On a Historical Old Testament

Yesterday I posted the following status on Facebook:

The problem with abandoning the historicity of the Old Testament is that every few years another aspect of it is vindicated.

To which I received this response:

Yet we would acknowledge the role that varying styles of literature in the ancient Near East has to play, right? The historical consensus, as far as I am aware (and I’m not necessarily taking a position), is that the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable. For example, we still have not found any evidence of a large population of Israelites having lived in Goshen around 1400 BC. It makes little difference to me, though, which side turns out to be right, but I’m interested to keep up with it!

I do have some empathy here, but there are several issues involved on which I would like to make a special point. Approaches along these lines are gaining traction in Evangelicalism, both with and without a doctrine of inerrancy. I do not see this as a good sign. The historicity of the Old Testament is more important than even most Christians who believe in it give it credit for. So here are some thoughts on the issues raised in this coment.

First, with respect to literary styles, it is simply not the case that there are any convincing reasons to believe that most, much, or even just a decent slice of the Old Testament is not intended as basically “historical” literature. While there are thematic differences between different parts, and the form of the narratives can vary based on the “zoom” factor, there are no clear shifts in the basic use of narrative from Able to Zechariah. The account of Ezra is literarily much like the account of David which is like the account of Abraham which is like the account of Noah which is like the account of Cain. The only passage which might plausibly seem an exception to this is Genesis 1, which is clearly very different from most narrative accounts. Yet it is clearly not poetry (since it lacks parallelism or most other features of Hebrew poetry), and a narrative account of something which happened before the cosmos was fully in place or humans existed is naturally and necessarily going to be different from other narratives.

This brings me to an extremely important point. It is true that Genesis 1 and basically all the narratives in the Bible have meaningful, carefully constructed literary features and forms. There are chiasms, parallels, recapitulations, non-chronological sequences, modified repetitions, typologies, and all sorts of good stuff. For some bizarre reason, though, people treat this as an indication of a narrative not referring to literal history. If Genesis 1 is clearly arranged into a theologically relevant pattern of forming and filling, with the significant number of seven days being associated with temple construction, then many scholars will be willing to stop with “We see a theological meaning to this text, so a literal, historical meaning is superfluous.” If the Bible presents Noah as a new Adam and Ham as a new Cain, peopel imagine this means that one or both of the stories never actually happened.

This is, of course, logically absurd. Literary richness does not prove, or even vaguely imply, that a story is unhistorical. Indeed, for Christians we must understand that the same Spirit who authored the Scriptures has authored history. We should expect patterns, structures, and typologies with theological significance in real, tangible history. And even if we didn’t have that theological link, it should be recalled that even a perfectly historical event can be written down truthfully but stylistically to produce an account with certain intended levels of meaning beyond the “bare facts.”

Moving on, then, to the point about historical consensus. My friend explained what he understood as the consesus this way: “the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable.” This is problematic in three ways.

First, for the secular historical consensus, it’s not so much that the Old Testament starts off metaphorically as that it simply starts of as myth or legend with amibiguous relationships to events which may or may not have happened. Whether the events recorded are supposed to have any actual metaphorical significance would be a side debate, akin to the question of whether The Illiad is metaphorical.

Second, for the Christian historical consensus, there simply isn’t one. Even within the relatively small sphere of Evangelical Protestant scholarship, opinions range from quasi-fundamentalist hyper-literalism to the view that almost none of the Old Testament is historically reliable except where it is confirmed by secular accounts. As far as I can tell, there’s not even really a majority view on the historicity of any part of the Old Testament before around the time of the Exile. This is not to deny that there are trends, of course. And the trend seems pretty clear: a dehistoricization of Genesis 1-11 at the very least, but often including much more, especially the Exodus. But this brings me to the third problem with the question of historical consensus.

