‘Mid the raging storms of time;
Its pages burn with the truth eternal,
And they glow with a light sublime.
The Bible stands like a mountain towering
Far above the works of men;
Its truth by none ever was refuted,
And destroy it they never can.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD, THE BIBLE WAS AS TIMELESS AS MY PARENTS.
Along with the foundations of the earth and the valleys of the sea, it had always existed in its present, unchanging form. As a teenager, I spent hours weekly studying its passages under the guidance of others, wiser and more experienced than I. The contents of the Bible opened up to me. I learned the basics of “biblical exegesis,” the methods by which Evangelicals analyze scriptures phrase by phrase, word by word, even turning to the original Greek or Hebrew to better mine the depths of meaning layered into each perfect word of God. It never occurred to me to ask the book’s history, because it had no history. Like God, it simply was.Even through college, when I took one course called Old Testament as
Literature and another called New Testament Theology it never occurred
to me to ask about the histories of the Bible rather than the histories in
the Bible. This may sound odd to someone from a more liberal background,
one in which Bible texts are taught and studied in their historical
context. It may sound even more odd to someone from a background
external to Christianity. But as humans go, my ability to hold unquestioned
assumptions is not unusual at all.In childhood and adolescence, each of us spends years building a world
view, a mental house that we can live in comfortably for the rest of our
lives. This is a process that psychologists call identity development.2
The deep structure of this house includes our basic ethnic identity,
political orientation, religious beliefs, occupational goals, and moral
framework. As adults, most of us do at least some cosmetic remodeling—
shifting our priorities and fine tuning our values—but it’s rather
unusual for an adult to go back and re-excavate the foundation. Unless a
life event, often something traumatic like a divorce or a death or a failed
career or emotional breakdown, opens up cracks in the deep structures,
we normally limit demolition and reconstruction to the upper stories.
Constantly remodeling our foundational assumptions is simply too costly
from the standpoint of emotional energy and life disruption. The earlier
a foundation block was set in place, the more expensive it is to dig it out.
If I hadn’t spent years as a high school and college student wrestling
with depression and bulimia, both of which failed to respond to devotion
and prayer, I might never have begun the process of questioning
that ultimately dismantled my faith. It is curious—and curiously human—
that even after my faith lay in rubble, I still was able to walk past that
familiar rubble without seeing it, without ever picking up and turning
over individual bits of my old foundation, like the Bible itself.
Once I did examine the Bible of my childhood more closely, here is
what I found:
The Bible is a collage. It is a collection of documents written over a
time span of 600 years or more. These documents take many different
forms and reflect the varying socio-political context and intent of their
authors. Like middle-aged lovers, each piece has a complicated history.
Some show signs of having their roots in oral traditions, in storytelling
or chant. Others appear to be fragments of liturgy. Older documents
may be quoted loosely or even misquoted. The Bible occasionally refers
to other texts, some no longer in existence.
Every piece of the Bible existed in some form as an independent
document before it found its way into the Holy Book. Pieces of text
written at different times circulated separately from each other. Later,
some of these manuscripts were brought together into canons: agreedupon
sets of most sacred writings. Experts argued about which ones
should be in and which ones should not. The canonization of the Hebrew
Scriptures was left largely in the hands of Jewish scholars, while
Christian authorities made decisions about the collection of writings that
would become the New Testament.
How the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible Came To Be
I said the Bible was written over a time span of at least 600 years. But
some of the content of the Old Testament had circulated for centuries in
earlier religious traditions. The first five books of the Bible, are known
as the Pentateuch, Torah, or books of the Law. According to tradition,
Moses gets credit for authoring the Torah, but linguists and antiquities
experts believe this authorship is unlikely. Evidence for authorship
by Moses relies simplistically on the claims the books make for themselves.
Analyses of individual texts suggest multiple authors and imply
that the books were crafted later. (The Moses story is set about 1,500
years before the time of Christ.)
