From *The Skeptical Review*, 1990 / January-February:
by Farrell Till
Many fundamentalist Christians sincerely believe that the Bible is the verbally inspired word of God. As believers in verbal inspiration, they see the Bible much differently from those who respect it as a book with only concepts and ideas that were divinely inspired. Christians who believe in the doctrine of verbal inspiration think that God directed the writing of the Bible on a word-by-word basis so that the authors of the original manuscripts were protected from writing even as much as one word that might inadvertently mislead readers or incorrectly communicate the truths God wanted man to know.
Dr. George DeHoff, who is widely recognized in the Churches of Christ as an authority on the subject of verbal inspiration, described its word-by-word process like this:
If God had wanted another "i" dotted or another "t" crossed, He would have had it done. The writers did not use one word unless God wanted that word used. They put in every word which God wanted them to put into the Bible, (Alleged Bible Contradictions Explained, p. 23).Other fundamentalist writers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have said essentially the same thing. As far as they are concerned, there is nothing to discuss. The Bible is the word of God and the only word of God, whose writing he himself divinely inspired on a meticulously protected, word-by-word basis.
Certain consequences must necessarily follow the postulation of such a rigidly defined doctrine as verbal inspiration. The most obvious of these would be a requirement to believe that the Bible is inerrantly perfect in every detail. After all, the God of the Bible is depicted as an omniscient, omnipotent entity, so if an all-knowing, all-powerful supernatural being supervised the writing of the Bible on a word-by-word basis anything at all like the process described above by Dr. DeHoff, it would have to be that the original text of the Bible was completely free of mistakes of any kind. A perfect God would have guided his chosen writers to produce a perfect book.
With this conclusion, Christian fundamentalists have no quarrel. In Finding Inner Peace and Strength (Doubleday, 1982), Jerry Falwell claimed total inerrancy for the Bible:
The Bible is the inerrant... Word of God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc., (p. 26).This is not to say that believers in the inerrancy doctrine view the Bible as a textbook in geography, science, history, or other disciplines; it is simply a recognition that the conclusion stated above must necessarily follow their claim of verbal inspiration, for if God is ultimately the author of the Bible, he, knowing everything there is to know about geography, science, history, and all other secular subjects, would have made no errors--not even little ones--in any of these matters.
The importance of this point has not escaped the notice of Dr. Gleason Archer, a widely respected spokesman for the inerrancy position:
If the statements it (the Bible) contains concerning matters of history and science can be proven by extrabiblical records, by ancient documents recovered through archaeological digs, or by the established facts of modern science to be contrary to the truth, then there is grave doubt as to its trustworthiness in matters of religion. In other words, if the biblical record can be proved fallible in areas of fact that can be verified, then it is hardly to be trusted in areas where it cannot be tested, (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 23).In this statement, Dr. Archer has made an important admission. He has conceded that confidence in the divinely authoritative position traditionally assigned to the Bible will be seriously compromised if erroneous information should be found anywhere within its pages.
Obviously, then, the doctrine of verbal inspiration sets a high standard for the Bible to meet. Some insist that it is an impossibly high standard, because the existence of contradictions, discrepancies, absurdities, scientific errors, and other mistakes can be easily established by anyone willing to subject the Bible to objective textual criticism. This is our position exactly at The Skeptical Review. Our staff writers believe the same methods of scientific inquiry that have lifted man to his present state of enlightenment, if applied unbiasedly to the Bible text, will disprove once and for all the doctrine of verbal inspiration.
Future articles will examine in detail specific examples of textual errors in the Bible, so for now I will review only briefly a few of the ones that cast serious doubts on the doctrine of Bible inerrancy. An excellent one to begin with would be the obvious contradiction that results when Exodus 12:40 is compared to the Aaronic genealogy found in Exodus 6:16-20. The first passage declares that the Israelites, who were beginning their famous journey to the promised land, had dwelt in Egypt for 430 years. According to the genealogy in Exodus 6, however, the Israelite sojourn in Egypt could have lasted no more than 352 years and probably even considerably less than that.
