Is the Bible provably inerrant?

By DOUG SHAVER
October 2004

Introduction

Evangelical Christians have a package of arguments that are supposed to prove the inerrancy of the Bible. When thoroughly analyzed, though, those arguments ultimately boil down to question-begging. Inerrancy cannot be logically proved without assuming inerrancy.

Now, I am going to stipulate that inerrancy cannot be proved wrong. I believe a cogent argument can be made for rejecting the assumption of inerrancy, but I have yet to find a proof that the assumption of inerrancy leads to an irresolvable contradiction.

The problem is that the resolutions require still more assumptions on top of the initial one. Given those assumptions, though, the contradictions do get resolved. Well, nearly all of them.

However, one does not prove a proposition by demonstrating its consistency with other propositions that are not themselves proven. Absence of contradiction is necessary for a proof, but not sufficient. A sufficient proof requires that the proposition be necessarily implied by premises not in dispute.

Inerrantists have never done this. They have tried, and we're going to see how poorly they have fared.

Among evangelicals, inerrancy tends to be part of a package of related dogmas about the Bible. Not all inerrantists accept the whole package. An apologist who advocates any of them is likely to advocate all, but not necessarily. It is instructive, though, to analyze inerrancy in light of the package. The typical evangelical apologist believes:

  1. The Bible is divinely inspired. In Christian jargon, this means it was "God-breathed." In common English, it means the men who wrote the Bible were by some means instructed or guided by God in their writing. Put another way, the information in the Bible came to the authors by revelation.
  2. The Bible is a complete -- the technical term here is "plenary" -- revelation. Everything that humanity is required to know about God is in it. Whatever knowledge is not in the Bible might be good to know, but it is not necessary knowledge.
  3. The Bible is authoritative. All people are required to believe what is in it and to comply with its instructions. Those who do not will suffer divinely mandated consequences.
  4. The Bible is inerrant, i.e. without error. Every statement within it is, if properly interpreted within its context, a true statement.
  5. The Bible was verbally inspired. A substantial fraction of inerrantists reject this premise, but many believe it. It means that the authors were guided by God not only in the ideas they recorded, but also in the wording of those ideas. According to verbal inspiration, the Bible's authors were in effect God's stenographers.
  6. Only the Bible's original manuscripts, or autographs, were inerrantly inspired. Inerrantists generally accept the existence of copying errors and, in some instances for English versions, translation errors. There are a few Christians who consider the King James Version an inerrant translation of inerrant copies of the autographs, but this dogma is not widely held and this essay will not further address it.

The fundamentalists' case for inerrancy, such as it is, typically includes these arguments:

None of these withstands critical examination.

Can the Bible speak for itself?

In a word, no.

Evangelicals often begin a defense of inerrancy by asserting that the Bible itself claims to be inerrant. Most apologists with enough intelligence to create a Web site know better than to depend on such a blatantly circular argument. Nevertheless, with surprising regularity they find some way to work it into the discussion.

Since these people cannot be unaware of fallacy of circular reasoning, why do they persist in it? One can guess two reasons.

One is that it reinforces their own faith and that of other believers. From their perspective, there is no wrong way to maintain one's belief in the Bible. It is the truth by presupposition, and any argument that keeps one convinced of that is acceptable, at least within the community of believers. A great deal of apologetic writing is not really directed at skeptics. It is directed at those who already believe but need their belief reinforced. Apologetics is as much about sustaining faith as defending it.

The other reason is that most evangelicals cannot resist any argument from authority, provided only that the authority supports whatever point they are trying to make. Virtue, to them, is all about submission of both body and mind. People are obliged not only to do what they are told to do but also to think what they are told to think.

There is a disconnect in evangelical thinking. Since they assume the Bible to be authoritative, to them "The Bible says" is always a legitimate argument. That the argument is about the Bible's authority is a separate issue. Even if a part of their mind is aware of the circularity of their argument, another part of the their mind says the circularity is irrelevant.

Their error, furthermore, is compounded by the fact that the Bible actually makes no such claim on its own behalf.

To begin with, the Bible did not write itself. "The Bible says" embodies the evangelical assumption that the book is a unified message from God himself. Its actual origin as a collection of documents produced by a few dozen human beings over a period of several centuries is ultimately irrelevant in the evangelical view.

To the inerrantist, "the scriptures" means the book now called the Holy Bible, and "the word of God" is a reference to the same book. Those expressions do appear in the Bible, but we have no reason to suppose that the men who used them were referring to the book into which their writings would eventually be compiled.

The Bible did not exist when any part of it was being written, nor for many years afterward. Its authors therefore cannot have had anything to say about the Bible -- except under the question-begging prior assumptions that (a) it is what the inerrantists say it is and (b) that the authors knew, when they were writing, that their work would one day be part of a book that some people would call "the word of God."

