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Kyle Roberts has recently responded to my critique of his arguments against belief in inerrancy. His response focuses on the first point of my critique, which was that we should accept the inerrancy of Scripture because Jesus held to inerrancy.
Since rebutting that point is the focus of his response, Roberts comments on both my shorter treatment of the issue in my Credo House blog article, “7 Problems with Christian Opposition to Inerrancy,” and my much longer article on IRR’s website, “Jesus and the Inerrancy of Scripture.” (Except where otherwise noted, references to my article in what follows pertain to the IRR website article.) Roberts argues that Jesus did not hold to inerrancy.
Jesus, Inerrancy, and Circular Reasoning
Roberts begins with the following comment:
Let’s set aside an initial observation, which is the circularity implied in Bowman’s demand. If you assume the inerrancy of the Bible, you can then confidently go to the Bible to see whether what Jesus is (inerrantly) reported as having said about it supports the doctrine of inerrancy.
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Kyle “sets aside” this observation without actually denying it. He gives three reasons for setting it aside after bringing it up. Oddly enough, his three reasons do not include the fact that I specifically set forth a method that did not fall guilty to such circularity! I quite clearly explained that the method of determining what Jesus said about Scripture did not depend on the assumption that the Gospels reported his teachings inerrantly, but rather approached the Gospels as historical source documents. In my article, I explained the method as follows:
In order to avoid both question-begging and self-defeating arguments, I propose an historical approach that seeks to determine what Jesus taught about the nature of Scripture from the most historically reliable sources of information about the teachings of Jesus. Notice that I am now considering documents as historical sources, not as scriptural texts (though they may be both). (This is the same method I use to show that Jesus rose from the dead.) In order to make the argument doubly relevant for critics of scriptural inerrancy, I will also focus on documents that both evangelicals and non-evangelicals revere highly as essential sources of information about the teachings of Jesus. Thus, although my argument is primarily historical, it is also theologically relevant in this context.
There’s more, but the above quotation from my article is sufficient to show that Roberts’s throw-away comment is an attempt at poisoning the well with a criticism that I had already anticipated and refuted. Like a wily lawyer who makes a comment to the jury knowing that the other lawyer will rightly object, Roberts makes his comment about circularity and then withdraws it, leaving it to do mischief in the reader’s mind.
Jesus, Judaism, and Every Jot and Tittle
Roberts then attempts to address the evidence I adduced from the Gospels as to Jesus’ view of Scripture. With regard to Matthew 5:17–18, Roberts makes the following comment:
It does suggest, as Bowman points out, that Jesus had a ‘high view of Scripture,’ consistent with the dominant Rabbinic understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures.
This is not an accurate statement of what I had pointed out. A “high view of Scripture” has become, in some circles, code for “high but not that high.” Affirming a respectful-sounding “high view” of Scripture is unfortunately so nebulous as to be virtually meaningless.
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What Roberts fails to address is the point, carefully documented in my article, that “the dominant Rabbinic understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures” was that the Scriptures were inerrant. Ancient Jews did not hold merely to a hazy “high view” of Scripture, but to a very specific view of Scripture as without error. I gave examples of this view from the writings of Philo and Josephus and backed up the point with quotations from respected non-evangelical scholar James Kugel. And if Jesus’ view of Scripture was consistent with the dominant Jewish view, as Roberts concedes, then Jesus viewed Scripture as inerrant.
Roberts continues his response as follows:
But what Matthew seems to want the reader to understand here is that Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah and that his Messianic reign would be consistent with–not in contradiction to–Jewish religious life and its authoritative texts.
I agree, but this point (which he elaborates for another few sentences) merely confirms that Jesus, according to Matthew, affirmed the conventional Jewish view of Scripture. By the way, as I pointed out in my article, a similar statement appears also in Luke 16:17, so Matthew was not alone in representing Jesus as holding this view.
Some background to Jesus’ saying may be helpful here. The words “jot” (Matthew 5:18) and “tittle” (Matt. 5:18; Luke 16:17) in the KJV translate the Greek iōta and keraia. Iōta clearly is a transliteration of the Hebrew word yodh, the name of the smallest Hebrew letter. Keraia, meaning “horn,” refers to the smallest strokes of Hebrew letters at the time of Jesus, comparable to what we would call a serif. Those strokes could differentiate one letter from another and thus could make a difference in the meaning of the text. Jesus’ language here alludes to stories told by Jewish teachers and later recorded in Jewish midrashic texts and the Talmud regarding the sacred preservation of yodh. In the best known of these stories, the rabbis, as Craig Keener reports, “said that when Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah, the yodh removed from her name cried out from one generation to another, protesting its removal from Scripture, and finally, when Moses changed Oshea’s name to Joshua, the yodh was returned to Scripture.”
