ERRORS IN THE BIBLE?
Part 1 of 2


A few weeks ago, someone sent me an article written by a Scott Bidstrup entitled: “What The Christian Fundamentalist Doesn’t Want You to Know: A Brief Survey of Biblical Errancy.” Why should this article concern us? Are we fundamentalists? Well, if you classify a fundamentalist as one who can see through a keyhole with both eyes open (as an esteemed friend once said to me), then we are certainly no fundamentalists, for we believe that God has given us a sound mind (2 Tim 1:7) to think, and that our lives must be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), and not by a blind and implicit trust of all that is said to be true. Again, if you define a fundamentalist as one who believes in the pre-tribulational secret rapture of the Church, and the visible millennial rule of Christ in Jerusalem, as well as the restoration of the temple and sacrificial system, then we are no fundamentalists. But if you define a fundamentalist as someone who believes that the Bible is the Word of God, and that in its originalautographa, it is not only infallible, but inerrant, then we will gladly take the label: we are fundamentalists. We do believe in the inerrancy of the Word of God. It has to be so, or it is no more the Word of God.


Now, returning to the article, we are immediately confronted with an ad hominemchallenge to the title, which amounts to: “Fundamentalists are knowingly hiding some things from ‘you.’ They know that the Bible has unanswerable contradictions, and so they are keeping mum about them, hoping that no one will breath a word, for it would then be as embarrassing as the case of the emperor who went about strutting in his invisible robe.” Is Mr Bidstrup correct? Well, perhaps he may be right that this is happening in some circles. But I would venture to say that he has made a slanderous caricature by portraying all Christian fundamentalists as unthinking and irrational. On our part we have nothing to hide. In fact, we are even prepared with this article to give a greater (though modest, because of our modest circulation) exposure to his ‘scholarly tirade’ against Christ and His Word.


The said article begins with a fairly correct statement:

One of the bedrock beliefs of most Christian fundamentalists is in the inerrancy of their scripture, the Bible. Indeed, if it can be shown that the Bible is absolutely inerrant, their case that it is the word of God would be greatly strengthened. But, if, on the other hand, it can be shown that there are clearly and unquestionably errors in the Bible, then the position of the fundamentalist is greatly weakened, and if it is based on inerrancy of the Bible, disproven.


We would agree that the fundamentalist position is greatly weakened if the Bible is shown to be errant, though we must submit that the burden of proof lies with the critic who holds that the Bible is errant, seeing that we believe that the Bible claims infallibility and inerrancy for itself (cf. 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21; Mt 5:18).


The article continues: “The purpose of this essay is to make the latter case, i.e., that when the Bible is examined with dispassion and with objectivity, it soon becomes obvious that it is so hopelessly riddled with errors, impossibilities and contradictions that it is essentially ludicrous to make the claim that it is inerrant.” It is hard to believe that the writer is approaching the subject dispassionately and objectively, for even this statement, claiming dispassion, is obviously riddled with innuendoes and exaggerations. The writer continues: “For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to offer the Christian apologists equal time, &c.” Well, we are going to have to take the writer by his word, and believe that he had unconsciously given much much more time to criticism than apology (I think any judicious reader can see the bias very clearly). In any case, it is hard to believe that he has given equal time to study the Christian position when his seven references are all obviously anti-Christian; whereas, he does not appear to have read anything by scholarly inerrancy advocates, such as Gleason L. Archer, Millard Erickson, John H. Gerstner, Harold Linsell, John MacArthur, Roger Nicole, R.C. Sproul, etc. Indeed, even the lists of supposed contradictions appear to be a strawman collection of someone with very limited exposure to Christianity, and so a very limited knowledge of the Scripture, who is somehow hostile to the truth. How else could we describe it when the space given to the Christian “Apologist’s Explanation” is frequently left blank or filled with some general remarks which, when read, would evoke a reaction similar to how most of us would react when we hear nails scratching the blackboard.


In any case, the writer asserts: “I’ll show you some of the obvious impossibilities in the Bible. I’ve left out the impossibilities that could be explained by magic and miracles, and have limited myself to only those things that just simply can’t be. No way, no how.” Well, we are glad he allows for miracles, for God is sovereign and is not limited by means. But he is right to imply that not even miracles can reconcile true contradictions.


With this in mind, I shall offer some explanation for the alleged discrepancies listed by the author. I will have to limit myself to his first and second lists, and leave the supposed discrepancies of the crucifixion and resurrection accounts to another occasion. The interested reader may in the meantime want to consult Jeffrey Khoo, The Gospels in Unison (FEBC Press, 1996), to see how the various accounts do agree with one another in the final analysis. I may not agree with much of Dr Khoo’s theology, but he was my teacher in Bible College, and his work on the harmonisation of the Gospel is extremely useful and to be highly commended.


In the list following, we shall have to leave out both the “Apologist’s Explanation” and the “Rational Explanation” offered by Mr Bidstrup, seeing that our purpose is the defence of the Gospel, rather than to promote what we consider to be at best distorted views of the Scripture. The interested reader may search for the article on the Internet (I believe it is still posted somewhere). In the interest of space, our answers have to be brief, but we are prepared to give more details in our Now, that is a Good Question! column should there be questions arising.