In short, the Bible does not and cannot claim anything about itself. However, let's see for the sake of discussion how close it gets to a claim of inerrancy. We shall examine a few specific examples of the Bible's alleged self-endorsement, taken from the Answers in Genesis Web site.

Moses claimed that his writings were from God.

Even if he had made such a claim, we'd have no reason to just take his word for it.

Plenty of competent scholars are beginning to doubt that any exodus even occurred, never minding whether the Pentateuch's account of it is historically accurate. If there was no exodus, there almost certainly was no Moses. Even if there was a Moses, none of the five books attributed to him contains any statement to the effect that he wrote them.

There are references, in Exodus and elsewhere, to Moses writing down the laws that God had given him, and those laws are reproduced in the Pentateuch. For an analogy, imagine a book on the history of the American Revolution. It will probably include a reference to Thomas Jefferson's writing the Declaration of Independence. It could also include the complete text of the declaration. We would not then infer that Jefferson must have written that book.

In any case, Moses certainly did not say a word about the infallibility of any book written after his death.

Jesus accepted the authority of writings we now know as the Old Testament

It is not stated in any gospel that he endorsed every book now in the OT canon. His quoting a handful of Torah passages to score a few debating points is a far cry from his saying "The Bible is without error."

Paul recognized the authority of scripture

Yes, and if we accept Paul's infallibility, then we must accept his judgment. But what evidence do we have for Paul's infallibility?

This is still not "the Bible" making a claim for itself. This is one author of a part of the Bible claiming that another part of the Bible is divinely inspired.

Peter endorsed Paul's writings as divinely inspired.

Somebody claiming to be Peter did so. The scholarly consensus is against the opinion that Peter wrote any document that we know about.

And, no matter who wrote the epistles attributed to Peter, even if it was Peter himself, this argument still begs the question of why we should assume he was himself infallible. At this point, we have Paul claiming that the Old Testament (or some portion of it) was inspired, and (allegedly) Peter claiming that Paul was inspired. Now, who says Peter was inspired?

Jesus promised his disciples that they would be guided by the Holy Spirit in everything they said.

We don't know that. Jesus didn't leave any documents. The documents we have about him were written, supposedly, by disciples of his, but there is good reason to doubt that any of the gospel authors ever knew him.

What we have in the New Testament, then, is a set of books by a few mostly anonymous men, some of whom claimed on their own behalf that God was talking to them when they wrote those books.

Skeptics refuted?

One of the inerrantist's favorite claims is that despite centuries of relentless effort, skeptics have failed to prove a single error or inconsistency in the Bible. The actual fact is that many people remain convinced that the Bible is without error or inconsistency despite centuries of relentless effort by skeptics to inform them that they are mistaken. The failure of 12 jurors to convict O.J. Simpson does not prove that the prosecutors had no evidence against him. It proves only that the prosecutors' evidence failed to overcome the jurors' presumption of his innocence.

What the apologists really mean by claiming that the Bible has withstood all those skeptical attacks is that they have managed to conjure up a way to interpret every error as a truth and to resolve every contradiction. Thus, they argue, every error is only a figment of skeptics' imaginations and every contradiction is only an "apparent contradiction." (I discuss this point in more detail elsewhere on this site in "Just Our Imagination?"

Of course, given an assumption that the Bible cannot err, then every statement must indeed be somehow construed so as to give it a truthful meaning, and for any two statements that seem inconsistent, one must be interpreted so that it agrees with the other. But interpretation cannot prove inerrancy. It is only the assumption of inerrancy that makes certain particular interpretations necessary.

And the apologists, unfortunately, are not telling the truth when they say they have resolved every contradiction. At least one has never been resolved.

I don't mean that some of their resolutions are unsatisfactory. We can debate until doomsday about how sensible it is to say that Luke was really referring to Mary's father when he mentioned Joseph's father. What I mean is that inerrantists have not yet even suggested a resolution to inconsistencies in the accounts of Jesus' post-resurrection activities.

They have had almost two decades to work on Dan Barker's Easter Challenge since it was first published in 1990. Here it is in Barker's own words:

The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul's tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second, and so on; who said what, when; and where these things happened.

So far as I am aware, no apologist yet has offered a solution. Five New Testament authors had something to say about what Jesus did and said after leaving the tomb, and at least one of those authors said at least one thing that was not true. (For further commentary on the Easter Challenge, see We're still waiting.)

Now, most rationalists don't have a problem overlooking one mistake in a book that is otherwise demonstrably reliable. We expect no authority to be infallible, and we don't equate error with moral depravity. Evangelicals take a different view of such things. For them, the Bible has to be perfect, or else it is worthless. None of its claims is severable. They are all true, or none of them is true -- or at least none can be trusted.

