On The Inerrancy of Scripture
There's a fundamentalist church in my neighborhood that has a sign on the street-side of their building:
I have received many emails recently about my view on the Bible. Is it inspired? Literally true? How is it supposed to be interpreted?
So let's get to it.
First: The word "Inspired" can be expressed in many ways, but I think this is well stated:
Second: "Inerrant" means that, since God breathed-into ("in-spired") the writings, they are in all ways, mathematical, scientific, theological, philosophical, absolutely perfect.
My "position" is this:
But you won't find many of those answers here. You will, however, find many questions that I have come across, that have helped me to come to a deeper appreciation of the Bible. I will leave it to you to come to your own conclusions.
The immature reader will find the material contained here quite threatening, as though it is a "slam" on the Bible. I assure you it is not. Any perceived threats come from challenging a mind-numbed so-called "faith" that actually knows (and cares) less about the Bible than the color of disk one puts in the toilet bowl.
There are some very real, and (at least for me) profoundly important issues in our relationship to Scripture. In my never-ending quest to get you involved in your own religion, I offer the following.
Two Ignorant Views of The Bible
I have taught Bibles studies (yes, face-to-face, I wasn't always a "virtual teacher") for years. Not surprisingly, but sadly, one of the greatest areas of ignorance I regularly find in the churches has to do with the source and history of the Bible itself. For the average person-in-the-pews, there are 2 primary views. And they are both wrong.
And folks, you would be absolutely amazed, should you ever get into their world enough for them to trust you, to find out how many millions upon millions of people have this view.
The truth is that the original documents that comprise the Bible are thousands of years older than the King James, which is just one English translation, done at the urging of (can you guess?) King James in England, around the year 1600. This view of the Bible, while held very widely, is so completely ignorant of the truth that it needs no further comment here.
Let's look at the 2 main components of this "Original Version" myth: the Autographs and the Closed Canon.
The simple, undisputed, plain truth is that the "Original Version of the Bible" does not exist.
There, I've said it.
We do not have Moses' handwriting. Nor Isaiah's, Peter's, or Paul's. The original, hand-written first edition, also known as the Autograph, does not exist for even one single word in the Bible, let alone a complete sentence, chapter or book itself.
What do we have?
All of this has made the Quest for the Original Bible a multi-century detective mystery. And as time goes on we learn more, gather more, investigate more.
The picture may be blurry for the Hebrew Bible ("Old Testament"), but for the most part the Hebrews had a letter-for-letter reverence for their Scriptures. The Dead Sea Scrolls gave us great confidence that the copies-of-copies-of-copies are at least consistent, and therefore fairly likely to reflect in large part the intent of the autograph.
When it comes to the New Testament, however, things are just a mess. There's no other way to put it. The copies and quotations and fragments are so littered with commentaries, omissions, and misquotes, that the "Original Greek New Testament" is only an approximate guess as to the autograph's contents.
Well, let me give you some data here.
I have a Greek New Testament. Written in Biblical Greek. On a good day I can actually read it.
Now, how did we get this? The common myth is that this is just copied down from the "original". Nothing could be father from the truth. Here's just one page.
That, friends, is the first 7 verses of the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was The Word...." But notice, please, the horizontal line about a third of the way down the page. The text is above the line. John 1:1-7. The material below the line cites the different primary variations found in the Papyri, Unicals, Miniscules, Lectionaries....Well, let's not get too into the details. The key points are:
Don't know? Come on, try to guess. Got it?
Yup. That's right. The scholars look at all the options and vote on what they think is most likely the "closest to the source", and then they VOTE. Being honest scholars, they site their sources. That's why on most of the pages in my "Original Biblical Greek New Testament" the "text" occupies 1/2 to 2/3 of the page, and the rest (the part "under the line") cites the different primary variations.
And don't take my word for it. Do the research yourself.
If you take this information to your local pastor / priest, he will probably say something along the lines of "Well, that may be true, but these are all minor variations, like "of" or "with". They have nothing to do with the central message."
I find this attitude very disturbing and contradictory. These types of people are all too eager to condemn to hell people who do not worship the Bible (which, frankly, IS a form of idolatry known as Bibliolatry, but I'll not go off on that tangent) as inerrant and scientifically perfect. Yet when presented with the simple facts of the case say "It simply doesn't matter."
Let me show you a place in the Bible where this does matter, at least to some. A little thing known as "The Lord's Prayer", Matthew 6: 9-13. Here's the King James Version, as recited millions of times a day:
And here is the New International Version:
9"This, then, is how you should pray:
ation, but deliver us from the evil one.
Notice anything different? The last part of verse 13, "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen." does NOT appear in the New International! Nor the American Standard.
What's going on here?
The King James people did the best they could with what they had. Later research discovered older, better documents / fragments / commentaries, etc that showed very clearly that...are you ready?...the last line of the Lord's Prayer, that you were taught from birth, was added by a highly motivated commentator hundreds of years after the fact. IT CANNOT HAVE BEEN JESUS' WORD!
