“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11, NRSV)
As the foundational documents of Western literature, the Bible is irreversibly important to the development of Western thought and culture. Within and around every context we might probe, the Bible has played a significant role in shaping both major and minor contours of Western civilization. It cannot be denied that a veritable cornucopia of beliefs, opinions, convictions and expectations have accumulated around this collection. When buttressed by allegiance to rigid dogma, these commitments can be stubbornly difficult to untether and set aside for more objective analysis. In this undertaking, we will unhitch ourselves from the confines of denominational imperatives, eschewing charged rhetoric tailored to modern theological preconceptions, and orient ourselves toward a more historically integrated perspective sensitive to this composition’s textured past. Irrespective of one’s views concerning divine origins or the cultural value we should assign these texts today, the Bible’s stamp on history is palpable and deserves to be engaged responsibly with deference to its ancient setting.
Here are some things the Bible is not:
- The Bible is not a book.
- The Bible is not represented by a single canon.
- The Bible is not linguistically homogeneous.
- The Bible is not comprised of the founding texts of a single religion.
- The Bible is not an ideological monolith.
- The Bible did not drop down from heaven pre-packaged sans cultural continuity.
- The Bible is not a compilation of transparent historical accounts.
- The Bible is not a scientific treatise.
- The Bible is not a litmus test for ethics and morality.
- The Bible we have today is not a 1:1 match of the original manuscripts.
With the more apophatic lifting out of the way, we may now ask, “What, then, is the Bible?”
The Bible is a canonical library of texts consisting of contemplative narrative, historical memory, juridical tractates, prophetic writings, letters (epistles) and poetry, composed in a mixture of different languages between ~1000 BCE and ~135 CE by dozens of different authors and editors representing a collage of heterogeneous and often competing voices, perspectives, needs, desires, concerns, beliefs and theologies and adopted by various religious movements as sacred.
What Christians label the ‘Old Testament’ is what Jews as well as Hebrew and biblical scholars call the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, while the New Testament holds specific significance in the Christian tradition. The former anthology is a richly imagined account of the historical odyssey of the nation of Israel in covenant with its God, the latter a pastiche of Greek literature centered around the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and the various church communities dotting the first century Judea province.
It may be fair to say that much of religious belief today is carried largely by misconceptions about what the Bible is and what it can be tasked with delivering. Christians often inherit their religious orientation from the echo chambers of their immediate culture, which all too often reinforce staunchly held traditions, without ever examining the underlying presuppositions of those traditions. A more responsible approach to the Bible, informed by contemporary scholarship and in conversation with the vast array of historical, literary and scientific knowledge now at our disposal, will allow us to properly contextualize this talisman of Western civilization. Let’s take a look at these ten common misconceptions seriatim.
The Bible is not a book.
This first one’s easy. The Bible is not a single book but a library of diverse texts consolidated beginning in the 4th century CE. The term ‘Bible’ in Greek, τὰ βιβλία, is translated literally, “the books.”
The Bible is not represented by a single canon.
Before we drill into the contents of the texts, it will be important to note up front that there is not a single, agreed-upon set of texts. That is, what is considered “the Bible” is not uniform among Christian communities around the world. Just how many are there? Among Christendom, there are 10 extant canons for the Old Testament and 7 for the New Testament.
Specifically, the Old Testament contains 39 books for Protestants, 46 for Catholics, and upwards of 52 if you fall under the Eastern Orthodox umbrella. The Maccabees are excluded from all Protestant editions; the Epistle of Jeremiah and Wisdom of Solomon are considered apocryphal only in Protestant tradition; Psalm 151 is included in all canons except the Western traditions (Protestant and Catholic); and so on. Thus it goes without saying that the Bible has not been the same for every Christian throughout history, nor in present day.
The Bible is not linguistically homogeneous.
Unlike Muslims who lay reverent emphasis on the Quran, most Christians do not read the Bible in its native tongue. The biblical manuscripts were originally inked in a potpourri of Hebrew, Koiné Greek and Aramaic. As one might expect, there are translational complications involved in converting one language to another, especially one linguistic family to another. For example, it is often the case that there are no kindred cognates in the English dialect that can be mapped cleanly from Classical Hebrew and Greek.1 And these deficiencies can manifest themselves awkwardly, resulting in imprecise or wildly off-piste readings of the texts. This is much less of a concern for Muslims, whose traditions have broadly anathematized non-Arabic readings of its holy books.
(For those uncommitted to learning the original Hebrew and Greek, the most accurate English translation in use today is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) as it incorporates the most up-to-date scholarship. Its textual accuracy is far superior to the widely popular but 400 years dated KJV.)
