So you think you found an error in Scripture. Quick, what do you do?
A) Become an Atheist
Seems a little extreme, but the truly committed non-believer thinks that every Christian is but a un-crossed “t” or an un-dotted “i” away from throwing their faith in the garbage like left-over Taco Bell that got stuck behind the Capri Suns for way too long.
B) Just Ignore It
This is assuming you are reading your Bible enough to catch an error, so that’s exciting. I think a lot of people just assume that there must be an answer, and that’s good enough for them. I don’t want to convince someone to look more critically at Scripture, so I guess I’m ok with that position. They’re right. Most of the time, there’s a simple answer to the seemingly contradictory statement.
C) Try to Figure Out What the Heck Is Going On
This is the boat I land in. I don’t just need answers, I need to know “why.” I was that little kid that could hold an eternal conversation with just asking an adult “why?” over and over again. So what do I do when someone on Facebook points out an “obvious mistake” in Scripture or while studying for a sermon I find something that could only be described as an “error.” Well, I crack my fingers, I grab a Mountain Dew and Pop-tart, and I get to work.
Before sharing with you what I do. I will put all my cards on the table. I believe Scripture is inerrant in the original autographs. This is just a really fancy way of saying that I don’t think the Bible had any mistakes when it was first written.
The Word of God is an enigma. It is both a divine book and a human book. God inspired the human authors to write. It mirrors Jesus who also is referred to as “The Word.” He too is both divine and human. There is nothing about Jesus that isn’t God and there’s nothing about Jesus that isn’t a man.
I believe that Scripture has authority over me, so how can I ever be a critic of God’s Word? Isn’t it supposed to rip me apart? How can I be “over” it? Well, because it is a written word there is an implication that there will be a reader. And as the reader, I have to be an interpreter. My goal of being the interpreter is always the same. I want to understand Scripture in the way that the author intended it to be understood. I want to think in the way the original hearers would have thought. My assumption is that the initial readers understood what was written to them. I’m reading this book thousands and thousands of years later. I speak a different language, live in a different country, and have been indoctrinated by a different culture. There are obviously going to be some struggles. So here’s what I do when I start struggling.
1) Ask Google
I love Google (honestly Yahoo but you can’t say “I yahood the answer” it just doesn’t sound cool.) I can’t imagine what 16th century monks had to do. The scrolls! The dust! The horror!!! Even the least reliable sources like Wikipedia or Yahoo Answers can help reveal a solution so simple and obvious that I abandon my search for credible sources and just pretend I always understood the passage of Scripture in question. But when “real” research is necessary, Google is still helpful. The Bible is not like a J.K Rowling’s book that’s not part of the Harry Potter universe. People have been reading the Bible for centuries. There is nothing “new” that scholars haven’t found before. There have been writings about these apparent “errors” since even before the invention of the printing press. Fortunately, copyright laws expire eventually and can then show up for free on the World Wide Web (remember when people used to call it that.) Whether from an author in the 300’s, 1500’s, or now-a-days, all I am looking for is a reasonable explanation for my confusion. 99 times out of a 100, I find it with just a little bit of research. Whether from gotquestions.org or carm.org, I usually get a satisfactory answer. When all else fails though, I get on atla.com. There will be some scholar, somewhere that wrote a 5-page article on the very “mistake” in question (get ready for an obscene amount of Greek.)
2) Ask Your Pastor
From a pastor’s point of view, we love getting asked tough bible questions. We’ve been in school for what seems like 22 years and we rarely get a tough bible question. We’d love to help you research. We probably have some book in our library that we can dust off. It makes us feel like Indiana Jones in search for the holy grail. We’re also pumped because someone in our congregation actually reads their Bible. Victory!!! Even though I am a pastor and a professor, I still have people that I view as my pastors and my professors. I feel bad for people who really think they’re the smartest person they know. What a sad, lonely world they must live in. I personally think you should do your own research first. It’s good to find your own go-to site for answers. It’s good to “frame” the whole issue before going to your pastor. “I know it doesn’t mean this… and I know it can’t mean that… so I’m left with these 3 equally horrible options. Can you help me here pastor?”
Here’s some general truth I can drop on you. The Biblical authors didn’t care about things like chronological order, specific measurements, or exactly when something happened. It just didn’t matter to them. Themes were way more important than details. We’re just different. We all act like we’re detectives on Law and Order, but deductive reasoning is a relatively new, western concept. Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds and suddenly the internet is filled with botanists that point out that there are orchids that have smaller seeds. Time for everyone to be an atheist! Stop it. I can give several very scholarly sounding answers on this “egregious error” but the simple answer is that Jesus was talking to a bunch of farmers and that’s the smallest seed that they deal with and yet mustard grows into a pretty big plant. The Kingdom of God is just like that. It’s starting so small, but it’s going to get huge! Why should Jesus stop to talk about orchids? That would be a waste of time. (Just like that argument.)
However, remember in the beginning of this article I said that I believe the Bible is inerrant in the original autographs? Well this is why nearly every church adopts that language. We don’t have any original writings of Scripture. We have copies that are many generations later. One reason I hold to the inerrancy of Scripture is because it’s amazing that Scriptures found in crypts in Rome are nearly identical to copies found in caves in Egypt that are 800 years older. That just doesn’t happen by accident. But, by saying “original autographs” we are leaving open the possibility of the dreaded “scribal error.” Somewhere down the line, a slight recording error could be made. It would make a king 8 years old instead of 18 or it would add on a father’s name for clarification. Do I think this has happened? Sure. Will I specifically share where I think this has happened? No. In almost every case that people point to a “scribal error,” I have a potential explanation. I agree that the simpler answer would be that a mistake in copying occurred. What I’m scared to do is share it too openly with others. I’m scared to lead others astray. I usually present such passages with the possible conclusions and include the “scribal error” contingency as something to think about. It honestly would not hurt me in any way to find out that Bill the Monk in the 5th century took communion one too many times that day and saw someone’s notes on the side of the scroll and included it as part of the Scripture in the next copy. What impresses me, is that even though scholars have quibbled over dozens of issues in Scripture, none of them thought of themselves highly enough to just fix everything confusing. They preserved God’s Word.
Don’t be afraid of finding an error in Scripture. Keep reading it and you’ll find that it is truly you who are in error, and Jesus loves you anyway. ;)
Feel free to throw in the comment section any problem passages you struggle with. We’ll look at it together.