Office Hours: All Those Errors in the Bible, Part 1

Aug 12, 2008 |J. Budziszewski

Nathan has come to chat with Professor Theophilus about numerous errors he's found in the Bible. Feel free to listen in on their conversation.

"Professor Theophilus, I know these aren't your office hours, but — what is that foul-smelling stuff?"

"My lunch. Haven't you seen leftover sauerkraut before?"

"Not fixed like that. I guess you were in a hurry this morning, huh?"

I looked at Nathan over the top of my glasses. "You were saying these aren't my office hours. They aren't."

He didn't take the hint. "Could I talk with you while you eat?"

I sighed. "I suppose. If you can stand the foul smell."

"It's not so bad, now that I know what it is. I thought — well, never mind."

"What's so important it can't wait?"

"I didn't say it couldn't wait. But your door was open, and I'd been thinking, so —" He shrugged off his backpack and sat down.

"Thinking about what?"

"I went home for Easter. It's important to my family, you know? I haven't believed that stuff for years. But I think this was the first time they figured that out. I let something slip. Right during Easter dinner, unfortunately."

"That stuff being —"

"Well. Maybe there's a God. You've got me thinking about that. And I suppose Jesus existed. But all those errors in the Bible! I mean, c'mon, you know? And they — I mean my family — they gave me a sort of hard time. You following me? I'm not telling this very well."

"I think I'm following you. You said it wasn't true, they said it was. Then what?"

"So I told them I'd stopped believing in Christianity when I went off to college. The big thing was the Bible. I found out about all the crazy stuff in it. During my freshman year, I filled up a whole notebook with its errors and inconsistencies. I still have it. It's in my backpack."

"I hadn't realized that you'd ever been Christian, Nathan. So what answer did they give you?"

"My mom started crying. My dad said 'Whassamatter with you, upsetting your mother on Easter?' My older brother called me a dumb egghead and punched me in the arm. My sister-in-law got all cheery and said 'Anyone for dessert? Who wants black bottom pie? Who wants coconut cake?' Everyone started yelling out their choices."

"That ended the conversation?"

"Pretty much. Later on, one of my uncles took me aside and said 'There's a time and a place for everything, son.' As though I'd had a choice about that."

"Did he suggest another time and place?"

"No."

"Too bad."

Nathan shrugged again. "Anyway, still later I had another thought. I still can't see how any reasonable and intelligent person can believe in that infallible-Word-of-God baloney. But you're a reasonable and intelligent person. And like I said, you did get me thinking about God. So I thought I'd come and see you."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Will you read my notebook about the errors and inconsistencies in the Bible?"

I laughed. "No."

"Can I read it to you?"

"No."

"Can I read part of it to you?"

"No."

"Awww. Will you at least let me tell you what's in it?"

"Yes. If you choose just a few examples."

"All right!" He dug through his backpack and pulled it out. "Here are two mistakes I found about animals. They devastated me. A bat is not a bird."

"What did you say? A bat is —"

"Not a bird. God is telling the Israelites the things they aren't allowed to eat. Or Moses is. Or God speaking for Moses. He lists 'the eagle, the vulture, the osprey,' and so on, then a few verses later, 'and the bat.'Leviticus 11:13,19. All quotations RSV. See? The Bible thinks bats are birds. Professor Theophilus, a bat is not a bird. It's a mammal."

"You say this devastated you?"

"Sure did," he said.

"Tell me some more of these devastating blows."

"I will tell you. Here's one I like. Rabbits don't chew cud, but the Bible says they do. 'And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you.'"Leviticus 11:6.

I said nothing.

"Too stunned to speak, huh? Here's another," he said. "The earth is not a disk."

"Not a disk."

"No. But Isaiah says it is. Listen to this."

"I'm listening."

"'It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nought, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.'Isaiah 40:22-23. The 'circle of the earth,' get it? The Bible says the earth is a disk, but we all know it's really a ball."

"Uh huh."

"Here's a third. Snakes don't eat dirt."

"Golly."

"You can say that again. The book of Genesis says they do. 'The Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life."'"Genesis 3:14.

I pursed my lips.

"Surprised, aren't you?"

"I'm only surprised that these things worried you."

"What? Why?"

