The Bible is one of the most well-known books in the world and has a place in the culture of most people who would read this.
That means most of us, whether we believe in the Bible or not, have views about what it is and how it should be read before we actually come to read it.
But what if many of those assumptions are actually questionable?
Word of God?
Many Christians describe the Bible as the “Word of God” because they regard it is emanating from God in some way. Most believe this means God must have led the authors to write accurately, perhaps perfectly. It may have been written by individuals with their own language and culture, but it is essentially God’s book.
Critical non-believers tend to buy into the same narrative. If they can find an error or inconsistency in the Bible, they believe they have shown it CANNOT be God’s Word.
But must a religion’s scriptures be directly from God and perfect to be believed and followed?
Muslims believe the Quran was dictated by God to the prophet, and therefore perfect. Mormons believe the Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets and revealed on golden plates. But the scriptures of other major religions are not necessarily considered to be directly from God.
This question is so complex it merits a separate post (which I may write some day). Here is just the briefest summary.
The Jewish Tanakh (more or less the Old Testament of the Bible) appears to have been edited and revised over time and often contains different accounts and persectives on the same events and issues. Parts of the Tanakh and other writings such as the Midrash revise and apply the earlier teachings to later times. Authoritative rabbis were significant interpreters of the Torah and some of their writings are included in the Talmuds, which in some ways are more practically authoritative than the Torah.
So while the Torah is considered by many Jews to have been given directly to Moses by God, this communal reworking of traditions via the common Rabbinical practice of dialogue and debate, means that in practice the teachings of the Jewish scriptures were not set in stone. Rather, they can be seen as sources for argument and discussion.
Hindu and Buddhist scriptures
As far as I can tell, the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures are even further removed from the idea of a perfect code of doctrine and practice handed down from God, not least because Hinduism has hundreds of gods and Buddhism is agnostic about God. The Vedas, Upanishads, Puran and other writings (Hinduism) and the Tripitaka and the Mahayana Sutras (Buddhism) make no claim to divine authorship, but rather were written by ancient sages and scribes.
Assessing the Christian Bible
So it isn’t inherently necessary for a religion’s scriptures to be inerrant writings handed down from on high. The question has to be assessed on its merits:
- Does the Bible make this claim explicitly?
- Do the contents of the Bible show that it could or couldn’t be without error and the very words of God?
I have given reasons elsewhere (In what way is the Bible a special book?) for believing that the Bible doesn’t make this claim and there is good internal evidence to reject it. Its inspiration appears to be more organic and less direct than that.
We know the Bible is a collection of writings in three different languages by many different people over a period of almost a millennium. Most were Jews writing in a Jewish culture about Jewish religious beliefs. We read it in translation.
Yet despite this, it is all too easy to read it as if it was written in our time, culture and language. As a result, too often we misunderstand the genre of the writings and miss what the original authors were saying.
Science or folk tale?
The Old Testament contains many statements that can be interpreted as reporting scientific fact. The creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2 and the worldwide flood later in Genesis are the most obvious examples. Others include a flat-earth geocentric cosmology, the description of insects as having four legs and giving the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter as 3 (when in reality it is pi = 3.1416 approx).
Sceptics can have fun mocking these inaccuracies and believers can try to defend their accuracy, but both miss the point. The ancient writers weren’t writing scientific texts, but were writing in the language and thought forms of their day to communicate what they regarded as theological truths. Doing otherwise would have made their message more difficult to understand – see Moses learns science.
History or pious story?
Narrative books in the Old Testament need not be historical to get their message across. The Israelites, like other ancient peoples, often told stories which taught ethics, or theology or national identity. They were passed down orally from generation to generation, and altered and embellished in the process. Sometimes the stories were broadly factual, sometimes not.
Books such as Ruth, Job, Jonah, Esther and Daniel tell a story about each of the people named, but it isn’t certain whether they were intended to be seen as historical or simply as stories that illustrate some religious or ethical truth. Quite likely the stories contain factual information about a real person mixed with legend.
Before we make any decision about historicity and genre of these ancient texts, it is wise to consider how both ancient and modern Jews read them.
A set of rules to obey?