The Bible is not comprised of the founding texts of a single religion.
Though many Christians assume the Bible interfaces with their religion only, the Bible actually houses the scriptures of two distinct religions: Judaism and Christianity, including of course the unwieldably large number of denominations, sects and splinter factions subjacent.2 The majority of the texts within the Christian canon existed long before Jesus left his mark on history. The Hebrew texts were regarded as Scripture by Jews for nearly a thousand years before the Christian canon was finalized. In fact, much of the Old Testament was considered official canon of Judaism as early as 200 BCE.
Axiomatically, Jews do not believe that Jesus was divine or the Messiah and thus do not consider the Christian New Testament part of their scripture as Christians regard the Jewish scriptures part of theirs. The question of textual identity became a flashpoint issue in early Christianity, as Jews considered it blasphemous for Christians to appropriate their sacred scriptures and assimilate them into a new religion, while Christians wrestled with how to integrate and harmonize the two discontinuous sets of texts.
The Bible is not an ideological monolith.
The biblical corpus did not originate with a single person or a single community, but was authored, edited, compiled and redacted over a time span of ~1200 years by 40+ different individuals. (In most cases, we do not know who the author was.3 ) Should we then expect the Bible to speak directly, and only, to our particular set of beliefs and concerns? Different people have different views, and the further you extend the timescale, the more acute the shifts in human thought.
Consider the evolution of human values in the last few generations alone. Gender and racial equality were all but unheard of until relatively recently. Now stretch that timetable across two millennia, throw in political and theological agenda, denominational protectionism, and different language families for good measure, and it should be no surprise why we find such a variegated spectrum of theological, ethical, legal and thematic voices represented. Naturally, these voices aligned with the communities and cultural spaces from whence they emanated. We should not expect them to sync up with modern thought, or with each other, any more than we should expect two books plucked at random from the library to cohere in all respects.
If we are to properly canvass this ancient literature, we must endeavor to illumine the ancient peoples who authored, sacralized and distributed the literature. This, in a nutshell, encompasses the aims of the field of biblical criticism. Drawing on a wide range of complementary disciplines, higher criticism seeks to recover the ancient setting in which the texts emerged. Its chief purpose, by rejecting anachronism and other modern conceptions often overlaid on premodern works, is to bring the ancient worldview front and center. This practice, it must be acknowledged, is to take the Bible seriously. The Bible must be divorced from the denominational commitments that often give shape to its reading and understood in light of its original context, not the context we have premeditatedly prepared for it.
The Bible did not drop down from heaven pre-packaged sans cultural continuity.
Excavations at various dig sites across Western Asia have allowed us to glimpse the fluid boundary between the biblical genre and other ancient Near Eastern texts (ANET). The oft-revered Adam and Eve creation narrative, Noah’s ark and the flood narrative, the birth and exploits of Moses, the Ten Commandments and the Sinaitic covenant, the trials of Job and sundry other elements of the Bible share deep, easily traceable connections to precursory Mesopotamian material, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Atra-Hasis epic, Enûma Eliš, the epics of Sargon the Great, the conquest narratives of Ashurnasirpal of Assyria and King Mesha of Moab, the Sumerian and Babylonian frontrunners to Job and much other prevenient material.4
These discoveries work in tandem to show that, far from being insulated from the literary themes and mythological traditions in circulation, the Hebrew writers drew from and adapted existing literature to speak to their particular heritage and perspectives. Biblical narrative is coiled with this Near Eastern milieu, chiseled from a shared literary formula, yet refracted through the posterior lens of its composers. In this way, the biblical canon is of immense value to us. Its unparalleled synthesis of the Near Eastern form represents a trove of anthropological insights which rehabilitates ancient thought insofar as a vanished epoch can be recaptured from tattered fragments of papyrus.5
The Bible is not a compilation of transparent historical accounts.
If anthropology can tell us about the traditions and cultures of early societies, archaeology can help answer whether the events in the Bible actually happened. As with the other spheres of inquiry, archaeological investigation has enabled us to calibrate the genre of literature on display in the texts. What it has shown is that much of what we once presumed was straightforward history belongs more comfortably to the category of fiction or mythology. And this is because, as archaeologist William Dever reports to PBS, historical accuracy and objective truth weren’t high among the biblical writers’ concerns:
“The Bible is didactic literature; it wants to teach, not just to describe. We try to make the Bible something it is not, and that’s doing an injustice to the biblical writers. They were good historians, and they could tell it the way it was when they wanted to, but their objective was always something far beyond that.”