Third, the closest thing we get to a historical consensus is the stuff on which secular historians agree with a decent number of the moderate Christian scholars. The problem with this consensus is that it is bunk. There are three notable problems with it. First, its arguments against the historicity of biblical events are usually from silence, i.e. “we can’t find extra-biblical evidence for that.” These often, and I mean very often, get overturned by later discoveries. It’s the same story every time: historians said there was no King David, until they found archaeological evidence of King David. They said there were no Hittites, and lo! they found that there were Hittites. They doubted countless minor details of customs and names found in the Bible until more evidence confirmed that they existed in the time the Bible seems to claim. It seems that if we have functional pattern-recognition, we should expect this to be the norm: historians deny biblical claims for lack of evidence, only for evidence to show up later.

The second problem with the historical consensus is that it quite unjustly minimizes the Bible as a historical document. I don’t mean that they simply fail to believe every word as historically true. I mean that they don’t even give it the minimal benefits of the doubt which they extend to other ancient literature, and in proportion they give it much less historical weight where it stands alone than they do most similar works. Basically, in researching and hypothesizing about the Ancient Near East, they try to rely as little as possible on what can be justly called the largest, most internally diverse, and most well-preserved collection of texts from the Ancient Near East. This is bound to go wrong, and it is only natural that doing this for such a distant period of history would lead to tension with the biblical account even if it were mostly correct (or, you know, inerrant).

But the third problem with the historical consensus is a plain historical issue: the historical consesus account of the ancient world is largely constructed on a very weak and increasingly questionable foundation: a hypothetical chronology built from Manetho’s list of Egyptian kings and dynasties. This matter would be difficult to address in detail here, but I’ll give a summary. Almost all historical work on the ancient world around the Mediterranean relies on a specific chronology of Egyptian history. This chronology is based on adding up the lengths of the reigns of all of the Egyptian kings in what we have of Manetho’s work. Two major problems present themselves here, because (1) scholars have noted that some or many of Manetho’s dynasties may have ruled simultaneously in different parts of Egypt, and (2) the conventional chronology requires that Mantheo made few or no errors or intentional falsifications. This produces a host of issues which have the potential, if solved, to radically reshape the history of the Ancient Near East. This appears quite likely to change things in the Bible’s favor. Donovan Courville in his work The Exodus Problem and Its Ramifications analyzes many of these issues, and his work has been followed up by others. Even if not perfect, it opens up many interesting possibilites. This, by the way, is not a mere desperate Christian apologetic. The book Centuries of Darkness argues the same basic point from the perspective exclusively of secular historical academia and has inspired plenty of further research.

All of these issues add up to make the point that the historicity of the Old Testament does not deserve to be dismissed the way it so often is, or really even be approached with half the skepticism usually aimed at it. It might take faith to expect the whole Old Testament history to be vindicated, but if anything it is a reasonable faith grounded in precedent and evidence.

None of this even begins to deal with the theological problems involved with dehistoricizing Old Testament narratives. That alone could be the subject of a book, but in the meantime I think this piece of Peter Leithart satire says the gist just as well.

On a Historical Old Testament

Three Kinds of Bibliology

You really can’t study Karl Barth in evangelical circles without hearing some (often quite strong) objections to his bibliology. This, of course, is perfectly understandable, as inerrancy makes for an important discussion. Nonetheless, I often think Barth is overly criticized on this point, and in large part my reason for this involves my understanding that, whatever Barth’s views on the nature of inspiration and revelation, he took Scripture extremely seriously and worked hard to conform his thinking to it. In contrast to more liberal or skeptical theologians, Barth declared, “Once and for all, theology has…its position beneath that of the biblical scriptures…[T]he biblical witnesses are better informed than are the theologians. For this reason theology must agree to let them look over its shoulder and correct its notebooks.”1

Reflecting on this led me to think that we would do best to understand bibliology as having three distinct aspects, which have different levels of importance and practical impact. I think it may be helpful, when assessing and debating views on Scripture, to have these distinctions in mind. My proposed bibliological distinctions are as follows:

Confessional Bibliology
By confessional bibliology, I mean the descriptions which people are willing to employ regarding Scripture, i.e. what people confess about the Bible. Confessional bibliology is the sphere in which we simply use individual words to say what we believe about Scripture, something primarily visible in confessional documents. A “high” confessional bibliology may use terms like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” and “verbally inspired.” A “low” confessional bibliology may shy away from such terms, except perhaps “infallibility,” in favor of less specific language such as “authoritative” or “inspired.”
Technical Bibliology
By technical bibliology, I mean the precise way in which people explain their views on what Scripture is and how it was inspired. Most “views of inspiration” would be included under this heading, such as verbal plenary, dynamic, existential, etc. On this level we describe what “God-breathed” means, how God used men in writing Scripture, what the role is of the Holy Spirit, and even broader questions such as divine providence and the nature of God’s revelation.
Practical Bibliology
By practical bibliology, I mean the way we actually use Scripture. How do we handle it? Do we treat it with submission and reverence, or do we twist it for our own ends? This includes certain questions of hermeneutics, the relation to tradition, and how we can be self-conscious and self-critical about the presuppositions and worldview we bring to the Bible. A high practical bibliology robustly allows Scripture and its inner logic to change our thinking and doctrine. A low practical bibliology makes the Bible into a servant of our preexisting convictions and outside norms.

So, a few thoughts on these categories. First, having a “high” bibliology in one of these areas does not guarantee a correspondingly high bibliology in all of them. One might have a high confessional bibliology, for example, willing to call Scripture “entirely without error,” while essentially taking this away by fine print details with a low technical bibliology. On the other hand, it is easy enough for someone to have a low practical bibliology, treating Scripture like a prop for their own ideas and agendas, even though they have the highest of confessional and technical bibliologies (e.g. independent fundamentalists who act like the whole point of the Bible is anti-communism, anti-feminism, and anti-rock music). Sometimes we might even see conflict between the priorities of these types of bibliology. For instance, often conservative apologists will twist a text in an impossible way (exercising a low practical bibliology) in order to defend it from a charge of error (to defend a high confessional bibliology). It would be better in these cases to proclaim a lack of knowledge and let the text speak for itself.

And then there are people like Barth. Barth had a mixed confessional bibliology, calling Scripture the “Word of God” while nonetheless insisting that this identification is indirect. In a sense, you might say Barth had a medium-high confessional bibliology and a very difficult to rank technical bibliology. But where he shines is in his practical bibliology. Despite all of the qualifications Barth made about the humanity of Scripture, its role as witness to revelation rather than actual revelation, and his indirect identification of it with God’s Word, he submitted to it. He sought to understand the prophets and the apostles as best as he could, to see Christ in the pages of their writings, and to submit his thinking and living to Christ at every point. One may disagree with much of his exegesis, but one cannot deny that he read Scripture with reverence and an eye to knowing and obeying the Word of God who is Jesus.

This framework, I suggest, offers a way to be more precise and more charitable when enaging with people who view Scripture differently than we do. Likewise, it lets us see how people may be understood as faithful to the Bible even when they don’t necessarily believe in the same kind of inspiration, or confess quite the same adject ives, that we do. And if anyone has any comments or suggestions about these categories, I’m interested to hear them.

Three Kinds of Bibliology

3 Things the Bible Does that Don’t Count as Errors

People make a big deal out of supposed errors in the Bible. It doesn’t make much sense, really. Even if there were errors in the Bible, it wouldn’t hurt Christianity one bit. But that aside, I want to help demonstrate a few basic weird things that the Bible does because it was written by ancient peoples with different ideas about how writing should work and what constitutes accurate and legitimate writing. So here are 3 things the Bible does that, when taken on their own terms, do not qualify as errors.