Modern western people are comfortable with instructions – how to take medicines, use computer apps or follow GPS directions. It is easy for us to see scriptures as instructions on what to believe and how to behave. And it is true that the Bible contains these – the Ten Commandments or some of Paul’s letters are like this.
But the Old Testament sometimes contains contradictory perspectives and teachings. Experts say that Jewish thought was comfortable with the idea that different viewpoints could be given for consideration and discussion.
We moderns can foolishly try to resolve the inconsistencies rather than try to see them as the ancient Jews did.
Totally truthful or totally worthless?
This is another one where believers and critics alike can use the same argument. Conservative Christians, apparently trying to scare fellow believers out of questioning the Bible, often argue that if we question any part of the Bible, we can no longer trust any of it. Sceptics sometimes use the same argument to draw the conclusion that nothing in the Bible can be trusted.
It’s an invalid argument on both sides. The Bible isn’t one book but many. It has many different authors, many different genres of writing and different purposes. Its contents were written at different times and into different situations. There are massive differences in language, culture, time and belief between the Old and New Testaments.
One book may be imaginative (e.g. Job or Revelation) while another may be quite historical (e.g. Acts). The Torah is foundational for a Jew, whereas it is “old covenant” for a Christian, for whom the gospels are foundational. The message of Ecclesiastes or Proverbs is very different to the message of Romans.
So the historical accurcay or truth of one book is not an indication of the same for another book. Each one stands or falls on its own merits
A Christian may believe the entire Bible is without error and all parts are equally useful in their faith. But it seems unwise to make that a starting assumption, but to look at the evidence – which suggests that not all books are equally historical accurate.
I have heard sceptics dismiss the Old Testament as emanating from uneducated Bronze Age goat-herders. This probably works if you want to use scorn rather than logic. But the experts tell us that many of these writings are quite sophisticated in their ideas and expression.
- The Genesis creation story stands out from contemporary accounts for its monotheism.
- Job is a sophisticated discussion of the origin of evil.
- The developing understanding of an ethical, loving, monotheistic God is markedly different from other cultures and writings of the period.
- Luke, the writer of Luke’s Gospel and Acts was (according to historian Maurice Casey) “an outstanding historian by ancient standards”.
- John’s Gospel is a sophisticated piece of writing in its ideas, expression, themes and structure.
Judging these writings by modern everyday standards is unwise if we want to do justice to the writers.
So can we trust the New Testament?
We answer this question in the same way. What is the purpose and genre of each book? And the answer is pretty clear for most of them.
- They were written about a particular person (generally someone inspirational to the writer), and named in the opening prologue or introduction. The text is framed to outline that person’s teachings and actions, and to provide an example to emulate.
- The aim was to present the truth about the subject, albeit with the purpose of sharing how the writer finds the subject inspirational. Good biographers didn’t deliberately invent, but used sources they believed were reliable and based on eyewitnesses.
Thus it is foolish to apply conclusions we may draw about books like Job and Joshua to the gospels. They are quite a different genre and have much more significant claims to being historical.
Of course it remains for scholars, and eventually each of us, to decide whether we believe the gospels are accurate or not. Again we can see quite opposite views, with conservative Christians holding to complete accuracy and trying to explain every apparent anomaly, while sceptics seize on any anomaly to throw doubt on the whole.
It seems that ancient Jewish texts that were compiled from oral sources generally preserve the main information reliably while being less strict about some of the details. This seems to be true of the Biblical gospels.
There is enough history in the gospels to trust the poicture they present of Jesus and his teachings, even though there are still anomalies.
Better discussions, better conclusions
I suggest Christians and sceptics alike could form better conclusions if we all examined our asssumptions and took greater account of what the experts say. Discussions between believers and unbelievers could proceed from a much better basis.
What do YOU think?
- A Short Introduction to the Bible and the History of Ancient Israel, Andrew Tobolowsky.
- Judaism and Christianity Both Rely on the Hebrew Bible. Why Do They Interpret It So Differently? John Barton, Time.
- Hebrew Bible: Torah, Prophets and Writings. My Jewish Learning.
Photo by cottonbro studio.