Bible Accuracy

The question of Bible accuracy is important in many debates, particularly those regarding creationism and certain defenses of Christianity. Creationism is, in fact, an attempt to make science compatible with the fundamentalist requirement of Biblical literalism and infallibility. Christian theism typically defends its claim to truth by appealing to supposedly fulfilled Bible prophesies. Before tackling these issues, we need to understand the context.

A Brief History of the Bible

The Bible descends from what was an ever-changing and expanding body of written and oral traditions dating from as early as the 12th Century B.C. The reformulations and additions continued from then all the way up until the 4th Century A.D. when, out of a large collection of candidate books, some were selected to be part of what we now call the Bible. It is important to remember that literally none of the original manuscripts of either the Old or New Testaments has survived. The Bible was passed down by individual manual copying and translation right up to the discovery of printing in the 15th Century A.D. The oldest manuscript copies date from sometime during the first 3 Centuries A.D.The original language of the Old Testament was Hebrew followed by Aramaic translations appearing in the period following the Exile and then Greek translations following Alexander the Great. It was not until around the 2nd Century, A.D. that the contents of the Old Testament had become fixed.

The original language of the New Testament was Greek. As with the OT, no originals now exist, and the oldest of the manuscript copies dates from the 2nd Century, A.D. Before the NT was “canonized” into its current form, each of the early Christian communities apparently had a gospel of its own, in some ways redundant, in some ways in direct conflict, with the gospels of other communities. Some of these included the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Hebrews, the Gospel of the Ebionites, a Gospel of the Egyptians, an Apocalypse of Peter, an Apocalypse of Paul, and the Epistle of Barnabas, to name just a few.

What the Christians used as an “infallible” Bible was different depending on which Christian community you talked to, at least until the year A.D. 325. In that year, Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea, which not only did the picking and choosing of the books, but also ended a power struggle in Christian circles as to the nature of Jesus. As Roman Emperor, Constantine decreed that the Trinitarian view would become Christian dogma (which is remarkable considering how weak his Christian credentials were), and this decree silenced the large Christian segment that said Jesus was only a man.

Of course, the history doesn’t end there. As the Bible was translated into Latin, Augustine ultimately complained of the “infinite variety” of Bible translations. Under the direction of Pope Damascus, Jerome attempted to standardize the Latin Bible. Drawing on Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, he completed the “Vulgate” by sometime around A.D. 405, which was ultimately recognized as the Standard Bible of the Roman Church (1546).

The first English Bible was completed in the late 1300’s by John Wyclif, an Oxford instructor in religion and philosophy. Condemned by the church, it lasted in the underground for some 150 years. Then, around 1524, William Tyndale, an Oxford and Cambridge educated linguist, who was influenced by Erasmus and Martin Luther, published a New Testament translation based on medieval Greek copies. Then, Mike Coverdale’s Bible appeared (~1535) based on his translation of German and Greek translations, as well as drawing from Tyndale’s work. John Rogers and Richard Taverner also published their particular translations (~1539) drawing from and adding to each other and to Tyndale’s work. All of this was eventually edited by Coverdale into the Great Bible, which the King approved. Separately, the Roman Catholic church created its first English Bible, the Douay version, which was based directly on the Latin Vulgate (~1609).

In 1604, King James I wanted a fresh start, and pulled together Oxford and Cambridge scholars, as well as Puritan and Episcopal priests. This large group used the Catholic Douay, Luther’s German translation, the available Hebrew and Greek copies, and, to a very large extent, Tyndale’s work, and created the King James Version (~1611). Language, of course, is a fluid thing. Just how fluid can be seen in just a few examples: In 1611 “allege” meant “prove,” “prevent” meant “precede,” and “reprove” meant “decide.” To cope with this, the English Revised Version came out by 1885, followed shortly by the American Standard Version.

