With regard to the Bible, inspiration denotes the doctrine that the human authors and editors of canonical scripture were led or influenced by the Deity, with the result that their writings may be designated in some sense the word of God. The theological corollary of inspiration, inerrancy, indicates that these writings have been thereby supernaturally protected from error, thus implying that scripture is entirely trustworthy and uniquely authoritative for a given community of faith. The categories of inspiration and inerrancy derive from traditional Christian theology, although analogous conclusions concerning their scriptures would be held by most Orthodox and Conservative Jews.
By far the most comprehensive of the two terms is inspiration, which is derived from a Latin word meaning “to breathe into or upon.” More focused than general usage, in which a literary or artistic work or the like is said to be inspired if it is intellectually, emotionally, or volitionally moving, the theological term designates what for the community of faith would have been an objective reality: the sacred scriptures are nothing less than authentic communication from the Deity, or, as the First Vatican Council (1868–70) simply expressed it, “they have God as their author.” In Christian theology, with its traditional trinitarian understanding of the one God as three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), it is usually the third person of the Trinity who is specified as having inspired the scriptures.
The theological category of inerrancy is of less venerable vintage; the term does not appear either in Latin or in English before the nineteenth century, and modern Protestant fundamentalists often employ it in a separative and polemical way. Inerrancy denotes the quality of errorlessness (hence, truthfulness) in all the scripture affirms. Related theological concepts such as authority and infallibility also seek to define the utter dependability of the Bible as uniquely the word of God. Many contemporary theologians avoid the term inerrancy on the grounds that, on the one hand, too much is claimed by it (a focus on the total exclusion of mistakes rather than on the complete absence of deception, as the early church fathers emphasized), and, on the other hand, too little (typically, only the now nonexistent autographs, or original manuscripts, are deemed inerrant; all admit that the later copies contain errors).
Nonetheless, even if the term inerrant itself is of recent and controversial pedigree, the underlying concept of the complete truthfulness and dependability of all that scripture affirms has long been a part of both Jewish and Christian tradition. (Traditional Muslims would enthusiastically categorize the Qurʾān with the same terms.) Those books that the rabbis categorized as “defiling the hands,” and hence sacred scripture, were highly revered by the late first century CE, as Josephus indicates: “We have given practical proof of our reverence for our own scriptures. For, although such long ages have now passed, no one has ventured either to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable; and it is an instinct with every Jew, from the day of his birth, to regard them as the decrees of God, to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to die for them” (Ag. Ap. 1.42).
The Jewish scriptures were of course sacred for Jesus and his followers, and gospel traditions present him as regarding them as humanly inalterable (Matt. 5.18) and inviolate (John 10.35). For Jesus and the New Testament writers the sacred books were “the scriptures” par excellence, and in the words of these scriptures the Holy Spirit of God spoke through human agency (Acts 4.25; cf. 1.16). Typically, words from the mouth of Yahweh found in the Hebrew Bible are labeled “scripture” in the New Testament (e.g., Rom. 9.17; Gal. 3.8), and even quotations not originally from the mouth of God are sometimes designated as such (Rom. 15.9–12; Heb. 1.5–13). Indeed, the Hebrew Bible as a whole is twice designated the “oracles of God” (Rom. 3.2; Heb 5.12), and in the classic New Testament text concerning God's inspiration of the Hebrew scriptures, 2 Timothy 3.14–17, Paul is pictured exhorting Timothy, his Jewish convert, to remember the “sacred writings” he has known since childhood, for “all scripture” (evidently a reference to all, or nearly all, of the books now included in the Hebrew canon) is “inspired by God” (Grk. theopneustos, probably meaning “breathed out by God”) and therefore “useful for both doctrinal instruction and ethical guidance.” Similarly, the divine origin of the scripture is clearly emphasized in 2 Peter 1.21.
To be sure, the human origins of the scriptures were not altogether ignored. The personalities of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel vividly shine through much of the literature attributed to them, and few readers of any age would confuse the writings of one with those of the other, even though they were contemporaries and often spoke about the same topics. The same could be said for the eighth‐century BCE Judahite prophets Micah and Isaiah. Considerably later, probably in the early first century BCE, the writer of 2 Maccabees provided a memorable description of the human cost of authorship (2.24–32), including “sweat and loss of sleep,” and he concluded his book as follows: “If it is well told and to the point, that is what I myself desired; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that was the best I could do. For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one's enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work” (15.38–39). As for the New Testament, a roundabout and not altogether complimentary attestation of the scriptural status of Paul's letters may be found in 2 Peter 3.15–16. Likewise Luke's own efforts at research are recalled in his preface to his gospel (Luke 1.1–4; cf. Acts 1.1–2). Indeed, apostolic authorship, whether actual or pseudonymous, of the New Testament writings served as a major criterion for later acceptance into the canon. Nevertheless, the relationship between the divine and human “authors” of scripture has never been easily delineated.
