|Why can we not have inerrant copies of the Bible today?|
Author's Note (7/21/03): This essay you are reading is the most ancient of those that you will find on this page. It was a reaction to a single skeptical claim of the sort I found often on AOL's discussion boards.
Since the original publication of this essay, I have learned a great deal - and refined significantly the way I look at the issue of inerrancy. I believe that the original manuscripts of the Bible were produced inerrant, but it is my discernment that many, many believers today have a view of inerrancy that could not possibly have been that of that of the writers of the Bible. They fail to account for differences in the way ancient persons thought, acted, or perceived the world.
At the same time, Skeptics, too, have the same sort of misconceptions, basically these:
The question that must be asked is, "Would this be regarded as 'inerrant' by the standards of those who originally wrote the text?" The answer in every case I have found so far is NO -- and the difficulty is increased because inevitably what the ancients regarded as a form of narrative art -- within which precision could acceptably be compromised -- is regarded as an "error" today.
Let's now compose an answer to these presumptions, and make a case for the claim that logically and practically, it would have been impossible to maintain an inerrant text through the ages.
A favorite argument of Skeptics today asks: "If the original manuscripts of the Bible were inerrant, why didn't God preserve their inerrancy through their copying and translation?"
This argument comes in a wide variety of forms. One of my earliest Skeptical opponents made statements such as this:
The language here (in a passage of the Bible) is somewhat murky. You would think an omniscient "God" would not suffer from dyslexia, and instead make things crystal clear to his subjects.
Similarly, another Skeptic has written:
This is sometimes called a "transcription error", as in where one number was meant and an incorrect one was copied down. Or that what was "quoted" wasn't really what was said, but just what the author thought was said when he thought it was said. And that's right - I'm not disagreeing with events, I'm disagreeing with what is WRITTEN. Which is apparently agreed that it is incorrect. This is an amusing misdirection to the problem that the bible itself is wrong.
Finally, we have the most cogent form of this argument that the author has seen to date:
The problem is not with human limitations, as some claim. The problem is the bible itself. People who are free of theological bias notice that the bible contains hundreds of discrepancies. Should it surprise us when such a literary and moral mish-mash, taken seriously, causes so much discord?...
One wonders where this person has acquired someone free of theological bias. There is not a single human being with bare-minimum mental capabilities who has not formed some opinion about the origins of life and the universe. Those who claim to be completely "without bias" in this area are not being honest.
Furthermore, on what basis does this critic determine what a "true fundamentalist" should believe, and why does the possibility of human error in translation make an equal possibility the corruption of the original -- and how has he become omniscient enough to know what an omniscient deity could or would do? If anything, because there have been only one set of originals, but an incredible multitude of copies and translations over the millennia, the odds are inestimably greater that one would find error in the copies, even if the originals were not inerrant.
In each of the three above arguments, however, despite their varying degree of cogency, we may detect two common threads:
The basic answer to these charges, which I have recently pointed out elsewhere, is that if anyone is to blame for the loss of clarity, etc. in the Bible over the ages, it is we who are to shoulder the blame for losing it. We can look at a few examples of how this is so, but first there is a certain practical consideration arguing against the very possibility of modern, inerrant copies; we will get to that in the next section.
A reader made the point here that while my paraphrases above "are probably correct for typical Skeptic rhetoric," a more intelligent version would be, "If God actually is concerned as to whether or not His 'words' from which not 'one jot or one tittle' (Matt. 5:18) will pass away, then doesn't the fact that this text fails to meet this standard tell us something about whether or not this God really does exist or is really who His word claims to be?" In answer:
Though Matt. 5:18 has often been used as a proof of inerrancy, I think it is rather an expression related to the Jewish idea of God's Word as preexistent, and unchanging and has nothing to do with copies on earth. One could mangle the Scriptures to death, but the original is still on file in the home office, so to speak.
Religious and Philosophical Reasons Why We Don't Have Inerrant Copies
This is the granddaddy of the issues in answering this argument. The first aspect of it is one that Skeptics themselves should easily see.