  1. Putting events out of chronological order. This is something that the Gospel writers do the most. Instead of putting various smaller events in chronological order, the order that they historically happened, they often put events in theological order, to drive home certain topics or themes. One example of this is the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree. In Matthew, Jesus curses the fig tree after He cleanses the Temple, and it withers1. In Mark, Jesus curses the fig tree, cleanses the Temple, and then returns to find the tree withered2. Obviously both of these orders can’t be what chronologically happened. But Mark ties together the meanings of the fig tree and the Temple cleansing by reordering them, to make it clear that both are about the impending judgment of Israel. This is not an error, but an intentional reordering to make a point. John, likewise, puts Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple near the beginning of His Gospel, though the reasons why are highly debatable. Examples like this abound throughout the Gospels, Acts, and even much of the Old Testament.
  2. Leaving names out of genealogies. The major point of Biblical genealogies is to trace certain historical lines of descent. With Jesus, for example, the genealogies given for Him intentionally highlight His descent from Abraham and David. Because of this major purpose, sometimes minor names which don’t contribute much are skipped, especially if that helps the genealogy end up at a significant number of names. These principles are easiest to see in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. When compared to 1 Chronicles 3:1-16, which traces the same line from David, he leaves out Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, and Jehoiakim. This is no problem, because it was a known and accepted practice, and gives Matthew his neat 3 sets of 14 names.
  3. Minor wording variations. The Gospels all report Jesus doing and saying many of the same things, but the words don’t always come out the same. This also, of course, applies not just to Jesus but to everyone else as well. A famous example of this is the sign above Jesus’ head on the Cross. The different Gospels record four different versions: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews,”3 “The King of the Jews,”4 “This is the King of the Jews,”5 and “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”6 Now, obviously these wordings are all different. People have come up with various explanations, including the plausible enough one that the original text had it all: “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” But in the end it doesn’t matter much. Before the days of audio and video recording, photographs, and television, no one was worried about perfect precision. The goal of writing things down was the accurately capture the message or spirit, not the precise words. Generally, Bible scholars would agree, for example, that the Gospels have the ipsissima vox, the very voice, of Jesus instead of the ipsissima verba, the very words. This is especially the case because Jesus probably spoke Aramaic, while the Gospels are in Greek, so almost everything we have of His sayings was translated from one very different language to another. None of this can constitute an error, for the gist and point of each of these texts comes out loud and clear in any case.
3 Things the Bible Does that Don’t Count as Errors

Theory and Doctrine: Interpretations in Scripture and Nature

Science vs Scripture. Reason vs faith. Why is it that these things are so frequently pitted against each other? Well, it’s not really a mystery. Doctrines of old oppose new scientific theories. Faith holds to things which are often difficult to understand. So of course these conflicts will arise. Yet I want to hopefully add some clarity to issues like this. I will use a simple case study to explain my thoughts.

The perfect example of the science-vs-religion mentality is the debate between evolution and creationism. Science, they say, teaches evolution, and the Bible teaches special creation. One must be wrong. The Christians who agree with this embrace creation and say that science is wrong,  while the skeptics who agree with this embrace evolution and say that the Bible is wrong. The problem with this is that “science says” and “the Bible says” are both completely wrong ways of framing the issue.

I want to put before you the thought that scientific theories are to the natural world what doctrine is to Scripture. The natural world is a great part of reality, and Scripture is a collection of writings which claim to accurately represent reality. So the natural world is real and cannot be wrong in any meaningful way. Scripture could be wrong in theory, since it is not the reality itself but describes it. Scientific theories and doctrines are interpretations of nature and Scripture respectively, and they can easily be wrong. Let me elaborate on this a bit.

What is “science?” Science is defined as “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” The term is also used to refer to the entire body of knowledge which results from this enterprise. Now, evolution is a scientific theory. So let me be clear on something:

In science, “theory” does not mean “idea,” “guess,” or even “educated guess.”

To explain what a scientific theory actually is, I cite About.com:

A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories can be disproven. Basically, if evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis can become accepted as a good explanation of a phenomenon. One definition of a theory is to say it’s an accepted hypothesis.

Evolution summarizes several hypotheses about genetics, speciation, and related topics. It has been supported with repeated testing that has accumulated supporting evidence. So it is a scientific theory. Now, the question still stands whether enough evidence has also accumulated to disprove it, so it might be an invalid theory (as I tend to think), but that’s not certain.

