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Are There Scientific Errors in the Bible?

By Robert B. Stewart –

One often hears that the Bible is filled with scientific errors.  Just what are we to make of such a claim?  What does it mean to say that there is a “scientific error” in the Bible?  While one could go mad seeking to define a scientific error (after all, philosophers of science and scientists are not agreed as to what science is), I take it that generally when this charge is made, one is saying that there are statements in the Bible that relate to the physical world and that these statements are demonstrably false.  At the very least, one would be saying that there is a contradiction between what the majority of scientists believe and what the Bible declares about the universe.

In examining this claim, we need to understand the sources from which it springs and the context from which it arises.  Claims of scientific errors in the Bible come from more than one source.  Sometimes the skeptic will presume that miracles are by definition impossible, and therefore unscientific (since science deals with the possible and the probable), and then conclude that any section of Scripture that speaks of miraculous events must be a scientific error.  David Hume is a prime example:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. . . . The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: . . .”[1]

Of course, if miracles cannot happen, then they never have happened.  But why should one believe that miracles are scientifically impossible?  To assume such is merely mistaking that which is normal for what is normative.  Hume’s descendants are still among us.  For instance, in preparing to write this article I visited an internet site that listed approximately 60 examples of supposed scientific errors in the Bible, most of which involved miraculous events.  Given that miracles are, at the very least, unusual events, even if they do not by definition require the breaking of a scientific law, it seems that more must be done to show that biblical reports are false than simply saying that miracles do not follow the normal operating rules of the universe.  One already knows that.  They wouldn’t be miracles if they did.  These sorts of objections are not scientific but metaphysical objections.

Beyond this sort of brute denial of the miraculous, there are claims that some biblical statements about the physical world contradict scientific statements on the matter, or that there are contradictory statements in Scripture concerning the same issue.  These examples must be taken more seriously.

The Source and Context of the Charge

 

There are typically two sources to this charge.  The first is made up primarily of secularist skeptics who insist that the Bible is the product of pre-scientific minds who understood the world in pre-modern categories.  Typically this group believes that all evangelicals hold to a woodenly literal interpretation of the Bible.  For example, when the Bible speaks of the four corners of the earth, it means that the earth is flat; or that statements about the rising of the sun demonstrate that the Bible teaches that the sun orbits the earth, which is the center of the solar system, if not the entire universe.  The second group is comprised of liberals, and some theological conservatives, who insist that the Bible is a reliable source of knowledge for doctrine and religious practice but that it contains either historical or scientific mistakes, or both.  This brief article will address issues that arise largely with reference to the first group.[2]

The context of the charge is that of Western culture in an evolutionary age.  The shadow of Charles Darwin looms over any attempt today to speak of the origin of life.  This is particularly so given the fact that radical atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have made Darwin the basis of their unbelief.[3]

 

The Presuppositions of the Charge

 

Several presuppositions lie beneath the charge that there are scientific errors in the Bible.  One presupposition is that scientific knowledge is superior to other types of knowledge.  But why should this be believed?  It certainly cannot be proven true by scientific experimentation.  But if scientific knowledge is truly superior to other types of knowledge, then the claim that scientific knowledge is superior to other types of knowledge is a claim to an inferior type of knowledge (because that claim is not a scientific claim but a philosophical one).  Furthermore, given the a posteriori starting point of the physical sciences, one’s observations are subject to doubt.  Therefore all scientific conclusions are by their very nature subject to revision and correction.  Surely a conclusion that is subject is to correction cannot be superior to one that is certainly true, as is the case with sound deductive arguments composed of a priori statements.