Hardened skeptics often call Christians "bibliolaters" - thus implying that the Bible is some sort of "leather-covered security blanket" that Christians worship and would be frantic without.
This charge is unfortunately sometimes true, but we can see easily why, first, this dichotomy is wrong, in terms of a blanket assessment; and second, how this leads us to the biggest reason why we do not have inerrant copies of Scripture today.
So the charge of "bibliolatry," while unfortunately sometimes true or appearing to be so, is nevertheless not a true representation of Christian belief. Moreover, given the circumstances, it is clear that "the Word of God" for most people was not what was written on paper, but was the original idea (what I have called the "home office" copy) recorded on paper. Few could have appreciated the significance of a written, inerrant original document.
Every Skeptic can recite the litany of sins associated with, for example, the sale of relics in the early church. These "relics" were alleged to be pieces of Christian history that the common believer could buy, and in exchange not only have it for what it allegedly was, but also perhaps thereby purchase some time for themselves or deceased relatives out of purgatory, among other things.
The relics themselves are well-known - most of us have heard the famous statement about there being enough wood from the "True Cross" to build a seaworthy ship. Other relics have ranged from the indelicate (vials of Mary's breast milk) to the mundane (toenail clippings of the Apostles) to the frankly disgusting (a whole TOE of an Apostle).
But for comparison we might consider Muslim treatment of copies of the Quran. While it does not seem that Muslims hold to quite the view that every copy is inspired, consider some standard treatment of the text even in its current state (thanks to "Wildcat" for this info):
It has to be wrapped in a nice cloth. It has to be put on this thing that looks like a stand so you don't put it on your lap. It has to be duly kissed on front, back and top before you open it and most of all you believe it is all the truth and NEVER EVER DARE question it's integrity and when you read it you have to recite it in a prose, you don't read it like a book and some people move back and forth, i.e sway slightly when they recite it.
Christians are already called bibliolaters now; what if they went this far? How far would any "people of the book" go if they believed every copy was divinely inspired?
Furthermore, consider that the laity in many parts of the early church were forbidden to have their own copies of Scripture; how if those copies had each been inscribed with God's seal? The Scripture copies themselves would become the most expensive sort of relic, put distantly out of reach of the common people. Some would have taken to mind to destroy as many copies as they could, and prevent the production of later copies, to increase the value of their own copies. Scribes would be hired to produce (or NOT produce) more copies for their wealthy patrons. This would be the problems of relics a thousandfold.
If this is the type of concern we show for our Declaration of Independence, what would we do with inerrant copies of the Bible? Would we approve of our government, or a church, or some conglomerate, hoarding the inerrant copies and guarding them jealously? The Word of God should be accessible to everyone; and if every translation and copy came out inerrant, there would undoubtedly be political, economic or ecclesiastical powers who would take steps to take advantage of the situation, and declare something to the effect that "the common people" had no right or need to have their own copies, just as did indeed happen at certain points in Middle Age and pre-Middle Age history. To the Skeptic who protests, as many have, that God could or should have taken steps to ensure that every copy and translation was inerrant, I say that if that had been done, the results would have been tragic - far worse than what actually has happened in our history.
One of the most amazing arguments I have seen from Skeptics is that Christians like to impose their will upon others. This, too, is unfortunately too-often true in some ways; but by the same token, how can such Skeptics object to a lack of inerrant copies and translations of Scripture?
God would not force a decision for His Son upon anyone; it is a choice that must be freely made. The presence of inerrant copies would implicitly coerce people into conversion. Skeptics, if you think that making your own decision and thinking for yourself is right and proper, you should welcome the fact that God did not give us inerrant copies of Scripture.
No one person has the same exact understanding. No language, no culture, has exactly the same structure and outlook. That being the case, how would it be logistically possible - and again, not coercive - to provide inerrant copies and translations for every person on earth?
