Jesus and the Inerrancy of Scripture
Jesus and the Inerrancy of Scripture
As a general rule, one would not expect persons who do not identify themselves as followers of Jesus to accept the inerrancy of Scripture—the doctrine that Scripture is inspired by God in such a way that it communicates truth without error when properly understood. In this article, I make no attempt to persuade avowed nonbelievers in Jesus of the truth, inspiration, or inerrancy of Scripture. Rather, I offer a simple argument for why anyone who seeks to be a follower of Jesus or who professes to accept Jesus as an authoritative teacher or prophet ought to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. In short, anyone who believes in Jesus ought to believe Scripture to be inerrant because Jesus viewed Scripture that way.
Statement of the Argument for Inerrancy
In describing the argument for the inerrancy of Scripture as “simple,” I mean that the basic structure of the argument is simple and the premises of the argument easy enough to understand. Here it is:
Premise 1: Whatever Jesus Christ taught is true.
Premise 2: Jesus Christ taught that Scripture is inerrant.
Conclusion: Therefore, Scripture is inerrant.
The above is a logically deductive argument, more specifically a syllogism. The form of this argument is such that, if the premises (the assertions of fact on which the argument is based) are true, the conclusion must be true. I have stated the premises in normal English for ease of reading, but they can be stated more formally to make clear the logical structure of the argument:
Premise 1: All of the teachings of Jesus Christ are true.
Premise 2: That Scripture is inerrant is one of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Conclusion: Therefore, that Scripture is inerrant is true.
The above argument follows a simple, deductively valid syllogistic form:
All Xs are B. All cats are mammals.
A is X. Garfield is a cat.
Therefore, A is B. Therefore, Garfield is a mammal.
Given the validity of the deductive form of the argument, the only way to challenge the argument rationally (reasonably) is to challenge one or both of the premises. Again, if the two premises of the argument are both true, then the conclusion must be true. Conversely, the case for the soundness of this argument rests on the evidence supporting the two premises. This does not mean that no premise may be used for which we cannot provide compelling proof that would satisfy everyone. For example, in a discussion between Catholics and Protestants, there would be no need to defend the premise that Jesus rose from the grave, since both sides accept this claim as fact. In a discussion between Protestants and Buddhists, on the other hand, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead could not be assumed as fact but must be defended with evidence. The argument presented in this article utilizes at least one premise that many (not all) non-Christians will reject, but (I hope to show) should be acceptable to anyone who seeks to follow or believe in Jesus. Again, the aim of the argument is to persuade any and all professing believers in Jesus that Scripture in inerrant. Anyone who professes such belief in Jesus should, if my argument is sound, find this argument persuasive. Therefore, as hopefully will become clear, the only rational way to dispute the conclusion is to dispute one or both of the premises.
Relevance of the Argument for the Inerrancy of Scripture
Although this argument will not be persuasive to atheists, skeptics, or members of many non-Christian religions, it is relevant to a surprisingly large number of people who doubt or deny the inerrancy of Scripture:
- Not all members of evangelical churches accept the inerrancy of Scripture, even though their churches usually do affirm this understanding of Scripture.
- Liberal and semi-liberal Catholics and Protestants profess to follow Jesus’ teachings but deny scriptural inerrancy.
- Mormons (Latter-day Saints) also profess to follow Jesus’ teachings but deny scriptural inerrancy (even with regard to their latter-day scriptures).
- Muslims profess to regard Jesus as a true prophet of Allah but deny the inerrancy of the Old and New Testaments (while affirming the inerrancy of the Qur’an).
Thus, this argument is relevant to well over two billion people on earth, including the more than one billion Muslims, and about half the population of the United States.
Although the argument is simple, the defense of the argument need not be simplistic.1 There is considerable evidence that can and should be considered pertaining to the premises of the argument. In the remainder of this article, I will discuss briefly the basis for accepting the two premises of my argument.
