In my very first post, I outlined some of the reasons why one must be careful when interpreting the texts of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Back when I first agreed be a junior leader for the University of Warwick’s Christian Union (UoWCU), I had to sign a copy of their Doctrinal Basis, a set of 11 faith statements which were masterminded by UCCF, which is the ultra-Calvinist umbrella body coordinating and – dare I say it – controlling university CUs. Doctrine #3 is given below:

The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.

At this point, I’d be fascinated to know the views of my readership:


1. Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?

Clint Eastwood Didn’t Say This – But Do You Feel Lucky?

One of the most misquoted famous film lines is – if you’ll forgive me – from Dirty Harry (1971). Clint Eastwood doesn’t say: ‘Do you feel lucky, punk?’ when he makes his final approach to an injured criminal. Instead, the line goes: ‘You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?’1

I ask you, as my reader, the same question. Do you feel lucky? The stronger one’s claim, the easier it is to disprove. The Bible makes thousands of claims in the 31,102 verses it contains. Many of them cannot be tested. How would I examine the truth of whether or not ‘the testing of your faith produces endurance’, for instance?2 If you claim that a god merely created the world and has never intervened since (i.e. deism), I would find it very hard indeed to prove or disprove your hypothesis. If you claim instead that the City of Jericho fell to the Israelites at some point during the 14th (or 12th) century, I can test that by looking at destruction layers and other archaeological factors. I’m sure you can tell where I’m going!

Biblical inerrancy is a what we might call a “logically conjunctive argument”; it is the sum of its parts. The probability of getting two tails in a coin toss is that of getting a tail followed by another tail. Thus, one could write it as follows:

P(inerrancy) = P(v1=inerrant) x P(v2=inerrant) x … x P(v31,102=inerrant)

I propose that in order to sensibly believe something to be true, you have to know it is more probable than the alternative. What is the opposite claim to ‘inerrancy’? Simply put, it is ‘errancy’, i.e. the Bible contains at least one verse which contains at least one error.

If we want to work out how much confidence we should have in any given verse in order to tip the balance of probability in inerrancy’s favour, there is a mathematical way to do so. It turns out that in order to get a binomial probability over 50% in the case where there are 31,102 trials and 31,102 “successes” (i.e. a verse does not contain an error), you have to be 99.9977713955756% sure that any individual verse contains no errors.3

The Mathematics of Inerrancy – How Lucky Do You Feel?

The next time you hear someone claim “the Bible has no errors in it”, perhaps you should ask them whether they are saying that they believe there is less than 1 in 45,000 chance that any one verse contains an error.4 (To give a sense of scale, this is approximately the same as the chance of getting exactly ten sixes out of ten dice rolls.)

After they give you a strange look, then follow up with the question, “have you even read every single one of the 31,000 verses, let alone studied them?” How could one have such a one-in-forty-five-thousand level of confidence that any verse of an ancient text, which you’ve potentially never read the entirety of even once, contains no errors?5 It really doesn’t make any sense to me.

2. Which Version is Inerrant?

UCCF’s ‘Doctrinal Basis‘ has a classic intellectual “get-out-of-jail-free” card, which I’ve italicised below.

The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.

We do not have the Bible ‘as originally given’; we do not own a single scrap of parchment from the originals. We are able to produce extremely good critical editions of the text in Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek, from which we then translate our NIVs, ESVs and NRSVs, but we cannot say with anywhere near the level of confidence required that the Bible we have today is the Bible ‘as originally given’ – the statement is a chimera.

It is actually no different from the fanciful claims of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. He said that he had discovered “golden plates” and translated them into what we now call the Book of Mormon, which is Mormonism’s main sacred text. Smith refused to allow all except eleven “witnesses” to “see” these magical plates; all these “witnesses” were family, close friends, or financial backers of Joseph Smith. Seven of the witnesses (Cowdery, Page, and the five Whitmers) were related by marriage.

How can we take a claim seriously if it relates to something which cannot be tested? Consider “Hitchen’s Razor”:

What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

As I pointed out in my last post with respect to the Book of Jeremiah, ‘Both the Greek Septuagint and the Masoretic Text, which is an eighth shorter than the Greek, show strong signs of editing and interpolation, with the two textual strands differing markedly after ch. 25.’6 Which version of the text should we take to be without error?

Most textual variants do not greatly matter. There are spelling mistakes, missing words and missing verses. There are a few which are very important, however.

