Desperately Seeking Errors

Up front, this is a bit of a screed from me, just to address one of my pet peeves I’ve noticed recently in various contexts. But would appreciate any constructive thoughts…

Firstly, for context, I am troubled when evangelicals resort to extremely labored, convoluted, or desperate attempts to solve every biblical difficulty or discrepancy. To me - evangelical and inerrancy-affirming believer that I am - this simply is not necessary. Take the text as it is, realizing that there may well be plenty of things we don’t know or understand. But more to my point, I am bothered by the opposite problem - how I continually find far too many critical scholars or skeptics resorting to convoluted, labored, unnatural, and I find utterly embarrassing contortions of biblical text in order to create contradictions or problems that simply aren’t there.

Perhaps the worst example I ever saw was Bart Ehrman’s “textbook case” of a contradiction, who ignored (or was ignorant of) the explicit explanation of the phrase “day of preparation” in the text of John (i.e., “so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath”) and spends pages arguing rather that the phrase refers to the day for preparing the Passover, in order for to get John to contradict the Synoptics regarding the day of the crucifixion.

Another significant contrived “error” was in Peter Enns’ descriptions of a “turning point” for him in rejecting inerrancy… where he ignored Paul’s explicit portrayal of the water-giving-rock in 1Cor10 as “spiritual”, so as to force an untenable literalistic interpretation onto an obviously allegorical text, so that he could claim that Paul believed in "stupid things like rocks follow people around in the desert to give them a drink.”

And one more example (of many I could list)… Professor Daniel Kirk managed to see an irreconcilable conflict between the synoptics describing Jesus eating the passover the day before the crucifixion, and how John’s gospel notes the Jewish leaders were planning to eat the passover the following day - the evening of Jesus’ trial & crucifixion… This New Testament PhD apparently unaware that Passover lasted for seven days.

I am baffled by this… It is one thing to claim a contradiction when there is at least some genuine prima facie discrepancy… such as the different genealogies in Matthew and Luke, the speed at which the fig tree withered, etc. But the kinds of supposed errors offered by these aforementioned scholars as their prime examples require some blatant glossing, glaring omission, or seriously creative reinterpretation of the texts before we can even see these supposed errors. These particular aforementioned errors or contradictions, I can confidently say, exist solely in the minds of these scholars.

Now these are not neophyte undergraduates, but otherwise highly qualified expert scholars, putting forward their premier examples of biblical errors. This belies a certain desperate need to find contradictions in Scripture, in pursuit of an agenda that seems happy to disregard the actual facts, uninterested in the basic pursuit of truth.

So my basic point regarding discussions or questions of Scripture’s inerrancy… Many evangelicals are criticized for allowing their belief in inerrancy to cloud their judgment when looking at the texts themselves, such that they would not see a bona fide contradiction even if it were unquestionably there. I submit that this danger does not only exist on that side. Clearly, many critical scholars or skeptics allow their commitment to believing in the errancy of Scripture to so cloud their vision that they will see errors or contradictions even when they clearly don’t exist. If so, how much more difficult it must be for them to acknowledge legitimate possible solutions in the face of recognized discrepancies, and recognize that a discrepancy is not automatically final proof of an error.

This is why the criticisms that evangelicals are grasping at straws to find solutions to discrepancies fall flat to me… particularly when made by those who would be utterly unable to recognize or acknowledge a genuinely legitimate proposal for harmonization or reconciliation.

So my basic observation… in discussions of inerrancy, it isn’t that on the one side, there are people who are desperately defending inerrancy due to their theological agenda, and then on the other side, are all those “objective” people who are simply fairly reading what is in the text. There are folks with obvious and deep agendas on both sides.

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I thought that was odd when I first read Enns’ account of it, because I’d never heard of it before. I didn’t quite understand why it was such a faith-shaking moment for him, but I realize we are all coming from different places, so I can see why it could be the culmination of many other things going on (probably if I shared my own “aha” moments, they would make less sense to others than they do to me, and might appear like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill).

However, I would question whether Enns is ignoring anything here. Yes, Paul’s portrayal is spiritual, but the point is that Paul is referring to actual physical things in that passage – isn’t he? I mean, cloud, sea, spiritual food – those all refer to the cloud God used to guide the Israelites, the parting of the Red Sea, and the manna they ate in the wilderness. So if Paul is conferring spiritual meaning to these physical things, that still doesn’t erase the fact that they were originally physical things and actions. So what Enns is saying is that Paul is giving credence to the idea that the rock (with all its spiritual implications) was also still a physical thing that followed the Israelites around, despite this never being mentioned in the Old Testament. At least, that’s how I read it. Am I missing something?


