Bibliographic Comments on the Bible.
The Bible is a Library
THE BOOK is a Library
The Bible is not a book like War and Peace. First, it is not a unitary book all written by the same man. It is rather a library of books by different writers over a long time and in three languages. Second, here is no precise and universal definition of the Bible. The list of books in that library varies with the particular history of each group of readers. Third, the literary types of the books vary from poetry to folklore to history to parable to letter to liturgical materials to prophetic rants and visions. When every single word is taken as one or the other of fiction, inerrant history, political propaganda, folk tales, or allegorical symbolism, the meaning of the word
Bible blurs into invisible.
THE BOOK has a History
Samaritans have the Pentateuch (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) for their Bible. The Jews have the Pentateuch and add the Prophets (books like Kings and Jeremiah) and the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, and the like). Usually Christians call the Jewish collection the Old Testament but I like to call it the Original Testament. All of these books are in the Hebrew language with a small amount of Aramaic. There is also a Greek translation of the Original Testament that is different here and there from the Hebrew collection and adds a few more books. Called the Septuagint, it is a very old and very important witness to the biblical text. The Christians use the Original Testament, sometimes following the Hebrew canon and sometimes the Greek, and add the Gospels and other essays and letters written in Greek. This Christian extension is called the New Testament.
There is a rich literature on all of these books, their authorship, transmission, and dates. Most scholars set the first written documents in this library in the Ninth Century, BC, although oral and written sources may be far older. Although some of the books in the Septuagint may be a century or two later, the bulk of the Hebrew canon was written before the Third Century, BC. The books in the New Testament were published between 50AD and about 100AD. The Hebrew Bible canon and the Christian canon were both formed about 200AD. If you find later dates than these in some authorities, check the dates of their publications. Anything older than the 1990's is probably not up to date with the latest and best scholarship.
About the only thing that all extant branches of Abraham's family, including Islam, agree about after the Pentateuch is that some books from these same times are heretical. They are usually correct, the other literature was left out of every canon because it was poorly written, outrageously miraculous and mystic, and often bad–mouthed the God of the Original Testament. Some recently recovered Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, have value to the historian, textual critic, and modern believers and skeptics. But anyone comparing even the best of these books with those that are in the canon will agree with the old bishops and rabbis.
The history of the transmission of the texts of the books of this library is complicated, important, and interesting only to textual critics. For most of the time between the writing and the modern reading of these books, the copying has been by individual hand. We are so spoiled by a digital copy of anything going around the world without an error in a million that this variation in the old manuscripts puzzles us. The Jews did rather better with the Hebrew Bible than the Christians did with their sacred texts. Very few errors, less than 1 percent, accumulated in the Hebrew text from the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls until now. That is more than two thousand years. The Christians however inserted, substituted, and confused at least one word in every sentence of the New Testament. Perhaps this was because our literature was so much younger when it was canonized or perhaps because we were so full of heretics or perhaps because so many amateurs did the copying. Or, as is becoming clear, the books that became the Hebrew canon were just as flexible but only until about the turn of the First Millennium.
Usually the errors are obvious and were even picked up by the copyist himself the next day. But some are serious and seriously misleading. Today there is general agreement that we are able to sort this all out and come close, not perfect, but close, to the text of the first edition of these works.
THE BOOK has fans
Then there are arguments over the status of specific books, even sections of books. Christians are divided among themselves about which books are included or which sections are original. And the text is not completely settled because some who use the Bible cling to textual transmission errors and others go too far in guesses about the text of the original document.
And almost everybody sorts the books they do canonize into the beloved and the ignored. Who can quote any sentence from Leviticus? At the same time, we all know people who have detailed knowledge of parts of Revelations. Canons of usage are more important than canons of acceptance. Bible believers often feel free to ignore books they refuse to drop from their canon. It is as if the other books contradicted their favorite doctrines. Go figure.
Without a sectarian context the term
The Bible is vague and variable. Whenever the word appears most people will think that the referent is one single edition, version, and canon: their own. Instead, I use the words
The Book or
Scripture because they do not have the emotional content that the word bible does and are understood by all to be indefinite and imprecise. Calling a yard a meter is accurate as long as we both understand it is not very precise. But when I am speaking to the whole Judeo—Christian world I like to use the word, as I do in the URL of this web space. Despite our differences, this Book holds our common attention as the location where we find our God.
