ARE THE BIBLICAL SCRIPTURES RELIABLE? PART FOUR
Are the Scriptures inerrant?
Many denominational “Statement of Belief” documents include something about the Scriptures being the inerrant word of God. We have seen, however, that authors of Scripture never claim to write inerrant material. You will not find the word inerrant in the Bible. In some cases it is apparent letters were dictated to a scribe. Romans 1:1-7 indicates Paul was the source for the letter to the Roman Christians. Yet the actual writing of this letter was apparently done by a man named Tertius (Romans 16:22). Was Tertius totally inerrant in writing down what Paul dictated to him? Scholars have questioned whether disciples of Jesus such as Peter, James and John were literate seeing they were fishermen and therefore unlikely to have been educated in reading and writing. Historical evidence from the first century indicates the average person did not read or write. Did scribes take dictation from these men and if so, did these scribes inerrantly record what was dictated to them?
Because it is believed God personally directed the thoughts of Scriptural writers, it is believed everything they wrote is absolutely accurate and reflects an error-less account of those things recorded. Does this belief square with the facts? Let’s take a look at several Scriptural accounts of the same event recorded by different writers.
The Centurion's servant:
Matthew 8:5-10 &13: When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.’ Jesus said to him, ‘I will go and heal him.’ The centurion replied, ‘Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, Go, and he goes; and that one Come, and he comes. I say to my servant, Do this, and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following Him, I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! It will be done as you believed it would. And his servant was healed at that very hour.
A review of the parallel account of this event in the gospel of Luke reveals a perspective quite different from what Matthew had regarding the manner in which this event unfolded.
Luke 7:1-10: When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to Him, asking Him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with Him, ‘This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built us a synagogue.’ So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the Centurion sent friends to say to him: ‘Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, Go, and he goes; and that one come, and he comes. I say to my servant, Do this, and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, said, ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’ Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
Matthew has the centurion coming directly to Christ, speaking to Him, and Christ responding directly back to the centurion. Luke has the centurion first sending elders of the Jews to Christ and then sending friends. Luke also shows, by the centurion’s dialog, that he did not personally appear before Christ. Thus we have Matthew and Luke giving very different accounts of just who it was that came and spoke to Christ about the centurion’s servant.
Some commentators, realizing the discrepancy here, offer the solution that Matthew and Luke are describing two separate events. This appears very unlikely. The recorded activities of Christ, just prior to the episode with the centurion, are largely the same in both Matthew and Luke. The major apologetic response to the apparent inconsistency between these two accounts is that Luke is reporting the way this event actually played out while Matthew is doing the same but is doing so as though the centurion is speaking to Christ through his representatives. It is believed Matthew is saying the same thing Luke is saying but from a different perspective.
While this explanation is plausible, the grammatical structure of the narrative makes this argument problematical. The Greek grammar of Matthew's account shows Jesus to be directly addressing the centurion and the centurion directly addressing Jesus. The argument that Matthew sees the centurion addressing Jesus through his representatives is based on an A Priori assumption the Biblical Scriptures are 100% internally consistent. Therefore, it is concluded Matthew is reporting the same thing Luke is reporting because it is assumed there can't be any inconsistencies in the Scriptures. Unfortunately, this argument assumes the thing to be proved, namely that there can't by any inconsistencies in Scripture. This amounts to using a Non-Sequitur argument where the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premise.
If we take what is recorded in Matthew's and Luke's account of this event at face value, these accounts are not internally consistent. While concluding the centurion is speaking through his representatives is a way of harmonizing these two accounts, the fact remains the two accounts are quite different in how they report who was speaking to whom.
Should this create suspicion as to the overall reliability of this account? It should not. Differing on details in describing an event does not translate into the event not happening. Instead the differing of details between reports of the same event gives greater attestation to the event having happened. By authors providing independent accounts of an event we get greater confirmation as to the event having occurred. In the case of the centurion's servant, both authors report that Christ healed the centurion’s servant. Both authors reflect on how Christ was impressed with the centurion’s faith. There should be no doubt this event occurred. Reliability does not demand complete consistency in reporting. An account of an event does not have to be accurate in every detail to be a reliable account of such event.