This genealogy, along with its parallels in I Chron. 6:1-3 and 23:6-13, establishes that Moses was the great grandson of Levi. Kohath, the grandfather of Moses, had already been born when Jacob took his sons and their families into Egypt, (Gen. 46:11). If we assume that Kohath was only a suckling infant in his mother's arms when he was taken into Egypt and if we further assume that his last act on earth at the age of 133 (Ex. 6:16) was to sire Amram, the father of Moses, then the very latest date of Amram's birth would have been around 134 years into the Israelite sojourn. If we then make similar assumptions about the birth of Moses, i.e., that Amram sired him just before dying at the age of 137 years (Ex. 6:20), this would mean that Moses could have been born no later than 272 years after the Israelite sojourn began. Since Moses was only 80 years old when Jehovah (Yahweh) called him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex. 7:7), the sojourn could have lasted no longer than 352 years.
But to allow even 352 years for the so-journ would require total abandonment of common sense. For one thing, the custom of listing sons in the order of their births in Jewish genealogies suggests that the Bible writers understood that both Kohath and Amram had younger brothers (Gen. 46:11; Ex. 6:16-18), so Kohath was probably older than an infant when he was taken into Egypt. If he did live to be 133, he undoubtedly fathered Amram, Moses' father, long before he died, because, it is completely unreasonable to assume circumstances of birth anything at all like those theorized above. The aged Abraham fell on his face and laughed when Yahweh told him that he would soon father a son. "Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old?" Abraham asked, (Gen. 17:17). By the same token, we can ask if it is reasonable to believe Kohath and Amram were able to father children when they were well past the age of 130.
In the final analysis, however, whether the sojourn lasted as long as 352 years doesn't really matter. The genealogical data in Exodus 6:16-20 clearly indicate the belief in an Egyptian sojourn substantially shorter than 430 years, so that puts this Bible passage in unequivocal conflict with Exodus 12:40, Genesis 15:13, and Acts 7:6, all of which teach that the sojourn lasted at least 400 years. There is an obvious contradiction in the Bible text.
A hundred articles like this one would not be enough to discuss the numerous other textual contradictions in the Bible. Many of the same events from Hebrew history reported in the books of Samuel and Kings were also recorded by the writer(s) of the Chronicles, and the two accounts often vary significantly in reporting key details. There are contradictions in the genealogical records in the Bible, in the synoptic gospels (especially their accounts of the resurrection of Jesus), in the Christology of the New Testament epistles. In a word, the Bible is a veritable maze of irreconcilable contradictions. Yet fundamentalist preachers never tire of proclaiming the Bible to be a perfectly harmonious, inerrant record of God's dealings with man.
Traditionally, purveyors of the Bible inerrancy doctrine have profited from the ignorance, superstition, and gullibility that characterize societies in which mystical religions thrive, but recent discoveries and developments in biblical archaeology and criticism, coming in an age of increased scientific enlightenment, have cut deep inroads into territory once firmly held by the forces of inerrancy. Early Christian apologists, for example, claimed that not just the original Bible autographs were inspired of God but also all copies and translations that scribes and linguists had transmitted to later generations. Such a position was sustainable in a time when illiteracy was commonplace, Bible manuscripts rare, and textual criticism all but nonexistent, but with the discovery of Bible manuscripts unknown to previous generations of Christians, the invention of the printing press and the ensuing proliferation of vernacular translations, the contributions of archaeology and higher criticism to the field of Bible research, and the advent of public education, the absurdity of this belief became so obvious that it could not survive. Today, not even the staunchest fundamentalist would dare claim that all copies and translations of the Bible have been divinely protected from error.
After losing this decisive battle, the defenders of inerrancy retreated to the only high ground left for them. They found refuge in claiming that at least the original autographs of the Bible were inspired of God and so by necessity inerrant. Since none of the original autographs had survived the passing of the centuries, perhaps the inerrancy advocates thought that they had at last set up an impenetrable line of defense. After all, if there are no original autographs in existence, how could anyone possibly prove that they were not inerrant?
The fallacy in this line of reasoning should be obvious to anyone who has even rudimentary skills in critical thinking. Logicians call it the argument from ignorance. The fact that one cannot disprove an assertion does not prove the truth of the assertion, since the absence of negative evidence by itself is never conclusive positive evidence. The theist who says, "You cannot disprove the existence of God, so it must be true that God does exist," is guilty of the argument from ignorance. One could just as well argue that a failure to disprove the existence of elves must mean that elves do exist, and with that kind of logic one could prove just about any fantastic claim.
