Does the Bible contain errors?
The Bible contains many passages which seem to contradict other passages. Unbelievers, skeptics and modernist Christians see these passages as evidence the Bible contains errors. Conservative or “fundamentalist” Christians respond with books on “Bible difficulties.” These books attempt to explain the contradictions. The usual attitude of conservatives may be expressed by Gleason Archer, “Be fully persuaded in your own mind that an adequate explanation exists, even though you have not found it . . .” The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p15.
However, if you begin with the assumption, the full persuasion of your own mind, that the Bible contains no errors even if and when no reasonable explanation has been found for its contradictions, how shall you determine if the Bible contains errors?
What Archer seems to suggest is the following. We have good reason to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God who was raised from the dead. Jesus while alive treated the scriptures as inspired and infallible. Therefore, we have good reason to believe that the Bible as a whole is inspired and infallible.
The flaw in this reasoning is this. Archer also admits that we may have Bible contradictions, or Bible difficulties as he prefers to call them, for which we may have no reasonable explanation. However, having no reasonable explanation for such contradictions is in fact evidence that these contradictions really are contradictions and errors. If there are or can be Bible errors, then these Bible errors are either
- evidence that Jesus was not the Messiah and that he did not teach the truth; or,
- evidence that the chain of reasoning from Jesus being the Messiah to an inerrant Bible is faulty.
If so, historical and scientific problems in the Bible text have just as much claim upon us in determining if Jesus rose from the dead as does the certainty of the apostles, and their willingness to die for their testimony. For there are Muslims and others who also die for their beliefs. We were not there when Jesus appeared to Peter; we can’t examine that directly. However, we can examine the Bible itself directly.
So, making the presupposition “that an adequate explanation exists, even though you have not found it,” is not reasonable. It is arbitrary. It results from allowing only evidence to be heard in favor of Jesus being the Messiah while refusing to hear evidence against. For, as Archer would admit, every Bible error, if actually an error, is evidence against Jesus being the Messiah. Every Bible contradiction, if actually a contradiction, is evidence against Jesus being the Son of God.
Let us examine four small chapters of the Bible. These are the chapters on the life of Asa, king ofJudah. The chapters on the life of Asa are I Kings 15, and II Chr. 14-16. Most people can read these chapters out loud in less than 15 minutes. These chapters will provide a short education on the subject of Bible errors. Together with these chapters, we shall examine what Gleason Archer has to say about them. Archer has a PhD and has served as a professor in at least two schools. Presumably, he has had at least seven years of formal education in college, and perhaps more than a dozen. Reading Acher’s explanation of the dating problem in Asa’s reign takes a few minutes. Unfortunately, it raises more questions than it answers.
If we compare these two accounts of the life of Asa, king ofJudah, what do we find? Both accounts agree that Asa reigned for 41 years, II Chr. 16:13 and I Kings 15:10. I Kings says that during his reign, the rulers ofIsraelwere Jeroboam, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Tibni (ruling only part of the kingdom), Omri and Ahab. Both accounts agree that at some point, Baasha attempted to build the city Ramah to isolate Judah, II Chr. 16:1 and I Kings 15:17. Asa responded by forming a league of friendship with Ben-Hadad I ofSyria. Asa sent Ben-Hahad a present. Ben-Hadad I then attackedIsraeland this distracted Baasha from building Ramah.
Before we go on, we may wish to clarify some of the names and places:
- Asa was king ofJudah, shortly after the split of theJudahandIsrael. He ruled c. 908 to 868 BC, approximately 40 years.
- Baasha was king ofIsraelduring the early part of the reign of Asa. According to the Bible, he reigned from the third to the 26th year of Asa, I Kings 15:28 and I Kings 16:8. That is, Baasha ruled from c 906 to 883 BC, approximately 23 years.
- Ben-Hadad I ofSyriaruled c 885 to 870.Syriawas to the immediate north ofIsrael.
- Ramah was a city Baasha attempted to build to control trade and people flow in and out ofJudah.
- Ahaz was a descendant of Asa, rulingJudahc 741 to 725 BC.
- Hezekiah was the son of Ahaz, rulingJudahc 725 to 697 BC.
- Isaiah the prophet lived and wrote during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah.
(The dates given above are those given in The History of Ancient Israel, by Michael Grant. Grant is a Christian, and a fellow atTrinityCollege,Cambridge. He has authored many books, most of which concern Christian or Jewish history directly or indirectly.)