Today, a prevalent number of historians and archaeologists regard the Exodus–including the captivity, the liberation, and the wandering–the conquest of Canaan, the Joshua occupation narrative, and the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Solomon as ahistorical events or figures. We simply find no external evidence by which to corroborate the biblical accounts.6 There are flashes of historical details embedded here and there, and it’s plausible that certain narratives were loosely rooted in historical affairs and later mythologized as the major players achieve a kind of legendary status in the cultural memory of Israel. Other sections may share more in common with contextual symbolism and literary convention, or perhaps are merely an ornamented rehash of antecedent mythologies. What remains clear is that archaeology has not vindicated the Bible’s historicity as many might have hoped.
As one eminent archaeologist has put it:
The Bible is not a scientific treatise.
Bronze Age, clan-based tribal societies had no concept of science as we practice it today. Ancient Near Eastern peoples were not in the habit of calculating distances to the nearest stars or tracking the mutation rates of cancers. Rather, they had their own concerns, familiarities, conceptions and models of reality, none of which coincided with the available data of the 21st century. Their literary output was thus restricted to the range of knowledge indigenous to their historical era. Just as Near Eastern tribesmen did not occupy an epoch of history apposite for manufacturing a vaccine for smallpox, so they lacked the necessary toolkit for decoding nature in a scientifically rigorous manner replete with gravitational, evolutionary and cosmological theory. To contend that the biblical writers got human origins ‘wrong’, for example, is not only to anachronize beyond measure but to miss the purpose and meaning of the stories.
– Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design
The following epigram is useful here: Using the Bible as a scientific reference is like using a phone book from 1932 to make a call in 2013. With circumspect diligence we must avoid ripping the Bible out of its historical context and burdening it with concerns foreign to its composers. These men spoke to their own times, and not to ours.
The Bible is not a litmus test for ethics and morality.
Our various religious traditions have occupied a number of loci on history’s timeline, emerging from wildly different sociocultural environments. But whether our focus is on the biblical canon, the Quran, the Vedas, Pāli Canon or other compilation of historically sacred material, there is one thread they all have in common: each sprouted from an intellectual and social soil significantly removed from our own. As such, the biblical texts reflect the values, mores and social development of the peoples who authored them. And that includes the communal surroundings they tapped into for inspiration and ethical norming.
As we might expect, there is much that has not stood well the test of time. Indeed, there is quite a lot in the biblical texts that no one of high repute would dare defend in good conscience today. The dizzying level of violence and bloodshed with which much of the Hebrew Bible is filled, the culturally bound codes and values regarding women, slaves and children, and various other provisos are not constitutive of a moral benchmark to be imparted to young ones, much less a model for building a just and forward-thinking society.
To illustrate the depth of sordidness on display, consider the following observation by Raymund Schwager, prominent Catholic priest and theologian of the previous century:
– Cited by Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, Galilee Doubleday, (1998), pp. 84-85.
While perhaps foreign to our cultural lenses, genocide, human sacrifice, infanticide, witchcraft, cannibalism and rampant death sentencing for innocuous and even imaginary crimes are directly consonant with the lenses through which these texts arose. Passages which might offend our moral sensibilities today (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:18-21, 1 Samuel 15:2-3, 2 Samuel 12:11-18, Leviticus 20:13, Exodus 12:29-30, Exodus 21:20-21, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Leviticus 20:27, Leviticus 25:44-46, Deuteronomy 17:2-5, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, Deuteronomy 20:16-20, 2 Chronicles 15:13, Judges 19:23-29, Matthew 24:45-51, 1 Peter 2:18) are a reflection of the cultural distance separating the Bible’s values and perceptions from our own.
What this ultimately reveals is that you cannot defend an ethical or moral value solely because it has biblical support, as if to beg the question. Once we recalibrate our expectations by bringing historical context into view, we see why an ethical position can no longer be defended purely in terms of its basis in scripture.
The Bible we have today is not a 1:1 match of the original manuscripts.
Another academic channel relevant to our analysis is the dynamic textual tradition of the manuscripts that eventually became the Bible. Before Gutenberg’s printing press reported for duty in the mid-15th century, transmission of the biblical sources relied on copyists, who would reproduce each witness word for word by hand. Naturally, some scribes and communities were less scrupulous than others; errors and alterations were inevitable. Thankfully, there’s the field of textual criticism whose express purpose is to comb the manuscript traditions and regress the text to the most ancient authorities.
