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The Rise and Fall of the Bible

The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book

Timothy Beal

As a youth "I tended to approach the Bible as if it were a divine oracle of truth ... ask it a question and it would give you God's answer." "Does Joanne like me?" (open Bible, flip flip, flip) "He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter the congregation of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 23:1). Eventually I learned to flip far enough through my Bible to avoid the discourses on skin diseases and crushed testicles in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Two intellectual revolutions in the late 19th century. First, obviously, was Darwin's Origin of the Species. The second was the scholarly analysis of the Old Testament which demonstrated that it had been assembled from four different sources and multiple authors. In reaction to this, fundamentalists formed doctrine of biblical inerrancy, asserting that the Bible is God's literal words, entirely without error or contradiction.

Problem that when you inspect the most famous biblical characters, the ones held up as models of faith, they seem the opposite. Abraham, unable to trust in God's promise, twice passes off his wife Sarah as his sister, to save his own skin. Rebekah, who plays favourites among her two sons, helps the younger, Jacob, to steal the birthright of the elder, Esau.King David repeatedly exploits those who love him, takes whatever he wants, including women (married or not), shows no remorse until he gets caught, and who's alienated son dies trying to kill him. Jael, Ehud and many other lesser known biblical heroes and heroines who achieve greatness through trickery and betrayal.

Image of God seems to change from one passage to the next - rarely omniscient, often uncertain, frightening as often as comforting, mysterious more than informative.

Serious contradiction in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. In one, humankind is created last, in the other, a single human being is created first.

And in New Testament - two different versions of what happened to Judas. In Matthew he regrets betraying Jesus, returns the blood money and hangs himself. In Acts, he never repents, buys a field with his blood money, trips on a rock and disembowels himself.

Author comes to terms with these problems by thus: "The icon of the Bible as God's textbook for the world is as bankrupt as the idea it stands for, of religious faith as absolute black-and-white certainty.... faith calls not for obedient adherence to clear answers but thoughtful engagement with ultimate questions."

About half of all Americans agree that "the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings" and 2/3 believe it "answers all or most of the basic questions of life" ..... and 28% of them admit that they've never read it! There seems no correlation between reading the Bible and revering it. The Bible appears to be the most revered book never read. According to publishing research, average Christian household (in US) owns 9 Bibles and buys a new one every year. They just don't read them.

Author says this discrepancy partly due to consumerism - people want to identify as Christians, but they're not really interested in studying for it. But even more because people expect to get answers, but they don't get them. And they can't understand why it seems so easy for the preacher up at the pulpit on Sunday, but so hard for them. When people read the Bible, they notice the ambiguities and contradictions, but that makes them uneasy because they expect there to be one right reading. They assume the problem is with them - they just don't get it.


Leviticus 18:22

In the King James Version, Leviticus 18:22 is translated: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."

This is part of a list of banned sexual activities, including incest, bestiality, sex with a menstruating woman, sex with your partner's daughter or grand-daughter, a former prostitute, your brother's widow, and (in verse immediately before this) "Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek". In other words, nothing about lesbians or same-sex marriage.

This is how the text has been translated by later versions of the Bible.

New International Version (NIV)
22 "Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."

Living Bible:
"Homosexuality is absolutely forbidden, for it is an enormous sin"

New Living Translation:
"Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin."

Whereas the KJV spoke only of males, the newer bibles have taken it upon themselves to expand it to all homosexual behaviour.

Leviticus is difficult to take seriously as a moral arbiter, because he also bans eating shellfish or pork, wearing mixed-fibre clothing, and planting different plants in the same garden. Slavery, however, is ok.

Bible translations change meanings. Exodus 32:10 most translations have God tell Moses something like "Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them"(the Israelites who worshipped Aaron's golden calf). But the original Hebrew word is 'aph, nose. Here, as in many other places in the Bible, God's nose burns hot. You might argue that this is a metaphorical meaning, if it weren't for the next story in which God tucks Moses into a cleft in the rock and then walks past, allowing Moses to behold the divine backside.