The books of the Torah integrate stories and legal codes inherited from
cultures that inhabited the Middle East at the time that the tribes of the
Hebrews emerged. For example, the story of the Great Flood appears in
the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, an Akkadian religious text that pre-dates
the time of Moses by about five hundred years. The hero, Utnapishtim,
is warned by the god Ea to build a ship 120 cubits in length, breadth, and
height. (Noah is told to build one of different dimensions.) Utnapishtim
brings into the vessel not only the seed of all of the animals, but of all the
craftsmen as well. It rains for six days and nights, in contrast to the biblical
forty, before the boat lands on Mount Nisir. He releases a dove after
seven days, while Noah sends a raven first and a dove later.3
Similarly, the story of the baby Moses parallels the earlier story of
Sargon, who united the Sumerian and Akkadian kingdoms 800 years
before the time of the Israelite account. In the Sumerian tale, Sargon is
put into a basket of rushes and floated down a river. He is rescued by a
woman named Akki, who raises him in the royal court. But he eventually
breaks away and becomes a powerful ruler in his own right.4 The baby
Moses, too, is put into a basket of bulrushes by his mother and rescued by a
woman who raises him in the royal court. He breaks away with power
given directly by God and frees the Israelites from their Egyptian masters.
Other examples are scattered through the Old Testament. The creation
story of Genesis parallels the creation myth of the ancient Babylonians.
Out of primeval chaos and darkness, a divine spirit creates light;
firmament; dry land; the sun, moon, and stars; and man, before resting.
In some places, Hebrew writings draw on the surrounding Canaanite
texts. The sacred writings of the Canaanites depict their God, Baal, wrestling
against an evil one whose form is that of a serpent. Some hymns
praising Yahweh literally draw their words and cadences from hymns
praising Baal.5 The code of the Law, although it claims to have been given
by Yahweh to Moses, not only borrows legal concepts from earlier codes
but even at times imitates their linguistic structure.6
These elements inherited from earlier traditions nourished Hebrew
religious thought, which then produced additional sacred stories and
laws. Over time, fragments were woven together by scribes, and a
specific ordering of texts began to be handed down from generation to
generation. A small but important set of Hebrew writings would have
been recognized as sacred more than a thousand years before the Christian
era. These may have been primarily chants, prayers, and ritualized
stories that were used during worship.
It appears that the writings gathered into the Torah were accepted as a
sacred body by about 400 BCE, but evidence for an earlier date is scant.
The Samaritans, who split from Judaism in around 300 BCE, recognize
only the Torah as scripture, so scholars hypothesize that the other books
of the Hebrew Bible were not universally accepted within Judaism before
then. Over time, the Hebrew understanding of their God expanded,
and later writers documented this theological progression. Some of their
manuscripts would come to be seen as particularly sacred. The last books
now included in the Hebrew Scriptures were written more than a century
before the birth of Jesus, probably about 160 BCE. They would not
become an official Bible for another 250 years.
The Hebrew Bible was not finalized until nearly a century after the
death of Jesus. At the time, Judaism was threatened by both the growth
of Christianity and the loss of the Jerusalem temple, the center of
worship and society, which had been destroyed twenty years before. From
records that remain, it appears that about 90 CE Jewish scholars gathered
in a town called Jamnia, currently Yebna in Israel, to resolve disagreements
about the canon of Hebrew scripture. They feared that without a
clear center, Judaism itself would die. This center could no longer be a
place, it needed to be something Jews could carry with them no matter
where they might live. Ultimately, they declared thirty-nine books to be
essential to the Hebrew Bible. These books are the same as the current
Protestant Old Testament.
Modern scholars disagree about how important this process was. Some
argue that the participants merely formalized what was already broadly
agreed among Jewish leaders and worshipers. However, we know several
books were disputed by those present, including Esther, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel,
and Proverbs; and disagreements about whether certain books belonged in
the Hebrew Bible continued to spring up in the centuries that followed.