Clarifying Infallibility

This long, circuitous history spanning some 3,000 years makes clear that the infallibility of even the oldest manuscript copy–let alone some remotely descended English Bible–requires divine inspiration all along the very, very long line of manual copying and translating. (Remember, this is all occurring before the advent of the printing press.) However, once one puts the stake the ground and says, for example, “The King James Version is infallible,” then one eliminates any appeals to “mistranslation” from the Hebrew or Greek. After all, that would be an obvious example of fallibility. On the other hand, if only the original, autograph manuscripts are infallible (none of which exist), then the whole line of copies from the oldest manuscript copies (like the Dead Sea Scrolls) to all of today’s many descendant versions are not infallible. It is, therefore, important to understand in which sense your opponent believes the Bible to be infallible. In the first sense, simple, plain-language contradictions and factual / scientific errors are all one needs to falsify the claim of Biblical infallibility. In the second sense, the notion of infallibility is simply irrelevant to any extant biblical sources or translations, since the original autograph manuscripts are not available.

The Bible: A Manual for Living?

Christians often take great pride in their ability to cite Biblical verse on a wide range of issues, and this is certainly understandable since they believe that the Bible is the Word of God.  Fundamentalists, in fact, see it as the inerrant word of God—a book that says what it means, and means what it says . . . period.  As such, the Bible is seen not only as a guide for finding “family values” and for making daily moral choices, but as a window into the “infinite” and perfect goodness of God.  In fact, many believers have referred to it simply as God’s “Manual for Living.”

One need not read the Bible very far, however, before realizing that “good” must be a very flexible word if it is to be applied to God.  In relation to the Biblical God, “good”—indeed, infinite and perfect goodness—evidently includes genocide, rape, slavery, torture, and a view of women as being worth little more than livestock. Christian apologists can often find scriptures that describe God in much more benevolent and even compassionate terms.  But finding them doesn’t delete these other scriptures.  Using such “nice” scriptures to defend the goodness of God by somehow offsetting the many other horrific scriptures, is like arguing that Stalin, Hitler, or Genghis Khan were really “perfectly” good because there were instances of their being kind to people who pleased them, as if this somehow completely negates their less compassionate moments.  Such things would no more offset the other evils than would giving candy to a child offset the crime of having earlier tortured her.

Sometimes the Old Testament examples of God’s atrocities are defended by saying that God’s moral “rules” were different in the Old Testament as compared with the New Testament.  Such an argument, coming as it does from people who claim to believe in an absolute, universal moral standard, is especially ironic.  In making such an argument, they are literally implying that right and wrong are not absolutes over time, but are absolutes only in the sense that whatever God says goes—even if what He says switches from wholesale genocide one day to pacifism the next.

Needless to say, there are always Christian attempts to reinterpret the scriptures we are about to read as saying something entirely different than is actually printed in the Bible.  The clarity of the following scriptures, however, makes such attempts transparent.  Remember to read what it says, not what apologists wish it said.

Before proceeding, and in all sincerity, I did want to provide the following advisory: The following scriptures depict graphic violence, including sexual violence, and may not be suitable for younger readers.  Please note also that the standard King James Version will be used unless otherwise noted.

Excerpts from God’s “Manual for Living”

Official orders, which include genocide and rape, have come not only from recent and not-so-recent tyrannical regimes, such as Hitler’s Berlin or the tent of Genghis Khan.  It has come also from what many Christians define as an infinitely good, kind, and merciful God.  Perhaps in the following scriptures the fact that young virgins were being spared (for obvious reasons and only after witnessing their parents and siblings being butchered before their eyes) is considered by some a demonstration of “mercy,” but I can imagine very few openly making such a claim.

Numbers 31:17-18 “…now therefore kill every male among the little ones and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.  But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”
1 Sam 15:3 “Slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.”
Ezek 9:6 “…neither have ye pity, slay utterly old and young, both maids and little children, and women.”

Such atrocities were often carried out as part of the worse kind of military aggression: one that goes beyond the seizing of power to the actual extermination of the original inhabitants sparing some of the women and children to serve as slaves.  Indeed, one can’t help but think of Hitler’s lebensraum policy when reading scriptures such as these.  If God’s name were removed from these passages, and replaced by “Hitler,” for example, what would the reaction of a good Christian be?  I suspect it would be horrified disgust, anger, and indignation—but only after the name change.  Of course, for many people, horrified disgust, anger, and indignation are felt regardless of whose name is assigned to these deeds.

 

Deut 7:1-2 “When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee…thou shall smite them and utterly destroy them…nor shew mercy unto them.”
Deut 20:11-14 “…that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee… And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword. But the women and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.”