I am not in any way attempting to disparage scientific knowledge.  Science is responsible for many things that make my daily life a good bit more comfortable and even fulfilled (I am profoundly grateful for antibiotics, MRIs, laser surgery, indoor plumbing, central heat and air, electric lights, automobiles, airlines, synthetic fabrics, microwave ovens, the internet, the computer on which I am presently typing, etc.).  But I do want to stress that there are other ways of knowing than science.  I also want to stress that the scientific method (as commonly understood) cannot confirm the existence of many extremely important things in life, such as love, justice, or beauty—being immaterial as they are.[4]

A related presupposition behind the charge that there are scientific errors in the Bible is that if there is a conflict between the Bible and science, then it is the Bible that is in error.  But shouldn’t one at least ask: “Which is mistaken, science or the Bible?”  Time and again the history of science has told us that what was at one time “good science” was later shown to be mistaken.  How then can one be certain that it is the Bible, which has not changed through the years, that is mistaken?

Still another presupposition is that science can tell us about the past (e.g., about the origins of life and the universe) as surely as it can about the present.  But this sort of science involves a great deal of “supposing” and what philosophers call abductive reasoning or inference to the likeliest explanation.  Conclusions of this sort are not required to be even probably true.  Although there are certain criteria by which such judgments are made, such conclusions are still largely in the eye of the beholder.  Certainly one is not talking about knowledge that has the same degree of certainty as “all effects have causes” or “water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.”  In short, not all scientific conclusions are created equal!  I am not saying that science cannot tell us about the past, but I am cautioning that we be aware of the degree of certainty of scientific conclusions concerning the past (origin science) have as opposed to those which we find in chemistry or physics (operation science).

Another presupposition is that one knows authoritatively what the Bible means.  This presupposition afflicts both Christians and non-Christians.  Often skeptics assume that they have interpreted the Bible correctly when they find a conflict between Scripture and science.  That is, they assume that the interpretation they think most obviously flawed is what the Bible means.  This is often nothing more than the straw man fallacy.  Christians, on the other hand, too often insist that their individual way of understanding the text is the only correct or legitimate one.  This is simply arrogance.  We dare not equate human interpretations of God’s inerrant word for God’s word itself.  One should hold one’s beliefs with conviction, but this does not make one an infallible interpreter of all things in God’s word.[5]

In short, we all have presuppositions about all sorts of things, including the nature and meaning of the universe and the Bible.  The point is to be aware of our presuppositions and to understand which are more justifiable and which are less so.

 

What Follows if There Are Scientific Errors in the Bible?

 

One question that both skeptics and Christians often fail to ask is, “What if there are scientific errors in Scripture?”  What follows logically from such a conclusion?  Allow me first to address what does not follow from such a conclusion.  First, it does not follow that there is no God.  Second, it does not follow that Jesus is not God’s divine Son.  Third, it does not follow that Christianity is not true.  The point I am trying to make is that the skeptic often assumes that, if he is correct concerning the presence of scientific errors in the Bible, then he has proven that Christianity and theism are necessarily false.  One thing does not follow from the other.

 

I am not saying that it is unimportant whether there are scientific errors in Scripture.  Indeed, if there are scientific errors in Scripture, then our confidence that the Bible relates historical or theological truth to us is certainly diminished.  It matters a great deal that the Bible speaks truthfully in all that it refers to, but some things do not follow even if the Bible does contain scientific errors.

 

Selected Principles of Interpretation

 

In considering this charge, one must remember first and foremost that the Bible is not a science text.  No biblical author intended to teach cosmology, astronomy, biology, physics, or any other scientific subject.  The fact that some Christians, even believing scientists, of the past believed differently does not make the Bible a science text.  One must also bear in mind that the Bible is an ancient book.  Therefore it speaks of the physical world in the linguistic conventions of its day, not in twenty-first century scientific language.  Indeed, the Bible often uses phenomenological language (i.e., it describes things as they appear to the human eye unaided by modern instruments, rather than speaking with scientific precision).[6]  Furthermore, one must bear in mind the rhetorical purpose of a text when assessing its meaning.  Biblical authors, like modern writers, often use hyperbole or other literary devices to make a point.  To read a biblical passage otherwise distorts the meaning of the text.  Early Christians understood these principles.  Writing over 1500 years ago, Augustine offered several principles concerning biblical hermeneutics and science that modern readers would do well to remember: (1) people often ask questions which the Bible is not attempting to answer; (2) the biblical authors did not intend to teach science, but what was necessary for salvation, and thus did not speak in precise scientific terms;[7] (3) when Scripture writers wrote on physical phenomena, they wrote of how it appeared to the human eye;[8] and (4) the Scripture writers accommodated themselves to the language and knowledge of the time and culture.[9]

