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Biblical inerrancy is the belief that the Bible "is without error or fault in all its teaching"; or, at least, that "Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact". Some equate inerrancy with biblical infallibility; others do not. The belief is of particular significance within parts of evangelicalism, where it is formulated in the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy".
A formal statement in favor of biblical inerrancy was published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1978. The signatories to the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" admit that "inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture". However, even though there may be no extant original manuscripts of the Bible, those which exist can be considered inerrant, because, as the statement reads: "the autographic text of Scripture, ... in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy".
The "doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture" held by the Catholic Church, as expressed by the Second Vatican Council, is that "the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."
A minority of biblical inerrantists go further than the Chicago Statement, arguing that the original text has been perfectly preserved and passed down through time. "Textus Receptus onlyism" holds that the Greek text of this name (Latin for received text) is a perfect and inspired copy of the original and supersedes earlier manuscript copies. The King James Only movement ascribes inerrancy only to the King James English translation made from the Textus Receptus.
The word inerrancy is formed from the word inerrant, from the Latin inerrāntem, (being in- + errāntem the present participle of errāre to err or wander). It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "That does not err; free from error; unerring." Another word often used to characterize the Bible is "infallible". From dictionary definitions, Frame (2002) insists that this is a stronger term than "inerrant". "'Inerrant' means there are no errors; 'infallible' means there can be no errors". Yet he agrees that "modern theologians insist on redefining that word also, so that it actually says less than 'inerrancy.'" Lindsell (1978) states that, "The very nature of inspiration renders the Bible infallible, which means that it cannot deceive us. It is inerrant in that it is not false, mistaken, or defective".
According to H. Chaim Schimmel, Judaism had never promulgated a belief in the literal word of the Hebrew Bible, hence the co-existence of the Oral Torah. Within Christianity, some mainstream Evangelical and Protestant groups adhere to the inerrancy of scripture as it reads today. However, some[who?] note that "Evangelical scholars ... doubt that accepting the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is the best way to assert their belief in biblical authority".
The Catholic Church's view was authoritatively expressed by the Second Vatican Council, citing earlier declarations, in the following terms: "Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation". The Council added: "Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words."
Some literalist or conservative Christians teach that the Bible lacks error in every way in all matters: chronology, history, biology, sociology, psychology, politics, physics, math, art, and so on. Other Christians believe that the scriptures are always right (do not err) only in fulfilling their primary purpose: revealing God, God's vision, God's purposes, and God's good news to humanity.
Some Judaic and Christian traditions hold that the Torah or Pentateuch of the Hebrew Bible was physically written by Moses—not by God himself, although in the process of transcription many thousands of times copyists have allowed errors, or (some suggest) even forgeries in the text to accumulate. According to this position, God originally spoke through a select person to reveal his purpose, character and plan for humanity. However, the Bible does record some direct statements from God (i.e.,"Thus says the Lord...", "And God said...", etc.). The significance of most phrases, their parts, grammar, and occasionally individual words, letters and even pronunciation in the Hebrew Bible are the subject of many rabbinic discussions in the Talmud.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, various episodes of the Bible (for example the Noahide worldwide flood, the creation in six days, and the creation of women from a man's rib) began increasingly to be seen as legendary rather than as literally true. This led to further questioning of the veracity of biblical texts. According to an article in Theology Today published in 1975, "There have been long periods in the history of the church when biblical inerrancy has not been a critical question. It has in fact been noted that only in the last two centuries can we legitimately speak of a formal doctrine of inerrancy. The arguments pro and con have filled many books, and almost anyone can join in the debate".
In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the debate in theological circles, which centered on the issue of whether or not the Bible was infallible or both infallible and inerrant, came into the spotlight. Some notable Christian seminaries, such as Princeton Theological Seminary and Fuller Theological Seminary, were formally adopting the doctrine of infallibility while rejecting the doctrine of inerrancy. Fuller, for instance, explains:
Where inerrancy refers to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the churches through the biblical writers, we support its use. Where the focus switches to an undue emphasis on matters like chronological details, precise sequence of events, and numerical allusions, we would consider the term misleading and inappropriate.
The other side of this debate focused largely around the magazine Christianity Today and the book entitled The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell. The author asserted that losing the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture was the thread that would unravel the church and Conservative Christians rallied behind this idea.