The subordination of the human author to the divine is clearly assumed in the New Testament (Acts 4.25; 2 Pet. 1.21). Not surprisingly, later Christian theological speculation attempted to refine the nature of this subordination, and the early church fathers utilized images for the human author such as the mouth, finger, lyre, minister, or deacon of God. Rabbinic Judaism also recognized the heavenly origin of scripture, especially the Torah. In a discussion of interpretations of the harsh denunciation of the “high‐handed” sinner of Numbers 15.30–31, the Babylonian Talmud observes: “This refers to him who maintains that the Torah is not from Heaven. And even if he asserts that the whole Torah is from Heaven, excepting a particular verse, which [he maintains] was not uttered by God but by Moses himself, he is included in ‘because he has despised the word of the Lord’” (b. Sanh. 99a).
Already in the first century CE, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria proposed what may be termed the “mantic theory” of the inspiration of the scriptures, in which the human author becomes possessed by God and loses consciousness of self, surrendering to the divine spirit and its communicatory powers. The second‐century Christian apologist Athenagoras also subscribed to such a theory, as did the Montanists, most notably Tertullian (d. ca. 225). But this was a minority position, with both Hippolytus (ca. 170–236) and Origen (ca. 185–254) denying that the biblical writers lost their free will under the force of divine pressure. In the Middle Ages emphasis was usually given only to the divine origin of the Bible, with little interest given to its human writers, although Henry of Ghent (d. 1293) did assert that the human authors were true, if secondary, authors of the books of scripture, not merely organs or channels for the divine message.
But it was not until the Renaissance and Reformation that serious speculation as to the nature of biblical inspiration took place. One of the principal theories popular then was what may be termed the dictation theory, in which God communicated to the human writer the very words of scripture, the human contribution merely being the exact and conscious reception of the divine message. Other views included those of Sixtus of Siena (1520–69) that hypothetically a book of scripture could have been composed by purely human means, with the later approval of the church attesting to its inspiration; and Jacques Bonfrère (1573–1642), who suggested that some parts of the Bible were written only under the negative assistance of the Holy Spirit, which kept the writers from error but otherwise exerted no influence on them. The christological emphasis of Martin Luther (1483–1546) should probably be mentioned at this point; he adopted what may be termed an incarnational view of biblical inspiration, with the divinity and power of God embedded in scripture in the same way as it was in Christ's body. Luther's scorn for the letter of James, which in his opinion did not preach Christ sufficiently, is well known: he termed it a “right strawy epistle.” John Calvin (1509–64) returned to an emphasis on the divine origin of scripture, but he also stressed the concept of accommodation, God adapting the divine message to human capacity through words that accommodated their limited understanding. Post‐Reformation Protestant theologians, however, tended to return to the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, describing the inspiration of the Bible as “verbal” (the very words are those chosen by God) and “plenary” (every word, even every letter of scripture is inspired). This view is akin to that of contemporary Protestant fundamentalists.
As a result of the Enlightenment, theologians have focused on issues of biblical authority; for example, whether the Bible, the product of ancient cultures, has any claim on modern humanity. Supernatural revelation was often denied in whole or in part, with such views gaining further support from the rise of modern biblical criticism in the nineteenth century (see Interpretation, History of, article on Modern Biblical Criticism). To be sure, there were exceptions such as millenarians and pietists, but for most the overarching question became and still remains whether and to what degree the Bible is inspired by God, not by what manner such inspiration took place. Today all but the most extreme Jewish and Christian fundamentalists recognize the complicated and heterogeneous origins of the Bible and that it contains statements that in any other literary work would be considered erroneous. Modern biblical criticism has immeasurably enriched our understanding of biblical backgrounds, customs, and mores, but it has inevitably raised other issues. Most modern believers acknowledge that in the end the issue of biblical inspiration is ultimately a mystery—truly a matter of faith.
William H. Barnes