Just to clarify, is your position that the Bible is inerrant or that any Holy Book is inerrant? And, anticipating your response, why would Muslims, Hindus, etc follow their holy books with obvious errors in them? Is it possible that Christians are no different from followers of other faiths in that their beliefs are just as unprovable and their holy books just as inerrant or contradictory depending on your point of view?

Ehrman drives me nuts. I agree that we shouldn’t have to do gymnastics trying to harmonize something, but goodness, he makes no effort at all. And he really should know better, with his training. I think his disbelief ends up clouding his judgment.

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As an atheist, I wouldn’t cite errors in the Bible as reasons to not believe in God. If God exists and if the Bible is God’s Word then I think it is entirely possible that errors could have been made because God inspired fallible human authors.


I’d observe that the entire passage is obviously highly metaphorical. For instance the discussion of the israelites being “baptized” in the sea? (if I was really pedantic, I might point out that it was the Egyptians that got baptized in the sea, and the Israelites were spared that particular baptism…! :open_mouth:)

Certainly Paul is referencing things in Israel’s history as the basis for his analogy/metaphors, but in highly metaphorical manner, as what he is actually writing about is them partaking of Christ, who was the real “rock” from which they received their “spiritual drink” after being “baptized” in the sea.

To illustrate my issue, Let me offer a comparison… How often have I heard brothers and sisters here at Biologos and elsewhere claim that when Christ mentioned Noah and the flood, he may well not have been meaning to communicate that he really believed in a literal Noah and literal flood, but was referencing a common cultural myth at the time that was in the cultural understanding of his audience, for the purpose of communicating a spiritual truth.

Now, I don’t find this particularly convincing myself, but I readily acknowledge that, in principle, this is an entirely legitimate possibility. It is entirely conceivable that Christ (or any other ancient speaker) referenced myths he knew to be myths in order to use them for a spiritual analogy. Thus it would rightly fall flat for me to use that one reference of Jesus and insist, as if that proved the case without question, that Jesus really did believe in said literal flood. How convincing would my argument be to many here, if I insisted that by referencing this event, Jesus must have believed it to have been a literal event?

Thus, Why could Dr. Enns not similarly allow that as a possibility when dealing with Paul? Perhaps (and even that is rather speculative) Paul was referencing this particular myth. If so, why not acknowledge the possibility that Paul may have referenced it in passing while not necessarily embracing it himself to make his spiritual point, as it would be familiar language to his hearers? Especially given all the clues that this section is so metaphoric and spiritualized?

Why, of all the multitudinous ways we might conceivably understand Paul’s thought here, does Dr. Enns insist on only the most strictly literalistic one (the one that we evangelicals are so often chided for using), and not even acknowledge the host of other alternatives?

Could it be that only by embracing the most strictly literalistic (and uncharitable) interpretation, and ignoring all other entirely legitimate alternatives, can the idea of an error be maintained?

I would agree with you that in theory, Jesus or Paul mentioning a story is not some kind of definitive “proof” that that story must be taken literally.

But it does seem to me that in this passage, it’s not very likely that Paul is just picking and choosing both literal and mythical events to imbue with the same kinds of spiritual metaphors. I mean, unless you are arguing that Paul is also referencing the parting of the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, and the cloud God sent as all being mythical too.

If I remember correctly from Enns’ account, he first came upon this idea because he had a Jewish professor who taught him that the “rock following the Israelites” was a common interpretation during Second Temple Judaism, and Paul went along with it without any need to differentiate that interpretation from the events that are actually recorded in Exodus.

Far be it from me to insist that Paul must have done it one way or the other, but to me the context of the passage would imply that he doesn’t treat the “rock following” idea any differently from the other miracles mentioned. Enns’ issue seems to have more to do with the fact that Paul uses documented events from Exodus right alongside a Second Temple interpretation without batting an eyelash.

I’m not sure whether “error” is a term I’d use (or that Enns used), but rather it was something that shifted his understanding of how Paul and others of his time handled the Old Testament.


Appreciated, but I still find it tenuous at best… what Old Testament reference was Paul calling back to when he described them being baptised into the cloud and the sea, for instance? i think it safe to say that said baptism was in a different category in his mind than the actual crossing of the sea?

Personally, I don’t have any particular objection to recognizing the possibility (among plenty of other alternatives) that Paul did in fact believe said myth. I personally think it highly dubious, but i would acknowledge it as a legitimate hypothesis.

