Can I trust my Bible?: Pitting Genesis 10-11 against Luke 3:36

Have you ever heard someone say there are errors in the Bible and so that’s why it should not be trusted? And have you ever heard someone give one of those alleged errors and not know how to respond to it? Well, we can trust the Bible we have. For that matter, we must trust the Bible we have because it is indeed the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient word of God. But at the same time we need to know how to answer the objections of unbelievers and biblical skeptics. The text of Genesis 10 and 11 opens the door to one such objection. This article addresses how believers should deal with it.

This is what Genesis 10:24 says in the New American Standard Bible – 1995 Update (hereafter NASB):

Arpachshad became the father of Shelah; and Shelah became the father of Eber.

And this is what Genesis 11:12-13 says in the NASB:

Arpachshad lived thirty-five years, and became the father of Shelah; and Arpachshad lived four hundred and three years after he became the father of Shelah, and he had other sons and daughters.

That seems straightforward enough… until you compare it with Luke 3:36. In the third chapter of Luke we read a lengthy genealogy which traces Jesus’ lineage as the Son of David all the way back past Abraham to Adam. And this is what Luke 3:35-36 says in the NASB — where we pick up the genealogy in progress:

the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Heber, the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, (bold emphasis added)

Our Luke texts add a name between Arpachshad and Shelah — Cainan — which is missing from Genesis 10 and 11. So why is that? And does it mean there is a mistake in the Bible?

Well, no. Not really. You see, what we believe about the inspiration of Scripture and the inerrancy of Scripture is that God is the author and the Bible is truth and, in the words of the Baptist Faith and Message, “without any mixture of error.”

Now, no translation of Scripture is perfect, and almost every professing Christian would agree with that statement (save for some who have an over-exalted view of the King James Version). The translation I’ve quoted from above — the New American Standard Bible — is the most accurate English translation as it relates to the original languages, but it isn’t perfect. The word of God, however is. The original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek is the God-inspired word. The Westminster Confession of Faith agrees, stating “the Word of God as written in Hebrew and Greek was immediately inspired by God.” It adds, “This relates to the autographs of the ‘holy men of God’ while under the Divine afflatus or inbreathing. (2 Pet 1:21).”

There are legitimate issues which lead to translation difference — even when the translators are seeking to give the reader the most literal reading possible (many translators do not have that aim). For example, the original parchments the writers of Scripture use do not exist anymore, and if they did we would never know for sure if they really were the originals. Those originals, though, were copied again and again and again. And sometimes when you make copies you make mistakes. Scribal errors, additions, and subtractions have produced what are called textual variants, and you probably see evidence of this in your Bible via footnotes. But this is not cause for doubting whether or not we have the word of God. In fact, additional manuscript discoveries over the centuries — particularly in the last two centuries — have lead scholars not to a more confusing view of what the Bible says, but to have more confidence than ever in what the Bible says. We absolutely do have the word of God.

On the issue of Genesis 10 and 11 and whether they are missing something we see in Luke 3, this is a great example of one of these conflicts that can be worked out. In this case there seem to be two main possibilities. First, that the name Cainan found in Luke 3 was part of the original Hebrew of Genesis, but scribes mistakenly missed it when copying scrolls. Or second, that Cainan was not original to Luke’s Greek in 3:36, but later added by a scribe as a mistaken addition.

Let me explain why I am firmly in camp number two — that Cainan doesn’t belong in Luke 3:36. There are good reasons why this is the case.

First, the scribes who copied the Hebrew Scriptures were meticulous in how they went about their job, absolutely minimizing mistakes. There was a much more uniform and careful process of doing this amongst the nation of Israel than later with New Testament manuscripts all over Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa, and the Middle East. It is highly unlikely those Hebrew scribes would have mistakenly omitted Cainan from Genesis.

Second, other ancient versions of the Old Testament do not have the name Cainan in it. The Samaritans only believed the first five books of our Bible were Scripture, and their version of Genesis is missing Cainan. The same can be said for the Vulgate, the Latin translation produced by Jerome in AD 405. Significantly, he refused to use the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, because of many errors it had compared with the Hebrew. He insisted on translated his Latin from the original Hebrew, and so the Vulgate omits Cainan.

Third, however, and the most compelling reason in my opinion, is that Cainan’s name isn’t just missing from the genealogies of Genesis 10 and 11. It’s also missing from 1 Chronicles 1, and it is that much more unlikely the Hebrew scribes would have missed it in both cases.

So how, then, can the presence of Cainan in our Luke 3:36 be explained? Well, look at Luke 3:36 again in the NASB, with the very next verse, 37, added on:

the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan,

When I am reading the Scriptures publicly it is not uncommon for me to mistakenly skip a line and then go back and fix it. It is, therefore, not difficult in the least to imagine a scribe copying the text of Luke and, his eyes betraying him, putting two Cainans in Luke 3 where only one belonged.

In any event, there is no doctrine at risk of being compromised by this issue. But if we believe the Scriptures to be God’s word, inspired by His Holy Spirit, who used the pens and personalities of men, then we need to be prepared to answer questions such as these — to make a defense to anyone who asks for the hope that is within us (1 Pet 3:15). So even though the genealogies of Genesis 10 and 11 and 1 Chronicles 1 are at odds with our English translations of Luke 3, that isn’t reason for us to doubt the word of God.

Just a little bit of study backs up our confidence in the Scriptures as the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient word of God. We can trust the Bible.

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