The earliest existing manuscripts of much of the Hebrew Bible are
from a set of scrolls found between 1947 and 1956 in caves near the
Dead Sea. It is believed that the scrolls were hidden for safekeeping by a
messianic Jewish sect that lived in the area.7 The Dead Sea or Qumran
Scrolls, as they are called, contain fragments of all of the books now in
the Hebrew canon except Esther, which has led scholars to speculate
that the sect that hid the scrolls may not have accepted this book as
scripture. (It is interesting to note that at the time of the Protestant Reformation,
Martin Luther also questioned the inspiration of Esther along
with the New Testament books of James, Hebrews, and Revelation.)8
Also interesting is that the scholars of Jamnia did not endorse seven
books Catholics call the Deuterocanonicals, also known as the Apocrypha.
The Deuterocanonical books are Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom
of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach), and Baruch. They were a
part of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used
by Christians in the first centuries CE. In other words, at the time Christianity
was first spreading among the Gentiles, these books were packaged
with the other books of the Hebrew Bible. When the Apostles in the
New Testament quoted from the Old Testament, they almost invariably
quoted the Septuagint translation, which suggests the sacred body of
writings on which they drew included these books.9
Even after they were separated officially from the Hebrew Bible in Jamnia,
these books remained in the Christian Bible. When challenged by some
reformers, they were reaffirmed as biblical canon at the Council of Trent in
1500. In the years after the Reformation, they continued to be regarded as
scripture by many Protestants and as important sacred texts by almost
all. Ultimately, though, the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Puritans rejected
these books, and today most Protestant Bibles are printed without
them. I have never met an Evangelical who has read the Deuterocanonicals.
This history poses some thought-provoking challenges to the doctrine
of inerrancy. Councils are committees—human committees, presumably
fallible. Few Evangelical Christians, or other fundamentalists, would
insist that the decisions of church leaders, or, in this case specifically,
Jewish scholars, are perfect and without error. But in their fevered defense
of biblical inerrancy, this is exactly what they do.
How the New Testament Came To Be
The books that make up the New Testament were written over a time
span of about seventy-five years beginning about 50 CE. Thus, the books
that describe Jesus and claim to quote his words verbatim were compiled
a generation or more after the events they report.10
The first known proposal for a Christian canon came from a second
century Gnostic, Marcion. His list included a partial Gospel of Luke and
some of Paul’s letters, the only Christian writings he saw as inspired by
God. Marcion was considered a heretic, but he got things moving. In the
centuries that followed, Christian leaders responded to his challenge by
putting forth their own lists of sacred texts.
The first surviving list that includes the books of the modern New
Testament was written by Eusebius in the early fourth century. Eusebius
divided existing sacred texts into four categories: agreed on, disputed,
spurious, and those cited by heretics. It is noteworthy that he listed James,
Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John as disputed, and Revelation and Hebrews
as spurious.11 A generation later, church leaders adopted the modern
canon at a council held in 382 CE. Yet the Greek Orthodox Church continued
to debate the book of Revelation until the tenth century. The Syrian
Church, even today, excludes 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation
from its canon. The Copts and Ethiopians, both ancient Christian
traditions, have additional books not accepted by the Roman Catholic
Church and its Protestant offspring.12
Competing interpretations of Christianity flourished during the first
centuries of the Christian Era. Both Arianism and Gnosticism had particularly
widespread followings. Their power threatened the unity of the
church and prompted the church hierarchy to create unifying doctrinal
statements known as “creeds.” The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed,
statements of orthodox doctrine that are still recited by many believers
today, were developed to refute the “heresies” of Arianism and Gnosticism,
Christians who held the Arian view believed that Jesus was of different
substance than God, created by him, and that the Holy Spirit was
secondary to both of these. To combat such beliefs, the Council of Nicea
established the doctrine of the trinity and then drafted a creed to be
recited by believers, specifically asserting that Christ was equal with God.
“Only-begotten of the Father, that is to say, of the substance of the Father,
God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being
of one substance with the Father …”
Gnostics emphasized the spirit over the body. They believed that matter
is inherently evil and that only spirit can reflect the goodness of God.
