Many atheists claim that the Bible includes errors, while many evangelicals claim that the Bible is inerrant. The truth is, whether Christians like it or not, the Bible does contain errors.1 And the truth is, whether atheists like it or not, just because the Bible isn’t inerrant doesn’t mean it isn’t inspired by God.
Many evangelicals put the Bible on a pedestal in such a way where if it does contain errors, the entire foundation of their belief system crumbles. Many atheists believe that proving that the Bible contains errors will destroy the very foundation of the Christian faith. Both groups are wrong.
Before we get into why both approaches fail, we need to look at a sample of the errors in the Bible.
Same Story Different Details
One of the simplest ways the Bible can be inaccurate and contradict itself is when the same story is told by two different authors—the details don’t always line up.
The author of 2 Samuel depicts God as inciting David to sin, while the author of 2 Chronicles corrects him by claiming it was Satan, not God, that did the tempting (2 Samuel 24:1, 1 Chronicles 21:1). Which was it? God or Satan?
The author of 2 Samuel says David paid 50 pieces of silver for Orman’s threshing floor while the author of 1 Chronicles says he paid 600 pieces of gold (2 Samuel 24:24, 1 Chronicles 21:25). Which was it? 50 silver or 600 gold?
2 Kings informs us that king Jehoiakim had a son named Jehiachin while Jeremiah recounts the Lord judging Jehoiakim by not giving him a son to reign after he died (2 Kings 24:6, Jeremiah 36:30). Which was it? A son or no son?
Did David kill 700 or 7,000 charioteers (2 Samuel 10:18, 1 Chronicles 19:18)? Or did David steal 1,700 or 7,000 horsemen (2 Samuel 8:4 ESV, 1 Chronicles 18:4 ESV)? Once again, 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles disagree.
Unknown to many Christians, but very well known to Biblical scholars, Genesis contains two different creation accounts.2 In the first (and more famous) version, humankind was created after all the plants and animals. In the second version humankind was created before the plants and animals (Genesis 1:26, Genesis 2:4-7).
These are just several of many times in the Bible where details are different when the same story is being told by two different authors. The discrepancies are embraced by atheists and explained away by some evangelicals. But what if the ancient near eastern authors just didn’t care about the accuracy of details and cared more about theological significance?
Remembering the Bible Wrong
The authors of the New Testament had a fair understanding of the old Hebrew scriptures that we call the Old Testament. People aren’t always perfect though and sometimes they don’t remember every little detail accurately.
Matthew mistakenly thought it was Jeremiah rather than Zechariah who talked about thirty pieces of silver being given to a potter (Matthew 27:9-10, Zechariah 11:12-13).
Paul forgets how many people died in a plague and it is recorded in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul says 23,000 died but Numbers records that 24,000 died (1 Corinthians 10:8, Numbers 25:9).
Matthew misremembers who was Zechariah’s father, claiming it was Berekiah, but 2 Chronicles states his father was Jehoiada (Matthew 23:35, 2 Chronicles 24:20-21).
Luke states that Abraham moved to Canaan after the death of his father, but Genesis records that he moved before his father died (Genesis 11:32, 12:4, Acts 7:2-4).
In Mark, Jesus claims Abiathar was high priest when David ate showbread in the temple, though, in fact, it was Ahimelec, Abiathar’s father, who was high priest at this time (Mark 2:26, 1 Samuel 21:1-6).
These are just a few examples. Matthew is actually notorious for misquoting the prophets or taking them out of context (Matthew 1:23, 2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 3:3, 4:15, 8:17, 11:10, 12:17-21, 13:14-15, 35, 21:1-7, 22:43-44, 23:35, 27:9). These mistakes can’t be ignored, but they also shouldn’t be used as proof that the Bible isn’t inspired. First of all, people in the first century didn’t have easy access to the Hebrew scriptures. Secondly, creative interpretation, called ‘midrash,’ was very popular at the time and should be expected.
New Testament Mixups
Since the majority of the narratives in the New Testament are penned by different authors (the four Gospel accounts and the book of Acts), we can see where sometimes their stories contradict each other.
Matthew and Luke give two contradictory genealogies for Joseph (Matthew 1:2-17 and Luke 3:23-38). They cannot even agree on who the father of Joseph was.