Today, mild-mannered Christians often come to your door, presumably moved by God’s spirit.  Many of them will describe how their loved one’s health benefited from prayer, and that they were moved to demonstrate God’s love to others through charity, caring for the needy, and preaching the “Good News.”  They believe that through such deeds, people (in God’s words), “might know I am the Lord.”  But this pleasant strategy represents quite a change of heart from earlier methods employed by God Himself:

Ezek 20:26 (RSV) “I defiled them…making them offer by fire all their first born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know I am the Lord.“(italics added.)

Of course, many Christians argue that God’s wrath is reserved for you only if you abuse your “free will.”  God, after all, gives everyone a choice—pick the right one, or else—but a choice, nonetheless.  But does He really give everyone a choice?  He seems to slaughter children a great deal, with a particular preference for firstborns, as we just saw.  It is entirely unclear what choice a newborn failed to make correctly.

Ex 12:29:30 “…the Lord smote all the first born in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon…for there was not a house where there was not one dead.”

I suppose it could be argued that older children caught poking fun at some older bald gentleman might be old enough to know better, though it would seem that the “Christian” thing to do in such a case might be to ground them for a day or two and tell them to apologize.  Actually, in His “manual for living,” the Lord, described by so many Christians as loving and good, felt it was appropriate to send 2 bears to quite literally rip apart 42 children for the crime of making fun of Elisha’s bald head:

2 Kings 2:223-24 “And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.  And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord.  And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.”

Few jurors today would feel comfortable sentencing adult felons to being ripped apart by wild animals, and it seems unlikely that they would feel any more comfortable upon discovering that the intended victims were children.

For those who would suggest that God hates doing such things, but somehow feels compelled to (however one reconciles such an idea with His being all-powerful), there is in fact some rejoicing on the part of God during such violent episodes:

Deut 28:63 “…so the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought…”

It is interesting to ask what a Christian would say if anyone other than God had committed such crimes. Would any Christian say, “but wait, maybe there was a perfectly good reason.”  Yet, Christians, when faced with these scriptures, make just such an appeal on behalf of God, as if such monstrous evils can be perfectly understandable in some cases.  These defenders will often argue that the bigger “context” must be considered, as if genocide, rape, and slavery aren’t inherently and universally evil, but are actually good things in certain contexts.  Many people, of course, insist that such things are universally and absolutely evil, and that no “context” can change that fact.

While humans are often forced to make lesser-of-two-evil choices due entirely to their limited powers, is it completely unclear how God, with supposedly unlimited power, should be similarly constrained.

Not many Christians these days would argue that slavery is a good thing.  Indeed, many would argue that it’s a great evil, one that every Christian should fight in the name of Christ, particularly since they believe that such things are against God’s teachings.  Such teachings did not come from the Bible, however, and must be believed despite the Bible’s actual teachings.  God’s teachings on the matter look a little more like this:

Exod 21:20-21 (NIV) “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.”
Deut 15:17 “Then thou shalt take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever.  And also unto thy maid-servant thou shalt do likewise.”
Lev 25:45, 46 “…of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land, and they shall be your possession…they shall be your bondmen forever.”
Ex 21:7 “And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.”
Titus 2:9-10 (RSV) “Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect”

Indeed, God had whole peoples enslaved.  Either He thinks slavery is appropriate in some circumstances, or He knowingly committed an evil.

Joel 3:8 “I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the children of Judah and they shall sell them to the Sabeans, to a people far off; for the Lord hath spoken it.”

These scriptures are perhaps not entirely unexpected when they are seen as what they are: descriptions of the angry, jealous, vindictive, and ill-tempered deity(ies) of primitive, nomadic tribes living thousands of years ago.  In that context we would also not readily expect women to be considered particularly valuable, or even as human as men.  Indeed, that is what the Bible makes clear, time and time again.  Such a view is usually justified in terms of inherited guilt; after all, it was Eve who was the guilty party in the Garden of Eden.

1 Tim 2:11-14 “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.  For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”
1 Cor 14:34-35 “Let your women keep silence in the churches for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience…And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church”

But it doesn’t just stop with demanding that women “keep silent.”  There is a kind of dirtiness about women, an uncleanness.  Indeed, a women is made even dirtier by having dirty girl children rather than nice clean boy children:

Job 25:4 “…how can he be clean that is born of a woman?”
Lev 12:2, 5 “If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean 7 days…but if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean 2 weeks.”

