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Difficulties in the Bible: 19. "Mistakes" in the Bible

By Reuben Archer Torrey

      The Bible is said not only to be full of contradictions, but also to contain mistakes.

      One of the "mistakes" most constantly referred to by critics is found in Matthew 27:9-10 (RV): "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom certain of the children of Israel did price, and gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me."

      Now the passage here referred to by Matthew is found in the prophecy ascribed in the Old Testament to Zechariah (Zechariah 11:11-13). At first sight this appears as if Matthew had made a mistake and ascribed to Jeremiah a prophecy that was really made by Zechariah.

      Even John Calvin seems to have thought that Matthew made a mistake. He says, "How the name of Jeremiah crept in I confess I do not know, nor do I give myself much trouble to inquire. The passage itself plainly shows the name of Jeremiah has been put down by mistake instead of Zechariah; for in Jeremiah we find nothing of this sort, nor anything that even approaches it."

      This passage has been pressed as proof that the gospel narratives are not necessarily historical accounts of what actually occurred. Must we admit that Matthew was mistaken? There is not the slightest necessity.

      In the first place, in some manuscripts the word "Jeremiah" does not appear, but the passage reads: "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet" without any mention as to who the prophet was. In still another reading, "Zechariah" appears instead of "Jeremiah." Wescott and Hort do not accept the reading without "Jeremiah," nor the reading which substitutes "Zechariah" for "Jeremiah," but they do mention these readings, especially the first, as"noteworthy rejected readings." Some of the earliest and best manuscripts omit the word "Jeremiah." So the apparent mistake here may be due to the error of a copyist.

      However, the best textual critics all accept the reading "Jeremiah" in this passage, and it seems to the writer that this is probably the correct reading. If then in the gospel of Matthew as originally written Matthew used the word "Jeremiah" here, was it not a mistake?

      Not necessarily. That these words, or words very similar to them, are found in the prophecy which in our Old Testament bears the name of Zechariah is unquestionably true. But it does not follow at all from this that Jeremiah did not speak them, for it is a well-known fact that the later prophets of the Old Testament often quoted the predictions of earlier prophets. For example, Zechariah himself (1:4) quoted a prophecy known to be Jeremiah's (see Jeremiah 18:11), and in the passage which we are now considering Zechariah may also have quoted from the prophecy of Jeremiah. There is no record in the book of Jeremiah of his having uttered this prophecy, but there is no reason whatever to think we have in Jeremiah all the prophecies that he uttered, and Zechariah may easily have had access to prophecies of Jeremiah not recorded in the book of Jeremiah.

      Furthermore it is to be noted that Zechariah himself says in Zechariah 7:7, "Should ye not hear the words which the LORD hath cried by the former prophets?" So it is evident that Zechariah regarded it as part of his mission to recall the prophecies of the prophets that had gone before him. He would be especially inclined to recall the prophecies of Jeremiah, for it was a saying among the Jews that "the spirit of Jeremiah was upon Zechariah."

      So we see that this so-called mistake of Matthew does not appear to have been a mistake at all when we closely examine it.

      Perhaps it ought to be added that there has been much question by the critics as to whether the closing chapters of the book of Zechariah were really a portion of the prophecies of Zechariah. There is nothing in the chapters themselves to indicate that they were. It is true that for centuries they have been attached to the prophecies of Zechariah, but nowhere in the Bible does it state that they were by Zechariah, and it has been held that they were in reality not by Zechariah but by Jeremiah. This, however, is a question for the critics. If it should prove to be so, it would simply be an additional confirmation of the accuracy of Matthew's statement. But even if it is not so, if Zechariah is the author of this prophecy (Zechariah 11:11-13) as we find it in the Bible, it does not at all prove that Jeremiah may not have uttered a similar prophecy to which Zechariah referred and which Matthew has accurately quoted. And the critics will have to search further if they wish to prove Matthew to have been in error.


      A second alleged "mistake" in the Bible is the statement of Stephen in Acts 7:16: "And were carried over into Sychem, and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmor, the father of Sychem." Genesis 23:17-18 states, "And the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the borders round about, were made sure unto Abraham." Stephen seems, then, to have been mistaken in his statement that Abraham bought it of the sons of Emmor.

      Let me put the supposed mistake in the words of a prominent doctor of divinity: "According to Luke's report, Stephen says Abraham bought a sepulchre of the sons of Emmor, the father of Sychem (Acts 7:16). But Genesis 23:17-18 says Abraham bought it of Ephron the Hittite, and Genesis 33:19 says that Jacob bought it of the sons of Emmor .... John Calvin says Stephen evidently made a mistake. Dr. Hackett admits that Stephen appears to have confounded the two transactions ... but what do those say about it ... who maintain the absolute inerrancy of the Bible?"

