Are there mistakes in the bible? 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. Before we deal with these claims, we briefly need to look at the nature of Scripture.
How did Jesus and the apostles see Scripture?
For committed Christians, we 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 7:10ff.). What David wrote, he wrote under inspiration (Mark 12:36). For Jesus, the inspired writings of the Old Testament were inviolable (John 10:35; Luke 16:17). 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 (Acts 1:16; 2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 3:7). What Scripture says—God says (Rom. 9:17; Gal. 3:8). Hence, Christians accept Scripture as truth (Pss. 12:6; 19:7ff.; 119:160). 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).
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 Pet. 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). We can clearly say that 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 quotes from both Testaments as Scripture, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’ ” (ESV). The first part is a quote from Deuteronomy 25:4 and the second from Luke 10:7. Similarly, Peter refers to the writings of Paul as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16).
The divine origin of Scripture is clearly attested; and 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 from under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some books, such as Kings, Chronicles, and the Gospel of Luke provide evidence of careful historical research (1 Kings 22:39, 45; 1 Chron. 29:29; Luke 1:1–4). 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, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16, NASB).
Sometimes this human dimension of Scripture is charged with being responsible for mistakes in the Bible. After all, it is human to err, as the saying goes. We need to remember, however, that 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. For example, they spoke of sunrise (Num. 2:3; Josh. 19:12) and sunset (Deut. 11:30; Dan. 6:14); that is, they used the language of appearance rather than scientific precision. The need for technical precision varies according to the situation in which a statement is made. Therefore, imprecision cannot be equated with untruthfulness. 3 The Bible is characterized by the simple beauty of the language, and it has the appeal of truthfulness. In recognizing this fact, we do not deify Scripture. God alone is infallible. But with the biblical writers, we believe that His Word is true and reliable.
Many biblical passages reflect ancient customs, knowledge of which can be ver y helpful in shedding light on some problems of interpretation one encounters 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. 4 We should be careful not to apply our current understanding of things to the Bible and come to hasty and wrong conclusions about its truthfulness.
Furthermore, we should keep in mind that so-called obvious mistakes would have easily been detected by the original audience that was much more familiar with the biblical text than many today. We have 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. We recognize, as a fact, that the original manuscripts have been lost. 5 Although the Jews were very careful in faithfully copying biblical manuscripts, some minor mistakes have crept in while transmitting and copying them. 6 They may be due to copyists’ mistakes or human frailties. While some such mistakes have occurred in the process of transmission and translation, these mistakes are so insignificant that not one honest soul needs to stumble or get lost over them. How God has preserved the Bible in its present shape is amazing. Indeed, the Bible is the best transmitted and preserved document of antiquity.
But what do we do when we come across 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. 7 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”; in Luke 23:47, however, the author quotes the centurion as saying, “Certainly this was a righteous man.” 8
Matthew associates a quotation from Zechariah with the prophet Jeremiah. Was he suffering from a slip of the mind? 9
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? 10
Can the Old Testament cosmology be reconciled with modern scientific cosmology? 11 Have the biblical writers erred and suffered 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, we have to remember that the Bible is not historically conditioned by immanent cause-and-effect relations and, thereby, rendered relative and divinely conditioned and historically constituted. 12 Therefore, we can assume the trustworthiness and reliability of the Bible and the truthfulness of the biblical message that 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 (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12–22). 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” 13 because God acts in history. From the New Testament, we know that Jesus and the apostles accepted as true the historical events recorded in the Old Testament (Matt. 19:4, 5; 24:37; Acts 24:14; Rom. 15:4) because historical events, such as Creation, the Flood, and the Exodus, are part of the salvation history revealed in Scripture.
While the New Testament writers were familiar with translations of the Old Testament (i.e., the LXX), we find it interesting that neither Jesus nor the apostles pointed out actual mistakes or errors in Scripture and never questioned the historicity of Old Testament reports. Not once did they criticize Scripture for being wrong or pointed out specific mistakes. Instead, they demonstrated unwavering faith in its trustworthiness and divine authority. When we deal with Scripture, we are not called to disseminate doubts by questioning the truthfulness of the Bible, but we 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 frankly admit 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 our 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 (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18–20; 2:12–14).
