Mistakes in the Scriptures

“It is one of the advantages of the anthropology that I have been trying to set out that, by insisting on human alterity rather than some supposed imbued transcendental relation to God as constitutive of what it means to be human, it permits us to consider divine revelation as a process of human discovery. That is to say, it is not frightened of the utterly contingent, human, historical process by which cultures arose, and declined, events occurred, peoples were formed, previous events were reinterpreted, the texts themselves edited and reedited. It is not as though divine revelation needs somehow to be protected from all such happenings, in order really to be divine revelation.” – James Alison

Many people think that to concede that the scriptures contain errors (especially theological ones) would be a major problem because we would then not know how to determine what is true and what is not. (I have already written elsewhere how I don’t think the scriptures can be used objectively as an absolute basis for truth.)

When revelation is understood as progressive, however, mistakes cease to be problematic.

To consider errors as problematic implicitly assumes that errors are necessarily bad, that the purpose of the scriptures is to communicate true propositions, and thus to be factually accurate (at least theologically).

When the OT was written, recording royal history was a biased endeavor, and unashamedly so. For example, the number of men in a king’s army were often exaggerated to make the king look good, or kings would be portrayed as more benevolent than they actually were. But this was in fact what was considered to be good history (in stark contrast to today, where factually accuracy is considered to be the only thing of value).

So why should we assume that history in the OT wasn’t? Indeed, we would need good reasons to think so since that would be an anomaly. Who’s to say that unbiased, objective history is the best kind of history, anyways?

Regardless, there is no such thing as a completely unbiased and objective recording of history; anything written down is necessarily filtered through the subjective experience of the writer. For example, communicating historical events requires the communicator to select what to mention and what not to mention. You can’t say everything; there’s just too much. Thus, they will say only those things that are important to the point they want to get across. Further, those things will be said in such a way that it drives their point home, even if that may cause it to deviate from a more factually accurate description of events.

All that to say, the people who wrote the OT had no problem with not getting their facts straight, so perhaps we shouldn’t either. In fact, maybe it would do us good to quit going to bibles to tell us factual propositions. After all, it is by now well-known that the scriptures contain hundreds of inconsistencies and contradictions if they are read as a textbook of truth statements. Just try googling “contradictions in bible.”

The inspiration of the scriptures does not need to be understood as God temporarily influencing authors to be infallible and letting them be fallible human beings again when the writing was finished.

Why do we assume that, unless it is clearly declared to be a mistake, an action or belief recorded in the scriptures is good, right, and true? Why do we treat Acts, for example, as a historical record of things that people did right, even though it definitely contains some people’s mistakes (e.g. Ananias and Sapphira)? Just because it is recorded that someone, regardless of their status (apostle, prophet, believer, etc.), did something doesn’t mean that the thing they did was in accordance with God’s will. It’s not immediately obvious what things were good and right and which were evil and bad.

James is a case in point:

It’s interesting that the council of Jerusalem (Acts chapter 15) reveals to us that at this point in the early church’s life only Paul and Barnabas actually understood the gospel of grace, apart from the old covenant law, in its correct understanding. It was through this meeting we read all the other apostles and leaders accepted their error and agreed the good news truly was complete grace, apart from also keeping the law mixed in.

James was one of the men there who accepted he was in error. Now, it is also historically believed that James wrote his letter at least one or two years before this meeting. That means when James wrote his letter, he had a mixed theology and was still in error in his understanding of what grace truly was. Yet, his misunderstandings still made it into the Bible through his letter.

Next time you read the book of James think about this. It is entirely possible God allowed his letter into the Bible to give us a pattern of what a preacher with a mixed covenant theology would sound like? Very little about Christ.

Everything about works. No Holy Spirit. No flow of thoughts about God’s love. Fear being used to prove a point. Condemnation for not believing enough etc. – Mick Mooney

James, and every other biblical author, were on journeys of growth even when they penned their writings, and their understanding of reality was surely riddled with errors (as is ours). What they wrote should be interpreted accordingly.

Everything written in the scriptures does not need to be (and should not be) taken at face value. We can’t take everything stated as it is, assume it is good, apply it to ourselves, and model what we do after it. We can’t assume that God wishes us to do exactly what the people of the past did or think the way they thought. We can’t even assume that the underlying principles of what God told them to do apply to us, because those may be different too. What may not have been a mistake for them may be a mistake for us, and vice versa. Context, both of the biblical times and our current age, must always be taken into consideration.

The scriptures are a witness to how certain individuals interpreted God revealing himself to them in the past. When reading the scriptures we need to keep in mind that specific people wrote to specific groups of people who were experiencing specific things.

