Sacred Dance #5: Inerrancy and the Wicked King

In the last post I suggested that, while the writings in the bible play an important role in the process by which we come to know God, it is possible to place too many expectations on the people who wrote the Christian scriptures. The “pressure” that comes from requiring them to satisfy those expectations can, in turn, actually make it more difficult for us to understand them.

Two words that get thrown around a lot these days to describe the bible are “inerrant” and “authoritative.” During the next few posts, I want to explain why I don’t think these two words are helpful ways of talking about the bible.

I begin with the word “inerrant,” and with the rather tragic tale of the very short reign of Ahaziah. Ahaziah was one in a long line of kings over Judah who – we are told – failed to do what was right in the sight of God, and who were punished in various ways for their conduct.

Ahaziah’s story is told in two places in the bible. One is in 2 Kings 8 and 9, and the other in 2 Chronicles 22. There are also, in turn, at least two versions of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. The oldest versions are written in the Hebrew language. However, there is also another very old version of each book that translates the Hebrew text into Greek.

In 2 Chronicles 21, we are told that the father of Ahaziah, whose name was Jerohim, was thirty two years when he began to reign and that he reigned for eight years before he came to a rather untimely (and gruesome! – I’ll spare you the details) death.

Ahaziah then took over as a successor to his father. The Hebrew text of 2 Chronicles 22 tells us that Ahaziah was forty-two when he began to reign.

So…lets stop and do some basic math here. Since his father began to reign at thirty-two, and he reigned for eight years, Ahaziah’s father had to have been about forty years old when he died. At forty-two, that would make Ahaziah two years older than his father. That can’t be right.

So what happened here?

Bible scholars generally explain it this way: if you look at the account of Ahaziah’s reign in 2 Kings, we are told that he was twenty-two at the time his reign begins. The consensus is that, when  2 Chronicles was written, the writer used 2 Kings as a source, but failed to put the correct number down when he got around to reciting the age of Ahaziah.

In other words, the best explanation is that the writer of 2 Chronicles made a mistake. An error.

Some years later, when a scribe undertook to translate the Hebrew text into Greek, the error was discovered and “fixed.” Thus, the subsequent Greek version of 2 Chronicles (called the Septuagint) will tell you that Ahaziah was, in fact twenty-two when he began to reign.

Most translators of modern English versions of the bible have also taken it upon themselves to correct this error. Several translations, such as the NIV, will tell you in a footnote that the original text recited forty-two as the age of the new King, but some translations won’t even bother to tell you what they have done. The reader is simply led to believe that the writer originally stated that Ahaziah was twenty-two, when he did not.

Now…at this point, some of you may be thinking something like this: So somebody wrote down a wrong number on a scroll 2500 years ago? So what? It is an insignificant statement. Can’t we still learn lessons about the need for responsible leaders who have integrity within a spiritual community even if the details are wrong?

Others, however, may be thinking something completely different: Well, if this is wrong, what else could be wrong? If the bible’s writers did make mistakes, could they have been wrong about other things? How can we count on anything that we are told in the bible if we accept that it contains mistakes?

I’ll begin to examine these questions – and the reasons why some translators want to keep from drawing “problems” like this to our attention – in the next post.

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2 Responses to Sacred Dance #5: Inerrancy and the Wicked King

  1. We are set up for a fall. We are told either it is all absolutely precisely objectively true as if recorded by a TV camera crew or it is bunk and life has no meaning. So what happens when we encounter the many difficulties like you describe in your post? There are many of them. At some point we, or some of us, have thrown up our hands and decided that the inerrancy model of inspiration does not hold up. And some have therefore taken that as refutation of Christianity as a whole. After all, they do not know of an alternative. That is the danger of the inerrancy doctrine. It is therefore adept at producing skeptics and atheists.

  2. Matt says:

    “It is therefore adept at producing skeptics and atheists.”

    Well said, Steve. Ironically, inerrancy doctrine actually does a lot more harm than good for the Christian faith because – as I suggested in the last post – it is one of those things that sets people up for failure.

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