Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fundamentalist Dance Contest

Ah, literalism, how I love thee. The deeper I get into my walk with Scripture, the more I appreciate the Spirit that fills these holy texts, and the more I find the doctrine of literal inerrancy more and more—ah—interesting. Ahem.

Literal inerrancy requires that there be no flaw, no disagreement at all in scripture. The Bible must be perfect, if it is to be trusted. The task of fundamentalist apologetics is to defend the empirical truth of every last line of scripture. If a single line fails, the whole interpretive system fails. This makes fundamentalists entertaining, in a perverse sort of way. The rational gyrations a literalist must go through to show that not a single word of scripture can be factually incorrect are hypnotic, a sort of theological burlesque.

So for any literalists out there, I offer up the challenge text of the day. In the study series I’m running on the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) in adult ed on Sundays, I’ve come across a few fascinating examples of cutting and pasting in scripture. Read, for instance, Isaiah 36:1-39:8. Then read 2 Kings 18.13, and then 2 Kings 18:17-20:19. You’ll find them essentially identical, as one scroll is duplicated and inserted entirely into another. It’s a logical editorial decision—the folks who compiled this portion of the book of Isaiah just wanted to include information on Isaiah that was found in another text. No problem there.

In preparing for my final class on Jeremiah, I found exactly the same thing in Jeremiah 52. The whole last chapter of Jeremiah is a duplicate of 2 Kings 24:18-25:30. Read them both…it’s a little eerie, like an echo in a Judean desert valley at twilight. That echo isn’t exact, though.

Take, for instance, Jeremiah 52:31, which reads: “In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Evil-Merodach became king of Babylon, he released Jehoiachin king of Judah and freed him from prison on the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month.” (NIV)

Then read 2 Kings 25:27: “In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Evil-Merodach became king of Babylon, he released Jehoiachin from prison on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month.” (NIV)

So…what day was he released again? The 25th day of the 12th month, or the 27th day of the 12th month? Of course, this is just a copyist’s error. One text or the other is off by two days. They can’t both be right. For those who understand scripture as primarily a vessel for the Holy Spirit, the disagreement is irrelevant. But for literal inerrancy, this is an issue that must be dealt with. There. Can. Be. No. Error.

Want to take a crack at it?


  1. I'm not sure if I count as a 'fundamentalist' as I don't see the big deal in what is more than likely a copyist error. I have just recently delved into the minutae of textual criticism, so I am no expert, but I'd have to say that's what hits me at first glance.

    I think it's important to keep in mind when most Christians speak of the scripture and its inspiration, they are referring to the original manuscript, and not copies.

  2. You're right, of course. It doesn't really matter.

    The "original imprint" argument tends to be where most folks go when faced with picayune little variances like this, and it's a logical counterargument. However, it's worth noting that the "copyist" in question could very possibly be the person who assembled Jeremiah.