In dealing with difficulties in Scripture, we must remember that many so-called mistakes are not derived from God’s revelation but the result of human misinterpretation and the interpreter’s prejudice. What, then, should we do when we come across apparent mistakes in the Bible?
Approach with integrity. When we deal with a difficult passage in Scripture, we would do well to approach it in perfect honesty. God is “pleased with integrity” (1 Chron. 29:17, NIV). This implies, first of all, that we acknowledge a difficulty and do not try to obscure or evade it. An honest person has an open mind-set, which is receptive toward the message and content of that being studied. Furthermore, honesty includes the willingness to use proper methods of investigation. To explain and understand the Word of God correctly, we cannot use 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. However, in prayer we confess that we are dependent upon God to understand His Word. The Bible writers express a humility that acknowledges that God and His Word are greater than human reason. On our knees, we can ask for the leading of the Holy Spirit and gain a new insight to the biblical text that we would not have if we placed ourselves above the Word of God.
Explain Scripture with Scripture. With God as the ultimate Author of Scripture, we can assume a fundamental unity among its various parts. That is to say, when we deal with challenging aspects of Scripture, we need to deal with all difficulties 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 we have to take into consideration the biblical context and carefully move from the clear statements of the Bible to those that are less clear.
Be patient. For some questions, there are no easy answers. We need determination to patiently work on finding a solution. And if some problems persistently defy even our hardest efforts to solve them, we should not get discouraged. Part of perseverance is to be able to live with open questions, yet be faithful to God’s Word, for God’s Word has proved time and again to be reliable and trustworthy.
Are there mistakes in the Bible? If by mistake we mean that Scripture teaches error or is fallible and historically unreliable, the answer is No. The Bible is God’s infallible revelation of His will.14 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 due to human frailties. But none of these discrepancies negatively affect the teaching or historical reliability of Scripture. We can have full confidence that the Bible we have today remains trustworthy and true and makes every willing man and woman wise unto salvation.
1 Richard M. Davidson, “Who Is the Author of the Bible?” in Interpreting Scripture: Bible Questions and Answers, ed. G. Pfandl (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2010), 3.
2 Fernando L. Canale, “Revelation and Inspiration,” in Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach, ed. G. W. Reid (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2005), 65.
3 Cf. Noel Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture (Edinburgh: The Banner of Trust, 1988), 32; and more recently John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, Theology of Lordship series (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., 2010), 170–176.
4 For a solution on the vexing problem of the Hebrew chronology, see Edwin R. Thiele in his widely recognized book The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983).
5 No one has seen inerrant autographs, and no one has seen autographs full of errors either.
6 Cf. Paul D. Wenger, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
7 For an explanation of this problem, see Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 184.
8 On this question, see Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 346, 347.
9 There is evidence that the Jews in their arrangement of the books of the prophets placed Jeremiah first. Often a collection of writings is designated by the name of the first one, in which case it is one of importance. Perhaps Matthew was aware of this custom. For other possible solutions to this question, see Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 345.
10 After a careful study, Camacho comes to the conclusion that “these seemingly problematical verses do not reveal either a textual corruption or any inconsistency or error on the part of an uninformed author, but suggest instead a precise theological interpretation of the function of the altar of incense in the sanctuary services.” Harold S. Camacho, “The Altar of Incense in Hebrews 9:3-4,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 24, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 12.
11 On this question, see the recent study by Randall W. Younker, “Crucial Questions of Interpretation in Genesis 1,” Biblical Research Institute, accessed November 30, 2011, http://biblicalresearch.gc.adventist.org/document/Crucial%20Questions%20of%20Interpretation%20in%20Genesis%201 .pdf. Cf. also the discussion in G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 161–218.
12 See Frank M. Hasel, “Reflections on the Authority and Trustworthiness of Scripture,” in Issues in Revelation and Inspiration, eds. Frank Holbrook and Leo Van Dolson (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1992), 208, 209.
13 Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture, 50.
14 Seventh-day Adventists affirm that “the Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history.” Seventh-day Adventists Believe, 2nd ed. (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005), 11. Tell us what you think about this article. Email [email protected] or visit www.facebook.