We have all heard of the situation where two people witness an accident and differ in reporting what they saw. If we look at what Matthew and Luke reported from this perspective, it could simply be a matter of each of them interpreting this event from different sets of information as to what happened. That would be an acceptable conclusion.. Matthew, being one of the twelve, may have been present when this event took place and is writing from an eyewitness perspective. We know Luke wrote from gathered information which may have placed a different spin on the details of this event.
This narrative becomes a problem only if we insist on attributing what Matthew and Luke wrote to God directly controlling what they wrote, thought for thought, in recording this event. It should be obvious their human perceptions played a role in how they recorded this event.
For example, many authors have written a history of the civil war. If you read their works, all the facts presented won’t be totally accurate. That doesn’t negate the overall validity of what was written. The basic facts of the war will be the same in all these histories. All these histories will report that the war did indeed take place, that it was fought between the North and the South, that Generals Lee and Grant were important participants and that Abraham Lincoln was President in the North and Jefferson Davis was president in the South. At the same time, all these histories will vary on such specific details as number of battles, number of casualties and causes of the war.
The Biblical Scriptures give us a great deal of history written by many authors. If you carefully read what these authors have written you will find inconsistencies. However, such inconsistencies should not be a detriment to having faith in the overall reliability of what is written no more than finding inconsistencies in secular histories should by a detriment to having faith in the reliability of such documents. Let’s look at another example from Scripture.
Was it one or two, six or eight?
In three of the Gospels, we have the account of Jesus casting out demons and sending them into a herd of pigs. The details of this event are pretty much the same in the three Gospels in which this account appears with one major exception. Matthew records that it was two demon possessed men from whom Jesus cast out demons and Mark and Luke record it was one demon possessed man out of whom the demons were cast out. Either Matthew is correct and Mark and Luke are incorrect or Mark and Luke are correct and Matthew is incorrect.
Now it could be argued that Mark and Luke were not of the Twelve and didn't personally witness this event. They were using a secondary source about this event that may have contained information about only one demon possessed man. Matthew, being one of the Twelve, may have been an eye witness and actually saw two demon possessed men. This, however, does not take away from the fact that Mark and Luke report one possessed man and Matthew reports two possessed men. There reports are not consistent. Luke's report in particular appears to indicate Jesus was dealing with one man and not two.
Matthew 8:28: When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way.
Mark 5:1: They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him.
Luke 8:26-27: They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs.
A similar discrepancy exists in regard to the various accounts of the transfiguration. Matthew and Mark record that after six days the transfiguration took place. Luke records it was after eight day (Matthew 17:1-2, Mark 9:2, Luke 9:28). While it may be argued that Matthew and Mark's six days are included in Luke's eight days, the fact remains that Luke sees two additional days passing by before the transfiguration occurs than does Matthew and Mark. Either six days passed and then the transfiguration took place or eight days passed and then this event occurred. It can't be both in a strict sense. Are either of the above important issues? Only if you are going to insist the Scriptures are inerrant.
How many animals did Christ ride?
Let us consider the accounts of Christ riding into Jerusalem. Four different authors report on this event.
Mark 11:1-7: As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, `Why are you doing this?' tell him, `The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.' They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, ‘What are you doing, untying that colt?’ They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it.
Luke 19: 29- 31: As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, `Why are you untying it?' tell him, `The Lord needs it.' Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They replied, ‘The Lord needs it.’ They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it.
John 12:12-15: The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! " "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the King of Israel!"Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, "Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt."
Matthew 21:1-7: As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.’ This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: ‘Say to the Daughter of Zion, See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. The disciples went and did what Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them (NIV).
Matthew 21:4-5: All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass (KJV).
In Matthew's account of this event, Christ is pictured as requesting a donkey and a colt. Matthew writes that the disciples brought both the donkey and the colt to Christ and the disciples placed their cloaks on these two animals. The wording appears to say Jesus sat on the two animals. Matthew appears to be saying Christ sat on two animals. The parallel accounts of this event as recorded in Mark 11, Luke 19 and John 12, show Christ telling His disciples to bring one animal and also show Christ riding one animal.
