16 March 2022

Errors in the bible.

Years ago I was asked whether I believe in biblical inerrancy, the idea the bible contains no errors. Nope, I said. It’s got errors. We learned about ’em in bible college.

He was outraged. I learned about them in bible college? What kind of godless so-called “bible college” did I attend? Well it was an Assemblies of God school, which outraged him all the more because that’s his denomination, and he had presumed Assemblies professors would never, ever teach such a thing. (Actually that particular professor was Presbyterian, but I didn’t tell him that.)

I pointed out, same as my professor pointed out, that if he hadn’t told us about the errors, plenty of nonchristian apologists will gleefully tell us about ’em, just to freak us out. Better we learn about them and deal with them, than never learn about them… then have a massive faith crisis when we stumble across them. (Or when some antichrist forces us to look at them for fun.)

It’s for this same reason I’m writing about them here. They exist. Deal with ’em.

’Cause as you know, plenty of Christians refuse to deal with them. In fact this is part of the reason the New International Version is so popular: Its editors have deliberately edited out most of the errors. I’m not kidding. They straight-up changed the text… and now they can claim the NIV is error-free. And anyone who carries an NIV can claim, “I don’t know what you mean about errors in the bible; my bible doesn’t have any such errors.” Well of course.

How can they defend this behavior? Meh; they don’t even try. They just figure it’s their duty as good Christian inerrantists to delete the discrepancies, lest antichrists use the discrepancies against them. How they did it—yet can claim any degree whatsoever of intellectual honesty—is by moving ’em to the footnotes. When 2 Kings 8.26 says Ahaziah ben Jehoshaphat became king at 22 years old, but 2 Chronicles 22.2 says he was 42, the NIV makes ’em both say 22, and include this footnote in 2 Chronicles:

Some Septuagint manuscripts and Syriac (see also 2 Kings 8:26); Hebrew forty-two

My copy of the Septuagint says he was 20, not 22; so that’s an inconsistency as well.

But to be fair it’s not just the NIV which translated this verse this way. The Amplified Bible (current edition), CSB, ESV, ISV, Message, NASB, NET, NLT, and Voice have decided to ignore the original text, and go with a translation consistent with their personal beliefs. I leave it to you as whether it’s truly inerrantist of them to alter it this way. Because changing the verse to read “22” instead of the original text’s אַרְבָּעִ֨ים וּשְׁתַּ֤יִם/arbayím u-settím, “forty and two,” is actually a clear declaration the original text is wrong—and a clear attempt to hide this fact.

And what’s to say 42 is the wrong number, not 22? Maybe Ahaziah was actually 42 years old. You don’t know.

The fear of undermining our faith.

I grew up among inerrantists, who taught me if the bible actually did have any errors—perish the thought—we couldn’t trust anything it had to say. Its truths would topple like a house of cards. We’d have to throw it out. Some inerrantists will still threaten to throw out their bibles if it’s ever found to have errors.

You realize, in doing this, they’re just setting up their own children for apostasy when the kids grow up, and someone like me informs ’em the bible has errors in it. “Wait… it has errors? It really does have errors? Well I guess I have to throw it away now. And Christianity. And Jesus. Too bad; I actually like Jesus. But I guess it’s all lies.” I mean, people will leave Christianity as soon as they discover the Christians they grew up with are hypocrites; you think their tiny, meager, barely-hanging-on faith is gonna survive finding out the bible has errors?

Not for nothing do antichrists try to show them this at their first opportunity.

Okay. The whole “if it has any errors at all, toss it” reasoning is stupid. Wikipedia has errors; we’re all entirely aware it does. (Some of us have corrected those errors. Some of us, foolishly, have contributed to those errors. Either way.) Wikipedia’s errors still don’t stop people from using it to look up all sorts of things. It’s far more right than wrong, and people trust that it’s just right enough.

Likewise the mainstream news media. I realize there are folks who insist we should never trust the mainstream media… and then these folks turn round and insist we should only trust Fox News. In what way is the currently most popular cable news network not mainstream? But I digress: People trust the news, and we’re all aware sometimes the news reports things which are factually wrong. Especially when it’s a breaking story and all the facts aren’t yet in. Yet this doesn’t stop people from believing what they see on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, the BBC, Al-Jazeera, and so forth.

If you discovered your 20-volume encyclopedia got a date wrong, or the dictionary misspelled one of the words in a definition, you’re not gonna throw out the books. You’re gonna work around the errors. Which hopefully are minor—otherwise you might have to throw out the books, as I’ve had to do with certain racist history textbooks.

And when we talk about errors in the bible, that’s what we’re dealing with: Minor errors. Nothing that’s gonna undermine what we believe about God. Nothing that’s gonna upend our theological beliefs about salvation, grace, holiness, goodness, God’s character, God’s will, or any such thing. We’re dealing with really little inconsistencies; the sort of things only an obsessed nitpicker would care about.

Christian apologists tend to be obsessed nitpickers, so I get why they’d claim they’d totally throw out their bibles. But y’know, I know a few of those apologists who later came to recognize the bible has errors. They haven’t thrown out their bibles. I haven’t thrown out my bible, and have no plans to whatsoever.

In fact I respect the bible, and the text of the scriptures, too much to hide bible difficulties. We’re supposed to deal with them, not pretend they’re not there. Certainly not lie to others and pretend they don’t exist.

Yeah, there’s a list.

Visit any atheist or nontheist website and they’ll give you a much bigger list than the one I present below. That’s because they’re looking for anything whatsoever which they might consider contradictory. You and I won’t necessarily see those things as contradictions. Four gospels? Two creation stories? Big deal. We grew up learning to harmonize these stories. Pointing out they’re different doesn’t shake our faith any; it’s okay that they’re different.

