BioLogos on Scientific Errors in the Bible – A Review
Originally posted on the Quran and Bible Blog
سْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم
“Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.”
– Proverbs 30:5
Fundamentalist Christians maintain that the Bible is “inerrant” (i.e., free of error, whether historical, scientific, etc.). Of course, when one objectively tests this claim, one tends to find that it is inaccurate. The Bible is certainly not “inerrant”. It is actually errant, as has been demonstrated in previous articles. So what does that mean for the faithful Christian? Does it mean that the Bible is wrong and should not be trusted? Should Christians apostatize from Christianity and put their faith elsewhere? Not necessarily, according to the folks at BioLogos, an organization comprised of scientists, which believes that science and religion are not “at war”. Rather, they believe that both can be reconciled, and in fact, they claim to “embrace historical Christian faith”. They also affirm “evolutionary creation” (also called “theistic evolution”), and its founder, the respected and brilliant scientist and former head of the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins, has defended evolutionary theory as scientific fact and also argued that it is possible to reconcile it with religious faith. But how do these respected scientists reconcile the clear scientific errors in the Bible, and how do they maintain their faith in spite of these errors? In this article, we will review their explanations. Specifically, this article is a review of the BioLogos article Why Would God Allow Scientific Errors in the Bible?
Why Does the Bible Contain Scientific Errors?
First and foremost, it should be noted that BioLogos does not deny that there are some sections of the Bible which are clearly at odds with scientific facts. For example, Christy Hemphill states the following regarding the authors of the Bible:
“…he [God] allowed some of their pre-existing misconceptions about the how and why of the universe to remain unchallenged, because they weren’t important to his divine mission in the world and because correcting them was not essential for what he wanted to communicate.”
So, the understanding is that God deliberately allowed “misconceptions” about nature and the universe simply because it was not “important” correct them. He could have corrected them but chose not to.
We see here both a sense of honesty (admitting that there are “misconceptions”, otherwise known as “errors”, in the Bible; other Christians are not so honest) but also a sense of “having your cake and eating it too”. This is also common among some scholars of textual criticism. For example, while respected scholars like the late Raymond Brown agreed with the critiques of modern scholarship on the Bible, they still remain faithful Christians. This double-dealing was criticized by the late Geza Vermes as precisely the “example of the position of having your cake and eating it”. Indeed, if we acknowledge that the Bible has errors, and that many of its stories are not true and grounded in later myths, then why should we believe in it, especially for our salvation?
The explanation above is clearly fraught with problems. First, why would God, who is supposedly “truthful”, allow untrue statements in the Bible? It does not seem to fit.
Second, if we excuse the erroneous statements of the authors by saying that God allowed them because they were not “important”, what about statements that the authors explicitly attribute to God? Were they lying? Or were they just erroneously (though not deliberately) attributing such erroneous statements to God? Or did God actually say such statements, and would He? For example, let us look at Leviticus 11:5-6. We previously discussed this passage in the article On Rabbits and Rumination: A Response to Christian Interpretations of Leviticus 11:5-6 (see note #1 for the link). In this chapter, it is God Himself who issues commands on “clean” and “unclean” animals, and it is God who says:
“[t]he hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you.”
As demonstrated in the article, this passage is simply wrong. Neither hyraxes nor rabbits “chew the cud”, a phrase which refers to “rumination” in animals such as cows (the appeal to caecotrophy fails as explained in the article). The excuses of the apologists were shown to be inadequate. Thus, the only conclusion is that this passage is scientifically inaccurate. The problem is magnified since it was God who supposedly said it, not the author (whom fundamentalists maintain was Moses) himself! So again, we have to ask:
- Did God really say something which was simply untrue?
- Was it a mistake of the author? Was it an erroneous (but not deliberate) attribution to God?
- Was the author simply lying and God never said such a thing?
We can see that the explanation that God “allowed” this “misconception” because it was not “important” does not work here. It actually was important, because the reason given for not eating rabbits was because they “chew the cud”. The reason given was false. God could just have said “don’t eat rabbits because I said so”. The implication is that God deliberately said something false and gave that as the reason for a rule He was decreeing.