An amusing cartoon in a Christian magazine depicted a group of people, each carrying their own personal translation of the Bible. The titles reflected that the Bibles were indeed their "own" translation: "Good News for Bob," "The Living Word for Joe," etc. Now God could indeed by His power have given each of us a special book; but if they were attuned to each of us, what is likely the first thing that will happen?
Skeptics often point out how much difference there is between believers when it comes to translating and interpreting particular parts of the Bible; imagine how bad that controversy would be if we each had our own copy with different contents attuned to ourselves. Again, man's nature, and the coercive nature of such an action, would make this impossible; and this would be so even if every copy was exactly the same -- people would still let their own ideas rule the roost.
Do human laws seem complicated to you? As those involved directly in governmental work are aware, laws come in many layers. Statutes form the initial basis for action; then agencies create codes whereby they plan to adhere to those laws. Departments within agencies create procedural rules whereby they follow those codes. It is a complicated mess that has been the subject of many a complaint of bureaucracy.
In contrast, the Bible's messages are mostly straightforward and simple. The Bible has two primary components, OT and NT, that may be summarized easily in a few words. Jesus and the Jews of His time and before summarized the OT with the two commands to love God with all that was in you, and love your neighbor as yourself. The NT, too, may be summarized with just a few words - notably those of John 3:16, although certainly there are other good candidates.
As noted earlier, neither the Bible nor belief in its inerrancy is required to become a Christian. All that is needed is acceptance of these few words and what they represent; the rest is equivalent, spiritually speaking, of enforcement codes - how to live the life that God has called you to. Thus there is no need for inerrant copies when the basic message, all that is essentially needed, is so crystal-clear.
Are Our Languages Perfect Enough?
Why do we have translation problems with the Bible? The answer is that there are ALWAYS translation problems with ANY document and translations between ANY two languages. There are a variety of reasons for this; let's look at some specifically relevant to the Bible.
Textual criticism has indicated that we have received the text of our Bible quite well - we are able to achieve 95% accuracy for the OT, 99% accuracy in the NT. That means only 50 pages of your OT and 3 of your NT (in a Bible without commentary) are questionable - and that is a transcription rate that historians would be delighted to have for any ancient document. Indeed, it is amazing to observe some of the measures taken, especially by the Masoretic scribes, to ensure accurate transcription.
But the scribes, concerned with copying "word for word," were not attempting to accommodate later humans who might not understand the terms, figures of speech, etc. of their day. The reverence associated - even necessitated - with transcribing God's Word certainly would be impressed upon Biblical scribes, and would reinforce the idea that the exact words were important. However, words are meaningless without understanding, and that is why it is unfortunate that context was not always preserved with the exact words.
Have you ever noticed that when a new "version" of the Bible is issued, that even when it is doctrinally satisfactory with the most stringent fundamentalists, there is always a hue and cry? Take the "street lingo" version of the Bible - it reads "Do not take the name of the Lord in vain" as "Don't diss the name of the Almighty, because payback is a monster," as an example.
But it is an attempt to keep the Bible in context with a specific culture, which CAN be done without sacrificing doctrine. And that is what God would want us to do: Tell the truth, but make sure others understand it without compromising it. The words of the Apostle Paul are quite appropriate here:
"Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings."This is not to say that context should be emphasized to the point of radically altering the text. Eternal truths or the basic facts do not require much tailoring, but "trivia" areas probably require, if nothing else, an explanatory footnote.
For example, there are places where Abraham and his contemporaries put their hands under each other's "thighs" (a euphemism for the genitals) to make a pledge. People who are squeamish and uninformed may find such a passage disgusting. Not so in terms of the society in which this was written; that's our own post-Victorian squeamishness at work.
We, too, should study the culture and history surrounding the Bible, so that we may more clearly understand what is being said.
This applies obviously to birds, but also to bats, and certain insects. Unfortunately, even our newest Bibles use the word "birds," which only provides more grist for the skeptical mill. Our translators should be careful of this kind of thing. But it seems they revere the exact wording in some cases more than they revere exact understanding. At the very least, our Bibles should have footnotes explaining passages like the one in Leviticus. You usually have to get a commentary to get a proper explanation.