But that said, how in the world would that be evidence of an error in the Bible? or evidence of an error in the text? Paul may (or may not) have believed in said literal following rock. Regardless of what literal rocks may or may not have been in his mind when he was writing, what he wrote about was a spiritual rock that was with them and gave them spiritual water, a rock that went by the name of Jesus Christ. As the text stands, it makes no claim whatsoever about some literal following rock.

(A basic and core belief of us inerrancy advocates is that the authors themselves were in no way inerrant, only what they wrote as guided by God. Paul most certainly was erroneous in his beliefs on all sorts of things.)

But then how would you tell the difference between God inspired authors vs rogue authors, writing on their own, without inspiration?

Could you site an example, hypothetical if you wish, of a contradiction that could not be reconciled?

Sure, as long as it doesn’t also make any claim about a literal Red Sea parting or literal manna or literal cloud guiding the Israelites.

So do you see it more as Enns portraying an incorrect idea of what “inerrancy” means? His major takeaway from this episode seems to be that Paul and others handled the Old Testament in creative ways that go completely against the historical-grammatical hermeneutical method that we insist on using today, and that God was totally fine with that. But for most of my life I probably would have just said “Well, sure, but Paul was ‘inspired,’ so he was allowed to do that.”


or, to dissect it more specifically:

When Paul refers to Jesus not just as the rock but the accompanying rock, he, as a Jewish interpreter, is showing his familiarity with and acceptance of this creative Jewish reading of the Old Testament.

  1. No, if this reference to the “following” rock were a direct reference to said myth (which is hardly conclusive)… all we would be able to legitimately conclude is Paul’s familiarity with said reading, not his acceptance of it. believing Paul personally accepted said myth moves into unprovable speculation. it is entirely possible that he was familiar with the legend, used the familiar language for whatever reason, all while not believing it literally himself.

(Again, just as it is a legitimate interpretation to suggest that Jesus was FAMILIAR with the stories of Adam, Noah, Jonah, etc., etc… and used and referenced them due to their usefulness as common cultural metaphors, while he didn’t personally accept them as factual.)

Let me put a finer point on that: no rock moved in the Old Testament, but Paul said one did.

  1. No, Paul did not “say a rock moved in the Old Testament.” he said a spiritual rock by the name of Christ followed the Israelites in the Old Testament and gave them “spiritual drink.” That is what Paul “said.” whatever he was referencing, whatever he personally believed, whatever myths existed that he may have been familiar with, what Paul actually said (i.e., what is actually in the a bible) was that a spiritual rock by the name of Christ followed them and gave them “spiritual drink.”

That is what Paul said, that is what is recorded in the pages of a scripture, and that is no basis whatsoever for concluding an error in Scripture.

Interesting point; I don’t quite see it, however. I am curious how we should, then, think of Paul’s interpretation of the three-tiered universe in Philippians 2: 9-11? Was it not descriptive of an ancient cosmology? Thanks.

To paraphrase Lewis, as I don’t have “The Silver Chair” with me,

“It’s the Sign!” said Puddleglum
“It was the words of the Sign,” cautioned Eustace.**

Having said all this, I agree that neither instance, even if Paul believes an untrue myth, hampers the message. In fact, it fits with the idea that the first part of Genesis was a message-incident principle, where God accommodated stories from our understanding to communicate a spiritual truth. I feel the same about the description of what seems to be a seizure in some of the miracles, to have been demon possession. Either way, Jesus came to heal.

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i concur especially regarding all those references that have the “spiritual” prefix… I personally of course think Paul did believe certain of those things happened, but not others, as it is, in that section he is only making allusions, not claims, and talking about what Christ was doing in a spiritual way using those events as reference points. he spoke only of spiritual food, spiritual drink, and a spiritual rock named Christ. He did not claim (here at least) that there was literal food in the desert, or literal water, though he was clearly alluding to those events. so no, there is no claim here at least about there being real food or real drink or a real rock (following or stationary) or anything. In this section, he is only talking about spiritual food, spiritual drink, and a spiritual rock.

and his referencing being baptised in the cloud and sea communicate that there also he is also making metaphorical / historical allusions, not trying to affirm particular details of literal history. I could borrow Dr. Enns words and try to claim:

Let me put a finer point on that: no Israelite was baptized in the Old Testament. but Paul said they were.

but i hope one would see how odd an argument that would be. it should be obvious to any reader that he was not making claims about literal baptisms happening during the exodus, any more than he was making claims about literal rocks, literal food, or literal drink.

