Biblical scientific errors
| Light iron-age reading|
|Gabbin' with God|
| Style over substance|
“”What happens to the faith healer and the shaman when any poor citizen can see the full effect of drugs or surgeries, administered without ceremonies or mystifications? Roughly the same thing as happens to the rainmaker when the climatologist turns up, or to the diviner from the heavens when schoolteachers get hold of elementary telescopes.
|—Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great|
“”Look for a mistake in the Word of God, and you will make one.
|—Ray Comfort, not quotemined|
Biblical scientific errors refer to Biblical claims that go against scientific data, usually as a result of a literalistic reading. Biblical scientific errors are external errors (something that the Bible gets wrong about the external world) as opposed to internal errors (something that contradicts the Bible's own message).
- 1 Biology
- 2 Pi
- 3 Astronomy
- 4 Rotation of the Earth
- 5 Incorrectly regarded as errors
- 6 See also
- 7 External links
- 8 References
Anatomy of insects
Leviticus 11:20-23 (NIV):
All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be detestable to you. There are, however, some winged creatures that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. But all other winged creatures that have four legs you are to detest.
While some would see this as a scientific error, J.P. Holding has an "explanation":
Is this an error -- since insects have six legs, not four, and since "fowl" have two legs, not four? The reference to "fowl" is thought by some skeptics to refer to birds, but the word used here is 'owph, which merely means a creature with wings -- it is the same word used in verse 21 (flying). The reference in both cases is to insects. But there is an even better - and more correct - answer.
Quite simply, the big back legs on the locust, etc. were not counted as "legs" in the same sense as the other legs. Let's use an illustration from our popular literature, George Orwell's Animal Farm. In this story, Snowball the pig invented the slogan, "Four legs good, two legs bad" so as to exclude humans from Animal Farm society. The geese and other fowl objected, because they had only two legs. Snowball explained (more clearly in the book than in the movie) that in animal terms, the birds' wings counted as legs because they were limbs of propulsion, not manipulation, as a human's arms and hands were.
Now note the differentiation in Leviticus above -- referring to "legs above the feet" for leaping. The "feet" are being differentiated from the "legs above the feet" because of their difference in function. They are legs, but in a different sense than the "four" legs which are just called "feet." We are being told of two types of legs: The "on all four" legs (which are nowhere called legs; they are only called "feet" [v. 23]), and the "leaping legs." It is clear that the Hebrews regarded the two large, hopping hind limbs of the locust and the other insects of the same type, which are the only types of insects mentioned here (we now translate "beetle" as "cricket"), as something different than the other four limbs - perhaps because they were used primarily for vertical propulsion, whereas the other limbs were for scurrying around. (Shifts of terminology like this happen even today; check this proposal to redefine "planet".)
What the above explanation so clearly misses is the fact that when the Bible mentions that “All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be detestable to you” [Group A] this group does not include those with leaping legs as shown by the fact that the very next passage states “There are, however, some winged creatures that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground.” [Group B]
Now if the passages lacked the first half discussing Group A, evangelical apologists such as J.P. Holding may have some ground. But as the bible clearly differentiates Group A, i.e. those with no jointed legs, as separate to Group B, i.e. those with said jointed legs and yet both groups are defined as having four legs, this argument can be of no defense. Even if J.P Holding was correct on the still unsubstantiated basis that crickets and similar insects of Group B were defined by Hebrews as having four typical legs and two “jointed legs” for leaping that still would not explain the missing legs of the beetles and other non-leaping insects from Group A which are discussed separately.
One should also note that the mentioned passage from "Animal Farm" was an example of the pigs making up a clever excuse to justify and amend a previous mistake. In fact it was a complete satire on how apologists operate, a literary device that went right over the head of J.P. Holding, who to the surprise of none, thinks the pig should be taken seriously. A real life apologist invoking the B.S. excuse of a fictional apologist and not realizing that the character was actually a mockery of himself, is pure poetic justice.
The smallest seed
Matthew 13:32:1 Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.
