Does the Bible contain errors? If those errors are scientific or historical, as opposed to matters of faith and morals, does it even matter?
These questions came up during the Second Vatican Council when some theologians asserted that Scripture indeed contained such errors. Cardinal Koenig of Vienna attempted to prove it using Mark 2:26, where David “went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat, and shared it with his companions.” According to 1 Samuel 21:1, Abiathar was not the high priest, but rather his father, Ahimelech. This scriptural example on the surface appears to support his claim that the Bible contains historical errors.
According to Scripture scholar Raymond Brown, the awareness of these so-called historical errors moved the Church at Vatican II to teach that the Bible is free from error only in matters of faith and morals and not in matters of history and science (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1169). Brown supports this claim by appealing to section 11 of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), which reads, “we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” The phrase “for the sake of our salvation” is the key reference used to argue that only those things needed for our salvation (i.e., faith and morals) and not history and science, are free from error.
It’s All about Context
So, how are we to understand the phrase “for the sake of our salvation”? First, we will look at the context.
Referencing chapter two of the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, the opening statement of section 11 of Dei Verbum (hereafter DV) reads:
Those things revealed by God which are contained and presented in the text of sacred scripture have been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church itself.
The two key phrases, “whole and entire” and “with all their parts,” apply to both the inspiration of Scripture, and to God as the author of the Old and New Testaments.
The preceding text states, “all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit.” According to the Council fathers, everything the writers intended to assert, the Holy Spirit intended to assert. Hence, because we cannot attribute error to the Holy Spirit, we cannot ascribe error to the sacred authors.
This principle of affirmation or assertion is important in considering the various so-called errors in Scripture, whether they be historical or scientific. Though this topic requires an in-depth discussion that goes beyond the scope of this article, it suffices to say that the human authors, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, at times do not intend to affirm certain details to be factual or accurate. (See “Genre and the Principle of Assertion,” page 27)
In regards to the historical elements, in 1905 the Pontifical Biblical Commission stated that at times—with solid arguments and conformity to the sense of the Church—it is possible to conclude that the sacred writers did not intend to give a true and strict account of history. They ” proposed rather to set forth, under the guise and form of history, a parable or an allegory or some meaning distinct from the literal or historical signification of the words” (qtd. in John E. Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies, 33).
For example, although the first eleven chapters of Genesis are history in a true sense, the narratives contained within “relate in simple and figurative language, adapted to the understanding of mankind at a lower stage of development, fundamental truths underlying the divine scheme of salvation” (Pontifical Biblical Commission; qtd. in A Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 75).
Further, the sacred authors were of a different culture and had different patterns of writing than our modern historians, who use critical methods inherited from Greece and Rome. In recording history, ancient authors may omit certain facts, neglect chronological order, or give a mere summary of discourse. Although we may see limitations in this style of writing, that in no way makes these documents false history. The authors did not intend to assert accuracy, for accuracy was not needed to serve the purpose of the message.
Described in Figurative Language
Critics often ascribe scientific error to Joshua 10:13: “the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.” As it is now known that the sun does not revolve around the earth, it seems that the author made a scientific error. But the author did not intend to assert a scientific fact; he was affirming the phenomenon he observed with his senses. (Scholars refer to this as phenomenological language.) We still express ourselves that way today. We do not accuse the weather forecaster of scientific error when he says, “The sun will rise at 6:00 a.m.”
Pope Leo XIII notes that there are some men of physical science who scrutinize the Sacred Scriptures in order to detect a fault in matters that pertain to the sensible experience. In response, the pontiff explains that the sacred writers “did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science” (Proventissimus Deus, 18).
It is wrong to expect from the sacred writers the sort of scientific language found in contemporary science books. The writers wrote as they would ordinarily speak.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the authors of Scripture describe what is obvious to the senses. The authors, out of condescension to the weaknesses of an ignorant people, “put before them only such things as are apparent to sense” (Summa Theologica I:1:9). They wrote what God wanted in a manner that men could understand and to which they were accustomed.
Keys to Interpretation
The second approach to take in demonstrating that the Council did not break with Sacred Tradition is to review the documents referenced in footnote number five of the passage from DV 11. The point of referencing other documents for particular passages is to instruct the reader how to properly interpret the passage according to the mind of the author. The following documents give clear evidence of what the Council fathers intended to convey.
In its Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures, the Council of Trent in session four states the following:
If anyone does not accept as sacred and canonical the aforesaid books in their entirety and with all their parts, as they have been accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate Edition, and knowingly and deliberately rejects the aforesaid traditions, let him be anathema.
In a document from Vatican I, the Council fathers reemphasize and reaffirm the teaching of Trent by stating that “the complete books of the Old and the New Testaments with all their parts, as they are listed in the decree of the said Council [Trent] . . . are to be received as sacred and canonical” (Dei Filius, 2.6).