Some bibles rewrite everything, meaning and all. The Inclusive Bible written by a group called Priests for Equality. The infamous passage in 1st Corinthians that orders women to be silent in church and subordinate to their husbands, is revised to "Only one spouse has permission to speak. The other is to remain silent, to keep in the background." and to wait his or her turn. The point is that these values are simply not in the Bible itself. They are later interpretations (at best), meant to make the Bible closer to what people today expect of it.

Main distinction between groups is that evangelists adapt traditional Christianity to modern consumer demands, so you have rock bands and bible magazines to make it more accessible, whereas fundamentalists sternly disapprove of such innovations.

The Gospel of Luke was probably written in early 80's CE. Like the other Gospels, it was originally anonymous. It was attributed to Luke, mentioned as a companion to Paul in his letter to the Colossians, more than a century later. But whoever the author was, we can be sure he didn't see Jesus himself. The opening tells us that: Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us bt those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus...(Luke 1:1-4) So the writer is not an eyewitness, and is fully aware that there were many gospels in circulation. And this isn't just a copy of existing gospel, it is an interpretation among the many others, based on research in various sources of information, both written and oral.

We don't have originals of any of the gospels. There are many variants among the 6000 or so manuscripts and manuscript fragments that have survived from first 400 years AD. Many of the variants aren't significant, but some are. Early manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark offer four different endings. Writings were copied, edited, supplemented and distributed through completely informal networks.

Before discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew scholars believed that the OT was pretty much fixed by time of Jesus. DSSs dated from 250BC to 68BC; until then the earliest known copies of the Jewish Scriptures in Hebrew dated to 10th and 11th centuries AD, and then were all very similar. But the DSSs had many significant differences from the scriptures of a thousand years later. So, over that 1000 years, the differences had been gradually edited out, producing the standard edition.

Likely that the same thing happened to the scriptures used by early Christians. Gospel of Mark begins with a quotation that conflates lines from Isiah and Malachi, attributing them to Isiah alone, implying that he didn't have a full copy of these books, but a set of testimonia which listed relevant quotations from the original. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, both of which appear to have used Mark as one of their literary sources, implicitly correct Mark by quoting the passage from Isiah alone (Matthew 3:3 and Luke 3:4).

Luke describes Jesus reading a passage from Isaiah, apparently quoting from a Greek edition, but the quoted words are significantly different to any editions that have survived today. Either the writer "Luke" felt able to rearrange Isiah as he or she desired, or they were working from a different version which has not survived. Either way, Isaiah was clearly far from fixed or changeless in the first century.

Significant variations among all surviving early manuscripts. For example, most versions of Revelations say the "mark of the beast" is 666. But the earliest one has 606; another has 665.

Earliest record of the 27 books of the NT as we know it today is in a letter written in 367 AD by the Bishop of Alexandria. But this doesn't mean that the list had been fixed. He was actually writing the letter to attack others who were promoting alternative lists, containing other texts.

Earliest writings were on scrolls, either of papyrus or parchment. They were bulky and unwieldy - typical OT book would be 27 feet long, and because it was a scroll, difficult to dip into - you had to start at the start and go to the end, rolling it up as you went. Early codices, or primitive books, could hold more and were easier to access. One of the oldest Christian codices dates to around 200 AD includes all of Paul's letters in its 208 pages. But if it takes 208 pages to hold that small part of the NT, you can imagine how bulky a complete bible would have been then. The technology of the codex did not mature enough to hold an entire canon of scripture until the 4th century. And that was the time that the canon was closing, editing out the scriptures judged unfit.

Point is that no Christians in the first 300 years of Christianity could possibly have imagined the Bible, a single book containing the closed, definitive canon of Jewish and Christian Scriptures. It was both socially and physically impossible. There were too many versions of too many different writings in too many languages for there to be a common, agreed version. And there was simply no medium capable of holding such a library.

Earliest nearly-Bible is Codex Sinaiticus dating to about mid-300's. But it includes some apocryphal Jewish texts, but is missing others, and similarly its NT has Letter to Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas which are no longer in the official NT.

Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to study all the various versions of Scripture and establish a single authorative Latin edition from them. By his death in 420 AD he and team had produced what eventually became the standard Vulgate (common or popular) Bible for Western Christendom. The earliest surviving copy of this, the Codex Amiatimus, dates to the start of the 8th century. It is 20 inches high, 13 inches wide, and 7 inches thick. But Jerome's bible didn't immediately remove all the others. That took another 400 years. There are about 370 biblical manuscripts and fragments in Latin that date to earlier than 800 AD. Only about a third of these are Vulgates. And the Vulgate itself got edited. Apocraphyl books such as Baruch and Tobit, which appear in Greek manuscripts, were excluded by Jerome because they didn't appear in the Hebrew versions, but got added into later Vulgates after Jerome's death.

Since the publication of the KJV in 1611, there have been both rediscoveries of significant manuscripts, such as the Codex Sinaiticus, and advances in knowledge of ancient biblical languages. Hence the Revised Bible of 1881, which updated the archaic language of the KJV, and corrected some of the mistranslations which had come to light. But this opened a can of worms. Is any translation trustworthy? Do different translations reflect different values and vested interests? Is the bible subject to criticism and revision? Is there one Bible or are there many?

Fundamentalists divided because of their commitment to biblical inerrancy - ie the original 'autographs' were without error or contradiction. But since we don't have any of the original autographs, scholarship has to infer the most reliable original text. Some retreated to the KJV.

One particular bone of contention was the use of word woman vs virgin in relation to the birth of Jesus. The Revised Standard Version translates Isiah 7:14 as "Behold, a young woman will conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." This translation comes from the Hebrew text which uses the Hebrew word 'almah (young woman) not betulah (virgin). But Matthew quotes from the Greek translation which does use the word parthenos meaning virgin. These details were too complex for some critics, who were scandalized by the apparent denial of the virgin birth. One excitable Baptist minister went so far as to burn that page, declaring the RSV "a master stroke of Satan."

This lead to an explosion of competing bibles. Some offered different translations, others gave up word-for-word "inerrancy" in favour of a meaning-driven approach. The dream of a common bible is dead and buried.

The American Bible Society originally attempted to collect every published edition of the bible, but had to give up in the 1970's because there were so many that it simply became impossible.

In fact, the author describes the current situation as a 'distress crop' - a distress crop being the final production of a fruit tree, sensing that it is about to die, puts all its energy into one last big effort, to generate as many seeds as possible.

Image of the rock and the river. Historically, Christians have expected the Bible to be their rock, solid and unchanging and dependable.So they've looked for one correct, inerrant version. But today the bible looks more like a river - continually flowing and changing, widening and narrowing as it moves downstream. And this image can be liberating, in that sometimes faith can be just a matter of letting go and going with the flow.

Name 'bible' comes from Greek word, biblia, which is plural of biblion, meaning scroll or book. So the word bible originally meant books plural, not the singular The Book which it has become.

The bible is a collection of texts written by many different people, mostly anonymous, in many different translations, and in many different historical and social contexts. These texts were edited, revised and translated by many others. They were copied and circulated widely in scroll and codex form for a very long time as independent texts and in smaller collections. They were not the same from copy to copy. there was no beginning or end to them, no first or last page. And they grew through interpretation, as newer texts that created new meanings from older texts were added and became part of the collections. Eventually they were bound together in a single volume. But even then there was never one single official version of the bible. There were various collections, translated in various ways from a variety of earlier manuscripts, none of them original, each written in different ancient languages.

Jerome used the Latin word bibliotheca which means library. And makes a lot of sense to see the Bible as such. A library is a collection of writings. It may include a variety of genres from a range of periods of history. You don't expect it to all be in same authorial voice. The books are intentionally selected or excluded. Although the books are shelved in a certain order which suited the librarian, there is no need to read everything from start to finish.

Suggests that completely wrong to expect a single "right" meaning - the one its divine author intended. "What does the Bible say?" "The Bible is very clear about that", is paralyzing, because as soon as you inevitably notice the contradictions and tensions there is no obvious "right" answer. It is impoverishing to strain for the single right answer, and even worse to let someone else tell you what the answer is.


The Bible is univocal about nothing. The very first letter of the first word of Genesis is an example. In Hebrew the word is bere'shit, which can be translated in two very different but equally correct ways, and each way leads to a very different meaning for the start of the creation story. The early Greek translators treated it as a noun, leading to the translation "In the beginning, God created...". But Jewish translators preferred it to be a verb, so "When God began to create..."