This argues that Jesus was wrong because there are smaller seeds in existence, like the orchid. One attempt to rationalise this, used by J. P. Holding  is to use a process called illegitimate totality transfer, where a single possible meaning out of many for a specific word in the original text is argued to be the only possible translation solely because it supports the inerrantist viewpoint: in this case, translating the Greek mikros (root of "microscopic") as "least" (5 other uses in the KJV, 5 least / less in the NAS) rather than little or small (20 uses for these two in the KJV, 41 references to something small in the NAS). It is difficult to make sense of the suggested translation: in what sense is mustard the "least" of seeds, compared to, say, the seeds of weeds? How is the seed useless if it grows into something great? And given the other half of the sentence refers to the mustard becoming tall, it makes no sense to say the first part is an "evaluation of worth" as Holding does. Holding also ignores that least is a synonym for smallest in English as well, so his totality transfer doesn't even solve his problem. Many non-KJV translations have outright rejected this attempted rationalisation and simply translate mikros as "smallest" in this case.
The NIV at one point took a more active stance of shoving the word "your" into the verse with no real precedent, but this was regarded as so unacceptable that the 2011 edition removed it.
Some versions refer to the mustard as a "shrub", which Holding characterises as an incorrect translation, claiming the word used (Lachanon) only means "vegetable" or "herb." This cunning argument is a win unless anyone happens to take the radical step of looking at Strong's Concordance, in which case one will find it has one other meaning he's not bothering to tell us about. Hm, "garden plant", but clearly "shrub" is a completely unacceptable translation because he says so.
A second problem is that the Bible incorrectly states mustard grows into a tree: rather than trying to BS his way out of this with the Lexicon or Concordance (because there are no alternate meanings for the word used), Holding takes the "it was right back then" approach by claiming that mustard would be classified as a tree because it is tall, ignoring that it never looks remotely like a tree: we're apparently just supposed to believe him that the classification system used to work this way. And one would think Jesus, being the guy who created trees and all, would know what was and was not one.
Proverbs 6:6-8 (Willibrord) The English translation would look something like this:
6:6 Look at the ant, you lazy bum, watch her behavior and become wise.
6:7 She has no captain, no supervisor, no ruler,
6:8 but she makes sure that she has food in the summer and saveguards her food during harvest
The idea that the ant is an individual animal that does everything herself simply isn't true from a biological standpoint. Ants live in a colony with many subdivisions, which include workers, supervisors and queens. Most ants in reality do only have one mission and that is to make sure that their queen is fed and alive to pass on the genes to a succeeding population. So, in a sense, worker ants do have rulers and the ant population does survive as a population, where every individual is dependent on another.
The Bible mentions a circle whose dimensions would make pi equal to 3. This has been a source of humor for skeptics and consternation for literalist Christians and Jews.
The cauldron is first mentioned in 1 Kings 7:23-26 (KJV):
And he made a molten sea [cauldron], ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about. And under the brim of it round about there were knops compassing it, ten in a cubit, compassing the sea round about: the knops were cast in two rows, when it was cast. It stood upon twelve oxen, three looking toward the north, and three looking toward the west, and three looking toward the south, and three looking toward the east: and the sea was set above upon them, and all their hinder parts were inward. And it was an hand breadth thick, and the brim thereof was wrought like the brim of a cup, with flowers of lilies: it contained two thousand baths.
Said verse is reiterated in 2 Chronicles 4:2-5 (KJV):
Also he made a molten sea [cauldron] of ten cubits from brim to brim, round in compass, and five cubits the height thereof; and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about. And under it was the similitude of oxen, which did compass it round about: ten in a cubit, compassing the sea round about. Two rows of oxen were cast, when it was cast. It stood upon twelve oxen, three looking toward the north, and three looking toward the west, and three looking toward the south, and three looking toward the east: and the sea was set above upon them, and all their hinder parts were inward. And the thickness of it was an handbreadth, and the brim of it like the work of the brim of a cup, with flowers of lilies; and it received and held three thousand baths.
These verses present two problems for literalist Christians.
Value of pi
Pi is a circle's circumference divided by its diameter. (C = πd, π = C/d.) According to a purely literalistic interpretation of the Bible, these are the circle's dimensions:
Circumference (C) = 30 cubits ("a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about")
Diameter (d) = 10 cubits ("ten cubits from the one brim to the other")
Biblical Pi (π) = (C/d) = (30 cubits/10 cubits) = 3.0
However, actual pi is not 3.[citation NOT needed] The actual value of π is 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288...
This leaves Biblical literalists in a bind: either reject mathematics and most of modern technology, or reject Biblical literalism.
Lack of explanation
Why doesn't the Bible use this chance to explain the nature of pi? (Or explain any other then-unknown scientific/mathematic principles, anywhere?)
If the next verse, 1 Kings 7:27, stated, "And the Lord said, 'LO! Pi (π) is irrational and has no end!'" would have proven that the Bible had some really smart authors, if not a divine one. The consistent lack of Biblical scientific foreknowledge and presence of Biblical scientific errors suggests against divine authorship.
