On the Impossibility of an Inerrant Extant Text

Chart of Biblical Manuscripts

Manuscript Chart

Our existing (extant) biblical texts have quite a number of problems. Today, a literary work can be produced and reproduced almost without error, which fact colors our understanding of the ancient world. Part of our problem is that books as we know them today did not exist. Instead, of a book, think of a scroll — a single, long piece of paper rolled around a central spindle. Not only was the paper expensive, but the reproduction of the book was a long, laborious process. Moreover, in the scribal culture that existed prior to the Hellenistic era, literary texts as we know them today did not exist. But let us focus on the production of scrolls in the Hellenistic era, primarily using the arguments of Bart Ehrman, the popular author and James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.

[Books] could not be produced en mass (no printing presses). And since they had to be copied by hand, one at a time, slowly and painstakingly, most books were not mass produced. Those few that were produced in multiple copies were not all alike, for the scribes who copied texts inevitably made alterations in those texts—changing the words they copied either by accident (via a slip of the pen or other carelessness) or by design (when the scribe intentionally altered the words he copied). Anyone reading a book in antiquity could never be completely sure that he or she was reading what the author had written. The words could have been altered. In fact, they probably had been, if only just a little. (Ehrman 2005, 46)

The production of books in the ancient world was much different. Today, I write and edit a book on a computer. The book then goes through an editorial process, whereby a third party goes over the book to find flaws in its content and presentation. Eventually the book is typeset, printed, and the galley’s edited by the author to ensure the book is what the author intended. Finally the book is mass-produced and made available for sale. Authorship in the ancient world was much different.

In the ancient world, since books were not mass produced and there were no publishing companies or bookstores, things were different. Usually an author would write a book, and possibly have a group of friends read it or listen to it being read aloud. This would provide a chance for editing some of the book’s contents. Then when the author was finished with the book, he or she would have copies made for a few friends and acquaintances. This, then, was the act of publication, when the book was no longer solely in the author’s control but in the hands of others. If these others wanted extra copies …they would have to arrange to have copies made, say, by a local scribe who made copies for a living, or by a literate slave who copied texts as part of his household duties. (Ehrman 2005, 46)

In the ancient world, once a book was published, it was outside the author’s control. Anything could happen to the text, and often did.

[C]opies produced this way could end up being quite different from the originals. Testimony comes to us from ancient writers themselves. …In a famous essay on the problem of anger, the Roman philosopher Seneca points out that there is a difference between anger directed as what has caused us harm and anger at what can to nothing to hurt us. To illustrate the latter category he mentions “certain inanimate things, such as the manuscript which we often hurl from us because it is written in too small a script or tear up because it is full of mistakes.” …A humorous example comes to us from the epigrams of the witty Roman poet Martial, who, in one poem, lets his reader know

“If any poems in those sheets, reader, seem to you either too obscure or not quite good Latin, not mine is the mistake: the copyist spoiled them in his haste to complete for you his tale of verses. But if you think that not he, but I am at fault, then I will believe that you have no intelligence. “Yet, see, those are bad.” As if I denied what is plain! They are bad, but you don’t make better.”  (Ehrman 2005, 46-47)

As Bart Ehrman writes: “Copying texts allowed for the possibilities of manual error; and the problem was widely recognized throughout antiquity. (Ehrman 2005, 47) Thus, prior to the development of the professional copyists used by the Masoretes, the reproduction of the biblical texts was fraught with problems, leading to different families of texts containing different errors. Thus, the modern argument that inerrancy applies only to the autographs, to the original texts created by the original author. To this argument, we will let the following statement of Dr. Marvin R. Vincent serve as a the final word on this subject.

Nothing can be more puerile or more desperate than the effort to vindicate the divine inspiration of Scripture by the assertion of the verbal inerrancy of the autographs, and to erect that assertion into a test of orthodoxy. For:

1. There is no possible means of verifying the assertion, since the autographs have utterly disappeared.

2. It assumes a mechanical dictation of the ipsissima verba [the very words] to the writers, which is contradicted by the whole character and structure of the Bible.

3. It is of no practical value, since it furnishes no means of deciding between various readings or discrepant statements.

4. It is founded upon a pure assumption as to the character of inspiration – namely, that inspiration involves verbal inerrancy, which is the very thing to be proved, and which could only be proved only by producing inerrant autographs. [In other words, the definition is a tautology.]

5. If a written, inspired revelation is necessary for mankind, and if such a revelation, in order to be inspired, must be verbally inerrant, the necessity has not been met. There is no verbally inerrant, and therefore no inspired, revelation in writing. The autographs have vanished, and no divine guidance or interposition has prevented mistakes in transcription or in printing. The text of Scripture, in the best form in which critical scholarship can exhibit it, presents numerous errors and discrepancies. (Vincent 1899, 3)


Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

Vincent, Marvin R. A History of the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. Edited by Shailer Matthews. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1899.