Now, a simple examination of Kings and Chronicles reveals one major difference and four contradictions:
War and peace in Chronicles are given theological meaning not found in I Kings. I Kings 15:16&32 say that there was war all their days, between Baasha and Asa. There is no implication in I Kings that this war has any particular significance.
According to II Chronicles 14:1-6, the land is at peace for ten years, “because the Lord had given Asa rest,” presumably because of Asa’s righteousness described in 14:2-5. After the first ten years, Zerah the Ethiopian invadesJudahwith a million men, II Chr. 14:9. He outnumbers Asa almost two to one. Asa reacts by further putting his faith in Yahweh. Yahweh then demonstrates his power by giving Asa victory and destroying Zerah’s army. This war, which began as self-defense against Zerah, results in “very much spoil” being taken, from Gerar and nearby cities. So, even this “war” is a blessing in disguise. Later, Hanani pronounces a curse on Asa of continual war, II Chr. 16:9.
In I Kings, war is not considered a blessing or a curse from God. It just is.
- Asa’s heart “was perfect with the Lord all his days,” I Kings 15:14, II Chr. 15:17.
However, according to II Chr. 16, Asa sinned by a) forming a league with Ben-Hadad of Syria, b) by throwing Hanani the prophet of the Lord in prison, c) by oppressing the people and d) consulting physicians rather than the Lord about his foot disease.
How can one’s heart be perfect with the Lord while throwing His prophets in prison?
- According to I Kings 15:14, “the high places were not removed.”
However, II Chr. 14:3-5 says, “he took away . . . the high places . . . he took away out of all the cities ofJudahthe high places.” (Later the Chronicler raises a red herring, and tries to soften the contradiction. He says, “but the high places were not taken away out ofIsrael; nevertheless, the heart of Asa was perfect all his days,” II Chr. 15:17. Of course the high places were not taken out ofIsrael! Asa ruledJudahand notIsrael. He did not have power to remove the high places fromIsrael.)
- According to I Kings, there was continuous war during the first 26 years of Asa’s reign. According to II Chronicles, there was nearly continuous peace for the first 35 years of Asa’s reign.
I Kings 15:16 and 32 both say that there was war all the days between Asa and Baasha. This would have been for the first half of Asa’s reign, to the twenty-sixth year. After Baasha’s death,Israelfalls into turmoil and civil war. AlthoughIsraelwas larger and stronger thanJudah, conditions in the reigns of Elah, Zimri, Tibni, Omri and Ahab were such thatIsraelwas often in no position to threatenJudah. Even whenIsraelwas perhaps able, after Baasha’s death and the later accession of Omri, it appears that she had become uninterested in threateningJudah.
We note that during the reign ofAsa,Israelhad eight different rulers. Elah was assassinated by Zimri. Zimri died by suicide when under attack by his enemies. Tibni was slain in battle by Omri, after ruling part ofIsraelas king for four years.
So, Asa had border war for the first 26 years of his reign, and it seems he had peace for the most or all of the last 14.
In contrast, II Chr. 14:1-7 says, “and Asa his son reigned in his stead. In his days the land was quiet ten years . . . the land had rest, and he had no war in those years, because the Lord had given him rest.”
These ten years of quiet are followed by an attack by Zerah the Ethiopian with a million men. Although Asa is outnumbered nearly two to one, he defeats Zerah. In the fifteenth year of Asa, the people make a covenant to serve God, agreeing that those not serving God should be put to death. “And the Lord gave them rest round about,” II Chr. 15:15.
However, in or after the 16th or 36th year of Asa, he sents a gift to Ben-Hadad ofSyriaand offers friendship. For this, he is cursed by the prophet Hanani to have wars for the rest of his reign, II Chr 16:1-9. So, Asa had peace at first and “wars from henceforth” during the latter years of his reign.
- II Chronicles 16:1 says, “In the 36th year of the reign of Asa, Baasha king ofIsraelcame up againstJudah, and built Ramah, to the intent that he might let none go out or come in to Asa king ofJudah.” However, I Kings 15 indicates that Baasha had already died in the 26th year of Asa’s reign.
I Kings 15:28, 33, says “in the third year of Asa king ofJudah, Baasha did slay him [Nadab] and reigned in his stead. . . twenty four years.” I Kings 16:6-8 says, “Baasha was buried, and Elah his son reigned in his stead . . . In the 26th year of Asa king ofJudahbegan Elah to reign overIsrael.” The additional data given by I Kings is all consistent with Baasha dying in the twenty-sixth year of Asa’s reign, as we see in I Kings 16:15, 23, 29. If Baasha died in the twenty-sixth year of Asa, he could not have come up to build Ramah in the thirty-sixth year of Asa.
