In answer to the first question: No, the Word of God, as originally given, contains no mistakes. Paul tells us, “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16 NKJV), and God doesn’t make mistakes. However, Bible scholars recognize that as the scriptures were hand-copied over the centuries, minor scribal errors crept into the text. The Bible as we have it today, therefore, is not completely free of human error. This is what evangelical Christians mean when they say the Bible is “inerrant in its original autographs.”
While the Hebrew scribes took great care to copy the scriptures accurately, they occasionally made mistakes. This was understandable, given that the Hebrew text had no separations between words and that the words consisted of only consonants—no vowels.
During the a.d. 600s to 900s, Jewish scribes called Masoretes followed very strict rules for making copies of the text and added helpful vowel points to the consonants. This reduced scribal errors dramatically. The Masoretic text (MT) was so renowned for being error-free that it was accepted as the official version of the Old testament.
But what about inaccuracies introduced into the text before the Masoretes? until 1947, skeptics argued that there were probably so many mistakes in the Hebrew text that there was no way of telling how closely the MT resembled the original documents.
That year, however, a remarkable discovery was made. Jars full of ancient scrolls were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea in Israel. These scrolls dated back two thousand years to between 225 b.c.–a.d. 70. The jars contained at least fragments of every Old testament book but Esther. The “dead Sea Scrolls,” as they came to be known, have confirmed the remarkable accuracy of the Masoretic text. Yes, there are differences between the MT and certain manuscripts, but the MT is virtually identical to a majority of the ancient copies.
The books of 1 and 2 Kings and their “companion” books, 1 and 2 Chronicles, include an example of what is clearly a copyist’s error.
First and 2 Kings, which scholars generally agree were compiled between 562-538 b.c., detail the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The parallel histories recorded in 1 and 2 Chronicles focus on Judah, and scholars date them to Ezra’s day, some one hundred years later. When recounting the same historical events, Chronicles usually differs from Kings only in that it supplies extra information about the kingdom of Judah.
But here’s one striking discrepancy:
The writer of Kings writes, “Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months” (2 Kings 24:8 NKJV). However, Chronicles states: “Jehoiachin was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months and ten days” (2 Chronicles 36:9 NKJV). The ten days is accounted for by the fact that the compiler of Chronicles is, as usual, supplying extra details. The real question is this: Was Jehoiachin eighteen or eight when he became king?
Second Kings 24:15 tells us that Jehoiachin was married at the time he became king and had more than one wife, so obviously he was eighteen, not eight. Indeed, one ancient Hebrew manuscript differs from the Masoretic text and has “eighteen” in both 2 Chronicles 36:9 and 2 Kings 24:8.
So how did this error happen? Well, the Hebrew text of 2 Kings 24:8 literally reads “son of eight ten years Jehoiachin,” and the text for 2 Chronicles 36:9 would have originally said the same thing. Very likely, a later scribe, while copying the passage in 2 Chronicles, lost his place and his eyes skipped over the word ten to the next word, “years.”
Skeptics have insisted that the accounts of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob existed for hundreds of years after their day as oral traditions. That, they say, is because writing was not prevalent at that time in human history. Therefore, the argument goes, the stories—because they were passed down by word of mouth—were corrupted to such an extent that they have little or no actual historical value.
However, Genesis 11:27-28 says that Abraham (around 2166-1991 b.c.) emigrated from Ur in Chaldea, where writing (even schools) existed. Abraham was a shepherd by choice, but he was not an illiterate nomad. On the contrary, he was a wealthy and, very probably, literate man. In addition, thousands of clay tablets containing writing in a phonetic Semitic version of cuneiform (a writing system used in ancient times) have been discovered at the ancient city of Ebla, just two hundred miles north of Canaan. Many of these writings date to 2500 b.c., hundreds of years before Abraham’s birth.
In addition, the book of Genesis gives indications of being written in stages, as each succeeding generation, in their old age, added its own story to the ongoing narrative. One example of this is found in Genesis 35:27-29, which describes Jacob returning to his father in Hebron and Isaac’s death a few years after. The story of Jacob’s adventures in Haran was likely written then. Just before Isaac died, however, Jacob’s son Joseph had been presumed dead. But after Jacob learned that Joseph was still alive, their combined story continues (in the period before Isaac’s death), beginning with the statement, “This is the history of Jacob” (Genesis 37:2 NKJV).
Moreover, the cultural elements mentioned in Genesis, from traditions to laws to styles of covenants, all bear the earmarks of authenticity for the time and area in which they were said to have happened. In other words, they are accurate historical accounts.
In 1974-75, Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae was excavating the mound of tell Mardikh in Syria when his team discovered a room containing nearly eighteen hundred clay tablets. The tablets dated from around 2500 b.c. to 2250 b.c., the date the city was destroyed. It turns out Matthiae had unearthed the records for Ebla, an ancient city and trade empire that flourished and was sacked nearly ten centuries before Moses.
The writing on many of the tablets was in a hitherto unknown language, but as Dr. Pettinato (the team’s epigrapher) deciphered them, he discovered that Ebla had a complex code of laws, many of which resembled the Old testament commandments, which would be written about a thousand years later. Sacrifices for sin, purification rites, and even scapegoats were known in Ebla. This contradicted skeptics who had previously argued that Moses couldn’t have written his law at the time of the Exodus “because codified laws didn’t exist that early.”
The Ebla tablets also contain many Semitic names, such as Adam, Abraham, Esau, Ishmael, David, and Saul. They also discuss the Canaanites and the Hittites and refer to ancient Urusalima (Jerusalem), Hazor, Megiddo, and other cities mentioned in the Bible.
Dr. Pettinato reported that Sodom and Gomorrah were named as cities with which Ebla traded. Other scholars dispute this, claiming that the inscriptions instead stand for the names of cities in Syria.
Much of the early speculation that the tablets contained the name of Yah (short for Yahweh) as endings of people’s names is now also disputed. Nevertheless, the discovery of the ancient library of Ebla has done much to confirm many of the Bible’s accounts and to shed light on the ancient civilizations that were the backdrop of the Old testament.