In recording this event, both Matthew and John refer to a statement made by the prophet Zechariah as being predictive or providing a parallel to the event of Christ riding into Jerusalem. This quote is taken from Zechariah 9:9.
Zechariah 9:9: Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion, shout, daughter of Jerusalem, Behold, your king is coming to you; he is just and triumphant, humble and riding on an ass, upon the foal of an ass (NIV).
The KJV of 1611 and a number of older translations such as Wycliffe (1395), Coverdale (1535), Geneva (1887), and Luther's German Bible (1545), all translate Zechariah 9:9 as Zechariah saying the King is riding an ass and the colt of an ass. The KJV is typical of how these older translations render this passage.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass (KJV).
A Hebrew Interlinear Bible I checked shows the Hebrew word for "and" is in the Hebrew text of of this passage. The translators of the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) use the Greek word kai in translating this passage and reads as follows: "humble and riding on an ass, and (kai) upon the foal of an ass." Kai is commonly translated as "and" in the English NT.
Understanding Zechariah to have referred to two separate animals even carried over into early Christian art where some scenes of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem show Him straddling two animals.
Scholars who have studied this text, and others like it, have identified a Hebrew poetic technique were each key word is reinforced by a synonym or parallel word or phrase. It is sometimes referred to as a "doublet." In this passage we see this technique exemplified. We see parallel words being used such as rejoice/shout, Zion/Jerusalem, riding on an ass/riding on the foal of an ass.
Even though the word "and" is found in ancient Hebrew texts and in the Septuagint rendering of Zechariah 9:9, some modern translators, having recognized this Hebrew poetic technique, have deleted the word "and" in both Zechariah 9:9 and Matthew's quote of Zechariah 9:9. This is true of the NIV, NKJV and the RSV. Oddly, however, the NET translation, which is considered the most up to date translation of the Scriptures, includes the word "and" in its rendering of both Zechariah 9:9 and Matthew 24:4-5.
Regardless of how some modern day translations render Zechariah 9:9, it is apparent Matthew was quoting from either the Hebrew or the Septuagint (Greek OT) when quoting this passage as the extant Greek manuscripts of Matthew's gospel include "and" in the passage under consideration. What is of greater pertinence to this discussion is to ask the question of where did Matthew obtain his information about this event?
If he was an eyewitness, did he actually see Christ riding on two animals or two animals present at this event? If he is relying on the observation of others, did others see Christ riding on two animals or did others see two animals present at this event? Was there only one animal involved, which appears to be what Mark, Luke and John are saying. Did Matthew base his reporting of Christ's ride into Jerusalem on what actually took place or did he base it on his perception of this event fulfilling an OT prophecy and wrote from the perspective of his understanding of this prophecy?
If the scholars are right as to the parallelism present in this passage, and it appears they are, the text speaking of an ass and a foal of an ass would not mean two animals are being spoken of. Therefore, it would appear Matthew is not applying this passage from Zechariah correctly.
Christian apologists have tried to reconcile Matthew's account with the other three reports of this event in a number of ways. It's been suggested the three other writers either weren't aware of there being two animals or simply choose not to include the second animal in their account of this event. It is believed that just because the other writers don't mention a second animal doesn't mean it wasn't there. Some have proposed that when Matthew says "He sat on them," it is a reference to sitting on the cloaks placed on the donkeys and not on the donkeys themselves. It is believed Matthew isn't saying Jesus was riding both donkeys at the same time but first rode one and when it tired He switched to the other.
These apologetic responses don't appear very plausible. It is clear Matthew records that Jesus asked for two donkeys, was brought two donkeys and that two donkeys were somehow involved with His ride into Jerusalem. It is also clear that Mark, Luke and John report one donkey involved with this event. When consideration is given to the apparent parallelism in Zechariah's prophecy, it would appear the prophet was not talking about two animals and therefore two animals would not be required to fulfill this prophecy.
