My pastor preached a sermon suggesting that we should not believe that the
Bible is without error. I happen to disagree with his assertion however,
he said that the numbers in the book of Numbers do not add up and used
this as proof of his belief. He did not go into detail on what verses of
Numbers he was referring to but after my own study I noticed there is a
descrepency in Numbers 3:28. My questions are this: Is this a common
argument against Biblical inerrancy? Is this the only place in Numbers
that there is a problem? How can I defend the inerrancy of scripture
against this argument? Should I defend the inerrancy of scripture?
First of all, let me assure you that I believe that the Bible–cover to
cover–is inspired by God. I believe this for many reasons. There is so
much evidence for inspiration, including the fulfilled prophecies,
historical accuracy, lack of contradiction, internal consistency,
scientific accuracy and so much more. Also, the inspired apostles make
clear statements that the Bible is inspired by God. (2 Tim 3:16, 1 Thess
2:13, 2 Pet 1:19f, Psalm 19:7).
The skeptic, of course, will argue that quoting the Bible to say that the
Bible is inspired is circular reasoning. There is some truth to this
criticism. However, the external and internal evidence for the
inspiration of the Bible are so overwhelming as to make the case beyond a
reasonable doubt that at least parts of it are inspired. Then when
inspired biblical writers claim that the whole Scripture is inspired, the
claim logically extends to those parts which we cannot absolutely prove
from external evidence.
Anyway, I am guessing that you are not struggling with this question and
already believe that the Bible is from God and without error! Let me
respond to what your pastor has said. I really hope he is not trying to
discourage your faith. In fact, I assume he is not, although I wish he
had spoken more wisely. Having said that, I believe what he is pointing
out is true.
Let me explain myself. I believe that the original writing were inspired,
but that some errors have been made in copying the texts for hundreds or
even thousands of years. It is especially hard to copy numbers in Hebrew
without error because there is no context to correct copying mistakes.
For example, let me write a sentence with two mistakes and see if you can
catch them. Abraham Lincoln was burn in 1808. Did you catch the two
mistakes? Of course you caught the error in the word burn. Clearly it
should be born. However, the date is 1809. Do you see the problem in
Bottom line, although the original texts in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek were
perfect, some relatively minor mistakes have been introduced into the text
by copiers over the hundreds of years between the original and the oldest
manuscripts we have in the original languages; especially in the case of
numbers in the the Old Testament. If you look at my web site for the
power point titled “How We Got the Bible” you will find some more details,
as well as an entire chapter in my book “Reasons for Belief” (available at
www.ipibooks.com). The conclusion is that we have a nearly perfect Greek
New Testament, but not a perfect one, and we have a very good Hebrew Old
Testament (but nearly perfect is probably a bit of an overstatement).
Numbers 3:28, as you mention, is a good example of this sort of “mistake”
in the Bible. Others can be mentioned. You can almost certainly assume
that the mistake was not in the original. I have studied this issue out
carefully, and concluded that there is literally not a single important
biblical teaching effected by the relatively insignificant copying errors
in our current biblical text.
Now, let me admit that the question can be looked at more subtly. For
example, when the man born blind said to the Pharisees in John 9, “We know
that God does not listen to sinners.” is that a mistake? Are the
incorrect statements of this young man an example of a “mistake” in the
Bible? I say no, but some critics might say yes. Also, I believe that
the hundreds and thousands of quotes from Jesus and others found in the
Bible are not necessarily verbatim transcripts of the original words. I
believe that they are faithful to the original statements, but are not
necessarily the exact words. Does this mean the Bible contains errors? I
say no, but someone else might say yes. What is true is that the writers
are inspired, and that is all that really matters. The idea of literal
inerrancy is more of a Western concept which was not familiar to the
writers of the Old and the New Testament. I believe that the original
writers were not as concerned as we are with the precision of numbers and
the exact words.
Now, let me get back to your key question. Is the Bible inerrant, and
should we teach that it is inerrant? Probably, for the average younger
Christian who is not intellectually interested in pursuing the details, I
believe that you can say the Bible is inerrant with a clear conscience.
However, you should be aware of the subtleties underlying the
statement. The Bible this person is reading does contain errors,
especially because it is a translation! Probably, most believers are not
all that interested in the difference between the inerrancy of our current
Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic text and inerrancy in the original. Bottom
line, the English Bibles we have are not inerrant. This is a fact.
Let me give you my suggestion. I believe that you will be wise to say
what the New Testament writers said, which is that the entire Scripture is
inspired by God. The word inerrant carries with it implications which
make it true, depending on what you mean by that. If someone asked me
point blank, “Is the entire Bible inspired by God?” I would say yes. If
they asked me if it is inerrant, I might want to explain my answer,
depending on who asked the question. Does this distinction make sense to
you? I guess what I am saying is that you should defend the inspiration
of the Scripture, but not necessarily its inerrancy because of the
possible debatableness of the meaning of the word.
About your pastor, I believe it is most likely true that he believes in
the inspiration of the Bible, but you might want to ask him to state more
carefully what he believes. If he does not accept the authority of the
Scripture, then you may need to consider finding another church at
which to worship.
John Oakes, PhD