First Premise: Whatever Jesus Christ Taught Is True
Liberal Catholics and Protestants, non-inerrantist evangelicals, Mormons, and Muslims should all have no trouble accepting the first premise of my argument: whatever Jesus Christ taught is true. Obviously, I would not make this a major premise of an argument intended to persuade atheists or Jews or Buddhists. However, surely anyone who accepts Jesus as God incarnate, or as a divine being of some kind, or even as a prophet or authoritative religious teacher should agree that if Jesus taught something as religious doctrine, it must be true. Notice that the argument does not require or presuppose the orthodox Christian view of Jesus’ person: one can be a Mormon, a Christian Scientist, or even a Muslim and agree that whatever Jesus taught is divine truth. Naturally, the premise will be especially difficult to deny if one affirms that Jesus was God incarnate, as many Catholics and Protestants affirm even while they reject the inerrancy of Scripture. But anyone who accepts Jesus as a prophet or divine figure ought to agree as well that whatever Jesus taught is true.
It is not difficult to show that in fact people in these religious traditions affirm that whatever Jesus taught is true. For example, the Qur’an teaches that Jesus was a prophet whose teaching was from Allah and confirmed previous revelations:
And in their footsteps we sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah. (5.46)2
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism states, “For followers of Jesus Christ, nothing has more authority or significance than his very words.”3 No faithful Latter-day Saint would ever suggest that Jesus, whom they regard as a God, might have taught false doctrine of any kind.
Liberal Christians usually maintain that they accept Jesus as a teacher even if they deny the biblical view of Jesus as the divine Son of God. A good example is Robin Meyers, who wrote a book with the telling subtitle How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus. Meyers proposes that Christians abandon belief in Jesus as Savior and “discover the pre-Christian wisdom of the Galilean sage,” which he argues should trump anything in the Bible that disagrees with that wisdom: “We hold the Bible accountable to the message of Jesus, not Jesus accountable for everything in the Bible.”4 In short, Meyers claims to follow the message or teaching of Jesus even as he rejects not only the inerrancy of Scripture but virtually every doctrine of traditional Christianity, including the atoning sacrifice and resurrection of Christ.
Such examples could be multiplied. The point is that people who profess to accept Jesus as a spiritual teacher, prophet, or divine figure generally are quick to claim that they accept whatever Jesus taught as truth, even though they might deny the inerrancy of Scripture.
Although it may seem obvious that anyone who accepts Jesus as teacher, prophet, or redeemer ought to accept whatever he taught as truth, there is a minority theory with a fairly long history that has suggested that one might accept Jesus in these ways while not accepting everything he taught as true. This theory is commonly known by the term accommodation. It maintains that Jesus “accommodated” his teachings to the cultural assumptions or implicit notions of his day to the extent that challenging those assumptions was not critical to his mission or message. The idea goes back to the deists in the eighteenth century, for whom all sorts of objectionable elements in Jesus’ teaching were finessed away as instances of Jesus accommodating himself to “Jewish” beliefs and customs.5 Can such a theory of accommodation reconcile acceptance of Jesus as an authoritative religious teacher (or more) with the view that not everything Jesus taught was true? There are at least four problems with the idea that Jesus’ teaching on the nature of Scripture might have been in error due to accommodation to his culture.
1. The accommodation theory is ad hoc, i.e., the only basis for the theory is that it supposedly would explain how Jesus could teach something modern readers find erroneous. The Gospels do not report Jesus making any statements indicating that his teaching was accommodated to error, nor do any of the New Testament writings suggest such an idea. Nothing in the way Jesus refers to Scripture supports the theory that he did not himself view Scripture in the same way as his Jewish contemporaries.
The one saying of Jesus that might conceivably be misunderstood in such a way is John 10:34, where Jesus responds to Jewish critics by asking them, “Is it not said in your Law…?” Taken out of context, the word “your” might be misunderstood as implying that Jesus does not share the Jews’ view of the Law. Such an interpretation is made impossible by Jesus’ statement in the very next breath, “and the Scripture cannot be broken” (v. 35). His reference to “your Law” (which here refers to the whole of Jewish Scripture, since he cites Psalm 82:6) emphasizes 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).
2. The accommodation theory confuses personal beliefs with public teachings. Assuming for the sake of argument that a prophet might hold personal opinions typical of his culture that later turn out to be incorrect, one would not expect a true prophet of God to make those opinions part and parcel of his public teachings.