In the first, God creates the world from nothing. In the second, the earth is already there, and he just organizes the chaos. There's a big difference. And it cannot be resolved - either version can be correct.

This multi-voice continues. Genesis has two different accounts of creation. In the first, humans (plural), made in God's image, are created after everything else - animal and vegetable life is already teeming by the time they arrive. In the second, the order of creation is entirely different. God's first act of creation is to form a single human, not yet male or female, from the dust of the earth, then bring it to life by breathing in its nostrils.

When scholars look closely at the two stories in Hebrew, its clear that they come from two different sources. As well as the different narratives, they use different names for God, they have different narrative styles and vocabularies. Most scholars believe the first story dates from around the time of the Babylonian captivity, the second is a few centuries earlier. Yet in the version of Genesis we have today, the two very different stories have been stitched together into one narrative.

But these aren't the only creation stories in the Bible. In Job, the first act of creation is described as a struggle between God and the primordial forces of chaos, called Yam. God wins the struggle, then sinks deep foundations for the earth like some huge offshore drilling platform. In Psalm 74 there is another version of creation. This is a more violent struggle, in which God has to destroy the teeming forces of chaos, the sea monsters and Leviathan, which are outside creation. This version was written when the Babylonians had attacked and destroyed the Jerusalem temple, and the writer is begging God to rescue the Hebrews from the resurgent forces of chaos. (spoiler: He didn't.) Yet another biblical version of creation is in Proverbs 8. Wisdom (hokmah) is personified as a female companion to God, and she says she was with God "from the beginning, from the origin of the earth, there was still no deep when I was brought forth, no springs rich with water, before the mountains were sunk." When God "assigned the sea its limits" "I was at his side as confidant. I was a source of delight every day."

Young Earth Creationists declare that their faith rests on the historical and scientific accuracy of "the biblical account of creation" and if the biblical account is wrong, if modern evolutionary theory and cosmology are right, then the Bible is a lie and Christianity is a fraud. They are setting themselves up for a fall. The Bible's own creationism is rich in different, mutually incompatible ways of imagining cosmic and human beginnings. There is no single biblical account of creation. There are many, and they don't agree.

The Poison texts

Bible used as a justification for slavery. Exodus gives detailed rules for trading slaves and other possessions, such as daughters. Some Christians claim that OT rules don't count any more because Jesus freed us from them. Yet Paul does not condemn his friend Philemon for owning slaves, he simply requests that one particular slave be freed.

Numbers 25 the Israelites are suffering from a deadly plague, which Moses explains is God's punishment for marrying non-Israelites. A priest named Phineas notices an Israelite man with a Midianite woman. He follows them to their tent and spears them both. In response to this double murder, God lifts the plague and blesses Phineas, promising him an "everlasting priesthood".

The Contradictions

The empty tomb stories in the four Gospels. Who went to the tomb and discovered it empty?
In Matthew: Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary"
In Mark: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome
In Luke: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James,and "the other women with them"
In John: just Mary Magdalene

And what did they see?
In Matthew: an angel who looked like lightning come down from Heaven and roll away the stone while the guards freeze like dead men.
In Mark: the stone has already rolled away and a young man dressed in white is sitting there
In Luke: the stone is rolled away and there are two men in dazzling clothes standing there In John: Mary Magdalene sees only that the stone is rolled away.

And what did they do?
In Matthew and Luke: they go and tell the disciples that Jesus is risen
In Mark: they run away in fear and tell no-one
In John: Mary Magdalene runs back to tell the others that the body has been stolen.

Bible debunkers seem to believe that simply demonstrating that the Bible is full of inconsistencies and contradictions is enough to discredit it. But Beal argues that a single non-contradictory voice has never been the aim of the Bible. He says that the discrepancies between the creation stories would have been as obvious to the original compilers as to us. So, the purpose of the Bible is to"hold together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument .... the Bible interprets itself, argues with itself, and perpetually frustrates any desire to reduce it to (a single voice)." (But this of course means that you have to accept it as a human document, not a divine, or divinely inspired one.)

Rejects what he calls the simplistic idea that faith is firm belief - absolute certainty despite observed facts or evidence. To Beal, faith deepens not in finding certainty but in learning to live with ambiguity.

Salon review of this book

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