Toward an Inerrant View of Scripture

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No biblical autographs have survived. There are only manuscripts which were copied from earlier manuscripts, which were copied from still earlier manuscripts, and so on. To speak of an autograph as inerrant, we are essentially claiming that Scripture USED to be inerrant.

Revised: 15-Feb-2008

When applying the adjective “inerrant” to Scripture, Protestants presumably mean one, two, or three of the following things:

  1. an inerrant autograph written by a biblical author;
  2. an inerrant copy of a manuscript descending from an autograph;
  3. an inerrant translation based on one (or more manuscripts) descending from an autograph.

No biblical autographs have survived. There are only manuscripts which were copied from earlier manuscripts, which were copied from still earlier manuscripts, and so on. To speak of an autograph as inerrant, we are essentially claiming that Scripture used to be inerrant. In theory, if all relevant manuscript evidence were available, we could trace a manuscript’s lineage back to an original autograph. But since we do not possess a single biblical autograph, we are not in a position to comment on an autograph’s character in a meaningful way. Moreover, even if we had access to a biblical autograph, would a spelling error render it errant?

We can comment with greater confidence and credibility on an extant manuscript whose lineage descends from an autograph. Anyone who has worked with manuscripts knows that when transcribing, scribes were prone to mistakes because of physical limitations. To complicate matters, scribes sometimes corrected errors in their exemplars. Occasionally, their emendations were faulty, and in these cases they compounded the problem. Scribes usually made their corrections in the vertical margins of a manuscript or between the horizontal lines of script above the word (or words) in question. Such corrections and notations can be seen in the margins and between the lines of the famous Isaiah Scroll from Qumran.

The entire biblical discipline of textual criticism (lower criticism) rests on the assumption that by comparing a place where manuscripts of the same biblical book differ, scholars can determine which reading should be regarded as preferable or even authentic. For their own benefit and to assist other scholarly types, text critics have constructed a critical apparatus for each book of the Old and New Testaments. In the apparatus, in an abbreviated format, they have listed important variant readings found among manuscripts of the same biblical book. Information originating from a critical apparatus regularly appears in footnotes of English translations in the form of comments like “Dead Sea Scrolls and Syriac (See also Septuagint)…” and “Some witnesses read….”

Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and The Greek New Testament are two standard critical editions of the Bible that feature critical apparatuses. By including a critical apparatus in each of these editions, text critics have indicated that they have collated and evaluated the variant readings of manuscripts. The committee of The Greek New Testament decided to add capital Roman letters to its apparatus as a means of rating readings that it adopted for the Greek text. The notation {A} signifies that an adopted reading is beyond doubt, whereas {D} indicates that a high degree of doubt is associated with an adopted reading.

Text critics labor hard to make reliable printed editions of the biblical text accessible. Their aim is accuracy. If textual scholars had inerrant manuscripts in their possession, they could greatly reduce their workload, because such an ideal manuscript would eliminate the need for assembling a critical apparatus.

Scholars who serve as translators generally work from printed critical editions and not manuscripts. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia is based on a manuscript known as Codex Leningradensis. Interestingly, New Testament text critics opted not to base their standard editions on a single manuscript. The text of The Greek New Testament is a composite, hybrid or “eclectic” text that incorporates elements (i.e., adopted readings) from different manuscripts. Generations of skilled text critics contributed to the construction of the Greek text that serves as the base text for The Greek New Testament. Its text is accurate and reliable, but such a Greek text probably never existed in its present form as the actual text of a biblical autograph.

Readers of the Bible know that each English translation has its own character. Most biblical verses can be translated in more than one way. Each standard English translation of the Bible has its strengths and weaknesses. Even the venerated King James Version and the popular New International Version have shortcomings alongside their advantages. Moreover, a translation cannot be superior to the source from which it emanates. If the nature of biblical manuscripts resists the application of the adjective “inerrant,” how much more so the nature of translations, because translations emanate directly (or indirectly) from those very same manuscripts.

The adjective “inerrant” implies singularity. Christians of every historical period (including those living today) are united by a common confession. An affirmation once made by converts undergoing baptism in the third century C.E. encapsulates our confession:

Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose the third day alive from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead.

Neither today nor in the past have all Christians agreed upon a singular (i.e., inerrant) canonical text. For example, while many North American Christians enjoy their NIV and KJV Bibles, Greek Orthodox believers revere the Septuagint as their canonical Old Testament.

I would suggest that we wean ourselves of describing Scripture with the adjective “inerrant.” To speak of the Bible as inspired reflects the language of Scripture (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17), but to speak of it as inerrant forces the adoption of an adjective that Scripture does not claim for itself. As alternatives, I would propose switching to “reliable” and “accurate.” The collective manuscript evidence of the Bible, the critical editions based on it, and the English translations derived from them are indeed accurate and reliable. I cannot easily escape the impression that when preachers and evangelists describe the Bible as inerrant, many of them are really making a claim about the church tradition to which they subscribe. Taking advantage of how dear the Bible is to their listeners, they blow a smoke screen into their faces. Behind the cover of obfuscating rhetoric, they adeptly shift the adjective “inerrant” from the Bible onto their dogmas. The maneuver can be accomplished easily, because the laity tends to be lax when it comes to matters requiring inquiry for verification. In contrast, scholars have invested much effort in trying to explain to the reading public the stages of bringing an ancient biblical book from manuscript to printed English. Articles entitled “Textual Criticism” are among the longest in Bible dictionaries. Sadly, however, they are also among the least read.


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  1. Pingback: What is JP’s View of the Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture? | JerusalemPerspective.com Online

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