When I was a child my Sunday School teachers used to say that God whispered the words of the Bible, and someone wrote them down. There is some level of comfort in this idea, and many Christians I love defend it passionately, but there are problems with this theory. Men of varied culture and history penned the words, men translated the words from language to language, and men deliberated, disagreed, and decided which ancient writings to include in what we call the Bible. Understandably, therefore, there are hundreds of problems when we attempt to see the words as handed down directly from God.
I understand and respect the need for some to yell “heresy” about now! I speculate a twofold reason for this passion: 1) The human need for God to be tangible, thus the equating of the Bible with God. (With our physical bodies we can’t touch, see, or hear God, but we can touch, see, and hear the Bible.) 2) The fear that if any discrepancy is found in the Bible that would mean God was not real or that the Bible was not Holy. Well, I hope to dispel both of these ideas here. The Bible does contain hundreds of discrepancies. Yet God is very real, and the Scripture is Holy.
The Bible is inspired by God. It amazingly records and preserves the Hebrew/Jewish people’s history with God, the life and teachings of Jesus, and the beginnings of the Christian Church. Inspired,yes. There is, however, a critical difference between spiritual revelation and human words. Have you ever tried to put a spiritual revelation into words? One does not fit perfectly into the other, but words are all we have with which to communicate. The words of the Bible were mostly penned by writers who lived in close relationship to God, and were under some level of the power of the Holy Spirit as they wrote, but nowhere do we read that they were immaculately conceived, or that they were transfigured as they wrote. They were not perfect or omniscient people. Many of them made judgments in their lives for which they would be arrested today, and maybe even given the death penalty. They included adulterers, murderers, a former persecutor of Christians, . . . Despite their humanness, however, the writings they left us are the most valuable and precious tangible gift from God to us. An awe-inspiring set of writings that have revolutionized our world for many centuries. The all-time best-selling book worldwide, and with good reason!
Although most Christians have a Bible in their homes, however, only a small percentage of them ever read it from cover to cover. They claim its value. I’ve heard many say that if their house caught fire, their Bible would be the first thing they’d grab on the way out. Yet it has largely become an icon. They like to talk and read about what it says, but many Christians don’t pick up the actual Bible except to carry it under their arms when they go to church. Yet many of these same Christians are the most defensive of its perfection. Why? Because they have equated it with God. Many Christians, knowingly or unknowingly, worship the Bible. It has unknowingly become their idol, and the idea that the Bible might have a tiny error in it is as blasphemous to them as saying that God makes mistakes.
God does not make mistakes. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. God is not confined to or limited by our finite understanding of who God is. Nor is God confined to any writings, no matter how great and how inspired. Language is humanity’s means of communication. God is not confined to written or spoken human language. Humans, on the other hand, even when given a spiritual truth or revelation, can only process it through our own finite mental and spiritual understanding. Thus our attempts to explain will never be equal to God’s perfection. God inspired the writers of the Bible, but author it, God did not.
A present day example of this distinction: I visited a church where the pastor preached an inspired sermon. He was passionate about living for God, and his relationship with God was not questionable. He claimed God gave him his sermon, and I believe him. Yet, perhaps due to his level of education, his sermon did have a couple of errors. Not because God doesn’t know everything, but because the pastor doesn’t. Still God is using him, just as God amazingly chooses to work through such imperfect children as you and me!
The book we know as the Bible is actually not one book but a compilation of 66 different inspired writings, written in several different genres by many different authors over a span of many centuries. Some of these writings are personal letters. Others are books of poetry, or allegory, or law, or history, or prophecy . . ., each of which should, by nature of the genre, be read a little differently. The Biblical writers, just as writers today, wrote to and within the confines of the cultures of which they were a part.
I have heard many Christians proclaim emphatically that the Scripture needs no interpretation, that it speaks for itself. As humans, however, there is no such thing as reading anything (the newspaper, the Bible, this blog . . .) without applying our own interpretation to that reading. We all read through the eyes and ears of our own education and experience. Most of us developed our own interpretations from those of our spiritual leaders past and present (pastors, teachers, parents, spouse . . .), although we may be totally unaware of their influence. All of us interpret, but not always responsibly. A most complete interpretation of each individual book of the Bible involves several questions, like:
Who wrote it?
When was it written?
For what purpose was it written?
To whom was it written? (Who was its intended audience?)
What genre is it?
What was the culture in which the author lived?
What did the words mean in their original language? (If you have ever mastered a second language, you know that translation is definitely not an exact science.)
How would the original readers have understood it?
Can God speak to someone who doesn’t know any of this? Absolutely! The Bible is powerful, and God can use it to speak to anyone. Our spiritual teachers and leaders, however, should pay attention to these questions.
One of the most widespread errors in interpretation is thinking the Bible was written primarily as a rule book for our 21st century American lives. That’s such a small part of what the Bible is, comparable perhaps to the popular feel-good slogan that the Bible is “God’s love letter to us.” Those who have adopted this slogan I suspect have not read the first several books of the Old Testament lately, books filled with war, and plundering, and killing. Certainly parts of it are applicable to teaching us how to live, but the Bible was not written primarily as a book of rules for life in the 21st century (or any century). None of the Biblical writers anticipated that their writings would be read, and basically worshipped, thousands of years later on the other side of the earth! They wrote for a specific audience and a specific purpose. If, however, we read it with intelligence and responsibility, its most profound truths are timeless, as is God, and these truths can indeed be the structure upon which we build our Christian lives. The foundation, however, should be Christ alone.