So how do we discern between what is true and what is not? Look to the perfect image of God, Jesus, and ask Holy Spirit. “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).


Also see:

Symphony of Reflection (by Andre Rabe)


The Violent God of the Old Testament

not murder

this i know

Richard Dawkins describes the OT picture of God quite accurately (and exaggerates not): 

The God of the OT is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

There are over a thousand references to divine violence in the Jewish scriptures. Some are well known, such as sending various plagues upon the Egyptians, smiting many Israelites for complaining, demanding animal sacrifices, and the drowning of the majority of all living creatures on land.

noahs ark

But others are rarely mentioned, such as sending two bears to maul 42 youths just for calling Elisha a baldy, supposedly inspiring psalmists to write things like “happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks,” tons of rules that, if broken, required you to be put to death, commanding complete genocide of entire peoples, killing 70,000 innocent people merely because David decided to take a census, and many instances of slaying individuals just because they did something God didn’t like, regardless of whether their intentions were good or not.

I don’t listen to excuses such as “God can do whatever he wants” or “whatever God does is just and right.” Nor do I care for any of the attempts to explain away such instances of cruelty as somehow being “good” for people. I understand that sometimes there can be an element of truth to such explanations, but truth be told, if anyone in our modern society did the same things, even if they claimed to be doing them for the good of humanity, no one would for a moment pretend that that’s okay.

bad law

Nevertheless, this is what we find recorded in the scriptures.

So, then, why were these things written down, and what is their function? Are they to be taken as perfectly factually correct stories and straightforward assertions about the divine character itself?

I think these stories serve a purpose and that that purpose is not theological but anthropological. That is, these stories are not there to tell us what God is like but what humanity, apart from knowing God, is like.

Stories like the ones written by the Jews were by no means unique to the people during that time. Ascribing events and commands to gods was considered to be a compliment to them.

When someone got sick, they would say that the gods caused it.

When someone died, they would say that the gods killed them.

When a disaster occurred, they would say that the gods made it happen.

When a people group was successfully wiped out, they would say that the gods told them to and helped them do it.

The gods were the ultimate control freaks; whatever they wanted to happen, happened. That was how people back then, not just the Jews but everyone, viewed reality.

These things people wrote down reflected how they saw the world at their time in their contexts. These stories they told and the explanations they gave for how and why things happened like they did were filtered through their particular consciousness. – Rob Bell

You are free to believe that every theological statement made in the scriptures is accurate, but understand that that is an assumption and not a conclusion derived from hard evidence. The reason it is assumed to be accurate by most people who call themselves christians is because of the concepts of infallibility/inerrancy and inspiration, both of which must be taken as assumptions also.

The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God. – C.S. Lewis

Personally, I see the scriptures as a process of showing that violence is not a divine but a human characteristic. There is a dual trajectory contrasting two different views of God. Stories are told from two different perspectives – the human persecutor and the human victim, the people doing the violence and the people who are the object of that violence. One sees violence as God’s and as good, the other sees violence as humanity’s and as evil.

God never wanted to use violence, but mankind did; so God worked within mankind’s violence to achieve His purposes, and to slowly wean His people off of the need for blood punishment. – Christian Erickson

pissing off god

One significant reason I think this is because the authors of the NT regularly challenge the violent pictures of God portrayed in the OT by the way in which they quote the OT, intentionally leaving out violent portions (see here).

But the main and most plain reason is because many of the acts of God recorded in the OT are completely contrary to the perfect image of the Father revealed in Jesus. 

God has always been and always will be the same. He wasn’t one way in the OT and something else when Jesus arrived on the scene. Jesus did not change what the Father thought about us or how he treated us. He simply revealed who the Father was.

Jesus came and said, “no, dudes, God’s not like what you think he’s like…let me show you what he’s really like.”

God doesn’t cause sickness; he heals it.

God doesn’t kill people; he raises them from the dead.

God doesn’t make storms happen; he calms them.

God doesn’t discriminate against certain people groups; he hung out with and accepted everyone unconditionally.

The OT is largely not a revelation of God. Jesus said it points to him (John 5:39). It is only a sign. It does reveal some of God’s character, but it is mainly for seeing the foreshadowing of Jesus in it. It’s not primarily for telling us what God is like; only Jesus can do that with perfect accuracy.

