Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Monday, July 11, 2016

Inerrancy? Jesus didn't say that.

Many people believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, written via divine inspiration so that every word is accurate and intended by God, except where copying errors have crept in. One wonders why a god who could dictate his words verbatim to his human scribes decided not to preserve those words, but that's a separate topic.

In this article I want to demonstrate very simply that the New Testament contains a conversation involving Jesus that Jesus almost certainly didn't have.

Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?”
John 3:1-4 NET

If you read this carefully, you'll notice that Nicodemus's reply doesn't appear to make sense. Jesus didn't say anything about being born when a man is old. He also didn't say anything about being born a second time. So what is Nicodemus talking about?

If we read verse 3 again from the KJV it becomes much clearer:
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
John 3:3 KJV
Aha, so Nicodemus thought Jesus was saying he needed to be born again, hence his confused reply.

The confusion comes from the Greek word that has been translated "from above" in the NET and "again" in the KJV:
sn Or born again. The Greek word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) can mean both “again” and “from above,” giving rise to Nicodemus’ misunderstanding about a second physical birth (v. 4).
NET footnote 8 (next to John 3)

The longer NET footnote explains in more detail:
The word ἄνωθεν (anwqen) has a double meaning, either “again” (in which case it is synonymous with παλίν [palin]) or “from above” (BDAG 92 s.v. ἄνωθεν). This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means “from above.” Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above.” Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” The author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.
NET footnote 8 (next to John 3)

But here's the problem. The word-play only works in Greek. Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek. Take a moment to think about that.

These cannot be the actual words of Jesus, and I'm not just referring to the translation. If Jesus did not use the Greek word, "anwqen", then there is no explanation for the way Nicodemus responded. As the NET footnote explains, the double-meaning does not translate into other languages (including Aramaic and Hebrew).

The simplest explanation is that the author put words in Jesus's mouth to make a theological point for his readers.


  1. This is one of the more interesting instances of an author adding to what he had come to believe about Jesus`s words. We sometimes forget that events at the time of Jesus took place many years earlier than the time they were written about. Over time memories can become blurred and little additions take place to any recounting. You will remember the old party game "Send reinforcements..." becoming "Send three and four pence".
    The present day writings of historians show how writers vary from one another about the events they write about.
    I believe another biblical instance is the addition of the dialogue around the "woman taken in adultery", added some time later after the original writing, and now understood to be words which have been put into Jesus`s mouth.

    1. Bart Ehrman's latest book "Jesus before the gospels" takes a look at the question of memory and oral transmission, among other things. I think it provides a fairly good overview of the various problems.

      Of course, the arguments from believers all seem to revolve around the case for making it "plausible" or even just "possible" for the gospels to be historically accurate, and then doing the switch (sometimes implicitly) to "therefore it absolutely happened that way", or at the very least attempting to shift the burden of proof and asking others to prove them wrong when they haven't yet proven themselves right. It may well be that we just don't know either way, which is not enough to confirm either view as being true (or even "probably true").

      Anyway, the "woman taken in adultery" story is a little different to the one mentioned in the article. In that case, the story doesn't even appear in the earliest manuscripts, but was added in later manuscripts.

      By contrast, the story mentioned in the article (Jesus's conversation with Nicodemus) was in the earliest manuscripts, and yet it is evidence that even the earliest manuscripts contain stories that do not go all the way back to a historical Jesus.

  2. It seems incredible to me now, that the whole Christian edifice is built upon such early (and often copied) shaky writings.
    And worse, that the Christadelphian edifice is built upon the early thoughts of one J.Thomas, who himself wandered about from one sect or another to, eventually, his own "developed" idea of what the bible message was all about, contrary to that of not only mainstream understanding, but to the understanding of several other sects which were arising at around the same time.

  3. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. As a respected leader of the Jews he probably did not want to be seen by other people - Some of the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus Dead. Nicodemus knew his duty to try and find out if Jesus was sent by God. Nicodemus was well educated leader of the Jews as such it is likely he could speak Greek. Jesus was capable of speaking Greek if we believe the gospels that he was The Messiah full of Gods Spirit. If Nicodemus did not want to be overheard by the common people he could have spoken in Greek. It is Plausible. Like most things in the bible there is enough evidence to believe or not believe depending on ones mindset.

    1. That's a clever rationalisation, but IMO an intellectually dishonest one.

      However, there are some scholars (i.e. a minority) who seem to think both Nicodemus and Jesus may have been able to speak Greek (how?), so I guess you can just hitch your cart to those scholars and carry on dancing.

      The reason they think Jesus and Nicodemus could speak Greek appears to be precisely to avoid the obvious problem with this passage in John, which doesn't strike me as honest scholarship, but what would I know? The other reason they give appears to be a version of "you can't prove they _didn't_ speak Greek", which is a favourite tactic of conspiracy theorists everywhere. You also can't prove there are no invisible pink unicorns on the moon, but that doesn't make it true.

      From what we know about the extremely low rates of literacy and education in first century Palestine, the most likely scenario is that both Jesus and Nicodemus spoke Aramaic, if Nicodemus was even a real person. But that's as much as I can offer and I'm not going to force the issue any further than that. It is *possible* Jesus spoke Greek. I just find it incredibly unlikely, given what we know from that time and place.

      //Jesus was capable of speaking Greek if we believe the gospels that he was The Messiah full of Gods Spirit//

      If you want to start with the assumption that the gospels are accurate and go from there, you are free to do this, but then you probably shouldn't be too surprised to find confirmation of your existing beliefs. This is called self-deception, and works equally well for other religions and also conspiracy theories.


Comments will be moderated. Please keep comments on topic.

Please do not comment as "Anonymous" (use "Name/URL" instead - the URL is optional). If you wish to remain anonymous, just use a fake name. That way it makes it easier to track who is replying to whom.