Why We Cannot Have Inerrant Bible Copies

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:

  1. That, as one writer puts it, inerrancy means that God preserved the text through the ages and through translations inerrantly. This is held by no one I know of other than perhaps the King James Only group.
  2. That "error" is judged based on 21st century standards of what constitutes a mistake - when in fact, we ought to judge by the standards of the day in which the Bible was written. Hence, for example, when a Skeptic criticizes passages in Proverbs as though they were absolute advice, they miss the point; see our essay on Proverbial Literature, link 1 below.)

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?...

Although it is always scholarly to consider the original languages, why should that be necessary with the "word of God?" An omnipotent, omniscient deity should have made his all-important message unmistakably clear to everyone, everywhere, at all times. No one should have to learn an extinct language to get God's message, especially an ancient language about which there is much scholarly disagreement. If the English translation is flawed or imprecise, then God failed to get his point across to English speakers. A true fundamentalist should consider the English version of the bible to be just as inerrant as the original because if we admit that human error was possible in the translation, then it was equally possible in the original writing.

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 charges7 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.

First, it is plain that neither the Bible nor a belief in inerrancy is required to be a Christian. If this were so, then skeptics like Frank Morison or C. S. Lewis, who believed in the historicity of the Resurrection but not in the inerrancy of the Gospel reports of it, would never become Christians. People behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains would never have become Christians in times when the Bible was forbidden in those countries and they often had no more of the Bible than a few pitiable verses handwritten on a paper towel. Finally, in this day beyond when most people cannot even remember what their name is without consulting their drivers' license, literacy would be a prerequisite for belief, which would be absurd being that the Bible was written in a time when up to 95% of the given population was illiterate.

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.

Second, it should by now be obvious, in light of this, why we do not have inerrant copies of the Bible today - if we did, then you might well see genuine, widespread bibliolatry. Look back on the checkered history of mankind in general and the church in particular.

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).

Now if this is how allegedly authentic pieces of Christian history were regarded, how would inerrant copies of Scripture have been received? True, there are a few of us who would not submit to such temptations; but by far the majority of the population in history has not been of the sort who could resist according some special worship to supposedly holy items.

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.

About 15 years ago, I went to see a traveling exhibit featuring the original Declaration of Independence. Visitors were carefully searched before they entered; a maze of pathways led you to center stage; and there, at the very heart of the exhibit, one could be permitted to gaze upon that fragile, revered document - inside a glass-topped case that emerged from a secure area below the observation level.

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.

Bottom line: God wants us to worship HIM, not scraps of paper. Our very nature to worship that which we can see and touch and consider holy proves that we would not be able to handle the responsibility of inerrant copies. Indeed, it may be said that the while the creation of inerrant originals was highly important, their loss and destruction was equally so.

There are some less important philosophical reasons why we do not have inerrant copies and translations. Let's discuss each of these briefly.

  1. Not having inerrant copies encourages freely-made decisions and independent thinking.

    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.

  2. Inerrant translations would be logistically impossible for mankind to handle.

    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.

  3. God's message in the Bible may be summed up in just a few exemplary verses, upon which the rest are built; and these few verses are the height of simplicity.

    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."
(1 Cor 9:19-23)
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.



So what should have been done for our translations of the Bible? The best thing perhaps would have been - and barring a wealth of new archaeological finds, it is too late now to take it up - for scribes to maintain the exact, word-for-word translation along with regularly-updated (but also physically separate) commentaries explaining various customs, figures of speech, and events in their context. As time passed, later generations would still have the exact verbiage - but also a series of commentaries that would allow them to "stay in touch" with the full meaning of what had originally been written.

We, too, should study the culture and history surrounding the Bible, so that we may more clearly understand what is being said.

At any rate, any new version or translation of the Bible should be taken up with excessive care. Ideally, the work should be done by people who have a thorough knowledge of both the original languages and the receiving language; but this is not always practicable, and in the meantime, there are souls that are literally starving for the Good News.


Have you ever read Chaucer or Shakespeare in the original? Most of you would look at that Olde English and understand a few words of it, but unless you were a scholar of that time period, or had Cliff's Notes, you would miss most or all of the puns, political references, etc. peculiar to that time. Now if we have such trouble with 400 year-old English, imagine what trouble the Septuagint translators had with even older Hebrew! They read it - but you can bet they didn't always UNDERSTAND it.

Modern investigative techniques have helped us clear up many of these kinds of problems in the Bible, but not all of them - and because many of our translators seem to revere the text nearly to the point of worship, many of these discoveries have not surfaced in our modern Bible translations. For example, in the list of unclean "birds" in Leviticus, the final entry is "bat". Skeptics point this out as an error: Bats are not birds. However, the Hebrew word in Leviticus that we translate "birds" is better rendered "flying things" - it was a generic term for any animal that flew; more literally, "the owner of a wing." (See Link 2 below.)

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:

gt n bd

Does this say "get in bed?" Got no bid? Got on bad? An ancient Hebrew could figure it out, but not us so easily. Context helps, of course, but remember that context is not always helpful, and where there was a place where either of two or three words MIGHT make sense, the scribes who added vowel points much later on were undoubtedly working with their own preconceived notions.

To make the problem worse, suppose an earlier scribe had slipped and added an extra consonant:

gt n brd

That extra "r" could lead to translating the phrase "get on board." From there, things could get worse. Maybe the scribe did this:

grt n bld

Now we have a phrase that's totally off. A later scribe could get very confused and just change the consonants altogether, just to make sense of the phrase.

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:

  1. The percentages given earlier: The OT is 95% accurately transcribed; the NT, 99%. That means (in a Bible without any commentary) 50 pages of your OT and 3 pages of your NT may have been fumbled by later writers. Since most of the "errors" critics harp on turn upon no more than one or two letters or words, those 53 pages give us plenty of room to accept intellectually the idea that the original texts were inerrant.
  2. The reverence accorded to prophetic material. This would not allow for wholesale change, but only for, at most, the tailoring necessary for creating a unified whole.

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.

No convinced skeptic will turn to Christ simply because we explain why Chronicles says Ahab's bathtub held 75 gallons while Kings says 85. Their reasons for disbelief are beyond that. But for those who watch and observe our debates, and are considering not only our answers, but the WAY in which we answer, the apologetic for inerrancy is important. We should be aware of the basic issues surrounding translation and transcription.

A few further considerations in this regard:

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.

-JPH

  1. here
  2. here
  3. here
  4. here