Most Christians think the Bible has been accurately preserved over the ages, and that the textual differences that exist are largely insignificant.

But I came across this verse which makes me question whether the Old Testament really was accurately preserved:

‘How can you say, “We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,” when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? (Jeremiah 8:8, NIV)

Note how it says lying pen not lying tongue.

It's no wonder that many people think some like this one couldn't be divinely inspired:

There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. (Ezekiel 23:20, NIV)

Is God saying in Jeremiah 8:8 that the scribes corrupted the scriptures? If so, are the Old Testament scriptures we have today still corrupted?

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    I'm sorry to see the downvotes. Considering the complex language this passage uses I don't find it hard to understand OPs confusion. I see no reason not to respect that this is an honest question and OP deserves an equally respectful answer. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 15:39
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    @Bye God is able to do all things, but doesn't mean he DID preserve it and based on this verse it is clear the lying pens of the scribe altered it to me. Please provide your understanding with proofs that take this very explicit and clear verse out of its apparent meaning. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 16:11
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    What leads you to believe that Ezekiel 23:20 can't be divinely inspired? Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 17:12
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    The 5000 variant Greek manuscripts vary largely in 1) alternate spellings (color/colour), 2) word order (Christ Jesus/Jesus Christ), 3) and then insignificant variants in articles and verb tenses that fell out of use over time. So, your statement about those is either uninformed or misleading.
    – Narnian
    Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 17:16
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6 Answers 6


You are starting from three incorrect postulates:

  1. Scribes are just copyists, not interpreters of the law.
  2. The doctrine of preservation of scripture is the same as inerrancy.
  3. Variants have semantic importance

All three of those need to be true for your statement to make sense. Unfortunately, none of them are.

1. Scribes aren't just secretaries. They are teachers, who in this case, were corrupt

In context, Jeremiah 8 is clearly inveighing against "false" teachers of the law. This a common theme throughout the Old Testament generally, and the prophets specifically. (It is also picked up in the New Testament for that matter - Jesus seems to be more annoyed with "religious" teachers than with sinners.)

The text says:

“‘How can you say, “We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,” when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely? 9 The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what kind of wisdom do they have?

Note the antecedent of "they" is those who are saying "We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord." Notice these same people are being said to have rejected the word of the Lord.

This is very common throughout the OT - those who are claiming to speak for God but are not. Malachi calls them out, Amos calls them out, and Jeremiah calls them out. It was a recurring theme.

Note that scribes are not just writers of the law - they are teachers too. Especially at this time, there was a hefty oral tradition of interpretation that had added much to the Torah.

In the New Testament, Jesus makes the same charge (Matthew 23):

13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. [14] [b]

15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Note: Some translations will even say "scribes and Pharisees" rather than "teachers of the Law and Pharisees." The King James, for example, says:

13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.

14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

A scribe was also a teacher of the law. More modern translations clarify that aspect of the culture we no longer have.

It isn't the pen, it is the oral additions.

2. Preservation of Scripture != Inerrancy

There is a wide spectrum of belief about how literally one takes the Bible.

The Ezekiel verse you quote is pretty clearly metaphor, for example, clearly written as such. The Divine moment preserved, however, is the vision of a God who is restoring Israel. Ezekiel is dealing with a people who have "forgotten" the law, in that they have chased other gods. The idea of adultery to which the metaphor alludes captures very well both the problem and the divine response.

Preservation of Scripture says only that God communicates his Law to all men. It doesn't depend on the mechanism. Even if you could find somebody who tried to misprint the Bible, the doctrine of Preservation says that the transmission isn't the point anyway.

3. We know the "variants" in Scripture, and trust me, they are a lot less "variant" than you think.

It is true that there are over 5000 manuscript fragments from which we arrive at what we believe the "Scriptures" to be. You can see these variations yourself by consulting a biblical apparatus. It is true that prior to the invention of the printing press in 1453, documents were copied by hand. It is also true that minor variations existed as a result.

It also should be understood that when the Dead Sea Scrolls were rediscovered in 1947, we found out how very, very small the differences were. Great care was taken to preserve the manuscripts.

In seminary, it was stated that no major doctrine hinges on a variant. Many Christians would argue there are no significant differences when it comes to doctrine.