1 Kings 7:23, 2 Chronicles 4:2 and the Value of pi


1 Kings 7:23 reads: “And he made a molten sea, ten cubits [approx. 4.5 m] from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits [approx. 13.5 m] did compass it round about.” The problem is, if the diameter is 10 cubits, and pi is 3.1415, then the circumference should be approximately 31 cubits rather than 30 cubits. How do we account for this apparent discrepancy? Some have replied that this is because the ancient Hebrews understood that the diameter of a circle was one third of its circumference. This might be the case, and it would indeed be a useful approximation. But in the passage in question, it appears that the dimensions were given through measurement rather than calculation. How then can we reconcile the two measurements of diameter and circumference?


I believe the answer is quite simple. First, we must realise that the text is describing something that was made rather than a specification for something to be made. Secondly, we can be quite sure that the diameter and height of the sea (a bowl-like basin) were external diameters, since this is how we would describe an object we see. Thirdly, there is a strong possibility that the circumference given was not the outer but the inner circumference, the relative difficulty of measuring inner circumference not withstanding. Why? In the first place, the word rendered “compass” needs not necessarily mean surround externally. In the second place, the outer surface just under the brim was decorated with knobs (v. 24, or “ornamental buds” [NKJV]). If this is correct, and I believe we have a case, then the measurements will be consistent, for the thickness of the molten sea was “an hand breadth” (8 cm; v. 26), therefore the inner diameter would be 4.34 m (4.5 – 2 * 0.08), which gives us an internal circumference of 13.63 m (4.34 * 3.1415). This works out to 30.29 cubits, which we would expect to be recorded as 30 cubits, seeing that nowhere in the Old Testament does ever half cubit appear for large dimensions such as this.


2 Samuel 8:4, 1 Chronicles 18:4 and
the Number of Horsemen Captured


2 Samuel 8:4 states that David captured 700 of Hadadezer’s horsemen, whereas 1 Chronicles 18:4 describing the same account puts the number at 7,000 horsemen. How do we reconcile this difference? Archer gives a generic answer addressing several other alleged discrepancies in historical books which, I believe, is quite useful: “There is no proof that this discrepancy existed in original manuscripts. It was probably difficult to make out numerals when copying from earlier worn-out manuscripts. Ancient systems of numerical notation were susceptible to mistakes” (H. Wayne House, Charts of Christian Theology & Doctrine[Zondervan, 1992], 26). That is to say: It is probably a transcription error, not an error in the original manuscript. The transcription, or copies, we must realise, are not necessarily inerrant.


Dr J. Barton Payne explains how the error could come about:

A possible explanation for Samuel’s shift from thousands to hundreds, especially once the noun for chariotry was lost, may lie in the pre-Christian employment of the Hebrew consonants as arithmetical signs: in this instance, a confusion of the terminal nun (= 700) for the dotted zayin (= 7,000) (in “The Validity of the Numbers in Chronicles,” BibSac, vol. 136, no. 542 [Apr 79]:119).


Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, i.e., Septuagint (LXX), which was done during the inter-testamental period, has 7,000 (Grk: epta chiliadas) rather than 700 (Grk: eptakosioi) horsemen in 2 Samuel 8:4. The translators of the LXX probably used Hebrew manuscripts found in Egypt rather than the Masoretic Text from which the Authorised Version is translated (see John A. Martin, “Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel,” BibSac, vol. 141, no. 563 [Jul 84]:209–22). Could the transcription glitch have crept into the Masoretic text somewhere along the line?


Ezra 2:3–67, Nehemiah 7:6–66 and
Differences in the Lists of Returnees


The differences between the two lists are undeniable. Though both lists give the total of returnees as 42,360 (Ezra 2:64; Neh 7:66), there are substantive differences in some of the entries in the lists. For examples, Ezra tells us that 775 (Ezra 2:5) of the descendants of Arah returned, whereas Nehemiah has 652 (Neh 7:10); and whereas Ezra tells us that 1,222 (Ezra 2:12) of Azgad returned, Nehemiah has it as 2,322 (Neh 7:17). Moreover, though the total number (of men and women) agrees, the number of men calculated by summing up the figures given by Ezra comes up to 29,818, whereas it is 31,089 in Nehemiah. How do we account for the differences?


The answer is again quite simple, for Nehemiah does not claim that his list was accurate. He tells us in Nehemiah 7:5—“And I found a register of the genealogy of them which came up at the first, and found written therein….” Although Nehemiah found the list more than 90 years after the returnees came back with Zerubabbel, the list he found could easily have been a working list or a list which reflected the original number which had intended to return, before taking into account the last minute inclusions and withdrawals as can be expected with any mass movement of people on a voluntary basis. How do we account for the fact that the total numbers of returnees turn out the same? First of all, it is not impossible that that happened. But secondly, it is more likely that Nehemiah had access to the official records of the actual number who returned: which was kept separately from the detailed list (which reflected only the male returnees). Notice how the final summations which give the total numbers and the numbers of servants and animals are almost identical in the two accounts (Ezra 2:64–67 and Neh 7:66–69); the only difference being that Ezra has 45 singers less than Nehemiah. Most commentators believe that these singers were non-Hebrew artistes who had perhaps specialised in entertaining the Hebrew population, and so they, unlike the servants, would be able and likely to change their minds even after the official number of returnees (as found in the summation of Nehemiah) was written up.