When Jesus summons the twelve disciples to send them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God, he lists the things the disciples should not take with them. In Matthew 10:9-10 and Luke 9:3-5, a staff is included in the list of things not to take. In contradiction to Matthew and Luke, Mark 6:8 makes a specific exception—the disciples may take a staff.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the last supper takes place on the first day of the Passover (Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7). In John’s gospel, it takes place a day earlier and Jesus is crucified on the first day of the Passover (John 19:14).
In Mark, Jesus tells Peter that before the rooster crows twice, Peter will have denied him three times. In Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times before the rooster crows once (Mark 14:30, Matthew 26:34, Luke 22:34, John 13:38).
We have to understand, the New Testament was written decades after the events they describe. These stories were transmitted orally before they were written down. It should be obvious that not all the details would line up, but more importantly, it should tell us that God is obviously okay with that.
Confusion about Judas
There is another discrepancy in the New Testament narratives, and it’s a big one. After Judas betrayed Jesus there are two vastly different accounts of Judas’ fate.
Judas was given money by the high priests as payment in order to betray Jesus (Matthew 26:14-16). In Matthew’s account, Judas returned to the chief priests and gave them back their money. The priests decided to use the money to buy a field, which went on to be called the “Field of Blood” because it was purchased with “blood money” (Matthew 27:3-8). According to Matthew, Judas died by hanging himself (Matthew 27:5).
Luke tells us a different story in the book of Acts. Luke’s account says that Judas never returned the priest’s money and instead it was Judas himself who used the money to buy the field. According to Luke, Judas doesn’t hang himself, instead, he fell in his field and his body burst open, spilling blood and intestines (Acts 1:18). Because of the way Judas died in his field, everyone called it the “Field of Blood” (Acts 1:19).
These two accounts differ in what happened to the money, who purchased the field, how Judas died, and how the field got its name. Either Matthew is correct, or Luke is correct—one of them has to be wrong. Just like many times in the Old Testament, the authors of the New Testament were okay with maintaining multiple traditions and understandings of events.
The Inner-Biblical Critique of Violence
So far we’ve looked at numerous times that details conflict between Biblical authors. Many times those conflicts are merely technical and don’t really matter much, but sometimes as we will see, the conflict is moral and theological.
The book of 2 Kings tells a story of how God told king Jehu to massacre the entire house of Ahab in the city of Jezreel (2 Kings 9:6-10). Jehu did what God commanded and slaughtered dozens of people; not just the immediate family of Ahab, but his entire extended family as well (2 Kings 9:24, 10:6-11). These acts of mass murder are actually commended by God, according to the author of 2 Kings (2 Kings 10:30).
We know today that mass murder is wrong and completely evil, but it didn’t take until the time of Jesus for people to figure this out. Recorded within the canon of Old Testament scripture is a correction of this immorality being ascribed to God. A few generations later, the prophet Hosea looks back on that story with shame and claims that God says that Jehu’s atrocities need to be punished (Hosea 1:4). What we all witness here is an inner-biblical critique of violence. While this mass murder was praised by one author, it is mourned and denounced by another. Both claiming to speak for God.3
The Evolution of Biblical Morality
Biblical authors strived to understand God, but they didn’t always see him the same way.
Some authors say that God creates evil, causes disasters, and gives people infirmities (Isaiah 45:7, Amos 3:6, Exodus 4:11). Other authors say that God contains no darkness, is always doing good, and it is Satan that destroys (Deuteronomy 32:4, 1 John 1:5, John 10:10, 1 Peter 5:8).
The author of Deuteronomy says that God is pleased to ruin and destroy the wicked (Deuteronomy 28:63). Yet the author of Ezekiel says that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). Which is it?
Early on, the Israelites thought that God punishes children for the sins of their fathers (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9). Later the prophet Ezekiel corrects this understanding recorded in Scripture by demanding that this should never be said again, that children do not suffer for the sins of their fathers (Ezekiel 18:3,17-19).
God allowed conflicting views of violent and evil acts to be recorded within the Hebrew scriptures and he was okay with them not agreeing. Hosea and Ezekiel saw more of God’s true character (that Jesus fully reveals) than the author of Exodus and Kings saw. God’s revelation has always been progressive until its culmination in Jesus Christ. Scripture sometimes records this journey, maintaining the record of contradictions in order to show us how we as humankind grow in our understanding of God.