Now to move on to what “the Bible says.” See, what “the Bible says” must be interpreted. There are different interpretations of various issues in Scripture, and collected interpretations and the reasoning behind them are called “doctrine.” Of course, there are correct interpretations and wrong ones. So correct doctrine is what the Bible actually says, while if a doctrine is incorrect it is not what the Bible actually says. And since there is always the possibility that we have made a mistake, saying “the Bible says” on controversial issues isn’t always helpful. Instead, we can better judge issues by saying, “This doctrine says” and clarifying that there are good reason to believe this doctrine is an accurate understanding of Scripture.

Did all that make sense? I hope so, because I felt like I rambled a bit. Now, moving on. To nuance the controversy of evolution and creation, we have to speak in this way: “The scientific theory of evolution and the Biblical doctrine of creation are in disagreement.” (Also, when I say refer to the doctrine of creation here, I am including all Biblical doctrines which reject evolution, regardless of the earth’s age or other details.) From here, there are four major possibilities.

Possibility #1: The theory of evolution is a correct interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is a correct interpretation of Scripture.

In this case, since nature is simply part of reality and Scripture describes reality, Scripture must be wrong. This is the view of most atheists and other skeptics, along with some liberal Christians, but those of us who believe in the inerrancy (or even infallibility) of Scripture reject this option.

Possibility #2: The theory of evolution is a correct interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

With this position, evolution is true, and it is compatible with Scripture. It is simply interpretations of Scripture which forbid evolution which are wrong. This view is popular among liberal Protestants, most Catholics, and a handful of Evangelicals.

Possibility #3: The theory of evolution is an incorrect interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is a correct interpretation of Scripture.

Most Evangelicals and all fundamentalists (but basically no one else) agree with this view, in which case evolution is entirely false and the Bible teaches creationism, which is true.

Possibility #4: The theory of evolution is an incorrect interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

This is a novel possibility in which the prevailing understanding of evolution is wrong, but so is the traditional doctrine of creation. Instead, some other theory/doctrine is true. I don’t know of anyone in particular who believes this.

I should point out now that out of these four possibilities, only #1 actually denies the truthfulness of Scripture. All three of the other options allow for the authority of Scripture to speak. A lot of people are uncomfortable with #2, but it is still a legitimate possibility. I myself find #3 the most likely, though I admit #4 is a very interesting (if pretty unsubstantial) possibility.

Now, the point of all this isn’t mainly about creation and evolution. Like I said before, this is a case study for how we should look at these issues. Any time some element of science, history, or philosophy seems to oppose Christianity, we need to think this way. Identify the interpretations, lay out the possibilities, and figure out which one is most likely. Don’t be afraid to examine your doctrine, and don’t be afraid to challenge theories. Either could be right or wrong in any given debate. So be rational. That’s why God gave us brains, after all.

Theory and Doctrine: Interpretations in Scripture and Nature

Sidestepping Abiathar: Arguing for Christianity without Fighting for Inerrancy

If you’ve ever had a debate with an atheist or other skeptic about Christianity, you’ve probably heard it. Those four terrible words. “The Bible contains errors.” Suddenly, at least from their perspective, your entire argument is worthless. For we know how it goes: If they’re convinced there is one error in the Bible, that should mean it’s not God’s Word for God cannot err, and if the Bible isn’t God’s Word, then Christianity is false.

Naturally, the first response that may come to mind is “Prove it” or perhaps “No there aren’t.” This probably isn’t the best way to go about continuing the discussion, because either you have put this person on the defensive and seem prepared to show up their ignorance, or you are about to be given a response that you can’t handle. For most people, the first problem is probably what you’ll face. Realizing they don’t actually know of any errors in the Bible and have instead just repeated something they have heard, they won’t be very happy and will up their defenses. However, this is not the case for all people. Some will actually meet your challenge and throw errors at you. In fact, these people may very well have quite a list, though they may also have one tough one alone.

If someone is convinced there is one error in the Bible, that should mean it’s not God’s Word for God cannot err, and if the Bible isn’t God’s Word, then Christianity is false.

