Caravaggio, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, 1602

Theological ideas about ‘Inspiration’ and ‘biblical inerrency’ (the idea that the Bible is free from any errors) rely heavily on just one verse in the New Testament:

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The Greek word translated as ‘inspired’ (or ‘given by inspiration’ in some versions) is θεόπνευστος theopneustos and literally means ‘God-breathed’. It occurs in only one place in the entire Bible and rarely in classical Greek literature, so it is difficult to ascertain precisely what it means. In addition, the term “All Scripture” (in the indefinite singular) is also rare. Yet, despite being based on a single word whose meaning is uncertain, a doctrine has developed in many Christian denominations that argues that every word in the Bible is true and ‘inspired’ by God. As a biblical scholar I could avoid the problem entirely by saying it’s an issue for theologians but is outside the scope of biblical scholars, but because I get so many emails about it I’ve decided not to take that easy route. I’ve touched on it a number of times before so this series of posts will face it a bit more head-on.

In future posts I will look at what the writer of 1 Timothy may have meant by “all Scripture” and “God-breathed” but in this post I will examine just one case in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) which gives some insight in to how the texts of the Bible were copied and transmitted. From the perspective of someone who believes in ‘inerrancy’ and that Scripture was written (and transmitted) exactly as God originally directed (or ‘inspired’) we could argue that if the Bible says “David wrote …” or “David said …” then what we have in our Bible is exactly what David wrote or said.

For example, 2 Samuel 22 begins with these words: “David spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said: The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer …”

Psalm 18 begins in almost precisely the same way: “A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who addressed the words of this song to the LORD on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said: I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer …”

Without making too much of the additional words in the psalm (“I love you, O LORD, my strength”) we could expect that both 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18 should continue with identical accounts of David’s words, and indeed they do seem to start out this way. There isn’t any dispute, as far as I’m aware, that 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18 “are two versions of a single original composition.”1 Equally, there is no dispute that there are, in fact, many differences between the two texts, and scholars tend to offer explanations for how the divergences came about rather than denying that they exist. One scholar, Dr Ian Young in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney, has done a thorough analysis of the two Hebrew texts and has noted that:

By my count, 2 Samuel 22 // Psalm 18 share 290 words. Second Samuel 22 has a further 91 words which are variant from Psalm 18, in other words 23.89% of the total. Psalm 18 has 108 variant words or 27.14%. These two texts of the same composition, transmitted within the same MT [Masoretic Text] textual tradition, differ from each other once every four words, a fairly similar result to the statistics for the overall variations in all passages when the best preserved Qumran Samuel manuscript 4QSama is compared to the MT.

Young, Ian. “Starting at the Beginning with Archaic Biblical Hebrew.” Hebrew Studies 58, no. 1 (2017): 99-118, 110.

In other words, two biblical texts which begin with “David said …” actually differ from each other about once in every four words! In addition, the versions we have of Samuel in the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls, differ in similar ways – about once in every four words. So which text preserves what David ‘originally’ said? Let’s take a look at some examples of how the texts differ.

Psalm 182 Samuel 22
v4 The cords of death (חֶבְלֵי־מָוֶת) encompassed mev5 For the waves of death (מִשְׁבְּרֵי־מָוֶת) encompassed me
v7 the foundations also of the mountains (הָרִים) trembledv8 the foundations of the heavens (הַשָּׁמַיִם) trembled
v10 he came swiftly (וַיֵּדֶא) upon the wings of the windv11 he was seen (וַיֵּרָא) upon the wings of the wind
(this could be a simple case of one or other of the copyists misread ד for ר or vice versa).
v11 He made darkness his covering (סִתְרוֹ) around him, his canopy (the Heb. moves a single letter to mean “his” which is different from 2 Sam 22, סֻכָּתוֹ as opposed to סֻכּוֹת) thick clouds dark with water (חֶשְׁכַת־מַ֝יִם עָבֵי שְׁחָקִים). This version has an additional word (his covering)which is not in 2 Sam 22.v12 He made darkness around him, a canopy thick clouds a gathering of water (חַֽשְׁרַת־מַ֖יִם עָבֵ֥י שְׁחָקִֽים). This is a difference of a single letter, which may be put down to a misreading.
v12 there broke through his clouds (עָבָיו עָבְרוּ)hailstones (בָּרָד) and coals of firev13 coals of fire flamed forth (בָּעֲרוּ). The Hebrew words for hailstones, broke through, clouds and flamed have certain similarities and it is relatively easy to see how a copyist may have made a mistake, or tried to clear things up, but in which version?

I could go on with many more examples, but this handful from the first few verses makes the point well enough. Sometimes the differences can be put down to a copyist making a mistake, or clearing something up, but at other times one version has a word with an entirely different meaning to the other without any apparent reason, or adds (or deletes) a word, or words. Arguably, all of these differences are relatively minor and none of them substantially change the overall meaning of the text. But the fact that there are differences has to raise serious doubts about the notion that every word in the Bible is ‘inspired’ and ‘without error.’

For biblical scholars the task is to look at how these various versions were transmitted and how and why they were modified along the way. They mostly recognise that we cannot possibly uncover the ‘original’ words of David; all we can do is to analyse the processes of recording, copying, re-writing and transmitting the ancient texts. We have to acknowledge that the Bible as we have it includes more than one version of the same events, or the words of individuals such as David. The real problem is for those theologians and modern believers who think that ‘divinely inspired’ means every word of the Bible is true and without error. If two biblical versions of the same event are so markedly different, how can we possibly determine which words are ‘original’ and which are the divinely inspired and inerrant ones?

  1. T. Young, “Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22: Two Versions of the Same Song,” in Seeking Out the Wisdom of the Ancients: Essays Offered to Honor Michael V. Fox on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday (ed. R. L. Troxel, K. G. Friebel, and D. R. Magary; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 53–69 (53).