Due to the problems that a literal interpretation of this verse as it stands would pose for engineering, mathematics, and reality, literalists have proposed several alternate ways to intepret the verse. While many are inherently flawed, even a valid response would still show that the Bible itself is not "self-evident" and doesn't have enough clarity to make simple statements about the world. And if the Bible is unclear or inaccurate here, why should it be trusted on more important matters, like the age of the earth (calculated via math)?
“”Even the comparatively innocuous idea that the writer of I Kings might have been speaking in only approximate terms is unacceptable to some people, because it implies, however slightly, that some passages in the Bible were never intended to be taken with exact literalness.
The most probable explanation for the Bible's inaccuracy is that this verse was written by humans using approximations. This seems especially likely given that "Hebrews were not an especially technological society; when Solomon built his Temple he had to hire Phoenecian artisans for the really technical work". The real reason the bowl's dimensions are mentioned is to emphasize that it's big (hence why "it contained two thousand baths" is included), not to perfectly describe it in every detail. Pomp is a more common characteristic of the Bible than precision.
Is the circumference approximate? "30 cubits" in circumference may really mean "30±0.5 cubits". This gives a diameter of (30±0.5)/pi or 9.55±0.159 cubits (to three significant figures), meaning anywhere between 9.39 and 9.71 cubits. This does not include a 10 cubit diameter, and so cannot resolve the issue.
Is the diameter approximate? "10 cubits" in diameter may really mean "10±0.5 cubits". This gives a circumference of π*10±0.5 or 31.4±1.57 cubits (to three significant figures), meaning anywhere between 29.8 and 33.0 cubits. This does include a 30 cubit circumference, which may resolve the issue.
The major issue for this apologism is that, if it's accepted that the Bible is human-written and imprecise at best, then the basis disappears for using the Bible as a guide to the age of the earth, "medicine", or anything requiring accuracy. How can we know if the Bible is just emphasizing something for pomp purposes or speaking literal truth?
Some have noted that, if one chooses certain words from the passage, then convert those words to numbers, then divides those numbers by each other, you get a value close to pi. It's also been noted that this is ridiculous and nobody would have noticed it, unless they were trying to defend the Bible.
"Flowers of lillies"
The cauldron is described as having a rim with "flowers of lillies". In this case, it would likely have decorations, bumps, and re-entrants, all of which makes a precise circumference measurement meaningless. Again, this "solution" leaves literalists little ground for using the Bible as a source of information -- what other seemingly meaningless details that are actually crucial has the Bible left out?
“”So now we are asked to believe that the circle being referred to at the end of the sentence is different from the circle being described at the beginning of the sentence. No writer in the history of the universe has ever written in such a way, and that goes double for the writers inspired by God. Again, no one would dream of interpreting the verse that way unless he was desperate to rescue the Bible form this obvious contradiction.
An alternate proposal is to claim that, while the diameter is the whole diameter of the bowl, the circumference is actually the circumference of the inside of the cauldron. (Why anyone would ever go to the trouble of measuring this way is never explained.)
If the outside diameter was "10 cubits", the cauldron was "an hand breadth thick", a handbreadth was 4 inches (actually ca. 2.5-4.0 inches, and presumably even smaller for the shorter Iron Age population), and a cubit was 4 inches (actually ca. 4.0-5.5 inches), then the inside diameter would be about 9.5 cubits.
Circumference (C) = 30 cubits ("a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about")
Diameter (d) = 9.5 cubits (10 cubits - 2 handbreadths)
Biblical Pi (π) = (C/d) = (30 cubits/9.5 cubits) = 3.16 (to three significant figures)
If looking for perfect, literal accuracy, this idea fails, as  it's still inexact ((30/9.5) - π = ca. 0.0163020833, or 0.5% off), which is especially true if you buy that Hebrew writers weren't big on precision and  because one had to interpolate facts to the literal verse to make it work. If looking at the verse as a human product, this interpretation works fine.
