The last few weeks, our church has thoroughly studied the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, to the Apocrypha and to the books that didn’t make it into the Biblical Canon. I learned a lot, enough to realize that the increasingly popular teaching of Biblical Inerrancy is suspect. Before I start at the beginning, I wanted to kind of give you a warning. If you already believe that the ‘Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it’, then you might not want to do your homework. To borrow a phrase from an episode of Person of Interest I recently saw, “Sometimes it’s better not to know.” Once you do your homework, you can’t unlearn what the facts tell you. You might be able to count on persistence of belief, believing that inerrancy is true in spite of the facts that cast doubt on that. Then again, you might not and as a result question everything you believe. If you’re not comfortable with that, then go listen to your favorite preacher about inerrancy and forget the notion that it doesn’t hold water.
Tradition holds that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, including the part that describes how Moses died and what happened after that. Logic suggests that unless God inspired that last chapter, then it’s really not probable that he could have been the author. The events that happened before Moses’ birth, were likely passed down orally. Much of the rest of Old Testament was written at the point of the Babylonian captivity, as a way for the scholars and scribes to hold onto their tradition as foreigners in a foreign land.
The New Testament’s epistles were written before the gospels. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic gospels because of their similarities. Many believe that Mark was written first and used as a source material for Matthew and Luke. It’s also been theorized that Matthew and Luke also draw from the Q source; a hypothetical document which contains the elements that are common to Matthew and Luke but not Mark. These gospels were likely written before the destruction of the Temple in 70 a.d. John was likely written after the destruction of the Temple.
Scholars have studied the epistles and concluded that at least some of them were pseudepigraphic – the claim that they were written by Paul is not true. These epistles are: First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians. Scholars are evenly divided on Colossians and Second Thessalonians, they might be genuine and they might be pseudepigraphic. (Which means that any theological position that one holds that is proof-texted from any of the pseudepigraphic gospels just lost a lot of weight and the ability to hold water.) I suppose one can still believe in them but they would be wise to do so with a grain of salt.
The New Testament Cannon was closed somewhere between the years 350-400 a.d. So for a few hundred years, believers had a few extra options about what was and what wasn’t an option for sacred reading. The Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache were two popular books but they weren’t included in the canon. There were also epistles sent from the disciple’s disciples (and their disciples) to help the fledgling church once the last of the disciples had died. Some of these books were popular enough to become our Apocrypha, they were considered part of the story, but not crucial to the story. Our New Testament includes 27 books but the Ethiopian “narrow” canon contains 81 books. As new churches began to form, they came to a different consensus about what was and what wasn’t part of the Bible.
In 325 a.d., the Council of Nicaea was held that established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. By 1000 a.d., the East and West Schism had taken place that divided the one church into the Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. By 1500 a.d. the Protestant Reformation was underway. The world had changed. With the collapse of the Roman empire, barbarians had moved in. They didn’t believe in education, so they didn’t bother. Literacy rates began to plummet. They began to depend on their own local languages – soon knowledge of Greek and Latin had been limited to only a small group of scholars and priests. Then the Black Death arrived and devastated the population. By this time, the Bible had been upgraded from a collection of scrolls into bound codeci then into illustrated manuscripts and finally the printing press arrived on the scene. Aramaic was almost a dead language, Koine Greek was nearly forgotten, and Latin survived only in formal use for church services but wasn’t in popular use among the general population. By now there were many diverse languages, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, as well as more modern version of Greek, but after a few millennia, much of the original had been lost. Today we have tens of thousands of manuscripts – fragments of the Bible in scroll-form. The majority of them are some of the youngest and a minority of them are among the oldest ever found. None of them are identical. Comparisons reveal that Mark has two endings – Mark 16:9-20 being the second. The story of the woman caught in adultery isn’t in some of the manuscripts but it is in others. Sometimes it’s the sort of error you’d expect to see, a letter or word being transposed, including a note from the margin into the main text, double letters or words, the sort of mistake that anyone would make when they have to copy a long series of text they may or may not understand very well. (Think of the times when you had to take a sentence like: “I will not question the inerrancy of the Bible and will follow it literally because it contains the authority of the Word of God.” hundreds of times over and over again – could you be sure not to make a mistake? What if the sentence looked a little more like this: “iwillnotquestiontheinerrancyofthebibleandwillfollowitliterallybecauseitcontainstheauthorityofthewordofgod”? Could you be sure that you would copy it perfectly every single time?)
