Monday, July 13, 2020

The Idolatry of the Bible

Biblical inerrancy: The doctrine that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and perfectly truthful word of God [1,2,3,4,5,6]. It’s a widely held belief among mainstream Christian denominations, but have you ever wondered what exactly this doctrine entails? Because when we listen to popular Christian authorities, they seem to paint an image of God Himself picking up a pen and then scribbling down words with His own bare hands---as if God personally inscribed the letters onto some holy parchment in golden ink before handing it off to the world. How else are we supposed to interpret this idea that God is allegedly the “author of scripture [7],” or that scripture itself is “breathed out by God [8]?”

The reality, of course, is very different. We know that God could not have possibly written the Bible with His own hands, because the Bible itself explicitly names human authors. It’s right there in the very titles to half of its books: The Gospel According to Matthew, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, the Song of Solomon, the Book of Isaiah---all human authors. Even when the books aren’t declaring their own authorship outright, it’s at least pretty well understood that a human being is the one who originally wrote down the words. So when Christians continually describe the Bible as God’s word, I tend to get very confused. How exactly do the words of men get elevated to the words of God?

Broadly speaking, the most popular view seems to be that, although God did not physically write the Bible with his own hands, He still “inspired” the Bible through His prophets [9]. For example, in the Book of Galatians [10], Paul tells us that he did not receive any of this information from mere human sources, but through divine revelation from Jesus Christ (and since Jesus and God are one, any revelation from Jesus is essentially a revelation from God). Likewise, the four Gospels make no claim to being the personal autographs of Jesus, but merely second-hand accounts of what Jesus supposedly said and did. Some books make no particular mention whatsoever about their sources, but are at least understood to come from God as the original inspiration. It’s a perfectly legitimate interpretation that most Christians are happy to endorse, but can we at least take a moment to just acknowledge what’s really going on here? Whenever you read a given passage from the Bible, you’re not experiencing the Word of God in any direct, literal sense. At best, what you’re really getting is the word of a man who merely claims to speak on behalf of God.

And hey, maybe you’re totally comfortable with that particular belief. God speaks to Paul, Paul speaks to us, therefore the word of Paul is, for all practical purposes, the Word of God. However, I hope you can forgive me for still feeling a bit confused. When Paul shares the Word of God with us, are we talking about a verbatim transcript of the actual words spoken by God to Paul? That is to say, did Paul receive verbal dictation from God and then transcribe His conversation word-for-word?

Actually, no. The Bible is very clearly not intended to serve as a verbatim transcript of God’s speeches, and there are even several instances where the authors openly speak on their own behalf rather than on God’s [11]. The Bible therefore cannot possibly represent God’s words in its entirety, because human men are definitely the ones doing most of the talking. Nevertheless, just because the words are not explicitly God’s, that doesn’t have to mean God is completely absent. Maybe the authors are just giving us a synopsis of what God said, or maybe He just “inspired” them with the appropriate words. Again, that’s perfectly okay if you want to believe that, and most Christians will admit exactly that when pressed. But surely, that’s all there is to it, right? God speaks to His prophets, the prophets write down a condensed summary for the rest of us, and there are no intermediate steps along the way.

Well, not exactly. For example, according the Gospel of Luke, we don’t really have a first-hand account of anything Jesus supposedly said. Rather, what we do have is a collection of second-hand accounts that were allegedly “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word [12].” Furthermore, even though the other three Gospels neglect to say it out loud, it is at least strongly indicated that the authors are not eyewitnesses. None of these intermediate sources are even identified, either, leaving us entirely in the dark as to who these people supposedly were. We have no idea how many people were interviewed, what vetting process was used in their selection, or how far removed they are from the original events.