      This seems like a puzzler until one notices exactly what the three passages say, then the puzzle is solved. The solution is very simple.

      First, Genesis 23:17-18 does not say what the objector says it does say; that is, does not say that Abraham bought this sepulcher to which Stephen refers of Ephron the Hittite. It does state that Abraham bought a field of Ephron the Hittite, in which there was a cave, and that Abraham buried his wife Sarah in this cave. But there is no good reason for supposing that this was the sepulcher in which Jacob and the patriarchs were buried. There is no reason for supposing that Abraham in his long lifetime bought but one burial place. The writer of this book has himself purchased two, one in Chicago where his brother is buried, and one in Northfield, Massachusetts, where his daughter is buried. He is also interested in a third in Brooklyn where his father and mother and other brother are buried. There is not the slightest hint in the Scriptures that these two sepulchers mentioned in Genesis 23:17-18 and in Acts 7:16 are the same.

      As to the passage in Genesis 33:19 where, according to the objector, it is said that Jacob, and not Abraham (as Stephen puts it), bought the sepulcher, this passage does not, in point of fact, say that Jacob bought the sepulcher. It says he bought "the parcel of a field at the hand of the children of Hamor" (the ones of whom Stephen says Abraham bought the sepulcher). The inference is that Abraham had already purchased the sepulcher at an earlier date and that Jacob in his day purchased the ground ("a parcel of land" ) in which the sepulcher was located. When Abraham purchased a sepulcher to bury Sarah he took the precaution of buying the field as well as the sepulcher, but in the latter case he seems to have purchased the sepulcher without buying the whole piece of ground, which therefore Jacob himself bought at a later date. It is altogether likely that Abraham should have purchased a sepulcher in this spot in his later life, for it was a place dear to him by many memories (see Genesis 12:6-7).

      So, after all, the mistake was not Stephen's, but the mistake of the commentators who were not careful to note exactly what Stephen said and what is said in the two passages in Genesis.

      Joshua informs us that it was in this parcel of ground which Jacob bought (which presumably contained the sepulcher that Abraham had bought at an earlier date) that the bones of Joseph were buried (Joshua 24:32). Apparently Stephen was a more careful student of Old Testament Scripture than some of his critics.

      But even allowing for the moment that Stephen was mistaken in this case, it would prove nothing whatever against the divine origin of the Bible or its absolute inerrancy, for Stephen is not one of the authors of the Bible. He was not a prophet or an apostle. It is true he was a Spirit-filled man, but he was not the writer of a book in the Bible. The inspired author of the Acts of the Apostles records that Stephen said these words, and if these words that Stephen uttered had been mistaken, the record that he said them would still be correct. It would be God's Word that Stephen said this, but what Stephen said would not be God's word. The one who contends for the divine origin of the Bible and its absolute accuracy is under no obligation whatever to prove the accuracy of every statement that every speaker in the Bible, even every Spirit-filled speaker, is recorded as saying.


      Another alleged "mistake" in the Bible is found in Proverbs 31:6-7: "Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more" (RV). It is said that this advocates the use of intoxicating liquor under certain conditions, and that as the use of intoxicating liquor under any and all circumstances is wrong this teaching of the Bible is a mistake.

      But the difficulty disappears, as many another difficulty will disappear, if we do not rip the verses out of their context, but study them, as any passage in any book should be studied, in the context. The whole section from verses 1 to 9 is a protest against kings (and by implication persons in any place of responsibility) using wine or strong drink at all. It is plainly taught that any use of wine has a tendency to make them forget the law and to pervert judgment. Verses 6 and 7 go on to add that wine and strong drink should only be used in cases of extreme physical weakness and despondency, when the man is so far gone that he is "ready to perish," and is consequently in the deepest depths of despondency ("bitter in soul," RV). The words are addressed to the king (RV) who, though able to buy wine, instead of using it himself should give it to those who are in such physical condition that they need it. The one in this condition would be stimulated by the wine, lifted out of his depression, by the generosity of the king who gave the wine, so that he would be enabled to "forget his poverty," which would naturally preclude him from buying the wine for himself. The whole passage goes on to urge the king's attention to "the cause of the poor and needy."

      So there remains no difficulty in this passage except for those who hold that the use of intoxicating liquors is wrong under any circumstances.

