I wrote this the other day to a friend’s Facebook page. I may come back and re-edit it, but here’s the direction I’m going with the question of “inerrancy”:
It’s absolutely necessary to affirm inerrancy if you think the meaning of the Bible is outside the Bible, in history, or in science, or what have you. “True”, in that case, means, “in conformity with external reality”. When external reality is found not to conform to your text, then you either have to insist that the text is true and the external reality is wrong, or that the Bible “really” conforms to it, despite the appearance that it doesn’t.
But if the meaning of the Bible is in the Bible itself, then talk about “inerrancy” is as relevant as talk about “inerrancy” in Lord of the Rings.
Lord of the Rings, by the way, was one of the most deeply meaningful books of the 20th century, and perhaps of all English literature. And not a word of it was “true”.
And before anybody responds by saying how dare i reduce the Bible to the status of a novel— let me just preempt by saying that that is not at all my point!
It’s just that arguments about “inerrancy” show only that it’s time we start trying to figure out what the writers of the Bible actually thought they were writing about, rather than imposing our need for it to be about concerns of ours.
The Bible is flawless. There is not one single mistake in it. But the whole industry of “inerrancy” is flawed to the absolute core, because it makes the truth of the Bible dependent on archaeology, or vice versa, and refuses to take the Bible seriously as having its own voice.
You wrote, “you are absolutely correct that the core of the bible is dependent on the message it portrays and not on archaeology.”
But I didn’t say “the core of the bible is dependent on the message it portrays.” I said, “the meaning of the Bible is in the Bible itself, not outside it”. I also said the Bible is absolutely perfect, and there is not one “mistake” in it— any more than there are “mistakes” in Lord of the Rings. Neither the Bible nor the Lord of the Rings is trying to tell you about external historical or scientific facts, even though both of them profoundly are about human existence. But even then, the meaning of the Bible (or of LOTR, for that matter) is in the Bible (or LOTR) itself, not in some concept or aspect of human existence external to it— and even though the Bible and LOTR profoundly illuminate human existence.
What you want to call “literal interpretation” is far from it. What you’re talking about might be called “historical interpretation” or “scientific interpretation” or something like that, but it’s not “literal”, because it rests not on the letter of the Bible, but on the underlying and actually quite gratuitous (if understandable) assumption that the Bible’s purpose is to accurately relay facts of history or science, and it requires those facts to match up, otherwise it fails. The letter is actually of interest only when and insofar as it’s useful for showing that the Bible does, in fact— perhaps contrary to first impressions— accurately relay facts that are outside the Bible. In other words, for you, the Bible is “correct” only if you can go outside the text to some historical or scientific event and demonstrate a precise correlation. This “proves” the Bible. And you seem to have no other way of conceiving of the truth in the Bible, because that is what the truth of the Bible is.
And as I said, if that correlation did not exist— if, in fact, you ever found external historical or scientific facts that were different from and contradictory to the Bible even in the slightest particular— you’d lose your faith, because your faith is not in the Bible, but in the correlation you believe has to exist between the Bible and history or science. Of course, before you lost your faith, you would (and you do) deny that that correlation could ever not exist, either by trying to force the facts of science and history to conform to the Bible (creationism), or by trying to force the Bible to “actually mean” something it does not, for example by theories of that invoke volcanic eruptions to explain the withdrawal of the Red Sea in Exodus, or by claiming a possible “mistake” in transmission. But by making those moves, you’ve already shown that your faith is not and never was actually in the Bible as such, but only in the correlation you suppose between the Bible and events external to it.
This may be hard to grasp, because I think nobody has pointed it out before, so let me put it again in fewer words: For you, the truth of the Bible lies outside the Bible, in the correlation you assume must exist between the Bible and external events. If that correlation were not there, then “in vain have you believed”, because exactly what you believe is that the Bible accurately tells you facts of science and history. If it does not, it is not true, and not God’s word. And anyone who says it does not correlate with external events “inerrantly”, is denying that the Bible is God’s word.
You also wrote, “But, let us for a moment consider how the interpretation of that literature would change if it is not considered literally God’s word but man’s word of God’s message.”
I said absolutely nothing about considering the Bible “man’s word” or “God’s word”. At the end of the day, whether it’s “man’s word” or “God’s word” is actually of no interest at all. What we have before us is a Text. Even if every word of it, including the word “the”, is a lie— it is still a Text, a certain sequence of written letters on a series of pages, or rather, of scrolls and codices. These words are in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and they were written in stages between some 2 to 3 thousand years ago. They have been faithfully handed down from generation to generation in a lineage whose beginnings are somewhat obscure, but which can be elucidated to some extent if one is interested (not that this is of any crucial importance, but it is interesting to some of us). At the end of the day, what we have are letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, books, and a canon. And that is the only “word of God” (however you want to define that) OR “word of man” that we have— exactly this sequence of letters and pages, and no other. This is what we have to understand. Now, I hold that this Text has its own power, and does not need to be supported by anything outside it. (I also point out that it exists within an interpretive community also, in which the experiences it points to are conveyed in a living manner, but that is a whole separate topic.)
Your concern is that unless this Text correlates with external historical or scientific events, then “All literal interpretations would now become metaphorical extrapolations, which are subject to man’s interpretative will.” Such a thing would amount to “prophesying from [mere human] inspiration” and that, I take it, would lead to complete relativism and lawlessness. I also gather that you feel we would then have no way of knowing our purpose for being here, no objective meaning in life, if that correlation between Bible and science/history did not exist— if the Bible’s narrative didn’t correctly describe what an independent investigator, starting only with the world at hand, would come to, using objective mathematics and tools of discovery. Therefore it is of crucial importance that the Bible and science and history match up precisely.
