THE BIBLE AND THE PRESS
Every literary product of the human mind is prone to error, because human beings are fallible and because they come with built-in prejudices; witness the saying, “Errare humanum est,” “To err is human.” Consequently, “Don’t believe everything you read” is good, practical advice to follow. And it applies across the board from newspapers to Scripture. Some may perceive this as a very cynical and irreverent attitude, but it is simply the most realistic philosophy in view of the fallibility of human authorship. Another side of this issue from the religious perspective is the observation, “Funny how we believe what newspapers say, but question what the Bible says.” This double standard of judgment may seem to be unjustified at first glance, but actually it can be readily defended.
There is a great deal of integrity built into modern journalism that was not required in ancient times when the Bible was being written. A news reporter is taught to be objective, to be precise, to investigate all angles of a story, and to be thorough in covering the essential factors: who? what? when? why? and how? If a reporter concocts a set of events and tries to pass them off as factual, he gets fired. This was not the case in olden times. Tall tales were passed around freely and believed by most gullible listeners. Plagiarism was the norm,* and the very existence of pseudepigraphal literature attests to the habit of making spurious claims of authorship.** Stories were embellished as they passed from person to person, and mythical elements were added to give the tale more color. If details were lacking in a story, later narrators supplied the missing information.
The Bible’s writers were not historians in the modern sense of the word. They recounted history with an open bias in favor of their own ethnic group*** and in order to assign their own interpretation of moral lessons to be learned. It has been proven by archæologists and by literary analysts that there is, in fact, a kernel of truth to the historical narratives in the Bible, but this genuine core can only be found by diligent research.
*For example, much of the Epistle of Second Peter was “borrowed” from the Epistle of Jude (see Eerdman’s Concise Bible Handbook, p. 371.)
**Pseudepigraphal books claimed to be written by well-known Bible characters such as Enoch, Moses, Solomon, etc.
***The Book of Esther has been called “Jewish propaganda.” It was not accepted as Scripture by the Essenes and many early Christians.
Some examples will serve to show the Bible’s deficiency with regard to factual standards.
There is an account of the wall of a tiny hilltop town falling upon a large remnant of an army of men and killing them all:
And the rest fled into the city of Aphek, and the wall fell upon 27,000 men that were left. 1 Ki. 20:30
The fantastic size of a wall required to snuff out the lives of this many people shows that the number is greatly exaggerated. If a newspaper made such a claim, its accuracy would be immediately disputed.
The statements in the Bible that rabbits and badgers chew the cud show a naive acceptance of popular folklore. Rabbits are not ruminants.
And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. Lev. 11:6
...the camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not part the hoof, are unclean for you.
The observation that Noah’s Flood was universal and that it covered all the highest mountains in the entire earth was obviously an assumption made by the Mesopotamian lowland’s survivors and not authenticated by making excursions to distant lands to verify the extent of the deluge and to ascertain if all lifeforms had really been obliterated.
Chaldeans did not appear in Mesopotamia until after 600 B.C., but the Book of Genesis calls this region “Chaldea” in the time of the Patriarchs.
Philistines did not appear in the land of Canaan before 1188 B.C., but the Book of Genesis places them there in the patriarchal age. Also, there are inappropriate references to the common use of iron in the Bronze Age.
But if he struck him down with an instrument of iron, so that he died, he is a murderer... Num. 35:16a
...as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, “an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man has lifted an iron tool”... Josh. 8:31b
The word “Babel” is said to mean “confusion” in Gen. 11:9, but it actually means “Gate of God.” This linking of the word babel to balal is false etymology.
The supposed conversion of the Assyrians to the worship of the Jewish Deity by the prophet Jonah is not a historical event. There is no evidence that these dread enemies of the Israelites changed their pagan names by adopting either “Yah-” or “El-” theophorous elements, and their historical records never spoke with favor toward the Hebrew Deity. Also, they never changed their animosity towards Israel, the northern tribes of which they proceeded to annihilate or deport to foreign places.
The dimensions of the city of Nineveh in the Book of Jonah are not realistic and prove that the writer never visited that part of Assyria.
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah 3:3b
The person identified as “Darius the Mede” in the Book of Daniel (5:31, 9:1) is a fictitious character unknown to the well-documented annals of the Medo-Persian monarchy.
The actual words on the inscription over the head of Jesus on the Cross cannot be determined, because four different versions are given by the Gospel accounts. There was obviously no attempt here to attain to modern journalistic precision.
This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. Matt. 27:37b
The King of the Jews. Mark 15:26b
This is the King of the Jews. Luke 23:38b
Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. John 19:19b
These types of errors are the kind that would not be found in newspapers. Modern standards of reporting and the incredulous minds of readers serve to ensure that what is printed or published is very reliable. By contrast, when it comes to the Bible, it is required that scholars apply historical and linguistic analysis to get at the facts of every matter. Actually, this is the case with every literary product of antiquity, because such literature was all written before the self-correcting scientific method was in general use. Thus, although the Bible should be accorded the authority of Holy Scripture, it is not inerrant, and it is not above being subjected to scholarly analysis to get at its basic truths.