The argument from ignorance also disregards the burden-of-responsibility principle of logic. This often ignored principle obligates the claimant of a proposition to prove that his claim is true. The challenger of the proposition is under no obligation to prove that it is not true. Accordingly, the one who claims that inerrant autographs of the Bible once existed is obligated to prove that they did indeed exist. To demand that those who question the inerrancy doctrine prove that inerrant original autographs did not at one time exist is a resort to the argument from ignorance. If a believer in Islam should demand proof that the angel Gabriel did not inspire the prophet Mohammed to write the Koran, even the most radical Christian fundamentalists would see the fallacy in his reasoning, yet they cannot recognize the same faulty logic when they apply it to their belief in Bible inerrancy.
Obviously, then, the claim that all original autographs of the Bible were error free is a postulation that no fundamentalist can ever hope to prove. Furthermore, this claim not only does not validate the inerrancy position, it makes Yahweh appear even more ridiculous than some of the stories attributed to him in the Bible, for if God (Yahweh) deemed inerrant original autographs of the Bible necessary for the people living at the time the originals were written, then surely he would have considered inerrant copies and translations of the originals necessary for succeeding generations. To argue that God (Yahweh) carefully protected the original Bible autographs from error but then left all subsequent transmissions of them to careless, uninspired scribes and translators is, as I said, to make God look perfectly ridiculous. In Inspiration of Scripture: Problems and Proposals, Paul Achtemeier very competently explained the absurd implications of this last-ditch effort of Bible fundamentalists to save their cherished inerrancy doctrine:
It has been frequently pointed out that if God thought errorless Scripture important enough to inspire its composition, he would surely also have further inspired its copying, so that it might remain error free. Surely a God who can inspire error-free composition could also inspire error-free copying. Since he did not, it would appear he did not think our possession of error-free Scripture very important. But if it is not important for us, why was it important originally? (pp. 71-72).Until inerrancy advocates can give a satisfactory explanation to the problem Achtemeier has here identified, they would do well to cease talking about "inerrant original autographs." Such talk only makes their position look even more ridiculous.
We live in an age of advancing technology when Bible scholars (true Bible scholars) are demonstrating a readiness to combine that technology with recognized principles of scientific criticism to test old assumptions about the origin of the Bible. Computer analyses of Biblical manuscripts have been done that cast serious doubts on traditional theories of authorship. Archaeological studies have completely debunked the old myth that says the Bible is absolutely inerrant in matters of history, geography, and science, as well as faith and practice. In a word, recent developments in Biblical criticism have not been kind to the inerrancy doctrine.
Even staunchly conservative churches once regarded as impregnable bastions of Christian fundamentalism have begun to count their losses. In the April 1989 issue of the Gospel Advocate, editor F. Furman Kearley described the problem that liberalism now poses to traditional inerrancy beliefs in the Churches of Christ:
We have college professors who speak unrebuked and un-refuted at Christian college lectureships affirming that we must accept the results of higher criticism. These professors reject the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. They are supported by their administrators....
We have in the church today quite a number occupying prominent pulpits and professorships who call Genesis 1 and 2 myth and reject the universal flood clearly described in Genesis 6-9 and in 2 Peter 3:1-7. I am concerned about those few who are doing such teach- ing, but I am far more concerned by the silence of many others who have not spoken out to refute such false teaching and to make clear that they or their institutions oppose such, ("Unfaithful in Little; Unfaithful in Much," p. 27).From the sound of Dr. Kearley's lament, a genie has been released that hard- line conservatives in the Church of Christ are going to have a difficult time getting back into its bottle. Truth has a stubborn way of "hanging tough," so if in this fundamentalist body half as many ministers and college professors as Dr. Kearley implies have finally seen the truth about the Bible's origin, the situation isn't likely to get any better for the old guard.
The principle at work here is the same as the one suggested by a question asked in an old World War I song: "How are you ever goin' to keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" Apparently, a lot of preachers are at long last beginning to see the Paree of responsible Bible criticism, and no one is ever going to get them back down on the inerrancy farm.