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Friday, August 22, 2008

Questions for Christians: Inerrancy

First, the usual disclaimer: the purpose of these posts is to pose questions to Christians who come here (or go anywhere, for that matter) with the intent of converting us to Christianity, but also with an open mind about their own faith. You may post your answers here, or answer them privately, at your discretion. My ultimate goal in asking these questions is to have you deconvert from Christianity. If you are not open to at least the possibility of that happening, then I suggest you not respond to these questions, as that will be a waste of your time (and possibly our bandwidth). At the same time, I am open to the possibility of learning a thing or two about Christianity along the way -- but if you answer these questions publicly, with the intention of being a teacher instead of a learner, then please don't bother doing so here. These questions are for your educational benefit.

This is one in a series of "Questions..." posts that deal with the Bible, the scriptural compilation that constitutes the conceptual framework of the Christian faith. If you were ever a Christian, chances are you've read some of the Bible. If you are still a Christian today, chances are you haven't read all of it.

This post deals with the doctrine of inerrancy, the idea that the Bible, at least in its original form, is completely and 100% free of error and contradiction of any kind. If you don't hold to the doctrine of Inerrancy, then these questions won't apply to you -- but you can still answer them. Anyone can, in fact. Because this "Questions..." post consists entirely of math questions.

Yes, I said math questions.

Now, what does math have to do with Inerrancy, you ask? To answer that question, let's look at a common example of an apparent contradiction in the Bible?: How many stalls for horses and chariots did Solomon have?? 1 Kings 4:26 gives the number as 4,000, while 2 Chronicles 9:25 gives the number as 40,000. That's an entire order of magnitude of discrepancy. Clearly couldn't have had both 40,000 and only 4,000 stalls. This seems to be a clear contradiction.

However, all apparent contradictions in the Bible have had an explanation offered by at least one Christian inerrantist, and this one is no exception -- in this case, the most common explanation is that the apparent contradiction is the result of a copyist's error.

I see no reason to prefer the "copyist's error" theory over the theory that one or both verses is simply in error -- copyists of the time, especially of sacred historical documents, were extremely painstaking. As far as I'm concerned, it's about 50/50 either way. But let's give the Christian the benefit of the doubt here. Let's say that there's a 99% chance that this was indeed a copyist's error, and only a 1% chance that one or both of the original documents committed a factual error.

Sounds more than fair, right? So let's apply it across the board. Let's say that every apparent contradiction or error in the Bible has, on average, a 99% chance of having an explanation that renders the original documents safely error-free. For some apparent errors the number would be higher, but for others it would be much lower. I think 99% is a good average, if we're giving inerrantists the benefit of the doubt. So what does that mean?

The Skeptic's Annotated Bible lists a total of 742 apparent contradictions and known scientific and historical errors in its "Highlights" section. I think that this is an extremely conservative count, and could easily be increased by including other problematic passages, such as passages which demonstrate questionable moral precepts -- but, again giving the Christian the benefit of the doubt, let's accept 742 as a working number. And recall, let's say that each of the 742 apparent errors has a 99% probability of not being an error.

1. What is the probability that all of the 742 apparent errors are explicable, given an average 99% probability of explicability?

Hint: 99% multiplied by itself 742 times, or 0.99^742.

Now remember, that particular figure is arrived at only by giving the Christian every conceivable quasi-realistic benefit of the doubt. Let's use a more realistic number of apparent factual and moral errors in the Bible, say 5,000, which is my own personal estimate (and I'm a nice guy in that regard; there are estimates ranging in the tens of thousands!).

2. What is the probability that all of the 5,000 apparent errors are explicable, given an average 99% probability of explicability?

Now let's run the numbers one more time, this time using a more realistic average probability of explicability as well -- say, 66%, which I think is still quite generous to the Christian.

3. What is the probability that all of the 5,000 apparent errors are explicable, given an average 66% probability of explicability?

Question 3 above is unique, in that it is not rhetorical. I'm actually asking, because I don't know the answer.

You see, when I plug the formula (0.66^5000) into Microsoft Excel, which I use for pretty much all my number crunching, the result comes back "0". I think this is Excel's way of saying "ERROR" -- the actual number is so low that Excel simply cannot handle it. It simply does what most humans would do in this situation: it throws up its proverbial hands and says, "I don't know. Let's just call it zero."

Which, for purposes of discussion, is good enough for me.

The probability of inerrancy, my Christian friends, is zero. What, then, can possibly excuse someone believing in it?


  1. Re: question 3. My calculator is apparently superior to your Excel. I get 5.24418 * 10^-903.

  2. Sorry Silent Dave, but perhaps the way of calculating this probability is to count the number of events in the bible, then calculate how many are "wrong" or "errors," then compare to the 0.99 or 0.66. It would be a binomial probability thingie. It is tricky anyway.

    Still, I would not be able to believe that the atrocities attributed to the God of the Bible could be "typos."


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  4. GE, I'm afraid I don't see what the total number of events in the Bible has to do with it. The only thing that I'm calculating is that none of the "apparently erroneous" events in the Bible are, in fact, erroneous -- the rest of the events in the Bible can be stipulated to be non-erroneous for that purpose.

    I found a binomial probability calculator on the Vassar website, and I plugged in 742 for n (number of trials), 742 for k (number of stipulated positive results), and .99 for p (probability of an individual positive result), and I came up with the same result as I calculated in the OP: one-twentieth of one percent.

  5. Hi Dave,

    The binomial thing is if you think that a scribbler makes one mistake per 100 things she writes, then you would expect the proportion of incorrect thingies to be close to 1% of the total, depending on your sample. So, you would need the size of the sample (total events), the proportion of erroneous ones, then compare to the expected proportion. So the number of trials is the total number of events in the bible, not just the erroneous ones. Let us say the bible has 10,000 events total, and 742 mistakes, you would get a probability of 0.01 for the Bible conforming to the expected ratio. Still low, but not as low.

    But I am guessing your stats are more about "when you find an error the probability for it to be a scribbler error, rather than a biblical one are ...", which is different and can then be calculated as you did.



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