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For those who profess to follow the word of Christ, everyone agrees that the Bible is the infallible word of God as transcribed by many different men compiled together in one book. But for this question, I'm not talking about "The Bible" as in the idea of the perfect Bible, but of the copies and translations mankind reads; the one you and I have on our bookshelves. This may seem like a stupid question for some, and I apologize, but is it possible for these books to contain errors?

The way I see it, The Bible is a product of mankind, written by man, transcribed by man, duplicated on printing presses created by man, and thus it may contain errors, mistakes, even contradictions; these mistakes are the result of man's imperfection, not God's.

It occurred to me after reading through many questions on this site that some people think that The Bible is 100% infallible, let alone that their particular copy may be a poor/inaccurate translation. It's almost as if they believe it was written by God himself, so they tend to blame errors on our own reasoning and interpretation of the Bible, as opposed to the simple fact that a particular passage could have been translated incorrectly (which often seems more likely, especially when it stands out from all the rest).

Note that whether errors/mistakes do (or do not) occur in The Bible is irrelevant; this questions asks merely whether it is conceivably possible that it could contain errors.

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YES, by translations (see Biblical Hermeneutics else there would not be such a thing). However, most of the mis-translation do not really affect the whole story.... unless you're Luciferian. I answered this in a comment because if I were to make this an Answer it would be downvoted like crazy - not because I'm wrong but because no body wants to hear it. –  user1054 May 14 '12 at 18:02
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While I agree that The Bible can and does contain errors. However, the church I was raised in taught that the scribes that translated and transcribed The Bible had God's divine influence to keep them from making mistakes. Which raises the question, how did this happen? nbcbayarea.com/news/local/… –  cadrell0 May 14 '12 at 18:41
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@MarcGravell it just goes to show that this issue is a question of faith. Either there is no God, therefore any apparence of contradictions becomes a plateform to destroy the Bible and show the none existence of God. Or any apparence of contracdiction is just that an apparance. But I admit there are many christian that are very creative outhere on how they find their answer. –  David Laberge May 14 '12 at 21:51
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Sure, the Bible contains errors. TONS of them. David made an error when he sinned with Bathsheba... Eve made an error eating that darned fruit. Moses when he struck that rock, Pharaoh, who should have just listened right away and let those people go. (I know that's not what you meant, but I couldn't resist throwing a little humor in.) –  David Stratton May 15 '12 at 3:58
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@SteelyDan ??? The first sentence isn't a premise; that is, it's not part of an argument. It's simply an introductory sentence to establish context... The premises of the argument I suggest are in the second paragraph: 1) The Bible is a product of mankind, 2) mankind is prone to making errors, 3) therefore, The Bible is prone to errors –  stoicfury May 17 '12 at 14:47
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6 Answers

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Yes, it is absolutely possible for editions of the Bible to contain errors. There is no magical mechanism to prevent this. There are some notorious printing mistakes, for example:

  • A 1631 printing of the King James version is now called the "Wicked Bible", owing to its rendering of Exodus 20:14,

    Thou shalt commit adultery

  • In 1763, the "Fool's Bible" said in Psalm 14:1,

    The fool hath said in his heart there is a God

  • The "Owl Bible" of 1944 says in 1 Peter 3:5,

    For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their owl husbands.

Some more are listed at Wikipedia under Bible errata. These are mostly simple mistakes, but some of them might be deliberately introduced (like the Printer's Bible of 1612, having "Printers have persecuted me without a cause" in Psalm 119:161).

In earlier times, when books were copied by hand, monks attributed such slips (in jest) to a demon called Titivillus 1, whose job was to introduce errors into manuscripts, especially of important texts.

Even in the earliest Biblical manuscripts, there are disagreements, as can be seen by consulting most modern editions that have footnotes - it's not hard to find verses with annotations that note differences among early texts.

1 Or possibly Titivilus or Tituvillis, etc., it being perfectly in keeping with his nature that there is no correct way to spell his name.

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Great comment about the spelling of that demon's name! :) –  Wikis May 15 '12 at 10:25
    
+1 @JamesT, Nice post. I exceptionally liked the history. I believe the OPs question has more to do with Error such as completely false stories or mistranslations vs simple typographical mistakes. But a mistake is a mistake. Your answer does punch holes in cadrell0's comment. –  user1054 May 15 '12 at 17:05
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There have been several mis-translations or understandings of the bible.

