 wasn’t the original one.

If at the end of the day, it’s really only the autographs that matter for inerrantists, with the copies being susceptible to all sorts of corruption—and yet if there are instances where a commitment to inerrancy demands the dismissal of iron-clad conjectural emendations, which are otherwise preferable to the extant readings of the manuscripts we have—isn’t it also true that we can’t really be sure that the surviving texts (the kind that we hope give us a picture of the autographs, but indeed might not) are ever preferable to conjectural emendations, either?

Before concluding (…maybe?), there’s one last issue I want to bring up here.

As suggested, several of the New Testament gospel authors in fact relied on the texts of earlier NT gospels, like Mark. If, for sake of argument, we were to accept that the gospel authors can’t truly be charged with error if they’ve merely inherited an alteration or mistake from some pre-existing source material, what if they’ve introduced an alteration of actual New Testament material that they relied on?

Now, if this alteration was simply the use of a synonym or a slight rephrasing, or something else minor, surely we could excuse this. But what if we can really say that the alteration goes against the spirit of the original in some major way?

While I don’t want to dwell on this point at length, there are at least several passages that would be good candidates for this. To pick one, one only needs to chart the evolution of the episode of the rich young man, originally in Mark ch. 10, as it’s reshaped in the other gospel accounts dependent on Mark’s. (In particular, look at how Jesus’ statement in 10:18, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone,” is transformed. I’ve actually written an entire post series on this verse alone; and see here for a post that particularly focused on the text critical data here.)

How have problems like these been dealt with throughout Church history? For the most part the dominant strategy seems to have been denial, based on a sort of a priori commitment to inerrancy. For example, St. Augustine insisted that

we must prove that the [gospel authors] do not stand in any antagonism to each other. For those adversaries are in the habit of adducing this as the palmary allegation in all their vain objections, namely, that the evangelists are not in harmony with each other. (Harmony of the Gospels, 1.7.10)

Augustine’s commitment to inerrancy extended as far as to deny that the gospel authors could have even gotten Biblical names mixed up—for example, coming up with far-fetched apologetic explanations to explain away verses like Matthew 27:9 (“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah…”), where the prophet Jeremiah may have been mistakenly cited instead of Zechariah.

(Similarly, during the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Franz König put forth this example, as well as a related one involving Mark 2:26, during discussions about the issue of Biblical inspiration/inerrancy, attempting to demonstrate clear Biblical errors to the Council. However, this was generally not found persuasive in the end.)

There were, of course, minor exceptions to this. The famous 15th/16th century Dutch Catholic priest Erasmus, dealing with a nearly identical problem, once defended himself against the charge of imputing error to the Biblical authors, clarifying an earlier comment of his by saying “I [did not say what I did] because I think that the apostles ever did make mistakes, but because I deny that the presence of some mistake necessarily shakes the credit of the whole of Scripture.”⁷

However, a respondent of his, Johann Eck, again insisted that “[i]f the authority of Holy Scripture at this point is shaky, can any other passage be free from the suspicion of error?—a conclusion drawn by St. Augustine from an elegant chain of reasoning.”⁸

In many ways, Eck was expressing one of the dominant theological foundations of the doctrine of inspiration. In addition to Augustine and others, Thomas Aquinas before him had written that “[i]t is unlawful to hold that any false assertion is contained either in the Gospel or in any canonical Scripture, or that the writers thereof have told untruths, because faith would be deprived of its certitude which is based on the authority of Holy Writ.” 

Similar ideas were defended strongly by Catholic authorities throughout the 19th and 20th century, for example in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus

so far is it from being possible that any [Biblical] error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.⁹

Underlying many of these sentiments appears to be an argument somewhat akin to what we call a slippery slope: if there’s one mistake in the Bible, how do we know there weren’t ten mistakes, or a hundred—how do we know any of it is true?

On one hand, from a theistic perspective, I can imagine that it’d be easy to ridicule this all-or-nothing kind of approach. After all, the slippery slope is recognized as one of the most classic and abused logical fallacies. 

Yet perhaps there’s an element of this that comes closer to truth than many would like to admit. If some of the teachings of Jesus have been recorded incorrectly, why couldn’t there have been, say, historical errors in the Bible, too? And if there have been even canonical Biblical texts that have been altered for apologetic purposes—again, recall the example of the later gospels’ reshaping of Mark 10:18, mentioned earlier—why not moral error, as well? (Some might even classify these sorts of apologetic alterations as a kind of deception, and thus moral error.)

And, honestly, would the presence of moral error really be that surprising? What would in fact seem much more difficult to argue is that there was ever a time or context in which Biblical statements like “Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good” (Sirach 42:14)¹⁰ weren’t in error.

This has grown excessively long, and I’m just going to go ahead and cut myself off here.

To conclude: earlier I tried to emphasize the difference between 1) “regular” apparently erroneous Biblical texts, for which inerrantists can always appeal to the possibility that they’ve simply been interpreted incorrectly—dismissing the error based on an appeal to a larger social context, or a historical speculation, etc.—and 2) the type of autographic error that I’ve pointed out, i.e. with the “lilies of the field” saying.

To be sure, however, it’s not hard to imagine that apologists could invoke the same sort of special pleading for the lilies of the field saying. It certainly wouldn’t hurt their argument that “how they grow” is a perfectly sensible phrase in conjunction with lilies. Perhaps in reply to the argument I’ve offered about the mismatched parallelism, one could invoke the idea that the differing forms of the sayings were purposely disjunctive—to be memorable to the reader/hearer, or any number of speculations.  