For people who worshipped in Gnostic variants of Christianity, it was
impossible that Christ could be fully human. Gnostic believers had their
own version of sacred Christian scriptures. Many of the texts were burnt
or otherwise destroyed by advocates of the orthodox view and are known
of only because they are mentioned in other manuscripts. However, treasured
portions of these writings, now known as the Gnostic Gospels,
survived because they were hidden in jars beneath a boulder in the Egyptian
desert for almost 2000 years.13 These gospels offer a very different
perspective on the person of Jesus than do the writings adopted by the
Once an orthodoxy became established, communities of believers that
disagreed with this orthodoxy were persecuted and their sacred texts
destroyed.* As a consequence, much of the rich early history of Jesus
worship is lost. More than twenty gospels were produced during the
first three centuries of Christianity. Many were systematically purged by
believers who held the dominant views. Some that remain have been
gathered into a book called Lost Scriptures along with non-canonical
Acts of the Apostles, epistles, and apocalypses or prophesies.14
Those gospels that made it into the Christian New Testament—Matthew,
Mark, Luke, and John—reflect the orthodox perspective. Whether
they were the ones that most accurately described the life of Jesus or his
teachings, we will never know. The earliest surviving fragments of these
books date from about 175 years after the death of Jesus, and our first
complete copy is from 350 CE Paul’s letters make no mention of the
gospels, and few non-Evangelical scholars believe they were actually written
by the apostles whose names they bear. The structure and wording
of three (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) suggest that they drew on each other
or an earlier text, now lost. John is a later document and differs from the
others, not just in its structure, but in its emphasis on the deity of Jesus.
Literally thousands of copies of New Testament books in Greek and
Latin exist. These manuscripts are impressively consistent. Evangelical
apologists, or defenders of the faith, point to the similarity of these manuscripts
to illustrate how little the Bible changed across centuries of transmission.
However, virtually all of these copies date to the time when
Christianity was already the state religion of the Roman Empire. The
collection of writings contained in the New Testament had become an
official sacred bible by that time. As a consequence, the agreement among
these texts tells us little about how true they were to the literal words of
an historical Jesus.
Anthropologists point out that the time when traditions and texts
would have evolved and changed most was during the early period—
before an official canon of sacred texts was finalized. The record of those
early years is spotty at best partly because early Christianity spread by
word of mouth and partly because, as mentioned, once a view became
dominant, its adherents worked to obliterate all others.
How Do Modern Scholars Study the Scriptures?
Lives have been spent, and as we shall see in later chapters, lives have
been taken, in the quest to define one inspired body of scripture. The
resulting collection of sacred texts bears the marks of cultural evolution
and borrowings, of debate, of political influences, and of centralized
power imposing consensus by force; in other words, of human history.
Few worshipers may ask about the history of their Holy Scriptures or
about the criteria used for inclusion or exclusion of specific passages.
Fewer still may revisit the decisions made by their ancestors in the faith.
But among theologians, there have always been dissenting opinions about
the content of the biblical canon and the merits of different passages. At the
time of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin penned the following
words: “But in regard to the Canon itself, which they so superciliously
intrude upon us, ancient writers are not agreed. Let the mediators, then,
enjoy their own as they please, provided we are at liberty to repudiate
those which all men of sense, at least when informed on the subject, will
perceive to be not of divine origin.”15
Thomas Jefferson, deeply versed in
theology, went so far as to dissect a copy of the Bible, retaining those
passages he deemed worthy inspirations for worship and morality. His
goal was to excavate the authentic teachings of Jesus from under the
Platonist philosophy superimposed by early Jesus worshipers. The text
he created is known as The Jefferson Bible and is still available today.16
In the mid-twentieth century, Bible scholars from universities on both
sides of the Atlantic formed a group called the Jesus Seminar. Some were
believers; some were not. None were inerrantists, since inerrantism
doesn’t allow the type of inquiry they were about to undertake. Over a
period of years, seminar members examined the gospels using the methods
historians apply to analyzing other ancient texts. These methods are
called “higher criticism.” They looked at similarities and contrasts within
and among the gospels. They studied other texts from the same time
period, made linguistic comparisons, and dissected content. In the end,
they voted on which parts of the gospels they thought reflected the actual
words of a historical Jesus.
