Horace (65-8 B.C.), a Latin lyric poet, wrote: “Sometimes even the noble Homer nods” (Ars Poetica I.359).
Homer was the blind Greek poet of the eighth century B.C., so well-known for his works, the Iliad and the Odyssey. What Horace suggested was this: as accomplished as Homer was, he sometimes erred with reference to the facts of the incidents he mentioned.
More than a quarter of a century ago, the late B. C. Goodpasture, respected editor of the Gospel Advocate for some thirty-eight years, published an article in that journal titled, “Homer Sometimes Nods” (1970). The thrust of this fascinating essay was to show that human authors, regardless of their genius and skill, are fallible. Thus, in spite of their consummate care, they will “nod” or slip on occasion.
By way of contrast, the writers of the biblical record never nodded. Even though many of them were not professional scholars (cf. Acts 4:13), nonetheless they wrote with astounding precision. The only reasonable conclusion the honest student may draw is this: their work was directed by the Spirit of God.
To Err Is Human
A poet once quipped: “To err is human.” How very true. Humans do err; God does not. And that is why the careful student can clearly discern the difference between a document that is a mere human composition, and one which was penned under the guidance of the infallible Creator of the universe.
Literary Flaws—Ancient and Modern
Herodotus was a Greek historian of the fifth century B.C. Cicero called him “the father of history.” He wrote nine books dealing with the Greek and Persian wars, together with a history of the customs and geography of those empires. In one of his writings, Herodotus claimed that oxen in Sythia grew no horns because it was too cold there (The Histories 4.29). He apparently had never heard of reindeer!
Aristotle, the famous Greek scholar of the fourth century B.C., was renowned for his knowledge. Yet he made some colossal speculative blunders. In his work titled Parts of Animals, he argued that within the human body, man’s soul is “lodged in some substance of a fiery character.” He contended that the brain “is a compound of earth and water.” He further suggested that sleep is caused by the blood flowing into the brain, thus making it heavy. This, he declared, “is the reason why drowsy persons hang the head” (Book II, Chapter 3).
Marcus Porcius Cato was a Roman statesman who died about the mid-second century B.C. His famous work De Agri Cultura (On Farming) has survived. In one passage (71) he gave a remedy for treating an ailing ox. It consisted of forcing down the ox a whole, raw hen’s egg, followed the next day by a concoction of leek and wine. However, this treatment, in order to be efficacious, absolutely must be administered from a wooden vessel while both the ox and the administrator are standing (cited by Sarton 1959, 408).
It is obvious that the method of administration would have nothing to do with the curative value of Cato’s concoction. But, such is the nature of human superstition.
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish writer who authored several works regarding the Hebrew nation—its fortunes and fates. Though he is considered a respectable historian for his day, he frequently slipped. For instance he declared that during the siege of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), a heifer, being led to sacrifice in the temple, gave birth to a lamb (The Wars of the Jews 6.3).
Samuel Johnson was the author of the first bona fide English dictionary. He also produced A Grammar of the English Tongue. In that work the celebrated writer stated that the letter “H seldom, perhaps never, begins any but the first syllable” of a word. Regrettably, he had not noticed that h commenced the second syllable in “perhaps.” His humiliation must have been keen.
The famous poet, Lord Byron, wrote a magnificent composition which he titled The Destruction of Sennacherib. In beautiful rhyme this literary masterpiece dramatically told of the devastating deaths of the 185,000 Assyrian soldiers who threatened Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah. The poet slipped, though, because the rebel monarch Sennacherib was not destroyed when Jehovah’s messenger smote that vast heathen camp. The king was several miles away at Lachish when the destruction occurred. He eventually returned to his home in the east and was slain by his own sons—in fulfillment, incidentally, of sacred prophecy (2 Kings 19:7,36-37).
Adam Clarke was probably the most famous scholar produced by the Methodist Church. He spent forty years writing his famous Commentary on the Bible. As meticulous as he was, Clarke occasionally erred. For example, in commenting on Genesis 1:16, he suggested that the moon has streams and vegetation, and is inhabited by intelligent beings. Our modern space explorations have proved that speculation to be quite erroneous. Clarke also stated that Jewish historian Josephus never mentioned the Syrian soldier, Naaman. He was wrong, though, because Josephus asserted that the warrior who mortally wounded Ahab, by shooting an arrow randomly into the air, was Naaman (Antiquities of the Jews 8.15.5).
