At some point, you may have heard or read that conservative Christian theologians assert that the Bible is without error (inerrant).
To call the Bible inerrant means that when all the facts are known, the Scriptures as they were penned by the writers in the original autographs, and as properly interpreted, will be shown to be true and not false in all they affirm.
It stands to reason that if God inspired certain men to reveal His words, He would be sure not to contradict Himself, so that His Word would be error-free.
With that said, we are still faced with many critics saying that the Bible contains errors. Such allegations of error in the Bible often flow from a failure to observe the basic standards for interpreting ancient literature.
There are certain interpretive principles that guide scholars in discerning whether there is a clear error or a contradiction in any literature. Here are six that are the most critical as they apply to the Bible.
Principle 1: The unexplained is not necessarily unexplainable.
Scientists once had no natural explanation for meteors, eclipses, tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes, but they did not conclude that all things within science were unexplainable.
Christian scholars likewise approach the Bible with the same presumption that what is currently unexplained isn’t unexplainable. They simply continue to do research. It is a mistake to assume that what has not yet been explained will never be explained.
Principle 2: The context of the passage controls the meaning.
You can prove anything from the Bible if you take words out of context. For example, the Bible says, “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1, New International Version).
Taken literally, that would constitute a major contradiction. But here’s the context: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (emphasis added). Failure to consider passages in context is one of the major errors of Bible critics.
Principle 3: Clear passages illuminate cloudy ones.
Some Bible passages appear to contradict others. John 3:16 speaks of God’s loving the world, while the same author in 1 John 2:15 tells us, “Do not love this world nor the things it offers you.”
But as we read on in 1 John, we find the clear explanation: John speaks of resisting the evil temptations the world offers, whereas in John 3:16 the clear meaning is that God loves the people of the world. To assume these passages are contradictory is to abandon the common sense we use in interpreting everyday language.
Principle 4: The Bible is a book for humans with human characteristics.
Critics point to Psalm 19:6 as an obvious case of the Bible’s fallibility: “The sun rises at one end of the heavens and follows its course to the other end.”
We’ve known for centuries that the sun does not move around the earth; the earth’s rotation merely causes the sun to appear to move. The same critic can speak in the next breath of watching a beautiful “sunset,” ignoring the fact that a term can be nonscientific without being inaccurate.
The Bible uses nontechnical, everyday figures of speech, common expressions, and well-known literary devices. None of these instances of normal use of language amounts to a contradiction.
Principle 5: An incomplete report is not a false report.
Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39 speak of Jesus’s encounter with a demoniac in Gadara, whereas the parallel account in Matthew 8:28-34 tells us there were two demoniacs. Is this a contradiction?
Mark and Luke, neither of whom were eyewitnesses to the event, could have recorded a report that focused on the more prominent of two demoniacs and ignored the other. Their accounts may be less complete, but they are not contradictory. Matthew supplies more information.
This kind of difference may be jolting for modern readers, but that is because we have a tendency to approach the text like a history textbook which is made for detailed precision.
The authors of Scripture, rather, are recording history for theological purposes with a theological direction, and that means they have more freedom to choose the kinds of details they wish to include.
Principle 6: Errors in copies do not equate to errors in the originals.
We have already touched on this principle. The doctrine of inerrancy concerns the original writings, not the copies of those writings. We accept that copies contain errors because copies are made by humans who make mistakes. However, scholars are able to determine many of the copyists’ errors by common sense and by comparing later copies with earlier copies.
Examining Some Errors and Apparent Contradictions
With the above interpretive principles in mind, let’s look at some supposed errors and apparent contradictions in Scripture.
There are errors made by the scribes who copied the Hebrew text. For example, in 1 Samuel 13:5, some manuscripts say that the Philistines had 30,000 chariots and 6,000 chariot drivers.
Naturally one wonders why they would have so many chariots and so few chariot drivers. But the other manuscripts put the chariot count at 3,000. That is the most likely number, and the error of the extra zero is no doubt a slip of the pen by a scribe. Of course, all subsequent manuscripts were copied from the altered one and the error was carried forward.
Matthew’s report of one angel at Jesus’s tomb (Matthew 28:2) seems to vary from Luke’s report that two angels were there (Luke 24:4). But do you remember principle 5? Matthew doesn’t say there was only one angel at the tomb. If he did, that would contradict Luke s report. Matthew merely identifies one angel, most likely the one who spoke.
This is no more a contradiction than if you told me you went to the grocery store yesterday, and then in a later conversation, you told me your friend went with you. I couldn’t accuse you of contradicting yourself in such a case.
After applying the principles of discerning errors and contradictions, we can be confident that the biblical text is free of known contradictions and in fact, is rooted in the accounts of eyewitnesses.
The Bible passes the internal evidence test. When you hold a Bible in your hands and read its Words, you can be assured you are receiving the message from God’s heart to yours.
To learn more about the power of God’s Word, read Making Disciples in an Age of Biblical Illiteracy
Adapted from “God Breathed” by Josh McDowell, Chapter 13