Let’s not forget that these alleged sources are not exactly contemporary, either. For example, most Biblical scholars agree that the book of Mark wasn’t actually written down until at least 30 years after Jesus’ death, and the other three gospels were almost certainly recorded even later than that. So any time you read a story about Jesus and his ministry, it’s important to realize that you’re not getting the word of God through some prophet. At best, what you’re really getting is the word of some guy who merely claims to know some other guy, who apparently heard it from yet other guy, who totally swears that he was there decades ago when Jesus did all the things.

Bear in mind now that none of this stuff is particularly controversial, given that the Bible itself is the primary source for this information. But let’s just ignore all of that and assume anyway that everything written down by the Biblical authors is the inspired, inerrant, and perfectly truthful word of God. Could someone please now tell me where exactly I might find an original manuscript so that I might read it for myself?

Yeah, about that. Did we forget to mention that none of the original manuscripts survived? The printing press wasn’t invented until the 15th century, which means every single copy of every single page in the Bible had to be written by hand. Paper manuscripts also have the annoying tendency to decay over time, which means all original autographs, including their immediate copies, have long-since rotted away. Consequently, any time we speak about a particular book in the Bible, we are definitely not talking about the original writings of the original authors. At best, we can only talk meaningfully about copies of copies of copies of copies that eventually got passed down to us today.

Surely though, we can trust all of those ancient scribes to perfectly preserve the original wording of the Biblical authors, right?

Not by a long shot. Ancient scribes were notorious for their tendency to commit errors, and there are countless documented examples of this stuff littered throughout the surviving manuscripts. These aren’t exactly harmless spelling mistakes, either, but massively deliberate changes with significant theological consequences. One of the most egregious examples of this phenomenon is the so-called pericope adulterae found in the book of John---or, depending on which ancient manuscript you read, not found in the book of John [13,14]! It’s the famous story about Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, and the entire thing is nothing but an honest-to-goodness textual variant. We actually have multiple surviving copies of the book of John dating as far back as the early third century, and the entire story is conspicuously absent from the earliest texts [15].

Even the very titles of the Gospels themselves are known textual variants. Nowhere in the oldest Greek manuscripts will you ever find anything that either says or implies “The Gospel According to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John.” Christian scribes deliberately added those titles centuries later, because they wanted to give respectable names otherwise anonymous accounts.

This is exactly why many Christian organizations tend to limit the doctrine of inerrancy to just the original autographs of the text [6]. It's weird, too, because on some fundamental they must realize the theological can of worms that entails. There simply do not exist any surviving autographs to point to, which means any attempt to reconstruct an original text is necessarily an educated guess. But let’s suppose we’re again feeling generous and just assume anyway that none of this is a problem. The Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of God, preserved with absolute precision over countless centuries, just as the original autographs intended, and written down in modern American English.

No, of course not. That would be silly. The Bible was not written American English, but Koine Greek and Ancient Hebrew---both long-dead languages that no living human being has ever heard spoken aloud! Every time you read a modern English translation of the Bible, you’re reading exactly that: a translation. At some point in history, a human being must have physically held an ancient manuscript in his hands before painstakingly translating that document into our own native languages. Yet as anyone with any experience in translation knows, it is fundamentally impossible to perfectly preserve meaning when translating ideas from one language to another. That’s why so many different versions of the Bible exist in the first place. There is no objectively “correct” way to interpret a language, which means you eventually have to pick and choose which Biblical translation you want to read. Is it the King James Bible? The American Standard Bible? The Common English Bible? The New International Bible? The English Standard Bible? Unless you personally happen to possess perfect fluency in multiple ancient languages, then you necessarily must rely on the efforts of fallible human beings whenever you read an English translation of the Bible.

To make matters even more complicated, many of the original Greek copies of the New Testament are already translations unto themselves. Remember that Jesus is supposed to have conducted his ministry among the poor illiterate peasants of ancient Palestine, which means any words he physically spoke out loud would have necessarily been Aramaic. Greek was not the language of poor, illiterate peasants, but rich, educated elites. So it’s not just one language barrier we have to contend with, but two language barriers, the first of which is now forever hopelessly lost to time.