Above all else, the meaning of the text is paramount.  Despite the criticisms of postmodern skeptics, one can discern the intended meaning of most, if not all, biblical passages.  This requires some diligence and study, but it is not the impossibility that some believe—and those claiming that there are scientific errors in the Bible seem to recognize this truth (after all, the Bible has to teach something scientifically for it to be in error!).

Finally, one must read a text as charitably as possible.  If there is more than one plausible meaning to a text, then one should give the author the benefit of the doubt.  This means that those defending the integrity of the text have only to show that there is one or more plausible explanations; they do not have to know which is preferable.

 

Selected Alleged Examples of Scientific Errors

 

There is no way in the space allotted to respond to each and every example of an alleged scientific error in the Bible.  In this section I shall briefly consider two oft-mentioned examples.  In each case I will offer more than one plausible explanation of the text.  One need not know with 100% certainty the intended meaning of a text to know that there is no necessary scientific error related to that passage.  So long as there is a plausible understanding of a text, one has no ground for claiming that said text is in error.

Often skeptics are either unaware of the large amount of Christian commentary on problematic texts, both ancient and contemporary, or they are simply unwilling to apply the principle of charity, which declares that an argument should be read as charitably as possible, so as to allow its strongest form to come to the fore.  Those who do this attack straw men.  At other times they seem to hold to a false dichotomy that says either one reads the Bible in a woodenly literal fashion or one denies the Bible.  There are many other legitimate evangelical options that preserve inerrancy.  A properly literal reading is one where the text is read as the author intended it to be read.

 

Example 1: Conflicting Creation Stories

 

Critics often focus upon the first two chapters of Genesis and contend that they contain two creation stories that present the reader with two different orders of events.  This constitutes a contradiction and, they contend, a scientific error.

 

Several things must be noted concerning this charge.  First, Genesis 1 and 2 must both be “creation” stories for the charge to succeed.  That is, they must both intend to tell the reader about the creation of the world for there to be a contradiction between them.  But if this is the case, then one must conclude that Moses (or an unnamed redactor) was incredibly dense.  What author in his right mind would write a second contradictory creation story right after the first, or what editor would place one creation account immediately after another that tells a contradictory tale?  But if the purpose of the first section of Genesis is not to give a scientific description of how God created the earth, then one can easily understand how the two can read differently.  There are many plausible explanations that fit the two together.  For example, evangelical scholar John Sailhamer argues that Genesis 1 and 2 are the introduction to the Pentateuch, which is most concerned with the Promised Land.  He insists that Genesis 1:1 tells us that God created the heavens and the earth.  The rest of Genesis 1 is about God preparing a land for the man and the woman.  Genesis 2 provides a closer look at God’s creation of the first human beings, who were created to worship and obey God.[10]

 

Similarly, Gleason Archer holds that Genesis 2 “does not present a creation account at all but presupposes the completion of God’s work of creation as set forth in chapter 1. . . . [T]he author then develops in detail one important feature that had already been mentioned: the creation of man.”[11]  Kenneth Kitchen demonstrates that it was common in the ancient Near East to repeat stories in greater detail.[12]  If any of these is correct, and all are plausible, then there is no necessary contradiction between Genesis 1 and 2.

