Sound spiritual and intellectual principles provide for a confident approach to the close study of Scripture
Bible students throughout the centuries have accepted Holy Scripture as God’s written Word of truth. Critics of the Christian faith have perceived the Bible as a thoroughly human book and have challenged the truthfulness of Scripture, claiming that the Bible contains numerous mistakes.
How did Jesus and the apostles see Scripture? Committed Christians need to recognize the importance of asking how Christ and the apostles saw and treated Scripture. With regard to the Old Testament, Jesus believed that what Moses taught was the Word of God (Mark 7:10). What David wrote, he wrote under inspiration (Mark 12:36). For Jesus, the inspired writings of the Old Testament were inviolable (John 10:35). In a similar manner, the apostles affirmed that in the Old Testament, God spoke through the mouths of His prophets (Acts 3:21). What the Holy Scriptures say is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). What Scripture says—God says (Rom. 9:17). Hence, Christians accept Scripture as truth (Ps. 12:6). Paul declared that he served the God of his fathers, “‘believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets’” (Acts 24:14, NKJV).
The New Testament writers affirm that “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21, NASB). The messages of the apostles were regarded as given by divine authority. Paul believed that the things he spoke were “not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:13, NASB). That is why the early church received the apostles’ message “not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13, NASB). Clearly the words of Scripture were “regarded as trustworthy, accurately representing the divine message.”1
Paul also acknowledged the inspiration of other parts of the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 5:18, he quoted from both Testaments as Scripture, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain’ [Deut. 25:4, ESV] and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’ [Luke 10:7, ESV].” Similarly, Peter refers to the writings of Paul as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).
The divine origin of Scripture is clearly attested; yet the writers of the biblical books were not simply God’s pens but His penmen; that is, they wrote in their own characteristic styles, languages, and thoughts under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some books, such as Kings, Chronicles, and the Gospel of Luke provide evidence of careful historical research. In all this, “the Holy Spirit’s guidance did not overrule the thinking and the writing process of biblical writers but supervised the process of writing in order to maximize clarity of the ideas and to prevent, if necessary, the distortion of revelation, or changing divine truth into a lie.”2
Nevertheless, biblical writers acknowledge that there “are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, asthey do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16, NASB).
Sometimes this human dimension of Scripture is charged with being responsible for mistakes in the Bible. After all, to err is human, as the saying goes. But even sinful human beings are capable of telling the truth and do so regularly. How much more should the biblical God of truth help His chosen instruments to communicate His truth faithfully! Being human does not necessarily entail falsehood or error.
Of course, all human language is limited, and the Bible was not written in a flawless heavenly Esperanto. Rather, the Bible writers used nontechnical, ordinary, everyday language to describe things that are subject to ordinary, not technical, standards of truth. They spoke of sunrise (Num. 2:3) and sunset (Deut. 11:30), using language of description rather than scientific precision. The need for technical precision varies according to the situation in which a statement is made. Imprecision cannot be equated with untruthfulness. The Bible is characterized by the simple beauty of the language, and it has the appeal of truthfulness. In recognizing this, Scripture is not deified. God alone is infallible. But with the biblical writers, His Word is true and reliable.
Many biblical passages reflect ancient customs, knowledge of which can be helpful in shedding light on some problems of interpretation while studying the Bible. For example, in ancient times it was common to give the same person different names (Edom/Esau; Gideon/Jerubbaal), and different methods were used to count the reign of kings. Care must be taken not to apply current understanding of things to the Bible and come to hasty and wrong conclusions about its truthfulness.
Furthermore, so-called obvious mistakes would have easily been detected by the original audience, who were much more familiar with the biblical text than many today. There is no indication that Paul or other biblical writers were charged with making any such obvious mistakes. Perhaps the smaller discrepancies pose a greater challenge to the serious scholar than so-called obvious mistakes.
The issue at hand also touches on the question of the transmission of the biblical autographs. Certainly, as a fact, original manuscripts have been lost. Although the Jews were very careful in faithfully copying biblical manuscripts, some minor mistakes have crept in while transmitting and copying them.
These may be due to copyists’ mistakes or human frailties. While some such mistakes have occurred in the process of transmission and translation, they are so insignificant that not one honest soul needs to stumble over them. How God has preserved the Bible in its present shape is amazing. Indeed, the Bible is the best-transmitted and best-preserved document of antiquity.
But what can be done about discrepancies and apparent mistakes in the Bible? For example, there are a number of numerical discrepancies, referring to the same events or items in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.
● In 2 Samuel 8:4, David is said to have taken 700 horsemen from Hadadezer; in 1 Chronicles 18:3, 4, the figure is given as 7,000.3
● According to 1 Kings 4:26, Solomon had 40,000 stalls for horses; in 2 Chronicles 9:25, he had only 4,000 stalls.
● In Matthew 27:54, the centurion says, “‘Truly this was the Son of God’” (NKJV); in Luke 23:47, however, the author quotes the centurion as saying, “‘Certainly this was a righteous Man’” (NKJV).4
● Matthew associates a quotation from Zechariah with the prophet Jeremiah. Was he suffering from a slip of the mind?5
● In Hebrews 9:3, 4, the writer of Hebrews seems to locate the altar of incense in the Most Holy Place, whereas it is a well-known fact that it stood in the Holy Place. Was he mistaken?6
● Can the Old Testament cosmology be reconciled with modern scientific cosmology?7
Did the biblical writers err or suffer from a loss of memory? Were they only children of their times and culture and thus mistaken in what they wrote? While the books of the Bible were written in a particular time and culture, the Bible is not historically conditioned by immanent cause-and-effect relations and, thereby, rendered relative and divinely conditioned and historically constituted. The trustworthiness and reliability of the Bible and the truthfulness of the biblical message surpasses the limitations of human culture.