3. The accommodation theory also confuses non-theological mistakes with foundational theological error. Again, assuming for the sake of argument that an inspired teacher’s doctrine might have incorrect views as “window dressing,” this qualification hardly makes sense when it comes to matters of fundamental or foundational doctrine. For example, one can imagine a prophet of God using language that reflected a pre-scientific view of the world (“four corners” of the earth and so on), but not teaching that since the world has four corners one must be careful not to get too close to the edge! Jesus did not merely assume a tacit view of Scripture; he taught a particular view of Scripture and argued explicitly on the basis of that view (as will be shown below).
4. One of the most secure facts about Jesus historically is that he was unabashed in his criticism of some of the prevailing beliefs and attitudes of his Jewish culture. A good example is his teaching that repentant tax collectors and “sinners” (i.e., the sexually immoral) would gain entrance into God’s kingdom ahead of the ultra-pious Pharisees (Matt. 9:9-13 = Mark 2:15-17 = Luke 5:27-32; Matt. 10:3 = Mark 3:18 = Luke 6:15; Luke 7:29; Matt. 11:19 = Luke 7:34; Luke 7:37-50; 15:1-10; 18:10-14; 19:1-10; Matt. 21:31-32). His fearless critique of the religious establishment of his day is inconsistent with the claim that Jesus’ teaching was accommodated to be culturally acceptable.
The notion that Jesus Christ might have taught an erroneous view on such a foundational issue as the nature of Scripture is simply not compatible with the confession of his authority to speak for God. It vitiates in principle any claim to view Jesus as a reliable teacher. If Jesus could be mistaken in his view of the authority or reliability of Scripture, he could also be mistaken in his view of his own authority or reliability. One must decide: either Jesus spoke for God and therefore his teaching on Scripture is to be accepted, or Jesus did not speak for God and one may discard his teaching on Scripture. There does not seem to be a stable compromise between these two options.
I conclude, then, that the first premise of the argument should be accepted by anyone who professes to accept Jesus as a true prophet or inspired teacher, let alone the divine Son of God incarnate: Whatever Jesus Christ taught is true.
Second Premise: Jesus Christ Taught that Scripture Is Inerrant
There is little reason to expect, and no reason to justify, skepticism among those who profess to follow Jesus as an authoritative teacher, prophet, or divine person with regard to the first premise of the argument. In practice, most Christians, and even most Muslims, agree with the first premise. The second premise is where the argument will usually be joined. If someone accepts Jesus’ teaching as authoritative teaching from God but rejects the idea of the inerrancy of Scripture, the most obvious way of reconciling these two positions is to deny that Jesus taught the inerrancy of Scripture.
A. Defining Terms
Before proceeding further, it is crucial to define terms.
By Scripture I mean any and all texts that are (1) extant, (2) inspired by God, and (3) properly treated as normative, foundational, or authoritative writings for the community of the people of God. Note that my definition stipulates three conditions for a text to be considered Scripture.
(1) It must be extant, that is, we must have access to the text. If a text is not extant, it is not presently Scripture. I leave open the question, then, of what to make of a text that was not extant but then becomes extant. Even supposing this can happen, as long as the text is not extant, it is not Scripture.
(2) It must be inspired by God. Obviously, we could engage in a lengthy discussion about what it means for a text to be inspired by God. I suggest that we simply stipulate that what we mean by this is a text that stands apart from other respected Christian literature as the result of God guiding the authors in some way to produce the text as an expression of divine revelation. This definition is deliberately imprecise because, again, I wish to avoid defining inspiration in a way that would beg the question of scriptural inerrancy.
(3) It must be properly treated as one of the normative writings of the community of the people of God. I could use the one-word term “canonical” to denote this idea, but since some people argue that canonicity is a concept that developed after the New Testament period, we might do well to avoid using that term here. Notice that I am not addressing the question of whether all extant inspired texts are Scripture, that is, whether the class of extant inspired texts is identical to the class of Scripture texts. I think this is so, but I am not arguing the point here. I simply stipulate that the term Scripture refers to extant inspired texts that are normative texts of the community of the people of God.
By inerrant I mean that the text, properly read and understood, expresses no false teachings or doctrines, no conceptual falsehoods. Another way to state this is that inerrancy means that the text is fully truthful in what it affirms. If a text of Scripture affirms or teaches T, and if Scripture is inerrant, then T must be true and cannot be erroneous.