 

Hermeneutical explanations such as these are not instances of special pleading or ad hoc solutions as skeptics so often insist.  They are instead the sorts of readings that take ancient literature seriously as ancient documents that follow different literary conventions than those of the post-enlightenment world.  To read them as modern scientific statements is to abuse and misunderstand them.

 

Example 2: The Mustard Seed as the Smallest Seed

 

In Mark 4:31 Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds.  Some, like Bart Ehrman, are deeply bothered by this apparent mistake.[13]  But one must always read a text within its setting and framework of reference.  Jesus’ setting and framework was Palestine, and a case can be made that within that setting at that time, the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds.  Or this may simply be an example of what logicians call an elliptical statement (i.e., an incomplete statement).[14]

 

Another way to explain this passage would be to ask, how precise was Jesus trying to be?  For instance, if I am asked over lunch how much I pay per year in auto insurance, I will likely say around $10,000 (we have three student drivers).  But when I file my income taxes, my answer will be more precise.  In neither case am I speaking erroneously; it is the level of precision that has changed according to context.  For Jesus’ purpose, to offer an illustration, his language was precise enough.  He was not in error.  None of these explanations is far fetched.  This text cannot reasonably be considered a scientific error.  There are many more examples that could be listed.  And much more could be said in defense of the integrity of Scripture.

 

Conclusion

 

I have tried in this article to help readers understand the nature of the charge that there are scientific errors in the Bible, to clarify the nature of the charge, and to provide some principles of interpretation that will enable Bible readers to read Scripture fairly and effectively and answer the charge that there are scientific errors in the Bible.  I have also outlined two of the many possible ways to resolve selected problematic passages.[15]  Believers today need not fear that one must choose between taking science or Scripture seriously.  Both are ways of God revealing himself to us; both are to be studied in faith.  There is no need to think that there are scientific errors in the Bible.

 

Robert B. Stewart is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology and the Greer-Heard Professor of Faith and Culture at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

(Published in the Areopagus Journal November- December 2007)

 

NOTES

[1] David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Oxford Philosophical Texts, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 173-74.
[2] This in no way implies that I do not consider the second group to pose a significant challenge to the theological health of evangelicalism.  In fact, in the long run they may be the more significant challenge of the two, given that they often serve in Christian churches and teach in Christian seminaries and universities.  While they are, no doubt, sincere and well-intentioned they still need to be answered.  For a brief treatment of these issues, see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 246-65.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Idem, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987); Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2006); Idem, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).
[4] Philosophers of science and scientists do not agree as to what exactly constitutes “the scientific method.”  Nevertheless, I think it safe to say that the average person believes it to relate to material objects and to consist at least of a hypothesis that is verified or falsified through experimentation.  A smaller but still significant group of scientists and non-scientists would insist that the scientific method yields results that are measurable and that answer previously unanswerable questions and from which predictions can be made.  Sadly, love, justice, and beauty do not fall among the things that can be known even by this definition of science.
[5] I know that I can be wrong about the Bible’s meaning because I know that I have been wrong (in the past, I hope).  I no longer believe that the Bible teaches several things that I used to believe it did.  Either I was wrong then, or I am wrong now, or I was wrong then and now—but I have certainly been wrong about what the Bible taught at some point.  So, I know I am still capable of being in error.  It is difficult to believe that this does not apply to all persons, skeptics as well as believers.
[6] Biblical numbers are often given as approximate numbers, for example.
[7] Augustine The Literal Interpretation of Genesis: An Unfinished Book 2.9.20.
[8] Augustine The Literal Meaning of Genesis 2.16.33.
[9] Augustine The Literal Interpretation of Genesis: An Unfinished Book 2.9.20.
[10] John H. Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1996).
[11] Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 68.
[12] Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient Old Testament (Chicago: InterVarsity, 1966), 117.
[13] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2005), 10.
[14] Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen, Introduction to Logic, 12 ed (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2005), 357.
[15] Bible readers will have to do much detailed exegesis of Scripture but there is, in principle, no reason to think the difficulties are insurmountable.

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