By Larry Imhoff, February 20, 2011
The Bible is purported to be the bestselling book ever. So what can we learn from it? Is it the inspired word of God? Does the Bible provide a consistent philosophy to guide our daily lives?
Like many non-theists, I take great interest in the Bible and what believers and non-believers have to say about it. So let’s look at some historical facts.
To date, no complete version of any original biblical text has been found. Scholars must work with fragments of copies of copies of translations of copies — not an auspicious beginning.
In misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman notes that early biblical writers often used a process called scriptio continua — simply letters strung together, no punctuation, no capitalization, no spaces between words and initially no vowels.
Consider the letters, “gdsnwhr.” A theist might interpret this as “God is now here,” a nonbeliever could as easily interpret the string as, “God is nowhere.”
Imagine the challenge when thousands or tens of thousands of letters are strung together, add to this the different writing styles and vocabularies and the complexity becomes apparent.
The problems don’t end there. Once created, the manuscripts had to be hand copied, letter by letter, page by page. This manual copying process continued until at least 1440, with the introduction of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Prior to that, different copies of the same text show numerous variations.
How did these come about? Some were probably human error. Others may have been deliberate attempts to clarify a point. There also is evidence that some texts were modified to address changing social conditions.
As early as the second century, writers such as Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria and Christian opponent Celsus of Rome complained about inconsistencies among various texts. Later, in 1706, English theologian John Mill published a comparative study of the approximately 150 known copies of New Testament writings in which he noted more than 30,000 textual variations.
How important are these variations? Some are simple misspellings, or an omitted word; others significantly alter the story. In every case, a variation is another crack in the façade of divine inspiration.
Many religious leaders would have us believe that their Bible stories came directly from the hand of God. They fail to mention that many biblical narrations are borrowed from earlier religions. The story of Gilgamesh predates the Old Testament by many centuries and includes a great flood story. The “virgin birth” appears to have been added to Christian belief in roughly the third century.
Those same clergy are content to act as though the New Testament suddenly came together with little or no discussion. We are not told of the centuries-long fights over which versions of the various books were to be accepted into the Bible. There were heated debates over Jesus’ divinity. Some believed Jesus was not divine (how could a divine being be killed?), others believed he was made divine upon his death. Still others believed he was both human and divine.
In light of the above discussion, let’s revisit the original questions. Is the Bible the inspired word of God? Given the multitude of variant biblical writings, there is no evidence of divine inspiration. The Bible is very much a product of human endeavor — written by humans for humans.
This leads to the second question; Does the Bible provide a consistent philosophy to guide our daily lives? The short answer is no.
Consider the Bible’s mixed love-hate messages. Consider the number of biblical offenses demanding a stoning death. What about the Bible’s numerous inconsistencies, such as the four Gospels unable to agree on the details of Jesus’ trial, his crucifixion, and his last words on the cross or the events surrounding his resurrection?
Considering the above, can the Bible provide any guidance for our daily lives? Perhaps, but so can William Shakespeare, Mark Twain and, occasionally, the Sunday comics.
Few people, however, feel compelled to kill over a comic strip. Not so with biblical differences. Recall the so-called righteous killing of doctors who perform abortions or gays who happen into the wrong Wyoming bar and end up dragged to death behind a pickup truck.
For those who choose to interpret literature as literal truth, the Bible can support almost any evil imaginable. In fact, serious dangers can arise anytime the Bible is taken to be anything more than an interesting, occasionally poetic amalgamation of historic stories.