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Mistakes in the Bible
By Richard Gunther
There was a trick question going round a few years ago, which said, “How many animals did Moses take with him into the ark?” and the answer is “None, because it was Noah, not Moses who went in to the Ark.” Furthermore, the Bible nowhere tells us how many animals there were but tha is a minor point. People who don't know the Bible, or who don't think before they answer, are easy prey to this question. It is easy to make a mistake.
The title of this essay is not meant to be misleading. There are no mistakes in the Bible, but when we say this we have to be careful what we mean by “the Bible”, because all modern translations have mistakes in them. Mistakes are inaccuracies, such as wrong names, wrong numbers, and cases where copiers have written “Moses” instead of 'Noah” so in that sense there are quite a few mistakes, but we are not speaking here of present-day translations.
In the example of the trick question, several things happen. The first thing is, when we realize the deliberate error is refute it by saying “Noah”. This shows that we believe the record about Noah to be true, as far as answering the trick question goes anyway. All Bibles tell us it was Noah. That is too important a name to confuse with Moses. The second thing we do is find it quite amusing to think of Moses as the one who built the ark.
Deliberate mistakes can be amusing and, sometimes, so can accidental mistakes,. Most Bible commentaries are peppered with mistakes, and although this may be a very useful feature because it forces the Bible student to check every Scripture against every comment, it is also a serious setback to the propagation of God's Word. For example, millions of students currently believe the mistaken view that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and also King David were Jews. In most illustrated Bible books the Ark of Noah and the ark of Moses are not pictured as black, as they should be. Elijah is shown ascending into heaven in a chariot, instead of a whirlwind. The wise men arrived 2 years after Jesus was born and went to Nazareth to see Him, not Bethlehem. And so on. But how important is it to be strictly accurate?
There are two points of view involved here. The first is liberal. It says that details are unimportant, so long as the main message is presented. There is some merit in this, because in terms of salvation it really doesn't matter if Jesus was brown or blue-eyed, tall or short, or whether he wore a loincloth when he was crucified. (He did not) The main thing is understanding the gospel, or following the main theme of what the Bible says.
The other view, the literal, also has some merit, but if followed too closely, can kill a student's zeal. Having to constantly stop and examine every text with a microscope is enough to drain the life out of a Christian and leave him dead and formal.
So there has to be a balance. Many small, relatively insignificant details must be overlooked, but serious, doctrinal mistakes must be corrected. Happily, there are none. No important doctrine hangs on a suspect text.
But for some, the charge of finding mistakes in the Bible is the same thing as saying “The Bible is not God's Word, because it contains mistakes, and we know God cannot make a mistake because He is perfect.” By this they accuse God if inconsistency. Strangely enough, this charge has a very positive aspect to it, namely that the accuser assumes that what the Bible says is absolutely true: God cannot make mistakes. This is why the accusation has hidden teeth. This back-handed compliment shows a lot of faith. If only more Christians would confidently believe that God, like His Word, is perfect too.
Many Bibles, oddly enough, actually undermine the Bible's own claim that it is free of mistakes. They do this my inserting 'marginal notes'. They have little comments such as “Best manuscripts say”, or 'Alternative reading', or some such comment. What does a Bible student think when he or she reads this sort of thing? “So there are other manuscripts which have a different version of this verse – I wonder which is the one given by God? So the Bible I have in my hands is not consistent with all the old manuscripts?” The results of such marginal notes may be a disintegration of faith in divine inspiration, and a lack of confidence in the written word.
As well as this, there are a huge number of different Bible versions on the market, each claiming to be the best. The publishers, in many cases, seem to be driven more by commercial gain rather than the joy of disseminating the Scriptures, but whatever the motives, the result is a plethora of alternative readings. And this is only English Bibles. Add to this the enormous confusion inherent in translation! The original Greek may suddenly need to be coloured by the cultural understanding – for example, in Revelation Jesus says He stands at the door and “knocks”. In some cultures it is bad manners to knock, and a call is expected. For the Bible student the word “knock' may have quite a lot of significance, if it relates to other passages with the same word in them, but if “call” is used, most of the links are broken.