      But there are many who hold that in cases of physical weakness the use of wine is wise and permissible.

      We do not need to go into the question of whether the wine and strong drink in this case were alcoholic. Those who urge that "strong drink" in the Old Testament often refers to a heavy, sweet, unfermented wine have a good deal to say in favor of their position. Of course, if this interpretation were true, it would remove all difficulty from the passage. But in any case there is really no difficulty here at all for anyone who believes that there are circumstances in which the use of alcoholic stimulants is advisable. As there was a time in the early life of the writer of this book when the doctors had all given him up to die and his life was sustained by a prescription of an old nurse, one of the main ingredients of the prescription being brandy, he is naturally disposed to think there are cases like that mentioned in the text when the use of strong drink is warrantable. But he thoroughly agrees with the context of the passage, which teaches that all use of wine should be renounced by people in health and strength and prosperity.


      A stock objection against the Bible, and not only against the Bible but against Jesus Christ Himself, is found in the story of Jesus turning the water into wine at the marriage festival at Cana of Galilee as recorded in John 2:1-11.

      There need be no difficulty in this action of Jesus even for the extreme teetotaler if he considers carefully exactly what is said and precisely what Jesus did.

      The wine provided for the marriage festivities at Cana failed. A cloud was about to fall over the joy of what is properly a festive occasion. Jesus came to the rescue. He provided wine, but there is not a hint that the wine He made was intoxicating. It was fresh-made wine. New-made wine is never intoxicating. It is not intoxicating until some time after the process of fermentation has set in. Fermentation is a process of decay. There is not a hint that our Lord produced alcohol, which is a product of decay or death. He produced a living wine uncontaminated by fermentation. It is true it was better wine than they had been drinking, but that does not show for a moment that it was more fermented than that which they had before been drinking. The writer of this book is a thoroughgoing teetotaler. He does not believe at all in the use of alcoholic stimulants even in cases of sickness, except in the most extreme cases, and even then only with the greatest caution. But he has not the slightest objection, and does not think that any reasonable person can have the slightest objection, to anyone's drinking new-made wine, that is, the fresh juice of the grape. It is a wholesome drink. Even if some of the guests were already drunken, or had drunk freely (see v. 10, R.V.) of wine that may have been intoxicating, there would be no harm, but good, in substituting an unintoxicating wine for the intoxicating drink which they had been taking. Our Lord, as far as this story goes at least, did not make intoxicating liquor for anybody to drink, but simply saved a festive occasion from disaster by providing a pure, wholesome, unintoxicating drink. By turning the water into a wholesome wine, He showed His creative power and manifested His glory.

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See Also:
   Difficulties in the Bible Introduction
   Difficulties in the Bible: 1. A General Statement of the Case
   Difficulties in the Bible: 2. Classes of Difficulties
   Difficulties in the Bible: 3. How Shall We Deal with the Difficulties of the Bible?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 4. Genesis One-Historical and Scientific?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 5. The Antiquity of Man According to the Bible and According to Science
   Difficulties in the Bible: 6. Where Did Cain Get His Wife?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 7. Jehovah's Command to Abraham to Offer Up Isaac as a Burnt Offering
   Difficulties in the Bible: 8. God Hardening Pharaoh's Heart
   Difficulties in the Bible: 9. The Slaughter of the Canaanites by God's Command
   Difficulties in the Bible: 10. Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still
   Difficulties in the Bible: 11. Deborah's Praise of Jael, the "Murderess"
   Difficulties in the Bible: 12. The Sacrifice of Jephtha's Daughter
   Difficulties in the Bible: 13. "Impure" Bible Stories
   Difficulties in the Bible: 14. David's Sin
   Difficulties in the Bible: 15. The Imprecatory Psalms
   Difficulties in the Bible: 16. Does the God of Truth and Love Send Lying Spirits and Evil Spirits to Men?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 17. Jonah and the Whale
   Difficulties in the Bible: 18. Some Important "Contradictions" in the Bible
   Difficulties in the Bible: 19. "Mistakes" in the Bible
   Difficulties in the Bible: 20. The Two Genealogies of Jesus, the Christ
   Difficulties in the Bible: 21. Was Jesus Really Three Days and Three Nights in the Heart of the Earth?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 22. How Could Jesus Commend the Action of the Unrighteous Steward?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 23. Were Jesus and Paul Mistaken as to the Time of Our Lord's Return?
   Difficulties in the Bible: 24. Did Jesus Go into the Abode of the Dead and Preach to the Spirits in Prison? Is There Another Probation After Death?


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