Please note that the concept of inerrancy admits of various legitimate qualifications. Inerrancy does not mean that the text must be absolutely precise in its reporting of numbers or of a person’s speech or in its quotation of other sources. It does not entail that the text provides exhaustive information. It does not require that narrative texts recount events in precise chronological order. It acknowledges that copies of the text may have copying errors of various kinds and that translations of the text may not convey the meaning of the text with perfect accuracy. All of these qualifications are consistent with the claim that the text, properly read and understood, is fully truthful in all that it affirms. For a formal statement on the subject that articulates these qualifications in a helpful way, see the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
Finally, I should point out that inerrancy of Scripture does not mean that Scripture is complete or that the “canon” of Scripture is closed. I do believe that the canon of Scripture is complete, but this is not part of what I mean by inerrancy. Rather, inerrancy simply means that whatever Scripture exists teaches no false conceptions or doctrines. If new Scripture comes along, it will also be inerrant, if it is true that Scripture is inerrant.
Since this premise is the one that non-inerrantists who profess to follow Jesus will likely dispute, we must face the question of how one would go about establishing what Jesus taught on the subject of the nature of Scripture. The most important methodological concern is to avoid logically flawed approaches. It won’t do for me to argue that Jesus taught scriptural inerrancy merely because Scripture reports Jesus teaching it, since this argument assumes what it seeks to prove. Such an argument is obviously question-begging. Likewise, it won’t do for others to argue that scriptural inerrancy is not true because their religion says it is not true. That line of reasoning is also question-begging. In particular, critics of scriptural inerrancy should not argue that Jesus didn’t teach scriptural inerrancy because their scriptures or revelations say otherwise, because such an argument is also self-defeating. For example, the argument, “This scripture (e.g., the Book of Mormon, or Science and Health) says that scripture is not inerrant; therefore, scripture is not inerrant,” is self-defeating because it presupposes that we should accept as true whatever scripture says—which is precisely what the argument claims to disprove!
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.
Since this argument for my second premise is historical in nature, the argument is inductive in form and its conclusion will be more or less probable. That is, an historical argument does not claim to provide deductively or mathematically certain proof for its conclusion, but rather some measure of factual support for the conclusion. Depending on the strength of the evidence, an historical argument may establish that its conclusion is plausible, likely, probable, or virtually certain. In this case, I will argue that the historical evidence demonstrates that it is somewhere between highly probable and virtually certain that Jesus held to the inerrancy of Scripture. Such a high degree of probability or likelihood is sufficient that the reasonable person should accept this premise based on that evidence.
The sources on which we should base our historical investigation into Jesus’ teachings about the nature of Scripture are the NT Gospels. Historians generally regard the four NT Gospels as the most reliable sources of historical information about the activities and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. A few scholars may prefer the Gospel of Thomas or some other source, but one may speak of a broad consensus among historians that the NT Gospels are our best sources of information about the historical Jesus. For example, Bart Ehrman—an agnostic New Testament scholar—has this to say:
…some of the traditions preserved in the noncanonical Gospels, especially in the Gospels of Thomas and Peter, may be much older than the books themselves, at least as old as some of the traditions in the canonical books. On the whole, though, the noncanonical Gospels are of greater importance for understanding the diversity of Christianity in the second and third and later centuries than for knowing about the writings of the earliest Christians.6
In using the NT Gospels as the primary source of information about the teachings of the historical Jesus, I am not assuming their inspiration or inerrancy. My method is to treat these texts as historical sources, which means that their information must be compared with other sources of historical information and critically assessed. This method will pay attention to such issues as the sources that scholars think stand behind the Gospel texts. It will also give conclusions about what Jesus taught more credence if those conclusions are supported from multiple strands of material in the Gospels. If an idea appears in more than one Gospel, in different “layers” or sources of tradition within the Gospels, and in different subgenres or types of speech (e.g., parables, discourses, polemical discussions with religious leaders, etc.), these multiple sources strengthen the argument for concluding that the idea was part of Jesus’ teaching.
