No, Jesus and His Early Followers Did Not Believe in the Inerrancy of the Bible

No, Jesus and His Early Followers Did Not Believe in the Inerrancy of the Bible May 24, 2023

Inerrancy of the Bible
Jesus did not hold to the inerrancy of the Bible. Image by Thomas from Pixabay

It’s typically assumed that Jesus viewed the Jewish scriptures and what we call the Old Testament the exact same way that conservative Christians view the Bible today. He believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, right? Wrong. A careful study of the history of Jewish sacred texts tells us that Jesus did not treat the scriptures as an inerrant, infallible, universally applicable, and altogether authoritative holy book. And neither did his early followers. We see this clearly when we approach the study of Christian history starting with the foundation. And when we don’t read history or the Bible through the lens of the present and especially the lens of one’s pre-conceived theology. As I and historians (Vearncombe, Scott and Taussig) have said before, using a present-day lens is a mistake. It’s like constructing a skyscraper by starting with the observation deck.

How Jesus Used Scripture Reveals How He Viewed It and His Position on the Inerrancy of the Bible

I think the most helpful way to describe how Jesus viewed the Bible is to say he viewed it as a human book with some of God’s fingerprints on it. He was pointing to some of the fingerprints and denouncing some of the human thinking found in the Torah and Writings. For example, when he rejected the eye-for-eye-tooth-for-tooth-life-for-life code that is clearly taught in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. That code tells people to show no pity and deal with violent attacks with reciprocal violence. Jesus tells his Jewish hearers not to do that—don’t respond with tit-for-tat retribution—because God loves his enemies, is kind to both the ungrateful and the wicked, and is a merciful Father (which doesn’t mean he doesn’t hold people accountable). Because God is merciful, we are to be merciful. This clearly contradicts commands in the Torah: to have no pity, practice reciprocal retribution, and sacrifice (kill) without mercy the Canaanite tribes and any Jews guilty of serious offenses because that’s what God wills.

Jesus also refused to obey or encourage others to obey the commands on capital punishment. He deftly found a way to let a woman caught in adultery—a capital crime in the Torah—off the hook. He would not enforce the commands to sacrifice wrongdoers. In fact, there’s hints there were debates about this in Jewish society in the story of Joseph, husband of Mary. When he discovered Mary was pregnant before marriage, he knew the Torah stipulated that as a capital crime. But “because he was a righteous man,” he decided to “put her away” quietly (divorce) and not publicize her offense to protect her (of course later he changed his mind when visited by an angel). Another example is when Jesus rebuked the disciples for asking if they should call fire down from heaven to destroy adversaries. “You don’t know what spirit you are of. For I didn’t come to destroy people’s lives, but to save them,” he said. They were referring to Elijah supposedly doing that very thing in 2 Kings.

Jesus read the Jewish scriptures selectively and favored the word of the Prophets over sacrificial and retributive laws. He told people that God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea). He made exceptions to Torah stipulations (e.g. strict Sabbath laws, taking vows, demonstrating that all food is clean) and contradicted the character of the God of much of the Old Testament. In fact, so did the prophets with some exceptions. Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Psalms, and Jeremiah clearly critiqued the sacrificial system. Later, Paul made declarations that essentially overruled the Law as the way to obey God (e.g. “we are released from the Law,” “Christ is the end of the Law,” and “all who rely on observing the Law are under a curse”).

The Debates and Disputes Over What is Inspired Scripture

Another thing people assume is at the time of Jesus the Jewish people had a definitive list of scriptures they considered divine. That is false (scripture simply means writings). In fact, they didn’t have an official canon (definitive list) of scripture, what we call the Old Testament, until well after the time of Jesus, into the second century! In the first century, each major stream of Second Temple Judaism had their own opinion on what was scripture and what wasn’t. There was an open debate. This is why the Sadducees only considered the Torah scripture and not the Prophets and the Writings. And why the Greek Jews (including Paul the Pharisee) and earliest followers of Jesus used the Septuagint as their scriptures, which included the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha was 14 books considered scripture that are not found in any Protestant Bible today! (They are in the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Bibles). This is also why the Essenes had a set of writings they deemed authoritative to add to all these, some of them discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, like The War of the Sons of Light and Darkness. Even one of them, I Enoch, is quoted by the New Testament book of Jude!