Those who hold the inerrancy of the Bible can disagree as to whether inerrancy refers to modern Bibles or only to the original, autographic texts. There are also disagreements about whether, because the autographic texts no longer survive, modern texts can be claimed to be inerrant. Article X of the Chicago statement agrees that the inspiration for the words of the Bible can only strictly be applied to the autographs. However, the same article asserts that the original text "can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy", so that the lack of the originals does not affect the claim of biblical inerrancy of such recovered, modern texts. Robert Saucy, for instance, reports that writers have argued that "99 percent of the original words in the New Testament are recoverable with a high degree of certainty."
There are over 5,600 Greek manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament, as well as over 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and perhaps 500 other manuscripts of various other languages. Additionally, there are the Patristic writings which contain copious quotes, across the early centuries, of the scriptures.
Most of these manuscripts date to the Middle Ages. The oldest complete copy of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus, which includes two other books not now included in the accepted NT canon, dates to the 4th century. The earliest fragment of a New Testament book is the Rylands Library Papyrus P52 which dates from 90–150 AD and is the size of a business card. Very early manuscripts are rare.
The average NT manuscript is about 200 pages, and in all, there are about 1.3 million pages of text. No two manuscripts are identical, except in the smallest fragments, and the many manuscripts which preserve New Testament texts differ among themselves in many respects, with some estimates of 200,000 to 300,000 differences among the various manuscripts. According to Bart Ehrman:
Most changes are careless errors that are easily recognized and corrected. Christian scribes often made mistakes simply because they were tired or inattentive or, sometimes, inept. Indeed, the single most common mistake in our manuscripts involves "orthography", significant for little more than showing that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most of us can today. In addition, we have numerous manuscripts in which scribes have left out entire words, verses, or even pages of a book, presumably by accident. Sometimes scribes rearranged the words on the page, for example, by leaving out a word and then reinserting it later in the sentence.
In the 2008 Greer-Heard debate series, noted New Testament scholars Bart Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace discussed these variances in detail. Wallace mentioned that understanding the meaning of the number of variances is not as simple as looking at the number of variances, but one must consider also the number of manuscripts, the types of errors, and among the more serious discrepancies, what impact they do or do not have.
For hundreds of years, biblical and textual scholars have examined the manuscripts extensively. Since the eighteenth century, they have employed the techniques of textual criticism to reconstruct how the extant manuscripts of the New Testament texts might have descended, and to recover earlier recensions of the texts. However, King James Version (KJV)-only inerrantists often prefer the traditional texts (i.e., Textus Receptus which is the basis of KJV) used in their churches to modern attempts of reconstruction (i.e., Nestle-Aland Greek Text which is the basis of modern translations), arguing that the Holy Spirit is just as active in the preservation of the scriptures as in their creation.
KJV-only inerrantist Jack Moorman says that at least 356 doctrinal passages are affected by the differences between the Textus Receptus and the Nestle-Aland Greek Text.
Some familiar examples of Gospel passages in the Textus Receptus thought to have been added by later interpolaters and omitted in the Nestle Aland Greek Text include the Pericope Adulteræ,[Jn 7:53–8:11] the Comma Johanneum,[1 Jn 5:7–8] and the longer ending in Mark 16.[Mk 16:9–20]
Evangelical Christians generally accept the findings of textual criticism, and nearly all modern translations, including the New Testament of the New International Version, are based on "the widely accepted principles of ... textual criticism".
Since textual criticism suggests that the manuscript copies are not perfect, strict inerrancy is only applied to the original autographs (the manuscripts written by the original authors) rather than the copies. However, challenging this view, evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem writes:
For most practical purposes, then, the current published scholarly texts of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament are the same as the original manuscripts. Thus, when we say that the original manuscripts were inerrant, we are also implying that over 99 percent of the words in our present manuscripts are also inerrant, for they are exact copies of the originals.
The "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" says, "We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture". However, it also reads: "We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant."
Less commonly, more conservative views are held by some groups.
A minority of biblical inerrantists go further than the Chicago Statement, arguing that the original text has been perfectly preserved and passed down through time. This is sometimes called Textus Receptus Onlyism, as it is believed the Greek text by this name (Latin for received text) is a perfect and inspired copy of the original and supersedes earlier manuscript copies. This position is based on the idea that only the original language God spoke in is inspired, and that God was pleased to preserve that text throughout history by the hands of various scribes and copyists. Thus the Textus Receptus acts as the inerrant source text for translations to modern languages. For example, in Spanish-speaking cultures the commonly accepted "KJV-equivalent" is the Reina-Valera 1909 revision (with different groups accepting, in addition to the 1909 or in its place, the revisions of 1862 or 1960). The New King James Version was also translated from the Textus Receptus.