Alexander Cruden produced a very widely used concordance of the English Bible, a task for which he was well-qualified by virtue of many years of Scripture study (even though, at times, he suffered from emotional illness). Yet, in his volume, Explanations of Scripture Terms, concerning the whale, Cruden wrote: “The [whale is the] greatest of the fishes that we know of” (1840, 366). He erred. Actually, the whale is a mammal, and not a fish at all.
The religion of Islam claims that the Qur’an is inspired of God. Clearly, however, it is not, for it is flawed by many examples of nodding. For instance, the Qur’an suggests that the human fetus results from “sperm” (no mention of an egg) that changes into “a clot of congealed blood,” which then becomes bones, later to be covered with flesh (Sura 23:14). This is hardly an accurate description of fetal development.
The Book of Mormon is revered by millions of “Latter-Day Saints.” It purports to be an infallible revelation from God given to Joseph Smith Jr. by an angel of the Lord. Whoever composed the narrative, however, nodded more than once (one is tempted to say he lapsed into a coma). For instance in Alma 7:10 it is said that Jesus Christ was born in Jerusalem. But, as every school child knows, the Lord was born in that “little town of Bethlehem” (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:1).
The Spirit of God makes no such blunders. Again, according to The Book of Mormon, a man by the name of Nephi was using a “compass” to find his direction in the sixth century B.C. (1 Nephi 16:10; 2 Nephi 5:12). It is well known, of course, that the mariner’s compass was not in use until at least a thousand years after the birth of Christ. This is a critical anachronism in Mormonism’s “sacred” book.
Joseph Smith Jr. also taught that there were people living on the moon. According to Smith, they were six feet tall, dressed like Quakers, and had a life-span of one thousand years (Huntington 1892, 263). Brigham Young, Smith’s successor, when asked about this matter, concurred, suggesting that such beings lived on the sun as well (Young 1854-75, 271).
Mary Baker Eddy founded the “Christian Science” movement. She produced a book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, which she claimed was co-authored by God. But Mrs. Eddy more-than-nodded when, in that volume, she wrote:
Man is not matter, made up of brains, blood, bones, and other material elements . . . .Man is spiritual and perfect; and because of this, he must be so understood in Christian Science . . . .Man is incapable of sin, sickness, and death (1934, 475). In spite of her denial of human mortality, she died December 3, 1910.
By way of glaring contrast, the holy writers of the biblical records never nodded. Their works are characterized by a razor-sharp accuracy that defies explanation save on the ground they were controlled by the Spirit of God. Consider the following factors.
The first two chapters of the Bible contain the divine record of the commencement of the universe, including the Earth and its inhabitants. Though it was penned thirty-five centuries ago, there is not a syllable in this account that is at variance with any demonstrable fact of science. Any book on astronomy or earth science penned fifty years ago is already obsolete. And yet Genesis, simple and sublime, is factually flawless.
The Mosaic narrative asserts that the universe had a “beginning” (1:1), which is perfectly consistent with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Contrast this with the Babylonian creation record known as Enuma Elish, which asserts the eternality of matter (Pfeiffer 1966, 226).
The Genesis record affirms that creation activity was concluded by the end of the sixth day (2:1-3). Science says, as per the First Law of Thermodynamics, that nothing is being created today.
No less than ten times Genesis 1 affirms that biological organisms replicate “after [their] kind.” In passing we must note that modern pseudo-science (i.e., the theory of evolution) is dependent upon the notion that in the past organisms have reproduced after their non-kind! The biblical account, however, is in perfect harmony with the known laws of genetics.
The medical knowledge revealed in the Bible is truly astounding. It is well known, for instance, that medicine in the antique world was based upon myth and superstition. This was true in Babylon and Egypt.
For example the Papyrus Ebers (from the sixteenth century B.C.), edited by George M. Ebers in 1874, offered some very strange remedies for various illnesses. Here is a prescription for folks who are losing their hair:
When it falls out, one remedy is to apply a mixture of six fats, namely those of the horse, the hippopotamus, the crocodile, the cat, the snake, and the ibex. To strengthen it, anoint with the tooth of a donkey crushed in honey (quoted by McMillen 1963, 11).
Even the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, one of the more sophisticated examples of Egyptian medical “science,” contains a spell for “transforming an old man into a youth of twenty.”