The church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch comments about this:

"Jerome [the translator of the Old Testament into Latin], mistaking particles of Hebrew, had turned this into a description of Moses wearing a pair of horns - and so the Lawgiver is frequently depicted in the art of the Western Church, even after humanists had gleefully removed the horns from the text of Exodus."

The Douay-Rheims Bible translates the Vulgate as, "And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord." This was, however, a mistranslation of the original Hebrew Masoretic text which uses a term equivalent to "radiant", suggesting an effect like a halo.

with that Michelangelo made the Moses statue with horns

Isaiah 14:12

How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit.

The word "Lucifer" shows up for the only time in the KJV. The original Hebrew word there wasn't anything near Lucifer at all. The original Hebrew word there was "Helel". Why change it to Lucifer? The translation to KJB translated the name into Latin with the Vulgate. Lucifer is a Latin word. Isaiah nor any other OT prophet knew Latin. Helel as well as Lucifer means "brightness", but in latin it’s also the word for "morningstar". There was some wisdom to the translation since the next line says "son of the morning". One must ask, why the huge differences in not only the names but the meanings? Helel/Lucifer is mentioned only one time in the entire Bible, so why only there? It describes how Helel fell. After he fell, God changed his name. He was the morningstar. Now he's the adversary, and anyone who is Luciferian (as in the Ancient Roman religion) is now branded a Satanist by Christians.


The "historical-grammatical" method of Biblical Hermeneutics includes consideration of figures of speech. There's a stackexchange devoted to it.

And as mentioned in my comment: mistranslations do not usually affect the whole story

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Few Christians would challenge the idea that there can be errors in translation or copying.

You can always correct a translation error by going back to the original language. Copying errors are a bit more of a problem, as how can you know for certain what the original text was?

In practice, though, it is usually possible to identify copying errors by comparing manuscripts. That is, it's not like there was only one copy of the Bible, and at some point someone copied it and then threw away the original. Rather, many many copies were in circulation simultaneously. Depending on how you count, there are somewhere between 13,000 and 24,000 surviving ancient manuscripts of the Bible. So suppose we started with A, and two people made copies, B and C. Then if B made a copying mistake, the chance that C would make exactly the same mistake would be very small. Thus copy B would be different from copy C. If further copies were made from these, they would copy the error. So when we see that two ancient manuscripts are different, that's an indication that there was a copying error.

Perhaps you've heard that there are 150,000 discrepancies in Bible manuscripts. This sounds like a lot. But to get this number you have to count the same discrepancy multiple times. That is, if 15,000 manuscripts say X and 5,000 say Y, then that counts as 5,000 discrepancies. If you ignore the duplicates, there are about 10,000 discrepancies. Still sounds like a lot. But the vast majority of these are spelling errors, changes in spelling over the centuries, changes in grammar rules, and word order, none of which affect the meaning of the text. That leaves about 400 discrepancies in the entire Bible that actualy involve changing the meaning of the text. Most of these are pretty minor. Like in Isaiah 53, some ancient manuscripts include the word "light" and others don't, so the meaning may be "He shall see the labor of his soul" or "He shall see light from the labor of his soul".

I remember seeing a list of all these discrepancies once but I'm unable to find it now. Sorry! The biggest is Mark 16:9-20: some ancient manuscripts include it, others end the chapter at verse 8. None of the discrepancies change any significant event or doctrine.

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Great answer - very helpful. +1 –  Jas 3.1 May 15 '12 at 16:46
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I think before looking at the question of whether or not the Bible has errors one firstly needs to look at the main purpose of this book and at how he personally views this book's main purpose.

For example, if he takes the Bible as a book that is meant to give us a precise account on how the world came into being, then, of course, Bible will contain a lot of mistakes in this regard, because giving an account on how the world was created is not the main purpose of the Bible. Neither is its purpose to give humans a correct and comprehensive description of the end of the world. The same is true with the Bible providing correct/not correct description of some historical events or facts or correct translation from one language into another - all of these are not the main purpose of the Bible.