A faction of those in the "King James Only movement" rejects the whole discipline of textual criticism and holds that the translators of the King James Version English Bible were guided by God and that the KJV thus is to be taken as the authoritative English Bible. One of its most vocal, prominent and thorough proponents was Peter Ruckman, whose followers were generally known as Ruckmanites. He was generally considered to hold the most extreme form of this position.
A number of reasons are offered by Christian theologians to justify biblical inerrancy. Norman Geisler and William Nix (1986) claim that scriptural inerrancy is established by a number of observations and processes, which include:
The first deductive justification is that the Bible claims to be inspired by God (for instance "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness"[2 Tim 3:16]) and because God is perfect, the Bible must also be perfect and, hence, free from error. For instance, the statement of faith of the Evangelical Theological Society says, "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs".
Supportive of this is the idea that God cannot lie. W J Mcrea writes:
The Bible then makes two basic claims: it asserts unequivocally that God cannot lie and that the Bible is the Word of God. It is primarily from a combination of these facts that the argument for inerrancy comes.
And Grenz has:
Because God cannot lie and because scripture is inspired by God, the Bible must be wholly true. This syllogism may be valid for establishing inerrancy, but it cannot define the concept.
Also, from Geisler:
Those who defend inerrancy are deductivists pure and simple. They begin with certain assumptions about God and the scriptures, namely, that God cannot lie and the scriptures are the Word of God. From these assumptions, inerrantists deduce that the Bible is without error.
A second reason offered is that Jesus and the apostles used the Old Testament in a way that assumes it is inerrant. For instance, in Galatians 3:16, Paul bases his argument on the fact that the word "seed" in the Genesis reference to "Abraham and his seed" is singular rather than plural. This (as claimed) sets a precedent for inerrant interpretation down to the individual letters of the words.
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds", as (referring) to many, but (rather) to one, "And to your seed", that is, Christ.[Gal 3:16]
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Although in these verses, Jesus and the apostles are only referring to the Old Testament, the argument is considered by some to extend to the New Testament writings, because 2 Peter 3:16 accords the status of scripture to New Testament writings also: "He (Paul) writes the same way in all his letters...which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other scriptures".[2 Pet. 3:16]
In his Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, Warfield lays out an argument for inerrancy that has been virtually ignored by today's evangelicals. Essentially, he makes a case for inerrancy on the basis of inductive evidence, rather than deductive reasoning. Most evangelicals today follow E.J. Young's deductive approach toward bibliology, forgetting the great articulator of inerrancy. But Warfield starts with the evidence that the Bible is a historical document, rather than with the presupposition that it is inspired.
In the Nicene Creed Christians confess their belief that the Holy Spirit "has spoken through the prophets". This creed has been normative for Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans and all mainline Protestant denominations except for those descended from the non-credal Stone-Campbell movement. As noted by Alister E. McGrath, "An important element in any discussion of the manner in which scripture is inspired, and the significance which is attached to this, is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which speaks of scripture as 'God-breathed' (theopneustos)". According to McGrath, "the reformers did not see the issue of inspiration as linked with the absolute historical reliability or factual inerrancy of the biblical texts". He says, "The development of ideas of 'biblical infallibility' or 'inerrancy' within Protestantism can be traced to the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century".
People who believe in inerrancy think that the Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but every word of it is, because of verbal inspiration, the direct, immediate word of God. The Lutheran Apology of the Augsburg Confession identifies Holy Scripture with the Word of God and calls the Holy Spirit the author of the Bible. Because of this, Lutherans confess in the Formula of Concord, "we receive and embrace with our whole heart the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear fountain of Israel". Lutherans (and other Protestants) believe apocryphal books are neither inspired nor written by prophets, and that they contain errors and were never included in the "Palestinian Canon" that Jesus and the Apostles are said to have used, and therefore are not a part of Holy Scripture. The prophetic and apostolic scriptures are authentic as written by the prophets and apostles. A correct translation of their writings is God's Word because it has the same meaning as the original Hebrew and Greek. A mistranslation is not God's word, and no human authority can invest it with divine authority.
However, the 19th century Anglican biblical scholar S. R. Driver held a contrary view, saying that, "as inspiration does not suppress the individuality of the biblical writers, so it does not altogether neutralise their human infirmities or confer upon them immunity from error". Similarly, J. K. Mozley, an early 20th-century Anglican theologian has argued:
That the Bible is inspired is, indeed, a primary Christian conviction; it is from this that certain consequences have been drawn, such as infallibility and inerrancy, which retain their place in Christian thought because they are held to be bound up with the affirmation of inspiration. But the deductions can be rejected without any ambiguity as to the fact of inspiration. Neither 'fundamentalists' nor sceptics are to be followed at this point... the Bible is inspired because it is the adequate and indispensable vehicle of revelation; but inspiration does not amount to dictation by God.
