According to the Chicago Statement the doctrine of inerrancy only applies to the original autographs of the biblical books. These autographs are taken to be the very first manuscripts written. In other words, no errors whatsoever existed in these original manuscripts; Feinberg explains that “no present manuscript or copy of Scripture, no matter how accurate, can be called inerrant” (1). That the manuscript copies are errant is not disputed even by the most conservative inerrantists and Christian scholars. I would differ in the sense that I don’t believe the originals nor the copies are inerrant in any way. Professor Bart Ehrman explains the nature of our non-inerrant manuscripts, “The more I studied the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the more I realized just how radically the text has been altered over the years at the hands of scribes, who were not only conserving scripture but also changing it. To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us” (2).
Now, the debate over biblical inerrancy becomes interesting when we realize that ample manuscript attestation affords us to be confident that we have the original words almost in their entirety. This is thanks to an unparalleled number of hand copied manuscripts in the original Greek. When historians vet these manuscripts they find some several dozen early ones that are useful in textual criticism. The result is, explains exegete William Craig, that “The text of the New Testament is thus about 99% established. That means that when you pick up a (Greek) New Testament today, you can be confident that you are reading the text as it was originally written” (3). Some would argue that Craig’s 99% would probably be going too far although most scholars would still put the finality in the 90% category. Moreover, we are not as fortunate when it comes to the Old Testament. The Old Testament considered we have manuscripts quite far removed. These manuscripts come from three pools, namely the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Masoretic Texts, and the Septuagint. Until the late 1940s the Masoretic Texts represented the only Hebrew manuscripts of the Jewish Bible until, between 1947 and 1956, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the caves of Qumran. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls copies are, in many cases, several centuries removed from the original autographs of Old Testament books. The point being is that the New Testament is arguably superior in the earliness of a handful of manuscripts.
But as I noted above this becomes interesting when we realize that what we have in our current Bible is what was originally penned by the gospel author. So, when we read the small and inconsequential conflicting detail of the colour of Jesus’ robe, this conflict also existed in the original autographs (according to Matthew Jesus’ robe is scarlet (27; 28; 27:31) whereas according to Mark and John it is purple (Mark 15: 17; 15:20; 19:2; John 19:2; 19:5)). This is a problem for inerrancy since what we have is a contradictory recollection as scarlet and purple cannot be said to be the same colours. In other words, either Mathew or Mark & John is correct; no doubt someone is mistaken concerning the colour of Jesus’ robe. And as far as I know scholars don’t dispute these verses in question. Now, the dilemma of Jesus’ robe is just one example of the conflicting details that we could find in our gospels. The underlying point is that the original autographs of the Bible cannot be said to be inerrant. This is because the errors (whether ethical or historical) in the New Testament that we have today existed in the autographs.
1. Feinberg, P. 2001. ”Bible, Inerrancy and Infallibility of” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. p. 157.
2. Ehrman, B. 2005. Misquoting Jesus: the Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. p. 207.
3. Craig, W. 2007. Establishing the Gospels Reliability. Available.