It goes back to authority, and humanity's duty to submit to it. We must believe the Bible because God commands us to believe it. The Bible itself has no such commandment, but evangelicals believe nonetheless that disbelief is disobedience.

In the evangelical view of things, we're not supposed to believe anything in the Bible because of evidence or reason. We're supposed to believe it because it is the authority for what we are to believe about God. Soldiers don't decide which orders they will follow. Citizens don't decide which laws they will obey. And according to inerrantists, we don't decide which parts of the Bible are true or false.

The problem for apologists is not that one false statement would prove the entire Bible false, although they talk as if they thought so. The real problem is the setting of a precedent. If reason can compel disbelief in one statement, however trivial, then it could compel disbelief in any other, and the argument "If the Bible says it, then it must be so" no longer works. And evangelical Christianity cannot go far without that argument.

Still, it tries to go where it can.

Eyewitnesses to Jesus?

The appeal to eyewitness authorship of the gospels and other New Testament writings cannot be an argument for inerrancy or inspiration as such. However, apologists who argue for eyewitness authorship generally concede no possibility that any of the writers could have made any mistakes. They go through a lot of ink (or Internet bandwidth) trying to prove that the gospels, even without any assumption about divine inspiration, are at the very least as reliable as any history book ever written.

Of course no historian to my knowledge has ever been considered infallible. However, if it could be proved that the gospel authors were as reliable as, say, Edward Gibbon, that would certainly put Christianity on a pretty good intellectual footing.

So, were they?

It is first necessary to prove that they were written within witnesses' lifetimes. It is not certain, although it is widely believed, that they were. In this area, the arguments from authority get thick. The hard facts supporting the evangelical position are few and are open to variety of interpretations. Those interpretations often do reflect certain biases of the interpreters. It is not difficult to find some scholar somewhere who has written something that supports just about anything one cares to say about the origins of Christianity.

And, a lot of scholarship has been done by academics who firmly believe in evangelical Christianity. The fact that much more has been done by liberal Christian or atheist scholars is of course irrelevant to evangelical apologists. In their worldview, you're not an authority unless you believe the truth. Since liberals and atheists don't believe the truth, according to evangelicals, they therefore have no authority. Evidence and reason don't count. Only authority counts.

So, the gospels are said to have been written between, approximately, 70 CE and 95 CE. This is the consensus of New Testament scholars generally, and evangelicals have tended to accept it.

Well, then, who wrote them?

The majority opinion among New Testament scholars is: Nobody knows. Most evangelicals believe the authors were the men whose names now appear on the books: Matthew, one of Jesus' 12 disciples; Mark, a friend and protege of Peter; Luke, a traveling companion of Paul; and John, another disciple of Jesus.

The gospels were not attributed by name to those four men until the late second century. It is not disputed that the original authors, whoever they were, wrote anonymously. Most inerrantists presume that the attributions were based on facts known to church leaders of the late second century.

Apologists who concede the anonymity of the authors maintain that whoever they were, they either were eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry, as were Matthew and John, supposedly, or else based their writings on eyewitness accounts, as did Mark and Luke, supposedly. For rhetorical economy, we're going to refer to either possibility as eyewitness authorship.

One argument sometimes advanced in favor of eyewitness authorship is a principle unheard-of (to my knowledge) outside of Christian apologetics. It is claimed that professional historians in general presume any ancient document to be true at face value until proven otherwise. This "presumption of authenticity," it is alleged, is denied only to religious documents (or secular documents supportive of Christian doctrine) and then only by liberal historians. I have asked apologists who cite this principle to verify its existence by quoting from the work of any generally respected historian. So far I have gotten no response.

(Update, 8/25/08: I was recently told by one apologist that a certain highly respected contemporary historian makes the claim in one of his books. The apologist declined to provide a quotation but assured me that I could find it within the first 200 pages if I would read the book myself. I will read it and update this essay to report what I find.)

(Update, 7/12/09: The book to which I referred was A Marginal Jew by John P. Meier. I bought it and read it. There was no assertion, in the first 200 pages or anywhere else, endorsing a presumption of authenticity.)

Then there is the claim that, since many eyewitnesses were still around when the gospels were written, they would have discredited any unfactual or speculative accounts of Jesus' ministry and so the books never would have been accepted by the Christian community. The pile of assumptions on which this claim rests is daunting.

There is no unambiguous reference to the gospels' existence before the middle of the second century. Even if they were written in the first century, we have no idea how widely circulated they were during the first few decades of their existence. We don't even know where they were first circulated.

