More Historical Inaccuracies In The Bible


I have a question concerning biblical historicity. First, there are clear historical inaccuracies in the New Testament. One such example is that of Acts 5, where Luke writes of the Pharisee Gamaliel's speech (vv. 34-39). This speech would have taken place around AD 35-40, yet it refers to Theudas' revolt of AD 46-47 as a past event. Furthermore, Gamaliel is made to say that "Judas the Galilean" raised a revolt which followed that of Theudas - but Judas' revolt was in AD 6 or 7! We know these dates from Josephus, most notably, as well as from other records.

In addition, what are we to do with the wide variation of chronologies in the Gospels, different placements of pericopes in the timeline of Jesus' ministry (i.e the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2), and the substantial disagreement of John with the other three, in terms of historical outline?

A third question concerns authorship - mainly, the authorship of the Gospels and of the Pentateuch. Both sets are anonymous, textually - furthermore, the earliest date we even have for a name being applied to the gospels is in the very late first century, with quotations by Papias (transcribed by Irenaeus), and that only to Mark and Matthew (if we are to understand him to refer to the texts we now know: I am content to do so). Moses' name wasn't applied to the Pentateuch until long after the in, more than a millennium after the latest events which it describes! True, Moses is the one whose name has been traditionally attached ever since - but why do we need to "believe" in Mosaic authorship as a cornerstone of faith?


The question of historical accuracy is sometimes a complicated one, and there are many reasons why each instance deserves to be treated on its own merit. Nonetheless, I'll try to provide you with some helpful general information.

Some discrepancies appear to be due to copying errors, is as frequently the case when we find varying numbers in parallel texts in the Old Testament. The fact that these errors exist in number is also attested by the presence of variation in the extant manuscripts and fragments of the biblical books. It bears mentioning here that the doctrine of inerrancy does not pertain to our modern manuscripts but to the original manuscripts (the autographa). An error in a modern manuscript does not demonstrate an error in the original.

Other discrepancies are due to apparent differences in communicative style and/or vocabulary between ancient and modern authors. For example, in the Biblical use of the words, a "son" isn't always the first-generation offspring of a "father" or "mother." As another example, ancient authors commonly used phenomenological language and even colloquialisms that seem strange to us (like "insects that walk on all fours," insects having six legs), as opposed to striving for scientific or even philosophical precision.

Differences in communicative style can be extremely significant. For one thing, according to ancient standards of representation, it was not uncommon to equate a paraphrase with a quote, so long as the paraphrase accurately represented the author's intended meaning. So, we sometimes find variation in a "quote" that appears in multiple locations. This also may help explain the variety that we often find between some ancient manuscripts, and also the apparent "updating" that was done to some manuscripts (such as "modernizing" the Hebrew spelling in the Pentateuch).

Such differences in style are probably mostly responsible for the different timelines in the Gospels. In ancient literature, it was not uncommon or dishonest to arrange material topically within the framework of an otherwise or even ostensibly chronological arrangement. Unless a particular timeline is critical to the text's meaning (e.g., Jesus died before he rose from the grave), there is frequently no overwhelming reason to insist that a particular chronological marker in the Gospel text was actually intended to convey chronology. We do similar things in English, though we often don't notice it (e.g., "then" and "next" may indicate either chronological or logical progression).

Pericopes may be arranged for various reasons, such as being put in logical or thematic order as mentioned above. They also may appear in different places because they might sometimes represent multiple but similar events. In this case, the pericopes are actually different, even though they are remarkably alike. For example, did Jesus cleanse the temple once or twice? A thematic arrangement of John or of the Synoptics is possible, but so are two cleansings. Over the course of a ministry as long and as constant as Jesus', it is reasonable to think that he sometimes told same story twice or performed similar actions on various occasions. This is an especially likely scenario when we consider that his words and actions were symbolic, much like those of Old Testament prophets. Many reasons might have inclined him to repeat such symbols, such as changing audiences, the failure of people to respond as he desired, etc. Consider that in the Old Testament some symbolic actions were repeated hundreds of times (such as Ezekiel's lying on his side every day and eating rationed food).

The question of comparing biblical texts to extrabiblical texts is a bit more complicated. For one thing, we need to remember that the extrabiblical literature suffers from the same type of transmissional morphing we find in Scripture, but that, because it was generally not regarded as sacred, this morphing is likely to have been more pronounced. Second, authors of extrabiblical material could easily make errors in their original texts. Third, many such authors were motivated to be less than accurate with the historical record (Josephus comes readily to mind). Correspondence between extrabiblical sources does not necessarily establish their accuracy. They could have relied on a common ultimate source, or one could have relied on the other, or they may have been made to conform to one another for any number of reasons (e.g., politics, etc.).

Moreover, it is dangerous to do too much speculating about ancient history when we attempt to reconstruct the settings of and allusions in biblical literature. For example, Gamaliel may well have been referring to a now unknown Theudas. His audience may have known the reference but we, separated by millennia, may have no extant record of the person or event. With this particular example, there is the added complexity that Gamaliel is quoted as having said this, but he is not affirmed as having been accurate in his historical data. If Gamaliel said this but was wrong in his chronology, it would not impugn the truth of the text.

Regarding authorship, some of our information comes from tradition, some from internal evidence. It may help to remember that until the modern age of printing, most information was not transmitted in writing. Moreover, scholars strongly debate the dating of references both within and outside the Bible. If it is correct to say that the first written reference to Moses' authorship of the Pentateuch is post-exilic, that does not mean that it was not a traditional attribution long before then. In any event, there are internal references to Mosaic authorship in the Pentateuch, such as the mention of Moses writing down all that the Lord had told him (Ex. 24:4; cf. Deut. 31:9,22). Presumably, this refers to a large body of material, such as the book of the covenant and the regulations for building the temple, among other things. Also, to say that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch is not necessarily to say that he penned every word it, but may include the idea that the books were substantially composed and approved under his direction and authorization. In any event, most interpreters understand Jesus and the New Testament to confirm Mosaic authorship (see Mark 10:5; 12:19-27 [//Luke 20:28-38]; John 1:45; 5:46). The need for belief in Mosaic authorship pertains not only to submission to New Testament revelation (if one agrees in this understanding of the New Testament), but also to properly locating the Pentateuch in its historical setting in order that its purpose and meaning might be properly understood and applied.

The authorship of the Gospels is more difficult to establish, and relies almost entirely on tradition and historical speculation in comparing the contents of the various Gospels to what is known about the traditional authors. These historical attributions are not inerrant, although in no case do I see a compelling reason to reject the traditional attribution the arguments for the traditional authors are stronger than the arguments against them, although you are not likely to hear the arguments for them in more liberal educational systems (i.e., you may have to research them yourself). It is important to affirm the traditional attributions insofar as they are important for establishing the authority of the New Testament texts. If a text does not come from an authoritative author or have confirmation from such an author, it is harder to establish that text as authentic and authoritative.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.