D. The Most Common Objection
Before examining the evidence from the NT Gospels, I must address up front a common objection that could easily confuse the issue. In examining what Jesus said in the NT Gospels about Scripture, obviously we will be looking at statements pertaining in that historical context specifically to the OT. We all know that none of the NT books existed when Jesus spoke in Galilee or Jerusalem. We also know that in the NT Gospels, Jesus never refers to the Qur’an, or to the Book of Mormon or other LDS scriptures, or to any of the other many extrabiblical texts viewed by some people as scripture. A common objection is that whatever Jesus said about Scripture could only apply to the OT books, not to the NT books, which did not yet exist.
This objection misses the point of the argument here. The issue is what Jesus taught about the nature of Scripture, not about which books of Scripture existed at the time he was teaching. Surely, whatever Jesus taught about the nature of Scripture should apply to all Scripture, not just to the OT. The alternative is to suppose that OT Scripture is inerrant but other Scripture (say, the NT) is not inerrant. This is a plausible position for an Orthodox Jew, but not for a Muslim or a Mormon or for anyone else who professes to be a Christian. I have yet to meet any professing Christian who accepted the OT as inerrant Scripture but regarded the NT as errant. Perhaps such individuals exist, but I don’t think this is a viable or even a genuinely available position.
Indeed, most Christians of whatever religious perspective who deny scriptural inerrancy usually have the strongest objections or criticisms with regard to the OT. Thus, I think we can plausibly contend that if OT Scripture is inerrant, then a fortiori other Scripture must also be inerrant. But if anyone wishes to argue that as followers of Jesus we should view the OT as inerrant but not the NT, let him make his case!
E. The Evidence for Jesus’ View of the Nature of Scripture
1. Inerrancy of Scripture was the prevailing Jewish belief.
The first line of evidence is indirect but still will prove highly relevant: Jesus was (among other things!) a first-century Jewish teacher or rabbi (Matt. 23:8; Mark 9:5; John 1:38; etc.), a term that became a formal title somewhat later), and scriptural inerrancy was the standard, prevailing view among the Jews generally and among rabbis or teachers particularly. My claim here is not that Jesus agreed with all of the particular explanations and speculative statements made by various Jewish teachers or rabbinical authorities (some of whom, of course, lived after Jesus). Rather, I argue that the conventional Jewish understanding of the nature of Scripture forms the most obvious and important cultural and religious context in which to situate Jesus’ view of the nature of Scripture.
The traditional Jewish view of Scripture at the time of Jesus was that all of it was divinely inspired, with a special status of preeminence reserved for the Torah (the Pentateuch). Jews typically believed that God had dictated the Pentateuch word for word and even letter for letter. The rest of the Scriptures were inspired though not in a dictation sense. The resulting text of Scripture was, as far as Jewish teachers of virtually all stripes were concerned, without error. Two examples of this conventional Jewish view of Scripture as without error will be given here, one from the early part of the first century and the other from the end of the first century. Thus, these two examples illustrate the fact that this view of Scripture was held throughout the New Testament period.
The first example is the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who wrote numerous works commenting on Scripture in order to show that everything it said was philosophically sound. Philo was born perhaps twenty or so years before Jesus and lived until about the middle of the first century; his writings cannot be dated precisely but appear to have been written in the last twenty or thirty years of his life. Thus, Philo’s writings were written contemporaneously with the time of Jesus and the earliest Christians. The late nineteenth-century scholar Emil Schürer summarized Philo’s view of Scripture as follows:
The Thorah [Torah] of Moses is to him, as to every Jew, the supreme, nay the sole and absolutely decisive authority: a perfect revelation of Divine wisdom. Every word written in Holy Scripture by Moses is a divine declaration. Hence no word in it is without definite meaning. The Scriptures also of the other prophets in conjunction with those of Moses contain Divine revelations. For all the prophets are God’s interpreters, who makes use of them as instruments for the revelation of the Divine will.7
More recent scholarship confirms what Schürer said in this regard. In an essay on Philo’s view of the authority of Scripture, Jewish scholar Yehoshua Amir cites various passages in Philo’s writings in which a specific text of Scripture is called an “oracle” or “logion,” terms he used interchangeably to mean a divine revelation given verbally through a human being. As Amir points out, Philo used this terms to refer to biblical texts whether they were quoting God as the speaker or not. “The fact of being written in the Bible suffices, according to Philo, to give a saying oracular status.”8 The “witnesses” of Scripture cannot be false because they are divine oracles: “All things are God’s possessions on the strength of true reasonings and testimonies which none may convict of false witness, for our witnesses are the oracles which Moses wrote in the sacred books” (Philo, De Cherubim 124).9
Our second example of the Jewish view of Scripture as without error comes from Josephus, who wrote in the last decade of the first century—at the very end of the New Testament era. Josephus denied that there “any disagreement in what is written” in the Scriptures, because their authors were “prophets that have written the original and earliest accounts of things as they learned them of God himself by inspiration” (Against Apion 1.7). These inspired books are in a class by themselves, consisting of just 22 books (equivalent to the 39 books of the Protestant canon of the Old Testament):
For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. (1.8)
Josephus goes on to distinguish those inspired 22 books from the historical accounts written after the time of Artaxerxes (i.e., after roughly 400 BC), which he says “hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.” Jews refuse to add or take anything away from the Scriptures or to make any changes to them; they are taught from birth “to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them” (1.8).