In an authoritative affirmation and commentary on this document, Pope Pius XII gives further instruction that sheds light on the proper interpretation of DV 11:
When, subsequently, some Catholic writers, in spite of this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the “entire books with all their parts” as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever, ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals, and to regard other matters, whether in the domain of physical science or history, as obiter dicta [things said incidentally and in passing] and—as they contended—in no wise connected with faith, our predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII in the encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus, published on November 18 in the year 1893, justly and rightly condemned these errors and safeguarded the studies of the divine books by most wise precepts and rules. (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1)
Finally, there is Pope Leo XIII’s great encyclical Providentissimus Deus. He writes:
But it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond . . . this system cannot be tolerated. For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. (20)
Pope Leo reiterates the constant teaching of the Church from the Councils of Trent and Vatican I, that the Holy Spirit dictated the entirety of the books of the Bible with all of their parts. As is often said, “Peter has spoken, the issue is settled!”
It is clear that to interpret DV 11 as restricting the Bible’s inspiration and freedom from error to matters of faith and morals is to interpret it contrary to the intention of the Council fathers. Vatican II did not allow us to say there are errors in Sacred Scripture. Vatican II did not reverse the Catholic dogma of the inerrancy of Scripture.
Then, What Does It Mean?
So, what did the Council fathers mean by “for the sake of our salvation”? Fr. William G. Most writes, “If Vatican II had really wanted to make that clause clearly restrictive, there is an unambiguous Latin construction that would have made it clear called qui quidem with the subjunctive. The Council did not use that structure” (Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics, 217). He concludes that the phrase is not restrictive but descriptive. Therefore the phrase emphasizes that the truth in the whole of Scripture, whether it be religious, historical, or scientific, is for our salvation. There is no part of Scripture that does not contribute to our journey of salvation. As St. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” If God is the author of all of Scripture, then all of Scripture is for our salvation.
So, how is Mark 2:26 to be explained? The answer lies in the Greek text. In Mark 2:26, the Greek reads ” epi Abiathar archiereos.” Fr. Most, in his book, Catholic Apologetics Today, states that the Greek preposition epi takes a generic meaning of time when its object takes the genitive case. Hence, it literally reads “in the days of” or “in the time of Abiathar.” Abiathar’s name was used for this time period as opposed to his father’s because of his greater prominence and popularity among the readers of the Old Testament. Abiathar had a very close association with King David, under whom he became chief priest along with Zadok (cf. 1 Sam. 22:20-2 Sam.).
Many more examples have been used to argue that the Bible contains error, but every one is answerable. Therefore, we can repeat with humility the words of St. Augustine, “And if in these books I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty, or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand” (Letter LXXXII, 3).
Firmly, Faithfully, and without Error
- CCC 105 – For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. (emphasis added)
- CCC 106 – God inspired the human authors of the sacred books . . . it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more. (emphasis added)
- CCC 107 – The inspired books teach the truth. Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which of God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.
Genre and the Principle of Assertion
When interpreting the “literal sense” of the Bible, we must distinguish between the narration and the form of narration, also known as genre. Narration is the telling of things that happened and genre is the style used to tell what happened. In all cultures, many different styles and methods are used to communicate messages.
Scholars have listed nine kinds of literary forms in the narrative literature or historical books of the Old Testament: fable, parable, historical epic, religious history, ancient history, popular tradition, liberal narrative, Midrash (commentary), and prophetical and apocalyptical narrative (John E. Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies, 33). Whatever genre is used, the question that must be considered is what the author asserted or intended to communicate by using this style of narration. The answer to this question will supply the literal sense of the passage.
For example, in Micah 3:2-3, we read, “You that hate good, and love evil; that violently pluck off their skins from them, and their flesh from their homes? Who have eaten the flesh of my people, and have flayed their skin from off them: and have broken, and chopped their bones as for the kettle, and as flesh in the midst of the pot.” Does the author mean that the enemies of God’s people were cannibals? No: He is asserting that the enemies of God persecuted the people of God. The passage represents a common Hebraic style of writing employed to assert the reality of persecution and war (see also Deut. 32:42; Ezek. 39:17-18; Rev. 17:6, 16). To interpret this passage without considering the Hebrew genre, one would have to conclude that flesh was actually being eaten and blood actually being drunk.
The principle of affirmation or assertion is the key element in Biblical interpretation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words” (CCC 109). Furthermore, “in order to discover the sacred authors’ intention,” the Catechism states “the reader must take into account the conditions of their times and culture, the literal genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current” (CCC 110). Notice that the Catechism implies there are different modes of narrating, i.e., genres. The reason for the variety of genres is found in Dei Verbum, which states, “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression” (12).
Therefore, when we engage in the difficult task of interpretation, the principle of affirmation or assertion, which is connected to genre, must be the guiding principle for the literal sense. The interpretation guidelines for the spiritual sense of Scripture can be found in paragraphs 111-117 of the Catechism.
- Fr. William G. Most, Free From All Error, second ed. (Prow, 1990)
- The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, available at www.ewtn.com.
- Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus. Available at www.ewtn.com.