Things only get worse from here. If they lob an easy “error” your way, maybe you can give them the answer and get back on track. But most of the time, you’ll instead find yourself sidetracked by debating one difficult text or scrambling to respond to a hundred different issues. Eventually, you’ll get stuck on Mark, Jesus, and Abiathar (if you’re curious, head here), and you’ll find that your entire evangelistic effort now hinges on your ability to explain one difficult verse. If you fail, you’ve basically confirmed to the other person’s mind that your religion is a sham.

Obviously, this is not a desirable outcome. Instead of weighing down our presentation of the Gospel with 30,000+ verses to prove have no errors, we need to realize something else. Christianity does not hinge on inerrancy, and even if inerrancy was a completely false doctrine Christianity would still be true. The core of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which are historical reality and would even be so if Scripture were errant.

Even if inerrancy were false, Christianity would still be true.

“How can this be?” you may ask. “Certainly if the Bible has errors, then it is not God’s Word, and if it is not God’s Word then we cannot believe its claims!” But that’s a pretty silly argument. Firstly, it is hypothetically possible for the Bible to be God’s Word and contain errors. How? Well, humans make mistakes. Even though the Word which the authors of Scripture were writing lacked error, they could have misspelled something, wrote the wrong name somewhere, or made other basic errors without making the writing no longer God’s Word. (This is similar to how I, if I transcribed a speech by our President, could still legitimately call my transcript the President’s word even if I made a few typos or misheard a word or two.)

But let’s assume something more radical. See, the skeptic you’re witnessing to may be quite difficult to speak to even with the assumption that the Bible is God’s Word with a few errors. So what if something even more crazy was the case? What if the authors of the Bible weren’t divinely inspired at all, but just writing regular human writing? I may not think this is the case, and you may not think this is the case, but whoever you’re talking to probably does think this is the case. Fortunately for you, even this weak view of Scripture is enough to demonstrate that Christianity is true. How so? Consider the following facts about Scripture even if it were not special in any way:

  • The Gospels were all written within the lifespan of witnesses to Jesus’ ministry, and claim to be by eyewitnesses, and could have been refuted easily if they were even exaggerations, so are most likely pretty reliable.
  • Even if the Gospels are unreliable in some ways and contradict each other, they all show a strong, unanimous testimony that Jesus existed, was crucified, and was absent from the tomb on the third day.
  • Furthermore, all the Gospels show that Jesus’ disciples did indeed believe He has risen from the grave.
  • Paul’s letters, the earliest New Testament writings, show a clear belief that Jesus physically died and rose for our sins. Paul is also historically associated with the Apostles, who certainly lived during Jesus’ ministry.
  • The Gospels, if understood as normal historical documents, constitute four sources for Jesus’ life. However, even if Matthew, Mark, and Luke share material, their age and widespread acceptance work to validate their shared content, and John serves as an independent corroborating source for the major events of Jesus’ life.
  • Paul in 1 Corinthians reveals that Jesus’ historical life, death, and resurrection were considered the key truths in Christian oral tradition by AD 54, roughly twenty years after Jesus’ death and far too soon for mythology to develop.
  • The book of Acts and many of the epistles show that Christians were already suffering persecution and martyrdom for their belief in Christ by 20 years after Jesus’ death. Most of these people would be old enough to know if Jesus didn’t actually live, die, and rise.

Honestly, I could go on and on. But the truth is that, even if they are regarded as normal historical documents, the books of the New Testament are sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Jesus did indeed die and rise again, and in that case Christianity is true. At this point, Christianity is true, period. Even if the Bible isn’t inerrant, or even inspired at all. Of course, if we accept that Jesus is truly the Son of God, and that the Gospels are reliable sources of information regarding His life, this naturally leads to a view that embraces the authority of the Old and New Testaments, and if they are authoritative, inspiration is easy to reach, and if they are inspired, they are probably inerrant. Not to say that someone can’t be a Christian if they stop lower on the ladder than I do. If someone convinced organically of the Gospel by these evidences comes to believe in the authority of Scripture but not its inerrancy, I can’t condemn them. Jesus, after all, is the center of our faith, not the Bible. The Bible is vital, and is the most important element of our faith tradition, but ultimately the written word is second to the Incarnate Word. And if we understand this, and we do not burden our evangelism with difficult defenses of Biblical inerrancy, then we can find ourselves much more convincing to a skeptical world looking for excuses to disbelieve.