Of these four contradictions, Archer seems to notice only one. On the date of building Ramah, he writes, in The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, “Here we have a clear discrepancy in the Received Text,” p225. (Since the Received Text usually designates the Greek New Testament text of Erasmus, Archer probably means the Masoretic Text of the Jews, as the “Received Text.”)
For reasons which are not at all clear, Archer is completely silent about the first three contradictions we have found. He says absolutely nothing about any of them. Does he not notice these problems? Has he chosen to leave his “encyclopedia” incomplete? Why?
Does Archer think that being “perfect with the Lord all his days” describes a life which includes imprisoning the prophet of the Lord? Does Archer think that one king Asa took down the high places and another king named Asa did not? Should we believe that the “war all their days” between Asa and Baasha is also described by “quiet . . . quiet . . . no war . . . rest . . . rest”?
Why then do we read the Bible? If being perfect means imprisoning the prophets, if Asa does not mean Asa, if “war all their days” means no war at all but rather quiet rest, maybe yes means no and adultery means chastity! Maybe eternal life means annihilation and there is no God, if yes means no and no means yes! Maybe “encyclopedia” means those topics Archer would enjoy discussing and not others.
Nevertheless, let us read what Archer offers us. Archer observes that Christians have offered two solutions to the difficulty in II Chr. 16:1. One solution is to suppose that the phrase “malekut Asa” [Hebrew] in II Chr 16:1 “does not refer to Asa’s own reign, but rather should be understood as ‘the kingdom of Asa,’ i.e. the southern kingdom of Judah as distinguished from the northern kingdom of the Ten Tribes,” p225.
However, Archer is not happy with this solution. He says, “[I]t is without parallel to refer to the kingdom of a nation as a whole and identify it thus with one particular king who comes later in the ruling dynasty. And the fact that in its account of the later history ofJudahno such usage can be instanced in Chronicles raises a formidable difficulty to this solution . . .” p225.
As a result, Archer prefers the solution suggested by Keil and Delitzsch. They prefer to regard the number “36” in II Chr 16:1 and the number “35” in 15:19 as two parallel copyist’s errors for “16” and “15,” respectively. “[I]f the number was written in numerical notation of the Hebrew alphabetic type . . . then ‘sixteen’ could quite easily be confused with ‘thirty-six.’ The reason for this is that up through the seventh century BC, the letter yod (=10) greatly resembled the letter lamed (=30), except for two tiny strokes attached to the left of the main vertical stroke. . . It required only a smudge from excessive wear on the scroll-column to result in making the yod look like a lamed–with a resultant error of twenty. It is possible that this error occurred first in the earlier passage, in II Chr. 15:19 (with its ’35’ wrongly copied from an original ’15’); then to make it consistent in 16:1, the same scribe (or perhaps a later one) concluded that ’16’ must be an error for ’36’ and changed it accordingly on his copy,” p226.
Archer suggests that II Chronicles 16:1 was intentionally, but wrongly, adjusted to fit an unintentional copying error in 15:19. Why? Because two duplicate smudges causing the same error simultaneously would be difficult to believe. In fact, however, if the yod of 15:19 had seemed smudged, the scribe might have looked at 16:1 for clarification. Unless 16:1 was also smudged, the natural deduction of the scribe would be that the letter in 15:19 was in fact a yod. He would then have copied the first yod properly.
Also, if the scribe began to have doubts about smudges in his copy of II Chronicles, he might always have remembered I Kings 15, or consulted it, and thus retained the correct reading. But, no! Rather than I Kings 15 or II Chr.16:1 being used to prevent a copying error in II Chr. 15:19, an error arises because of a smudge. Then, this new smudge error causes the intentional change of a perfectly good clear text in 16:1!
In order to believe in Archer’s solution to the dating problem, one must believe that a scribe or scribes made two separate and nearly identical mistakes, one of which may have been intentional. (Of course, the evidence given by Christians such as Josh McDowell is that Jewish scribes were forbidden on pain of great penalties from making intentional changes or unintentional errors in to their text. Yes, we know that some copying errors occurred. However, Gleason Archer is suggesting that a scribe made an intentional but erring change in the text!) One must also believe that one scribe, when faced with a smudged and unclear manuscript, did not use other scripture to sensibly recognize the smudged letter as a yod. However, the same or similar scribe subsequently used one copying error as grounds to intentionally change the next verse, to resolve an inconsistency.
