Which Bible is Without Error? Why it isn't as simple as some make it out to be.

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You’ve probably heard someone say, “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” For most Christians, the Bible is the final authority for defining truth. For many Christians, this means that the Bible is without error because they believe it was written by God.1 But whatever you believe, there may still be some questions you didn’t even know you should be asking.

What even is the Bible? Who wrote it? When was it written? How many different versions of the Bible are there? Which books are in which Bible? Do we have original copies of them? Who decided which books are in there? Which Bible is the correct one?

So when someone says that the Bible contains no errors, the question to ask is, which Bible? There are many.

What is the Bible?

The Bible is a collection of writings written by dozens of people (many unknown), in dozens of places, over the span of around a thousand years. It tells one grand narrative (that eventually leads us to Jesus), but by means of differing viewpoints and varied theologies. Though the content may vary from Bible to Bible, they all have something in common: the old and new testaments.

The Old Testament, sometimes referred to as the Hebrew Scriptures, is a collection of narratives, poetry, and wisdom literature written by the ancient Israelites. Originally retold orally, it was finally canonized and written down sometime around 600 BC and settled into its current form in the second century AD. The New Testament, sometimes referred to as the Christian Scriptures, are a collection of letters, writings, and narratives written by the Early Church. These narratives and letters eventually became canonized in the 4th century AD.

The writings of all these authors over all this time came together to form what we call “the Bible”. What is interesting, however, is that at no point in history (including today) is there a universal consensus on what the contents of the Bible should be.

Where Did the Old Testament Come From?

All Biblical scholars agree that the Hebrew Scriptures began to be written down in the 6th century BC, around the time of the Babylonian exile. It was during this time that the ancient Israelites started wondering how they came to be in exile and whether or not they were still God’s people. Because of this, the theme of exile is found all over the Hebrew Scriptures, starting in Genesis with the Garden of Eden and ending in Chronicles. The book of Chronicles is the last book of the Old Testament in the Hebrew canon, and it is a retelling of Israel’s history. In Samuel and Kings (written in the 6th century BC) we have the Israelites perspective of their history from the point of view of being in exile. In Chronicles (written in the 4th century BC), we see an alternate history of Israel, one that differs from Samuel and Kings because it is told from the perspective of those who had returned from captivity in Babylon.

There are some striking differences in these two accounts because their unique authors were trying to make different arguments and ask different questions.

The Old Testament also contains Israel’s laws spread out over a narrative. Israel’s legal system has some overt similarities with those of surrounding nations. When compared side by side with other ancient legal codes such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, one can see significant similarities between the Mosaic law and those of other—older—nations. Concepts like animal sacrifice, slavery, and temple priest systems were all adapted from the Mesopotamian cultures that the Israelites came out of. Likewise, some of Israel’s stories share notable similarities to the Babylonian creations myth in the Enuma Elish, which was written hundreds of years before Genesis. God was meeting these people where they were at in order to lead them out of their paganism.

As Biblical scholar and theologian Peter Enns puts it, “God adopted Abraham as the forefather of a new people, and in doing so he also adopted the mythic categories within which Abraham—and everyone else—thought. But God did not simply leave Abraham in his mythic world. Rather, God transformed the ancient myths so that Israel’s story would come to focus on its God, the real one. The point I would like to emphasize, however, is that such a firm grounding in ancient myth does not make Genesis less inspired; it is not a concession that we must put up with or an embarrassment to a sound doctrine of Scripture. Quite to the contrary, such rootedness in the culture of the time is precisely what it means for God to speak to his people.”2

Which Old Testament is Real?

You may be surprised to learn that the version of the Old Testament that most Christians read today is not the same version that Paul and the early Church in the book of Acts read.

The version of the Old Testament that is in our Bibles today is translated and adapted from what is called the Masoretic Text. The Masoretic Text is in Hebrew and Aramaic with manuscripts dating back to the 9th century AD. The version of the Old Testament that Jesus, Paul, and the early Church read from is called the Septuagint.