In view of Mark, Luke and John clearly writing of Jesus asking for one animal and riding one animal, it appears possible that Matthew didn't recognize the parallelism in Zechariah's prophecy and when he wrote his Gospel he focused on associating Zechariah's prophecy with Christ's ride into Jerusalem to the the exclusion of what actually may have occurred when that event took place. Matthew may not have been present when Jesus asked his disciples to provide a donkey. Matthew may not have been present when Jesus rode into Jerusalem.
In reading Matthew's Gospel, it becomes apparent he was very focused on seeing OT sayings fulfilled in Christ. It is possible Matthew simply understood the passage in Zechariah to be referring to two separate animals and thus wrote of this passage being fulfilled in Christ from that viewpoint. If Matthew wasn't present at this event and only heard about it later in general terms, he may simply have assumed Jesus asked for and rode two animals based on his belief Zechariah was speaking of two animals. This, of course, doesn't justify or subtract from his mistaken reporting of this event. It only provides a plausible explanation for he reporting this event in the manner he did.
If indeed the Zechariah passage is showing a poetic parallelism, then for Christ to fulfill this prophecy would not require two animals to be involved. Yet Matthew writes from the perspective that two animals were involved while Mark, Luke and John refer to only one animal.
Does this difference in reporting create a problem as to the reliability of the Scriptures? Should this apparent inconsistency challenge our faith in the overall reliability of the Scriptures?
All four writers attest to Christ asking for an animal on which he could ride into Jerusalem. Four separate writers confirm this event happened in the life of Christ. All four writers describe the people welcoming Jesus with shouts of joy. Therefore it is apparent Jesus did indeed ride on a donkey into Jerusalem and made quite an impact on those who were there to witness this event. That there is questionable consistency between Matthew and the other writers as to the number of animals involved becomes a minor point when compared to the major confirmation of the general dynamics of this event by four independent authors.
However, as minor as this inconsistency between writers may be, it does demonstrate inconsistency and therefore the lack of inerrancy in scriptural writing. It should be obvious that both Matthew's and the other three accounts of this event can't both be right as to the number of animals Jesus asked for and rode into Jerusalem
As previously stated, reliability of the Scriptures does not equate with inerrancy or total consistency. If we would have been present when Christ rode into Jerusalem we would have seen first hand what happened. Would we have reported it exactly as it happened? Maybe yes and maybe no. Would some variation in our reporting negate its happening? Of course not.
Let’s look at a few more passages of Scripture that are sometimes used to challenge the reliability of the Scriptures.
What did Isaiah write?
In Mark 1:2-3, we read: “It is written in Isaiah the Prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” Verse three: “A voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.” While verse three is a quote from Isaiah 40:3, verse two appears to be a quote from Malachi 3:1 and is not found in the writings of Isaiah. Nor is there any indication Malachi is quoting Isaiah. Does this make what Mark wrote unreliable? No it doesn't. Mark may have been working on memory and have inadvertently attributed both sayings to Isaiah. On the other hand, Mark may have simply recorded the quote from Malachi without referencing Malachi as the source. This matter becomes a problem only if we insist that every detail of Scripture must be internally consistent for the Scriptures to be reliable.
Ahimelech or Abiathar?
In Mark 2:25-26, the writer quotes Jesus as saying: "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions." Jesus is apparently referencing 1 Samuel 21:1-6 where the priest Ahimelech is mentioned and not Abiathar. Ahimelech is clearly shown to be the high priest at the time of the eating of the consecrated bread incident. Shortly after this incident, King Saul had Ahimelech killed and Ahimlech’s son Abiathar escaped to join David and his men who were hiding from Saul. It is recorded that Abiathar served as priest to David and his men. After Saul was killed and David became King of Israel it is apparent that Abiathar became the high priest although there isn’t explicit Scriptural evidence for this.