In fact, a woman who is not a virgin when she marries deserves to die according to the Bible.  Note that there is no similar requirement on the man.  Actually, such a woman deserves to be stoned to death; a tortuously painful way to die, and undeniably cruel and unusual punishment by any standard most of us are familiar with.  Presumably, our own laws and practices today could be seen as an affront to God for granting women the right to live in such cases.  It is also painfully easy to imagine the number of virgins mistakenly slaughtered under the very weak rules of evidence employed in the following scripture.

Deut 22:20-21 “But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she has wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.”

Today we view rape as a crime because of the violation it represents of a woman’s rights, and the pain and anguish it causes the woman.  In other words, it is a crime because of the injustice of it to her.  In the Bible, the effects on her seem to be utterly beside the point; it is the father that is considered the injured party.  For example, a rapist is forgiven if he pays, not the victim, but her father; and in addition, agrees to marry the victim—she’s got nothing to say about it.

Deut 22:28-29 “If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her…then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.”

We’ve already seen God bestow the word “good” on the slaughter of children and even newborns among wartime enemies, but this act is considered particular virtuous when the newborns are from one’s own family and tribe—with the infants thrown in, as it were, with the first born of the live stock.  It is interesting, when reading passages such as these, to imagine Fundamentalists showing disgust–as they doubtless do– when they read of the human sacrifice practices of the early religions of other cultures, such as the Aztecs and Inca:

Ex 13:1,2 “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.”
Lev 27:28-29 “Notwithstanding no devoted thing, that a man shall devote unto the Lord of all that he hath, both of man and beast, and of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed: every devoted thing is most holy unto the Lord.  None devoted, which shall be devoted of men, shall be redeemed; but shall surely be put to death.”
Ex 22:29-30 “Thou shalt not delay to offer the 1st of thy ripe fruits, and of they liquors: the first born of they sons shalt thou give unto me. Likewise shalt thou do with thine oxen and with thy sheep.”
Ex 34: 20  But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then thou shalt break his neck.  All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem.  And none shall appear before me empty.”

How different are such practices from the offering of virgins to a volcano god?  Inexplicably, satisfying God’s thirst for blood appears to be somehow connected with the origin of male circumcision.  In one of the stranger passages of the Bible we have God ambushing Moses on the way to an inn—with the intention of killing him—but deciding not to when Zipporah cuts off the foreskin of her son, and throws it at God’s feet.  God is calmed down by this, and decides to let them go.

Ex 4: 24-26 “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.  Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin, and cast it at his feet…So he let him go.”

Beyond providing yet another example of the need for bloody offerings to appease an ill-tempered and brutal deity, this passage also has God acting in a manner that is far from that of an all-powerful and all-knowing being.  Indeed, He cannot simply cause Moses to die with a mere thought, but like a murderous human must physically attack his intended victim.  Further, he cannot know much about the future if He unexpectedly gets a slice of human flesh thrown at His feet (implying also that He was physically standing there like a man), which causes Him to change His mind.

With all these blood sacrifices and mutilation of people of all ages, one might expect cannibalism to enter the picture at some point.  One would not be disappointed. God himself directly causes these instances of cannibalism.  Once again, one must assume that Fundamentalist Christians believe this is a wonderful and good thing in certain contexts in order to ensure that God also remains wonderful and good.

Lev 26:29 “And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat.”
Jer 19:9,12 “And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend …Thus I will do unto this place saith the Lord, and to the inhabitants thereof”

 

Conclusion

What picture do these scriptures paint of the Judeo-Christian God?  The picture is that of a perhaps typical tribal deity, characteristic of many early peoples.  Like a volcano god who needs the sacrifice of virgins as a ransom not to destroy the people below, the Biblical God is also brutal, ill-tempered, jealous, and demanding of regular doses of infant blood as the price for the tribe’s success in carrying out genocidal wars of aggression against its neighbors.

I can certainly anticipate the objections to this article: (1) I’ve taken the scriptures out of context; (2) I’ve misinterpreted them; (3) God changed many of those laws in the New Testament; (4), these things should not be judged from the limited vantage point of mere humans—it is part of a bigger picture that only God can see; (5), it the result of inherited sin due to Adam’s Fall; and (6) it is Satan and man, not God, who have ultimately created all this evil.