But maybe there is another excuse. According to geologist Gregg Davidson, perhaps God was simply “[condescending] to the contemporary knowledge of the workings of the natural realm”. Another commentator, Ted Davis, referred to it as “accommodation”. In other words, God was deliberately saying something false because that is what was believed at the time, or He was using the language or phraseology of the time. Thus, when God said that rabbits “chew the cud”, He was simply using the language of the time and applied it (knowing that it was wrong) in that specific instance. But again, this does not seem to be a reasonable explanation because God could have chosen to simply say that since rabbits do not have divided hooves, they are forbidden to eat. Verse 4 clearly says that some animals “only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof”, so God could have just said “since rabbits do not have a divided hoof, they are unclean.” In fact, verse 26 makes this clear:
“Every animal that does not have a divided hoof or that does not chew the cud is unclean for you…”
Since rabbits do not have divided hooves, they would be included in the list of “unclean animals” as per verse 26. There was simply no reason to even mention chewing the cud, because it would not apply to rabbits. And yet, God still deliberately linked cud-chewing with rabbits.
Also, rabbits could have been mentioned even later in the chapter with other forbidden animals such as rats, which were forbidden without any reason given (verse 29). Clearly, the excuse offered by Davidson cannot be sustained.
According to Ted Davis, who more or less made the same argument as Davidson but called it “accommodation”, using the language of the “particular, time, place, and people” was needed because:
“[t]he message of the Bible transcends that particular situation, but it must be embedded within that situation or it will not be understood.”
Again, this fails to explain the error in Leviticus 11:5-6. There would have been no difficulty in “understanding” this passage if the phrase “chews the cud” was not included. It still would have made perfect sense to the ancient Israelites.
So, none of these excuses really works, at least with regards to the cud-chewing passage. One could argue persuasively that the Bible could use the language of the time in certain contexts, and it would not be irrational or erroneous. For example, when the Bible uses the word “heart” in such places as Leviticus 19:17, it is not unreasonable to argue that this was the common phraseology of the time and thus nothing to get in to a twist about. The verse states:
“[d]o not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart.”
Of course, anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge about biology would know that the heart has nothing to do with feelings or emotions such as “hate”. That would be the domain of the brain. But such figures of speech are common even in modern times. If a person says to someone they care about “you will be in my heart”, no one would castigate that person as an ignoramus. Rather, it would be understood that it is just a figure of speech. Thus, concepts like “accommodation” may work in this instance.
Another example in the Bible where “accommodation” is a reasonable explanation is Leviticus 11:13–19, a passage that discussed the “birds” which were “unclean” for the Israelites. This list of “birds” includes bats:
“These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle,[a] the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.”
Some critics of the Bible claim that this is a scientific “error”, because bats are mammals, not birds. Yet this view fails to consider that modern classification was not in use in ancient times. The Bible simply classified animals as “birds” as long they were able to fly. This is not a scientific error, but rather just a different (albeit simple) way of classifying animals.
However, the concept of “accommodation” does not work in every instance, such as Leviticus 11:5-6, as shown above. And it will not work in many other instances as well, as in the following 2 examples:
- Job 41:18-21 – This passage describes the mythical beast known as “Leviathan”. It provides fantastical descriptions about this beast, such as “flames stream from its mouth”. In addition, Psalm 74:14 states that it has multiple heads. Of course, such an animal does not exist and has never existed. Not even the Genesis creation account mentions Leviathan.
One could argue that these descriptions were metaphorical, or that this animal was a supernatural entity, or that the Bible was simply using “accommodation”. But there were certainly other ways to describe this creature, whatever it was supposed to represent. Why did the Bible use mythical descriptions?
But the biggest problem is that the myth of the “Leviathan” is found in other cultures of the time, and it appears that the Bible simply borrowed the myth. According to Professor Mark S. Smith, “Leviathan” was representative of the common motif of defeating “cosmic foes”, and was found in Canaanite mythology. In fact, in the Canaanite myth, Leviathan was the “enemy” of gods like Baal, just like it is an enemy of Yahweh in the Bible.
There is simply no reason why the Bible, as the “inspired” word of God, would have incorporated a myth such as this. What purpose would it serve? Why not just use a known animal, and not a myth borrowed from a pagan culture, to describe God’s power (since Leviathan is supposed to be slain by God Himself)?