The Septuagint was written in Greek around the 3rd century BC (and settled around the time of Jesus) and in many instances shows us an older version of the Hebrew Scriptures than the versions you will find in your Bible today.3 The Septuagint is important because it shows us earlier stages of many Bible stories and includes books that Christianity no longer considers Scripture. Books that Jesus, Paul, and the early Church viewed as divinely inspired scripture that Protestant Christianity no longer includes, are the following: 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, SirachBaruch, including the Letter of Jeremiah, sections of Esther, and sections of Daniel. Other books could have also been considered Scripture such as: 1 and 2 Esdras, 3 and 4 Maccabees, 1 and 2 Enoch, Prayer of Manasseh, and the Psalms of Solomon.

While the later Masoretic Text of Esther never mentions God, the earlier Septuagint version mentions God numerous times.

Some books that are in our current Old Testament such as Samuel or Jeremiah differ significantly from their earlier form. The well-known story of David and Goliath is another example of how earlier texts sometimes differ from the versions we read from today. In the Septuagint, the story is about half the length and as Timothy Michael Law notes, “It lacks the details about David delivering food to his brothers, his first hearing of Goliath’s challenge, and his contemplation on the risk/reward of getting involved (17:12-31). Also missing are the covenant Jonathan makes with David (18:1-5) and the story of Saul’s evil spirit (18:10-11).” The Septuagint didn’t just leave out these details, these details weren’t in earlier forms of the Scripture. Instead, they were added in later as editors expanded and added to the text after the time of Jesus.4

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Isaiah 53:10 ESV (from the Masoretic Text)

The Lord is willing to cleanse him of the injury. If you make a sin offering, our soul will see long-lived offspring, and the Lord is willing to remove him from the difficulty of his soul,
Isaiah 53:10 LXX (from the Septuagint)

The Septuagint gives us glimpses of earlier stages in the development of the Bible before the completion of the Hebrew Bible, which is now the foundation of modern translations.5 New Testament authors and Jesus quote the Septuagint nine times out of ten instead of the Masoretic Text. Some Old Testament prophesies about Jesus are even distorted or omitted in the Masoretic Text versus the Septuagint that the Apostles used.6 Ironically Psalm 22:16 which prophesies that the Messiah’s hands and feet would be pierced is taken from the Septuagint in nearly all English translations because the Masoretic text omits the word “pierce”. It seems most English translators are okay playing fast-and-loose over which source text they choose to draw from.

Jesus, the Apostles, Paul, and the early Church did not read from the same Bible that we do today. This is particularly problematic for those who put their entire faith in the pursuit of the “original text.” There really doesn’t seem to be such a thing… but if there is, the Bible you have isn’t it.

Pile of Books

Where Did the New Testament Comes From?

The New Testament, as we have it today, consists of the four Gospel accounts, Luke’s telling of the early Church, pastoral letters, and a bit of apocalyptic literature. But, there are several books of the New Testament that at various times and by various Church Fathers, were not considered part of the canon. Books such as Hebrews, James, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation didn’t make the cut and weren’t considered Scripture. Inversely, there were books that were accepted as divinely inspired Scriptures that modern day Protestants don’t recognize: Jubilees, the Book of Baruch, the Didache, the Letter of Jeremiah, and the Shepherd of Hermas.7

So, if some books originally weren’t included in the New Testament, and some were taken out, how did we get to the canon we have today? Sometime in the mid-3rd century AD, the process began to make an official list of which books were Scripture and which were not. There were disagreements for decades, but finally a group of Christian leaders came to a conclusion that to this day, most still agree on.

A group of men (you likely have never heard of) decided for you what is and isn’t in your Bible.

Theologian David Bentley Hart explains, “There is no single definitive text of the New Testament canon. Among the oldest manuscripts we have, no text in the New Testament, nor any complete collection of the New Testament texts, wholly agrees with every other version… this presents a problem for the literalist believer in ‘verbal inspiration’; for if, indeed an absolutely pure text of scripture somewhere exists, we have no notion whatsoever where it is to be found… during the first several centuries of the church, it was widely known that there was a great variety of differing versions of biblical texts, and this seemed to perturb no one very much. In fact, it was many centuries before what we regard as the New Testament canon gained universal acceptance; in many places, books we do not now tend to regard as canonical were treated as sacred scripture, while other books that we assume to be part of Christian scripture were either unknown or rejected as dubious.”8

Which is the Bible?

