John Beversluis Gospels One

The Gospel According to Whom? (2009)

An Ex-Believer Looks at the Synoptic Gospels and Their Evangelical Christian Whitewashers

John Beversluis

 

Chapter One: Approaching the Synoptic Gospels

Before turning to the synoptic Gospels, two preliminary topics need to be discussed. The first is New Testament criticism, the second is the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible.

1. Higher and Lower Criticism

Like Biblical criticism as a whole, New Testament criticism is a widely misunderstood and unjustly maligned field; as a result, its nature and purposes need to be clarified and defended against a number of false allegations that evangelical Christian theologians typically lodge against it. To begin with, two important points need to be grasped. First, Biblical criticism is not negative or “destructive” criticism. Biblical critics do not spend their time finding fault with the Bible: “picking it apart,” “ripping it to shreds,” “tampering with God’s holy word,” etc. These are misunderstandings—and even caricatures—perpetrated by conservative-evangelical theologians who try to discredit the findings of modern mainstream New Testament scholarship by tracing it to intellectual dishonesty, moral rebellion, unbelief, and other evil motives. Second, Biblical criticism is made up of two distinct but related fields: higher criticism and lower criticism. These admittedly unhappy terms cause a lot of confusion and perhaps even invite it. This confusion can be largely dispelled by explaining that “higher” and “lower” are not value terms. “Higher” does not mean better, superior, or more important; and “lower” does not mean worse, inferior, or less important. Both kinds of criticism are important, but each has a different task.

Lower criticism is textual criticism. Its task to study existing manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments and to reconstruct a text that is as close as possible to the original documents—known as the autographa. Since none of them have survived, scholars must rely on copies which they study in hopes of determining which are most accurate and the most reliable. In the case of the synoptic Gospels, complete or relatively complete texts date back to the fourth century C.E., although miscellaneous fragments dating back to the early- to mid-third century have been preserved in the Chester Beatty Papyri (discovered in the early 1930s). This means that there is an unbridged and unbridgeable gap of about two hundred years between these surviving copies, which scholars can study, and the original manuscripts, which they cannot.

It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves that (what we call) the New Testament—i.e., the twenty-seven books that make up the canonical New Testament—did not fall ready-made from the sky. Nor were these books painstakingly compiled by some industrious first-century convert who ransacked the Mediterranean for the original manuscripts of the four Gospels and the letters Paul had written to various individuals and churches in Asia Minor. The New Testament canon is the result of long (and often heated) debate followed by ecclesiastical decisions arrived at by the process of voting. As a matter of fact, a firm belief that the twenty-seven books of the existing New Testament and no others constitute the canon originated comparatively late. This idea was officially proposed by Athanasius in 367, although some scholars think these twenty-seven books might have already been present in Polycarp’s edition, which was published in the mid-first century, and that Athanasius just made this official by banning both the exclusion of any books that are contained in it and the inclusion of any that are not. In any event, the question of which of the many books that were competing for inclusion in the New Testament were canonical remained undecided and very much up in the air for the better part of four centuries. After years of long and bitter controversy, the church finally decided on the current twenty-seven. The canon was finally fixed by the Synod of Hippo in 393 and reaffirmed by the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419.

Since none of the original manuscripts have survived, scholars must rely not only on copies but on copies of copies, laboriously transcribed over hundreds of years by scribes (and other copyists) who were not scrupulously accurate, frequently omitted or altered passages (both accidentally and intentionally), and frequently added others that are not present in the earliest existing manuscripts.

The last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark are a case in point. These verses are not found in the earliest manuscripts, all of which end at verse eight of chapter sixteen. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome have visited the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Having been told by a young man clothed in a long white garment that Jesus is not there but has risen from the dead, they fled, fearful and trembling, and told nobody what they had seen and heard. The last twelve verses (9-20), in which the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and (later) to several other people before ascending into heaven, were added later. That this is so clear not just because these verses are absent from the earliest manuscripts, but also because the writing style is noticeably different and the passage contains words and grammatical constructions found nowhere else in Mark’s Gospel. Another example is the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11). This passage is not found in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John (or in any of the synoptic Gospels). Again, the writing style differs from the rest of the Gospel of John and these verses also contain words and grammatical constructions found nowhere else in that Gospel.

In addition to passages added later, these copies contain many other differences. The result is a multitude of manuscripts that differ markedly from each other. All in all, there are more than 5,700 of them (both partial and complete) containing more than 30,000 textual variants, i.e., passages that differ grammatically as well as substantively, trivially as well as significantly.

Evangelical Christian theologians respond to this problem in two ways. Some dismiss it as a pseudoproblem (made up of lies, exaggerations, and half-truths) fabricated by “liberal” New Testament scholars and atheists. Others acknowledge that there are indeed thousands of documents with many variations, but insist that the similarities far outnumber the differences and that most of the differences are trivial. Both solutions are too facile.

The recognition of massive textual variation in the synoptic Gospels did not originate with the rise of nineteenth century higher criticism. As early as the third century, church father Origin registered the same complaint:

The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please. (Commentary on Matthew 15:14)

Origin’s complaint about the inaccuracy of the copies cannot be avoided with sweeping generalizations, breezy reassurances, and the imputation of evil motives.

In view of Origin’s negative comments about the “negligence” and “perverse audacity” of some copyists, it is important to emphasize two points. First, not all the changes were deliberate; some were no doubt the result of honest error and inadvertence. Second, not all the deliberate changes were traceable to malicious intention; the intention was often benign, e.g., to correct errors made by previous scribes and nonprofessional copyists. But changes there were. Even a cursory examination of these documents (or photo copies of them) reveals that they are not inspired, inerrant, and uniquely authoritative, but transcribed by authors who were all-too-human, decidedly uninspired, careless, and error-prone—sometimes alarmingly so. As a result, they must be studied and evaluated like any other ancient documents. Reading them is hard and highly specialized work.

