How Perfect Does the Bible Need to Be? Abraham’s Age…

For all you believers and skeptics… If all Scripture is inspired by God, does that also mean there can never be any grammatical errors, or errors in the copies and translations over time? Exactly how perfect does the Bible need to be in order for God to exist?

Two things occurred to me yesterday. One is that many people reject God because the Bible is “proven wrong” by difficult to understand passages, or even by mistakes made in copying the Scriptures, or by a corruption in the original text by later scribes. While two… at the same time there have always been noted differences in the manuscript copies (there ARE tens of thousands of them, which is tens of thousands more than any other ancient documents) as well as syntax and grammatical errors by the writers, or debates over the original sentence structure here or there.

How much do those things matter?

For instance, how old was Abraham when he left Haran for the land of Canaan?

Here’s what Genesis records: (Abram = Abraham)
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran. -Genesis 11:31-32

(Keep in mind, not everything is recorded. For instance, God called Abraham before they moved to Haran, and then afterwards. Some scholars even believe they might have lived in Haran previously, which is why Terah would name one of his sons “Haran.” No record of it, but Genesis often just briefly summarizes things. Anyway…)

Then Genesis says: (notice it says, “The Lord had said to Abram”)
The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. -Genesis 12:1-4

So we know Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran.
We know Terah, Abraham’s dad, died at age 205. (wow, sweet)
It also seems Abraham left after Terah died because Stephen said this in Acts 7….

To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’ “So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. -Acts 7:2-4

So for Abraham to leave Haran when he was 75,
and do it AFTER his father died at age 205,
then Terah must have been closer to 130 when Abraham was born.

Well, the Bible seems to say Terah was younger than that:
After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. -Genesis 11:26

And if Abraham was born when Terah was only 70 years old, then what Stephen said in Acts 7 does not add up.

So was Stephen wrong? Did the Bible get it wrong in Acts? Or did the Bible get it wrong in Genesis? Or are we missing something?

How do we deal with these things?

Of course, Stephen was speaking to the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Men who understood the Scriptures and the history of the Jewish nation like the back of their hand, (yes I’m assuming they knew the back of their hand) and yet none of them criticized Stephen’s account of the history. So it doesn’t appear that Stephen was considered wrong in what he said at the time, yet it still disagrees with what my Bible says in Genesis. Or seems to.

There are 3 explanations that I know of for this story, and here they are in no particular order:

ONE… Genesis 11:26 is just a summary statement. After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. -Genesis 11:26 It’s unlikely Terah had all three kids at the exact same time, unless they were triplets, but that is never mentioned. Terah was simply 70 years old when he first became a father, and Abraham is listed first because he was the most important. That’s pretty common, and Genesis had already listed the youngest child first in 3 different places before this verse comes along. The Dake Annotated Bible, and Apologetics Press take this view.

TWO…The Genesis 11:32 that we have, is not the same Scripture that was being used by Stephen when he spoke. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran. -Genesis 11:32 is what we have, but a manuscript called the “Samaritan Pentateuch,” gives Terah’s age of death at 145. If Abraham was born when Terah was 70, then when Abraham leaves at age 75, it’s the same year Terah dies. The argument goes that Stephen either used the Samaritan Pentateuch as his source, or some other ancient manuscript that was accepted by the religious leaders of his day that said the same thing. Accordingly, the copies we have, are wrong on the 205 age. You can read more about it here.

THREE… In Acts 7:4, Stephen was NOT referring to Terah, Abraham’s immediate father, but his grandfather, a very important dude. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

Noah.

Stephen said, “So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living.-Acts 7:4 It WAS normal in Jewish culture to refer to grand-fathers or great-grandfathers, or great-great-great… you get the idea…. as just “father.” Their word for “father” was more general than ours, and was often applied to more than just the immediate father. And admittedly, Stephen NEVER specifically mentioned Terah. All he said was Abraham left “after the death of his father.”

Weirdly enough, if Abraham left about 75 years after Terah started having kids… that’s the same time that Noah died. He lived 350 years after the flood, a grand total of 950. How many years of driving with your blinker on would that be?

You can read about that argument here.

SO DOES IT MATTER?
The crazy thing is I’m not going to take a position on the solution to the age of Abraham in this space. I’m simply going to say I’m not sure it makes any difference to me. Why should it?

Any Bible scholar worth his/her salt can point out corruptions that have gotten into the text over time. So exactly how perfect does the Bible need to be in order to believe?