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We see, then, that Jesus expressed a stance toward the text of Scripture consistent with the conventional Jewish belief that every letter of Scripture was divinely inspired. As already explained, one of the corollaries of this view among Jews in Jesus’ day—and I might also mention in Orthodox Judaism even to this day—was that Scripture is inerrant.
Did Jesus Make Adjustments to the Torah?
According to Roberts, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17–18 cannot be understood to affirm inerrancy because of what Jesus said next. Roberts comments as follows:
It’s worth noting, though, that immediately following this passage (5:21–48), Jesus makes a few adjustments to the Torah. These are the “you have heard it said…but I say unto you” texts. And they are not insignificant adjustments. Jesus intensifies the Torah teachings on lust/adultery, marriage/divorce, retaliation/generosity and loving the enemy.
At this point I began to wonder how much of my article Roberts had actually bothered to read. In his defense, my article is pretty long. In any case, I had already anticipated and explicitly answered his objection:
The one passage sometimes cited against Jesus having a traditional view of Scripture is the passage of six “antitheses” in Matthew 5:21–48. Many people have supposed that in these antitheses Jesus was contrasting his teaching with that of Moses or the Torah. However, as many recent studies have borne out, the antitheses actually contrast Jesus’ teaching with that of the scribes and Pharisees, not with that of Moses. Thus, Jesus specifically denies that he is advocating breaking any of the commandments of the Torah, and tells his disciples that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, not that of the Mosaic Law (Matt. 5:19–20). The whole point of Jesus’ saying about not abolishing the Torah or the Prophets (Matt. 5:17–18) is to safeguard against the misunderstanding that he was criticizing the Torah. If Matthew 5:21–48 are read in the light of the programmatic statements in 5:17–20, as they surely must be, then we will not misunderstand Jesus to be disagreeing with Moses.
Craig Keener has paraphrased Jesus’ meaning in these six “antitheses” as follows: “You understand the Bible to mean only this, but I offer a fuller interpretation.” In each case Jesus is not disagreeing with the Scripture itself, but rather, as Craig Evans puts it, “counters (‘but I say to you’) a scribal or Pharisaic interpretation of a given passage of legal scripture.”
Infallible, Except When Immoral?
Roberts thinks that the last of Jesus’ six “adjustments” to the Torah, regarding loving one’s enemies (Matt. 5:43–47), is especially problematic for inerrancy:
How should one understand so much of the Old Testament, so much of which seems to provide divine approval of violence against enemies? Jesus’ teachings appear as a dramatic update or even disapproval of the “divine genocide” or “holy war” texts in the Old Testament.
Roberts’ comment here illustrates one of the other points I made in my Credo House blog article responding to his criticisms of inerrancy, which is that Roberts’s own view is incoherent. Notice that Roberts apparently thinks that Jesus could hold a “high view of Scripture” while impugning “so much of the Old Testament.” Evidently what Roberts means is that Jesus held a high view of Scripture, except for much of the Old Testament! Later, he asserts that Jesus’ view of Scripture accorded it as authoritative in “religious and ethical matters” but not in matters of history or science. What—divine genocide and holy war are not religious or ethical matters? If much of the Old Testament teaches “divine genocide” and “holy war,” and if Jesus disapproved of those teachings, then he did not regard the Old Testament as authoritative in “religious and ethical matters.”
Frankly, I find it very difficult to understand how Roberts could question the morality of “so much of the Old Testament” and then in the same article make statements such as the following:
With each example, Bowman is insisting that Jesus affirmed the authority of the Old Testament and appealed to its authority to make points about morality, justice, or salvation. I don’t dispute any of that.
Actually, he does, and he does so explicitly again later in the article:
But if we’re going to be honest about so much that the Bible contains, we need to be willing to say that it is not flawless, perfect, without problems, or without in [The use of “in” here is probably a typo.] need of complementary knowledge–i.e. updating. Going beyond Bloesch, I would say these problems include not just matters of historical details or scientific worldview, but morality as well. [Bold type has been changed for emphasis.]
The incoherence of the progressive “infallible but not inerrant” position is here on full display. In one brief article, Roberts acknowledges that Jesus held the Old Testament Scriptures to be authoritative in morality, yet Roberts later in the same article finds much of those Old Testament Scriptures to be problematic in morality. In short, Roberts does not appear to accept Jesus’ view of Scripture with any coherence or consistency.
For the record, Jesus was not criticizing the Old Testament. He was criticizing the way some Jews in his day interpreted the Old Testament. As is well known, the words “and hate your enemy” (Matt. 5:43) are not in Leviticus 19:18 or in any other Old Testament text. An example of the kind of interpretation Jesus was opposing appears in the later Jewish text called the Sifra on Leviticus 19:17b–18. The Sifra says, “You shall not take revenge on nor be hateful to the sons of thy people. You may take revenge on and be hateful to other men. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Sifra as a complete and settled text cannot be definitively dated, but much of its content dates from the third century A.D. and earlier. In this instance, the direct conjunction of Leviticus 19:18 with the permission to hate other people is sufficient to conclude that this later text reflected the sort of teaching Jesus had been criticizing in Matthew 5:43–47.