For one thing, they were written on papyrus (an early form of paper made from the pith of papyrus plants), or vellum (which was specially treated calfskin), or parchment (which was specially treated skin from goats, sheep, and other animals). Some are remarkably well preserved, but others are pretty much what one would expect after almost two thousand years. Many are little more than fragments with torn or missing edges, holes, stains, faded sections, and other blemishes. To make matters worse, they are all written in uncials (uppercase letters with no spaces in between and no punctuation), or in miniscules (lowercase letters with no spaces in between and no punctuation). Of course, these documents were not neatly divided into chapters and verses. That innovation did not come about until the fourth edition of Stephanus’s (Robert Estienne’s) Greek New Testament (which was published in 1551). Thus, passages in today’s printed translations of the New Testament that pose no problems for modern readers often present formidable challenges to scholars who are fluent in Greek and familiar with uncials. For example, consider this well known passage from the Gospel of Luke:

And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:1)

Nobody has any trouble reading that. But now imagine it printed like this:

ANDITCAMETOPASSINTHOSEDAYSTHATTHEREWENTOUTADECREEFROM

CAESARAUGUSTUSTHATALLTHEWORLDSHOULDBETAXEDANDTHISTAXING

WASFIRSTMADEWHENCYRENIUSWASGOVERNOROFSYRIA

Or in Greek like this:

ΕΓΕΝΕΤΟΔΕΝΤΑΙΣΗΜΕΡΑΙΣΕΚΕΙΝΑΙΣΕΞΗΛΘΕΝΔΟΓΜΑΠΑΡΑΚΑІΣΑΡΟΣ

ΑΥΓΟΥΣΤΟΥΑΠΟΓΑΦΕΣΘΑІΠΑΣΑΝΤΗΝΟІΚΟΥΜΕΝΗΝΑΥΤΝΑΠΟΓΡΑ

ΦΠΡΩΤΗΕΓΕΝΕΤΟΗΓΕΜΟΝΕΨΝΤΟΣΤΗΣΣΨΡІΑΣΚΨΡΝІΟΨ

Then imagine this passage written on a leaf of papyrus (or vellum) with torn and missing edges, holes, stains, faded sections, and in such illegible handwriting that experts often have difficulty figuring out what it says and (sometimes) even what language it is written in, and you will then begin to grasp something of the magnitude of the problem of constructing a reliable text.

The person credited with being the first to reconstruct a reliable text of the New Testament is the Dutch scholar Desidirius Erasmus (1466/69-1536). He also was responsible for the first published Greek New Testament—known as the Textus Receptus—a seminal critical edition published in 1522. A second edition appeared in 1519. Martin Luther used it for his translation of the Bible into German.

Once a reliable text has been constructed, the work of lower criticism is finished and the work of higher criticism begins. Its father (and the coiner of the term) was German theologian Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752-1827). Using the methods, tools, and techniques of other disciplines (such as philology, stylometry, archeology, and linguistics), higher critics try to answer a different set of questions about the New Testament texts: their authenticity, authorship, date of composition, source, the point of view of the author, etc. They are particularly interested in discovering interpolations by later writers—not only passages like the last twelve verses of Mark and John’s account of the woman taken in adultery, but also passages containing ascriptions of deity to Jesus that are present in the Gospel of John and in some later manuscripts of the synoptic Gospels but absent from the earliest ones. The received view among mainstream New Testament scholars is that many of these interpolations are based on doctrines that emerged as Christian theology gradually evolved while others are motivated by other theological and political agendas.

All New Testament theologians agree that lower criticism is very important, but they disagree about the value of higher criticism. “Liberal” theologians respect it as a highly sophisticated discipline (or combination of disciplines) that enables its practitioners to study the Bible scientifically and empirically, as one would study any other ancient document. However, evangelical Christian theologians are of two minds about it. Some berate it as a flawed, destructive, and even intellectually dishonest discipline that was developed by “unbelieving” critics like Schleiermacher, Renan, Strauss, Bultmann, and the Tübingen School, all of whom started from naturalistic assumptions, rejected the miraculous and the supernatural, and were determined to discredit the Bible by depriving it of its rightful status as the inspired Word of God. More sophisticated evangelicals accept (to varying degrees) one or more of the various kinds of higher criticism—Form Criticism, Source Criticism, Redactive Criticism, etc.—and acknowledge that they have legitimate uses and yield valuable insights into the New Testament. Most of them are prepared to admit that there are apparent errors, contradictions, and inconsistencies in the manuscripts of the synoptic Gospels; however, they think these errors are (for the most part) minor, that no central Christian doctrine is in dispute, and that are all reconcilable.

Having briefly discussed higher and lower criticism, I turn next to the inspiration of the Bible.

2. The textual basis for claims about inspiration

Evangelical Christians believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God. The second claim follows from the first since, as they are fond of saying, “God cannot lie.” What, exactly, do these claims mean and what is the textual evidence for them?

In view of the enormous importance that Christians attach to the doctrine of Biblical inspiration, it is surprising that they can find so few passages that support it. In fact, the term “few” is much too generous. Typically, they cite only two. The first is 2 Timothy 3:16:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.

The second is 2 Peter 1:20-21:

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

What exactly is being claimed here? Precisely what is inspired? And what does this seemingly momentous claim amount to?

Evangelical Christian theologians make a sharp distinction between the original manuscripts, on the one hand, and surviving copies and translations, on the other. In saying that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, they do not mean the copies or translations, but only the originals. Thus Geisler writes:

Divine inspiration and inerrancy … applies only to the original text, not to every detail of every copy. The copies are without error only insofar as they are copied correctly. (ST, 1, 257) If we could go back to the originals, we would have the completely inspired and inerrant word of God.

That sounds reassuring until one realizes that the assurance is empty. The reason is obvious: the original manuscripts no longer exist. So there is nothing to go back to. Since there are no surviving originals, we are left with surviving copies and no way of knowing whether they were “copied correctly.”