Far from out of the ordinary, Philo and Josephus represent the mainstream, dominant, even consensus view of Scripture accepted by otherwise very diverse groups of Jews. After discussing such disparate Jewish texts as Ben Sira, Jubilees, and the Genesis Apocryphon, James Kugel of Bar Ilan University explains that despite their differences these and all other ancient Jewish texts reflect the belief that all of Scripture is the unerring word of God.
It emerges that all ancient interpreters, whether they wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek and no matter what their particular political or societal allegiances may have been, shared a common set of four assumptions about how Scripture was to be read and understood.10
These four assumptions were that Scripture required careful interpretation to discern sometimes hidden meanings, that all of its narratives and laws were relevant to contemporary readers, that Scripture “is perfectly consistent and free of error or internal contradiction,” and that every word of it comes from God. Kugel himself rejects this belief; his antipathy toward it is evident when he comments, “Any apparent contradiction, or error of fact, or (eventually) any deviation for [i.e., from] the interpreter’s own ideology or school thus needed to be explained by clever exegesis in such a way as to make the contradiction or error disappear.” Kugel also observes that Jews came to believe that “every part of Scripture had been divinely dictated or divinely inspired or otherwise granted by God—the stories of Genesis or the court history of David no less than the laws given to Moses or the prophecies of Isaiah or Jeremiah.”11
If belief in scriptural inerrancy was the consensus view among Jews in Jesus’ day, as the evidence clearly shows, then we would reasonably expect that Jesus, as a Jewish teacher, would also have accepted that view. That is, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we would expect Jesus to be like nearly all of his fellow Jews. The burden of proof is therefore on the claim that Jesus, unlike nearly all of his Jewish contemporaries, did not view Scripture as inerrant. If he did not, then we would certainly expect that he would have expressed his disagreed with the conventional opinion in some way. He could hardly have avoided the issue since Scripture was the foundational source for religious and theological discussions within the Jewish community.
2. The inerrancy of Scripture is stated or implied in Jesus’ sayings in all four Gospels and in the hypothetical sources underlying the Gospels.
My argument here assumes, in a general way, the mainstream view of New Testament scholarship that identifies various sources about Jesus within the Gospels. One of these sources is the material that is common to both Matthew and Luke but is not in Mark. This material, called “Q” in biblical studies, almost certainly dates earlier than any of the Gospels. Biblical scholars for this reason tend to assign a higher degree of likelihood that a particular saying or idea goes back to the historical Jesus if it is in Q. More broadly, if a saying or idea occurs in several independent sources of material, that strengthens the likelihood that it goes back to Jesus.
The Gospels report Jesus frequently using the formula “it is written” to introduce quotations from Scripture. This formula appears in “Q” (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10, cf. Luke 4:4, 8, 10; Matt. 11:10, cf. Luke 7:27), in Mark (9:12, 13), in material common to Matthew and Mark (Matt. 26:24, 31; Mark 14:21, 27), in material in all three Synoptics (Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46), and in material unique to Luke or John (Luke 24:46; John 6:45). A similar formula, “Have you not read…?” appears in all three Synoptic Gospels, again including Q passages (Matt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31; Mark 12:10, 26; Luke 6:3). All of these sayings all treat the Scriptures (our OT) as implicitly authoritative revelation from God.