The main purpose of this book is to bring those who are to be saved into believing into and the fellowship with the Son of God, Jesus Christ. In this regard Bible really has no errors whatsoever as it absolutely serves its purpose! The numerous linguistic, factual, historical and doctrinal ambiguities that can be found in the Bible only lead those who are to be in/ those who are in the fellowship with the Son of God to pray to Him/to pray to Him more.

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Moderatore note: A large conversation between brilliant and Jas3.1 sparked by this answer was migrated and continued in this chat room. Those comments have been removed. –  Caleb Sep 10 '12 at 9:56
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In Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy it is known the life of the saint Mary the Egyptian (+522), which is an example of repentence, overwhelming for the human nature. From very young age she left her parents. Far from home, she spent 17 years into lechery. One day happened a miracle in her life and she realized how sinfull she was. Very ashamed in front of the God, she felt so much guilt. Counting on the help of the Virgin Mother of God, she left the world and she went deep in the desert spending there 47 years in very wild places, without to see any human face, without food and loosing her few clothes in a short while. Her surviving there was a miracle. One year before to die, God sent abba Zosima, a monk, to find this treasure hidden deep in the desert. When he met Saint Mary, he implored her to tell about all her life from early ages until the last day. Abba Zosima was very impressed, crying all the time when he heard her story, but in the same he was amazed about the fact that she cited words of Scripture, knowing in the same time that she never learnt from the books and she never heard anyone who sang or read these words.

Saint Mary told to abba Zosima:

The word of God are alive and active, by itself teaches a man knowledge.

The saint John Chrysostom, in Homilies on Matthew, explains that God gave us His word, not using ink and paper, He writes directly in human hearts with Holy Spirit. God didn't gave writtings to Noah, to Abraham, to his offspring, to Job, to Moses. Instead of writtings, He gave to the apostles, the Holy Spirit saying:

(John 14:26) He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.

(Jeremiah 31:33) I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

(2 Corinthians 3:2-3) You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts

And saint John Chrysostom, concludes in Homily 1 on Matthew:

But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course: the written Scriptures.

In his Homilies, saint John Chrysostom tell that even in his times, 347-407, the Scriptures had many enemies trying to change them, to cut them or to destroy them completely:

Matthew 28:12-15 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

It is known that Orthodoxy is a very "conservative religion" with everything old and everything hard to be understood by our modern minds. But its Holy Tradition, is not tradition made by men, is the way to keep everything revelated from the the God, in its original form as much as possible, unaltered, unreformed, uninfluenced by the temporary teachings of humanity. It is made only by saints, to remain Holy. And the Scriptures are part of this Holy Tradition.

Even if some texts of the Bible were altered by "academic" translations, re-writtings, the good news is the word of God cannot be changed, or losed definitively, because the finger of God will write His word every time in humble hurts looking for Him.

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(1) It would be good if, while presenting the vague and extremely abstract concept of a Holy Orthodox Tradition, the precise boundaries of which no one has so far succeeded to mark out, you had also cared to explain why then Mark, Luke, Matthew, John and others decided to leave something WRITTEN for us in the first place. Indeed, "God didn't gave writtings to Noah, to Abraham, to his offspring, to Job, to Moses. Instead of writtings, He gave to the apostles, the Holy Spirit" - if so, why then those to whom the Holy Spirit was given still decided to write something? –  brilliant Sep 10 '12 at 16:10
    
(2) Why not just pass on the Holy Spirit? Sure, you will say that the act of writing something was also a part of the work of the Holy Spirit, and the “Scriptures are part of this Holy Tradition”, which in its turn would mean that merely having Scriptures and believing into what is written in them is not enough - one should also check out his understanding of Scriptures with that mysteriously vague and extremely bulky Holy Orthodox Tradition. –  brilliant Sep 10 '12 at 16:10
    
(3) Now here is the practical question: if I agree with you that knowing and believing in what the Scriptures say is not enough and now I want to check out my faith with the whole lot of the Holy Orthodox Tradition, where should I start and where … when on earth will I be able to reach the end in it? Have you yourself read all the writings that are contained in the Holy Orthodox Tradition? Can you even give me an approximate number of books that today constitute the Holy Orthodox Tradition? –  brilliant Sep 10 '12 at 16:11
    