Actually, Geisler contradicts himself on this point. Having acknowledged that “we do not possess the original manuscripts of Scripture” (ST, 1, 222), he tries to minimize the fact that there are “some minor copyists’ errors in the later manuscripts” by assuring us that “[n]o original manuscript has ever been found with an error in it” (ST, 1, 258)—a statement which implies, first, that we do, in fact, possess at least some original manuscripts; and, second, that Geisler (or somebody whose competence he can vouch for) has examined them and found them to be error-free. However, by his own admission, both statements are false. There are no surviving original manuscripts. Hence the real reason why “no original manuscript has ever been found with an error in it” is because no original manuscript has ever been found! It is hard to imagine a less interesting claim. It is equally pointless to issue assurances about the error-free nature of the nonexistent original documents. And it is self-contradictory to appeal to nonexistent documents to prove a claim about copies that could be true only if the documents you admit do not exist do exist and you are in possession of them.

Even if we could find a way out of Geisler’s hermeneutical labyrinth, his explanation still leaves the most important question of all unanswered. Since none of the original manuscripts have survived and since nobody has laid eyes on them for almost 2,000 years, how could anybody possibly know which copies “approximate” most closely to them? I can judge that a photograph is a good likeness of Sally if and only if I have seen Sally and know what she looks like. If I have not, then I am the last person on earth to consult. The situation is not improved if I assure you that I have hundreds of albums filled with photos of Sally. The fact remains that I have never seen her, so ten thousand albums would not help. Similarly, since there is nothing to which the surviving copies of the original manuscripts can be compared, the very idea of original manuscripts is nothing more than a hermeneutical smokescreen and ought to be abandoned in subsequent discussions of the problem.

Josh McDowell opts for a different strategy. He starts by admitting (or seeming to admit) that the surviving copies and translations are not inspired, only the original documents:

It is of monumental importance to identify the extent of inspiration to include every book of Scripture, each part of every book and every word in each book as given in the original. This does not include any manuscript or any translation which is a reproduction … No one manuscript or translation is inspired, only the original. (RD, 177, my italics)

However, having made this “monumentally important” observation, McDowell immediately qualifies it so completely that nothing remains of his original distinction between the original manuscripts and the copies:

However, for all intents and purposes, they are virtually inspired since, with today’s great number of manuscripts available for scrutiny, the science of textual criticism can render us an adequate representation. Therefore, we can be assured that when we read the Bible we are reading the inspired Word of God. (RD, 177)

Less evasively, modern translations are inspired even though they are not.

Like Geisler, McDowell fails to explain how anybody could possibly know whether a copy “approximates” to an original if they have never seen the original. He also confidently asserts that of the 30,000 variants in existing manuscripts of the New Testament, only fifty are “of great significance” and that no “fundamental doctrine” of the Christian faith depends on a disputed reading (Evidence, 44-45). Unfortunately, he offers no reasons for thinking that any of these claims are true. Nor does he discuss (or even identify) a single one of these fifty passages “of great significance.” Nor does he offer any reasons for thinking that there are only fifty. He does not explain what he means by a “fundamental” doctrine or reveal his criteria for distinguishing them from nonfundamental ones. Nor does he give any reason for believing that no “fundamental” doctrine depends on a disputed passage. The entire passage is mere robust assertion. Finally, he fails to answer what is arguably the most fundamental question of all: If no copied manuscripts or translations are inspired, then when we read the Bible, how can we be sure that we are, in fact, reading “the inspired Word of God”? His appeals to “adequate representations” and “virtual” inspiration do not answer this question; they are just ad hoc diversionary maneuvers.

At this point, a word about terminology is in order. “Virtual” and “virtually” are always weasel words. “Cascade leaves your glasses virtually spotless” does not mean “Cascade leaves your glasses spotless.” If it did, the term “virtually” would be superfluous. Fastidious homemakers must resign themselves to a grim reality: no matter how good Cascade may be, their glasses are still going to have some spots. McDowell must resign himself to a similarly grim reality. “Modern translations of the Bible are virtually inspired” does not mean “Modern translations of the Bible are inspired.” If it did, the term “virtually” would again be superfluous. No matter how good modern translations may be, they are still going to contain some uninspired material. Not only does McDowell’s use of “virtual” fail to accomplish what he claims it accomplishes; it accomplishes exactly the opposite. Either modern translations are inspired in the same sense as the original documents or they are not inspired at all. “Virtual” inspiration is not a viable third alternative; on the contrary, it is a feeble halfway house and yet another transparent attempt to have it both ways.

There are other problems. Like all evangelical Christians, Geisler and McDowell cite 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21 as textual evidence for the inspiration of the Bible and then proceed to describe these passages as “what the Bible says about itself.” The claim is rhetorically impressive but substantively false. A single argument is enough to see why. The Bible is not a book; it is collection of books written over a period of hundreds of years by many different authors. As a result, it has no single voice that proclaims, or licenses readers to extract, a single thesis applicable to them all. In short, “the Bible” says nothing about “itself.” 2 Timothy 3:16 was written by Paul. 2 Peter 1:20-21 was allegedly (but dubiously) written by Peter. Neither was written by some Super Author surveying the whole collection and pronouncing it inspired from cover to cover.

Geisler and McDowell also do their readers the grave disservice of concealing a difficulty which, when brought to light, undermines every claim they advance about the inspiration of the Bible. The difficulty involves the very passages they cite in support of their claim that the Bible is the inspired word of God: 2 Timothy 3:16 and 1 Peter 1:20-21. According to the first:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.

According to the second:

No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

Notice that the KJV italicizes “is” twice in the first passage and “as they were” in the second—not, as one uncommonly benighted pastor of my youth authoritatively confided to his hushed congregation, “because these terms are very important and were even italicized in the original Greek”! On the contrary, the KJV italicizes these terms because they are absent from the original Greek. This inconvenient fact undermines the claim about Biblical inspiration in both passages. Both are well known to churchgoers, members of “Bible study” groups, and Sunday school pupils, all of whom are encouraged (and often required) to memorize them so they can defend their belief in the inspired word of God against all comers. However, few of the trusting souls who have committed these passages to memory realize that their belief in inspiration is based on an English translation, that it has no foundation in the Greek text and that neither passage proves what it is said to prove. Allow me to explain.

2 Timothy 3:16 does not unambiguously say that all Scripture, i.e., the whole Bible from cover to cover, is inspired by God. As we have seen, in the KJV the English term “is” occurs twice—each time in italics, thereby indicating there is no Greek equivalent. The Greek has no verb at all. It just says:

All Scripture inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness.

