Are There Errors in the Bible?

I don’t think there are errors in the Bible, and I think that valid explanations can be given for difficulties that do exist. I started a new sermon series on Ezra – Nehemiah this morning at Kenwood, and I had planned to comment on some numerical discrepancies in the text. Because of time, I decided to cut this whole section from the sermon, so here’s the portion of my manuscript that got passed right over:

The material in Ezra 2 is repeated almost exactly in Nehemiah 7, but there are some differences between the two chapters. One of those differences is that in Nehemiah 7:7 there are 12 names. Many scholars think this indicates that there were probably 12 names in Ezra 2:2, and one of the names was not copied by mistake.[1] If this is correct, the fact that there were 12 leaders of the returnees represents an intentional reconstitution of the 12 tribes of Israel. Even if this wasn’t originally the case with Ezra 2:2, it is the case with Nehemiah 7:7.

Let me be very clear about what I’m saying here. I am not saying that the author of the book of Ezra made an error. I am saying that it appears that those who copied the book of Ezra made an error. This kind of thing is why evangelicals say that the Bible is inerrant in the autographs. An autograph is the hand-writing of some famous person. The autographa or autographs of the biblical manuscripts are the hand-written copies made by the authors themselves. We believe that the authors of the books of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit kept the authors from making errors. God is true and trustworthy, and what he communicated in the Scriptures through the biblical authors is true and trustworthy. So when we say that the Bible is inerrant in the autographs, we are simply saying that God did not inspire every scribe who copied the Bible so as to preserve them from error.

This portion of Ezra, with the numbers at the end of chapter 1 and the names in chapter 2, seems to have been a challenge for the scribes. The reason for this is that when numbers were written in ancient Hebrew, they used a system of symbols that might not have been clear to later copyists. Derek Kidner refers to “many other indications in the Old Testament that numbers were the bane of copyists.”[2] In the same way, the similarity of many Hebrew names could have caused scribes difficulty as they copied the text. We see difficulty with numbers in two ways in this section of Ezra:

First, if we add up the numbers of vessels in Ezra 1:9–10, they total 2,499, less than half the total of 5,400 given in Ezra 1:11. This could be because of scribal error,[3] or it could be that though the total number is complete, the itemization is only an excerpt.[4]

Second, if we add up the numbers in Ezra 2, we get a total of 29,818. The numbers in Nehemiah 7 total 31,089. The number in the Greek translation, 1 Esdras, totals 30,143. But all three lists state that the total number is 42,360 (Ezra 2:64; Neh 7:66; 1 Esdras 5:41). Kidner writes, “There is general agreement that the divergences are copying errors, arising from the special difficulty of understanding or reproducing numerical lists.”[5]

How should we respond to this kind of information? One way to respond is the way Bart Ehrman does: “What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies . . .”[6] If you are looking for excuses to rebel against the Bible, you can go Ehrman’s way.

Another way to respond to this kind of information is to look at what we have and ask if what we have is enough to enable us to get at the message of Ezra? So the numbers of the temple vessels don’t add up, a name appears to have fallen out, and the numbers in Ezra 2 don’t match the total given at the end of the list. There may be valid explanations for each. The lists may be excerpts while the totals are complete. The copyists may have bungled the job. Can we understand the text in spite of these difficulties? I think we can. In fact, I think that going Ehrman’s way would be as silly as receiving a reliable written message from someone you trust, warning you about a nuclear attack, and rejecting the message because the word nuclear is misspelled. Would you risk being nuked because of a spelling error? Would you risk going to hell because there are difficulties (difficulties that have plausible explanations) in these lists in the Bible?

These difficulties do not keep us from understanding the message of the text. We can see, in spite of the question about the numbers of the vessels, that God kept his promise (Jer 27:21-22) and restored those temple vessels. We can see, in spite of the question of the numbers of the returnees, that the people of Israel are restored to their land.

[1] So Mark A. Throntveit, Ezra-Nehemiah, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 18; Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, 37; H. G. M. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1985), 24.

[2] Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, 38.

[3] So Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 46–47.

[4] See Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, 35 n. 1.

[5] Ibid., 43. Cf. also Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, 57.

[6] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 7.

For further reading, see my essay on inerrancy: “Still Sola Scriptura: An Evangelical Perspective on Scripture.”

20 Responses to Are There Errors in the Bible?