I take it you do agree with my point that, if the Bible is to be “true”, there must be a correlation between external event and the Bible, when you write that “There is a difference between external reality and an archaeological claim”, and then go on to explain that several contradictory archaeological claims have been disproven, “and the story in the Scriptures has been vindicated.” “Vindication”, in the sense you use it, means that the biblical narrative matches the external event.
You then list eight “archaeological claims” that you say have been disproven, but I have a hard time recognizing most of them. Who denied that there were Hittites? Jericho is a well-known site, but “walls blown outward”??— where does that idea come from? The existence of the historical person, David, could be confirmed only by epigraphic evidence, and I’m not aware of any that is not highly contested, but nor does that mean there was no David, since mere absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Solomon’s temple has not been found, but then archaeological digging is not allowed at the site in question. Who doubts it’s there, though? Daniel after the time of Christ? Responsible scholars assign it to about 150 before Christ. About whether a historical son of a historical Jacob named Joseph was ever in Egypt, again there would simply be no way of knowing without epigraphic evidence of both Jacob and Joseph, and we have nothing of the kind. I did read an article just the other day showing that there is no evidence of domesticated camels for the putative time of the patriarchs, and pointing to plenty of evidence against the idea. But none of these things, although interesting, is any more significant to the meaning of the Bible than proving that neither Middle Earth nor hobbits ever existed is important for an understanding of LOTR. How would knowing that Hobbits didn’t exist change your reading of LOTR? How would knowing that Abraham, if he existed, could not have ridden a camel, change the meaning of the story? It’s only because you insist that Joseph, David, camels, the Temple, and Daniel MUST be the kinds of facts you can match with archeological claims, that you get alarmed when someone says that such correlations are contraindicated by artifacts (or lack thereof) in the ground. You see, your faith is not in the Bible, but in the correlation you assume MUST exist between the Bible and external facts— IF THAT CORRELATION IS NOT THERE, THE BIBLE IS NOT TRUE AND NOT THE WORD OF GOD.
Moreover, you argue that, “If God is incapable of controlling His messengers from making mistake in historical matters, how can we trust any prophetic message knowing that it could also contain mistakes?” You hasten to assert that only “the original was [free of errors] and that through the normal human process of corruption some errors have creeped in” to the Bible. I would like you to identify a couple of those “errors” so I can know what you’re talking about. I can read the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, and i am not personally aware of a single “error”; in fact I flatly deny that there is a single one, and if you think there is, you either don’t believe in the Bible or you’re misreading it.
I am certainly aware of manuscript variations, and some of them are not likely to be original, so I suppose you could consider those to be “errors”. But I take it you are not referring to misplaced letters, but to elements of the biblical narrative that do not correlate with external scientific or historical facts. If the purpose of the Text is to provide those facts, then we could speak of errors. However, to play my tune in a different key, if Charles Dickens had written, in David Copperfield, of the intersection of two streets that actually never crossed but were and are at all times actually parallel in the “real” London, we couldn’t say Dickens had made a “mistake”, unless his purpose was to provide a description of London. It is better to assume that, as a Londoner, he knew the London’s streets, and he used the words he used, to serve the purpose he had. We might ask WHY he might have had those roads cross, when in real life they do not. But we could not accuse him of an “error” unless we had determined that he actually thought they did cross and intended to represent an accurate map of London when he wrote his book. But we can’t just assume this, as you are doing for the Bible, because that may not have been his intention at all. The actual map of London may have been a matter of indifference to him, or he may have used literary license to associate events that occurred on each of those streets in other places in his book with the events of the scene in which he mentions their intersection, or some other such strategy. As I said about the Bible, the meaning of Copperfield is in Copperfield, not in the streets of London.
You apparently think anyone who denies that the Bible correlates directly with what we can learn from science and history, or vice versa, ought to be killed. Or at any rate, you say, “The test given in Deuteronomy for a prophet is pretty clear. If what they say is not true. He is to be stoned to death. This high standard by its very nature predicates that the words spoken are not from the mind of man but God.”
Actually, it does no such thing. Deuteronomy is saying that if anyone offers his own words as God’s words, and is later found to have led people astray because his words failed to come true, then he is to be put to death. By your argument, if i myself were merely to write that someone who disagrees with me ought to be put to death, this would “predicate” that my words “are not from the mind of man but God.” Maybe so, but what of it? Does that predication make it so? Would you then also agree that imams may legitimately issue fatwas against anyone who disagrees with the Holy Qur’an. Certainly, such a fatwa would predicates the Qur’an as “God’s word”. But would that predication be correct?
But leave that aside, I’m curious what you make of 2Kg 22.20 || 2Chr 34.27-28. Here, Huldah says,
Because thine heart was tender, and thou didst humble thyself before God, when thou heardest his words against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, and humbledst thyself before me, and didst rend thy clothes, and weep before me; I have even heard thee also, saith the LORD. Behold, I will gather thee to thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered to thy grave in peace, neither shall thine eyes see all the evil that I will bring upon this place, and upon the inhabitants of the same.
However, if you read 2Kg 23.29 || 2Chr 35.22-24, you will see that
the archers shot at king Josiah; and the king said to his servants, Have me away; for I am sore wounded. His servants therefore took him out of that chariot, and put him in the second chariot that he had; and they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died, and was buried in one of the sepulchres of his fathers.
Was the prophecy not spoken by the bona-fide prophetess Huldah— the one who, according to that very story, arguably gave us the very Torah itself? And yet the Bible says IT DID NOT COME TRUE. Was she “mistaken”? Was God “mistaken”? What is this book doing, in giving us both stories?
As I said about Copperfield, the meaning of the Bible is in the Bible, not in science or history.