Stylistically speaking, that is not only a clumsy sentence, but an ungrammatical and unintelligible one. To make the English translation readable, the translators had to insert an “is” somewhere. (It is implied in the Greek too.) The crucial question is: Where? There are two possibilities. Should it be inserted after “Scripture”—so the verse reads “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, etc.”? Or after “God”—so it reads “All Scripture inspired by God is and unrestrictive. It includes all Scripture. The second is general and restrictive. It excludes some Scripture as noninspired text. The awkward fact is that anybody who knows Greek and consults the Greek text will immediately see that there is no way of knowing where the “is” should go. Grammatically, both are equally permissible. So it is guesswork either way. Of course, you may like one alternative better than the other, but when interpreting a text, personal preference is neither here nor there. This single grammatical observation completely undermines one of the two chief texts offered in support of the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible.

Although the translators of the KJV opted for the first reading, according to which all Scripture is inspired, the translators of the ASV, the NEB, and the Living Bible opted for the second, according to which that some Scriptures are inspired, thereby implying that others are not. Why make a distinction if there is nothing to be distinguished?

The importance of this distinction was recognized by a Christian apologist as orthodox as C. S. Lewis, who insisted that any sound view of the inspiration of Scripture must make provision for passages like the following:

  1. Paul’s explicit distinction (in 1 Corinthians 7) between commands issued by God—”I command, yet not I, but the Lord” (v. 19)—and by himself—”I, but not the Lord” (v. 12);
  2. apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies of Jesus found in Matthew 1 and Luke 3;
  3. apparent inconsistencies about the death of Judas Iscariot in Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18-19; and,
  4. Luke’s account of where (and from whom) he got his material (in Luke 1); etc. (Reflections on the Psalms, 109). This is what Lewis wrote about the Bible generally:

The human qualities of the raw material show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and since we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message. (Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 211-12)

To his eternal credit, Lewis always refused to indulge in (or to approve of) exegetical shenanigans like those employed by Geisler and McDowell, thereby revealing his intellectual integrity—a virtue for which he is rebuked by Geisler (ST, 1, 397-404) who finds Lewis’s view of the inspiration of the Bible a “great disappointment” (403).

However, let us grant for the sake of argument that the translators of the KJV got it right and that 2 Timothy 3:16 does say that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God. How much weight should be given to that verse? The answer is, Very little. This is true for three reasons.

First, in speaking about “all Scripture” (pasa graphe), Paul (or whoever wrote the letter) could not possibly have meant to include the letter he was in the process of writing to Timothy (or any other letter he had written in the recent past or would write in the near future). As a Christian living in the first century, he had no idea that three hundred years later this letter (together with others that he had written to various individuals and churches) would be included a collection of writings known as the New Testament canon and regarded as holy writ. That this is so is also borne out by the previous verse (v. 15) in which he reminds Timothy that he—Timothy—has known “the Scriptures” from childhood on. Clearly, Timothy could not have known from childhood on the contents of a letter that he would not receive until he was an adult. Second, from the fact that one verse in the Bible says that every other verse is inspired, it does not follow that every other verse is inspired. I might as well claim that from the fact one sentence in the preface to this book says that every statement in it is true, it follows that every statement in it is true. Who would ever believe such an absurd claim? Third, if 2 Timothy 3:16 is your reason for believing that everything else in the Bible is inspired, what is your reason for believing 2 Timothy 3:16? You cannot very well argue that you believe that every other verse in the Bible is inspired because 2 Timothy 3:16 says so and then add that you believe that 2 Timothy 3:16 is inspired because it is in the Bible. That is a patently circular. On the other hand, if you approach the Bible believing that everything in it is inspired, including 2 Timothy 3:16, then you believed that the Bible was inspired before you ever read that verse. So, contrary to your original claim, 2 Timothy 3:16 is not your reason for believing that the Bible inspired. Either way, the case for inspiration collapses.

Having disposed of 2 Timothy 3:16, we are left with 2 Peter 1:20-21—which can be disposed of even more quickly. Before doing so, however, it is worth pointing out that this letter is full of problems. To begin with, it is doubtful that it was written by Peter and is in all likelihood (what scholars call) a pseudonymous work—which is just a pedantic way of saying that it is a forgery. Most modern New Testament scholars doubt that this letter was written by the same person who wrote 1 Peter because both the Greek vocabulary and writing style are very different. This is not a recent contention advanced by “liberal” higher critics; on the contrary, the authorship of the letter has been questioned from the first century on. It was not accepted as genuine by Eusebius. It was not included in the Marcion canon—the first attempt to assemble a New Testament canon. It was the last book to be admitted into the New Testament canon. And its authorship is still questioned by many recent and contemporary mainstream New Testament theologians and scholars.

was) claims to have been an eyewitness of the Transfiguration of Jesus and of his life generally (1:16-18). However, if Peter was not the author of this letter, whoever was lied about being Peter as well as about being an eyewitness; and if he lied about that, he might also have lied about other things as well. If he was prepared to pretend that he was Peter in order to invest his letter with greater authority, he might have also been prepared to pretend that the books of the Old Testament were inspired by the Holy Ghost to give them greater authority.

That 2 Peter was not written by Peter is also borne out by the contents of the letter itself. The author (whoever he was) is troubled by the fact that people had started grumbling about the fact that “the day of the Lord,” i.e., the promised second coming of Jesus, had not taken place. That is very odd. If Peter really was the author of this letter, then Jesus would only have ascended to heaven a few years ago; and it is unlikely in the extreme that people would already be fretting about his failure to return. To conceal the implausibility of this worry, the author of 2 Peter resorts to a piece of verbal trickery:

[B]e not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (3:8-9).

Notice what is going on here. First century Christians are being exhorted not to fret about the fact that Jesus has not yet returned and informed that even if he does not return for a thousand years, his promise to return should not be doubted. The reason given for this extraordinary claim is this: What is a long time for human beings is like one day for God. This ridiculous argument shows how far Christians were already prepared to go in the first century to evade embarrassing facts and to silence legitimate objections. It also limpidly reveals that the author of this letter was not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. If he had been, he would have known that Jesus did not promise to return some day—possibly not for a thousand years or more—but before the present generation (he genea haute) has passed (Matthew 16:28, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32). Clearly, the author of this letter was not present when that promise was made.