In spite of the fact that Moses was reared in an Egyptian environment and “was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22), not one time did the great law-giver incorporate any of this magical mumbo-jumbo into the Scriptures. On the contrary, Moses was far ahead of his time in terms of medicine and sanitation. A careful study of Leviticus 13, with reference to certain skin diseases, reveals some rather modern techniques (e.g., the diagnosis of certain symptoms), treatment to lessen spread (e.g., disinfection), and quarantine. No other law code in the whole of ancient history came anywhere near rivaling these health regulations.
Consider, for instance, the fact that the “leper” was required to “cover his upper lip” (Leviticus 13:45). Dr. J. S. Morton has noted: “Since the leprosy bacilli are transmitted from nasal drippings and saliva, this practice of having lepers cover their upper lips was a good hygienic policy” (1978, 255).
Concerning Moses’ procedures for quarantining, Dr. William Vis has written:
To show how far Moses was ahead of modern society we need only to remind ourselves that the word quarantine originated in the fourteenth century when the Italian ports of Venice and Genoa first refused admission to immigrants who might be harboring plague and required them to stay on board for forty days—hence the word quarantine. Even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries leprosy spread over southern Europe until the principles of Moses were re-enacted successfully (1950, 244).
When the Encyclopedia Britannica was first published, it had so many mistakes relative to American geography and topography that the publishers of the New American Cyclopedia issued a special pamphlet correcting the blunders of its British rival.
J. W. McGarvey once noted that when Tacitus wrote his celebrated work, Germania, which dealt with the geography, manners, customs, and tribes of Germany, it contained so many errors that many were inclined to doubt that this well-known Roman historian could have produced such a flawed volume (1956, 26-27). The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that “the geography is its weak point” (1958, 736).
The biblical writings contain literally hundreds of references to geography and topography relating to those lands which the prophets and apostles traversed. We are quite casual in our topographical allusions. Usually we speak of going “up” north and “down” south. For example, you might say you are going to travel from Atlanta up to Chicago, though Chicago is almost five hundred feet lower than Atlanta.
However the biblical writers, are always precise when recording elevation references. One travels from Jerusalem (in the south) “down” to Antioch, some one hundred fify miles to the north (Acts 15:1-2). Not once is there a geographical or topographical blunder in the sacred volume, in spite of the fact that the ancients did not possess the sophisticated instruments we have today.
Here is an amazing fact. In the book of Acts, the historian Luke mentions thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine of the Mediterranean islands (Metzger 1965, p. 171). There is not the slightest mistake in any of his references. Luke has been criticized over the centuries to be sure; his influence has increased, however, while his critics’ credibility has decreased.
Over a span of many centuries, hostile critics of the Bible have charged the sacred writers with nodding. Time after time, however, when the true facts have come to light, the Scriptures have been vindicated. Reflect upon a few examples.
The Genesis record declares that while he was in Egypt, Pharaoh presented Abraham with some camels (12:16). Liberal writers disputed this. T. K. Cheyne wrote: “The assertion that the ancient Egyptians knew of the camel is unfounded” (1899, 634). Professor Kenneth Kitchen has shown, however, that “the extant evidence clearly indicates that the domestic camel was known [in Egypt] by 3,000 B.C.”—long before Abraham’s time (1980, 228).
On several occasions in the book of Genesis, it is recorded that Abraham and Isaac had associations with the Philistines (cf. Genesis 21 and 26). Liberal scholars consider these references to be anachronistic (details from a later age inappropriately inserted into the patriarchal account). H.T. Frank characterizes the allusions as “an historical inaccuracy” (1964, 323).
It has been shown, however, that “Philistine” was a rather generic term and that there is no valid reason to doubt that these groups were in Canaan before the arrival of the main body in the early twelfth century B.C. (Unger 1954, 91; Archer 1964, 266; Harrison 1963, 32). Harrison says that the archaeological evidence “suggests that it is a mistake to regard the mention of the Philistines in the patriarchal narratives as an anachronism” (1983, 362).
Elsewhere, this writer has catalogued no less than twenty major slips, with which the biblical writers have been charged (Jackson 1982). Each of these has evaporated with the passing of time and the exhumation of evidence.
Yes, even the noble Homer may nod; those guided by the Spirit of God, however, never did. You can trust the Bible! And here is a crucial point: if the Bible proves to be reliable in hundreds of matters that are verifiable, why should it not be trusted in issues in the spiritual realm that, from the very nature of the case, are beyond human verification, e.g., issues pertaining to redemption from sin?
The author acknowledges his indebtedness to the lamented B.C. Goodpasture for the idea from which this article sprang, and for a few of the examples that illustrate the concept developed (1970, 322,325).