Any theory of Biblical inspiration needs to account for what the authors tell us about their own writing process.
You can learn a lot if you pay attention in the right places. One of the most overt Biblical statements of authorial intent and process is in the prologue of Luke’s gospel:
1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
This is a gold mine of information:
- there have been many written accounts of the work of Jesus by the time Luke sets out to write his
- the stories were first handed down (orally) by people who were eyewitnesses to them
- Luke himself was not an eyewitness, so he conducted a careful investigation
- it seemed good to him to write an orderly account
- the purpose of his writing is that Theophilus would know the certainty of what he had been taught.
Already, several popular theories are dead in the water. Luke wasn’t some kind of flesh and bone pen, taken over by the hand of God, scribbling down the thoughts of the Holy Spirit. I think you have to throw out verbal plenary inspiration, at least as a statement about the entire Bible, if you take Luke at his word. And you have to get rid of that super-popular illustration that compares the four gospels to four witnesses at a car crash, claiming that their differences are merely matters of different perspective. That doesn’t fit well, because Luke lets us know up front that he wasn’t a witness. And he reason for writing is so pragmatic–“it seemed good to me.” I know a lot of folks would prefer it if he said that “the Spirit led me to write this” or “God placed a burden on my heart” or whatever the new catch-phrase is for a vague and unverifiable holy prompting, but that’s not what we have. Luke did a survey of the literature about Jesus, thought that it was generally inadequate (presumably confusing or erroneous) and set out to write a better one.
When you compare the gospels against each other, it becomes clear that there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke. Exact sentences are repeated, word-for-word, in two or sometimes all three of them. Someone is incorporating parts of someone else’s previous writing. Biblical scholars who try to sort out exactly who was reading which of the other gospels and what order they were written in call this the “synoptic problem.” Most scholars set Mark as the first and earliest of the canonical gospels, with Matthew and Luke coming later, and using Mark as a primary source. It’s likely that Mark’s gospel was one of the earlier accounts that Luke read, and Luke must have thought that it was the best of the bunch, because he uses much of its material. On the other hand, he also thought it wasn’t quite right for his purposes, since he didn’t just copy it and send it on to Theophilus. He wrote an expanded version with a special emphasis on showing Jesus as the fulfillment of what God had promised in the Old Testament. (Read the first four chapters of Luke carefully, much of which is unique to his gospel, and you can see his desire to link Jesus to the Jewish tradition.)
Put all that together and we learn that it is okay for a Biblical writer to:
- do research
- quote other sources (sometimes without attribution)
- write because it seemed like a good idea (without special divine prompting)
- have specific purposes in mind when he writes (be conciously aware of his own authorial agenda)
That doesn’t seem very challenging or controversial to me, but you would never think those things were possible based on some popular theories about the Bible. There is a lot of Luke’s own initiative and interest in his gospel, and he explains the production of it in simple human terms. If you’ve ever become interested in a topic, read what was already written about it, and incorporated the best information into a new document you were writing that emphasized certain things that were especially important to you, then you’ve done exactly what Luke says he did to write the Gospel. As the bumper sticker proclaims, “Luke said it; I believe it; that settles it.”
Here’s another passage that we need to account for in our theories of inspiration, 1 Corinthians 1:13-16:
13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Now, I would never, ever want to claim that Paul’s memory is occasionally faulty and possibly erroneous, but unfortunately, Paul makes that claim himself. Even though he is writing a document that will become holy scripture, the Holy Spirit has not intervened to give him perfect knowledge, even about his own ministry! Paul simply can’t tell his readers with certainty how many people he baptized. So let’s add one more thing to the list. It’s okay for a Biblical writer to
5. show signs of faulty human memory.
Even if Paul hadn’t told us that clearly, we would have figured it out when he wrote this nine chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 10:
7Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.
And then we looked it up in in Numbers 25 and read:
6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.