(1) As already mentioned (and as should be obvious in any case) some evil things are context-independent.  No context can make an inherently evil thing turn into a good thing.  This position is, ironically, a kind of moral relativism, which Christians are normally loathe to embrace.   The flaw in this “argument from context” is easily seen when it is parodied:  “The deeds of Hitler, Stalin, and Ted Bundy are evil only in certain contexts, in others they are beautiful and wonderful and are proof of their infinite goodness.”

(2)  These passages are fairly straightforward descriptions of horrific crimes, and include the specific detailing of laws.  Reinterpretation here can take two forms:  one, that these scriptures were metaphorical; or two, that they were mistranslated.  The first approach undermines the claim that the Bible is literally true, and we can then get on with arguing that the Genesis story, or anything else, is also metaphorical.  This is indeed the approach of more liberal Christians.  Liberal or not, however, to “reinterpret” the sum total of these passages into saying the opposite of what they actually say (and there are many, many more examples) leaves one justifiably open to the charge of arbitrarily reinterpreting the Bible to say what one wishes it said.  It would be as if I reinterpreted all the literature on the roundness of the earth to be metaphorical, while insisting that it all really supports a flat earth; or if I reinterpreted the sentence the “car is black” to mean the “car is white.”  This liberal approach invalidates the inerrancy of the Bible.  Either there is an error of translation or an error of fact.  In either case, one is admitting that there is an error.  Such an approach also allows one to have the Bible say whatever one wants it to say, without regard to what it actually does, in fact, say.

(3) This position, even more so than the context argument, is the worst kind moral relativism.  It suggests that what is morally disgusting to us today was somehow morally wholesome and beautiful to us just a few thousand years ago.  God did an about-face, and so we had to as well; if He does it again, then our frown at these atrocities would, under this view, once again turn into a smile.  Presumably we need to check before deciding how to react.

(4) This objection is met in detail in the Does Morality Depend on God? article.  I will, however, make this one point here:  If we are not competent to judge God to be evil; then by exactly the same reasoning, we are also incompetent to judge God to be good: it cuts both ways.

(5) The notion of inherited sin and Jesus’ sacrifice deserves an article of its own.  However, I will speak to it briefly here.

I often hear Christians describe, in a tone of gratitude, how Jesus died to “pay the price” for the sin we “inherited” from Adam and Eve.  Frankly, that this makes any kind of sense to otherwise thoughtful people is something I find utterly mystifying.  The story embodies two very bizarre notions that Christians unblinkingly accept as being somehow obvious truths:  one, inherited guilt; and two, that a human sacrifice is the appropriate price to pay for that guilt.

First, the idea that people inherit the guilt of their ancestors is certainly an ancient one, and more than a little out of place in the 21st Century.  One has to ask such Christians to evaluate the following analogy:  You are a juror and the prosecution is arguing that a 6 month old infant should be burned alive because it was discovered that its great, great grandfather committed a terrible crime.  The prosecution then interrupts the shocked outcries of the jurors by quoting from the Bible’s many references to inherited guilt and punishment.  The stunned silence is then suddenly interrupted as one of the jurors, taking the biblical lead, jumps up and says “Kill me, so the child becomes innocent of the crime of his great, great grandfather.”  The judge and prosecutor look at each other and agree that this will pay the debt owed, atoning for the crimes of the baby’s ancestor, thereby making innocent the baby and all the other descendents of this ancient criminal.

I can only assume—hope really—that Fundamentalist Christians would be unwilling to go along with such a scenario, and that this sounds as bizarre and morally repulsive to them as it does to me and most people.  Yet this is the kind of moral logic we are to admire on the part of God for making guilt a kind of genetic characteristic, and further, requiring a human blood sacrifice of someone unrelated to the crime (i.e., Jesus) to make it all alright again.  The analogy is off in one respect: God intended to torture in hell not just one baby, but all future generations of mankind (billions of yet unborn people) if He didn’t get a blood offering.

(6)  This objection certainly contradicts the notion of God’s omniscience (being all-knowing) since it seems to suggest that God created Satan without knowing that Satan would become evil.  But, more importantly, it contradicts the Bible itself, for God makes it clear that He, and not Satan, creates evil:

Isa 45:7 “I make peace, and create evil”