3. What Resurrection Story? And When? And Where?

Perhaps the greatest and most significant textual variant to any Christian would be the ‘Long Ending’ of Mark’s Gospel, which recounts the Resurrection, appearances to the disciples and Great Commission. The earliest manuscripts of Mark 16 (from the 4th century CE) conclude with verse 8, which ends with the women fleeing from the empty tomb, and saying “nothing to anyone because they were afraid”. In fairness, we do find some early evidence of potential knowledge of the ‘Long Ending’ in Chapter XLV of the First Apology of Justin Martyr (c. 160). Even then, however, do we possess the originals of the First Apology? Unfortunately, we do not. The earliest manuscript we possess of Justin Martyr’s writings is from the 4th century (P.Oxy. 5129), dated again by handwriting comparison, and the incredible thing about that find was that it predated the other texts of Justin Martyr by over a millennium!7 There are other Patristic references, but none which are particularly helpful in justifying this passage, which is marked out from the rest of Mark in most Bible translations for its spuriousness.8

John 18:31-33 (‘Recto’) and 18:37-38 (‘Verso’)

The earliest manuscript of the New Testament which we possess is P52 of John’s Gospel (c. 125 CE); you can go and see it in Manchester’s John Rylands Library. The dating method is based on handwriting style (‘palaeography’) and therefore highly contentious; credible estimates range from 100 CE to 175 CE. In fact, John Rylands Library states on its website: ‘Recent research points to a date nearer to 200 AD, but there is as yet no convincing evidence that any earlier fragments from the New Testament survive.’9 The earliest reference we have to the Resurrection comes from P75, which is dated later (c. 175 – 225 CE) and is quite rightly known as “the most significant papyrus of the New Testament”, though fewer people know about it than P52. It It also considered to have a very high degree of textual integrity, with some commentators labeling it “proto-Alexandrian”.


David Hume wrote in 1748 that ‘a wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence’ and also that ‘[n]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.’10

I propose that the idea that the Bible contains no errors whatsoever is a very strong claim. In fact, it is probably one of the most extraordinary claims you can make. If one wishes to uphold it, one ought to provide very strong evidence for the claim. If you’ve read the entirety of The Hunger Games and not the entirety of the Bible, I suggest that this is not good enough if you want to be taken seriously when you make that claim. I mean, if God pretty much directly wrote a “book”, wouldn’t you want to know what it said?

Furthermore, whether you hold to inerrancy or not, what would it take to make you change your mind? That’s always a question worth thinking about. Why not let me know in the comments below? I would be really interested to hear your thoughts.

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  1. The fact that most ordinary people cannot correctly recall a verse from a film made only 40 years ago in an era of overwhelming data in electronic and digital and book formats says something about the capability (or otherwise) of the biblical authors to correctly recall events which often had happened over a hundred years ago. 
  2. James 1:2-3
  3. One would use the Excel ‘Solver’ tool (found under the ‘Data’ tab in ‘Analysis’ section) on the formula “=BINOM.DIST(31102,31102,D2,FALSE)” to return this result, if anyone is dull enough to enquire about my methodology! 
  4. This is worked out by dividing 1 by (1-P), where P = 0.99999977713955756. This tells us that if one is being rational, one should only believe the claim of ‘biblical inerrancy’ if one happily proclaims that they have confidence at the 1 in 44,871 level that each and every individual verse contains zero errors. 
  5. I should confess here that I have never read the entire Bible. Some people are under that misapprehension! Besides, one can understand and not have read every sentence. Moreover, one can read a text and yet have no idea what it is saying, e.g. Charles Dickens. I would guess that I have read between 50% and 75% of – the Protestant canon of – the Bible. 
  6.  Sweeney, Marvin A. (2010). The Prophetic Literature. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. pp. 88-89; Blenkinsopp, Joseph (1996). A History of Prophecy in Israel. London: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 130. 
  7.  http://www.bricecjones.com/blog/new-discovery-the-earliest-manuscript-of-justin-martyr-poxy-5129, accessed 22/01/2017. 
  8. I am aware of a passage in Irenaeus‘s Against Heresies (3.10.5). [Link] Yet again, as David W. Hester (2015) writes: ‘The writings of Irenaeus are known in a Latin translation of a later date, and how much it was emended [sic] is unknown.’ (Does Mark 16:9-20 Belong in the New Testament, p. 121) The earliest attestation to this quotation of the ‘Long Ending’ of Mark 16 is a marginal note from the 5th century CE. 
  9.  http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/search-resources/guide-to-special-collections/st-john-fragment/what-is-the-significance/, accessed 22/01/2017. 
  10. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10.4 and 10.13. [Link