How far can we get? Though textual scholars are hardly data-deprived (the Bible is the best-attested document in history), we do not have the autographs (originals) of any of the biblical texts, Old or New Testament. As with any document from antiquity, the originals were lost or destroyed a long time ago. What survives are copies of the originals several centuries removed from their point of provenance. In fact, around 91% of our extant Greek manuscripts post-date the 10th century CE, nearly 1000 years after the originals are estimated to have been written.7
When we compare these later manuscripts to our earliest witnesses, we find innumerable variants throughout. This is perhaps best explained by the embarrassment of riches that is the biblical collection; after all, volume of differences scales with volume of manuscripts. Careful inspection reveals that the vast majority are trivial copy mistakes, such as dittographical errata, poor translations across linguistic boundaries, and various transcription-type blunders. However, a minority of redactions can be traced to religio-political agenda by dint of scribes or those in power hewing the text to their cherished ideology and doctrine.
The third-century church father Origen noticed the severity of the problem centuries before modern notions of textual criticism took root:
Consequently, the idea that the versions of the texts we have today comprise one uninterrupted stream from an initial spring is simply untenable. There was no one textual tradition which moved cleanly and uncontaminatedly from original recording to the present day. The emendations are many and varied, to which our bounteous manuscript tradition bears witness. As we do not possess the originals, we cannot say with certainty what its pure, unadulterated form looked like or which portions in the preserved versions are additions, subtractions or revisions. Unless we were to discover even more ancient witnesses than those we have today, we may never know the original words of the Bible.8
So where do all of these separate lines of inquiry leave us? Once one dispenses with the notion that the Bible is a perfect, inerrant, univocal, cloudless transcription of divine wordage vouchsafed to humanity, one can come to a deeper and more authentic understanding of the texts and work through the implications therein for one’s religion and philosophical outlook. For many around the world the Bible is Scripture: texts divinely inspired by a deity. Others see a thoroughly human and primitive presentation assembled by prescientific, entrenchedly superstitious Bronze Age tribes with a penchant for anthropomorphism. If the former belief is to be upheld, it must be funneled through the aforementioned gauntlet of biblical studies, comparative religion (esp. the worlds of the ANE and Greco-Roman), Church history, archaeology and the natural sciences, among other modes of inquiry. Only once the theology of divine inspiration makes it out the other side intact can it be properly, if at all, defended.
To be sure, the Bible’s significance to the modern world need not rest solely on historicity or scientific accuracy, or on supernatural realities. Just as the edifice of religious faith need not crumble upon approaching a more accurate understanding of the source material, so one can disclaim its supernatural aspects while nevertheless embracing its anthropological import and its value to the individual. There is as much meaning and poetic force layering the biblical voices as you’re likely to find in any one composer’s florilegium. Its windows flood our rooms with rich insights and shine a light into the minds of a people belonging to ages long past.
Feature image via dailymedtoday.com
- Formal vs. dynamic equivalence can be a rather hairy obstacle for rendering texts in non-original languages. Even among trained linguistic scholars, 1:1 expressions across lingual boundaries can be difficult to pin down.
One of the earliest examples, in terms of canonical chronology, occurs right in Genesis 1 with the term ‘adam’. In Hebrew (the native language of most of the Old Testament), ‘adam’ (אָדָם) is most cleanly translated ‘human’ or, collectively, ‘humankind.’ And this generic, gender-nonspecific usage is how it is most commonly deployed in Hebrew writing. When we examine the earliest Pentateuchal manuscripts, we find that ‘adam’ is indeed used generically, and in various places is preceded by an indefinite article (“God created the adam”).
In English translations, however (and to the agonizing chagrin of biologists and biblical non-literalists since the 19th century), ‘adam’ has been rendered as a proper noun (i.e., ‘Adam’). This and dozens of other misconstructions permeate ubiquitous translations like the KJV, illustrating the delicate relationship between translation and interpretation.
- Just taking a look at Christianity, the number of denominations has been pegged as high as 41,000. You can find Pew’s full report here. Judaism has fewer distinct permutations.
- For example, our earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) do not contain any authorial labels. The titles we see at the top today were slapped on centuries after being penned, even though these attributions were knowingly erroneous. The gospel accounts were written anonymously, the product of several decades of oral transmission woven together with contemporary written sources and put to script by Greek-speaking individuals. For more see Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels.
Moreover, chapters, verses and punctuation were not added to the Bible until the Middle Ages. The chapter divisions we have today were added by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, in the early 13th century, while the verse numbers we see in most modern editions were not added until 1551 in a translation by Robert I Estienne (Stephanus).