Sidestepping Abiathar: Arguing for Christianity without Fighting for Inerrancy

Why Does the NIV Leave Out Verses?

Almost everyone in church has heard this at some point. Someone who refuses to use anything but a KJV Bible has told you, “The NIV leaves out verses, taking away from God’s Word!” Your immediate response may have been scoffing, but perhaps later during a sermon or Bible study you noticed something like 1 John 5:7-8. For the KJV says:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

But the NIV says:

For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

“That’s odd,” you think. Then later maybe you were reading the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 and were confused to find this:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Matthew 6:9-13 (KJV)

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV)

“Oh my goodness!” you exclaim. “Crazy Brother Bob with the angry beard was right! The NIV does leave out verses. They’re changing God’s Word!”

Crazy Brother Bob with the angry beard was right!

Okay, you may not have responded so drastically when and if this happened to you, but perhaps it did raise some doubt and questions. And that makes sense. As Christians, the Bible is our authority. We believe it to be God-breathed and the source of all truth needed for salvation. So if a translation of the Bible is messed up, that is a serious issue for us. If a Bible as popular as the NIV is subtracting from the words of God, we have to confront it.

NIV leave out verses

Fortunately, this is not the situation. If you do not already know this, I’ll explain the basic history of the Bible and how this leads to our modern translations, and their differences.

The Bible is actually 66 books, and they were written over a period of at least 1,500 years by over 40 people from various walks of life. There were original authors, editors, and copyists who produced the first generation of each book of Scripture. For the Old Testament, these books were written mostly in the Hebrew language, with certain portions in Aramaic. The New Testament books were written in Greek. The final book of the Bible was written sometime before AD 100.

If a Bible as popular as the NIV is subtracting from the words of God, we have to confront it. Fortunately, this is not the situation.

The next stage in development was copying. The Old Testament books were consistently and carefully copied by Jewish scribes for millennia. The rules they placed on copying Scripture were so strict that two copies of Isaiah, each written around a thousand years apart, were found to be 95% identical, with the remaining 5% mostly consisting of spelling variations and slips of the pen. However, the entire Old Testament is not in the exact same situation. Every book has a different history of copying. The matter is complicated by the Septuagint (LXX for short), a family of Greek translations of the OT that appear about 200-300 years before Christ. Ancient Greek and Hebrew were radically different languages, and so the LXX shows several translation issues and others differences, including sometimes even entire verses or passages, from most Hebrew manuscripts.

Then there is the New Testament copying. This was very different from the process for the OT books. In the early church, distribution was essential. They were determined to spread the Gospels and the writings of the apostles to every church as quickly as possible. This is both helpful and detrimental in understanding the original NT texts. On one hand, the vast number of manuscripts gives us a solid foundation for determining what the NT books originally said. On the other hand, the rapid and urgent copying led to many copyist mistakes and variations between manuscripts, thus leaving us with the difficult task of figuring out which reading among manuscripts is original.

[The NT copyists] were determined to spread the Gospels and the writings of the apostles to every church as quickly as possible.

If what I just said doesn’t make immediate sense, start at the beginning. Say that Paul sent the Greek letter of Romans to the church at Rome, who then copied it and sent it to the other churches around. These churches in turn made more copies, and as time progressed more and more copies were made. At some point the original letter was lost or destroyed. Now, if you were to collect all of these copies, you would see that some have unintentional errors, some have intentional alterations, some have added notes, some are incomplete, and some are part of collections. Now, the majority of this variations (which are called “textual variants”) are simply matters of spelling or obvious slips of the pen. However, some are more prominent, such as phrases, verses, or even a couple of paragraphs.