As if that were not enough to thoroughly discredit the author of 2 Peter, chapter two contains a massive self-indictment, as the author lifts almost half of the book of Jude—some of it, almost word for word—and also passes it off as his own. Here (in parallel columns) are the virtually identical passages:


Jude 1:6-16

And the angels which kept not the first estate,

but left their own habitation, he hath reserved

in everlasting chains under darkness unto the

judgment of the great day. Even as Sodom and

Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like

manner, giving themselves over to fornication,

and going after strange flesh, are set forth as an

example, suffering the by vengeance of eternal

fire. Likewise also these filthy dreamers defile the

flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities.

Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with

the devil he disputed about the body of Moses,

durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but

said, The Lord rebuke thee. But these speak evil of

those things which they know not: but what they

know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they

corrupt themselves. Woe unto them! for they have

gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the

error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the

gaining of Core. These are spots in your feasts of

charity, when they feast with you, feeding

themselves without fear: clouds they are without

water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit

withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by

the roots. Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their

own shame: wandering stars, to whom is reserved

the blackness of darkness forever. And Enoch also,

the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying,

Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his

saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince

all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly

deeds which they have committed, and of all their

hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken

against him. These are murmurers, complainers,

walking after their own lusts; and their mouth

speaketh great swelling words, having men’s

persons in admiration because of advantage.


2 Peter 2:4-18

For if God spared not the angels that sinned,

but cast them down to hell, and delivered them

into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto

judgment; and spared not the old world, but

saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of

righteousness, bringing the flood upon the

world of the ungodly; and turning the cities

of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes

condemned them with an overthrow, making

them an ensample unto those that after

should live godly; And delivered just Lot,

vexed with the filthy conversation of the

wicked: for that righteous man dwelling

among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed

his righteous soul from day to day with

their unlawful deeds); The Lord knoweth

how to deliver the ungodly out of tempt-

ations and to reserve the unjust unto the day

of judgment to be punished: But chiefly

them that walk after the flesh in the lust of

uncleanness, and despise government. Pre-

sumptuous are they, self-willed, they are not

afraid to speak evil of dignitaries. Whereas

angels, which are greater in power and might,

bring not railing accusations against them be-

fore the Lord. But these, as natural brute beasts,

made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of

the things that they understand not; and shall

utterly perish in their own corruption. Spots

are they and blemishes, sporting themselves

with their own deceivings while they feast with

you. Having eyes full of adultery, and that

cannot cease from sin; beguiling unstable souls:

an heart they have exercised with covetous

practices; cursed children: which have forsaken

the right way, and are gone astray, following the

way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the

wages of unrighteousness . . . These are wells

without water, clouds that are carried with a

tempest: to whom the mist of darkness is re-

served forever. For when they speak great

swelling words of vanity, they allure through

the lusts of the flesh, through much wanton-

ness those that were clean escaped from them

who live in error.

So, as Steve Allen rightly observes, in addition to being a liar, the author of 2 Peter was also a plagiarist (More Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality, p. 299)—an ironic tidbit in view of his vehement denunciation of the many “false prophets” who had sprung up and an excellent reason for not relying on 2 Peter 1:20-21 to prove the inspiration of the Bible.

There is another reason for not citing this passage in support of this doctrine. The author of 2 Peter (whoever he was) is not talking about the Bible as a whole, but solely about the Old Testament prophets—”holy men” in “old time”— and them alone. His point is that they did not speak their own words—i.e., express a “private interpretation” (idias epiluseos)—but were “moved” (pheromenoi) by the Holy Ghost. His claim has nothing to do with claims made by the author of 2 Peter himself. Like Paul, the author of 2 Peter could not possibly have known that his letter would one day be part of something called the New Testament canon and regarded as holy writ.

3. The Verbal and Plenary Inspiration of the Bible: A Hermeneutical Nightmare

Having shown that the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible cannot be derived from the two chief passages cited in support of it, I turn next to an examination of the doctrine itself.

To say that the Bible is the inspired word of God is to say very little. What does the term “inspired” mean? And how did the alleged process of inspiration occur? Geisler devotes considerable space to both questions—chapters seventeen to twenty-four of Systematic Theology, Vol. One, totaling 155 pages. Before presenting his own position, he surveys various theories of inspiration that were held by church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Papias, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen; medieval theologians and philosophers like Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas; Protestant reformers like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Wesley; neoorthodox thinkers like Barth, Brunner, and Baillie; neoevangelicals like Berkhouwer, Rogers, and C. S. Lewis; evangelicals like Turretin, Edwards, Hodge, Warfield, and Machen; and fundamentalists like Rice and his disciples. Having concluded his survey, Geisler identifies himself with the first three groups: the church fathers, the medieval theologians and philosophers, and the Protestant reformers, all of whom, in spite of “minor differences” about the “mode” of inspiration, are in basic agreement about its “nature”: all believed that the Bible is verbally inspired, infallible, and uniquely authoritative for faith and practice (ST, 1, 295).

Geisler describes himself as an “evangelical theologian”—a term he uses to distinguish his position from those he rejects—all of which, he thinks, are deficient in some way or other. He faults some for being naturalistic and for denying inspiration altogether; he faults others for teaching that inspiration is mechanical in a way that does not allow for the contributions of the human authors. Between these two extremes is “the historic, orthodox, evangelical view”—Geisler’s position—which affirms both the full divinity and full humanity of Scripture in concurrence with the words of God and the words of the human authors. According to this view, the Bible does not just contain the Word of God, i.e., divinely inspired and inerrant truth embedded in fallible human narratives—what German theologian Karl Barth called “the Word of Man” and from which the Word of God needs to be extracted. On the contrary, the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God—fully and completely, from cover to cover.

The fact remains, however, that the terms “inspired” and “inspiration” are tricky and extremely difficult to explain clearly. What do they mean?