Finally, Mark Twain probably said it best:

It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

Read the whole thing and you'll see there is no "conspiracy," there is no "power grab." There is a reason people have been following this book for thousands of years. It does a pretty good job of conveying who these people think God is. Food for thought.

  • I think it is I will have to create a new question demonstrating how your #3 is not true as it isn't directly related to my question here as this was specific to the Text itself saying it was changed. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 18:27
  • And the idea that no major doctrine creed hinges on a variant is a tough sell also since no verse actually clearly states the doctrine of Trinity. Verses related to Jesus being divine are also up for grabs (insertions by scribes, footnotes that ended up being part of the text, etc). Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 18:36
  • That case is on you. Again, follow that link, and be prepared to actually show that in an apparatus. What you think is so just isn't so. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 18:37
  • One big issue is one has to come up with an example from our known variants, but there were other Gospels that we just don't have in our hands since after the council of Nicea etc. people with alternative beliefs were killed/exiled and their books destroyed. The nag hammadi library that was discovered did showed how there were alternate beliefs around Jesus and his being taken from earth and no reserection account etc. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 18:41
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    @JimThio: Monotheism isn't based on a difference in transcripts.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 3:37

If you read the whole chapter you'll see that this verse talks about teachers of the law spreading false interpretations of it. It is not about alterations of the OT scriptures themselves.

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    But it clearly talks about the lying pen of the scribes? Not sure how you can interpret any other way. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 16:10
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    A scribe is a teacher of the law. That is the idiom that has been used for 2500 years. In context, Jeremiah is preaching against those teachers of the law who believe the temple will save them. Just read the thing in context. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 16:49
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    I'm not sure how you can ignore the fact the words written in the verse state 'lying pen of the scribes'. If it had said lying tongue/thoughts/teaching that would be another story. Do words have any meaning? :) Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 18:47
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    Next you are going to tell me that the earth is clearly the center of the universe, because most people talk about the "sun rising." If words had any meaning, we'd be saying that the earth is rotating, not that the sun is rising! Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 18:54

It is ironic that your question would make a statement concerning the legitimacy of the Word of God when Jeremiah asked the same question to God’s people. In context, this verse is revealing how they would take God’s word and change it “falsely.” This was spoken by Jeremiah in the context of God’s people leaving God, and living their own lives as if they were “wise”. The bible speaks of those who are wise in their own conceit (Prov. 26:12). This is how they acted, and this reveals their heart.

The next verse gives us the context of how legitimate these scribes were:

"The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have” (Jeremiah 8:9)?

I hope this helps you understand the importance of contextual interpretation of the scriptures.

  • That verse yes talks about how the wise will be put to shame and are in fact not wise, but doesn't speak to the issue of the lying pens of the scribe. Scribes make copies of scripture, and their pens are "lying" meaning they are changing the words. If you disagree please explain your points thanks. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 16:14
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    @publicstatic "scribe", in a typical Biblical interpretation, doesn't refer to someone who copies down the text of the Bible (possibly changing the words), but rather someone who interprets the Bible. Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 17:55
  • @MattGutting what term is used for those who make copies of the Bible? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scribe Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 18:52
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    copyist, not scribe Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 18:52
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    You seem to be stuck on the words, “lying pens of the scribes” and that their work somehow transferred down to what we have presently, so how can we trust it. The answer is quite simple. You cannot understand scripture just by looking at one verse. You need to look at other scriptures, like “the scriptures are not given by any private interpretation.” Keep looking, keep seeking, and you will find. David once said in Psa. 119, “open my eyes that I might behold wondrous things out of thy law.”
    – timothy
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 0:21

Although there is no mention of how many scribes were lying I believe there were some who were true in their duties of copying scripture. In I Kings 19:14 Elijah believes he is the only one left who is jealous for the Lord but in verse 18 he is told that there are 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal. My point being that only God knows the full scope of the situation and we know only in part.

The Apostle Paul must have believed that the scripture he had in his day was true. He wrote in 2Timothy 3:16 that all scripture was inspired by God and useful for teaching and reproof.

I believe that the truly copied scripture has been handed down to us and the copies from the lying scribes have been destroyed. We must all have a portion of faith in what an all powerful God can do.