If what we perceive to see in the Old Covenant is different or the opposite of what we see in the person of Jesus—who showed us God’s character—then we must side with the expressed image of God in Christ, and then interpret that Old Testament passage through Jesus. The Old Testament is not the expression of God or His nature. If you want to know what God is like or how He acts look at Jesus Christ. Jesus is the picture that God paints of Himself. And it is only through Jesus that we can properly interpret the Old Testament. – Christian Erickson

Thus, I do not consider the OT to always be factually correct in its full representation of God. Instead, I see the OT giving us a picture of what humanity is like apart from knowing God, including its mistaken conceptions about what God is like.

The bible is not a divine monologue, but a divine conversation! As such much of what is recorded is man’s response, mans ideas and man’s argument as we come to terms with the God who reveals Himself. Jesus is not a monologue either, but in Him the divine conversation is met with the perfect human response of agreement. And so in Jesus the conversation comes to a conclusion. – Andre Rabe

I’m not saying that the scriptures themselves are problematic. Rather, it’s our interpretations of them that are the problem – not just of individual passages, but the status we ascribe to the collection as a whole as well.

That the scriptures contain errors does not need to be considered a problem. It is only problematic unless you want to insist that God inspired the scriptures in such a way that it is factually correct in every way and treat them as a theological textbook.

In fact, the theological mistakes in the OT are beneficial to us. They show us the extent of the blindness that people can be in without knowing Christ. That’s why, as Paul wrote, it is useful for teaching, reproof, and correction (2 Timothy 3:16).

The value of the Old Testament may be dependent on what seems its imperfection. It may repel one use in order that we may be forced to use it in another way—to find the Word in it…to re-live, while we read, the whole Jewish experience of God’s gradual and graded self-revelation, to feel the very contentions between the Word and the human material through which it works. – C.S. Lewis


Also see:





What Does Biblical Inspiration Mean, Really? (Part 7)


Part 6

The scriptures can be inspired and still have mistakes and contradictions

Inspiration doesn’t have to mean that God controlled what was written in any way. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if there are contradictions or not, since it is Holy Spirit who’s going to teach us from it anyways, not logical analysis. Whether the scriptures are inspired or not doesn’t affect Holy Spirit’s ability to speak to us through them. The scriptures can lead us into an encounter with God by pointing to Jesus. Like any book, it is not necessary for them to be “divinely inspired” for Holy Spirit to use them in that way.

Bibles can also be helpful for teaching, reproof, and correction in showing what not to believe, even if it doesn’t say that what is written is mistaken. It requires us to practice discerning by Holy Spirit. Some people would call this picking and choosing, but truth be told everyone picks and chooses – even if we believe that everything that is written is theologically correct, we still must pick and choose the interpretations we will believe.

The Greek word for “inspired by God” (theopneustos) occurs only once in the scriptures (2 Timonty 3:16) and rarely occurs in other Greek literature. It’s meaning is therefore a bit obscure. The word is derived from the Greek words for God (theos) and breathe (pneo), which is why it is sometimes said that the scriptures are “God-breathed” (yet keep in mind that, just like the Latin derivations of our English words, the etymology of a word cannot tell us its real, full meaning). But what if the word was really trying to communicate is not that God breathed the scriptures out but that he breathes on the scriptures, or, in other words, that he simply uses them to speak to us?

If there is anything similar to being God-breathed in the rest of scriptures, it is that God breathed life into Adam and Jesus breathed on his disciples as an act symbolizing the pouring out of Holy Spirit. In both these cases, the “product,” that which is breathed in or on, are fallible human beings. So we could say that people are also God-breathed, and yet people can make mistakes. Apparently God’s okay with that.

“Inspiration” did not always have the meaning it has been given in modern times

I’m taking biblical inspiration to mean that the people who wrote it had a relationship with God. That is also true of writers today. But that doesn’t make the value of all writings of people with relationships with God equal…

God still “inspires” people today because he has living relationships with people he loves and they communicate with each other.

Books written today can also be “profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.”


I view the scriptures as a collection of writings composed by fallible human beings who had certain experiences with God and interpreted them according to their beliefs. The writers probably had no clue that someday their writings would be put together to make up what we now have as bibles. The authors likely did, however, communicate with God about what to write. They wrote to their audience what they knew about God through their own personal revelation (sounds like what people do nowadays, doesn’t it?). The writers of the scriptures all used a different vocabulary and language to convey their thoughts and held different beliefs (even when it came to essentials; e.g. Paul had to confront Peter for choosing to not eat with Gentiles). Thus some had a fuller revelation of the Gospel than others, and they were all growing in their understanding, just like we are.