There are some people who will not tolerate any Bible except the King James, though there were several versions of the 'King James' made, and all of them differ slightly one from the other. There are also many passages where the Greek or Hebrew has not been translated as accurately as it could have, especially in light of research since 1611, and punctuation has also been added, creating more confusion.
Another area in which mistakes appear is the breaks between chapters. Sometimes the artificial break comes right in the middle of a sentence, and this has resulted in all sorts of strange interpretations.
So it is obvious that the correct answer to the charge “there are mistakes in the Bible” is a clear “Yes, there are” but this must be qualified by the words, “But in the original manuscripts there were no mistakes.” This means that, although we do not have the very first Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, we must accept by faith that God inspired the original writers to pen perfect sentences. This response gives the accuser some ground, because he can then say, “But if you do not have the originals, how do you know they were perfect?” The remainder of this essay will address this question.
There are three areas which help to support the claim that the original manuscripts were perfect: divine reasoning, common sense, and backups.
This rather grand-sounding heading refers to something which we find in the Bible itself. We may be accused of circular reasoning, but if the Bible says it is inspired, then we ought to find some sort of evidence in the Bible itself to support this claim – a claim which it makes hundreds of times, in the words “Thus says the Lord”. If the Lord says something, we ought to find He is always right, and we do. Every prediction made by God, from Genesis to Revelation (except of course those yet to be fulfilled) has come true in precise detail. Prophecy reveals God's reasoning, and supports the Bible's own claim to be God's Word.
This is not a small point, to be passed over quickly. Consider for a moment how God began by predicting the coming of a “woman”, from whom would come the Messiah, some 4000 years before it happened. Consider also the fact that God revealed history before it happened progressively, foretelling the 400 years of Israel in Egypt Flood (to the very day), the future of Abraham's offspring, in Genesis. These predictions dovetail exactly with more predictions scattered through the prophets, which outline the rise and fall of many specifically named nations, as Israel and Judah went their separate ways. Then comes the book of Daniel, which foretells the succession of empires from Babylon through to Rome. Revelation picks up where Daniel finishes and continues through the last 2000 years up to today. All this prophecy was delivered long before it happened, and has proved perfectly accurate right to the last detail. This is internal evidence, not to be passed over without due consideration.
As well as all this, there are many references to the Earth which could not have been known by the people of the time – for example the presence of ocean currents and ocean trenches, the spherical shape of the planet and the fact that it is suspended in space, the hydrological cycle, the fact that the stars are uncountable – said in a time when Man could see only a few thousand, and so on.
The common sense view is very simple. It goes like this: Imagine you are God, and you intend to one day call everyone who has ever lived together at the foot of your throne for judgment. You know every individual, and so, going through each person one by one, you present their sins and declare them either guilty or innocent, depending on how they have responded to the truth they have received. But along comes a 'lawyer-like' person, and he faces you with a smile. “You cannot judge me” he says. “Why not?” you ask. “Because the laws you gave are full of mistakes! You cannot try me by faulty laws. That is unfair.”
You might point out that, despite all the errors and faults in your word, the “main themes” are still intact, but you know that that is an argument with very little weight. Even in Man's world, it is possible to plead that “You did not understand the law because it was imperfectly worded.” Lawyers are very good at finding 'loopholes' like this to get their clients off the hook.
So, in order to escape the charge of faultiness, you make sure that the first written presentation of your law is perfect. You leave no avenue for special pleading. Your word contains no loopholes, no unfinished statements and no mistakes. It was because of this 'perfect delivery' approach that Jesus said the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin “because they believe not on Me.” (John 16:9) He could say this because He knew the record of His birth, life, death and so on, were all written accurately and perfectly. Again, in Luke chapter 1, God hammers home the point that the Gospel is perfect and accurate to the finest detail. On the Day of Judgment, no-one will be able to say they were not given fair and accurate warning.