Inerrancy: The Words versus the Living Word?
Next, Roberts cites John 5:36–40, which he says “Bowman omits to discuss,” as “counter-evidence” to my contention that Jesus believed in inerrancy. On the contrary, I did discuss that passage, albeit briefly. I commented that Jesus emphasized there that “the Jews claimed ownership of Scripture as God’s chosen people, yet many of them failed to recognize that Scripture testified to him (cf. John 5:39–40, 45–47).” Roberts did not mention the latter part of that passage, where Jesus has this to say:
“If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (John 5:46–47).
With regard to this text, I had made the following comment:
Jesus’ argument here presupposes, of course, that the Jews ought to have believed what Moses wrote.
Nowhere in the verses Roberts quotes does Jesus rebuke the Pharisees for holding to the inerrancy of Scripture. Here is the part of the passage that refers to the Scriptures:
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40 ESV).
It is difficult to extract from this statement any implication that Jesus viewed Scripture as less than inerrant. Here is the best that Roberts can do:
Jesus rebukes their undue emphasis on the written words of the Scriptures as being sufficiently life-giving of themselves. These words testify to Jesus–and that’s important. But Jesus warns them not to substitute the words which testify for the reality (or person, rather) to which they point. It’s the Word, not the words, that ultimately matter.
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Roberts hastens to say that he is not suggesting that “Bowman himself is guilty of replacing Jesus with the Bible as the object of his devotion” (thanks for that). Given that caveat, it is difficult then to see how this text undermines my rather conventional understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture. Roberts seems to be confusing two different categories or issues, namely, the truthfulness of Scripture and the redemptive purpose of Scripture. Eternal life comes from Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. We do not get eternal life by simply reading the Bible, but by putting our faith in Jesus Christ whose person and redeeming work on our behalf are revealed in the Bible. This distinction is extremely important and clearly valid, but it is not relevant to the question of inerrancy. Hypothetically speaking, either of the following scenarios might be imagined:
- Scripture is inerrant and reveals Jesus Christ as the source of eternal life.
- Scripture is not inerrant and reveals Jesus Christ as the source of eternal life.
Both statements appear to be consistent with John 5:39–40. Roberts has given no reason for preferring the second statement over the first.
Conclusion: Jesus and Modern Views of Scripture
It is, of course, true that the Gospels do not report Jesus discussing the coherence of Genesis with Greek astronomy (let alone with modern evolutionary theories), the historicity of the Tower of Babel, apparent numerical discrepancies in Kings and Chronicles, or other such matters that commonly come up in modern debates over the inerrancy of Scripture. No doubt Jesus had bigger fish to fry. To infer from such silence in the Gospels that, had such questions come up, Jesus would not have affirmed the truth of Scripture in all such matters is, however, fallacious. As explained earlier, the fact is that Jesus affirmed the truth of Scripture down to the “jot and tittle” (the smallest letter and stroke), a conventional Jewish way of asserting the divine inspiration of every word of Scripture (Matt. 5:17–20; Luke 16:17).
We are therefore on solid ground in concluding that Jesus viewed Scripture as inerrant in all it affirmed. Certainly Jesus would not have endorsed the idea that Scripture was somehow “infallible” yet permeated with morally dubious teachings. That notion is simply indefensible.
- Robert M. Bowman Jr., “7 Problems with Christian Opposition to Inerrancy,” Credo House (blog), Aug. 26, 2015, accessed Sept. 1, 2015, https://credohouse.org/blog/7-problems-with-christian-opposition-to-inerrancy. ↩
- Idem., “Jesus and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” Institute for Religious Research, 2015, accessed Sept. 1, 2015, https://bib.irr.org/jesus-and-inerrancy-of-scripture. ↩
- Kyle Roberts, “Did Jesus Believe that Scripture Is Inerrant?” Patheos: Unsystematic Theology (blog), Aug. 28, 2015, accessed Sept. 1, 2015, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unsystematictheology/2015/08/did-jesus-believe-that-scripture-is-inerrant/. ↩
- See the helpful discussion in Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville: B&H, 2011), 94, as well as just about any other exegetical commentary. ↩
- Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 178. ↩
- Ibid., 182. ↩
- Craig Evans, Matthew, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 120. ↩
- Berndt Schaller, “The Character and Function of the Antitheses in Matt 5:21–48 in the Light of Rabbinical Exegetic Disputes,” in The Sermon on the Mount and Its Jewish Setting, ed. Hans-Jürgen Becker and Serge Ruzer, Cahiers de la Revue biblique 60 (Paris: J. Gabalda, 2005), 87. ↩
Robert M. Bowman Jr. (born 1957) is an American Evangelical Christian theologian specializing in the study of apologetics.