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Establishing Errancy Beyond Error

Stephen Van Eck


The fundamentalist claim that the Bible is inerrant does not stand up to any real examination. Just one error is sufficient to destroy this claim. Many Christians have thus fought vigorously to refute any claim of errancy, often coming up with quite inventive (though irrational) explanations for textual problems. So it takes a really choice error to flummox them.

One such error concerns the mysterious Urim and Thummim, two objects used in divination rituals in the early history of Israel. They were once used for casting lots, but were phased out at the time of the Babylonian exile as impious.

Urim and Thummim are mentioned in 1 Samuel 14:41. The passage contains an egregious—and explainable—human error: 36 words that are accidentally omitted from the text. First, we'll read this passage the way in which it was intended to be read, but with the accidentally omitted words placed in brackets. From the Revised Standard Version:

Therefore Saul said, "O Lord God of Israel, [why has thou not answered thy servant this day? If the guilt is on me or in Jonathan my son, O Lord God of Israel, give Urim; but if this guilt is in thy people Israel] give Thummim."

Now here's the same passage in the King James Version: "Therefore Saul said unto the Lord God of Israel, ... give a perfect lot.[1] (The last three words actually read "give Thummim" in precursor manuscripts.) It really doesn't make sense, does it?

The King James Version (KJV) of the Old Testament is based on Erasmus's Textus Receptus. He, in turn, had produced the "received text" based on just one manuscript, a manuscript that was not particularly old and is defective in many ways. Better manuscripts, like the Codex Sinaiticus, were not available to Erasmus, or to the committee that produced the KJV. The Revised Standard Version (RSV), on the other hand, was based on older and better manuscripts. (Despite this, many people still tout the KJV as the best, oldest, and truly inspired version.)

But there's still this matter of the accidentally omitted words. Here's what happened. A scribe was copying this text, and he looked away when he got to this passage. This is called a "parablepsis" by biblical scholars (who have a rather large technical vocabulary of terms used nowhere else). When the scribe looked back, his eyes seized upon the word "Israel"—since he had left off on that word—but later in the text than where he had left off. This is called a "homoioteleuton." The scribe erroneously jumped ahead to that "Israel," inadvertently skipping over 36 words, resumed his copying, and thus gutted the meaning of the verse.[2]

So we've established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is an error in the text of the KJV, as well as in a string of precursor manuscripts. We've labeled the error, explained what happened, and explained how it happened. The significance is obvious. How can the Bible—especially the King James Version—be thought divinely inspired and inerrant under these circumstances? It simply cannot be. We'll leave it to the KJV-worshipping inerrantists to try to explain away, if they can.


Pointing out scriptural contradictions and errors often seems to be an exercise in futility. Christian apologists have had two thousand years to come up with rationalizations that explain away practically every problem. These don't have to be good explanations; for those with a prior commitment to scriptural inspiration and inerrancy, any explanation that enables them to maintain that preconception will do. But perhaps this next example will leave them at a loss.

First, we need to establish a few things:

  1. The Old Testament refers to Mt. Hermon (Psalm 89:12, Judges 3:3). This mountain—the highest mountain in Syria—is in the southeastern part of the country, northwest of Damascus, and is known by the locals as Jebel Chakif.
  2. Another name for Jerusalem is Zion (2 Samuel 5:7). It's the name of the principal mountain on which the city is built. It is used frequently in Psalms and the Prophets as a synonym for Jerusalem.
  3. Another version of Zion is Sion, which comes from Greek transliteration.

A reasonable, well-educated Christian will acknowledge all of these points. But it leads to the following problem:

  • Deuteronomy 4:48 (KJV) refers to "Mount Sion, which is Hermon." But Mt. Hermon and Mt. Zion/Sion are two different mountains! Deuteronomy 4:48 quite plainly makes an error.
  • Deuteronomy 3:8-9 confirms this in its reference to "mount Hermon. Which Hermon the Sidonians call Sirion." The Sidonians knew it well—it's only 50 miles or so from Sidon.

The natural explanation for this error is that the Old Testament was originally written without vowels—it was up to the reader to plug in what vowels seemed appropriate. "Sirion" would thus be written as "srn." "Sion" would be written as "sn." In the original writings, one would simply find a long string of consonants without spaces between them. When composing Deuteronomy 4:48, an early (if not the original) scribe erroneously omitted the "resh" from "srn," leaving "sn" and leading to the mistake of thinking that it refers to Sion, when clearly it must not.

That this is indeed an error is certified by James Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, which states that it is "doubtless a textual error for Sirion." And we are talking about an error that was repeated for centuries, from the ancient Hebrew to the Septuagint to the Masoretic text to the Douay and the KJV. If we assume that God exists, then he allowed this error to continue uncorrected for several generations. He certainly didn't bother to correct it in the alleged process of inspiration for any of these versions—not even for that most "inspired" of versions, the KJV. It was not until the 1880s that this error was corrected in the English Revised Version (ERV). Subsequent versions maintained their correction, such as the American Standard Version (ASV) and the RSV. According to the RSV's Preface, "the King James Version has grave defects ... [and] these defects are so many and so serious." The example above represents just one of those defects. The KJV still retains it, and many more to boot. And even better, newer versions are still far from error.

An honest apologist will admit that an error was made in a very early text and reproduced in many subsequent ones. Hence the Bible cannot be inerrant (and one error is likely indicative of many more), and thus cannot be divinely inspired. This is why apologists have always fought tooth and nail to avoid conceding any error. But with Sirion, the door has been cracked ajar. I invite apologists to step through to a world of intellectual integrity.


[1] For those who might wonder, the Catholic Douay Bible, based on a Greek rather than a Hebrew text, contains the complete passage, but for some reason chose to refer to "Urim" and "Thummim" as "proof" and "holiness," respectively. Martin Luther's German Bible, however, used the same erroneous Hebrew source as Erasmus.

[2] This actually happened to a print essay that I submitted elsewhere several years ago. A few sentences had been omitted from the essay. When I realized that the omission started with a certain phrase, and that the essay resumed after a later sentence ending in the same phrase, I knew exactly what had happened. I didn't pretend that the text as printed was inerrant.

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