Thanks for that. That is a really good observation I think. When ones thinking galvanizes around something new the particulars often serve only as a personal catalyst. We all have different histories and issues so I can see why what serves as Enns’ touchstone can seem odd for others.


to borrow an illustration that Lewis used: the ancients used to refer to Jesus “sitting at the right hand of God.” Many erudite professors and scholars probably would take this to mean that the ancients must have believed that God occupied a discreet physical space (presumably within a physical concrete “third heaven”), with a discreet body (how else could Jesus sit at God’s “right hand”??). But i think it is pretty obvious to me that, if I went back in time and pressed any early Christian and asked him, “so, you think God has a physical existence and directional attributes, such that Christ could actually sit on what would be recognized as God’s right hand…” they likely would have responded, “Its a metaphor, you dolt!” As clearly as they spoke about Christ sitting at God’s “right hand”, it is also pretty clear they understood God as being spirit and incorporeal.

So regarding ancient cosmology, As it is, I think it is hard to know just how literalized the ancients really perceived the things they used such language for… and we should be cautious in assuming an overly literalized understanding. when Paul spoke of things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, what did he intend to convey? all category of things, angels, demons, and people both alive and dead? or was he trying to actually communicate and teach that sheol was literally located maybe some 50 km or so straight down?

so for instance, i tend to be extremely dubious about the idea that, when the ancients described sheol, or the place of the dead, or the like, and described it as “under the earth”, that they actually, really, literally believed in a discreet, concrete physical place that they could conceivably have reached physically had they gathered enough people with enough shovels… as if they really thought that with the proper network of mining, they could conceivably climb down far enough and go visit their great uncle bob’s soul that was hanging out in sheol?

I sincerely suspect that, if I were able to go back in time, and ask almost any ancient Jew or Christian if their society ever considered developing a mining system to dig deep enough to try to establish a pathway to allow travel to sheol, they would have replied… “it’s a metaphor, you dolt!”

If at all interesting, part of what arms me against believing that the ancients conceived the universe in the strictly literalistic way their language might seem to imply is just stopping and thinking of how that would play out. practically.

I once read something of John Walton where he noted that the ancients conceived of the moon and birds “occupying the same space.” And for some reason, i stopped and tried to think through how that could actually work.

So even if the way they talked, or their basic language categories, could seem to suggest that the moon occupied the same “space” as the birds, it is truly difficult for me to believe that they really, literally, believed that the moon and birds literally occupied the same literal area in the sky. I can’t help but think that these ancients (who, lacking TVs and computers, probably spent far more time watching the sky than we tend to do) might have noticed that birds never tend to land on the moon, bump into it, bite pieces of it off, or fly behind it. Rather that they always fly in front of it. I can’t help but think they really were able to grasp that the moon actually and physically and literally occupied a space much further away than birds are able to fly, regardless of what their basic language categories might seem to suggest.

So in other words, you think Paul deliberately mixed actual events recorded in the Old Testament with a Second Temple interpretation not mentioned in the Old Testament and used them all as if they were “on the same level” to some degree?

At the very least, I can see why portraying those things as being in equal standing might appear strange, even if it doesn’t shake up anyone’s view of inerrancy.

But here you’re using the “spiritual metaphor” side of things when Enns’ quote uses the physical reference, not the spiritual, so this seems like apples and oranges. He knows the “baptism” reference is spiritual, just as the “rock is Christ” reference is.

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Do you remember what you thought as a child about the moon, sky, and earth? I do and the sky was a blue dome, the moon wasn’t that far away, and yes hell was under the earth. This was pre-tv days and in fact much of this probably came from what I heard at church but I had no problem with accepting it as true and this has always caused me to agree with John Walton and others. It is hard to unlearn a truth and consider what someone who doesn’t know the truth thinks.


It sounds like you want to engage in some sort of contest to see if someone can actually provide an alleged ‘error’ that will pass your sniff test - being clearly above any determined liberal avoidance of otherwise straightforward reconciliations. I trust that you don’t think of your hero, Lewis, as any such ‘desperate liberal’ or deficient scholar in want of biblical understanding? I would be curious as to your take on Lewis’ views. Here is one of Lewis’ letters to a friend of his addressing the question of biblical inerrancy.

[And I must note … It isn’t that Lewis takes some hard view (at least not in this letter) that the Bible must be full of errors - and here is some unanswerable catalogue of them all … No - he seems quite above that; like he doesn’t even find the question all that interesting. He is willing to lightly take it for granted that probably inaccuracies (on the modern way of thinking of such things) are almost surely in there regarding unimportant details (populations of nations, etc), and if so - it is of no great consequence to him that this might be the case.]


“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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