For nearly 400 years the early Church did not have an official canon of Scripture. One is likely to wonder why God would wait so long to let his people know what was Scripture and what wasn’t. Even today there is no universal consensus on what is Scripture and what isn’t. God gave the Roman Catholics 73 books, he gave the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians 81 books, and over a thousand years later he gave the Western Christians only 66 books. Which is correct? Are all correct? Is only one correct? If so, why did God not care to give other Christian traditions the correct version of the Bible?

Keith Giles in his book, “Jesus Unbound”, writes, “Today there is still no universal consensus on what is and what is not the “Bible” or Holy Scripture. Like the early church, depending on who you ask, and where you live, and what Christian tradition you belong to, the book you carry around and refer to as the Holy Bible might look very different from another book from another Christian community that might be called the “Bible.” Why do we so blindly accept the authority of these nameless and faceless men who made these decisions for the rest of us? What if they didn’t really have the authority to make this decision? What if they left writings out, or included writings, in error? How are we so sure that they were inerrant and infallible in their process?”9

The writers of the New Testament used the Septuagint and viewed it as inspired holy Scripture but the later Church leaders who gave us our current Bible canon did not.10 Who is correct? By now it should be clear that Scripture has always been a process. There have always been additions made as well as pruning at times. We live in a period of time where Scripture seems settled (though differently for different traditions), but who are we to argue that God won’t shake things up again hundreds of years in the future (as what seemed to happen at the Reformation when 7 books were removed).11 So if the Bible is without error, as some claim, which Bible are they even referring to?

Glowing Book

God Breathed Scripture?

Where do some Christians get the idea that the Bible is even inerrant (without error) to begin with? Tradition mostly, but a major proof-text for this position is found in the second book of Timothy.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
2 Timothy 3:16

Traditionally attributed to Paul, the majority of scholars agree that Paul did not write 1st or 2nd Timothy, noting that these passages contain around 300 words that Paul does not use in his undisputed letters, that their style of writing is different from that of his undisputed letters, that they reflect conditions and a church organization not current in Paul’s day, and that they do not appear in early lists of his canonical works.12 So while we know that Paul almost certainly didn’t write this passage (we don’t know who wrote most of the Bible), we should still wrestle with what it claims.

Just because scripture is “God-breathed” doesn’t mean it’s inerrant. We as human beings are “God-breathed” too, and we are not inerrant.

Some English translations say that all scripture is “God-breathed” while some say all scripture is “inspired”. The Greek word used here is “theopneustos” (θεόπνευστος) and only appears one time in the Bible. The word for “scripture” in this passage is the general Greek word “graphe” (γραφή) which simply means “writings”. The word for “all” (pasa, πᾶσα) can also be faithfully translated to “each,” “any,” or “every”.13 So another way to translate this verse could be: “Every writing is inspired and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

What are the Writings?

Let’s assume for a minute when the author uses the broad term “writings”, that they are referring to the holy Scriptures. As we’ve already established, the author’s understanding of Scripture would have included different versions of books we consider Scripture and also other books we don’t consider Scripture. One clear example of this is in the book of Jude 14-15 where 1 Enoch 1.9 is quoted. So 2 Timothy 3:16, the proof-text for the inerrancy of Scripture, would have to mean that later additions we made to the Old Testament (after the life of the author) are not Scripture, and that books in his Bible that we leave out are Scripture. Let that sink in.

But what about the New Testament? At the time of the writing of 2 Timothy, the New Testament didn’t exist yet, so the author could not be referring to the writings that we call the New Testament as “inspired” or “God-breathed”. The Gospels were not even written yet at the time 2 Timothy was penned. It would take over 300 years for the contents of the New Testament to be decided upon.