According to Luke, when Jesus first returned home to Nazareth after beginning his public ministry, Jesus read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue on the Sabbath and then commented, “Today in your hearing, this Scripture has been fulfilled” (Luke 4:16-21). Everything about this account presupposes that Jesus thought of Scripture in the usual Jewish way. A Jewish man would read from a scroll of Scripture in the synagogue, and then offer a comment on it. The religious and cultural context is that of the traditional Jewish synagogue, in which Scripture was the focus and authority.
Near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18). Luke records a similar saying in a different context: “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter in the Law to fall” (Luke 16:17). Jesus’ affirmation of the authority of even the smallest letter or stroke of a letter of the Law (Torah) corresponds remarkably to the rabbinical emphasis, cited above, on preserving every letter and particle of the Hebrew text of the Torah. These sayings in Matthew and Luke are part of the Q material, thus most likely representing some of the earliest traditions of Jesus’ sayings.
In response to the Pharisees’ criticism that his disciples were breaking the Sabbath, Jesus cited the account in Scripture of David and his companions eating the sacred bread and the provision in the Torah for the temple priests to work on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-5; Mark 2:25-26; Luke 6:3-4). In Q, Jesus assumed that key events in the account in the book of Jonah were factual (Matt. 12:39-41; Luke 11:29-30). This is worth noting, since Jonah is one of the most ridiculed books of the Bible today. According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus quoted with approval Isaiah’s hard saying about Israel hearing and not understanding to explain the reason he spoke in parables (Matt. 13:13-15; cf. Mark 4:11-12). These two Gospels also report that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for elevating their traditions over the word of God in Scripture:
“He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said,
“Honor your father and your mother” [Ex. 21:17],
“Whoever curses father or mother must surely die” [Lev. 20:9].
But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’”then that person need not honor the father.So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the wordof God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”’”
(Matt. 15:3-9; cf. Mark 7:6-13)
Notice that Jesus treated as “the word of God” not only the Commandment to honor one’s father and mother, but also the legal statute in Leviticus.
John also reports Jesus speaking of Scripture as “the word of God” and doing so in a way that emphasizes its binding authority and truth: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the Scripture cannot be broken…” (John 10:34-35). Here, John reports Jesus referring to Psalm 82:6 as both “the word of God” and “Scripture,” clearly describing Scripture as the word of God. Furthermore, John reports that Jesus asserted that “the Scripture cannot be broken.” This statement agrees with the saying in Q that not one letter or stroke of the Torah would pass away or fall (Matt. 5:17-18; Luke 16:17). Yet the context and wording of the statement in John 10:35 is clearly independent of the Q saying.
In Matthew and Mark, when the Pharisees pointed out to Jesus that Moses permitted them to give their wives divorce papers (Deut. 24:1-4), Jesus did not question the accuracy of the text of Deuteronomy or express disagreement with Moses. Rather, Jesus corrected the Pharisees’ mistaken inference that Moses was endorsing divorce: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:7-8; cf. Mark 10:4-5). Jesus backed up his position with a quotation from Genesis (Matt. 19:4-6; Mark 10:6-9).
In a passage found only in Luke—the famous parable of Lazarus and the rich man—Jesus concluded with the following comment: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). This statement assumes the traditional Jewish perspective that Moses and the Prophets (a standard Jewish shorthand expression for the Scriptures) were the authoritative word of God. Jesus’ point is that if they won’t listen to what God has already told them about judgment in Scripture, they won’t be persuaded by a resurrected person coming back from the dead to warn them. John reports Jesus making the same point in another context: “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). Jesus’ argument here presupposes, of course, that the Jews ought to have believed what Moses wrote.
According to Matthew and Mark, when the Sadducees asked him a trick question about the resurrection, Jesus began his answer with the comment, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29; Mark 12:24). Then, according to all three Synoptics, Jesus refuted the Sadducees with a quotation from Exodus (Matt. 22:31-33; Mark 12:26-27; Luke 20:37-38). Matthew and Mark also report that according to Jesus, David was speaking “in the Spirit” when he wrote Psalm 110 (Matt. 22:44; cf. Mark 12:36). In Q, Jesus says that the Pharisees erred because they “neglected the weightier matters of the Law [Torah],” which they should have done “without neglecting” the lighter matters (Matt. 23:23; cf. Luke 11:42-43).
