Answering Claims That the Bible Contains Errors, and Why It Matters That It Doesn’t
When people say they believe the Bible contains errors, it’s a good practice to ask them to name those errors so you can open a Bible and look at them together.
Sometimes they will raise old and easily answered questions such as “Where did Cain get his wife?” But usually they can’t name many supposed errors, if any at all. Often, they’ve taken as truth the word of other people that the Bible contains errors, without investigating for themselves.
When you take the time to talk about their concerns, you can demonstrate that you have investigated it for yourself, that you've done your homework, and are convinced that when God says all Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), He means that it is all accurate and reliable. Of course, if you haven’t actually done that, it’s time to start! Don’t be afraid, because God’s Word will hold up under your scrutiny. (It certainly has under mine!)
Remember, if someone asks a question you don’t know the answer to, it’s okay to say, “That’s a great question. Let me research it, and I’ll get back with you.” The Christian Research Institute gives this advice: “…rather than taking a fearful attitude when faced with an alleged biblical contradiction, we should view these occasions as opportunities to search and explore the Scriptures. One thing I can guarantee is this: your awe of the majesty of Scripture will deepen.”
Where Did Cain Get His Wife?
Let’s go back to Cain’s wife. She is referred to in Genesis 4:17 as the mother of Enoch. The typical claim is that Cain couldn’t have had a wife since only he and Abel were born to Adam and Eve.
This fails to recognize that Genesis 5:4 specifically tells us that Adam and Eve had other sons and daughters. Considering their long lifespans they likely had many childbearing years. But is there a problem since Genesis 4:17 precedes Genesis 5:4? Not at all. The narrative is not strictly sequential. It’s very common for books of history to talk about one person’s life, tracing out what they did for decades, then move back to deal with another of their contemporaries. With Cain, the text of Genesis has fast-forwarded decades, and by then he likely had a number of sisters of marriageable age. He obviously married one of them, or if it was multiple decades later, possibly one of his nieces. If in those days no one had children by a close relative, the human race would have quickly become extinct.
The problem of Cain’s wife is no problem to anyone but the most superficial reader of Scripture (and to those who have heard others say it is a problem).
What about Other Supposed Errors?
There are many claims of various errors in the Bible; I’ll deal with just a couple.
Some say that since it groups bats with birds, the Bible falsely teaches that bats are a type of bird (Deuteronomy 14:11, 18). First, there was no scientific definition or established classification of a bird in that time. It makes perfect sense that bats could be grouped with birds due to the fact that both fly.
The inspired original manuscript, in reference to bats, used a Hebrew word meaning a kind of animal that can fly. Unfortunately, some English translations render the word as “bird.” When a bat is involved, a better English translation would be “flying animal.” Obviously, it’s not an error to categorize a bat as a flying animal!
Some critics claim attribution errors, such as in Matthew 27:9-10: “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.’” This reference is actually found in Zechariah 11:13, not in the book of Jeremiah.
The answer to this lies in early Judaism’s understanding of the canon of the Old Testament. The standard Jewish practice was to group the prophets together, even as Jesus did in referring to “the Law and the Prophets” in Matthew 22:40. According to Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna, Jeremiah was once regarded as the first book of the prophets, before Isaiah. He further explains “…in the Jewish way of labelling things you call a book by its first few words, and you call a collection of books by the first book in that collection.” So a learned Jewish exegete would see nothing strange in Matthew’s attributing this fulfilled prophecy of the potter’s field to Jeremiah.
Was Jesus Wrong about the Mustard Seed?
Some claim that when Jesus said the mustard seed was the “smallest of all the seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31), He was mistaken, since there are smaller seeds.
According to botany experts, the seed of the black mustard variety was in fact the smallest garden-variety seed commonly used in Palestine—even the entire eastern world—at that time. It grew into a very large shrub. Jesus used it as an illustration twice, and both times was speaking proverbially with statements about faith (Matthew 17:14-20) and the Kingdom of God (Mark 4:30-34).
John Piper lends a helpful perspective by clarifying the proper definition of error for judging the reliability of any literature. Thus when Jesus said the Kingdom of God is “like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31), His basic intention was “not in the least botanical…Jesus capitalized on the proverbial smallness of the mustard seed to make a perfect, inerrant point about the kingdom of God.”
Why Does All This Matter?
It matters because if we cannot trust the Bible—if we can’t rely on it to tell us the truth in everything it speaks to—then it cannot be, as 2 Timothy 3 says, “profitable” for us. We can’t correct ourselves with it if it's sometimes incorrect.
And if it isn’t reliable in this and that area, why would I think it is correct about love, holiness, grace, justice, idolatry, greed, gossip, fornication, adultery, homosexuality, or even the Gospel itself? If the Bible cannot be trusted to tell us the truth in all things—big or small—how can it be trusted at all? And if God considers truth so precious, and His Word so powerful, why would He claim to breathe out Scripture from His mouth (2 Timothy 3:16) and carry along the writers of Holy Scripture (2 Peter 1:21), and then fail to guard that Scripture against error?
In the early church, God’s Word, all of it, was viewed as the standard by which God’s people should evaluate any and all teachings. The Berean Christians were commended for measuring the apostle Paul’s words against the Old Testament Scriptures: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11, NIV).
Unless the Bible were fully inspired, fully true, “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were true” would be meaningless. We can't take something containing untruths—with no objective way to decide what’s true and what isn’t—and use it to measure whether something else is untrue. If you had a tape measure you knew to be inaccurate, would you bother using it?
Ironically, without studying Scripture or researching the actual facts, countless believers embrace the claims of the Bible’s critics. Yet most of those critics’ claims are nothing new. The Bible has been criticized incessantly for the last 150 years, and long before that. The charges just haven’t stuck. “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89).
I’m reminded of what the Huguenots said of the Bible and its critics: “Hammer away ye hostile hands; your hammers break, God’s Anvil stands.”