Likewise Jesus’s two genealogies. That one’s such an obvious discrepancy, Christians have spent an awful lot of time coming up with creative explanations for how it might work. I don’t care for most of those explanations. I think Sextus Julius Africanus has the best one—and it’s not the one most Christians argue! But you’re not gonna shake anybody’s faith by pointing out Jesus has inconsistent family trees. We already know that one.

Likewise differing accounts of Jesus’s resurrection. We’ve heard these stories all our lives, and have harmonized them as best we can… and usually explain away the discrepancies thisaway: “Okay, one gospel says there was an angel, and another says two. But the disciples were so discombobulated by the resurrection, it stands to reason they didn’t get their stories straight. Besides, just because one guy noticed one angel, doesn’t mean there weren’t actually two present; he just didn’t see the other one.” And so forth. We don’t care they don’t line up perfectly. We’re more interested in the fact Christ is alive!

Nitpickers might care, and a list of errors is gonna give them a lot of fun nits to pick. So here’s my partial list. It’s not comprehensive; there are others. These are mainly the ones nontheists like to fling at me most.

  • The two creation stories.
  • The LORD said nobody knew his name before he revealed it to Moses, Ex 6.2-3 yet Genesis states they called upon his name. Ge 4.6
  • John says nobody’s ever seen God, Jn 1.18, 1Jn 4.12-13 but it kinda looks like they did. Ex 24.9-11
  • Either David ben Jesse captured 700 horsemen 2Sa 8.4 or 7,000. 1Ch 18.4
  • Either the LORD 2Sa 24.1 or Satan 1Ch 21.1 got David to take a census. The results were either 800,000 2Sa 24.9 or 500,000; 1Ch 21.5 with likewise different results for the count of Judah.
  • Solomon ben David had either 40,000 stalls for his horses 1Ki 4.26 or just 4,000. 2Ch 9.45
  • Solomon had either 3,300 supervisors over Israel 1Ki 5.16 or 3,600. 2Ch 2.2
  • The temple’s pillars were either 18 cubits high 1Ki 7.15-22 or 35 cubits. 2Ch 3.15-17
  • Solomon’s molten sea held either 2,000 baths 1Ki 7.26 or 3,000 baths. 2Ch 4.5
  • Baasha ben Ahijah died in the 26th year of Asa’s reign, 1Ki 16.6-8 yet somehow built a city in the 36th year of Asa’s reign. 2Ch 16.1
  • Omri became king in the 31st year of Asa’s reign, and reigned 12 years, 1Ki 16.23 yet died seven years later in the 38th year of Asa’s reign. 1Ki 16.28-29
  • Jehoshaphat ben Asa didn’t remove the high places, 1Ki 22.42-43 or he did. 2Ch 17.5-6
  • Jehu ben Jehoshaphat shot Ahaziah ben Ahab, who fled to Meggido and died there. 2Ki 9.27 Or Ahaziah was found in Samaria, brought to Jehu, and then executed. 2Ch 22.9
  • Ahaziah ben Jehoshaphat was either 22 years old 2Ki 8.26 or 42 2Ch 22.2 when he became king for a year.
  • Jehoiachin ben Jehoiakim was either 18 years old 2Ki 24.8 or eight 2Ch 36.9 when he became king for three months. He was succeeded by either his uncle 2Ki 24.17 or brother. 2Ch 36.10
  • Jesus’s two genealogies, of course.
  • Ahimelech was head priest when David ate showbread, 1Sa 21.1-6 but Jesus said it was Abiathar. Mk 2.26
  • Either there were two demoniacs in Gadara, Mt 8.28-33 or one. Mk 5.2-16, Lk 8.26-36
  • Either a centurion personally asked Jesus to cure his servant, Mt 8.5-12 or sent representatives. Lk 7.2-10
  • After 5,000 were fed, Jesus and his students went to either Gennesaret Mk 6.53 or Capharnaum. Jn 6.17-25
  • Either James and John asked to sit on either side of Jesus, Mk 10.35-37 or their mother asked for them. Mt 20.20-21
  • Jesus either cured two blind men enroute to Jericho Mt 20.29-34 or just the one. Mk 10.46-52
  • The soldiers put Jesus into either a purple robe Mk 15.17, Jn 19.2 or scarlet. Mt 27.28
  • Jesus was either crucified at the third hour Mk 15.25 or was still standing before Pilate at the sixth hour. Jn 19.14-15
  • The differing details of Jesus’s resurrection.
  • The people who were with Saul of Tarsus, when Jesus first appeared to him, either heard him Ac 9.7 or didn’t. Ac 22.9

Like I already said, if these inconsistencies are actual straight-up errors, they’re minor. Some of you might already be thinking, “That’s it? That’s what all the fuss is about? They’re so irrelevant.” Yes they are!

This is hardly stuff which undermines Christianity, or confidence in the bible, or trust in Jesus, or anything. Those Christians who go to such great lengths to write big books on bible difficulties, who demand everybody in their organization must believe in biblical inerrancy, who figure you’re going to hell if you don’t: They’re really making mountains of anthills, aren’t they?

I suspect most of their problem ultimately comes from a lack of real trust in Jesus. If you worship bible instead of Jesus, or more than Jesus, I get why the existence of biblical errors is gonna feel like blasphemy.

If you trust that Jesus is perfect and inerrant and infallible, you’re not gonna demand such things of your bible. You’re not gonna use your bible as an inferior substitute for such a relationship with Jesus. You’re not gonna worry that bible errors would shake your faith; your faith won’t shake, ’cause foundations (i.e. the apostles and prophets, who wrote bible) might shake and crack, but cornerstones (i.e. Christ Jesus) don’t! Ep 2.20

The bible’s a collection of relevant, important, essential texts. But come on, Christians: Put your faith in someone far more solid than bible.