Did Jesus reference the wrong priest in referring to the eating of the consecrated bread incident?. Did Mark misquote Jesus? Does it matter? It only matters if you insist on believing that every word of every statement in Biblical Scripture is inerrant. Since Abiathar was the son of Ahimelech and apparently succeeded his father as high priest, it is not hard to see that Abiathar could have been mistaken for Ahimelech in referencing the consecrated bread incident.
It is instructive that Matthew’s and Luke’s account of the consecrated bread incident does not mention Abiathar or anyone else as being the high priest. Since many scholars believe Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, it is surmised that these two writers edited out the reference to Abiathar because they realized it was erroneous. It is also instructive that some early fifth century Greek manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel omit the reference to Abiathar.
Whose son is he?
In Matthew 23:35, Christ is quoted as saying: “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berakiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” The reference to Zechariah appears to be from 2 Chronicles 24:20-21 where it is recorded that Zechariah, the son of Jehoida the priest, was stoned to death in the courtyard of the Lord’s temple. This is not a reference to the prophet Zechariah. There is no Scriptural record of this happening to the prophet Zechariah who was the son of Berakiah as recorded in Zechariah 1:1.
Was Jesus referring to the wrong father of the Zechariah Scripture records as being killed in the courtyard of the temple? There is some indication in ancient Jewish writings that the prophet Zechariah was killed in the temple. Therefore, Jesus could have been referring to the actual prophet Zechariah, son of Berakiah which means Jesus wasn't quoting from 2 Chronicles at all. If Jesus was referring to the Zechariah of 2 Chronicles whose father is shown as Jehoida, it may be that Jesus referred to Jehoida but when Matthew recorded what Jesus said, he mistakenly listed Berakiah.
Jerome, who translated the Greek NT into Latin, writes of there being a Hebrew version of Matthew's Gospel where Christ is shown as saying "son of Jehoida" and not "son of Berakiah." Since Matthew's Gospel appears to be written primarily to a Jewish audience, some scholars believe Matthew's Gospel was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic and later translated into Greek. A scribe doing the translation could have mistakenly inserted Berakiah in place of Jehoida.
Whatever the reason for the apparent discrepancy in Matthew 23:35, it takes nothing away from the point that Christ was making to the Pharisees. It takes nothing away from the overall reliability of what Matthew recorded. This passage becomes a problem only if we insist on there being absolute, demonstrable consistency in Scripture.
The numbers game:
There are many discrepancies relative to numbers in the Scriptures. A classic example is the following: In Genesis 46:27, Exodus 1:5 and Deuteronomy 10:22, it’s recorded that 70 people of the household of Jacob went down into Egypt. Yet in Acts 7:14-15, Stephen is recorded as saying, “After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died.” Bible commentators have tried many ways to reconcile this discrepancy without success. The facts are that the Hebrew Masoretic text reads 70. Stephen is apparently quoting from the Septuagint, which reads 75.
If God is to be viewed as directly orchestrating the writing of Scripture, then God moved the writer of the Pentateuch to use the number 70 and Stephen or Luke, who wrote the account of Stephen’s speech, to use the number 75. However, it should be apparent Stephen was simply recalling the Septuagint rendering during his speech. What makes this all the more interesting is that it’s reported that a fragment of Exodus, chapter one, was found with the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran which renders the passage in question as 75 souls. So now we have different renderings in separate Hebrew texts along with the Greek. So what is it, 70 or 75? Who knows? Is it important? Not really. It doesn’t in any way invalidate the basic account of Jacob and his family moving to Egypt. This only becomes an issue if you insist on ascribing inerrancy to the Biblical record.
Christian apologists have sent countless hours trying to make sense of Scriptural inconsistencies on the assumption the Scriptures are inerrant. Sometimes their explanations are very convoluted and raise unneeded skepticism as to what Scriptures are saying. I believe it is far better to examine the Scriptures objectively and where inconsistencies cannot be resolved in a logical manner, simply accept such inconsistencies as a result of human error.
Because human error has been identified in creation of the documents that make up the Bible, some have concluded these documents are man made with little or no Divine involvement We will consider this claim in part five of this series.