According to Geisler, God did not inspire human beings to write the books of the Bible in the way that a scenic landscape might inspire a painter to capture it on canvas or a beautiful woman might inspire a poet to write a sonnet. In ordinary language, the term “inspired” does not imply true (or good). In fact, the inspired painting or sonnet might be appallingly bad, rendering the scenic landscape all-but-unrecognizable or causing the immortalized incarnation of femininity to burst into tears. In Christian theology, on the other hand, “inspired” does imply true and even inerrant. The Greek term for inspiration is theopneustos—a compound verb meaning “God-breathed.” The idea seems to be this: just as God infused “the breath of life” into Adam in the Garden of Eden, so also He infused words and sentences into the Biblical authors.

According to the historic, orthodox, evangelical Christian view espoused by Geisler, Biblical inspiration is both verbal and plenary. It is easy to state these claims. It is also easy to explain them in a way that seems crystal clear. But this apparent clarity and self-evidence is illusory. The harder one tries to understand verbal and plenary inspiration, the more one realizes that these doctrines require so many qualifications and ad hoc distinctions that they are ultimately unintelligible and yet another attempt to have it both ways. Allow me to explain.

Verbal inspiration “guarantees” that the inspiration of the Bible extends to its very words (verba)—and even to such matters as word order, vocabulary, grammar, and tenses of verbs (Geisler, ST, 1, 235-36). That is to say, God did not just inspire the authors of the Bible in the sense of providing them with main ideas, broad topics, general summaries, etc., and then allowing them to develop this material in their own ways and in their own words. If He had, the result would not have been the inerrant word of God, but the word of fallible and error-prone human beings.

Plenary inspiration takes this process one step further. Here is Geisler on the subject:

Biblical inspiration is not only verbal (located in the words), but it is also plenary, meaning that it extends to every part of the words and all they teach or imply … The inspiration of God … extends to every part of Scripture, including everything God affirmed (or denied) about any topic. It is inclusive of not only what the Bible teaches but what it touches; that is to say, it includes not only what the Bible teaches explicitly but also what it teaches implicitly, covering not only spiritual matters but factual ones as well. (ST, 1, 236-37)

Although promulgated with an air of magisterial authority, these remarks are highly obscure and explain nothing. That this is so may be seen by asking a few questions.

First, what exactly does Geisler mean when he says that plenary inspiration extends to “every part of the words”? Which “parts” does he have in mind? Does he mean that plenary inspiration extends to each of the individual letters that the words are made up of—for example, that not only is the term “God” inspired, but also the letters “G,” “o,” and “d”? In short, does he just mean that each word is correctly spelled? If so, that would not seem to require divine inspiration, just a competent speller who proofread what he had rewritten once or twice. If that is not what Geisler means, then what does he mean? Indeed, what could he mean? What other “parts”—besides individual letters—are words made up of?

Second, what does he mean when he says that inspiration extends to everything that these words “teach and imply”—not to mention, everything that they “touch”? This first claim seems to imply that the “teachings” imparted by the words are easily discoverable by anybody willing to make a serious effort. That, of course, is plainly false. The phenomenon known as Protestantism is living proof. Here is a group of people who all believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, but who have been able to agree about next to nothing about these “teachings” and have been squabbling about them since the sixteenth century. And not only squabbling but fragmenting into hundreds of denominations, schisms, and splinter groups each of which disagrees with all the others, claiming to be in sole possession of the truth and prepared to excommunicate (and, sometimes, even to execute) those who dissent. (Surely I am not the only person in the history of the world who has wondered whatever possessed somebody to write the lyrics for the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers? which describes these inveterately querulous and potentially violent constituencies as “one in hope and doctrine, one in charity”!) In light of this all-but-universal disagreement, how could anybody claim to know which, if any, of these contentious factions is right about the “teachings” of the Bible?

Third, even if we could determine what these “teachings” are with minimal precision, how are we to determine what they imply? What Denomination A thinks they imply will be disputed by Denomination B, and that by Denominations C, D, E, and so on ad infinitum. Theologians like Geisler and McDowell provide no way out. If they were to advance their own view and assert that it is true and all the other denominations are wrong, that would not prove that they are right. It would only prove that they are members of a denomination—call it Denomination X—whose teachings are disputed by all the other denominations.

Geisler’s use of the term “implies” is not only much too vague; it is also much too facile. What any given statement implies is often very hard to determine and the possibility of error is always present. That is true even in discussions between people who have known each other for years. The question, “In saying what you just said, were you implying such-and-such?” is often answered with a firm, “No, not at all.” If people are susceptible to error when drawing implications from remarks made by close friends and even intimates, they are surely much more susceptible to error when drawing implications from statements made by authors who lived two thousand years ago whose original writings no longer exist and have been preserved in copies containing thousands of variant passages. The only possible conclusion is this: Unless the term “implies” is used very cautiously and restricted to what is logically or contextually implied by any given statement, the process of drawing implications will quickly degenerate into a hopelessly subjective and ideological-motivated activity based on criteria that vary from denomination to denomination and even from person to person, as the history of Protestantism illustrates with a vengeance.

That leads to another problem. If verbal inspiration extends to the very words of the Bible right down to the last detail—not only to the words but also to the word-order, vocabulary, grammar, tense, etc.—then it would seem that the Biblical authors could have not contributed any ideas of their own. And if plenary inspiration extends to everything taught and implied, both explicitly and implicitly, such that the inspired authors were “mouthpieces of God” who said “exactly what God wanted to say to humankind” (Geisler, ST, 1, 232), then it would also seem that these authors not only contributed no ideas of their own, but contributed nothing of their own. If they had, the result would not have been the inerrant word of God, but the word of fallible and error-prone human beings. The purpose of verbal and plenary inspiration is to prevent precisely that. In short, just as Adam inhaled the “breath of life” and contributed nothing to the process of becoming “a living soul,” so the authors of the Bible inhaled the God-breathed words and contributed nothing to the process of writing an inerrant book. How could it be otherwise? If the very words, word-order, vocabulary, and grammar are verbally infused, what is left for the human authors to contribute? The only consistent conclusion is that, in writing the Bible, the authors were simply the divine medium and functioned like stenographers taking dictation. That is also implied by the very term used by the author of 2 Peter 1:20-21: God “moved” (pheromenoi) “holy men” in “old time,” as waves move a ship. The ship is completely passive.