Which is it? Archer would have us believe that 1) when the manuscript is smudged or unclear, the scribe refrained from consulting other scripture to determine the reading, instead guessing wrongly, while 2) the same or similar scribe intentionally changed the text where it was clear so as to harmonize it with other scripture. Why would the scribes act in this fashion? They intentionally change good clear texts to make them harmonize, while they refrain from harmonizing when reading a smudged letter? Is this what Archer would have us believe?
The only alternative is to suppose that two identical smudges simultaneously caused the same error, but not even Archer seems happy to suggest this.
We should also note that scholars generally believe that I and II Chronicles were written after the return from exile in 538 BC. II Chr. 36 in fact takes us into the time of Cyrus the Great, which is the late sixth century. Now, Archer’s solution depends on the use of “the numerical notation of the Hebrew alphabetic type,” and upon the early form of the letter yod. However, this form of the letter yod was not used after the exile, so far as Archer tells us. If not, and if Chronicles was written after the exile with the later form of the letter yod, the error of II Chr 16:1 must have been in the original! Remember, even Archer believes that II Chr 16:1, as we possess it, is an error. Even if the Chronicler himself were reading from an earlier smudged text, that earlier text was neither I Kings nor any other scripture. If so, it was the Chronicler himself who put the error into II Chronicles! If so, there was error in the original autographs, which Archer denies.
It should also be noted that both solutions mentioned by Archer have approximately the same effect in terms of dating the events.
Now, Archer’s solutions leave problems unsolved and create two new ones. For, Archer seems to be forgetting that his proposed solution contradicts I Kings 15:16 and 32. These verses both say there was war between Asa and Baasha all their days. Since Baasha began to reign in the 3rd year of Asa and continued to live to the 26th year of Asa, that would make 24 years of border war. So, either the statement found in I Kings 15:16&32 is in error, or the statement found in the Archer’s suggested original for II Chronicles 15:19 is in error. II Chronicles, using either “solution,” says peace to about the fifteenth year of Asa. I Kings says, “war all their days,” not once, but twice. II Chronicles 14:1-7 says “quiet . . . quiet . . . no war . . . rest . . . rest . . . So they build and prospered.” Then, after the defeat of Zerah and the covenant to serve God, “the Lord gave them rest round about . . . no war unto the 35th year of Asa.” II Chr. 15:15-19.
For whatever reasons, it does not seem to bother Archer that his proposed emended text of II Chr 15:19 now contradicts I Kings 15:16,32! At least, he says nothing about it.
Now, Archer’s emendation creates another new problem. It makes II Chronicles 15:15 nearly senseless. According to II Chr. 15:10 Asa and the people enter into a covenant to serve God, in the 15th year of Asa. As a result, God gives the people “rest,” 15:15. If Archer’s suggested emendation is correct, the conflict with Baasha over building Ramah takes place in the very next year, the 16th year. That conflict is followed by continuous war as a curse on Asa! If we are to believe Archer, the “rest” God gives is actually continuous war!
If Archer’s emendation is correct, we have the following sequence of events, as described by II Chronicles:
- there is peace in the first ten years of Asa’s reign;
- brief war and defeat of Zerah the Ethiopian in about the year 11 of Asa’s reign;
- peace resumes to year 15;
- a covenant to serve God to the death in year 15;
- God blessedJudahby giving them peace and rest, II Chr. 15:15;
- there is trouble with Baasha of Israel in year 16, this trouble called war in I Kings 15;
- Asa commits a theological error and is cursed by Hanani to have war for the remainder of his reign, II Chronicles 16:9.
- there is war for the remainder of the reign of Asa.
Are we to believe the text says, “the Lord gave them rest round about,” and it means war the very next year and war continually thereafter? Is war “rest”? Is white black? Is black white? What a Bible this is, if war means rest!
In his effort to solve one obvious problem, Archer creates four new ones:
- the behavior of the scribes as he suggests it seems doubtful;
- his emended text must have used the early form of the letter yod, but it was written after the exile, when such a form was not in use, so far as we are told;
- or it is the original of II Chronicles itself which contains the error;
- his emended text would now contradict I Kings 15:16,32;
- his emended text would now render II Chr. 15:15 meaningless.
So, let us summarize how Gleason Archer deals with Bible “difficulties.”
He ignores three out of four of them. The one explanation he does give creates new contradictions, renders scripture absurd and depends on irrational behavior on the part of the scribes to have taken place. Are we to believe him?
