Here's to a good time, a good life, and a good death.
This particular post is quite different from all the other posts of this series. It tackles a question regarding factual truth, not functional truth.
The reason that I am doing this is to paint a picture of why this doctrine is rather a poor position to take. It is also of particular personal interest because many of the people I know really cling to this doctrine.
First, what is the Bible generally speaking? How come Protestants use a different Bible than Catholics and other religious strands and visa versa?
Different religious groups include different books in their Biblical canons, in varying orders, and sometimes divide or combine books, or incorporate additional material into canonical books. Christian Bibles range from the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon to the eighty-one books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church canon.
The New Testament is the second division of the Bible, containing 27 books. This scriptural portion is far more significant in its influence of Christianity, given its message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Look here if you want more on this.
We will note that the Bible basically underwent a slow and steady evolution of formal adoption of various religious writings. The adoption of these writings was based on criteria. For the sake of reference, we are also largely confining ourselves to the Protestant Christian Bible.
Now, many evangelical Christians place the significance of the infallibility of the Bible on a pedestal. It is part of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy which basically states that the Bible is fully without fault or error in its teaching. This doctrine helps simplify sources of truth for Christians and protects anyone from distorting their religion. For instance, if someone decides that the book of Daniel was irrelevant, what’s to stop them from selecting other books? Basically, one of the larger fears is that individuals will select works that are convenient to them and pose little change to their lifestyle.
Generally speaking, since we can never know how factually true a particular passage of the Bible is, we are simply informally practicing the assignment of probability values.
So, how about this question, does the Bible itself claim to be infallible?
Well this is pretty difficult task to do, given that the Bible wasn’t even considered fully codified in rudimentary English until 1384 AD by John Wycliffe, granted, that the scriptural texts included in the Protestant Bible were completed by 100 AD most estimates. Plus, these texts were largely in wide circulation and use during the time periods after Christ.
Some scholars have opined that the canon of the Hebrew Bible was established already by about the 3rd century BC, but it is difficult to really know since the Hebrew Bible was basically preserved on series of scrolls.
Now as far as the formulation of the New Testament, there was the first canon, the Muratorian Canon, which is a Latin Copy from the 7th century that contains characteristics in the writing that suggest that it was translated from a Greek original document put together in (A.D. 170-200 AD). The Muratorian Canon contained all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and 3 John. Most scholars consider this document to to be the oldest document regarding a canon of the scriptures that has been discovered. In 325, we observe the Council of Nicea, which was a landmark event for formulating the Nicene Creed. In 381, the First Council of Constantinople updated it to be a little more specific and inclusive of key concepts of Christian doctrine. Then, there was the situation of the Vulgate manuscripts, or Latin translation of the texts of the Full Bible, commissioned by Pope Demascus 1 in 382 AD and largely credited to St. Jerome (Later in the 16th century, this Vulgate Bible would become the official Bible according to Catholics). The Vulgate Bible was basically the standard Biblical text until other Anglo-Saxon translations of the New Testament began circulating.
The Vulgate Bible: (39 Old Test. + 14 Apocrypha + 27 New Test. which combines to total 80 books)
This corresponds right around the time of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 AD. Shortly after the Wycliffe Bible Adaption in 1384 AD, we see Gutenberg create his Printing Press, which greatly enhances the ability to create, copy, and distribute religious texts. Gutenberg first prints his German New Testament. We then see William Tyndale’s excellent translated English Bible to be completed in 1526 AD and published in Worms. The English-translated Geneva Bible comes out with numbered verses and chapters added in 1560 AD with many notable artists using this particular translation, such as Shakespeare. Finally in 1611 AD, we get the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible that can be even still be found today. This version of the Bible became the most widely printed book in history.
There are some large patterns worth noting about the Bible’s evolutionary process. First, all of these translations until the Geneva Bible and King James Version had included the Apocrypha portion as a standard portion of the Bible. However, there was always skepticism as to whether these texts were genuinely God-inspired. This had to do with Gnosticism, which went beyond the general spirit of the early Christian communities and emphasized special knowledge and mystical experience. Furthermore, for the most part, many of the different versions of the Bible adhere to relatively rigorous translation guidelines, with the translators deeply interested in accurately converting the meanings from Latin and Greek. This is because there was a lot of competition among religious communities, considering Orthodox and Gnostic communities, for “what qualified as divinely inspired texts.” The determination of “what qualified as divinely inspired texts” was largely left up to the religious authorities at the time, who were esteemed members of the Church. They viewed their roles with critical and delicate importance, with strong intentions to carefully adhere to the correct codification of divinely inspired texts.
