Thursday, January 27, 2011

Inerrancy and Interpretation, Part 1

Over the next few days, the Ticker will have a look at some serious questions about the doctrine of inerrancy. To lay out the basics, my research on this subject has led me to believe that:

1) The doctrine of inerrancy, as it is frequently explained, is sometimes made unnecessarily demanding by an understanding of “error” in modern, Western, precision-literalist terms.

2) While eminently defensible, we do not need to make Biblical inerrancy harder to defend than it actually is.

The inspiration for these next few days’ postings have come of a brouhaha that has occurred of late in which accusations were delivered that evangelical scholar Robert Gundry is compromising inerrancy with his assertion that Matthew’s Gospel is reporting in certain portions (the birth narratives) not literal history, but midrash. I will say to begin that I do not think Gundry’s specific thesis is correct. However, I have offered similar ideas myself, as for example regarding the resolution of accounts of the death of Judas in Matthew and Acts. Here is what I said on that matter:

However, I would now opt for the idea that this is an example of Matthew's creative use of an OT "type". This would combine the idea that Matthew is not actually describing Judas' death, with Matthew's use of the OT texts as typologies.

Audrey Conrad, in "The Fate of Judas" (Toronto Journal of Theology [7] 1992), notes that Matthew's unique words "departed" and "hanged himself" are found in combination in another place in the LXX:

2 Samuel 17:23 And when Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his ass, and arose, and gat him home to his house, to his city, and put his household in order, and hanged himself, and died, and was buried in the sepulchre of his father.

Conrad notes that rabbinic interpretation of Ps. 41:9 ("Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.") thought that Ahithophel was the traitor David was describing -- and of course this same verse was applied by Jesus to Judas (John 13:18).

Conrad still thinks there are not enough parallels (!) but we would maintain that the parallels are sufficient, and that Matthew is indeed alluding to the traitor Ahithophel in this passage, and is therefore NOT telling us that Judas indeed hanged himself, but that Judas fulfilled the "type" of Ahithophel by being a traitor who responded with grief and then died. Matthew is thereby making no statement at all about Judas' mode of death, and Luke's "swelling up" stands alone as a specific description of what happened.

The difficulty here is that those accustomed to a Western, precision-literalist understanding on inerrancy will frequently find this sort of answer objectionable, and say that I am somehow accusing Matthew of “lying” or “erring” in his report. But this is a response that assumes (again) the very sort of precision-literalist reading that I am saying is NOT present in the text.

Put it this way. As it now stands, the NIV reads:

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

My thesis here, following Conrad, is that a reader of Matthew would recognize the allusion and understand this to literally mean:

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he died a death worthy of that traitor Ahithophel.

In short, “went and hanged himself” is an allusion to Ahithophel, and Matthew’s literal message in this allusion is not about the mode of Judas’ death, but is saying something about Judas as one who acted in history in a way similar to Ahithophel. In this, Matthew is engaging in the practice of highlighting what are called “probabilities” – as I have said in another context:

Malina and Neyrey report in Portraits of Paul [89-90] that one form of support for testimony was "probabilities" -- verification from general experience.

Rhetoriticians noted that when setting forth a statement to a judge or jury, orators should "pay attention to the question of whether he will find his hearers possessed of a personal knowledge of the things of which he is speaking, as that is the sort of statement they are most likely to believe." An appeal to common experience was always helpful to aid in understanding.

When Bible stories follow typical forms, they do so for this very purpose. Using words and phrases from the Old Testament accomplished a similar purpose. Material is phrased in such a way as to appear verifiable from experience. Of course this again says nothing about historicity, but it gives ancient writers every motive to report what they say, true or false, in terms recognizable from previous experience.

It would be my contention that such views are no threat to an informed, contextual understanding of inerrancy. However, it is readily apparent that some wedded to a Western notion of how texts are to be read will find such concepts threatening if not outright offensive. Our next few postings will take a closer look at this, and evaluate how the doctrine of inerrancy is interpreted and applied by some modern writers.


  1. It should be noted that the Gospel according to Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, and since its readers already have the knowledge of the Old Testament such allusions are numerous, if not necessary to indicate the prophetic nature of the Old Testament in relation to the Gospel, whereas Luke, writing to a Gentile, would not include such references where it would hardly be understood in the proper context should the reader of Luke's writings be less concerned about referring back to the Old Testament.

  2. That is so. His audience would understand exactly what he was doing. We can't assume that like modern readers, they would not understand it without help.

  3. Far too often I find Christians today questioning the necessity of having the Old Testament in light of the Gospel message. Most only know the popular Sunday School stories and not much else about the Tanakh. They can't see how the Old Testament serves as a prelude to the Gospel; as Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians, "a shadow of things to come".