So, what really happened? I assume that I Kings 15 is correct. There was some degree of war all their days between Asa and Baasha.
Now, did the Chronicler originally say that Baasha tried to build in Ramah in the 16th year of Asa? Or, did the Chronicler originally say that it was the 36th year that Baasha came up to build Ramah? If the Chronicler specified a year for the building of Ramah, was it because he had a source for that information, or for some other reason?
Now, the chronological data accepted among historians suggested that Ben-Hadad did not begin to reign until just before the death of Baasha. If forming the league of Asa and Ben-Hadad followed shortly upon the building of Ramah, Baasha’s attempt to build Ramah would have been nearer the end of his reign, not as early as the 16th year of Asa.
Although the Chronicler seems to have been working with the text of Kings at times, he does not always follow it carefully. He certainly is not a stickler for numerical or chronological accuracy. He seems in fact to modify the account of Kings so as to glorify Judah and her kings and/or to present his own theological ideas. The Chronicler believed that rest from war was God’s blessing upon certain righteous kings, II Chr. 14:6,7,15. He sees war as a punishment from God, II Chr. 16:9. He also believed that Asa was a righteous king, whose heart was generally right before God.
Given the Chronicler’s view that Asa was a righteous king, he says that Asa took down the high places, in contrast to I Kings. (He will also modify the history of Jehoshaphat in the same way. See I Kings 22:43 in contrast to II Chr. 17:6 and 19:3. However, II Chr. 20:33 affirms with I Kings 22 that Jehoshaphat did not take down the high places.)
So, why then is there a short war reported with Zerah the Ethiopian, an account found in II Chr, but not in I Kings15? The imaginary war with Zerah is used by the Chronicler to suggest how the Chronicler believed that Asa should have handled Baasha.
Why? As we have the account in I Kings 15, Asa delivers himself of an attack byIsraelby bribing Ben-Hadad ofSyriato come to his rescue. There is no rebuke of this, either direct or implied, in I Kings 15. However, more than a hundred years later, king Ahaz is faced with a similar situation. Ahaz is threatened by the confederacy ofIsraelandSyria. He reacts by sending a present and leaguing himself withAssyria.
To the great grief of the Yahweh worshippers inJudah, Ahaz also imports the worship of Assyria intoJerusalem, II Kings 16. Here, appealing to foreign powers for deliverance is linked to corrupting God’s worship.
Later, when Assyria controls in some degree thelandofPalestine, some thought they could rely onEgypt. Isaiah says thatEgyptis unreliable. He says that deliverance is rather to be found in trusting in God, not inEgypt’s military power. Those who trust inEgyptshall reap what they sow. They shall be put to shame and defeated. Isaiah 30, 31.
In other words, the lesson from Ahaz and Hezekiah is that God’s people should avoid entangling alliances with foreign powers, alliances which would lead them to compromise their pure worship of the Lord.
II Chronicles was written after the lifetimes and lessons of Ahaz and Hezekiah. The Chronicler rewrote history so as to bring a rebuke on the earlier Asa, for making what seemed to him to be a similar error as that of Ahaz. The Chronicler also invents a fictitious defeat of Zerah the Ethiopian, to show that Asa’s bribe of Ben-Hadad ofSyriawas completely unnecessary.
The sins of Asa in jailing Hanani and oppressing the people are contrary to the claim, “his heart was perfect all his days.” However, the Chronicler seems to have believed that health and prosperity would be the natural result of obedience to God. He knew that Asa was diseased in his feet in his old age, I Kings 15:23. It seems that the Chronicler has invented some sins for Asa to have committed, just before his incurable sickness.
Thus, the Masoretic reading of II Chr. 16:1 serves two purposes. Firstly, the current reading places Asa’s sins just before he gets an incurable foot disease. That is, in the 36th year of Asa, he commits a theological blunder. He is cursed by Hanani. In his anger, he imprisons Hanani and also oppresses the people. However, by his 39th year, Asa has developped an incurable foot disease which becomes worse and worse, II Chr. 16:12.
The current Masoretic reading of II Chr. 16:1 also means that God had blessedJudahwith an even 20 years of peace, after the covenant in the 15th year of Asa. In Numbers 1:1-3, the Lord had specified that those ofIsraelbe counted, who were able to go to war, “from twenty years old and upward.” In terms of the army, a particular “generation” of the army would come and go in twenty years, other than some senior generals and superior officers. So, the people ofJudahare given, says the Chronicler, a generation of peace because of their covenant with God.