It is also important to understand that not even the real Paul would have been thinking of his letters to the churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, or Galatia as being Scripture. For Paul, who had the Hebrew Bible in view for what defined Scripture, there was no precedent for turning letters into Scripture. Also, the letters often contain material that is local and situational, such as Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about how to discipline a particular man (1 Corinthians 5:1-5) or his offer to pay Philemon to compensate him for money or goods that Onesimus may have stolen (Philemon 18-19). No doubt Paul knew he was writing something extraordinary but there is no evidence that he knew he was writing letters that would one day be called Scripture by men four centuries in the future.

Glowing Book

Which Bible is Without Error?

As we’ve seen, the Bible has taken many different forms over time with different generations of people believing different configurations of books to be inspired Scripture. What Protestant Christians view as Scripture isn’t fully congruent with what the authors of the New Testament viewed as Scripture. But beyond that, even if the Protestant Bible is the absolute correct version, there are still complications.

There are dozens of Bible translations and any particular translation of the Bible is not really the Bible, but rather it is actually the shortest possible commentary on the Bible. Translations are just that, a translation, done by a particular person or a committee of people that are attempting to understand what the Bible is trying to communicate. Just compare a handful of different translations and it will be apparent that they give different meanings depending on what words they chose in their translation. Even if you refer to the original language of Hebrew of Greek, the same issue presents itself. There are thousands of different ancient texts that contain thousands of variant readings. Even today there is no universal consensus by scholars on which versions are more faithful to whatever “original” texts that don’t exist anymore.

Even if we had the original writings of every single book of every single version of the Bible, the claim of inerrancy isn’t helpful. You see, our interpretation of what the Scripture says is never inerrant and every verse and passage has to be interpreted. The way cultures and Christian traditions have interpreted Scripture throughout history has changed and evolved. Just a hundred years ago in America, slavery was justified using a certain interpretation of Scripture. Two hundred years ago in America, genocide was justified using a certain interpretation of Scripture. Today we would view both interpretations as having error but in both cases the Bible was at the time referred to as inerrant.

In the past century alone with our newly developed reverence for archaeology, we have discovered massive amounts of ancient texts, ruins, and other finds that have helped us interpret the Scriptures with their original contexts, which at times, has massively altered our understanding of them.

Jesus is Inerrant

So which Bible is inerrant? Thankfully, this doesn’t need a be a question that worries us. There is only one Word of God that is truly and completely inerrant. Abundant peace can be found in that simple fact. After Jesus had risen from the dead he told his disciples something we need to be reminded of today:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Matthew 28:18

Jesus did not say “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to a book you people are going to write.”

Pastor and author Brian Zahnd put it perfectly when he says, “The Bible is not the perfect revelation of God; Jesus is. Jesus is the only perfect theology. Perfect theology is not a system of theology; perfect theology is a person. Perfect theology is not found in abstract thought; perfect theology is found in the Incarnation. Perfect theology is not a book; perfect theology is the life that Jesus lived. What the Bible does infallibly and inerrantly is point us to Jesus, just like John the Baptist did.”14 Jesus Christ has all authority, leaving none left for anyone or anything else. The irony of claiming that the Bible has final authority is that, in reality, it just enables the individual reader their own private authority from the way they interpret.

Some scriptures have been rejected at times and accepted at others. Some scriptures that were likely divinely inspired are now unknown to Christians. Because we as humans are not perfect, we have rejected Scripture that Paul and Jesus viewed as Scripture. Because as humans we are not perfect, we have added to Scripture for our own theological purposes and now have writings that may not actually be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

This realization is only troublesome if your faith is in a book instead of in a person.

The Bible never claims to be inerrant. Even if the Bible is inerrant, we don’t know which version of it that is.15 Rather, the Bible is the inspired writings of dozens of people throughout the ages who wrote down what they believed was true about God that ultimately leads us to the complete revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is the Word of God and he is inerrant.

