Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why Would God Permit Scribal Errors in Biblical Manuscripts?

An argument that has been advanced by Bart Ehrman is that if the God of the Bible does exist then we can think of no good reason for why He would allow scribes to make slight errors in copying the original manuscripts of the Bible. The implicit inference that is made from this is that because we can think of no good reason for why God would allow this then there is probably is no good reason. And of course if there is no good reason then this proposition is probably logically incompatible with the goodness of the God of the Bible. The Conclusion would be from this argument is that therefore the God of the Bible probably does not exist.

The natural response by most Christians is "well we can construct the Bible today to 99% accuracy to the originals so surely there has not been that much copying errors." While this is true this does answer the principle in the argument: Why would God permit any sort of copying errors in the Bible at all?

Well the way I would approach this argument is by attacking two of the key premises for our purposes we will call these two premises: P1 and P2

P1: If we can think of no morally sufficient reason for why God would permit scribal errors then we have good reason for thinking that there is none.

P2: We can think of no morally sufficient reason for why God would permit scribal errors.

P1 seems to be false to me because Christian theism theologically admits at least a light form of skeptical theism. That is simply to say: God is incomprehensible so God's reasons for doing this may beyond our cognitive grasp. Surely it would not be completely absurd if God only allows man to damage his word a little bit for some incomprehensible morally sufficient reason. Now with all things being equal then it seems to me that we ought to be say that P1 is neither justified nor unjustified so it cannot function as a defeater against Christian theism.

However, I believe we can do better and actually provide a possible reason for why God would permit man to slightly make copying errors in his Word. In other words we can actually show this entire argument to be less reasonable to believe rather than to affirm. We can show this argument to be more than inscrutable because we can plausibly show it to be false. We can do this by giving reasons for rejecting P2 and if we give sufficient reason for rejecting P2 then this argument really does not even get off the ground. With that being said here are a few possible reasons one could give:

Reason 1: God allowed errors in his word to show his Glory by showing how his goodness and perfection far surpasses ours and this would encourage us to depend on him more. The reason why allow errors would do this is because God has given us his perfect word that does not have any error and the moment God gives this to humanity they mess it up by their fallibility. In the end the greater good is accomplished. God shows his glory and perfection and we experience his glory. But in all of this our imperfection and fallibility is exposed and this highlights our need for God and the greatness of God. This is all done at a very small cost: small non-essential errors that do not even effect our Christian life in a negative fashion.

Reason 2: There is another possible reason that is strange, but it still remains a possible morally sufficient reason. God permitted demons to do slight damage to His Word so that He can punish them and show His justice. Now the demons could have caused the human scribes to make small accidental errors and so on. So God gets to display His justice towards absolute evil at the cost of the smallest errors that do not effect the Bible's essential message to humanity. This seems like a morally sufficient reason.


As we can see, Bart Ehrman's argument is to be regarded as a failure so when you hear him give this reason for leaving Christianity you can be assured that this is a bad reason for abandoning one's Christian faith.


  1. We live in a fallen world and everything in it including the manuscripts of Scripture are effected by this. God does of course overrule and preserve His Scripture in spite of it. But while He could have miraculously preserved Scripture with no errors whatsoever, it would conflict with the fallen condition which exists because of sin. Rather as you said He chooses to glorify Himself by preserving His Word in spite of the world's fallenness.