The Malleable Law of Moses
There are a total of 613 laws that Moses delivered to the ancient Israelites as commands from God. Not all of them are wholly unique, though, as some are amendments or alterations of the way some laws were previously understood. Biblical scholars have known for some time that many parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Torah (the first five books), are edited composites of various traditions throughout Israelite history. We can thus observe that some laws were altered over time in order to fit with the Israelites evolving morality or situation.
There are several conflicting laws concerning how Hebrew slaves should be handled. In Exodus, it says that after six years of slavery all male Hebrew slaves must be set free, but female Hebrew slaves can be kept (Exodus 21:2 ESV, Exodus 21:7 ESV). In the book of Deuteronomy, however, now both male and female Hebrew slaves may choose freedom after six years (Deuteronomy 15:12 ESV). Not only that, but as a reminder of how they were set free from slavery in Egypt, they are to be given a “liberal” portion of their master’s food and drink (Deuteronomy 15:13-15 ESV). Finally, Leviticus adds a third conflicting voice: no Hebrews may be enslaved, but instead can work as a hired hand (Leviticus 25:39-44). All three of these conflicting laws claim to be from the same divine source: God revealing his will to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Sometimes conflicting laws don’t have any moral implications, such as several concerning how to prepare and eat the Passover meal. In Exodus, the law says that the lamb must be eaten in people’s houses and roasted over a fire—and most definitely not boiled (Exodus 12:3-4, 7-9, 19, 22). In Deuteronomy, the law says that the meal must be eaten in “the place that the Lord will choose as a dwelling for his name,” which is the Temple in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 16:2, 5-6). The family meal is now transformed into a national pilgrimage feast. While Exodus said that the meal must be roasted and not boiled, in Deuteronomy it says that the meal must be boiled (Deuteronomy 16:7 ESV). Shockingly, even though the Hebrew root word is the same word for “boil” as used in Exodus, most English translations obscure this contradiction by incorrectly translating to the word “cook” or “roast.” Interestingly, the author of 2 Chronicles, written hundreds of years later, attempts to ingeniously harmonize these two conflicting laws by weaving them together (2 Chronicles 35:13): the lamb is to be roasted (as in Exodus) and the other holy offerings are to be boiled (as in Deuteronomy).
The Israelites situation changed over time, and their laws had to be updated to reflect that. Despite this, the entire Law was claimed to come from Moses and so from our point of view, there are contradictions. Some would call these contradiction errors, but that only comes from a “Bible-as-rulebook” mentality.
God’s Word is Perfect
The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is a modernist (mostly American) evangelical view. It stems from the presupposition that God wrote the Bible, and because God is perfect, the Bible must be perfect. The doctrine is further reinforced by the tradition of calling the Bible the “word of God,” when it never calls itself that to begin with. The Bible obviously has errors and God is obviously fine with that being the case.
If the foundation of your belief system is that the Bible is God’s Word then you’re doomed to doubt. If you study the Bible you’ll discover that there are two conflicting creation accounts, or you’ll read that Exodus and Deuteronomy repeat laws but describe them differently, or you’ll find out that there are many errors in the text that people have been contemplating for hundreds of years. You’ll notice that there is a tremendous amount of diversity and many Biblical authors don’t agree with each other.
God is perfect and without error, the Bible is not.
God is not confused about himself, but sometimes the Bible is confused about God.
If the Bible is your foundation then your faith will eventually crumble. On the other hand, if you make the one and only true Word of God (Jesus Christ) the foundation of your faith, you won’t be crippled with doubt when you discover the Bible’s errors. Christianity is the world’s largest religion because of Jesus. Judaism is one of the world’s smallest religions because it lacks Jesus. Without Jesus, the Israelite’s religion was always believed by a tiny minority of the world. The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) didn’t convince many people. Jesus is a different story, suddenly with the arrival of Christ, every corner of the world was interested. The Bible isn’t perfect, but Jesus is.
- An interesting visual database of the Bible’s errors can be found here.
- For more details on the two creation accounts found in Genesis, here is a great article.
- Theologian, Rowan Williams, puts it this way, “Something has happened to shift the perspective. And I imagine that if asked what he meant, Hosea would have said, ‘I’m sure my prophetic forebears were absolutely certain they were doing the will of God. And I’m sure the tyranny and idolatry of the royal house of Ahab was a scandal that needed to be ended. But, human beings being what they are, the clear word of God calling Israel to faithfulness and to resistance was so easily turned into an excuse for yet another turn of the screw in human atrocity and violence. And we’re right to shed tears for that memory.'” Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, pp. 38-39