I apologize if this is a little inchoate in parts – I tried to clean it up a little, after my first draft.

Not too long ago, I was talking with a friend, and they said something along the lines of that the doctrine of inerrancy wasn’t really a thing before the New Testament, at the earliest. I kind of contested this; and, for reasons I’ll get in a bit, I actually first thought about the tabernacle “blueprints” given in Exodus 25 (and the temple blueprints shown to David in 1 Chronicles 28). Today, my thoughts turned to that conversation again, at the mention of 2 Timothy 3.15 – probably the locus classicus for inerrancy. In 2 Tim. 3.15, all “Scripture” (γραφή) is called θεόπνευστος, literally “God-breathed.” γραφὴ is, of course, a common designation in the New Testament (and elsewhere) for authoritative Jewish literature.

In addition to the 2 Timothy passage, one of the other most-discussed New Testament passages relevant to inerrancy is Matthew 5.18: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (NRSV). Although it’s certainly possible that we have, here, a stock rhetorical exaggeration, I think we can also detect the idea of the perfection of Scripture.

The Matthean passage (and its parallel in Luke 16) seems to be hinting at traditions that can plausibly be traced back to the Deuteronomistc laws themselves – cf. Deuteronomy 4.2 and 13.1 (=12.32 in other numbering systems): “Everything I am commanding you, you must be careful לַעֲשֹׂות; you must not add to it nor should you subtract from it” (Deut. 13.1). Further confirmation that this idea was on the radar of NT authors is found in Rev 22.19, “if anyone takes away from the words of the book…” (καὶ ἐάν τις ἀφέλῃ ἀπὸ τῶν λόγων τοῦ βιβλίου…), using the same word for “take (away),” ἀφαιρέω, as LXX Deut. 13.1 (=12.32) does.

Interestingly, however, Deut. 13.1 has clear parallels in ancient Near Eastern (and even Greek) literature. This is explored perhaps most fully in English language scholarship in a recent paper by Bernard Levinson (“The Neo-Assyrian Origins of the Canon Formula in Deuteronomy 13:1,” in Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane [Oxford University Press, 2009]: 25-45). He connects the Deuteronomy text to, among other things, a vassal treaty of Esarhaddon (VTE § 4):

šumma abutu ša Aššur-aḫu-iddina šar māt Aššur tennâni tušannâni šumma Aššur-bāni-apli mar’a šarri rabi’u ša bēt ridūti

      . . .

You shall neither change nor alter the word of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, but heed this very Assurbanipal, the great crown prince designate . . .

Levinson writes “The injunction [also] takes the form of a double prohibition against any change, using two synonyms in the Akkadian: enû, ‘to revoke or change’, and the D-stem of šanû, ‘to change’ (transitive), ‘to alter’” (bracketed word mine – SF).

It’ss this that’ll bring me back around to the “blueprints” of the tabernacle and temple.

The first part of Deut. 13.1 reads, in the Hebrew, אֵת כָּל־הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתֹו תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשֹׂות (again, for clarity: “Everything I am commanding you, you must be careful לַעֲשֹׂות; you must not add to it nor should you subtract from it…”). This might be connected in a way with Exodus 25.9, which gives instructions for the construction of the tabernacle: כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אֹותְךָ אֵת…וְכֵן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ (“In accordance with all that I show you…just in this way תַּעֲשֽׂוּ”).

There are, of course, formulations similar to the first part of Deut. 13.1, throughout the Hebrew Bible (which, further, are clearly suggesting behaviors/actions). However, I wonder if, in conjunction with the second part of the verse, לֹא־תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּֽנּוּ (“do not add to it or take anything from it”), and its parallels with ancient Near Eastern treaty formulas and other things, this might lead us to interpret 13.1 as a whole as calling for the “drafting/construction” of God’s “treaty” with his people – a treaty that must be as precise and, we might say, perfect, as the construction of the tabernacle and temple (a precision demanded especially by the latter being an earthly reflection of the heavens, the domain of the deity) (although cf. Exodus 31, for the former).


In light of the proposed connection here, is it possible that עָשָׂה in Deut. 13.1 is to be understood not as a call for the observance of the laws, as traditionally interpreted, but the actual process of recording/writing them? The main objection to this would be that similar language to 13.1a is found in Deut 16.12; 28.15; 30.8; Nu 15.39, in contexts where this must refer to the actual observance. Yet this still does not change the fact that there are also intriguing connections in vocabulary with Ex 25.9.

Taking this in an even more interesting direction, BDB cites several instances of the conjunction of עָשָׂה with שֵׁם, ‘name’: 2 Samuel 7.9, 8.13, and 1 Chron. 17.8 (cf. now Wright, ‘Human, All Too Human’ – Royal Name-Making in Wartime”). To this, I would add another especially relevant instance: Genesis 11.4. This is relevant in light of the provocative thesis of John T. Strong (and others), that the call of Babel’s workers to “make a name for themselves” (וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּנוּ שֵׁם) – as well as other motifs in the the Babel narrative – builds on imagery of the construction/drafting of victory steles (cf. Strong’s “Shattering the Image of God: A Response to Theodore Hiebert’s Interpretation of the Story of the Tower of Babel,” in JBL 127 [2008]: 625-634).

I note that steles, first and foremost, display the name of their “founder”; and thus the use of עָשָׂה might be even more plausibly understood, in certain rare contexts, as playing on the meaning of something like “make (an inscription).” Wright writes

[quote]In hundreds of building inscriptions throughout the ANE, a figure commemorates and perpetuates his own name by commissioning (or donating funds for) the construction of a temple to honor the name of his divine patron. See also the admonition in the Egyptian Instructions of Merikare (Papyrus St. Petersburg 1116A): “Construct [fine] monuments for the god, for it means the perpetuation of the name of whoever does it” (108–109).[/quote]

As a final thought, it’s interesting that מַעֲשֶׂה in Ps 45.1 is used in conjunction with סֹופֵר and עֵט – and in various translations is given as “verse(s)” (a nearly identical semantic analogue can be found with Greek ποίημα).


Regardless of whether there’s a literal intention of “recording/writing” here or not (despite what I’ve said, I’d definitely lean towards not), this is surely still the traditio-historical background of the motif here…only that the actual observance of the law is cast in similar language as stock conventions of inerrancy in writing.