What About All Those Mistakes in the Bible

Being involved in a ministry that states that its goal is to convince people that God is, that Jesus is His Son, and that the Bible is His Word brings a lot of interesting mail. Much of it is fairly easy to answer, especially those questions that deal with scientific support for the existence of God. What is not as easy is the challenge that comes from a wide variety of people concerning the inspiration of the Bible. There are a lot of reasons for this challenge being difficult. One problem is that the original manuscripts were not in English; and translation then becomes an issue. Another problem is that the Bible does not address itself just to one area of concern. The scientific accuracy of the Bible is one of the easier areas to deal with, because the Bible is not a scientific work and makes relatively few scientific statements. What about the historical statements in the Bible? How does the psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, and archeology stack up. No one is an expert in all of these areas, so the question of errors and accuracy becomes much more difficult.

It is not the purpose of this article to take every claimed contradiction in the Bible and explain it. What I would like to do is to attempt to give some practical suggestions which hopefully help analyze the questions involved in a more organized and open way. Before starting this it will be useful to explain the author's experience in this area of work. When I was a part of organized atheism, I was totally convinced that the Bible was one of the biggest frauds ever foisted on mankind. Since I believed there was no God I logically had to believe that the Bible was the work of humans. If humans wrote it, they had to be from a culture older than my own, and that meant that their ignorance and superstition would be a part of it.

Because I was trained in science and had a keen interest in geology, astronomy, and physics I decided to verify what I already believed about the Bible by analyzing its contents from those fields. What better place could there be to do this than Genesis 1. I learned enough Hebrew to determine the meanings of the words in Genesis, and then set out to show how wrong it was. Over seven years were involved in this project, and at the end of that time I could find no verifiable scientific error in the Genesis account. There were lots of errors in what humans thought and what Christian denominations taught, but not in the actual wording. My respect for the Bible and my contempt for human religions both began at this point. In the thirty years since that time, both of these feelings have grown through experience and study--and both are part of my suggestions to others who may wish to ask if there are logical answers to apparent contradictions in the Bible.

Deal with translation problems. Many claimed contradictions in the Bible turn out to be translation difficulties and do not exist in the original manuscripts. The word "giant" in the King James translation of Genesis 6:1-3 is a good example. Is the Bible maintaining in these verses that there were giant humans on the earth in this account? When I look the key word up I find the word is "nephilem" in the original language, and the word is used in reference to one who opposes God. So how did the word become "giant" in the King James? It took me a lot of digging to find that the King James translators took this section of Scripture from the Vulgate translation and translated the word nephilim as gigantus. The King James translators took gigantus and called it "giant" which is not even close to what the word means.

Someone may react to this discussion in frustration saying that they are not an expert in linguistics and cannot answer all of these kinds of questions. The problem does not require the kind of analysis we have done here. The problem requires one to look up one word--the word in question. This is an especially important issue when numbers come up. Many times a number differs from another number by one letter in the original language. A transcription error, a contextual error which caused someone to change the number, or even a failure to read the manuscript carefully would cause this.

I recently had a man call me to task on my position on the integrity of the Bible by calling attention to a census figure that was given in round numbers. How could you have 3,200 in a population? Would it not be 3,211 or 3,196, but not a whole number? Other numberings in the Bible do come up with seemingly accurate figures to the exact person. (See Numbers 3:42 and Nehemiah 7:66-67.) There is a question of procedure here as well as accuracy. If I have a turnstile that people have to go through to get into a place I can get an accurate count. Suppose I have an auditorium with 1,000 seats. If I have a turnstile people go through to get into the auditorium I could maintain that 983 people were in the auditorium. A newspaper reporter reporting on how many people were in attendance might notice that virtually no empty seats exist and thus report the attendance as 1,000. Both figures are accurate but arrived at in different ways. In ancient times a census might be of all people, of men, of men capable of fighting in combat, or of households. It is not always clear what kind of count the writer is using.

Someone may logically object at this point and say that if God expected us to believe the Bible is inspired, he should protect the accuracy of the documents. There are academic ways that can be used by God to do just this, but God can not protect the Bible without making the Bible a golden calf--an idol. Suppose every time someone translated or copied the Bible they were struck dead if they made an error. Not only would no one attempt to print or translate the Bible, but people would worship the object as sacred instead of revering its contents. It is the Word which has the power to change lives, not the paper and cardboard that makes up the physical book. I could sit down and re-write the Bible inserting my own beliefs and understandings and God would not physically stop me. This has in fact been done by Taylor in "The Living Bible." We are warned in Revelation 22:19 about doing anything like this, but it would be irrational for God to treat this issue in that way.

Deal with cultural influences. The Bible was not written by Americans for an American audience. Every culture has its own traditions which affect the meanings of phrases and even individual words. Many claimed contradictions in the Bible turn out to be cases where American values and understandings are forced on Hebrew or Greek phrases.