Puzzlingly, evangelical Christian theologians strongly disagree. Having emphatically asserted that inspiration is both verbal and plenary, Geisler just as emphatically denies that it is a “mechanical” process, that the books of the inspired authors were “verbally dictated,” and that the authors were “automatons.” On the contrary, “[w]hat they wrote is what they desired to write in the style that they were accustomed to using.” In short, “[e]ven though the Bible was not mechanically dictated by God to men, nevertheless, the result is just as perfect as if it had been” (ST, 1, 235). (ST, 1, 239). Although the inspired authors were “supernaturally superintended” such that “God is the source of the very words of Scripture” (ST, 1, 235), He still “employed their own literary styles and idiosyncrasies.” McDowell concurs (INE Don’t, 372).

The operative phrase here, of course, is “supernaturally superintended”—a solemn phrase that seems to resonate with truth and settle the matter once-and-for-all. However, that is not a solution; it is just another attempt to have it both ways. Again, allow me to explain.

How on earth could the human authors of the books of the Bible possibly have written “exactly what they desired to write” and “in the style that they were accustomed to using” if every word they committed to the page was verbally and plenarily inspired, i.e., God-breathed and infused into them? Neither Geisler nor McDowell makes the slightest attempt to explain this apparent contradiction. Indeed, neither even acknowledges that there is a problem. It is not hard to see why. The contradiction cannot be explained. Geisler tacitly admits as much. Having marveled for pages on end at how God managed to verbally and plenarily inspire the Bible without destroying the freedom and personality of the authors, he finally gives up and calls it a “mystery” (ST, 1, 239). For once I agree with him. I only wish that he had candidly acknowledged that at the outset instead of writing 155 pages pretending to solve it only to tacitly admit in the end that he has not. This evangelical Christian writer, who “does not have enough faith to be an atheist,” apparently does have enough faith to swallow this contradiction and calls upon his readers to do the same. Regrettably, millions have.

But the worst is yet to come. Geisler concludes his discussion of the inspiration and inerrancy of he Bible by asserting that since God did not disregard the vocabulary, grammar, literary style, and other “unique characteristics” of the human authors—the very personal, idiosyncratic, and stylistic ingredients previously said to have been infused by verbal and plenary inspiration—it follows that the Bible did not come from God directly but only indirectly. In short, it is a “thoroughly human book, except that it is without error” (ST, 1, 239). So Geisler’s fully formulated view goes like this: God is the sole author of the thoroughly human Bible, albeit the indirect rather than the direct author because He used human authors who both were and were not verbally and plenarily inspired and hence both did and did not use their own vocabularies, literary styles, and other “unique characteristics.” I find this schizophrenic doctrine incoherent.

4. What Inspiration Guarantees and Does Not Guarantee

As we have seen, evangelical Christian theologians believe that verbal and plenary inspiration guarantee that everything that the Bible teaches or implies, both explicitly and implicitly, is true; and that this applies not only to spiritual matters, but to factual ones as well (Geisler, ST, 1, 237). In short, verbal and plenary inspiration guarantees that the Bible is never wrong about anything. It is completely inerrant.

This claim is based on nothing more than wishful thinking and many counterexamples could be cited to refute it. Here is one of the most obvious. During one particular battle, mass-murderer Joshua noticed that it was getting dark and that he needed more daylight to complete his slaughter of the Amorites. (They had already been partially obliterated by great hailstones that God had caused to fall on them from heaven.) To complete his slaughter, the resourceful Joshua commanded the sun to stand still: “And the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day” (Joshua 12-13). Now even the dullest student in the class realizes that Joshua’s command implies that the sun is in motion and that it revolves around the earth—an astronomical theory known as the geocentric theory that was proven false by Galileo and Copernicus, but that Joshua thought was true.

Before proceeding further, two observations are worth making. First, the book of Joshua was written more than 3,000 years ago, so there is no way that its author could have known that the geocentric theory is false and that, in fact, the earth goes around the sun. But while the error is excusable from a historical point of view, the fact remains that it is an error—and a factual error of the kind allegedly not found in the Bible. Second, although the author of the book of Joshua can be excused for not knowing that the earth goes around the sun, an omniscient God who allegedly created the solar system cannot. Since He allegedly inspired the author of the book of Joshua to include this story, why did He not also inspire him to command the earth to stop rotating on its axis, thereby allowing the author to get his facts right and, in the process, advancing the science of astronomy by light years? This single example is enough refute the claim that verbal and plenary inspiration “guarantees” that everything in the Bible is true and factually accurate.

Geisler begs to differ. We have already observed this “harmonizer” of the synoptic Gospels admitting that John says that Mary Magdalene saw two angels whereas Matthew says that she saw one, but salvaging his position by observing that Matthew did not say that he saw only one angel. Here is another prize specimen from his bag of hermeneutical tricks. Having asserted that the doctrines of verbal and plenary inspiration guarantee that the Bible is always accurate about everything—including matters of fact—he adds that these doctrines do not “guarantee” that every statement in the Bible s “technically precise by modern standards” or that they are all factually accurate from “a modern astronomical perspective (as opposed to accurate by observational standards” (ST, 1, 237). McDowell concurs (NE, 45-51).

Unlike every clear-headed person I have ever known or whose work I have ever read, Geisler seriously asserts that a statement can be factually accurate even though it is scientifically false. Notice his strategy. On the one hand, he cannot very well say that he thinks the sun revolves around the earth. On the other hand, he has pledged his unwavering allegiance to a book which clearly implies that it does. He cannot say that the statement is false because he believes that the book in which it appears is divinely inspired and factually accurate on all subjects. However, Joshua’s command is based on an astronomical theory that is factually inaccurate. So Geisler has two logical choices. He must either admit that the passage is factually inaccurate and abandon (or significantly modify) his theory of verbal and plenary inspiration or he must retain his theory and say that the passage is factually accurate. Or so it seems. But he opts for neither alternative. Instead, he opts for a third. Observe him at work.

