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Is the Bible Reliable in Every Detail?

Following are excerpts from an actual exchange of correspondence with an individual – not his real name – during the first two months of this year.


Dear Daryl,

We Christians are taught to believe that every word of the Scriptures is inspired by God, which some take to mean literally written by God, but most believe that to be a figurative statement. After all, we know that some words in Mark were not in the earliest manuscripts known to us, and since we don’t have any original manuscripts, let’s accept the premise that other words may have been altered (added or deleted). That our route to God is the only one may not be what God has in mind at all, but we can still believe that Jesus is the Way, and teach that Jesus is the Way. But we can also accept the possibility that the early Church may have altered the Scriptures for the control that the belief that our interpretation of the writings that we have is the only true interpretation. Phil

18 January 1994

Dear Phil,

If I am understanding you correctly, you are questioning the very premise that the Bible in its entirety means exactly what it says and says exactly what it means-obvious metaphors and analogies notwithstanding. You are therefore evidently not persuaded that the Scripture as we have it today is the Word of God per se-reliable, and therefore authoritative, in all that it affirms. This is an absolutely critical, even urgent, point, and I am wondering if you’ve ever really pondered all of the ramifications of your proposed alternative premise. For instance, if the Bible is not altogether trustworthy, it is obviously altogether suspect. I mean, who’s going to decide which parts are and which parts are not accurate? And if, as you suggest, “the early Church may have altered the Scriptures…” then of what can we be sure? Nothing. Not the miracles, not the resurrection, not the Deity of Christ, and certainly not the Gospel. So why send missionaries if God may only be ‘bluffing’ re: Christ being the only way to be saved from a real hell? Perhaps there is no real hell to be saved from. Perhaps hell was only a First Century ‘addition’. Why not cheat on your taxes, or on your wife, or even on God-if there even is a God?! After all, Phil, if Scripture is not for certain, neither is God.  Daryl


Dear Daryl,

You use a logic that reminds me of the old story of the war that was lost for want of a nail. The Pharisees often used this kind of logic on Jesus. My thesis is that we teach that the Scriptures in the original manuscripts are without error, basing that belief on the Scriptures we have today, though we do not have any of the original manuscripts. Consequently, it is circular to argue for or against such a belief. We know that Mark 1:9-20 is not found in the most ancient manuscripts we have, so what else might be different? You surmise that I don’t believe that Scriptures as we have them today are the true Word of God. You are wrong. I do believe that that Scriptures are the Word, but I believe what we have today may very well be different in some ways from what was in the original manuscripts. It is more reasonable to believe that the Bible is true, than to believe it is false. But it is simply pedagogical dogmatism to argue that every word is true and literal. Phil  [EDITOR’S NOTE: this letter was received on 3M copy paper]

21 February 1994

Dear Phil,

I’m stumped. I received this correspondence in the mail last week. It appears to be a copy of a letter that you wrote to me. But it is only a copy. For all I know, it may even be a copy of a copy. I’ve searched everywhere for the original, but it’s not to be found. I don’t doubt that one exists. Perhaps you are even able to produce it. But that doesn’t help me at all tonight. I have to make a decision about just how seriously I should take what I have in front of me, and all that I have in front of me tonight is a copy. To make matters worse, there are clearly a number of mistakes in this copy. For instance, in paragraph 3 the word “furthermore” appears. My Macintosh spell checker says that there is no such word. In paragraph 4 the very phrase that charges me with occasionally making mistakes itself seems to be placed on the wrong side of the comma. (You should understand that I’m a recognized expert in comma placement). In paragraph 1 a crease in the page and an accompanying smudge make one particular word appear to be spelled “aooress”. And here’s something that really bothers me: someone added the date in blue ink. So I know that at least part of what I have here on this copy does not appear on the original-at least not in the exact same form, if at all. The blue ink date is clearly a later addition. So my problem is knowing how much of this really came from you, Phil, if any. How much of this is reliable? True, it came in an envelope from (your address), and the signature appears to be yours. But I just don’t know. Since I do not have the original, and since there has been at least one “later addition”, and since there are at least a few grammatical mistakes, I guess I have to conclude “that what I have here today may very well be different in some ways from what was in the original manuscript.” I have even come to believe that it would be “pedagogical dogmatism to argue that every word is true and literal.” The problem that remains is knowing which words are truly yours, and which words are not. If you didn’t inspire every word of it, maybe you didn’t inspire every phrase, or sentence, or paragraph. Maybe you didn’t even write it at all. Come to think of it, maybe your name is not really even just Phil, even though that’s the way I met you. Maybe to other friends you are Gilbert or Harry or Brigham or Buddha or Mohammed. Maybe…but hey, I gotta cut this out. I’m becoming much too confused. Daryl  P.S.-If this really was from you, Phil, thanks for honoring me by writing.