Is the Bible Authoritative and Inerrant?

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Since the Bible has been copied and translated so many times, can we really trust that we have the words of the authors? Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S., responds.

Thank you for your commitment to God's word and to its authority in our world.

Recently I have been challenged in reference to the inerrancy of scripture, as we have many translations based upon many manuscripts. While I believe the main meaning is unaffected by such things, I wonder how to respond, as different translations are based upon differing manuscripts, and they do not agree 100%. Do I indicate the Bible is inerrant, with qualifications, or not inerrant, but true to meaning?

Would appreciate your advise/take on this question!

God Bless!

– B. G.


Hi B. G.,

Thank you for your kind words and for your question.

Recently I have been challenged in reference to the inerrancy of scripture, as we have many translations

This is a common attack by critics today. The Bible is the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16), and God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18). As such, it follows that the Bible does not err. It is true that we have numerous translations. However, consider the following point from our statement of faith:

The 66 books of the Bible are the written Word of God. The Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant throughout. Its assertions are factually true in all the original autographs. It is the supreme authority in everything it teaches. Its authority is not limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes but includes its assertions in such fields as history and science.

Notice that inerrancy applies only to the original autographs (manuscripts). It does not necessarily extend to every single copy.

There are many translations today, but their differences do not always equate to errors. When going from Hebrew to English or Greek to English (or any other translational possibility), translators are often forced to choose between multiple possible words or phrases to accurately convey the meaning of the original.

Consider the various renderings of the Greek word theopneustos in 2 Timothy 3:16. The KJV and NKJV translate it as “given by inspiration of God,” the NASB has “inspired by God,” the ESV translators chose the phrase “breathed out by God,” and the NIV has “God-breathed.” Despite the fact that there are variations in the translations, the meaning has not changed.

based upon many manuscripts.

It is also true that we have many copies of manuscripts. In fact, the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is overwhelming when compared to the evidence for other ancient works. Here is a chart,1 which displays the manuscript evidence for the New Testament to other ancient writings:

Author Date Written Earliest Copy Appx. Time Span # of Copies
Caesar 1st Century BC 900 AD 1,000 years 10
Tacitus (Annals) 100 AD 900 AD 800 years 2
Suetonius 150 AD 950 AD 800 years 200+
Thucydides 5th Century BC 900 AD 1,400 years 8
Herodotus 5th Century BC 900 AD 1,400 years 8
Demosthenes 4th Century BC 1100 AD 1,500 years 200
Aristotle 4th Century BC 1100 AD 1,500 years 49
Aristophanes 4th Century BC 900 AD 1,300 years 10
Homer (Iliad) 9th Century BC 400 BC 500 years 1,700+
New Testament 40–100 AD 125 AD 25 years

5,800 (Greek)

20,000+ (Other languages including Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc.)2

The implications of this information are staggering. If we are to believe that we possess the original words of these other ancient writers, then we must conclude, with far greater certainty, that we have the original words of the New Testament. Skeptics and critics who reject the authenticity of Scripture, yet believe these other sources are reliable, display their bias against the Creator.

While I believe the main meaning is unaffected by such things, I wonder how to respond, as different translations are based upon differing manuscripts, and they do not agree 100%.

We can be confident that the main meaning is unaffected by such things. It is common for critics to claim that hundreds of thousands of differences (variants) have been found in the manuscripts. This is disingenuous at best.

First, one of the reasons there are so many variants is because we have so many early copies—and that’s a good thing. The critic has attempted to turn one of the strengths for the authenticity of the Scriptures into a weakness. The fact that there are thousands of pages of manuscripts provides textual scholars with a wealth of information about the earliest copies.

Compared to other ancient literature, the Bible’s manuscript differences are very minor.

Second, a variant is simply a difference between two manuscripts. The key is the nature of those differences. Compared to other ancient literature, the Bible’s manuscript differences are very minor. This may include a difference in spelling (e.g., in American English we have “color” but in British it is “colour”) or the changing of a pronoun into a proper noun (i.e., “He” to “Jesus”), or vice versa. Sometimes there is an addition or deletion of a word, but in most cases it doesn’t alter the meaning of the sentence in any significant way. Plus, the sentence structure is much more flexible in Greek than it is in English. As such, minor differences of word order that we sometimes find in different Greek manuscripts don’t usually change the meaning.

Third, even with the variants, the original message can still come through clearly. For example, look at the following sentences, which are copies of an original message, and see if you can discover what the original message was intended to be.

The Creation Museum is a _____ place to visit.
The _______ Museum is a great place to visit.
The Creation Museum is a great place.
The Creation _______ is a great place to visit.

Here we have four variants in the text, but it is still easy to determine the original statement: “The Creation Museum is a great place to visit”—and it is! While the actual science of textual criticism is often more complex than this, the principle is the same.

Also, notice that the fact that there are four messages helps ensure the possibility of determining the original message. If we only had the first statement, we would have to guess as to whether the author thought the Creation Museum was excellent, great, fair, or poor place to visit. The extra copies clear up any confusion.

Finally, through the science of textual criticism, we know where all the variants are located, and therefore, we know that no doctrine of Scripture is at stake. No one will be led into error by any of the leading translations used today. We can trust our translations greatly, and the fact that the original manuscripts are inerrant. In English, we have the advantage of having more than one translation, which can alert us to places where the manuscripts might differ or the translators disagree about the best English translation of the Greek or Hebrew. This will help us to avoid making a wrong interpretation. And then there are many excellent resources, such as the Online Bible, that can help those of us who are not skilled in Greek or Hebrew to see the original text.

Do I indicate the Bible is inerrant, with qualifications, or not inerrant, but true to meaning?

I would recommend stating your reply as we have in our statement of faith. Here it is again:

The 66 books of the Bible are the written Word of God. The Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant throughout. Its assertions are factually true in all the original autographs. It is the supreme authority in everything it teaches. Its authority is not limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes but includes its assertions in such fields as history and science.

Critics like to talk about the variants, but they have never been able to demonstrate that these variants have any significant impact on major biblical doctrines. Furthermore, they would need to have access to the original manuscripts in order to definitively state that it has not been copied correctly.

We believe Paul’s words to Timothy are entirely true: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

Sincerely,

Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S.

Footnotes

  1. Information for this chart is taken from Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1976), 307 and Daniel Wallace, “An Embarrassment of Riches,” Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLQsYhNdFck.
  2. Norman Geisler & Peter Bocchino, Unshakeable Foundations, (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2001), 256. When we include fragments and ancient manuscripts in other languages, this number exceeds 24,000.

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