But if there’s one thing that I’d hope that inerrantist or inerrancy sympathizers would take away from this, it’s that the sort of special pleading that underlies apologetic defenses of inerrancy could easily be used against it, too—in fact that it can be used against any religion or ideology that one might believe in.

Again, defense of inerrancy fundamentally relies on possibilities over probabilities. Yet we don’t live our life in mere possibilities. In fact, we couldn’t live our lives if we did. It’s possible that the next time we pull out of our driveway, we’ll be sideswiped out of nowhere by an erratic driver. But we can’t just stay inside in fear of this happening. And even if we did, we still wouldn’t be safe: it’s possible that it could be a plane crashing into our house, too.

In every other area of our lives, with everything that we encounter, we count on probabilities to make sense of it, not hypothetical possibilities. And it’s time that inerrantists finally start practicing the intellectual honesty necessary to admit this. 

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] Determining what even really qualifies as a “scientific” claim in the Bible can be complicated. As I’ve noted in another post, even some of the most staunch inerrantists and literalists suggest that some language of the Bible—language that has been interpreted as literal and “scientific” by others—may be figurative: for example the Old Testament imagery of the “pillars” supporting the earth.

[2] This is the specific topic I’m working on for my next post; though for the time being see the articles in the special issue “For the Sake of Our Salvation” of the journal Letter & Spirit for convincing defenses of this from Catholic theologians/scholars.

[3] Yet there’s some definitional ambiguity here. What if the original scribe decided to create more than one copy of the text they composed? (Of course, in so doing, they’d clearly be replicating the first one, and could even copy it erroneously.)

Racine, in summarizing Epp’s “The Multivalence Of The Term ‘Original Text’ In New Testament Textual Criticism,” writes that Epp

explains that the original text can be viewed in at least four different ways: (1) A predecessor text-form: i.e., a form of text discoverable behind a NT writing that played a role in the composition of that writing; (2) An autographic text: the text form as it left the author’s desk; (3) A canonical text: the form of a book at the time it acquired consensual authority or when its canonicity was established; (4) An interpretive text-form: any and each interpretive iteration or reformulation of a writing. (“The Edition of the Greek New Testament: A Plea and a Challenge,” 83)

(By “interpretive text-form,” Epp was referring to later scribal alterations, once manuscripts had already been disseminated widely. See Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture for the classic study of this; and see also Kannaday’s Apologetic Discourse and the Scribal Tradition.)

Epp himself also notes that 

an autographic text-form may really be, as far as one can tell, a canonical text-form and/or an interpretive text-form. That is, if an autographic text-form has predecessor text-forms, it is simultaneously an interpretive text-form, or, if it has emerged from the canonical process without reformulation, it will be identical with its canonical text-form.

[4] οὐ ξένουσιν [var. ξαίνουσιν] οὐδὲ νήθουσιν οὐδὲ κοπιῶσιν (ou xainousin oude nēthousin oude kopiōsin)

[5] Note 3 should cover this in part; but we could also consult Brogan, “Can I Have Your Autograph?”, etc. 

Brown writes

The question of what constitutes the autographa, nevertheless, may require some rethinking by evangelicals committed to the doctrine of inerrancy. For example, concerning specifically the inspiration of the Old Testament, Michael Grisanti proposes that we understand inspiration under the larger heading of inscripturation. Inscripturation is the process whereby God’s people commit his word to written documents and draw these documents into their final canonical form. We should view the process of inspiration, however, as an activity that lasts during the entire event of inscripturation. For the Old Testament specifically, we would mark this period from the time Moses first penned Genesis to the time the Old Testament canon was finally closed. Inspiration, therefore, would be applied to those who added to and organized the Old Testament books. Yet, at every point during the inscripturation process, God’s word is fully inspired, trustworthy, and wholly without error. See Michael Grisanti, “Inspiration, Inerrancy, and the OT Canon: The Place of Textual Updating in an Inerrant View of Scripture,” JETS 44 (2001): 577-98. (“A Theological Reassessment and Reformulation of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in Light of Contemporary Developments,” 189f.)

[6] For a general study of conjectural emendations, see Wettlaufer, “Unseen Variants: Conjectural Emendation and the New Testament.”

[7] Letter to Eck, from 1518. Translation slightly revised from Mynors and Thomson.

[8] Again cited from Mynors and Thomson, 289-90. He refers to a line from Augustine’s letter to Jerome, in which Augustine writes “Once you admit that [there has been] a false statement [in the Bible] . . . made out of a sense of duty, there will not be a single sentence in the entire Bible that will be free of such suspicion if it seems difficult in practice or hard to believe.” Interestingly, at a few different points throughout antiquity, there was an association made between deceit and this sort of all-or-nothing slippery slope argument. Strikingly close to what Augustine says, the Hellenistic historian Polybius once wrote that “[w]hen we find one or two false statements in a book and they prove to be deliberate ones, it is evident that not a word written by such author is any longer certain and reliable” (Histories, 12.25).

[9] This continues

This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican

Again, more on this in my next post; but it should also be noted that Providentissimus Deus does mention, off-hand, the specific issue of scribal error (§20). A later encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu—quoting this section of Providentissimus Deus (again in the context of the issue of inerrancy)—elaborates ‘Nor is the sacred writer to be taxed with error, if “copyists have made mistakes in the text of the Bible [quaedam librariis in codicibus describendis minus recte exciderint]”‘ (§3).

[10] κρείσσων πονηρία ἀνδρὸς ἢ ἀγαθοποιὸς γυνή; continuing “…it is woman who brings shame and disgrace.”

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