How can the Bible be inerrant if there are variations among the manuscripts and even between different accounts of the same events? That’s the question we’ll explore together in this post.
How Can We Have the Word of God if Some of the Words Are Different?
I slumped in an unpadded pew, half-listening to the morning Bible study. I wasn’t particularly interested in what the Bible teacher in this tiny Christian high school had to say. But, when the teacher commented that the New Testament Gospels always reported word-for-word what Jesus said, I perked up and lifted my hand. This statement brought up a question that had perplexed me for a few weeks.
“But, sometimes,” I mused, “the words of Jesus in one Gospel don’t match the words of the same story in the other Gospels—not exactly, anyway. So, how can you say that the Gospel-writers always wrote what Jesus said word-for-word?”
The teacher stared at me for a moment, stone-silent.
I thought maybe he hadn’t understood my question; so, I pointed out an example that I’d noticed—the healing of a “man sick of the palsy” in Simon Peter’s house, if I recall correctly (Matthew 9:4-6; Mark 2:8-11; Luke 5:22-24, King James Version).
Finally, the flustered teacher reprimanded me for thinking too much about the Bible. (In retrospect, this statement was more than a little ironic: A Bible teacher in a Bible class at a Bible Baptist school accused me of thinking too much about the Bible!) What I was doing, he claimed, was similar to what happened in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent asked Eve if God had actually commanded them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
I didn’t quite catch the connection between my question and the Tree of Knowledge—but I never listened to what that teacher said about the Bible again. I knew that something was wrong with what he was telling me. Still, it took me several years to figure out the truth about this dilemma—a truth which, just as I suspected, had everything to do with the teacher’s faulty assumptions about the Bible and nothing to do with Eve or the serpent. What I learned later was that the idea of word-for-word citations and quotations is a modern notion that would have been foreign to the authors of Scripture.
Here’s what my Bible teacher assumed: If the Bible is divinely inspired, the Bible must always state what was said word-for-word, with no variations. To question this understanding of the Bible was, from this teacher’s perspective, to doubt the divine inspiration of Scripture.
Oddly enough, when it comes to differences between biblical manuscripts, some skeptics seem to pursue a similar line of reasoning to the one my teacher followed when I asked the differences between the Gospels. “How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired,” one such skeptic claims, “but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly?” In other words, if there are variations among the many thousands of copies of Scripture, how can anyone reasonably claim that the Scriptures are inerrant?
So how can Christians respond to such suppositions?
Let’s look together at three crucial facts that can equip you to take another perspective on these skeptical claims!
1. “Inerrant” describes the original manuscripts, not the copies
First off, inerrancy has never meant that every copy of Scripture throughout history has been identical! The word “inerrancy” refers to the original autographs of Scripture, not to every manuscript and printed copy made afterward. God inspired the authors of Scripture and safeguarded their words from error. God did not, however, prevent the thousands of copyists across the ages from making mistakes as they copied the manuscripts! As a result, the surviving copies of Scripture are sufficiently accurate for us to recover the inerrant truth that God intended and inspired, but they have not always been copied with perfect accuracy.