"Nathan, they're just plain silly. In the first place, you're forgetting how translation works. Words in different languages aren't exact equivalents. Take the business about birds and bats. The ancient Hebrew word translated 'birds' doesn't correspond exactly to our word 'birds'; apparently it means something like 'things that have wings.' Well, bats have wings, don't they?"

"Ye-e-esss —"

"Or take the business about hares eating their cud. The ancient Hebrew word translated 'cud' doesn't correspond exactly to our word 'cud'; apparently it refers to any sort of partially digested matter. Rabbits don't regurgitate partially digested matter and chew it again like cows do. But did you know that they pass pellets of partially digested matter and eat them again?"

"Um, no."

"Well, now you do. But there's a bigger issue. Not only are you forgetting how translation works, you're forgetting how inspiration works. God didn't dictate the Scriptures."

"He didn't? I thought —"

"No. That's how Islam believes Muhammad got the Quran; an angel is supposed to have come to Muhammad and said 'Write!' But that's never been how Christians thought God's people got the Bible. Insight from the Holy Spirit passed through the minds of human writers. The important question is whether that insight got through intact, and we believe it did."

"But if the Bible is wrong about rabbits and bats —"

"I don't think it is wrong about rabbits and bats, Nathan, but to tell you the truth, I wouldn't much care if it was."

"You wouldn't?"

"No. That's not what faith depends on. Did you think God gave us the Bible because we needed a zoology textbook? He gave it to us because we were wrecked and we needed to be healed. The message of the Scriptures is the nature of man, the nature of God, the meaning of life, and the history and plan of salvation. That's what they're teaching us. And all of that teaching is infallibly true."

Nathan frowned. "How about the Isaiah passage I quoted? It doesn't look like the Bible is saying anything there about the nature of man, the nature of God, or any of that other jazz. It's all cosmology. Bad cosmology, because the earth is not a disk. Not to mention that the heavens are not a tent. You can tell that these people were nomads."

I answered, "We've talked about how translation works and how inspiration works. Now you're forgetting a third thing."

"What's that?"

"How poetry works. In the same passage, Isaiah says that to God, the inhabitants of the earth are like grasshoppers. Do you think he was giving us an entomology lesson? Was he saying that humans belong to the class of orthoptera, which includes grasshoppers, locusts and crickets?"

"No. We'd just look that way from up high. It's a simile."

"But doesn't the earth look like a circle from up high? And don't the heavens look like a curtain from any position? It's poetic language, like 'the seven seas.' Haven't you ever used that expression?"

"Yes."

"When you've used it, were you thinking that there are seven separate seas that you can count?"

"Of course not," he answered. "It's poetic language."

"So are the circle of the earth and the curtain of the heavens."

"If all of that language is poetry, what's the point?"

"The point is God's power and sovereignty. It's right there in the passage you quoted: He 'brings princes to nought, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.'"

"All right, all right, but you can't say that the Genesis passage is poetry."

"Why not?"

"There's nothing poetic about eating dirt."

"Figurative language doesn't have to be pretty, Nathan. Here, let's try something." I pushed my plate of sauerkraut out of the way, then shoved my computer keyboard and monitor over to him. "What search engine do you use?"

"Kreugel."

"Go to Kreugel and key in 'make them eat dust.' Don't forget the quotation marks."

He clickety-clicked for a few seconds.

I asked, "How many hits did you get?"

"Four hundred and something."

"See? There's proof: We even talk that way in English. So why shouldn't they have talked that way in ancient Hebrew? If you want to debunk the Bible, you're going to have to do better than this."

"All right," he conceded, "I guess that example wasn't as good as I thought."

"No, it wasn't. In fact, all four of your examples were pretty shallow. If we're dealing with things that are important to you, that's progress. But we haven't even begun to consider what I view as the main issues — what the Scriptures are, how they should be read, how God approaches us through them. Can't you pitch me some really hard examples?"

"Lemmee think. What were you saying again about the message of the Scriptures? What did you say that they were teaching us so accurately?"

"I think I said something like 'the nature of man, the nature of God, the meaning of life, and the history and plan of salvation.'"

"OK, Prof. Then I've got you after all. The Bible contradicts itself about all of those things." Nathan patted his notebook. "It's all in here."

PART 2: All Those Errors in the Bible »

Copyright 2008 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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