Marcion of Sinope was the first Christian leader in recorded history (though later, considered heretical) to propose and delineate a uniquely Christian canon (c. 140 AD). This included 10 epistles from St. Paul, as well as a version of the Gospel of Luke, which today is known as the Gospel of Marcion. In so doing, he established a particular way of looking at religious texts that persists in Christian thought today.
After Marcion, Christians began to divide texts into those that aligned well with the “canon” (measuring stick) of accepted theological thought and those that promoted heresy. This played a major role in finalizing the structure of the collection of works called the Bible. It has been proposed that the initial impetus for the proto-orthodox Christian project of canonization flowed from opposition to the canonization of Marcion.
Wikipedia – Biblical Canon
Alright, wow, so now that I have just glimpsed a brief review of the Bible’s evolutionary history, let’s look at some of the Bible’s passages. So, does the Bible itself claim to be infallible?
Many Christians or other advocates of Biblical inerrancy cite the verse 2 Timothy 3:16.
2 Timothy 3:16 New International Version (NIV)
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness
So hmmm, well this seems to make a pretty compelling case that the Bible as a completed work is infallible. I mean that’s pretty obvious right there, right?
We just learned that the Bible was a different collection of works at various time periods. Then what does the verse mean by “All Scripture?” Houston, we have a problem…
I personally really like what Michael T. Griffith, a Mormon apologist, says
Nowhere within its pages does the Bible teach or logically imply the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy. [Concerning] 2 Timothy 3:16 … this passage merely says that “all scripture” is profitable for doctrine, reproof, etc. It says nothing about scripture being “perfect,” or “inerrant,” or “infallible,” or “all-sufficient.” If anything, Paul’s words constitute a refutation of the idea of scriptural inerrancy … What it does say is that scripture is useful, profitable, for the needs Of the pastoral ministry. The only “holy scriptures” Timothy could have known from childhood were the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament. And yet, would any Christian assert that in Paul’s view the Old Testament was the final and complete word of God to man? Of course not. In any event, verse 15 makes it clear that in speaking of “all scripture” Paul was referring to the Jewish scriptures and perhaps to some of his own epistles. The New Testament as we know it simply did not exist yet. Furthermore, it is fairly certain that Paul’s canon included some Jewish scriptures which are no longer found in the Old Testament, such as the book of Enoch. 
So right now, it’s looking roughly like a no for this question. But let’s consider another verse that Christians may reference for this doctrine. Who knows, maybe it will define what the proper inspired works are.
“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
2 Peter 1: 20-21
Okay, so this is pretty blatantly referring to the Old Testament prophecies. So Apostle Peter here is defending the old Testament prophecies, so maybe we can say that a verse in the New Testament was defending part of the Old Testament.
Since there aren’t really any other verses that even come close to re-affirming the infallibility of any collection of works, especially the Bible itself, it seems relatively reasonable to go ahead and weigh the evidence as it stands.
So, does the Bible itself claim to be infallible?
The answer leans towards a strong, grim, no.
Alright, so now we have established good evidence that the infallibility of the Bible is unlikely to be a good doctrine, I’m going to approach one more common method of showing factual invalidation. I am going to question some of it’s history.
I’d like to challenge one rather far-fetched story that the Bible, in the Old Testament, offers up. The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The best part is that I will use Christian sources and references to support my argument.
Genesis 11 New International Version (NIV)
The Tower of Babel
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel[c]—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
So here we have the classic story of the Tower of Babel. Now, what’s wrong with this particular story?
It has to do with the timeline of Biblical events. In particular, the time that renowned historians and chronologists can best estimate when this event occurred.
I looked into a respected Christian chronologist and I really like James Ussher’s work on this. He estimates that the Tower of Babel occurred around 2242 B.C.
I also found a source that many Christians find highly reputable and it even ties Ussher’s work right in there.
answersingenesis.org is a christian website that details this work.
Now why does all this matter?
To put it simple: Because Ussher also estimates that the Global Flood happened in 2348 B.C. This means that there was approximately a 106 year gap between the Tower of Babel and The Flood. Hmmm…
So how many people were recorded boarding Noah’s Arc again?