Today’s Christian culture has become extremely political and polarized within itself. Despite Jesus’ repeated emphasis on the unity of the believers, we seem to have an inate need to divide ourselves. Those who think just like I do vs. those who don’t. Of course those who don’t are the “bad guys.” We have developed many a litmus test for weeding out those who do not fit our camp, including the words infallible and inerrant to describe the Bible. Now, I have personally found these words completely useless in any meaningful discussion, because every person I have ever heard use them has his own definition of exactly what they mean. In my experience these words are meant only to divide God’s children into factions, something Jesus prayed against in His final earthly prayer. He knew us even then, didn’t He! His prayer was that we would be one. If we are His children, we are all in the sheepfold, although no two of us will see things exactly the same.
Am I attempting to discredit the Bible or prove it invalid? NO!!! I revere, treasure, and cherish the Bible. I read and study it with diligence, and it molds and shapes my life. Yet I do not worship the Bible. I study the Bible because it points me to the One Who alone is worthy of my worship, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, the Sustainer of all life, the Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent God of Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul. The God of Mother Teresa, Corrie ten Boom, Martin Luther King, C.S. Lewis, and Billy Graham. God alone is perfect and worthy of worship.
In my opinion the many discrepancies in the Bible serve to reinforce its validity, not detract from it. The fact that different writers tell different versions of the same story, with all the most important details in unison with each other, adds much more validity than if they all told it in the exact same words. Do any two witnesses have exactly the same interpretation of an event? (Think of a car accident for example. Everyone is caught up in the moment, seeing things from their own perspective, and should they 30 years later decide to write their memory of it, there would surely be discrepancies. Yet collectively they would preserve and validate the reality of the event.)
So, let’s talk about those discrepancies in the Bible. Some are probably copy errors made by the scribes. Others are translation errors. Others are just educated guesses from conflicting documents about which is closer to the original (of which by the way none exist to us). Others are products of the time of writing. For example, it was not widely accepted at the time of Biblical writing that the earth was round. Other discrepancies are due to different eye-witnesses perceiving events from different vantage points, or the time period between the actual event and the time it was written down. (Do we not all miss a detail or two when we tell about something we saw thirty years ago?) Most of the Biblical accounts were written long after the actual events, from memory or from years and years of oral tradition.
OK, I made the claim that there are hundreds of discrepancies in the Bible. If you are still reading, you must be interesting in examining this. At some later date, should there be interest, perhaps I will compile such a list. For now, however, just to provide an example, I will call your attention to two discrepancies in one particular story. Please don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself, and feel free to share your thoughts:
This story appears twice, once in 2 Samuel 24 and again in 1 Chronicles 21. David sends Joab and the commanders of the army to take a census of Israel and Judah. Two discrepancies between the two stories: 1) One version (2 Sam.) says The Lord incited David to take the census. The other (1 Chron.) says Satan incited him. 2) 2 Sam. numbers the men of Israel as 800,000 and the men of Judah as 500,000. 1 Chron. numbers the men of Israel as 1,100,000 and the men of Judah as 470,000.
Some would try to explain these differences away. 2 different censuses perhaps? If you read both accounts in their entirety, it seems obvious they are the same census. I choose to accept that these details really make no difference. Either way, the important part of the story seems to be that David took a census. Nonetheless, it seems impossible that both these Biblical account can be inerrant.
What does the Bible claim for itself? Is there any claim of inerrancy or infallibility? Is there any claim that it should be worshipped? Is there any claim of being the ultimate authority for matters like history or science? If not, we do it and ourselves a disservice when we put such demands on it. The most quoted passage used to justify these claims is 2 Timothy 3:16:
All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness – 2 Timothy 3:16
But if we read it carefully we will see how much our own interpretation has been added to its words. Also it is worth noting that our current Biblical canon was not established until the fourth century, and that when the New Testament writers wrote of Scripture, they were referring to certain Old Testament scrolls, and probably some other writings that our canon has not preserved. That is to say that Paul, for example, did not refer to his writings as Scripture. With that in mind, following are a few verses to ponder that deal with Scripture, not calling attention to itself, but to Jesus:
And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:21
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. – Luke 24:27
You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. – John 5:39-40
For he powerfully confuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. – Acts 18:28
Once we are able to give up the notion that there is no human element in the Bible, we are free to reap all the richness and depth that it possesses. What is most amazing to me about the Bible is not that it is without any error, but that, despite its many authors, and the many generations and cultures that its writings span, the main message is so consistent and rich. God is sovereign. Jesus Christ is the Savior and Redeemer of the world. And the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the lives of God’s people.
Kathy Vestal is a college educator in Salisbury, NC. She has a Master’s of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master’s of Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. An avid writer, gifted teacher, and occasional public speaker/preacher, her passions include civil rights, social justice, church reform, and education. She has traveled to Mexico, Honduras, Argentina, Ecuador, and The Gambia, Africa, and enjoys reading, nature, and history.