Bible Studies/Inerrancy


Reference to my previous question on Matthew 19:17, I am sorry about not making the follow-up question clearer.

Actually I have both questions in mind.  1) Why the holy book has to be based on the writers’ learning and growing in their faith and knowledge instead of having a clear doctrine with no errors or changes? 2) How it affects the doctrine of inerrancy if we think gospel writers may sometimes have chosen to tweak a saying of Jesus because they felt that, for the audience they were addressing?



Thank you for your profound questions.

Question 1. Why the holy book has to be based on the writers’ learning and growing in their faith and knowledge instead of having a clear doctrine with no errors or changes?

Here is my answer (other Bible scholars may have differing answers):

The most fundamental answer is that God chooses to convey the knowledge of his nature and truth to and through human beings, who, by our very nature as created beings, develop and grow in knowledge and understanding over time (Lk. 2:52). We might like for all matters revealed to us by God to be simple, final, "cut and dried," but we don't actually need it to be that way, nor does our preference for that option entitle us to get it.

Why, for example, after spending three years in daily discipleship relationship with Jesus, and months under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost, was Peter (along with most if not all of the Jewish believers in Jesus) still unaware that God might have plans for him to fully accept non-Jews as fellow believers (see Acts 10-12)? Why, even after this point, did Peter still have mixed feelings about the whole thing (Gal. 2:1-14)? The answer is that he, even though he was being entrusted with teaching and preaching the Good News, and would later be a writer of New Testament Scripture (1 & 2 Peter), was a real, flesh-and-blood human being, and he couldn't take in everything he would ever know all at once. God worked with and through him. God made sure that what he did know at any given time was good and edifying--if incomplete--knowledge.

This principle does not stop with what people knew up to the point that they began to write scripture. Paul, for example, writing 1 Corinthians (13:8-10), says this:

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Thus the Bible contains the information that even the Bible itself is not complete. If we created beings were somehow capable of knowing and understanding everything there is to know and understand during this mortal life, perhaps God might download the knowledge of everything to us. But I suspect that no created being, no matter how wise relative to other created beings, knows all and understands all. Self-sufficient knowledge of all is the provenance of God alone. The "partial" nature of revelation at any given moment is thus a fact that just won't go away. Awareness of this--or at the very least, awareness of our limited ability to take in revelation from the Bible--becomes an opportunity to exercise faith, praying the equivalent of "Give us today our daily bread," or, in other words, asking God to give us the revelation we need for this moment in our lives. We don't need everything all at once.

Now, in saying all of this, I am not implying that there are doctrinal "errors" as such in the Bible that are corrected in later texts. But there are often hints of things that only later come into focus. For example, it's very possible that no up to Jesus' time--with the exception of Jesus himself--understood Isaiah 52:7-53:10 and Zech. 12:10-13:1 as prophesying that the Messiah was to suffer and die to save sinners. Everything does not need to be revealed fully at the first moment God reveals anything at all about something.

Question 2. How does it affect our doctrine of inerrancy if we think gospel writers may sometimes have chosen to tweak a saying of Jesus because they felt it necessary for the audience they were addressing?

Our notion of inerrancy may well have to be altered. If we would like everything to always be "exactly so," we may be disappointed. I'll give an example.

Mark 10:11
And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.

Matthew 5:31-32
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19:9
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.

Luke 16:18
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

Here's a question. If we believe in the inspiration of Scripture, are we forced to believe that the exception in Matthew's Gospel for immorality on the part of the wife was taught by Jesus? Are we sure that Matthew does not have the authority as an apostle to interpret Jesus' words for his own audience? After all, it would seem to be a contradiction if Jesus were to teach that every divorce by the husband forces the wife to commit adultery, even in the case that he is divorcing her because she has left him and is living with another man. In that case, she is obviously committing adultery entirely voluntarily. How much does it matter whether we think (1) Jesus anticipated the problem, and added the exception sometimes but not always in his teaching, (2) Jesus explained the exception to his close followers privately when they asked him about the apparent contradiction, or (3) the apostles taught the exception after Christian believers kept asking them about the apparent contradiction? In the case of (3), the saying could end up being known in a community, after decades of repetition, in a form that included the exception. Is this really so terrible? Even more likely than this, in my mind, is the possibility that the following verse in Mark comes from later teaching, and not from the mouth of Jesus:

...and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mk 10:12).

In a conservative Jewish context, the possibility of the wife divorcing the husband would never arise. There is no provision in the Hebrew OT for such a thing. So in principle it seems unlikely (not impossible) that Jesus would have said such a thing. On the other hand, Gentile women, and in particular Roman women, had and regularly used the right to divorce their husbands. In addition, it is believed (1) the apostle Peter was the source behind Mark's Gospel, and (2) Peter, with Mark, preached and taught for some time in Rome (he was later martyred in Rome). It's entirely reasonable to suppose that Peter's (Gentile) hearers in Rome would have asked, in relation to this teaching of Jesus, "What about the case where the woman divorces her husband? Is the principle the same?" And Peter would have said, "Yes, the principle is the same." Thus one of two possibilities seems at least reasonable to imagine: (1) The saying about divorce at some point in time in the churches at Rome came to include the explanation about women divorcing their husbands, or (2) Mark, when composing his gospel for Gentile and even Roman readers, added in the explanation on Peter's authority, as though Jesus had said it.

What happens to your concept of inerrancy if you accept the possibility that apostles and church communities had this kind of freedom to paraphrase and interpret Jesus' words in order to make them relevant and understandable in new cultural contexts? It obviously has to get more flexible. There are certainly plenty of believing scholars out there who would not accept the possibility of what I'm saying. And I'm not saying they are wrong. All I am saying is that it is not the end of the world if every word in the Bible is not fixed in concrete. Once again the invitation is to exercise faith--not in a diamond-hard Bible, but in God, who gives us the knowledge that we need, accommodated to our capacity to understand at this moment in our lives.

Some of the implications of what you're asking are far too big to deal with in this forum, so I will refer you to a couple of good discussions of apparent contradictions or other puzzles in the gospels.


Webb Mealy

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J. Webb Mealy


Qualified to answer questions about the New Testament, including ones that require expert knowledge of Greek, New Testament History, and New Testament Theology. Particular area of expertise is New Testament eschatology (teachings on the end of the world), the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel and epistles of John. Questions about English translations--how they are arrived at, whether they are accurate, and whether there are alternative possibilities. Textual criticism.


Have taught the Bible and New Testament to lay people for 20 years. Translator of the Spoken English New Testament (, author of After the Thousand Years: Resurrection and Judgment in Revelation 20 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992). Senior Biblical Studies Editor, Sheffield Academic Press, 1990-1995.

Instructor, Seminary of the Street, Oakland, CA

See my online publication,, which gives an easy-to-understand but thorough introduction to the Christian Good News. See, home of the Spoken English New Testament, the most accurate available translation of the New Testament into natural contemporary English.

PhD, Biblical Studies, Sheffield, UK MA (Honors), Humanities, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY BA (Cum Laude), Religious Studies/New Testament, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA

Awards and Honors
Research Paper, "Tracing the Rise of Modalism in Rome," named best graduate paper of the year, Western Kentucky University, 1981

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