For a believer in biblical inerrancy, Holy Scripture is the Word of God, and carries the full authority of God. Every single statement of the Bible calls for instant and unqualified acceptance. Every doctrine of the Bible is the teaching of God and therefore requires full agreement. Every promise of the Bible calls for unshakable trust in its fulfillment. Every command of the Bible is the directive of God himself and therefore demands willing observance.
According to some believers, the Bible contains everything that they need to know in order to obtain salvation and to live a Christian life, and there are no deficiencies in scripture that need to be filled with tradition, pronouncements of the Pope, new revelations, or present-day development of doctrine.
Harold Lindsell points out that it is a "gross distortion" to state that people who believe in inerrancy suppose every statement made in the Bible is true (as opposed to accurate). He indicates there are expressly false statements in the Bible which are reported accurately. He notes that "All the Bible does, for example in the case of Satan, is to report what Satan actually said. Whether what he said was true or false is another matter. Christ stated that the devil is a liar".
Many who believe in the inspiration of scripture teach that it is infallible but not inerrant. Those who subscribe to infallibility believe that what the scriptures say regarding matters of faith and Christian practice are wholly useful and true. Some denominations that teach infallibility hold that the historical or scientific details, which may be irrelevant to matters of faith and Christian practice, may contain errors. Those who believe in inerrancy hold that the scientific, geographic, and historic details of the scriptural texts in their original manuscripts are completely true and without error, though the scientific claims of scripture must be interpreted in the light of its phenomenological nature, not just with strict, clinical literality, which was foreign to historical narratives.
Proponents of biblical inerrancy generally do not teach that the Bible was dictated directly by God, but that God used the "distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers" of scripture and that God's inspiration guided them to flawlessly project his message through their own language and personality.
Infallibility and inerrancy refer to the original texts of the Bible. Scholars who are proponents of biblical inerrancy acknowledge the potential for human error in transmission and translation, and therefore only affirm as the Word of God translations that "faithfully represent the original".
Even if the bible is inerrant, it may need to be interpreted to distinguish between what statements are metaphorical and which are literally true. Jeffrey Russell writes that "Metaphor is a valid way to interpret reality. The 'literal' meaning of words – which I call the overt reading – is insufficient for understanding reality because it never exhausts reality." He adds:
Originating in Evangelicalism, the Fundamentalists affirmed that the Bible is to be read "literally" or overtly, leading some to reject not only physicalist evolution but even evolution science and to deny that life developed over billions of years. Evangelicals tended to believe in the "inerrancy" of the Bible (though they defined that term variously), a view that sometimes could unhelpfully turn the Bible into an authority on science and history.
Proponents of biblical inerrancy often cite 2 Timothy 3:16 as evidence that scripture is inerrant. For this argument, they prefer translations which render the verse as "all scripture is given by inspiration of God", and they interpret this to mean that the whole Bible must therefore be inerrant. However, critics of this doctrine think that the Bible makes no direct claim to be inerrant or infallible. C. H. Dodd argues the same sentence can also be translated "Every inspired scripture is also useful..." nor does the verse define the Biblical canon to which "scripture" refers.
Nowhere within its pages does the Bible teach or logically imply the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy. [Concerning] 2 Timothy 3:16 ... this passage merely says that "all scripture" is profitable for doctrine, reproof, etc. It says nothing about scripture being "perfect," or "inerrant," or "infallible," or "all-sufficient." If anything, Paul's words constitute a refutation of the idea of scriptural inerrancy ... What it does say is that scripture is useful, profitable, for the needs Of the pastoral ministry. The only "holy scriptures" Timothy could have known from childhood were the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament. And yet, would any Christian assert that in Paul's view the Old Testament was the final and complete word of God to man? Of course not. In any event, verse 15 makes it clear that in speaking of "all scripture" Paul was referring to the Jewish scriptures and perhaps to some of his own epistles. The New Testament as we know it simply did not exist yet. Furthermore, it is fairly certain that Paul's canon included some Jewish scriptures which are no longer found in the Old Testament, such as the book of Enoch.