This does not mean that I hold a lower view of the scriptures compared to those who believe in inspiration in the modern sense or that I have less respect for the scriptures (although some are will surely conclude so). As a matter of fact, most of what I currently understand God to be has come in one way or another from the scriptures. Then again, this is not surprising because that’s the book I’ve spent the most time reading in my life. Part of the reason for that was because I previously did believe that the scriptures were inspired in the modern sense. I thus subconsciously devalued all other books in my mind and did not expect God to speak to me through them. I am now learning to listen to God through everything without thinking that he set apart certain texts as sacred.

What Does Biblical Inspiration Mean, Really? (Part 6)


Part 5

No text speaks for biblical canons as a whole

Biblical canons (yes, there are more than one; see here) were chosen by a select group of individuals hundreds of years after the individual pieces were written. Consequently, no text in the scriptures can speak for them as a whole. Yet some people still act as if certain passages do.

For example, some people refer to passages that mention the Law (e.g. Matthew 5:18) as evidence for inspiration. The Law, however, is only a part of the scriptures, and it is different in nature since it was (at least partially) written not by the hands of men but by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18).

Evidence for a part is not evidence for the whole. For example, say archeological evidence confirms that a prophecy correctly foretelling a future event was recorded prior to the event. That is evidence for the inspiration of that part of the prophecy that spoke of that event, but it is not evidence for the scriptures as a whole, not even for the whole prophecy (because it’s possible that the writer was correct in the archeologically confirmed part but wrong in other parts).

Inspiration is practically irrelevant

Even if bibles are inspired, I can’t see how that matters at all. Suppose the original writings were inspired in the modern sense. This is no way invalidates the fact that the processes of transcription, translation, interpretation, and application through which they did and do go through are all fallible. Thus the bibles we now have cannot be used in any “absolute” way as a basis for truth. So what purpose is served in declaring bibles to be inspired?

To me it seems to be a way to secure religious power in the hands of those with knowledge (regardless of whether this is done unintentionally or not). Those who know more, and specifically those who have received religious training, have a corner on truth. Intentionally or not, history and the current state of the “christian” world demonstrates that the scriptures have been and are being consistently used in this way.

How the NT authors use the OT

The ways in which NT authors cite the OT makes it seem that they did not believe in inspiration in the modern sense. I previously wrote about this here.

Objection: But I encounter God through reading bibles

Me too. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is inspired; it only means (at least) that God speaks to us through it. And truthfully, God can speak to us through anything. If you spend a ton of time reading bibles, then of course sooner or later you will encounter God through it. But you can encounter God playing sports or watching movies too. I’m not saying those are of equal value with bibles. I’m only pointing out that the fact that we encounter God through reading bibles by no means proves it is inspired.

Part 7

What Does Biblical Inspiration Mean, Really? (Part 5)


Part 4

The scriptures themselves claim that they are not inspired in the modern sense

People like to quote the verses that were discussed in the previous posts, but rarely are the ones that say the opposite ever pointed out. Let’s look at some here.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:12 that a command he gives is “not from the Lord.” What if there are other such parts in Paul’s writings, without him explicitly qualifying it as such as he does here? Or are we going to argue that it is inspired anyways? That God made Paul write that what God was making Paul write wasn’t from God but merely from Paul? Paul being inspired without knowing it, even believing the opposite? God being a tricksy little fellow? Personally, such solutions sound ad hoc and far fetched to me, and I don’t see any other way around it.

“…the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has’” (Job 42:7). Here God says that there are things written about him in the scriptures (what Eliphaz said) that are not true. Some might respond, “but since it says which part is not true, we know that part isn’t true, and the rest of the scriptures are.” Things are not so simple, however. For example, one thing Eliphaz says about God is, “Is not God high in the heavens?” Is he wrong about this? Most would say no. So which things that Eliphaz said about God are true and which are false? There is no obvious way of determining; you have to look at the things he said case by case. I would say so for the rest of the scriptures as well.

“How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie” (Jeremiah 8:8). Again we have God himself saying that what is recorded in the scriptures is mistaken. Apparently the scribes changed up some laws when they transcribed the Torah.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person…” (Matthew 5:38-39; Jesus is directly quoting Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21). Here Jesus gives ways of living that are opposite to that of the Law. “You have heard it said…But I tell you…” In essence, Jesus is saying that he did not say that part of the Law and is now telling them what he really thinks (as opposed to what they thought he, that is God, was saying). After all, if the Law was perfect (which it would be if it was given by Jesus), Jesus would have no need to correct it and show a better way.

This raises the question: was the Law really given by God? An answer of “no” is what Paul seems to imply in Galatians 3:19-20. “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.” Even if the original was given by God, what if the human and angelic elements modified it in the process of transmission and transcription?