Suppose you were sent a letter from a government department. Because of the letterhead, and logo, you would say it was authentic, but if you doubted the veracity of the letter you could (possibly, for the sake of the illustration) ask if there were any copies of the letter. The government department might have a carbon copy, and/or a digital copy on an archive disk, or it might be on someone's Email, sent to another department. And there might be a secretary's note to the effect that the letter was sent, with the date and a summary of the contents. All these backups would assure you that the letter was genuine, and comparison of the copies would show that your letter was the same as the original, despite the odd difference in presentation, and some additional notes such as a date stamp and so on.
A similar thing happens when it comes to the Bible. In the Western world we have predominantly English versions, but these are not the originals, which were written in Greek. We can collect literally thousands of Greek New testament pieces, and fragments of Greek New Testaments, and compare them all against each other, and then, based on a 'majority' reading we can decide which has the most common wording. This comparative study has been done, and the results have shown that, apart from a handful of minute, almost microscopic differences, all the Greek versions agree. This gives us great confidence. We know that the Greek NT today is substantially the same as the very first books penned by Paul and the others.
The Old Testament also has backups, though nowhere near as extensive as the NT. But the OT was copied so accurately, and under such incredibly strict rules, the chances of any mistakes creeping in are remote. However, there are a few, and this is what we will look at next.
Possibly the most common error-causing factor when it comes to transferring written material, is human fallibility. People do not always focus on their task. They misspell, they omit words, or they add them, or they write illegibly, leaving the next copyist to guess, and they do the same thing with numbers. “Send reinforcements we're going to advance” becomes “Send three and fourpence we're going to a dance.” This is not helped by the alphabets we use, or the handwriting styles we adopt. b and d, p and q, t and l, n and m in English can be mistaken for each other, and so can 0,6 and 9. How many times have we dialed the wrong phone number because someone scribbled it down for us and we couldn't quite understand it? Such and similar mistakes are very common.
The Old Testament and numbers.
In the Old Testament there are a few instances where some copyist has slipped up, but a bit of common sense is all we need to decide the correct reading. The accuser of course will say that these mistakes are proof that God's Word contains mistakes, but this charge cannot stick. To accept the figures, which we will look at below, as true, would not be evidence of mistakes, but of stupidity, and we can be sure that God is not stupid!
Just pause for a moment and consider this. Imagine a newspaper article about a car crash in which a man was driving his 60 children to school . . . you would instantly realize that someone had inserted a '0' where it did not belong. A man with 60 children in a car is an absurdity. Six children is far more realistic. Or imagine you heard a story second hand about a fish someone had caught which was 12 meters long. More likely it was 12 centimeters. The error would be that of transferral of information and not proof of original fault.
Some wrongly copied numbers:
2Sam.10:18 “And David slew the men of 700 chariots.”
1Chron.19:18 “And David slew 7000 men which fought in chariots.”
2Kings 24:8 “Jehoiachin was 18 years old when he began to reign.”
2Chron.36:9 “Jehoiachin was 8 years old when he began to reign.”
The reason behind this slip in digits is the fact that the Hebrew OT was written, and copied, for a long time, without the addition of vowels. Later, when vowels were introduced, the tiny marks which made differences between one word and another were so similar they could easily be overlooked or wrongly copied by a copier of the text.
There are however, some scholars who carry this criticism of copyist errors too far. The 'Lion Handbook to the Bible' for example, suggests that because of some spelling errors, David's feast (1Chron.11) consisted of a mere 2000 people, rather than the 340,800 people listed. The Handbook takes the view that the armies of each tribe were merely represented by a handful of commanders. I find this impossible to accept, in light of what the chapter actually says. For example: “And of the half tribe of Manasseh eighteen thousand which were expressed by name, to come and make David king.”(verse 31) and “All these men of war, that could keep rank, came with a perfect heart to Hebron, to make David king . . .” (Verse 38). The chapter closes with the comment that a huge amount of food was gathered and brought to the three day feast.
Another area which the Lion Handbook pronounces error over is the number of Israelites who left Egypt. The Handbook says that the number who left was hugely lower than that given in the Bible - not some two million, but a mere 72,000.