He starts by admitting that Galileo and Copernicus were right. The earth does revolve around the sun. He then acknowledges that Joshua’s command implies that the opposite is true, i.e., that the sun revolves around the earth. But instead of concluding that Joshua issued a command based on an astronomical theory that is scientifically false and therefore factually mistaken, Geisler claims that a statement can be factually accurate even though it is scientifically false. If we ask how that could possibly be true, here is his answer. Although the statement “The sun stood still in obedience to Joshua’s command” is not “technically precise by modern standards” or factually accurate from “a modern astronomical perspective,” it is accurate by “observational standards.” So this champion of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy is prepared to rest his case on the following argument: Like everybody else in those days, the author of the book of Joshua (and Joshua himself) believed that the sun revolves around the earth—which, as everybody today knows, is false. However, although Joshua’s belief was false, it is nevertheless true that the sun seems to revolve around the earth. Therefore, his belief, although factually inaccurate and technically imprecise when judged by “modern astronomical standards,” is perfectly accurate when judged by “observational” ones.

This is an embarrassingly bad argument. Anybody who believes that the sun revolves around the earth is not accurate in any sense, but completely inaccurate. To say that Joshua was accurate by “observational standards” means only that it seemed to him that that is what the sun does. But that is true of all honest errors. They do not seem like errors at the time. So-called “observational truth” is not truth at all, it is perceptual illusion. When Galileo and Copernicus propounded the heliocentric theory of the solar system, they were not substituting technical and scientific truth for observational truth; they were substituting scientific truth for scientific error. Geisler’s rescue operation is nothing more than disingenuous and face-saving bluster.

Rescue-operations like these are not designed to illuminate, but to obfuscate. Their purpose is not to elucidate, but to insulate. Writers like Geisler are as slippery and elusive as a cake of soap in the bathtub. Just when you think you have spotted a fatal flaw in their reasoning, you discover that they have a card up their sleeve that they were saving for just such an occasion. Like one-trick ponies, they go through exactly the same routine every time. Confronted with a factual error, a contradiction, or an inconsistency, they qualify their original claim or make a bogus distinction.

According to Geisler and McDowell, there are many other things that verbal and plenary inspiration do not “guarantee.” For example, they do not guarantee,

  1. that everything recorded in the Bible (as opposed to taught or implied) is true,
  2. that the Bible necessarily approves of everything it records,
  3. that the unexplained is necessarily unexplainable,
  4. that all numerical statements are correct (the Bible often uses round numbers as opposed to exact ones),
  5. that all quotations from other Scriptural passages are quoted verbatim,
  6. that an incomplete report is false,
  7. that the same truth can be said in only one way,
  8. that everything a Biblical writer believes (as opposed to what Scripture actually affirms) is true,
  9. that quotations imply the truth of everything in the source quotes, and,
  10. that grammatical constructions will always be the “customary” one rather than one “adequate” to convey the truth (ST, 237-38; Evidence, 47).

In support of this ad hoc, arbitrary, and seemingly endless list of qualifications, Geisler produces a principle of interpretation which he calls “the phenomena of Scripture.” Here it is:

[W]hat the Bible says must be understood in view of what the Bible shows. What it preaches must be read in light of what it practices. The doctrine of Scripture is to be understood in light of the data of Scripture. (ST, 238)

Geisler does not offer a shred of textual evidence in support of this a priori hermeneutical pronouncement, so there is no reason why anybody should accept it. And there is an excellent reason to reject it. The true source of the alleged principle of “the phenomena of Scripture” is patently obvious. Having set forth his view of verbal and plenary inspiration and what it does and does not “guarantee,” Geisler ransacked the Old and New Testaments in search of passages that are incompatible with it, compiled a list of them, and then announced that verbal and plenary inspiration does not “guarantee” the truth of the claims contained in them. But this strategy will not work. What he does not seem to realize is that this list of qualifications makes his original “guarantee” worthless. What would you make of an automobile insurance agent who started out by saying, “You are fully covered,” and then added, “but not for collisions, injuries sustained in collisions, vandalism, or theft”? Would you not ask, “What is the difference between that kind of ‘coverage’ and no coverage at all?” I think we are entitled to ask Geisler an analogous question: “What is the difference between that kind of ‘guarantee’ and no guarantee at all?”

This endlessly resourceful but polemically unscrupulous “defender of the faith” should ponder the sobering words of Albert Schweitzer:

Because I am devoted to Christianity with deep affection, I am trying to serve it with loyalty and sincerity. In no wise do I undertake to enter the lists on its behalf with the crooked and fragile thinking of Christian apologetics, but I call on it to set itself right in the spirit of sincerity with its past and with thought in order that it may thereby become conscious of its true nature. (Out of My Life and Thought, pp. 185-86)

Theories of inspiration like Geisler’s and McDowell’s are not the result of careful textual exegesis. Philosophers call such theories a priori because they are formulated prior to consulting the relevant textual evidence and continue to be held in spite of what is found when it is consulted. Such theories have nothing to do with serious Biblical exegesis. They are examples of philosophical rationalism, pure and simple. The doctrine of verbal and plenary inspiration is not based on textual evidence derived from the Biblical texts, but on a previously formulated theory in light of which the Biblical texts are read and interpreted. If a passage is discovered that counts against the theory, its champions do not abandon or modify the theory; they reinterpret the passage. The examples I have cited are cases in point. It does not matter to such theologians if their reinterpretations require them to do violence to the Biblical texts; all that matters is that they preserve their theory. To sum up, the doctrine of the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Bible that I have been examining is an a priori theory based on a controversial interpretation of fourth century copies of earlier copies of original documents that nobody has seen for two thousand years and which can only be maintained by denying facts and making endless ad hoc distinctions and qualifications.

One hesitates to accuse anybody of intellectual dishonesty. However, in view of the frequency with which evangelical Christian theologians level this charge against atheists, agnostics, and “liberal” Christians generally, it is worth pausing to ask oneself what really motivates these textually irresponsible, contrived, and ad hoc defenses of pet theories. It seems to me that the motivation is patently clear: the desire to continue to believe no matter what and to interpret the Bible however one must in order to do that.

Having discussed Biblical criticism and the inspiration of the Bible, I turn next to the synoptic Gospels.