The Catholic New Jerusalem Bible also has a note that this passage refers only to the Old Testament writings understood to be scripture at the time it was written. Furthermore, the Catholic Veritas Bible website notes that "Rather than characterizing the Old Testament scriptures as required reading, Paul is simply promoting them as something useful or advantageous to learn. ... it falls far short of a salvational requirement or theological system. Moreover, the four purposes (to teach, correct, etc.) for which scripture is declared to be "profitable" are solely the functions of the ministry. After all, Paul is addressing one of his new bishops (the "man of God"). Not a word addresses the use of scripture by the laity." Another note in the Bible suggests that there are indications that Paul's writings were being considered, at least by the author of the Second Epistle of Peter,[2 Pet 3:16] as comparable to the Old Testament.
The view that biblical inerrancy can be justified by an appeal to prooftexts that refer to its divine inspiration has been criticized as circular reasoning, because these statements are only considered to be true if the Bible is already thought to be inerrant.
In the introduction to his book Credible Christianity, Anglican Bishop Hugh Montefiore, makes this comment:
The doctrine of biblical inerrancy seems inherently improbable, for two reasons. Firstly, the Scriptures contain what seem to be evident errors and contradictions (although great ingenuity has been applied to explain these away). Secondly, the books of the Old and New Testaments did not gain their place within the "canon", or list of approved books, as soon as they were written. The Old Testament canon was not closed until late in the Apostolic age, and the New Testament canon was not finally closed until the fourth century. If all the Bible's contents were inerrant, one would have thought that this would have become apparent within a much shorter period.
Much debate over the kind of authority that should be accorded biblical texts centers on what is meant by the "Word of God". The term can refer to Christ himself as well as to the proclamation of his ministry as kerygma. However, biblical inerrancy differs from this orthodoxy in viewing the Word of God to mean the entire text of the Bible when interpreted didactically as God's teaching. The idea of the Bible itself as Word of God, as being itself God's revelation, is criticized in neo-orthodoxy. Here the Bible is seen as a unique witness to the people and deeds that do make up the Word of God. However, it is a wholly human witness. All books of the Bible were written by human beings. Thus, whether the Bible is—in whole or in part—the Word of God is not clear. However, some argue that the Bible can still be construed as the "Word of God" in the sense that these authors' statements may have been representative of, and perhaps even directly influenced by, God's own knowledge.
There is only one instance in the Bible where the phrase "the Word of God" refers to something "written". The reference is to the Decalogue. However, most of the other references are to reported speech that is preserved in the Bible. The New Testament also contains a number of statements which refer to passages from the Old Testament as God's words, for instance Romans 3:2 (which says that the Jews have been "entrusted with the very words of God"), or the book of Hebrews, which often prefaces Old Testament quotations with words such as "God says". The Bible also contains words spoken by human beings about God, such as Eliphaz (Job 42:7) and the prayers and songs of the Psalter. That these are God's words addressed to us was at the root of a lively medieval controversy. The idea of the word of God is more that God is encountered in scripture, than that every line of scripture is a statement made by God.
While the phrase "the Word of God" is never applied to the modern Bible within the Bible itself, supporters of inerrancy argue that this is because the biblical canon was not closed. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica "when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God".
Translation has given rise to a number of issues, as the original languages are often quite different in grammar as well as word meaning. Some believers trust their own translation to be the accurate one. One such group of believers is known as the King James Only movement. For readability, clarity, or other reasons, translators may choose different wording or sentence structure, and some translations may choose to paraphrase passages. Because some of the words in the original language have ambiguous or difficult to translate meanings, debates over the correct interpretation occur.
Criticisms are also sometimes raised because of inconsistencies arising between different translations of the Hebrew or Greek text, as in the case of the virgin birth.
One translation problem concerns the New Testament assertion that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. If the Bible were inerrant, then this would be true. However, critics have suggested that the use of the word virgin may have been merely a translation error.
Matthew 1:22–23 reads: "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel'—which means, 'God with us.'" Here Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah, but the Septuagint, the Greek text of the Hebrew Bible he was using, was mistaken in its translation of the word almah ("עלמה") in Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin [(almah)] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
On this point, Browning's A Dictionary of the Bible states that in the Septuagint (dated as early as the late 2nd century BCE), "the Greek parthenos was used to translate the Hebrew almah, which means a 'young woman'". The dictionary also notes that "the earliest writers of the [New Testament] (Mark and Paul) show no knowledge of such a virginal conception". Furthermore, the Encyclopedia Judaica calls this "a two-millennium misunderstanding of Isaiah 7:14", which "indicates nothing concerning the chastity of the woman in question".
Another writer, David Strauss in The Life of Jesus, writes: "... [the question] ought to be decided by the fact that the word does not signify an immaculate, but a marriageable young woman". He suggests that Isaiah was referring to events of his own time, and that the young woman in question may have been "perhaps the prophet's own wife".