Theodore Rybka attempted to resolve the pi problem in an article entitled Determination of the Hebrew Value used for Pi, published in the January, 1981 issue of Acts and Facts, a bulletin of the Institute for Creation Research. Steven Dutch handles its idiocy accordingly:
Rybka ignores the value given in plain words for the diameter and proceeds to develop a formula for the diameter using all the other dimensions and the totally unwarranted assumption that the cauldron was perfectly cylindrical. He converts the cubit, which was a variable unit of measure, to meters, and converts the Hebrew unit of volume, the bath, to liters. The volumes of one-bath jugs found by archaeologists give Rybka five values: 22.8, 22.9, 22.0, 22.7 and 23.3 liters. Blithely ignoring a variation of 1.3 liters or almost 6%, he averages the values to get a volume for the bath of 22.74 liters. He then puts this value into his formula and gets a value for pi of 3.143. "The calculations only warrant three-figure accuracy, however, so the final value is pi=3.14 which is identically the modern three figure value."
Now hold it a minute. First, the variation in the volume of the bath is so large that only two figure accuracy is justified, and the uncertainty is only accentuated our uncertainty as to the exact value of the cubit. Second, if the whole point of the discussion is to demonstrate the literal inerrancy of the Bible, 3.14 is just as much an approximation as 3 is. The decimal expansion of pi never ends and never repeats to infinity. (This would have been a great place to put such a statement, which would have been utterly beyond the capabilities of the ancient Hebrews, or even the translators of the King James Bible, to have known. What a stunningly convincing proof of supernatural authorship it would have been!) Finally, given a ten-cubit (about fifteen feet) diameter vessel with a circumference of fifty feet or so, anybody should be able to get at least three-figure accuracy in determining the value of pi. At the very least, anyone measuring the cauldron with even the crudest device should find a circumference of thirty-one cubits.
The clincher comes when Rybka uses his formulas to check the diameter and circumference of the cauldron. For the circumference he gets 29.97 cubits, very close to the figure of 30 given in I Kings, but he calculates the diameter to be not ten but 9.545 cubits! All Rybka has done with his elaborate manipulations is remove the approximation from the circumference to the diameter. We are told that the author of I kings did not use an approximate value for the circumference; he used an exact value but his determination of the diameter (which would by far have been the easiest dimension to get correctly) was off by about half a cubit or about nine inches!
Concludes Rybka: "Thus the Bible account is shown to be scientifically accurate."
A (mythical) Iowa bill supposedly tried to implement a 3.0 standard for pi, in a similar vein to the fake bill from the Alabama legislature. Snopes, in fact, made a similar entry about incorporating Bible errors into the school curriculum, which they claimed as "true", only later to say they made it up to educate readers to accept facts with caution, even in Snopes's site.
The "firmament" is claimed to be a solid "roof" over the world. It is described in Genesis 1:6-8 (KJV). This is obviously untrue, unless all those satellites in orbit are a hoax. Considering the views of flat earthers, someone, somewhere probably thinks this is true.
Many Christians believe that this Firmament is what fell from the sky and caused the entire earth to flood, with only Noah and his family surviving. Genesis 7:11 "... and the floodgates of the heavens were opened."
However, an explanation offered by inerrantists is that the description of the firmament is only what was believed to be true and not necessarily stating that it is literally true.
In Genesis, the moon is referred to as a "light" ("lesser light" actually). The moon is merely a reflector of the sun's light, and produces no visible light, although it does shine in different wavelengths not perceivable to the human eye, such as the infrareds. Of course, when talking to tribal nomads and other desert-dwellers, the concept of referring to the moon as a light was commonplace. Additionally, the moon was made to "rule the night", but there seems to be no explanation for why the moon is visible frequently throughout the daytime or not even visible in some nights.
The Bible makes it clear that stars are tiny objects in the sky that will fall down when Jesus comes back:
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
However, other verses in the book of Revelation clearly use "stars" in a figurative sense (for example, see Rev. 9:1 and Rev. 12:3, 4), so it is possible that the writer did not intend to make a statement about literal celestial bodies in 8:10 either. Indeed, given the highly allegorical and symbolic nature of apocalyptic literature in general, any literal understanding of Revelation is generally ill-advised until taking into consideration the idea that this is supposedly divine inspiration to which laws, societies and lives are proposed to be based upon.
According to the Genesis creation myth, the Earth was formed before the Sun. Aside from bio-mechanical problems, this flatly contradicts the nebular hypothesis of stellar formation, in which planets form in the accretion disk created by a young star.
It should be noted, however, that when the Sun, moon, and stars are introduced in Genesis 1:16, they are said to be "made", which, in the original Hebrew language, is different from the word "create" used in Genesis 1:1. If this is the case, then it could be argued that the Sun and moon were created in 1:1 as part of the collective "heavens" (compare, for example, the summary given in Genesis 2:4), and only in Genesis 1:16 (day 4 in the creative period) are they fully visible from Earth's surface.