All four Gospels report that Jesus claimed that the events leading to his death were fulfillment of Scripture. In Matthew, when some of Jesus’ disciples tried to resist those who came to Gethsemane to arrest him, he rebuked him: “How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way? . . . But all this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures of the prophets” (Matt. 26:54, 56). Similar statements appear in the Synoptic parallels (Mark 14:49; Luke 22:37). Luke records a similar statement in Jesus’ prediction of his impending death: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished” (Luke 18:31). In another context within the Passion context, John reports a similar statement by Jesus that “the Scripture must be fulfilled” by the betrayal of Jesus by one of his disciples (John 13:18).
In review, we see that Jesus’ way of quoting and handling Scripture, and his descriptions of Scripture, are consistent with the prevailing Jewish view of Scripture in his day. This is evident in all four Gospels. It is evident in the Q material, notably in the famous saying that not one letter or stroke of a letter would pass away from the Torah until it was all fulfilled—an idea also paralleled in an independent saying in John. The traditional Jewish high view of Scripture is evident in material unique to Matthew, material unique to Luke, and material unique to John. This view of Scripture is reflected in statements connected to Jesus’ parables, in his controversies with the Pharisees, in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the Passion narrative.
This evidence is equal to or superior to the evidence supporting any conclusion in contemporary critical historical Jesus scholarship. In other words, to doubt that Jesus viewed Scripture as God’s unerring word would entail, from the standpoint of historical scholarship, total skepticism about the teachings of Jesus. The multiple lines of attestation from every Gospel and every major source or tradition underlying the Gospels are a powerful cumulative argument for the conclusion that Jesus did in fact view Scripture in the traditional Jewish, rabbinical way.
Nor is there any counterevidence for this conclusion from the Gospel sources. 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.
Given the overwhelming evidence from our best sources that Jesus viewed Scripture as inerrant, and a complete lack of evidence to the contrary, the reasonable conclusion is that Jesus did in fact view Scripture as inerrant. Thus, I conclude that the evidence demonstrates that the truth of the second premise of my argument to be at least highly probable, and I think it can be fairly said that it is almost certain.
Conclusion: If We Believe Jesus, We Should Accept the Inerrancy of Scripture
I have explained the logic of the argument and shown that anyone who professes to be a Christian ought to assent to both premises of the argument. This means that the argument is sound and the conclusion should be accepted. We may restate the argument in a slightly different way to show its cogency in particular with regard to what those who seek to believe in Jesus and follow his teachings should think about this issue.
Premise 1: Whoever follows Jesus Christ should agree that whatever he taught is true.
Premise 2: Jesus Christ taught that Scripture is inerrant.
Conclusion: Therefore, whoever follows Jesus Christ should agree that Scripture is inerrant.
1. Some earlier defenses of this argument include R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969), 45-71; John H. Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1972); idem., “Christ’s View of Scripture,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 3-36; R. Laird Harris, “The Basis for Our Belief in Inerrancy,” in Evangelicals and Inerrancy, ed. Ronald Youngblood (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 105-110; and Gary R. Habermas, “Jesus and the Inspiration of Scripture,” Areopagus Journal, Jan. 2002.
2. The Qur’an, Surah 5, verse 46, in Yu Sufali’s translation, as found at the University of Southern California’s Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement website (which also presents the translations of Pickthal and Shakir).
3. J. Philip Schaelling, “Jesus Christ, Sources for Words of,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 4:742.
4. Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 31, 45.
5. See Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter, The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 38-42. As Theissen and Winter point out, there was a strain of anti-Semitism in much of the deistic accommodation theory.
6. Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 4th ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 221.
7. Emil Schürer, The Literature of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus (New York: Schocken Books, 1972 reprint), 366.
8. Yehoshua Amir, “Authority and Interpretation of Scripture in the Writings of Philo,” in Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder and Harry Sysling, Compendium Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum 2/1 (Assen: Van Gorcum; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 431 (421-53).
9. Quoted in ibid., 432.
10. James L. Kugel, “The Beginnings of Biblical Interpretation,” in A Companion to Biblical Interpretation in Early Judaism, ed. Matthias Henze (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 13-14 (3-23).
11. Ibid., 14, 15.