But hey, maybe none of that matters to you either. Maybe you believe that God perfectly preserved every last bit of essential doctrine throughout the entire history of the Bible so that we could enjoy its message today. Everything from Genesis and Judges all the way down to the Gospels and the Epistles is all perfectly inspired scripture, right? Oh, and let’s forget my personal favorites, The Wisdom of Solomon, the Book of Tobit, and the Book of Judith.

Wait, hold on a second. Do you mean to tell me that those last three books are not the inerrant, inspired word of God? Says who? The protestants? That’s odd, because the Catholics seem to be telling me the exact opposite. So fine, let’s settle this once and for all. Could someone please tell me, at what point in history did God personally come to Earth and reveal which Biblical documents are officially His inspired Holy scripture, and which ones are just the fallible concoctions of human authors?

Oh, that’s right. Never. The task of picking and choosing which books to include in the Bible was not matter of divine revelation. Men did that. Fallible human men are the ones who ultimately dug through all the ancient manuscripts before deciding which ones to keep and which ones to toss. This was almost certainly a difficult, task, too, because forgeries were definitely a widespread problem among ancient Christians. For example, in 2 Thessalonians Chapter 2, Paul himself warns openly against the existence of forged letters in his own name [16]. It’s ironic, too, given that modern scholars actually believe that this exact letter was very likely a forgery unto itself. So what criteria could ancient scholars possibly employ that would guarantee a perfect, inerrant selection of scripture, given the abundance of textual variants, alternative theologies, and even outright forgeries?

Let's be clear. It’s one thing to believe that God “inspired” the Bible in some roundabout, metaphorical sense, but it’s another thing entirely to describe the Bible as some kind of flawlessly divine relic. We’re talking about a book that was written by men, often times by interviewing the memories other men, only to then get translated by men, edited by men, summarized by men, copied by men, preserved by men, translated again by men, and then compiled by men, only to finally get promoted by men as the perfectly inerrant and absolutely truthful word of God. Not only is that blatantly dishonest, but it elevates the work of fallible, mortal men to the status Godly perfection. There’s a word for that in Christian theology, my friends. It is called idolatry, and it is a terrible, deadly sin.

Notes/References:
  1. “We believe that the God who created the universe is capable of writing a book, and the God who is perfect is capable of writing a perfect book.” - Bible Munch (video)
  2. “If one believes that the Bible is inspired by God, and is therefore God’s word to us, then it seems to me that that would imply that it is reliable in all that it teaches; and that would be what the doctrine of inerrancy affirms: that the Bible is true in all that it teaches.” - William Lane Craig (video)
  3. “We’re going to take a look this morning at what the Catholic church actually does teach concerning the inerrancy … of sacred scripture: that is, its complete and absolute freedom, in its entirety of any error of any kind, whatsoever.” – Bruce Sullivan (video)
  4. “God the Father can’t err, the Bible is the word of God, therefore the Bible can’t err.” - Norman Geisler (video)
  5. “So in all things that they [the Bible’s words] affirm, and in all things that they deny, they are completely truthful because they are God’s words. This doctrine of the authority of scripture, the inerrancy of scripture, that scripture does not have error, what held by the Christian church without fail, without compromise from the time of the New Testament until the 1600s.” – Dr. Robert Plummer (video)
  6. "We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit". - Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (pdf)
  7. The Holy Spirit: Author of Scripture (link)
  8. 2 Timothy 3:16
  9. (link)
  10. Galatians 1:11-18
  11. See, for example, Galatians, 1:10, or Luke 1
  12. Luke 1 (NIV)
  13. Grabiner, Steven, "Pericope Adulterae: A most perplexing passage," Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 56, No. 1, pp 91-114 (2018)
  14. Knust, Jennifer Wright, "Early Christian re-writing and the history of the Pericope Adulterae," Journal of Early Christian Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp 485-536 (2006)
  15. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus_66
  16. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2: Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.