(4) Also, if believing just Scriptures is not enough, then Apostle John was probably wrong when he wrote: “these (words) are WRITTEN, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:31). –  brilliant Sep 10 '12 at 16:11
    
(5) Also, in the last few paragraphs of your answer you express the idea that due to the fact that Scriptures have been altered and re-written, we should not trust them so much, but rather trust that vague and undefined Holy Orthodox Tradition that has kept the right understanding of the Scriptures in its whole purity. But, if we take this matter more objectively how can you be sure that the same kind of alteration did not happen to that very Holy Orthodox Tradition? –  brilliant Sep 10 '12 at 16:12
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Summary

The Bible has a long history of textual issues, but none of them have any bearing on the core of our faith.

Textual and translation errors

If you are interested in a fairly detailed and scholarly (yet highly readable) account of the transmission issues of New Testament texts, I highly recommend Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. Remarkably the book is available online via archive.org. It's not a perfect book and his theology seems mis-aimed. Nevertheless, it's required reading for anyone interested in the subject.

Experts continue to address problems of textual criticism, translation, and even contradictions. The remarkable thing is that many of these problems are solvable. Compared to other ancient thinkers, we have a high degree of certainty that we know what the authors of the New Testament intended. Counter-intuitively perhaps, the more copies of a text we have, the more likely we are to a complete and accurate understanding of authorial intent. Imagine if we only had Aristotle's Eudemian Ethics and not Nicomachean Ethics—our understanding of the Philosopher's ethical though would be irrecoverably impoverished. Given two separate copies of the work, we can apply simple logic to recover not only his ideas, but even their development.

Theological implications

When I read through Ehrman's examples, I'm impressed by the triviality of the variations. As has been noted over the years by many scholars, none of these variations would alter Christian theology in the least. We could toss 1st Corinthians 14:34-35 and it would do no harm to our belief the Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

However, there are Christians who believe that any variation (i.e. "imperfection") in the Bible undermines the credibility of Christianity. My impression is that Dr. Ehrman was one of those Christians. I submit that this idea was imported from Islam and not a part of historical Christian theology. In many ways, the real question we ought to ask is not "Is the Bible without error?" but "Does the Bible have authority?" While there are many disagreements about the first, all Christians that I know answer the second in the affirmative.

What we do when we don't understand the Bible

I'd like to take a moment to discuss the deeper question you ask about what we do when we find something we don't understand. Perhaps the easiest way is to walk through how I come to grips with my least-favorite verse in the Bible:

For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.—Mark 12:25 (ESV)

Frankly, the problem is that I love my wife and I can't imagine a (good) future without being married to her. Jesus' teaching (repeated in all three synoptic gospels) is clear, however: marriage does not carry over to the resurrection. Now if I had examined Jesus' teaching and found it generally untrustworthy, there's no question I'd dismiss this bit of the Bible along with the rest. We aren't surprised when a fool says something foolish.

But I've discovered after many years, that Jesus' teaching in the Bible has proved trustworthy in my life. When, for instance, I follow his suggestions to be humble, gentile and to turn the other cheek, I find that it works to avoid escalation of conflict and that I feel a deep sense of peace. And it's not the case that he is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. No. In my experience, Jesus is always right.

This is fundamentally what it means to trust Jesus and to have faith in him. So when I go back to the idea that I won't be married in the Resurrection, I must struggle with the idea that not only is it's true, but that it's good. I don't believe that it can be, but I believe that Jesus taught with authority. So I must echo the father of an epileptic boy who could not be healed:

I believe; help my unbelief!—Mark 9:24b (ESV)

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Without other verses, couldn't one take Mark 12:25 to mean one will not get married post-resurrection but if one were to be already married... –  Chelonian May 16 '12 at 21:21
    
Excellent answer. Thank you for taking the time to put this together. +1 –  Jas 3.1 May 16 '12 at 21:35
    
@Chelonian: If only I could get myself to ignore the context. ;-) –  Jon Ericson May 16 '12 at 23:43
    
@JonEricson Well, maybe even more context (whatthebiblesays.info/Marriageinheaven.html) might provide a new way of looking at it. I've had a pastor/religion prof give me a very interesting new context for two famous bible moments recently and so present this in that spirit. –  Chelonian May 17 '12 at 0:44
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