So, modern translations have been forced, in the name of honesty, to drop it. I've been in a couple churches, also, that do not add that line to the end of the Lord's Prayer. But the Lutherans (to name but one), who have made an entire career of sending people to an eternal hell because they don't "believe in the Bible", have no problem whatsoever adding this clearly non-Biblical "tagline" to the end of the Prayer. They have freely ADDED TO JESUS' WORDS.
Am I the only one paying attention here?
So, you are free to object: "So, what does it matter? It doesn't hurt anyone to say that."
I am not here to do an exhaustive treatment of the variations of the source materials and where & how they affect Bible interpretation. As always, this writing is just a sketch of a much larger subject. But clearly there is much more going on here than we are generally told...
The Much Deeper Problem
The New Testament texts we have are Greek. Jesus was a Jew. He didn't talk Greek. Even in the best of circumstances, what we have is a Greek translation of Jesus' words.
What if George Bush's statements on the War on Terrorism were never available in the Original English in which they were spoken, but only Taliban translations that appear in their militant press? How would you feel? Would you be comfortable that you had an honest rendering of his meaning?
Well, Jesus was crucified for crimes again Rome. And this war criminal's words are only available in a translation into the language of His enemies who executed Him.
There is a magnificent project going on as we speak, based on astoundingly detailed & profound PRE-Greek New Testament sources. This Project, known as The Semitic New Testament Project, is attempting to discover and assemble the really original "Jewish" versions of the New Testament writings, as spoken and written by the people involved.
The information can be found here. Only Serious Bible Scholars, who care about the TRUTH of the Bible, need apply. I am a non-contributing (as in research, I'm not even remotely qualified) member of the Project. Its research cannot be ignored any longer, at least not by an intellectually honest society.
The "Original" Bible does not exist. But perhaps, with enough time, Dr. James Trimm can recreate it.
The Closed Canon
The second major component to The "Original Version" Myth is the idea that the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible and the 27 books of the New Testament were divinely ordained by some kind of "Thus Sayeth the Lord" command. The idea is that when God got done writing the last part of the Bible, He told people He was done, and they published the Complete Holy Bible.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
It may or may not surprise you that there are literally hundreds of non-Biblical writings from the same period, dealing with Christ & God & Religion. Scores of these are considered primary, and have been studied, categorized & published. A marvelous site for more information can be found at http://www.innvista.com/scriptures/pseudep/default.htm
Here is just a partial listing of the primary extra-Biblical documents, known collectively as the Pseudepigrapha:
So, if there were all of these other Gospels, Apocalypses & Epistles circulating in the ancient world, how did we actually get the Canon?
The story is long and involved. You can research it if you like. The bottom line, as it pertains to the Christian New Testament, is this:
And that, my friends, is how our New Testament was created: 400 years after the fact, by a committee vote.
The Really Big Problems
Let's ignore the previous material. Frankly, it simply does not matter, at least to me. Regardless of the history and development of the documents, we have them now, and they matter very much. This is a part of my radical existentialist approach to religion: all of history is gone, and the only thing we can deal with is what is here and now.
So, even if we had the Autographs, and God Himself made it clear He wrote 27 (and only 27) New Testament Books and 39 "Old Testament" books, we still have very deep, profound issues to deal with when it comes to the inspiration of the Scripture. These encompass a wide variety of topics, all dealing with our proper interpretation, which I will briefly outline here.
I call these (and more, just like them) the "Really Big Problems" because they will not go away, regardless of our view of Inspiration or Inerrancy. The childish will take this to mean I am "trashing" the Bible, but they are wrong. The foolish will take this to mean that the Bible does not matter, but they are wrong. The ignorant will refuse to think about it, content in the bliss of their ignorance, and they too are very wrong.
The brave will deal with them, struggle with them, pray about them, research them, and become immeasurably richer for it.
Some, understandably, get very uncomfortable with this type of thinking. So they retreat to "Is is is." And so the cycle continues....But not a one of the fundamentalists has ever shaved their wife's head.
Yes, I believe the Bible to the the Holy, Inspired, Inerrant Word of God.
Holy in that it is a precious account of the human race's growth in God Consciousness, from a conception of a small, tribal WarLord, to a God of Universal Love for all.
Inspired in that I have confidence that Yhwh could have had this thing written any way He chose. And He was wise enough to prevent us from having Autographs preserved in museums, where the Scriptures can be worshipped instead of read. No, there's quite enough of that as it is.
Inerrant, in that the Bible acts like an infallible Rorschach design. The more you look, the more you see. And the more intense your devotion, the Bible cannot and will not fail to bring you ever deeper into a knowledge of The Divine Source of All.
Word of God, as God struggles to reach Man, and Man struggles to come to terms with God.
I have posed more questions than answers here. That's because my answers, ultimately, only matter for me. It is much more important that you know the issues, and (with prayer, fasting, and study) find Yhwh's witness on your own heart.
Ahyh, March 31, 2002
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