These manuscripts were collected and compared – the elements that were common to the majority of them were copied into collections like the Textus Receptus which dates back to the 1500s. From it, the Luther translated the Bible into German, Tyndale translated the New Testament into English, the King James version and other Reformation-era Bibles were translated. Also used, was the Vulgate, a 4th century Latin version of the Bible that was popularity used because knowledge of Aramaic and Greek was already on the decline. The Septuagint was a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Koine Greek to give the believers who knew Greek but not Hebrew greater access to the the whole story. The thing about translating languages is that two languages can be totally different, add on a few millennia and one languages can be totally different from itself. But put it all together and you’ve got a process whereby errors crept in every step of the way – errors from copying down the scrolls, errors from translating languages, errors from the printing press, and most notably, errors from the humans who read it, interpret it, and preach it.
Since the 1500s, we have found fragments of manuscripts and also have greater understanding of the original languages. We know things they didn’t know. Take something like the King James Bible (a.k.a. Authorized Version) instead of starting from scratch, the translators opted to use the Bishop’s Bible as a source. The Bishop’s Bible was a replacement for the Great Bible which was translated from the Vulgate, but none of the original languages. The Great Bible was based on the Tyndale Bible. The Tyndale Bible was the first English translation directly from the Hebrew and Greek languages. The Authorized Version was later revised into the Revised Version. The Revised Version was also revised with some Americans consulted on the matter, resulting in the American Standard Version. The American Standard Version was revised a few times – including in the New American Standard Bible. So if you use that version, you can trace it back through half a dozen revisions in the English, finally meeting thousands of manuscripts copied over and over again for hundreds of years, going back in time until we reach the oldest one we’ve found, knowing that everything before that has been destroyed. The American Standard Version was also revised into the Revised Standard Version which was revised into the English Standard Version. With every revision, every translation, the editor had an opportunity to go back to the original manuscripts or to do some homework on the original languages and draw upon their knowledge to try to be faithful to the original text. But they also had an opportunity to let their biases creep in – and that’s why we have so many revisions of revisions, updates of updates, new versions of new versions.
The doctrine of inerrancy recognizes that in the process of transmission errors can creep in, which is why only the originals are said to be inerrant. The oldest manuscripts we have are either from the first half of the second century or one possibly from the first century. We’re not talking about whole, complete works of the Bible, but a portion of a copy of the Gospel of John and a portion of a copy of the Gospel of Mark – a page, maybe a a paragraph ls clearly legible. The originals no longer exist. Which is why the inerrantists insist that based on textual criticism, we can deduce what the originals said based on the (errant) manuscripts. But can we really use errant manuscripts to prove that the Bible is inerrant? Can we trust the English language to have been faithful to the meaning of ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin religious concepts? Would God want us to read these words literally and apply them to the human race indefinitely?
Sometimes it comes down to faith. While I believe that the core of the story is correct, that Jesus wants us to love God and love each other, I cannot find it in my heart to accept ideas like gender roles, complementarianism, male headship, and other theological positions true especially when their foundation is a lie – Paul didn’t write some of the epistles those teachings are based off of, someone else did. Sure, lots of Church fathers who didn’t know Aramaic decided that they were worth including in the canon, but they lived in a society where such things were their lot in life. If they believed that Paul wrote them, then they were deceived and so are we. I tend to like to ask this one thing: If the Bible is inerrant, what was it before we added words into it? Did we make it inerrant by our additions and improvements? Or are we kidding ourselves into thinking that we have helped God do something he failed to do – that is, keep it intact over many millennia? For the longest time, I wasn’t on good terms with my Bible. I had begun to realize that no matter how inerrant the original text was, the people who were teaching it, studying it, preaching it, and sharing it were members of the human race, and we specialize in getting things wrong – always have and always will. That’s the real problem with inerrancy, the more you believe that nothing’s wrong, the more you think that the wrong things are right. When you think the wrong thing is right, then your conscience remains clear when you do terrible things acting on those beliefs. That’s why slavery persisted. That’s why racism was excused. That’s why sexism goes unchallenged. Sometimes it’s better to not know, but not always.