- The Pentateuch is littered with adaptations of earlier inspiration. The most remarkable resemblances are found in the Babylonian tale Epic of Gilgamesh and the Akkadian epic of Atra-Hasis, both of which date to 18th century BCE, more than a thousand years before the Genesis narratives. The Epic of Gilgamesh, rediscovered in 1872 by the Assyriologist George Smith at the library of Ashurbanipal, should clearly have been cited in the footnotes by the biblical authors. The Eden and Noahide narratives share commonality not only in their plot and structure but even down to the details of phrasing. In the Babylonian myth, man is created from the soil by a god and lives in a natural setting among the animals. He is introduced to a woman who tempts him. In both stories the man accepts food from the woman, they cover their nakedness and must leave their former realm, unable to return. The presence of a snake that steals immortality from the hero later in the epic is yet another point of similarity.
Utnapishtim, one of the epic’s protagonists, also survived a “Great Deluge” brought about by the sins of mankind by building an ark upon the instruction of a deity. The flood destroys all life on earth and on the seventh day he sends out birds to scout out the dry land, and so on. In some instances little more than the names of the gods and characters were changed in the biblical myths.
A second instance of the story is found in the epic of Atra-Hasis, which includes both creation and flood accounts. A cuneiform tablet discovered in 1985 by Irving Finkel, which has since become known as the “Ark tablet”, contains instructions from the Mesopotamian god Enki (Ea) to round up animals “two each, two by two.”
As of 2014, “three distinct Mesopotamian incarnations of the myth have now been identified, one recorded in Sumerian and two in Akkadian”, all of which predate the biblical account.
- Moreover, the Hebrew canon demonstrates the evolution of thought present even in the ancient Near Eastern setting. One ethnological souvenir of these period texts lies in mapping the cultural transition from polytheism to monotheism. When comparing the Hebrew writings to other contemporary literature, we can see that they embed various monotheistic undercurrents that set apart Israelite theology (or proto-theology) from the “many-gods” traditions of the Egyptians and other neighboring peoples. That is not to say the transition was clean or acute or consistent across the board. Remember, the Hebrew Bible spans several centuries and is perhaps too authorially, thematically and temporally diverse to be bounded by the evolutionary-revolutionary dichotomy. Rather, a thorough autopsy of the texts manifests a variety of polytheistic, henotheistic, monolatrous and monotheistic elements on display, with the earlier texts more evocative of the former and the later texts gesturing toward the latter.
- Here’s what renowned archaeologist William G. Dever, who rejects the title ‘biblical minimalist’, has to say on which books of the Old Testament can be relied upon for historical truth:
“With most scholars, I would exclude much of the Pentateuch, specifically the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers…After a century of exhaustive investigation, all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible historical figures…archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has similarly been discarded as a fruitless pursuit. Indeed, the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness…Much of what is called in the English Bible “poetry”, “wisdom”, and “devotional literature” must also be eliminated from historical consideration. That would include books such as Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes…Ruth, Esther, Job, and Daniel, historical novellae with contrived “real-life settings”, the latter dating as late as the second century B.C…”
– Dever, William G. What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel (pp. 97-99).
What’s left? Ask most contemporary scholars to pin the label ‘historical value’ to an Old Testament text, and chances are Samuel, Kings, and Judges will get the highest marks.
- Aland, Kurt and Aland, Barbara. The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism. Table: “Distribution of Greek manuscripts by century and category”. (pp. 59-81).
- Some of the more eye-opening examples of biblical revisionism include:
– The ending to Mark’s gospel. The earliest mss for Mark end at 16:8, with no mention of the post-mortem appearances found in the other gospels. Verses 9-20, which appear in most popular translations, were added centuries later. We have also discovered 5 or so other endings across all Mark mss. The ending that “won out” may have simply been the one most palatable to Christian audiences.
– The famous passage of the woman taken in adultery is another later addition knitted into the Gospel of John (John 7:53-8:11). It does not appear in our earliest copies of John and is thus not original. One wonders what scribe is responsible for this moving passage.
– 1 John 5:7-8 is another passage widely held to be an interpolation. Otherwise known as the Comma Johanneum, it is far and away the most explicit articulation of the Trinity in the Bible. Yet it does not appear in our oldest Greek mss, nor in our oldest Latin mss, nor in any of our Syriac and Coptic mss. Apart from its poor textual attestation, it also does not cohere well with the surrounding text, either functionally or grammatically, and the abundance of scribal marginalia bordering the passage has led many critics today and throughout antiquity to judge the passage inauthentic. Given the manuscript phylogenies, the pericope was most likely inserted sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries, coinciding with the prolonged heated doctrinal disputes over the Trinity.
For more, see Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, and Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.