What are some of the difficulties encountered in any translation? Let's start with something related to Hebrew specifically: The old form of the language didn't use vowels. To illustrate the problem, try reading this:
To make the problem worse, suppose an earlier scribe had slipped and added an extra consonant:
These are problems in Hebrew only; there are greater problems for all languages across the board. In Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel, Maurice Casey, in examining the process of Mark's use of Aramaic sources in composing his Greek Gospel, offers these inevitable complications of translation and bilingualism, and actual examples in practice:
Such then are typical problems of translating from one language to another. The sort of exhaustive knowledge required to perform an exact translation is simply beyond the understanding of most people, and presents a practical impossibility.
When discussing Biblical inerrancy, it is important to remember that ONLY the original texts of the Bible are claimed to have been inerrant. Furthermore, one might suggest that the "original" text was in something of a different format. How? Take the book of Ezekiel as an example. Ezekiel certainly didn't write out all 48 chapters of his book in one sitting; his oracles were composed over his lifetime, and were collected together at a later date (by him, or by one of his students; it makes no difference), when - presumably - they were put together into the unified whole like that we now have.
But did the collector of this material leave everything "as it was"? In all likelihood, yes, given the reverence held for the work of a prophet; but this would not necessarily prevent the addition of transitional phrases needed to make the oracles into a sensible whole.
Skeptics will throw up their hands at this and ask how we can therefore accept our present text, since any number of errors could have crept in. At this we should reply with:
Bottom line: It is a matter of ideological orientation in both directions. Christians have a predisposition to say that the original text, whatever its form, was inerrant, and that we have a shadow of it in our modern Bible; Skeptics have a disposition to say that it was not, and the worst of them will posit all manner of textual conspiracies otherwise unevidenced in the text. I affirm this in light of several years now of dealing with such persons who clearly seldom or never make their arguments having done adequate research.
Skeptical obfuscation in this area, however, abounds: One 19th-century Skeptic said that there were "150,000 blunders in the Hebrew and 7,000 in the Greek." That sounds bad until you remember that these "blunders" consist for the largest part of single letters or numerals, or simple transcription mistakes that are easily detected.
It should be obvious that since many of the "errors" in our Bibles turn on single letters, numbers or words, no doctrine of Christian belief is the least bit altered by any questionable reading in Scripture. Nor does salvation require a functional belief in inerrancy; indeed, if it did, those who were illiterate or did not have a Bible in their own language could never be saved.
The number of horses in Solomon's army, the name of Saul's daughter who had no children - these things should be recognized and corrections noted, but they should be no cause for shipwreck of anyone's faith or an excuse for disbelief in the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ.
So How Would God Have Kept The Copies Inerrant?
Finally, with all of the questions and objection they make, Skeptics fail to inform us of what practical measures they would have had God take to ensure inerrant copies and translations. The pat answer might be, "The same way God supposedly inspired the originals!" But this, again, would constitute an act of coercion upon those who do not believe; and so would any other suggested method.
Would Skeptics have God manipulate the hands of every scribe? Would a scribe's hands "freeze up" or stop functioning when he or she was about to write an incorrect translation? Would the paper the error was written on suddenly burst into flames? Would God assume control of our printing presses? What if a Skeptic wanted to write a commentary, and interposed an "incorrect" idea? Would all form critics disappear in a puff of smoke? Would it be like Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar not even being able to say wrongly what the color of a pen is?
Any method of preserving inerrancy would undoubtedly involve a great deal of coercion on God's part, which would be a violation of our free will. Skeptics, however, are welcome to send suggestions on how such a process would be accomplished.
So far only one has done so. He suggested that the inerrant original should have been preserved in stone. Perhaps a good idea -- although it still does not avoid the problems we have delineated above; it merely puts a different spin on them. I can see, for example, those corrupt monks of the Middle Ages putting armed guards around Original Bible Monument and keeping the peasantry away from it...and the Romans, who regularly smashed the religious artifacts of defeated enemies, doing that to the originals...and so on.