One of the places where this shows up is in the incompleteness many see in the Genesis account. When people ask questions about where Cain got his wife, where the people mentioned as building cities came from, or why numerical differences occur in various Biblical accounts of the same event they are usually not comprehending the way in which the ancient Hebrew writers developed histories. If children are born that are not a factor in a historical event being described, they will frequently not be mentioned. If emphasis is being given to relationships, intermediate steps will be left out. When Jesus' genealogy is given in Matthew 1:1, for example, the statement made is "Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham." An American unfamiliar with the culture might assume that Abraham was Jesus' grandfather.

If there were children born in the Garden of Eden, we would not expect them to be mentioned unless they played a major role in the point being made by the narrative. It is not necessary to propose multiple creations to understand where Cain got his wife or who populated the city he built. The fact that women might not be included in a census is not a problem when the purpose of the census was to establish military prowess. Even questions about the age of the earth, the antiquity of man, and how many visited Jesus' tomb and when, or how many types of Sabbaths the people of Jesus' day celebrated are rooted in this area of concern.

Be aware that new data may change the picture. Over the past hundred years, skeptics of the Bible have posed all kinds of challenges to the biblical narrative only to have a discovery show that the Bible was correct. Prior to 1947 it was common for skeptics to maintain that the Bible was written long after the events described in it had taken place. Because of the shortage of documents, it was easy to build a case for a charlatan origin for manuscripts like the messianic prophecies of Isaiah. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, with the messianic prophecies in tact scholars now had documents much older than the claims of the skeptics. The Hitite nation described in the Old Testament was claimed by some scholars to have never existed, and was used to ridicule those who claimed that the Biblical manuscripts were accurate and true. Today archeological evidence has totally vindicated the bible on this issue. Recently evidence has been found verifying the Biblical records of King David's rule, and many new digs and examinations of documents like the remainder of the Dead Sea Scrolls will offer new data. Many scholars question the story of the Exodus. The role of the Essenes is suggested as a major player in Christianity's development by others. In spite of the fact that many investigators are skeptical and even atheistic in their approach, new data continues to flow--much of it supportive of the academic integrity of the Bible. Anyone can suggest that something in the Bible might be erroneous, but the lesson of history is that new discoveries support the biblical narrative and help us understand the first two suggestions more fully.

Be careful that a claimed contradiction is not based upon a modern human assumption. This is probably the most common source of error in looking at skeptic attacks on the Bible. The classic example is the question of the age of the events described in the first chapter of Genesis. There is a mountain of evidence that the earth is more than 6,000 years old. It is a travesty to maintain that humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time, and an insult to the integrity of God to maintain that somehow God faked the whole creation so that the events we see recorded in the rocks and in the sky never really happened. Nevertheless, 60 of the anticreationist groups and the denominational creationists themselves maintain that this is what the Bible teaches.

This journal has devoted enormous numbers of pages over the years to pointing out the evidential and logical problems in these beliefs, and these articles are available in a packet for $1.00 (which pays part of the postage.) Our point here is not to resurrect this area of discussion but to simply point out this is the belief of a group of humans, not a statement in the Bible. No where in the Bible is a date given. Only by a dubious set of assumptions can one use the Bible to set dates on events of Genesis 1.

Similar problems arise when one attempts to prove when Jesus was born. The time and process of the flood has a flood of assumptions which nearly rivals the event. The proper understanding of the book of Revelation is buried in a cloud of human attempts to apply its message to the political and national leaders of today. Even claimed historical errors frequently turn out to be rooted in a belief or factual error held by a present day scholar or group.

The most common illustration of personal bias as the cause of perceived errors in the Bible is seen in "The Jesus Seminar" and its several spinoff groups. Like many skeptics, we see these groups starting out their attack on the Bible by believing that biblical inspiration is too hard for a modern learned person to believe. If I begin my study of the Bible by saying "I know it can't possibly be right" then we are going to find errors whether they are there or not. Over the years I have had a number of exchanges with people over the issues I have attempted to address in this article. One common thread that was present in my antagonists was their approach to understanding of a biblical passage. If the Bible stated something that had three explanations and if one of the explanations was totally ridiculous, that was the interpretation they would take. In all fairness, my antagonists would charge that I would take a positive interpretation of the passage no matter what. I have to plead guilty to that charge. I have seen so much good done, so many shattered lives put back together, and so many people blessed by principles based upon the Bible that I find myself jaded in trying to look fairly at a possible error. Even with that admitted bias, there are some apparent errors in the Bible I cannot explain. They are few in number, inconsequential in influence, and likely to be explained in the future by someone more educated and intelligent than I. To throw the baby out with the wash because we cannot explain every challenge the skeptic offers is a highly destructive myopia. "All scripture is given by God...." (2 Timothy 3:16).

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, JulAug98.