That said, this book in its various forms is the source of the West's life and one of the parents (along with Greek philosophy) of science. Judge it to be myth or objective history, this literature is the stuff out of which we have made several great civilizations and the industrial, economic, political and scientific revolutions. This book must be ready to hand and mind's eye before anyone may call themselves literate, modern, Western, or wise. Even if they don't believe a word of it, maybe especially if they don't believe a word of it, everyone must have mental access to its contents. This utterly contradicts the whole idea of state run, tax supported schools which must be secular and therefore are doomed to fail in passing on Western Civilization, never mind our religious faith.
Our literature serves as the mythic basis for Western civilization, the common set of stories and attitudes that form the infancy of our culture and our self. But for some our literature is more than that. We believe that it is the word, The Word, the source and carrier of the Personality and Character whom we call our God. These two views of this body of literature are not mutually exclusive, nor mutually dependent.
THE BOOK is a Conspiracy
There are conspiracy theories on both sides. One side thinks that any critical examination of the text or minor change in traditional interpretation or any new translation is a conspiracy to
…take the Bible away from me by the godless fillintheblanks. Ironically, the other extreme also views the Bible as a single document instead of a variable composite. They think that a few guys in 325CE made up the whole thing, every word, and claimed it was old, in order to maintain their ecclesiastical power. Careful scholarship and physical evidence have reduced the numbers of both conspiracy theory proponents. But these sorts of theories have a life of their own. Whenever new arguments or evidence appears, it is taken as further proof of the strength of the conspiracy, and the theory becomes a faith and we are done talking rationally.
Both true skeptics and true believers should be able to discuss the evidence and theories rationally, without the claims of conspiracy or plots. For it is clear that in some ways the Bible IS the result of deliberate choices by a small group of clerics. That proves nothing. Was every book written at that time supposed to be canonized? Should they have taken polls or held elections for favorite books? The choices they made were often the most rational and scholarly of all those available. Isn't that how science decides? The error of those clerics was not that they made choices, nor their standards, nor their methods. The error was in freezing the canon for all time, halting the growth and change of their understanding of their God. I mean, if the Living God changes His mind, again, does that not call for us to listen and publish His Word?
That proves nothing. is wrong. One popular but extreme view denies all human participation in revelation. God wrote the book and gave a clean, camera ready copy to the Pope or somebody hundreds of years ago. Rational atheists and rational Christians can make common cause against this antihistorical belief, even though it is popular. Together they can locate and discuss the evidence of the process and the wide range of quality in the writing available then. Atheists will be surprised to find themselves agreeing with particular choices those men made even while continuing to disagree with their core philosophy and beliefs. Christians will be surprised to find out how human and ordinary their holy book is, even as they maintain their faith in the Person responsible for it.
There are some who claim nothing in the New Testament was actually said by Geshua, it was all made up. That is clearly wrong. Even the most skeptical scholars of these texts and times find a residue of sayings that probably did come from Geshua. And, for their part, would it be so bad for Christians to admit that in some cases He probably did not say this or that passage?
And then there is a very common belief that the whole process is inspired by God, that even the translations and versions are controlled by Him to remain perfect and infallible. Well, nonsense. I suppose the wish that is the seed of the belief is that,
Since I cannot read Hebrew and I cannot trust the professionals who do, either God is fixing the translation or I cannot trust the Bible. I have two observations here. First, nonsense. There are enough of us who know the original languages and cultures that any attempt by some conspiracy to change by translation what the Bible teaches will be caught out. Obviously. This happens every time some politically correct, sexless translation comes along. Guys like me gleefully jump all over such dishonesty. But think a second time about this. If our Lord was going to police the translations of His Word, how would He do it? Ah, of course: free speech and free inquiry in the minds and on the tongues of His faithful servants. After all, then, He does guide the whole process, not like a puppet master but like a shepherd. Grasping the difference between those two ways of being God reveals the true nature of the Bible.