This process outraged conservatives, who said the vote trivialized the
sacred word of God. Yet in reality, the Jesus Seminar scholars were following
a time-honored tradition and engaging in the very process by
which the content of the Bible was established. Their criteria were new:
they based their decisions about each piece of text on linguistic patterns
rather than doctrinal orthodoxy or reputed authorship. Also, their level
of analysis was more detailed. For the council that ratified the New Testament
canon in 393 CE, the Synod of Hippo Regius, a “book” of writings was
either in or out. For the members of the Jesus Seminar, a phrase was
either in or out. But their goal– to make a best guess about the real teachings
of a real Jesus—was the same. So was their democratic approach.
Catholics who believe in biblical inerrancy are at least logically consistent.
They believe that God grants infallibility at times to the church
hierarchy and that he did so during the process of canonization. For
Evangelicals to insist on biblical inerrancy is bizarre. Evangelicals repudiate
the authority of the Catholic hierarchy and God’s control of Roman
Catholic history. In other words, they reject the very processes that
brought their Bible into existence while at the same time claiming that
the end product of those processes is perfect.
Some modern Christians call this stance “Bibliolatry.” Inerrancy, in
their eyes, is idol worship. It makes the Bible itself into a Golden Calf.
Inerrancy elevates a collection of human musings to a status that should
be accorded only to God himself. By doing so, it detracts from the human
struggle to grasp the sublime otherness of the Divine, whom we
humans see “through a glass, darkly.”
Biblical scholar Karen Armstrong argues that many literalist teachings
were created by a misunderstanding, a misapplication of the humanist
tools of reason and individualism to a body of ancient spiritual mythos
that was never meant to be interpreted in the concrete, and consequently
superficial, way it is now understood by modern Evangelicals.17
If we step back from debates about higher criticism and inerrancy, a
larger question looms: suppose God really wanted to make a perfect revelation
of himself to humankind. Does it not seem likely that he would
show himself in some form equally accessible to all rather than in a specific,
corruptible literary tradition?
Biblical inerrantists insist that the Bible is the perfect, unchanging, and
final work of God. They argue that if we do not take it literally and defend
its perfection, then we cannot take it seriously. But I, myself, wonder
if the opposite is true, if taking the Bible literally prevents the reader
from taking it seriously. It puts the reader at odds with the stance of the
writers themselves. Each author labored to reach beyond the traditions
that had been handed down and to move forward in understanding the
realities, moralities, and mysteries that we call God. All wrote during a
time when people didn’t keep journals just for personal satisfaction, which
means they wrote because they were interested not only in personal spiritual
growth, but also the spiritual growth of the societies in which they lived.
Instead of fostering growth, biblical literalism locks the believer into a
state of developmental arrest. A literalist can progress as far as the authors
of the Bible did in their struggles to comprehend reality and goodness,
but no farther. Worse, literalism demands the suspension of learning
and of critical thought. As external knowledge accumulates— knowledge
of science, history, linguistics, and human nature—this stance
becomes more rigid and brittle. And as moral comprehension deepens,
this stance becomes more regressive. Many apologists who defend a
literal interpretation of the Bible become contortionists or even sophists.
Though they claim to worship the God of Truth, they risk joining those
whom Christian author Scott Peck called “people of the lie.”
By contrast, understanding the construction of the Bible allows scholars,
seekers, and worshipers to honor it in keeping with its history. As a
collection of sacred documents spanning more than a thousand years, it
records the struggle of our ancestors to establish fair societies, to empower
moral instincts, to identify and explain evil, to comprehend the
cycles of birth and death, and to reach for meaning beyond the day-to-day
struggle for existence. Seeing the Bible in this way means that wisdom
can be gleaned from both the attainments and the failings of those
who have come before us, from their insights and from their errors.
How can one approach such a task but with both reverence and caution?
*The first of the Crusades that targeted other Christians was a pogrom to exterminate the Cathars, who lived in the region of modern France and practiced a Gnostic variant of Christianity. It is estimated that 20,000–70,000 Cathars died in the first wave of assaults, with an estimated half million killed in total, the last being burned at the stake in the mid-14th Century.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.