What If the Bible Has Errors?

Bible TextAt the start, let's be clear. I do not believe the Bible contains errors. However, I have heard enough stories about people who have lost their faith because they "found out" that the Bible has errors or contradictions that I felt it would be good to address this.

While I do not believe that the Bible contains errors or contradictions, let us for the sake of argument grant that it does. The most important question anyone can ask in light of this, before they lost their faith, is: What follows from that?

In my opinion, this question should be asked a good deal more often than it actually is. Not only with respect to scriptural inerrancy, but with claims or challenges against Christianity in general. Really, this question should be asked of any question that pertains to one's world view.

So, what if the Bible contains errors? What follows from that? Does that necessarily mean that God doesn't exist? If you think about that for more than 5 nanoseconds, it seems obvious that this would be an example of a classic non-sequitor. The conclusion simply does not follow.

In fact, if the Bible were to contain errors, it doesn't even follow that it is wholly unreliable! Much of what we know of ancient history is from documents that are not inerrant. That does not make them unreliable. It simply makes them less than perfectly accurate about every single thing that they might report.

"But," you say, "if the Bible makes a mistake in one area, that casts doubt on the whole thing! If there's a mistake in one place, how do you know there aren't errors elsewhere? How do you know which parts are wrong and which are right?"

These are certainly legitimate questions. However, they are usually asked rhetorically...as if there isn't a legitimate answer to them. Yet, there certainly is a legitimate response. As I have already mentioned, we have volumes of information about ancient history from old documents and archaeological discoveries that inform us about a great deal of what took place in the distant past. There are historians, textual critics, archaeologists, etc. who are highly trained to sift through the data and identify what is most probably the truth of the matter.

If we take the Bible as merely a human document, rather than a divine one, it still passes every single test of ancient historical reliability better than any other ancient document ever discovered! As a strictly historical document, the Bible is, by far, the best attested historical record ever kept about ancient times.

Without biblical inerrancy, we can still use other ancient writings to corroborate the key facts about the existence, life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the early Church and the people of Judea. In fact, we can corroborate these things to such a degree that even without biblical inerrancy, we can still maintain intellectual integrity while believing in the classic, orthodox teachings of Jesus and Christianity as being reasonable and reliable.

Another thing I would like to point out is the idea the Bible is not a book. So, let's say, for example, that someone finds what they believe to be a factual error or an actual logical contradiction between (let's say) the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John....OK. Well, those two books are not "the Bible." They are two bodies of text that were written at different times, in different places by different authors.

So, what if we say, "Alright...Let's remove Mark and John from the canon. Now what? Does that make the Bible teach anything different from what it has ever taught before?" Certianly, we would no longer have the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8. Honestly, though...big deal. That probably wasn't part of the original Gospel of John anyway. It doesn't appear in the earliest manuscripts and, in some manuscripts, it's not even in John...it's somewhere else!

What changes about the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth if you omit those two books from the Bible? Answer: Nothing at all. Without those two Gospels, the Bible as a whole is still a story of God's creation, Man's fall, God's plan for redemption and Jesus' historical execution of that plan.

Christianity does not rely on the Bible being perfectly accurate and without error. While many of us believe that it is without error, Christianity doesn't depend on that. Christianity depends on one and only one thing. That one thing is a historical event which can, and should, be investigated as to whether or not it actually occurred at a specific time and place in human history. For this historical event, I defer to the Apostle Paul:

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. 
1 Corinthians 15:12-19

If you can follow Paul here, he seems to be trying very hard to let us know that Jesus' resurrection from the dead was an actual event that occurred in human history. He just as strongly seems to be indicating that if this did not happen, Christianity and our faith in Jesus is a complete waste of time.

Even here, however, we must be careful not to exaggerate the conclusion. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then yes...Christianity is not true. However... We must realize that this does NOT mean that God does not exist. He might, or He might not. But if Christianity, specifically, is shown to be untrue, that does not in any way affect the truth value of whether or not a supernatural being created the universe in the finite past.

Thusfar, there have not been any accusations of error in the Bible that I have found to be credible upon further investigation or when taken in the proper context. If you are unable to overcome an objection to Christianity based on such an accusation, remember that this does not render Christianity false. Do not jump to conclusions that do not logically follow from the arguments offered. Remember to ask "Does that conclusion truly follow if the premises are true?" Often, non-believers will attempt to get you to bite and draw you off with conclusions that have nothing to do with the arguments they offer.

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  1. Interesting what if scenario
    A few thoughts:

    "If we take the Bible as merely a human document, rather than a divine one, it still passes every single test of ancient historical reliability better than any other ancient document ever discovered!"
    Great news, what would you say is the best resource advancing this claim?
    I'd also like a little more clarity on what is being claimed in that statement; as you note later the bible is more of an anthology than a single work, so,
    is the claim that
    (1) each book contained in the bible is more historically reliable than any non-bible book of similar or greater age?
    (2) that on some kind of average the books of the bible are more historically reliable than any other book of similar or greater age?

    "So, what if we say, "Alright...Let's remove Mark and John from the canon. Now what?"
    On your view is that the only option? If there is an error/contradiction it *must* be removed from the cannon?
    I imagine Christianity would look quite different w/o certain books, ppl may differ on the most critical, but certainly Christianity would have a difficult time w/o the gospels. Maybe evicted books could remain relevant, but I don't think that is a given, as my understanding is that is the official status of the apocrypha among protestants, but in practice they are almost universally ignored by protestants: aren't in the bibles, aren't preached on Sundays, and very very few ever read them. I'm curious how you see that playing out in your what if scenario.

  2. Good questions.

    As for the first one, I would go with the first option...that the individual "books" (letters, epistles, etc.) are more historically reliable. This is based on the fact that we have:

    1) Far more manuscript evidence than any other document of antiquity and,
    2) The manuscripts date back to a time closer to the actual events that other ancient documents.

    For example, much of what we know about the Roman emperor, Tiberius, was written almost 100 years after his death. We have only two known copies of his work, the earliest extant copy dating from the 9th century.

    Compare that to the New Testament. The first NT documents were written within 20 years or less of the events and later documents, no later than 60 years after the events. The earliest extant manuscripts (of which we have thousands) are from the 2nd century. In addition to that, letters from 1st and 2nd century church fathers (such as Clement, Polycarp, etc.) contain such vast quotations from the NT that if all the extant biblical manuscripts were lost, we could reconstruct almost the entire NT from their quotes, alone.

    Now, to your second question...

    I think you may have misunderstood my point. It was simply that, if one were to challenge the authenticity of a couple of specific books, what is taught about Jesus in the other books and letters would still be sufficient to get the same picture we have of Jesus. If someone, for example, were somehow able to demonstrate the the Gospel of Luke was actually from the 4th century and not an eyewitness account (and therefore excluded from the canon), based on the remaining documents, our understanding of Jesus would not change.

    I hope that clears that up.

    Thanks for the questions!