This is the case with every book of the New Testament (and also with the Old Testament, but the details are very different). So to deal with this, we have what is called “textual criticism.” This is the work of finding out based on copies what the original texts of something said. For example, some texts with Romans 8:1 say this: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Others say, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Others include “who walk not according to the flesh” but do not include “but according to the Spirit.” So which reading did the original manuscript of Romans have? Well, this is where the science of textual criticism comes into play. Textual scholars analyze external evidence (age, number, quality, and origin of manuscripts) and internal evidence (context, author style, length of variants, etc.) to determine which reading is most likely the original. In the case of Romans 8:1, most scholars agree that the shorter reading (“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”) is the correct one.

Textual scholars analyze external evidence (age, number, quality, and origin of manuscripts) and internal evidence (context, author style, length of variants, etc.) to determine which reading is most likely the original.

This is where many of the differences between the KJV and the NIV emerge. See, the KJV was translated in the 1600s. At this time, the best Greek New Testament of the day was based on a handful of late manuscripts (that is, manuscripts which were copied over 1000 years after the NT was written). These represent most of the NT manuscripts around. These manuscripts are part of the Byzantine family, because they come mainly from the area surrounding Byzantium (now Istanbul). However, since then a number of other manuscripts have been found. These are much, much older (and so closer to when the NT was originally written), and are found mostly near the Egyptian city of Alexandria. These are therefore called Alexandrian texts. In general, Biblical scholars today believe that the Alexandrian manuscripts are more reliable, mainly due to their old age and (according to many) more likely readings. The NIV, then, is based mostly on reading from Alexandrian manuscripts, while the KJV is based mostly on readings from Byzantine manuscripts.

One of the major differences between the Byzantine and Alexandrian manuscripts is that Byzantine texts are usually longer than Alexandrian ones. This is the case, for example, in Romans 8:1. It is also the case in Matthew 6:13. In the case of 1 John 5:7-8, the KJV reading is only found in a couple of medieval manuscripts. Most of the time, when the Byzantine readings are longer than the Alexandrian readings, the scholars find the Alexandrian readings more likely to be correct. For this reason the NIV is sometimes “leaves out” verses or phrases compared to the KJV. However, since the Alexandrian manuscripts are more likely to represent the original text, it is more accurate to say that, where the KJV and NIV are different in this way, the KJV has extra content, verses and phrases that were at some point added to the text either by accident or on purpose. So the reality is that the NIV does not leave out verses so much as the KJV (or rather, the Greek texts from which the KJV New Testament is translated) adds verses.

One of the major differences between the Byzantine and Alexandrian manuscripts is that Byzantine texts are usually longer than Alexandrian ones. For this reason the NIV is sometimes “leaves out” verses or phrases compared to the KJV.

All this is not to say that either version is unreliable. While the KJV does often seem to have extra content, and in some places the NIV probably is wrong, none of the errors in either are very significant. In fact, overall the estimated reliability of our current constructions of the New Testament text is over 90%. That’s an A, folks. Most of the differences are minor (such as “Jesus Christ” instead of “Lord Jesus Christ” or “Bethany” instead of “Betharba”), and even the bigger ones (such as John 7:58-8:11 or Mark 16:9-20) do not affect any critical doctrines, or have much impact on any doctrine. So be assured that your Bible is reliable, whether KJV, NIV, HCSB, ESV, or NLT (by the way, all of the versions made since around 1900 are like the NIV in this regard). All of these and others represent the Scriptures God gave us faithfully. God has kept His words to us in a form pure enough to save and sanctify us, all for His glory. Amen!

Why Does the NIV Leave Out Verses?

Inerrancy Will Be the Death of Me

I am a believer in Biblical inerrancy. As far as I understand, the 66 books of God’s inspired Word contain no errors on any subject on which they make any statement. Unfortunately, though, the 66 books of the Bible were written by 40+ authors over a period of nearly 2000 years. So they don’t always seem to fit right. Sometimes they look contradictory. Sometimes they look messed up. Sometimes they’re scary and confusing.

Sometimes the Bible completely stumps me.
Continue reading “Inerrancy Will Be the Death of Me”

Inerrancy Will Be the Death of Me