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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

A Healthy Approach to the Bible


Dr. Alice C. Linsley

For the sake of argument, what authority can the New Testament documents have without the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration? This doctrine states that every word in the entire biblical text was inspired by the Holy Spirit so that there are no errors in the original Scriptures.

But what of discrepancies? When we consider the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, ministry, death and resurrection we find discrepancies that result from different perspectives. In fact, if the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John agreed in every minute detail, we would have evidence of collusion among the witnesses. We would have reason to be suspicious. Such discrepancies on minor details are actually evidence of authenticity.

Even to speak of "errors" is misleading. Are contextual incongruities errors? A contextual incongruity is evident in Genesis 6:4 which poses the Nephilim as fallen angels (a Rabbinic notion) while also presenting them as historical “heroes of days gone by, men of renown.” The term Nephilim is derived from the same root as the Aramaic npyl which means giant, as in great. This is equivalent to the Arabic nfy, meaning hunter. Noah’s great grandson Nimrod is described as a “mighty hunter” or a “mighty man” before the Lord. Nimrod was a Kushite kingdom builder who married a Sumerian princess. He was among the "First Lords of the Earth."

Some portions of the New Testament include Jewish Midrash which contradict other portions of the canonical Scripture. Hebrews 12:16 describes Esau as an immoral and godless person, yet Hebrews 11:20 describes Esau as blessed. Which is the inspired word? It cannot be the midrash which contradicts the picture of Esau in Genesis as one who forgave his brother Jacob for trying to steal his inheritance birthright and his father's priestly blessing. 

In Hebrew 7:20-28, the author states that the former priests did not take oaths. However, there are historical documents that attest to oaths among the Hebrew priests. These include oaths of office, of loyalty, and of truth telling. The priest took an oath that declared loyalty to the high king who he served, and the oath was declared before the appointed royal official or high priest under whom the priest served.

The author of Hebrews is honest about his lack of information. He admits that many of the religious practices of the period of the Exodus are not familiar to him. Of the Ark of the Covenant, the mysterious manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, he explains in Hebrew 9:5 – “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.” 

The Bible is indeed a miraculous codex. It contains all things necessary for salvation. It should be read as objectively as possible, apart from denominational interpretations, dispensationalism, or concerns about errors. The reader has a responsibility to apply reason. Today the amount of information available to help people understand the Bible is enormous. 

To those steeped in the mindset of "the plain meaning of Scripture" this might sound a strange teaching. There is nothing "plain" about the canonical Scriptures. They are dense, multi-layered, tightly woven, and provocative. They require intense study and close reading with great attention to details. This should be especially true for those who claim Scripture as their first authority (prima scriptura).

We are heirs to the empiricism of the twentieth century and we can legitimately draw on that heritage when investigating the Scriptures as objectively as possible. We may approach the Bible less polemically than past generations. We can understand difficult passages because of the work of learned Bible scholars, textual criticism, biblical archaeology, biblical anthropology, and the study of biblical languages and biblical populations. Today the available “ordinary means” of understanding the Bible are vastly greater and more diverse than in the past.

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