The creation of the sun, moon, and stars on day four is meant to be a theological point, rather than a scientific one. As other cultures worshiped the sun and moon and divined by the stars (astrology), the Hebrew authors are making the point that none of them is the source of the light, but rather merely reflectors of the light (as lamps) whose ultimate origin is in their God. The creation myth also uses poetic parallelism to narrate the story: Day 1 and Day 4 are paired (light; sun, moon, stars), Day 2 and Day 5 (seas and dry land; fish and fowl), Day 3 and Day 6 (plants of the earth; beasts of the earth and humanity). Furthermore, given the similarity of this narrative to the creation myth of the Babylonians, whose god Marduk creates the cosmos by slaying his sea-serpent mother Tiamat, the Hebrew presentation of God creating over the deep (Hebrew: "tehom") by means other than violence and declaring the creation to be "good" is a rebuke to the Babylonian myth. The abundance of literary and theological devices in the narrative make it clear that the text is not attempting to be a scientific account of the origin of the world, but a theological declaration of the goodness of the creation as against competing religious systems (Canaanite, Babylonian, etc.).
Rotation of the Earth
Some fundamentalists argue that the Bible predicted the rotation of the Earth.
Instead, the Bible implies that the sun moves around the Earth, rather than the Earth rotating. Ecclesiastes 1:5 shows a geocentric world view:
“”The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
Incorrectly regarded as errors
These arguments, sometimes raised against the Bible, are not actually scientific errors.
Leviticus 11:13-19 (KJV):
And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray, and the vulture, and the kite after his kind; every raven after his kind; and the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind, and the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl, and the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle, and the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.
The KJV groups the bat with birds; however, in the Hebrew, the word "עוֹף" (owph) translated here as "fowl" (bird) often means something like "winged things". The ancient Hebrews obviously did not use Linnaean classification, and their words reflect this. Jewish law classifies animals mostly by habitat: flying animals, land animals, aquatic animals, and insects ("swarming" creatures), much as Aristotle did. Thus a bat qualifies as a "bird" but an ostrich does not, since ostriches do not fly. Likewise, shrimp, clams, and whales are regulated under the laws for "fish", since all are aquatic. Given that these classifications are mainly used for dietary laws, not scientific taxonomy, they work well enough.
While this may not be a scientific error, it does suggest a (even for the time) rather crude system lumping together any non-insect animal with any type of wing — and these are the authors we should trust to have set down the inerrant word of God in a format that He apparently thought we could understand even today.
- Qur'anic scientific errors
- RationalWiki:Annotated Bible
- Biblical scientific foreknowledge
- Biblical contradictions
- List of actions prohibited by the Bible
- See the Wikipedia article on Science and the Bible.
- Science and History in the Bible, Skeptic's Annotated Bible
- Scientific, Historical Errors & Mistakes in the Bible, Atheism/Agnosticism About.com
- Scientific Inaccuracies in the Bible, Iron Chariots
- Science To The Rescue, Bible Nonsense
- Answering Bible skeptics, CMI
- Isn’t the Bible Full of Errors?, AIG
- Are There Any Errors in the Bible?, 4Truth.Net
- Bible's Scientific Errors (from Dr. Zakir Naik, a fan of Qur'anic scientific foreknowledge)
- The Bible's Scientific Absurdities, from Answering Christianity, the Muslim counterpart to Answering Islam
- Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great:How Religion Poisons Everything (p. 47)
- J.P. Holding: Four Legs Good, Six Legs Bad: An Entomological Error?
- The Skeptics Annotated Bible
- J.P. Holding: I Pity Da Seed: Was Jesus Botanically Ignorant?)
- Ancient DNA solves mystery of the Canaanites, reveals the biblical people’s fate by Ben Guarino (July 27, 2017) The Washington Post.
- Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences by Marc Haber et al. (July 27, 2017) The American Journal of Human Genetics 101:1–9. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2017.06.013.
- Mikkelson, D. (28 October 1998; updated 14 March 2018) Alabama’s Slice of Pi. Snopes. Retrieved June 15, 2018
- Paul H. Seely, The Firmament and the Water Above Part I: The Meaning of raqiaà in Gen 1:6-8
- Cosmogony, in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia
- Pete Enns, The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point
- "Does the Bible call a bat a bird?", J. P. Holding
- "Bats of a Feather", Answers in Genesis
- "5775. עוֹף (oph)", BibleHub