I hope you have detected the real issue here. Is the Bible open to skeptical criticism like any other cultural artifact? Or is the Bible not a part of history and therefore requires an emotional reaction, either love or hate? At first the division between those who hate and those who love seems the greatest divide. But later it becomes clear that the fundamental division is between those who see a book to be read and discussed and those who see an idol to be smashed or worshiped.
Extremism is not the problem. Aristotle was wrong, I rather like extreme points of view because–like widely separated radio astronomy antennae–they offer clarity of vision and resolution of detail. Even a moderate view, if it refuses to go into detail about specific bits of text because the overall doctrine of Scripture is more important, limits conversation. Once again, the growth factor is pitted against the perfection factor. What makes a point of view irrational is not how moderate or extreme it is, but how exposed it is to new evidence or argument. If you refuse to examine ancient manuscript evidence or admit that even one passage is in doubt, or objectively reported, you are irrational.
THE BOOK is Ha Shem's Ark
And here it is, the whole theory and faith I present about Scripture. That, flawed and edited to near destruction by people who were often ignorant, this literature is the vehicle which He rides through history. It cannot be repaired, should not be repaired. Like an armless statue rescued from ruins, it stands as it is found, testament to the durability of beauty, the power of entropy, and the reality of history. Artists are not moved to fix the statue but to create new ones like it. Artists continue history. But too often biblicists seek to stop history, to paste over and paint the bad places in the Bible and pretend this book came from somewhere else, not bloody Israel. Like the colorization of classic black and white films, too often we go for market share instead of excellence.
We who love this book the most will now do two things. First, probe into it as it stands and as we can find new evidence for how it stood when first written and make sure the text is true to its own history. This means no silly translations that change the gender of pronouns or smooth the language or reinterpret the original. We must look for original fragments of the statue instead of filling in the missing pieces with pickup truck body putty. Second, we must begin again to create our own literature offered for canonization by those who come later in history. To live means to change and to grow. If this is the Living Word, as we claim, then it cannot be imprisoned in the unbiblical notion that change and growth are bad while eternal and frozen, like a dead thing, is good.
It interests me that up until the synthesis was made with the Greek civilization, every generation of His people produced a new edition of our literature, one that usually preserved intact (even if patched and quilted) what they had received and that usually added new branches and rings. We had a living, evolving God. until He was exiled from earth to heaven and renamed the Supreme Being, where He has remained frozen for almost two millennia. Now that the synthesis is breaking up because the Greek theism is passing away, perhaps the growth and evolution of our literature (and therefore our God) can begin again.
For our personal choice is among these: do not follow any word, follow the ahistorical Word, or follow the Living Word. I believe that, for Christians, events will soon remove the middle option and that, for all of us, cultural collapse will remove the first.
Which is ironic since this book is quoted on the Liberty Bell.
Myth has come to mean fairytale, made up gods to explain clouds and trees. But I am using the word mythic here in its classic sense because it perfectly expresses this idea: that historical fact or imaginary fiction, the stories and lessons that parents teach their children are what form and underlay a culture. We are what we eat, we become what we listen to. For example, the parting of the Red Sea creates in we Westerners an expectation of rescue and escape from our slave masters that has been referred to often in American history as we struggle for freedom and civil rights. Divine intervention or not, we are those who have escaped.
Take the word evolution as you will, I am not devoted to any one sense of this phrase. I will insist that we see that the understanding and grasp of who He is grows and evolves. He said some to Abraham, some to Moshe, some to Isaiah. He once walked among us as a brother, now He does not. He will again. On the other hand, this does not mean that He Himself, apart from His revelation about Himself, changes; except as He tells us it is a change. Whatever else is true about our literature, this is: That the biblical God is both alive and beyond our lives. He does change, even grow, from era to era. Call it evolving or reject this word as you will, it is still revealed truth that new aspects of His character appeared in every age. But this is also true, more true, the Voice that has spoken to us for these thousands of years is the same Voice, with the same offer of Covenant, with the same threat of wrath. The Sermon on the Mount recalls the Original Testament, sounds like the Original Testament, is the Original Testament.