I look at this and think, “Ah, twenty-three thousand, twenty-four thousand, no big deal. He was only a thousand off and it doesn’t change the point he was making. So what if he can’t remember who he baptized for sure, and he mis-remembered the number who died in the plague? Maybe he wrote 1 Corinthians when he was really sleep deprived.” And I go on reading and studying, faith intact. My faith depends on the perfection of Jesus, not of Paul.
That seems to be working out pretty well for me, but it is unacceptable to the folks over at Apologetics Press:
So how can we explain Paul’s statement in light of the information given in Numbers 25:9 (the probable “sister” passage to 1 Corinthians 10:8)? The answer lies in the fact that Paul stated that 23,000 fell “in one day,” while in Numbers 25 Moses wrote that the total number of those who died in the plague was 24,000. Moses never indicated how long it took for the 24,000 to die, but only stated that this was the number “who died in the plague.” Thus, the record in 1 Corinthians simply supplies us with more knowledge about what occurred in Numbers 25—23,000 of the 24,000 who died in the plague died “in one day.”
By this account, I am supposed to believe that Paul was supernaturally given special knowledge of the event beyond what was recorded in the scriptures. He knew that 24,000 died in the plague, but he also knew that 23,000 died in the first day, and another 1,000 lingered on into day two. Rather than just referring to the 24,000 total who died, Paul emphasized the number who died within 24 hours–the 23,000.
But what about the idea that Paul just had a little, inconsequential memory slip? That was Peter Davids’ theory in Hard Sayings of the Bible, and he’s a pretty conservative writer. But that’s a non-starter at Apologetics Press:
Unbelievable! Walter Kaiser, Peter Davids, Manfred Brauch, and F.F. Bruce pen an 800-page book in an attempt to answer numerous alleged Bible contradictions and to defend the integrity of the Bible, and yet Davids has the audacity to say that the apostle Paul “cited an example from memory and got a detail wrong.” Why in the world did Davids spend so much time (and space) answering various questions that skeptics frequently raise, and then conclude that the man who penned almost half of the New Testament books made mistakes in his writings?! He has concluded exactly what the infidels teach—Bible writers made mistakes. Furthermore, if Paul made one mistake in his writings, he easily could have blundered elsewhere. And if Paul made mistakes in other writings, how can we say that Peter, John, Isaiah, and others did not “slip up” occasionally? The fact is, if Paul, or any of these men, made mistakes in their writings, then they were not inspired by God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), because God does not make mistakes (cf. Titus 1:2; Psalm 139:1-6). And if the Scriptures were not “given by inspiration of God,” then the Bible is not from God. And if the Bible is not from God, then the skeptic is right. But as we noted above, the skeptic is not right! First Corinthians 10:8 can be explained logically without assuming Paul’s writings are inaccurate….Paul did not “invent” facts about Old Testament stories. Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names. The Holy Spirit revealed the Truth to him—all of it (cf. John 14:26; John 16:13). Just like the writers of the Old Testament, Paul was fully inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Samuel 23:2; Acts 1:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
“Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names.” Unless, of course, that name was “Stephanas.” You can dance all around the Bible grabbing verses to try to make your case for inerrancy, but sooner or later you are going to have to deal with 1 Corinthians 1:16. Paul says clearly that he is relying on “his own cognizance” to remember a name, and that his memory might not be accurate. No carefully woven theories of inspiration, no syllogisms or dogmas get to trump the clear statement of the apostle. You have to deal with what he says.
Who is the real Bible believer in this argument? I believe what Luke says about his writing methods. I believe what Paul says about his memory. I honor their writings as scripture, and I accept their self-report. If you believe in inerrancy, then you have to believe that Paul was literally correct and without error when he wrote that he couldn’t remember for sure who he baptized. Which means his writing isn’t inerrant. I have no doubt that someone has done a Rube Goldberg thought experiment to get out of that dilemma, but I sure don’t see how.
My plea: can’t we just accept what the Bible says?