The eighth Article of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reads (in its current form) “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” Some in the LDS Church today interpret this to mean that the entire King James Bible, possibly excluding a few mistranslated verses, is the literal, inerrant word of God.
Yet the LDS movement was founded on a rejection of biblical inerrancy. Joseph Smith taught that the Bible is not complete, and that “Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” In his account of the first vision, he recalled that “teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” It was for such reasons that Joseph Smith embarked on his own revision, which he never completed.
Brigham Young taught that the Bible contains “history and traditions of the fathers … handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not.” Even Joseph Fielding Smith acknowledged that the Bible is “filled with metaphor, simile, allegory, and parable, which no intelligent person could be compelled to accept in a literal sense.” With regards to the eighth Article of Faith, it is interesting to note that a version published in the 19th century differs from the version cited above: “We believe in the Word of God recorded in the Bible; we also believe the Word of God recorded in the Book of Mormon, and in all other good books.” Note that this more open-ended wording clearly avoids the inference that the entire Bible is the literal or infallible word of God.
In spite of this tradition, some LDS writers today insist on a highly literal approach to the Bible. For example, one prominent LDS scholar recently wrote, “We take the Scriptures to be literally true, we hold symbolic, figurative or allegorical interpretation to a minimum, accepting the miraculous events as historical and the moral and ethical teaching as binding and valid.” He added, “There isn’t a single verse of the Bible that I do not personally accept and believe.” Such views echo what is widely taught in the evangelical Protestant world, such as in the “Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy,” available at http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html.
These writers are certainly entitled to their beliefs, but I personally cannot see how such claims can be defended in light of modern scholarship, or even from a careful reading of the text itself. A more flexible approach is required, one that recognizes the human as well as the divine in scripture. To that end, I present the following examples, certainly not out of disrespect for the Bible, but only to underscore the hopelessness of a literal or inerrant approach. Most of these examples are fairly well known, although some are my own observations. Further details and complete references can be found at http://www.dhbailey.com/papers/dhb-bible-literal.pdf.
The Old Testament
There are numerous discrepancies in the first few books of the Old Testament. For instance, in Gen. 7:2 we read that Noah was commanded to take seven each of every “clean” beast, males and females, and two of beasts that are not “clean.” But in 7:9 we read that only two of each kind were taken. In 8:7 we read that Noah sent forth a raven; in the next verse we read that he sent a dove. In 7:17 we read that the flood was 40 days upon the earth. However, in 7:24 we read that the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days, and then decreased until the tenth month, which would be roughly 300 days. A still different figure is found in 8:14, which with 7:11 gives 57 days.
Another example is in the account of Joseph being sold into Egypt. In Gen. 37:28, we read that Midianite merchants drew Joseph out of the pit and sold him to Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. In Gen. 39:1, the Ishmaelites then took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar. But in Gen. 37:36 we read that it was the Midianites who sold Joseph to Potiphar.
Exo. 12:37 says that “about six hundred thousand” Hebrew men (i.e, two to three million total persons) left Egypt in the exodus. Exo. 38:26 and Num. 1:46 are more specific, giving the figure 603,550 men 20 years or older. Needless to say, is hard to see how such a host could have survived in the Sinai desert for 40 years and escaped modern-day archaeological detection. However, even from the Old Testament text it is clear that the actual number was much smaller: (1) Exo. 1:5 says that Jacob’s extended family numbered just 70 persons when they entered Egypt, so 430 years later they would have numbered only a few thousand; (2) Exo. 1:15-17 says that there were only two midwives for the Hebrews when Moses was born, which implies that the Hebrew society at the time had no more than about 7,000 women; (3) in Exo. 18:21, Jethro recommended that Moses organize the host of Israel into thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens (not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands); (4) a census of firstborn males in Num. 3:40-43 counted 22,273; (5) in Num. 20:17-19 and 21:22, Moses promised the king of Edom that the Israelites and their cattle would pass through his territory strictly on the narrow king’s road; if the Israelites numbered in the millions, such a procession would have been hundreds of miles long and taken many months; (6) the ancient city of Jericho was only about two blocks in size, and could have housed at most 3,000 people; if the Israelites numbered in the millions, a miracle of walls falling down would hardly have been needed to overcome this small settlement.
Similar difficulties arise in analysis of the ages of the patriarchs given in Gen. 5 and Gen. 11. Even setting aside the question of whether such extreme longevities are biologically possible, it is clear that there are anomalies in these figures. For example, in a suspicious number of figures for years lived after first son, the last two digits are 20 or less, or are “00”. Also note that by adding the ages at first son through Lamech, plus 600 (since the flood occurred when Noah was 600), one finds that the flood occurred 1656 years after Eden. This corresponds to 86,400 weeks, which is a magic number in Egyptian cosmology, and which is memorialized even today in our reckoning of time: 24 hours x 60 minutes x 60 seconds = 86,400 seconds per day. These longevity figures also conflict with Gen. 6:3, where the Lord declares that mankind’s days shall be “an hundred and twenty years.”
The New Testament
The four Gospels, while generally in agreement on the Savior’s ministry, contain numerous discrepancies, although as before such discrepancies pose no substantive difficulties, except to those who insist that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. One well-known example is the differing versions of Jesus’ genealogy given in Matt. 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. These passages disagree beginning with who was Joseph’s father (Jacob versus Heli), the number of generations between David and Jesus (27 versus 40), and even in the genealogy between Moses and David.
There are significant differences in the two accounts of Jesus’ nativity. In Matthew’s account (Matt. 1:18-25, 2:1-23), Jesus and his parents were living in a house at Bethlehem at the time of his birth, and were visited by the wise men when he was one year old or so (since Herod ordered all children under two killed). They then fled to Egypt, but later settled in Nazareth. In Luke’s account (Luke 2:1-52), Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth, went to Bethlehem and then returned to Nazareth after a stop at the temple in Jerusalem. Thereafter they lived only in Nazareth – Luke specifically mentions that they returned to Jerusalem from Nazareth each year at Passover. Also, whereas Matthew’s account records Jesus’ birth during the time of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, Luke describes Jesus’ birth in the days of Cyrenius, governor of Syria, who did not reign until 7 AD (an 11-year discrepancy). Along this line, there is no historical record of a decree from Augustus “that all the world must be taxed,” requiring everyone to return to his/her birth city.
The four gospels do not even agree on who served as Jesus’ original twelve apostles. Matt. 10:2-4 and Mark 3:16-18 list Simon (Peter), Andrew, James (son of Zebedee), John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Lebbaeus (surnamed Thaddeus), Simon (the Canaanite) and Judas (Iscariot). However, in Luke 6:14-16 and in Acts 1:13, Judas the brother of James is listed in the place of Lebbaeus, and Simon Zelotes is listed in the place of Simon the Canaanite.
There are also differences among the four accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene (Matt 28:9; Mark 16:9), whereas in Luke, he first appears to Peter (Luke 24:34). In Matthew, Jesus meets the apostles in Galilee (Matt 26:32, 28:10, 16), but in Luke and John, Jesus first appears before them while they were gathered in Jerusalem (Luke 24:33-36; John 20:19).
Part II follows Friday!