Can the Bible be considered inspired if it has some human errors (for example Matthew 27:9-10)?
First I want to say what an awesome website you have. Great resources topics and Bible Study! I never really questioned the scriptures much and I still have no doubt the Bible is God’s word. However I have recently questioned if the Bible can be God-inspired and at the same time contain some human error in a sense slightly flawed. I don’t think that takes away from its importance or auhtority but it can effect the way I view it which I beleive is important because I have always looked at it as perfect. There are 2 scriptures I want to mention briefly the first is Matt 27:9-10 ‘ Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” The question here is this appears as a miss quote that Matthew is quoting Zechariah while attributing the quote to Jeremiah. Is this an error on the part of the writer?
The second is Esther 2:5-6 states ‘Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, 6 who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin[a] king of Judah. ” Clearly Mordecia was not a captive of Babylon He wasnt even alive. I have heard that the Babylon verse actually reffers to kish however it seems to give the appearance that it is Mordeciai. So I guess my question is do you believe the Bible has errors in it and the flaws of imperfect human authors or is it completely perfect ? And could you please discuss the 2 scriptures mentioned above. I am not a biblical scholar so I may be totally off on these passages. I guess my concern with possible human error in scripture is then can I trust all the Bible ? Did the sun really stand still in Joshua? Did the Red Sea part in Exodus or is this inserted into the story to inspire us? I would love to hear your thoughts on these.
I believe that the entire Bible is inspired by God. As for the word inerrant, one must define this word very carefully to produce a fully defendable position. For example, we can assume almost for certain that quotes from Abraham or even from Jesus are not word-for-word transcripts of actual conversations, but are reconstructions. Our definition of inerrancy may need to allow for the possibility that some events portrayed as chronological are only roughly so. To the Western, linear, analytical mindset, this definition might be hard to get used to, but for the Near Eastern Jew, this is not. When David says that he was a sinner from birth, this is poetic license, but could be described as an “error” if we define inerrancy too narrowly.
I have looked at literally hundreds of claimed contradictions in both the New and the Old Testaments. In the final analysis, I have found exactly two which I find to be difficult to work out without what will appear to be an ad hoc explanation. One of these two is the Jeremiah statement in Matthew 27:9-10. The only other is the carry a staff versus not carry a staff direction for the sending out of the twelve. So, are these bona fide “contradictions” and therefore “errors”? If they are technically errors, what does that do to our doctrine of inerrancy? My answer is I am pretty sure both of these are not actual errors, but my solutions, in both cases, will sound a bit ad hoc. In other words, they sound like answers created, not out of the evidence, but as a convenience because of a presupposition (in this case, that the original texts are without factual error).
As for the Jeremiah thing, two possible explanations present themselves. One is that, in fact, Jeremiah did say this, and the speaker and audience are aware of this, even if we, two thousand years later, are not privy to this information. Another possibility is that there was a copyist’s attempt to correct a perceived error which happened so early that we do not have any remaining evidence of the original. For me, given the fantastic evidence for the “inerrancy” of the original scriptures in point of fact, I find that the New Testament documents deserve the benefit of the doubt, even in the two cases that I know of which are hard, at first glance, to explain. Therefore, I lean rather strongly toward the conclusion that there is something going on of which we simply are not aware, such as the two possible solutions I list above. I will admit that my explanation is partially motivated by a presupposition, but in this case, the presupposition is extremely well supported by the weight of the evidence. I believe that Matthew 27:9-10 is not an error in the original. What if it were? Would this throw out the doctrine of inspiration of the Bible? I say no. I already said that we should defend inspiration and should only defend a carefully defined kind of inerrancy. In any case, even if we conclude that Matthew 27:9-19 might be an actual error by Matthew, this will not overthrow the doctrine of inspiration, in my opinion.
As for the statement in Esther, I am really having trouble seeing why this might be perceived as a contradiction/error. According to this passage, Mordecai is the grandson of one taken as captive to Babylon. Esther occurs about 450 BC. Mordecai is perhaps 50-60 years old (hard to estimate). Let us guess that he was born around 500 BC. If he is the grandson of a Jew taken in captivity to Babylon by Nebuchudnezzar at the time of Jehoiachin (597 BC), this is not at all difficult to believe. Of course, Esther and Mordecai were subjects of Persia, because the province of Babylon passed to Persia in 538 BC when Cyrus captured Babylon, but many of the Jews remained in Mesopotamia after this time, as is shown by much evidence. Susa is in Elam, on the Eastern edge of the Mesopotamian valley. Mordecai was not a subject of Persia, but surely his grandfather was. Why do you believe that this passage is problematic? Perhaps I am missing something.
In summary, I believe that the doctrine of biblical inspiration is wonderfully and spectacularly supported by the evidence (although I am obviously not proving this in my short response). The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is one which must be approached with subtlety and a considerable amount of caution. If we try to apply a strict inerrancy, using Western notions of “error,” we will create problems and probably paint ourselves into a corner. The two examples you mention are not errors by any measure, in my opinion, but we should take each case one at a time and carefully think about the facts, the background, and what would constitute an “error” by Near Eastern standards of the time.
By the way, I believe that the Red Sea parted, although the details of exactly what happened are hard to reconstruct. I take this to be true on the good faith of Moses and the Jews and on my faith in the Bible. I cannot provide external “proof” of this event from archaeology, of couse, but yes, I definitely believe that there was some sort of miraculous escape from Egypt. About the sun standing still, I am prepared to believe that this is a figure of speech/idiom and would not stake my belief in the Bible that the sun, literally, stood still in the sky. Perhaps it did, but perhaps it is the Jew’s way of describing the miracles which occurred that day, giving victory to God’s people. That one I will reserve judgment on until I get to heaven.
John Oakes PhD