Exodus 12:37 says, “And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about 600,000 on foot that were men, besides children.” The word “men” here is “geber” which means “men of military age”. (Not “ish” which means “man”) 600,000 soldiers, plus wives, plus relatives, plus children, plus Egyptians = about 2 million. Confirmation of this figure is found in Numbers 26, when the fighting men were again counted as they entered the Promised Land – 601,730.
2 Samuel 24:9 gives yet another census of the fighting men, and remember this is many years after the people entered the land: 800,000 plus 500,000 men. (A total of 1,300,000) This would make the total population of Palestine approximately 5 million, if we include the women, children and others. This is not an unrealistic figure, given that the population of Jews and others at present living in Palestine today is many millions, and no-one is saying it is impossible for that many people to be there!
Despite many convoluted attempts to make its case, I believe the Lion Handbook is wrong for the simple reason that if the Israelite population was so pitifully small, Pharaoh was unduly worried about them – a handful of Hebrew slaves numbering a mere 72,000. This tiny population was hardly a threat to the mighty Egyptian nation, but the fact is, a small number of immigrants (only 70 people) had grown in less than 400 years to a considerable force, with a proportion of them quite capable of making war. If they had reached this number in 400 years, how many would there bi in 500? As Exodus 13:18 says, “The children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt”, which means they went up as an armed and orderly host. “Harnessed” means, in Hebrew “staunch, able-bodied soldiers.”
This threat to Egypt is expressed in Ex.1:9,10. Pharaoh said, “The people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we . . . let us deal wisely with them . . . lest they join (our) enemies and fight against us . . .”
Another support (possibly) for this view is found in Numbers 23, where Balaam the prophet is told by king Balak to curse the people of Israel. Balak thought it might be easier for Balaam to curse Israel if he couldn't see them all (23:13). This implies that the whole nation was a fearsome sight, spreading out across the land, and king Balak's fear of Israel was hardly what you would expect if there had been only a handful of 70-odd thousand.
The last six thousand years have seen many changes, but through all this time the Bible has gradually grown, until about 2000 years ago its was a finished book consisting of 66 booklets. Since then all God has required is the faithful transmission of this book, and of all the things Man has done, this is one of the most successful. Most other manuscripts have been lost or corrupted, but God's Word has remained in near perfect condition. This alone is a marvel.
But because it is far more than a book, the Bible has come under many attacks. Satan, of course, hates it. He has tried to destroy it, he regularly misquotes it, and he has built several religions and many cults out of parts of it. His masterpieces include the Roman church, the Hindu and Mohammedan religions, the Mormons, JW's and various other cults, plus a host of pseudo-Christian movements, commonly found in the New Age beliefs. When Satan is not busy trying to discredit the Bible, he is ridiculing it, or throwing doubts at it, and many of these attacks appear regularly in movies, where God's Name is regularly used as a swear word, and Bible stories are mishandled and presented as fiction or worse. One of the biggest and most comprehensive attacks by Satan has come in the form of the Evolution theory, which is promoted by people calling themselves 'scientists' – thereby giving the attack on the veracity of Genesis a dignified and respectable face.
Another spearhead of attack has been the distortion and/or omission of God's Word during popular festivals. For example, hardly an Easter goes by without some new book being brought out claiming to reveal where Jesus' body really went, and every Christmas the world buries the story of the Incarnation under a massive pile of glitter, advertising, tacky entertainment and traditions. One interesting aspect of all this is why, if the Bible is just another Man-made book, do so many people spend so much time and effort attacking it? This alone ought to alert us to the possibility that the Bible may be more than an ordinary book.
Another thing to remember is that the Bible is full of mistakes. Adam made the first mistake when he ate of the forbidden fruit, Cain made a mistake when he killed his brother, Satan made a mistake when he thought he could get rid of the human race and the Messiah (See my essay “Thread of Gold'), and the people of Noah's day made a big mistake when they ignored the Ark. In case after case the Bible records the mistakes of people who should have known better, and despite many interventions by God through the ages, people are still making exactly the same mistakes today. Obviously, if Man had a million, or 100 million years, he would be the same at the end of that time as he is today. The only thing that can change Man, and by this we mean change the world is the regenerating power of God – transformed lives, new hearts, new directions – through repentance and acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Nothing else will do.
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