According to the gospels themselves, there were practically no witnesses to many of the key events. Nobody but Nicodemus, for example, could have disputed what the author of John's gospel wrote about Jesus' dialogue with him, and it is hardly certain that he was even still alive when that gospel was written.

Also, if the gospels included some fiction, or were mostly fiction, where do you find witnesses to the nonoccurrence of an event? Who was going to say, "Hey, that never happened, and I know it didn't happen because I was there and I saw it not happen."

The alleged consistency of the gospels is supposed to be further evidence of eyewitness authorship. As with the Bible generally, the consistency of the four gospels is strictly in the eye of the inerrantist beholder. Granted that four eyewitnesses to anything will not agree in all particulars, the discrepancies among the gospels are too great to attribute merely to divergent points of view. At least some must be attributed to error, or more likely invention.

Of course the error could have been a copying error, and if so, then strictly speaking the Easter Challenge does not disprove inerrancy as most evangelicals define inerrancy. Hence I maintain my stipulation that I cannot prove the Bible is errant. To my knowledge, though, no inerrantist has conceded that any copying error occurred in this instance. And, they don't need to, as long as they continue simply to deny that there are any discrepancies in the resurrection stories.

Do fulfilled prophecies prove the Bible inerrant?

The catalogue of alleged fulfilled prophecies varies in length, but it typically is said to include "hundreds" of messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus plus an unspecified number of predictions regarding the fates of various ancient Middle Eastern cities and kingdoms.

We should begin by establishing just what it takes to prove that a prophecy has been fulfilled. What follows is adapted from various sources including Religious Tolerance.org and the Internet Infidels.

No alleged Bible prophecy fulfills all these criteria. We will not attempt to demonstrate the failure of every one of the thousands claimed. The following is a review of several typical examples offered by apologists. They are meant to illustrate the kind of fallacious thinking that permeates all similar offerings.

The virgin birth in Isaiah 7

The Hebrew word translated "virgin" in the King James Bible did not ordinarily mean "virgin." Furthermore, the apparent fulfillment of the prophecy was recorded in Isaiah Chapter 8. If anyone objects that the child born there was not named Emmanuel, well, Mary did not name her son Emmanuel, either.

The serpent's fate

God to the snake in Genesis 3:

"Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."

Has no man born of a woman ever crushed a snake's head or been bitten on the heel by a snake? Why should we think this was even a prophecy of any kind? It is quite plausibly interpreted as an explanation for why snakes are universally hated and frequently killed by having their heads crushed. That is certainly how everyone did interpret it up until around the first or second century CE.

Resurrection after three days

Two New Testament authors, Paul and the author of Luke's gospel, refer to a scriptural prophecy that the messiah would be resurrected three days after his death. No such prediction exists anywhere in the Old Testament.

Destruction of Tyre

It did not happen as Ezekiel predicted.

Daniel's 70 weeks

Here is the prophecy.

Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city: to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time. After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing, and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease; and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.

Inerrantists cannot agree among themselves on what set of events fulfilled this prophecy or when they occurred. That alone is sufficient evidence against any claim that it is clear and unambiguous.

Most or all of the proposed interpretations claim that Jesus fulfilled at least some of the predictions. This would be as good a place as any to note that the historical accuracy of the gospels is seriously debated. To cite them as evidence for any prophecy fulfillment is begging the question.

Daniel's prophecy of Antiochus

There is no clear evidence that the book of Daniel was written before Antiochus's time.

Isaiah on the conquest of Babylon

Biblical scholars for many centuries have belived that the portion of Isaiah recording this prophecy was written near the end of the Jewish exile and therefore after the events it allegedly predicts.

Nahum on the conquest of Ninevah

The book is not known to have been written before the event.

Footnote on prophecies

Provably fulfilled prophesies would not prove as much as Christian apologists claim, if there were no other evidence supporting their dogma. Fundamentalists do not believe in the Bible because it contains prophecies that came true. They believe the prophecies came true because they are in the Bible. For fundamentalists, biblical inerrancy is not an inference. It is an axiom, and so the fulfillment of its prophecies is an inference. The Bible is without error, and therefore its prophecies must have been fulfilled.

What could we infer if there were any fulfilled prophecies? If it were proved that a particular writer had knowledge that must have come to him by supernatural means, then we would know that it is possible for some people to know some things by supernatural means. It would not prove that any other particular person had such knowledge, though.

Inerrantists would have us think that if just one of the Bible's dozens of authors can be shown to have had a hotline to God, then all of the Bible's writers must have had a hotline to God. It does not follow, though, except under the inerrantists' question-begging assumption of the Bible's essential unity. Whether or not Isaiah really could see into the future tells us nothing whatsoever about whether the men who wrote the gospels were writing factual history.


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