First, some background information. Jeremiah was prophesying during the reign of Josiah, whose father was Amon and whose grandfather was Manasseh. As it says in chapter 1 of the book of Jeremiah: "The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign." Manasseh was so evil that even though his grandson, Josiah, purged the land of the idols, it says in 2 Kings 23, “Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. And the LORD said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” Because of the evil of Manasseh and his son, Amon, the ark of God, which contained the book of the law, was most likely hidden during Manasseh’s reign. We at least know that the ark was not in its place in the temple until Josiah told the priests to put it there, as it says in 2 Chr. 35:3: “And he said to the Levites who taught all Israel and who were holy to the LORD, “Put the holy ark in the house that Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, built.” This is probably because Manasseh put idols in the temple, so they moved the ark away. Even though Josiah was doing good, the evil of the two previous kings had its lasting effects. This wasn't just with the scribes that Jeremiah was talking about, it was also with the prophets and priests, as Jeremiah says in chapter 5 of the book of Jeremiah: “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” However, the true book of the Law was always around--it was in the ark. In 2 Kings 22, the true book of the Law was found, and this was in the 18th year of Josiah’s reign. “In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the LORD…And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. And Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the LORD.” Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king.” This shows that while the "lying pen of the scribes" might have been doing what the prophets and priests were also doing, God still maintained His true word. In fact, when the book of the Law was read, people repented. So you see, even though people will try to claim that this reference that says, “the lying pen of the scribes…” means that the true scriptures weren’t around, 2 Kings 22 says otherwise. Jeremiah was rebuking the ones that tried to put forth corruptions, but he had the true one with him. In fact, it might have been upon seeing the true one that he realized what the contemporary scribes--probably under the influence of the last two kings--had done.

  • Welcome! Thanks for contributing. Unfortunately, the question you've answered is not one that is good for our format, since it invites answers from many different perspectives. As for your answer, it would be much easier to read if you edited it to add paragraph breaks. I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 17:31

There seem to be two questions asked here:

Is God saying in Jeremiah 8:8 that the scribes corrupted the scriptures? If so, are the Old Testament scriptures we have today still corrupted?

In Jeremiah 8:8, the prophet is seen to be saying that the scriptures have been altered:

How can you say, "We are wise, we have the law of the LORD"? Why, that has been changed into falsehood by the lying pen of the scribes!

If that was true, then the scriptures have not been passed down to modern times in their original form. Jeremiah may well have been right. For example, the consensus of scholars is that the Book of Isaiah consisted of only 39 chapters at the time of Jeremiah, and Raymond E. Brown says in An Introduction to the New Testament, page 587, that prophets in the school of Isaiah continued writing 200 years after the prophet's death and had their compositions included in the Book of Isaiah.

That Jeremiah was right about the scriptures evolving, with additions and alterations over the centuries, does not mean they were corrupt in the sense of being false, just that they were not as originally written. Jeremiah does not substantiate his invective on this score.

It's no wonder that many people think some like this one couldn't be divinely inspired:

There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. (Ezekiel 23:20)

Ezekiel is slightly later than Jeremiah, so Jeremiah was not actually referring to this book, although the concern is the same. The Book of Ezekiel, in the form we have today, omits anthropomorphisms evident in parallel passages in Leviticus 26. Leviticus 26:12 applies to Yahweh the verb hithallakti, "I will walk," but the parallel passage in Ezekiel 37:26-27 omits the verb. Similarly, Leviticus 26:30 presents Yahweh's proclamation that "my soul will abhor you." Again the parallel passage in Ezekiel 6:5 omits the clause. Walther Eichrodt (Ezekiel: A Commentary, page 12) points to numerous glosses and additions in the book.

Sharon Moughtin-Mumby says (Sexual and Marital Metaphors in Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, pages 161-162) that many are adamant that Ezekiel chapters 16 and 23 should be exposed as pornography. She finds the undercurrent of warranted sexual violence and the depiction of the female as a necessary polluting force to be most chilling, and suggests Ezekiel 16’s assumption that sexual violence can be a means towards healing a broken relationship to be particularly disturbing. That couldn't be divinely inspired.

  • Jeremiah 8:8 addressed the priests who were the sole custodian of the Word of God but they twisted it for their own profits. 500 years later, the same practices were used by Pharisees and The Lord Jesus rebuked them in Matthew 23:1-39. Commented Jul 22, 2022 at 6:57

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