The Historical Reliability of Scripture
The presence of some discrepancies in the Bible does not give license to call into question the historicity of the biblical account. The Christian faith is a historical faith in the sense that it essentially depends upon what did, in fact, happen. Truth and historical reality belong together and cannot be separated from their theological content. “To remove the historical from the concerns of Scripture is to remove what demonstrates the faithfulness of God”8
because God acts in history. In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles accepted as true the historical events recorded in the Old Testament (Matt. 19:4, 5; Rom. 15:4) because historical events, such as Creation, the Flood, and the Exodus, are part of the salvation history revealed in Scripture.
Though the New Testament writers were familiar with translations of the Old Testament, it is interesting that neither Jesus nor the apostles pointed out actual mistakes or errors in Scripture and never questioned the historicity of Old Testament reports. There is no evidence that they criticized Scripture for being wrong or point out specific mistakes. Instead, they demonstrated unwavering faith in its trustworthiness and divine authority. In dealing with Scripture, readers are not called to disseminate doubts by questioning the truthfulness of the Bible, but are invited to follow the example of Jesus and the apostles.
How to Deal With Difficult Texts
The challenges of difficult passages in the Bible have been recognized by serious students throughout history. Although many discrepancies and contradictions disappear under open-minded scrutiny, some problems remain. To admit frankly those difficulties as unanswered questions is something quite different, however, from claiming that Scripture has definitely erred. The latter is a value judgment on Scripture, while the former shows an awareness of the limitations of human understanding and acknowledges that humans are not omniscient but dependent upon further information and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit in understanding spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:12-14).
In dealing with difficulties in Scripture, many so-called mistakes are not derived from God’s revelation but from human misinterpretation and the interpreter’s prejudice. What, then, should be done in encountering apparent mistakes in the Bible?
Approach with integrity. In dealing with a difficult passage in Scripture, approach it in perfect honesty. God is “pleased with integrity” (1 Chron. 29:17, NIV). This implies, first of all, acknowledgement of a difficulty and not an attempt to obscure or evade it. An honest person has an open mindset that is receptive toward the message and content of that being studied. Furthermore, honesty includes the willingness to use proper methods of investigation. Explaining and understanding the Word of God correctly precludes methods with naturalistic presuppositions based on atheistic premises that run counter to God’s Word.
Prayerfully deal with difficulties. Prayer is no substitute for hard work and thorough study. Prayer, however, includes confession of dependence upon God to understand His Word. The Bible writers express a humility that acknowledges that God and His Word are greater than human reason. Prayer provides the opportunity to ask for the leading of the Holy Spirit to gain a new insight to the biblical text that is unavailable if readers place themselves above the Word of God.
Explain Scripture with Scripture. With God as the ultimate Author of Scripture, a fundamental unity among its various parts may be assumed. That is to say, when in dealing with challenging aspects of Scripture, all difficulties should be dealt with scripturally. The best solution to Bible difficulties is still found in the Bible itself. There is no better explanation than explaining Scripture with Scripture. This means that taking into consideration the biblical context and carefully moving from the clear statements of the Bible to those that are less clear.
Be patient. For some questions, there are no easy answers. Patient determination is sometimes necessary to finding a solution. And if some problems persistently defy even the most difficult efforts to solve them, avoid discouragement. Part of perseverance is to be able to live with open questions, yet to be faithful to God’s Word, for God’s Word has proved time and again to be reliable and trustworthy.
Are There Mistakes?
If mistake means that Scripture teaches error or is fallible and historically unreliable, the answer is No. The Bible is God’s infallible revelation of His will. The suggestion that the Bible contains mistakes can easily be misunderstood to mean that God makes mistakes or that He has a responsibility for them, but this is not the case. The discrepancies and imperfections in Scripture are the result of human frailties. But none of these discrepancies negatively affects the teaching or historical reliability of Scripture. The Bible remains trustworthy and true and makes every willing man and woman wise unto salvation.
Frank Hasel, Ph.D., is Dean of the Bogenhofen Seminary, Bogenhofen, Austria.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Richard M. Davidson, “Who Is the Author of the Bible?” in Gerhard Pfandl, ed., Interpreting Scripture: Bible Questions and Answers (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, 2010), p. 3.
2. Fernando L. Canale, “Revelation and Inspiration,” in George Reid, ed., Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, 2005), p. 65.
3. For an explanation of this problem see Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982), p. 184.
4. On this question see ibid., pp. 346, 347.
5. Ibid., p. 345.
6. See Harold S. Camacho, “The Altar of Incense in Hebrews 9:3-4” in Andrews University Seminary Studies, 24:1 (1986):12.
7. See Randall W. Younker, “Crucial Questions of Interpreting Genesis 1”: http://biblicalresearch.gc.adventist.org/documents/Crucial%20Questions%20of%20Interpretation%20in%20Genesis%201.pdf. Accessed Nov. 30, 2011. See also G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (Wheaton Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008), pp. 161-218.
8. Noel Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture (Edinburgh: The Banner of Trust, 1988), p. 50.