Let’s think the unthinkable. Why is it, the very idea that the Bible might have some difficult to interpret passages, or an actual error in the English translation of the Bible in 2010, will derail some people’s belief in God altogether?

There have always been known corruptions in the text, or numbers that have been called into question, or a sentence structure that is debated, or a grammatical error like thisss one. These corruptions and difficulties have been known and debated as to their explanations, for centuries, even a millennium.

With tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts to compare, which is tens of thousands more than any other ancient document, including tens of thousands more of ancient QUOTES of the Scripture, we have certainly found grammatical errors, and errors in copying the manuscript. We’ve known about them for most of the Christian era.

And for me, that’s not only understandable, but it’s also in the No-Big-Deal category. Few of us, would reject our belief in God because the King James version of the English translation, uses different sentence structure sometimes than the New International Version of the English translation. We EXPECT differences there.

Few of us, would reject an email from friend, if our friend accidentally put a typo in there. We EXPECT mistakes such as typos from human beings.

And despite those typos or differences in sentence structure, we still get the message. We don’t reject the message because of those “errors” we just look close enough to make sure we get the message REGARDLESS of any “errors.”

People do the same with the Bible. Most Bibles include a giant parenthesis around John 7:53-8:11 because many early and reliable manuscripts don’t have that story. We read it, understanding there is some question regarding it. Does that mean we must reject God’s existence?

For me? That’s an illogical leap. I expect mistakes from human beings, but I can see past those to the message. I can read carefully, and still understand what God is saying.

There is no doctrine in the Bible that states the Scriptures will never be copied incorrectly, or translated improperly. The power of the words, is not in the ink, but in the Spirit behind the message.

And if you’ve noticed, the Spirit uses imperfect vessels all the time.

And if you’ve also noticed, although we can debate how old Abraham was when he left for Canaan, his exact age, or when he was born, or what manuscript Stephen was using, or what “father” Stephen was referring to, doesn’t change a thing about the important historical claims, or especially, the message.

That God is reconciling the world to Himself through Christ, by the sacrifice for their sins, and the forgiveness it brings to all who turn to Him as Lord and Savior, -and that He has given us the “ministry” of reconciliation.

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2 thoughts on “How Perfect Does the Bible Need to Be? Abraham’s Age…

  1. I think it’s vitally important to be able to answer these questions on the one hand but also able to rationally explain why it doesn’t matter on the other.

    I think you raise the latter proposition well–even without the Bible, we should at least have every rational person be able to conclude as a matter of logic that there has to be a supreme God. Not even the atheist can argue against this conclusion with descending into some form of happenstance argument. Even the ancient Greeks believed it. (A good source for this logical argument is a jurist Jean Jacques Burlamaqui.) This leaves only the argument of whether Jesus is the Christ. At the end of the day, this proposition is a matter of persuasion and faith, not irrefutable logic.

    In terms of proving the integrity of the Bible, it is fairly important to have an answer because most Christians are taught to believe it is infallible. As the thought goes–and I was taught it–there are no mistakes or scrivener errors. Yet it is this type of thought leads to derailment. Terah’s age is a prime illustration of the crack in those rails.

    I want to digress just for a moment to add that there is a known, Jewish tradition of interpreting several variants of the scriptures to gain different contours of meaning. Such an approach expands the explanation of things in different ways. The Samaritan Pentateuch is a prime example of a single source. Stephen likely relied upon this or a similar source when he was preaching. Does it mean that Stephen was wrong? Or that the other versions were wrong? Under Jewish interpretive tradition, the answer would be no. He was free in such a pluralistic tradition. I believe that grew out of not knowing which version was true.

    But my point is that what you say about derailment is most important. Terah’s age is simply not ultimate. As a matter of intellectual honesty, it is a conundrum but only but only if we propagate the notion that the Bible fell perfectly from heaven as Manna did for the Jews in the wilderness.

    The only thing that matters is really whether one can examine the life of Christ and the fruits of Christianity to make a decision. It is not some bickering over technical issues produced at the hands of mankind. After all, there was no widespread knowledge of the Book of Acts known to the Christian community for 300 years or more. The bible as we know it wasn’t even around. What did Christians do then? At the end of the day, the only important things is the message that these early Christians were TOLD before the Bible existed–Jesus was either Lord, Liar, or Lunatic. (Yes I borrow from a great one on that point.)

    The Bible is an important document. But I believe the Jesus is the Christ not because the modern Bible says says he is. (That may be good enough for some.) I believe because Jesus offers the best explanation for the way things really are here in the world and because it is consistent with the nature of God as we can know it.

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