Genesis 7:13 New International Version (NIV)
13 On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark.
So, according to the Genesis account, we count 8 people. Only 8 people.
This means that over the course of roughly 106 years, we would need to approximate the population growth rate of 8 people. Oh wait, scratch that only 6 people because scripture states that Noah and his wife had no more children (Genesis 10). Giving modest estimates, if we divide each generation by about 25 years, that gives us four generations of children. That’s roughly the grouping of children in a period of 25 years. Now, considering that not all children will be born each sex 50/50, we have to consider those repercussions for growth rates. Let’s say that after 100 years, we have roughly 50-75 adults, not including children. This is a pretty small number.
So if this is true, that means the “people” who are moving into the “soon to be Babylonian” region of Shinar to build a city with great towers was a group of roughly 50-75 capable adults. Furthermore, they are going to use the materials of brick and tar. So, I’m just going to speculate, that with about 20-30 dedicated towards food/water/housing production for the group, which is of course of primary importance, they would have about 25 able-bodied workers to focus on the “towers.” Further, the process as delineated in the scriptures regarding brick and tar was not something that could easily be acquired. Those materials were not in abundance in that region. Remember, these are the very towers that warranted God’s attention and interference.
To put this in perspective, the Great Pyramids, had an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 workers. These figures were estimated by Egyptologists Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass.
It seems quite problematic that a tower under construction by 25 men would concern the omnipotent God. I know God likes to be concerned about what is going on in the hearts of men, and He really doesn’t like people trying to be like Him, but really? Somehow, the unity and camaraderie that these men shared under building an impressive tower warranted divine intervention to stop them.
Now, skeptics or Christians might argue here that we have no time horizon given to us regarding the actual construction of the Tower of Babel. Well, perhaps that is correct. But perhaps it is not.
For instance, according to the Genesis account, that after God intervenes and confuses the people through giving them differing languages, the people split apart and settled in different regions. So now we have to have some sort of time horizon. We just have to look for when the next major events of emerging civilizations began to take place. The region of Shinar is commonly associated with Babylonian territory as it lies in between the Tigris River and Euphrates. It is possible that Shinar meant some other geographic area, but this is considered unlikely by many historians.
According to Wikipedia on Babylonia,
The earliest mention of the city of Babylon can be found in a tablet from the reign of Sargon of Akkad (2334–2279 BC), dating back to the 23rd century BC. Babylon was merely a religious and cultural center at this point and neither an independent state nor a large city;
But even more interesting, lets look at the Akkadian Empire,
The Akkadian Empire reached its political peak between the 24th and 22nd centuries BC, following the conquests by its founder Sargon of Akkad (2334–2279 BC).
Now, again, its important to emphasize that the absolute dates of their reigns are, as with all dates prior to the mid-/late-second millennium BC, approximate.
So basically, we can observe that Sargon emerged as the ruler and founder of Akkad sometime around 2334 B.C. Well, considering this completely contradicts the Flood estimation, let’s consider a different estimation.
According to Wikipedia on Sargon of Akkad,
Bronze head of an Akkadian ruler, probably Sargon.
Let’s go with the short chronology, and assume 2270 to 2215 B.C. Basically, this leaves us no room for the Tower of Babel construction in the estimated year of 2242 B.C., as that would have right during the middle of King Sargon’s reign.
So accounting for possible error in any of the interpretations by about a 40 year margin, we could argue in the most friendly position for the story, that about 125 people had about 20 years to build a city of towers. Keep in mind that only roughly 85% at most would be capable workers, with at least 50% on food, water, clothes, housing, livestock. This leaves about 50-60 capable adults to work full-time on the Tower.
And the interpretation that I just gave above is a generous story according to the estimates. Notice, I did not say that this story is wrong, however, it does require quite the faith to believe in its literal accuracy as told in the scriptures.
Christians will respond that the estimations must be off since, you know, it definitely happened because its in the Bible. Well, maybe, but its tough to argue from that premise given that I was quoting a reputable Christian chronologist. He is credited to analyzing over 10,000 literary works. Further, it’s almost an irony that in conducting his estimations, the greatest point of controversy among academic scholars was Ussher’s assumption of Biblical inerrancy in his determining of chronology.
I wonder as societies evolve and technology improves, are we doomed to have another Tower of Babel incident? There is no question that nearly any present society could build a “tower to reach the heavens” far beyond what the people of Shinar were able to build. Isn’t that partially what the modern skyscraper is?
“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”