Jesus seems to imply this in Mark 10:2-5. “Some Pharisees came up to Jesus, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. And He answered and said to them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.'” Jesus makes it sound very much like Moses was not only the writer but also the author of this commandment. “Moses permitted [it],” not God.

I understand that alternate ways of looking at these passages exist, but as I pointed out in the previous two posts, so do there for the verses popularly quoted in support of the modern sense of inspiration. At any rate, it is not immediately obvious which view the scriptures take. Further, they don’t necessarily have to take one or the other; they may take neither or both. To think that they must take one or the other we must assume that the scriptures, which are a collection of writings of varying genres by different authors from a wide-spanning time period, is unified in its message. To derive that it is unified in its message, however, we would have to assume that the scriptures are inspired (unless you want to believe that all the authors had the exact same theology).

It’s very persistent, this circular reasoning. :]

Part 6

What Does Biblical Inspiration Mean, Really? (Part 4)

Part 3

John 10:34-36

“Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, “I said, you are gods”? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, “You are blaspheming,” because I said, “I am the Son of God”?’”

One way to read this is to see Jesus as simply stating facts about the scriptures. Indeed, the things he said are things the Pharisees believed.

Another way to read it, however, is as Jesus speaking to them within their own accepted ideas to point out a contradiction. In this reading, the phrase “scripture cannot be broken” was meant ironically as in “Your scriptures says this and since you believe your scriptures are inspired you must answer the question.” In other words, Jesus is using their own belief system against them. (This is not to say that Jesus didn’t believe we are gods, but that’s a topic for another time.) This reading is supported by the fact that Jesus said “your Law” and not “our Law,” thus refusing to identify with their way of thinking.

2 Peter 1:19-21

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Notice it only says “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man,” and doesn’t say writings. Prophesying is one matter. Writing things down is another. Not all prophesy has been written down.

2 Peter 3:15-16

“…just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the scriptures, to their own destruction.”

Peter states that Paul’s writings are scripture. Okay. But where is the statement that Peter’s writings are scripture? There is none. And since there is none, how do we know that Peter’s statement, not having been stated to be scripture, is inspired and therefore correct? Again, circular reasoning is at work here. To deduce that Peter’s claim was correct, we would have to assume that God inspired him to write it.

Moreover, even if Peter did equate Paul’s letters with the rest of scriptures, it was only in reference to the original recipients of the letters, not us. It’s an assumption to take it that Peter meant that they have the same kind of relevance and status for believers at every time from that point on.

Part 5

What Does Biblical Inspiration Mean, Really? (Part 3)

Part 2

2 Timothy 3:16

“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.”

What better verse to start with than this one – the most popular of all.

Most people are not aware that the above is only one way of rendering the Greek. Some theologians (e.g. C. H. Dodd) have suggested that this passage is probably to be rendered as, “Every inspired scripture is also useful…” (Greek note: the author could have chosen to insert an article, which would have made the popular translation clearly correct, but chose not to.) Here are some other similar examples.

“Every scripture inspired of God [is] also profitable…” (American Standard Version).

“Every inspired scripture has its use …” (Revised English Bible).

“Every scripture inspired of God is also useful…” (New English Bible).

The Latin Vulgate can also be read this way.

Can you tell the difference? It’s quite significant. It leaves open the question, “which scriptures are the ones inspired by God?”

Someone is bound to point out, “but most bibles and scholars don’t translate it that way, so why should I think that is the correct one?”

First of all, as history readily demonstrates, the majority opinion in no way guarantees nor even supports the accuracy of any idea and has never been a reliable guide to truth. Second, translations are not independent of bias. When there is more than one option available, people will generally tend to favor the translations that better fit their preconceived notions. Most people who go to seminary to learn Greek go with the preconception that the scriptures are inspired, just as they were taught by their parents, at Sunday school, at church gatherings, etc. Given that the above translation does not match the theological paradigm of most scholars, it is not surprising that this translation is not favored by most.

But, for the sake of argument, say we took the more popular translation, that “all scriptures is inspired by God.” The question still remains as to what the word “scripture” in the verse is referring to. It certainly didn’t mean the canon we now have, since it didn’t yet exist at the time. What qualifies something as “scripture”? Paul doesn’t say. Paul surely was referring only to the Old Testament, as he states to Timothy in the previous verse, “from childhood you have known the sacred writings.”

In conclusion, even this most popular verse, whatever Paul meant to say by it, is by no means clear as to its message.

Part 4