- Mark 4:30-32 – In this passage, Jesus (peace be upon him) is alleged to have used the parable of the mustard seed to describe the kingdom of God. This is not problematic, except for the description of mustard seeds as “the smallest of all seeds on earth”. As explained in the article Science in the Bible and the Quran: Searching the Holy Texts for Evidence of Scientific Knowledge, mustard seeds are not the smallest seeds on earth, but rather orchid seeds are. In fact, even poppy seeds are smaller than mustard seeds.
The concept of “accommodation” will not work here. The main reason is that both mustard seeds and orchid seeds can be found in the Middle East, including Palestine. So, there was no reason why Jesus, whom Christians regard as the creator of the universe, could not have used orchid seeds in the parable. In fact, it would have been a better parable. The original parable states:
“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
The parable explains that the kingdom of God may start out small, but once planted, it outgrows everything else. Mustard plants certainly seem to fit the bill. But so do orchid plants. In fact, since orchid seeds are smaller, the parable would have been even more impressive as “the parable of the orchid seed” instead of “the parable of the mustard seed”. Orchid trees can be very impressive in terms of size, even though they start out as nearly microscopic seeds.
Another way the error could have been avoided was to just not include the phrase “the smallest of all seeds on earth”. The parable would still have made sense and the message would have been delivered. Let us read what the parable would look like:
“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed. When planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
To a 1st-century Jewish peasant, this parable would have been easily understood. A mustard seed, which starts out small, eventually grows into a large tree. The error is avoided and the need to teach an important lesson using scripture is met.
These are just a few examples of inaccurate claims about the natural world that could have been easily avoided but were still included in a book that was supposed to be “inspired”.
Even if we could somehow excuse all the scientific errors using the arguments of the Christians at BioLogos, what about historical errors or false prophecies? How can we excuse an inaccurate historical statement or an obvious false prophecy by appealing to “accommodation”? For example, when Paul was asked about unmarried Christians, he stated that it was better not to get married because “the time is short” and the “world in its present form is passing away”. In other words, Paul’s advice was to just forget about marriage as that was not the most pressing concern when the world was about to end. Christians cannot say that Paul was somehow referring to events thousands of years in the future since it would be impossible to expect unmarried Christians to remain in a state of celibacy while waiting for the end generation after generation. To make matters worse, Paul admitted that he had no ruling on the matter from God, but he claimed that since he was “trustworthy” by God’s “mercy”, Christians should accept his judgment. So he issued a false prophecy, one that was repeated throughout the New Testament, even by Jesus (peace be upon him) himself, that the world was going to end very soon. Why would God have allowed a false expectation of the world’s end when He had no plans for that to happen until thousands of years later? Wouldn’t it have been a better lesson simply to say “the end will come when it comes; until then, serve God and do good, and get married if you want to”? It was only because Christians obviously ignored Paul’s judgment that unmarried Christians still get married almost 2000 years later.
We can see that the explanations offered by BioLogos scientists for the apparent scientific errors in the Bible may work in some instances, but not in others. Hence, the only reasonable conclusion is that the Bible does make scientific errors which should not have been made. Concepts like “accommodation” do not explain why other logical alternatives were not used by an All-Knowing being who was attempting to teach his followers. Moreover, the explanations offered by BioLogos cannot excuse the Bible’s historical errors and false prophecies. There comes a point where we just have to be honest and admit that the Bible is wrong in so many instances because it is not from God.
And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!
 See Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), pp. 197-211.
 Geza Vermes, The Nativity: History and Legend (New York: Doubleday, 2006), p. 21.
 John 3:33.
 Leviathan is also mentioned in Psalm 74:14 and 104:26, and Isaiah 27:1. In these passages, it is described a fearsome sea monster (more specifically, a sea “serpent”) with multiple heads.
 Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (USA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), p. 52.
In fact, the parallels between the Canaanite myth and the Biblical myth leave no doubt that it was the same myth. For example, the Baal Epic states:
“[w]hen thou smotest Lotan [Leviathan], the slippery (serpent) (and) madest an end of the wriggling serpent, the tyrant (with seven heads)…” (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/ugarit).
The same imagery is used in Isaiah 27:1:
“In that day, the Lord will punish with his sword— his fierce, great and powerful sword— Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.”
And as stated previously, Psalm 74:14 states that Leviathan had multiple heads. The parallels with the Canaanite myth are quite obvious.
 1 Corinthians 7:29-31.
 1 Corinthians 7:25.