How the New Testament Was Compiled

This topic deserves a series of blogs and even a whole book. Here is a very skinny summary (mostly from Which Came First: the Church or the New Testament?): the New Testament was not a settled “canon” until the fourth century. Up until then, there were a smattering of books that slowly surfaced over time that some people started claiming were inspired scripture. But none of them were initially considered scripture from the start. They were letters and historical records, some of them based on the oral tradition of the story of Jesus. The letters included Paul’s epistles, which weren’t considered scripture at first, the four gospels, which were generally accepted as good to read but weren’t considered mandatory, and other gospels that many people read but never made it into the New Testament. In short, there were ongoing disputes about what was worthwhile and what wasn’t. For example, the Eastern church preferred the gospel of John. The Western church preferred the synoptic gospels. The Eastern church favored the book of Hebrews and rejected the book of Revelation. The Western church favored Revelation and rejected Hebrews. Jude, 2 Peter, 2 Timothy, and 2 & 3 John were all disputed by some orthodox Christians. Clement of Alexandria had a list of scriptures that included three other gospels. That brings us to the disputes about scriptures that were considered worthy by many—even the “orthodox”—that never got in. These included the Shepherd of Hermes, 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Preaching of Peter, the Revelation of Peter, the Didache, the Protevangelium of James, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Paul.

Finally, in the 4th century, because the faith was now being Romanized by people like the emperors Constantine and Theodosius who wanted to consolidate and control what was orthodox and what was heresy, the New Testament was finally decided upon for the West (although not unanimously). It was done at councils run by men bishops or church fathers. The Council of Laodicea in 363 CE decided on all the books we have in the NT today but they rejected the book of Revelation. The council of Carthage in 397 CE accepted Revelation and also decided on a list for what we have in the Old Testament today. The Eastern church did not altogether accept these decisions.

The Fuzzy Boundaries and Two Voices of Scripture

The bottom line is the boundaries of scripture before Jesus, during Jesus, and for at least the first three centuries after Jesus were very fuzzy. There were debates about what should be considered scripture and what shouldn’t, as well as debates about what inside scripture was worthy of being called divine revelation. This was similar to the prophets critiquing the sacrificial system, Jesus critiquing retributive narratives, and Paul rethinking the Law. You could say it was like two voices in the Jewish sacred texts, a retributive, law-based voice and a restorative, grace- or mercy-based voice. Jesus and his early students pointed to the latter. By doing so, they were rejecting whole narratives in other parts of the scriptures. They didn’t believe the “Bible” was inerrant. That’s not how scripture worked for them.

Finally, there are two passages that inerrantists always bring up that I will address in another blog post. That is when Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it and when Paul supposedly said “all scripture is inspired,” referring to the Bible. For now, suffice it to say those passages are misread and misused and the doctrine of inerrancy is read into them, not derived from them. Stay tuned for the case I make for that, as well as a case for how to differentiate the two voices in scripture. News flash: It’s not rocket science.


Michael Camp tends the Spiritual Brewpub, which helps disillusioned or post-evangelicals (or “nones”) uncover historical facts and insights that help them deconstruct, rethink, and rebuild a more authentic faith or philosophy of life. He is the author of Breaking Bad Faith: Exposing Myth and Violence in Popular Theology to Recover the Path of Peace, which releases on July 4, 2023 (Quoir). To get updates and read other themes in the book, subscribe to this blog. To get specific help deconstructing conservative Christianity and rebuilding healthy faith, see Michael’s Religious Deconstruction Workshop and listen to the Spiritual Brewpub Podcast. See a video version of this article here: No, Jesus Didn’t Believe in Inerrancy. 


About Michael Camp
I spent twenty-five years in the evangelical movement as an ordained missionary to Muslims, a development worker in Africa, and a lay leader in independent, charismatic, and Baptist churches. Today, as an author, podcaster, speaker, Rotarian, theology nerd, and bad golfer, I help people find a more authentic spiritual path along Jesus’ subversive way of peace. I am also active in a Rotary Club in Bainbridge Island, WA, where I work with colleagues to help facilitate microfinance and development projects in Africa and Asia. You can read more about the author here.
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