Footnotes

  1. Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article XII: “We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from falsehood, fraud, or deceit. We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”
  2. Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.
  3. Beckwith, Roger T. (2008). The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers. pp. 382, 383.
  4. Blowers, Paul M.; Martens, Peter W (2019). The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Biblical Interpretation. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  5. In the early Christian Church, the presumption that the Septuagint was translated by Jews before the era of Christ and that the Septuagint at certain places gives itself more to a Christological interpretation than 2nd-century Hebrew texts was taken as evidence that “Jews” had changed the Hebrew text in a way that made them less Christological. For example, Irenaeus writes concerning Isaiah 7:14 that the Septuagint clearly writes of a virgin (Greek παρθένοςbethulah in Hebrew) that shall conceive, while the word almah in the Hebrew text was, according to Irenaeus, at that time interpreted by Theodotion and Aquila, both proselytes of the Jewish faith, as a young woman that shall conceive. According to Irenaeus, the Ebionites used this to claim that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. From Irenaeus’ point of view that was pure heresy, facilitated by late anti-Christian alterations of the scripture in Hebrew, as evident by the older, pre-Christian Septuagint.
  6. For example, Hebrews 10:5 says “You did not want sacrifice and offering, but You prepared a body for Me.” This is quoting Psalm 40:6, but in the Masoretic Text it says “You do not delight in sacrifice and offering; you open my ears to listen.” while the Septuagint version says “Sacrifice and offering you will not; but a body you have prepared me.” The later Masoretic Text eliminates the prophecy of the Messiah being sacrificed. Another similar example is Galatians 3:13 where Paul quotes Deuteronomy 21:23 saying the Messiah will be hung on a tree, but while the Masoretic Text omits the word “tree” the Septuagint version retains it.
  7. Nicole, Roger, New Testament Use of the Old Testament Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl. F.H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), pp. 137–51
  8. David Bentley Hart, “The New Testament”, page xxxiii
  9. Giles, Keith. Jesus Unbound: Liberating the Word of God from the Bible . Quoir.
  10. Nicole, Roger, New Testament Use of the Old Testament Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl. F.H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), pp. 137–51
  11. Gary G. Michuta, Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger, The Grotto Press, 2007. “When Luther was cornered in a debate over Purgatory, his opponent, Johann Eck, cited 2 Maccabees against Luther’s position. Luther was forced to say that Second Maccabees could not be allowed in the debate because it wasn’t canonical. Later in the debate, Luther appealed to St. Jerome for rejecting Maccabees (the councils of Carthage, Hippo, and Florence all included Macabees as canonical Scripture). By appealing to Jerome, he also rejected all the other books Jerome rejected (Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, Daniel 13, and sections of Esther). From then on, Luther (and all Protestants) have been trying to justify this removal. Luther in 1534 thought Baruch was “too skimpy” and not lofty enough to be from the scribe of Jeremiah. He also had problems with certain historical elements in Baruch. But in the long run, it really came down to Jerome’s rejection. As a side note, Jerome rejected it because he thought that a Hebrew manuscript tradition, known as the Masoretic Text, was identical to the inspired originals and all other copies were made from this text. Since the Deuteros were not part of the MT, he rejected them as not being of the canonical Scripture. What Jerome could not have known was that there were many different Hebrew manuscripts in circulation during the first century and that the Greek Septuagint, a translation made by the Jews around 200 BC, at least in parts, appears to be a very literal translation of a more ancient Hebrew text tradition that is now lost. This means that Jerome’s idea of “Hebrew truth” (I.e., only that which is found in the Hebrew MT is true) has been demonstrated to be an error. With Jerome’s position no longer tenable, Protestantism really doesn’t have a historical leg to stand on in regards to their OT canon.”
  12. Stephen L. Harris, The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 366: “In the opinion of most scholars, the case against Paul’s connection with the pastorals is overwhelming. Besides the fact that they do not appear in early lists of Paul’s canonical works, the pastorals seem to reflect conditions that prevailed long after Paul’s day, perhaps as late as the first half of the second century C.E. Lacking Paul’s characteristic ideas about faith and the Spirit, they are also un-Pauline in their flat style and different vocabulary (containing 306 words not found in Paul’s unquestioned letters). Furthermore, the pastorals assume a church organization far more developed than that current in the apostle’s time.”
  13. A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BDAG)
  14. Brian Zahnd, Sinners In The Hands of a Loving God, pg. 31
  15. And keep in mind that if one version of the Bible that exists or existed at some point in the past is without any error, then that naturally means that every other version of the Bible is with error.