This proposal that Nehemiah did not use a list which accurately reflected the number who had actually returned does not impinge on the inerrancy of the Scripture, any more than Ezra’s copying of the uninspired letters of the kings (e.g., Ezra 1:2–4; 4:11–16, 18–22; etc.) into his inspired account, impinges on the inerrancy of his account.


Leviticus 11:6, 13–19 and Bats and Hares


In regards to bats, our critic notes that the KJV includes bats under birds or fowl (Lev 11:13, 19), although bats are obviously mammals rather than birds. In response, it needs only be said that the Hebrew oph, which is rendered “fowl” in Leviticus 11:13, needs not refer to birds only. There is another word that always means “bird” (Heb. tsippor), but oph refers to any flying creature. Indeed, the description in verse 20: “all fowls that creep, going upon all four,” should alert us to the fact that there is either a mistranslation or that the KJV translators did not think that the word “fowl” is always synonymous to “bird.” This oph, which crawls on all four, most likely refers to insects which generally use only four of their legs for walking, such as the locusts or grasshoppers (note that “beetle” in Leviticus 11:22 of KJV is almost certainly a mistranslation; see NKJV).


On hares, it is noted that neither hares nor rabbits (which are very different) “cheweth the cud” (Lev 11:6). In response, it must be admitted that neither hares nor rabbits are true ruminants with a four-chamber stomach, like sheep or cows. And it should also be admitted that coprophagy or “refection,” i.e., the practice of eating faecal pellets as found in rabbits (and perhaps even hares), would hardly amount to chewing the cud. Yet, it must be agreed that the side-way jaw movements of hares when they chew their food do give the same appearance as that of cattle chewing their cud. Moreover, the Hebrew phrase rendered “cheweth the cud” (Heb. maalah gerah) would have taken an idiomatic and empirical meaning which speaks of the appearance of the act rather than the original literal meaning of “raising up what has been swallowed,” which coincides with the modern scientific meaning involving the regurgitating of the cud from the rumen. In this regard, we should bear in mind, that there is really nothing very special about whether the animal is a ruminant or cloven-footed. But, by God’s providence, those animals that He would allow His people to eat would be cloven-footed and appear at least to ruminate.


In other words, the criterion to judge whether an animal is clean or unclean is not in the nature of the animal, but in the appearance of the animal, which makes sense, since the people must identify what is clean and unclean by common observation rather than by scientific studies. We do this kind of observation and classification frequently. For example, many of us classify pandas and koalas as bears when both are no bears at all. The fact that all the clean animals (see Deut 14:4–5) allowed by God are also true ruminants should not distract us from the fact that if we can find an animal which appears to ruminate, like the hare, but is cloven-footed, then such an animal would be clean for consumption by the Jews.


John 12:24 and the Death of the Seed


John 12:24 records the words of the Lord: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Our critic charges: “The ancients believed that seeds were actually dead, not alive as we now know they are. But again, God should have known better if this is His word.” I think the judicious reader will see the critic grasping straw here, for the Lord Jesus does not say that seeds are dead. He says, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die….” He is referring to how a seed shrivels up, ‘decays,’ and looses its identity as a seed, as a plant emerges. This is a beautiful analogy for His lesson point:

He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour (Jn 12:25–26).

If any man would be useful to the Lord, he must first die to self.


Matthew 13:31–32 and
the Size of the Mustard Seed


“Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Mt 13:31–32). Our critic charges the Lord for “ignorance of very basic botany” because He was mistaken that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, and that mustard plant ever grows to be a shrub, not to mention a tree. Well, in the first place, only a person who is out to find fault would attribute guilt of falsehood to the use of hyperbole in a metaphorical illustration.


In the second place, while the mustard seed may not be the smallest seed in the world (orchid seeds, for example, are even smaller), it was the smallest known to the farmers in Palestine. Since the intention of referring to the mustard seed as being the smallest seed is not to instruct concerning the size of the seed but to impress upon the minds of the hearers the contrast between the seed and what grows from it, the reference to the seed as being smallest according to the understanding of the hearers is perfectly legitimate and proper.


In the third place, our critic shows his ignorance of Palestinian flora by thinking of the mustard plant according to what is found in the UK or in America, where the mustard plants would hardly grow beyond a couple of feet tall before the season of growth is over. The fact is that in Palestine, the black mustard (Brassica nigra), which was probably grown for oil in those days, were known to grow to a height of 15 feet when isolated. Moreover, they would then have a thick main stem and branches strong enough to bear the weight of birds (seeZondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. “Mustard”).

 

—JJ Lim