It is a well-established fact in secular academia that the Bible contains much that is more similar to mythology and legend, than to objective reality. Creation of the world in six twenty-four hour days, an idyllic primordial garden with a talking snake and trees whose fruit can grant Life and Knowledge, a global deluge that covered the entire planet, leaving only eight survivors to re-populate the human race, among many others. It is unfortunate that many in the religious community find this so threatening to their faith. Biblical inerrancy has not always been the norm within the Christian church, and still isn’t in the Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations. Being able to interpret spiritual truths from Scripture, while granting its authors the leeway to understand the world on their own terms, rather than ours, is a valuable ability. And for those who are able, the objective reality discovered by Science, Archaeology, and Paleontology does nothing to diminish the power and significance of the Bible in their lives.
To understand the value of the Bible on its own terms, we must start at the beginning… Firstly, we should acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe to the Jewish people for holding the Old Testament together for so long; this is an astonishing feat, regardless of the text preserved. However, the best biblical scholars, both secular & religious, suggest that the various books of the Jewish Scriptures were first written down and compiled into something similar to their present form around the time of the return of the Israelites from Babylonian captivity, around 500 BCE. This is actually the first time we are able to start corroborating the biblical narrative with other primary sources (e.g. Persian & Assyrian writings of the same time, etc.) No doubt, the Jews had a rich oral tradition that may have been written down in fragments prior to this point, but all evidence suggests that it was mostly oral until post-exilic times.
There is a marked lack of archaeological evidence to support biblical stories earlier than this period. The Exodus account, for example, which would have amounted to nearly half of the population of Egypt packing up and leaving at once, right after every single firstborn in the country died on the same night, is never mentioned in the meticulous Egyptian records we have from that time period. There is some evidence for a much smaller group of foreigners picking up stakes and heading to Canaan around that time, but nothing remotely near the scope of the biblical story. The “conquest” of Canaan is also unsupported by archaeology – we just don’t see evidence of the rampant, wholesale destruction depicted in the book of Joshua, etc. One theory suggests that the stories we see in the early part of the Old Testament were traditional “folklore”, for lack of a better term, common during and after the post-exilic period, that gave the Jews a cohesive narrative for why they were in Israel in the first place: their God rescued them from Egypt and gave it to them – a possible exaggeration of what may have actually occurred with the smaller group of Hebrews, and why they had a right to the land: their God was so enthusiastic about them having it that He’d helped them completely wipe out the original residents. Evidence suggests, however, that the original residents were less “wiped out” and more “integrated into” the Israelite nation, once they settled in the area. This integration is also alluded to in the biblical text by all the troubles the Israelites had resisting the temptation to worship the Canaanite gods, such as Ba’al.
Based on these arguments, the Old Testament was likely assembled in written form over a much shorter period of time than the events it records, based primarily on oral tradition. We can also see some evidence of this “cohesiveness by hindsight” in the way historical situations are “set up” to support the “present” (post-exilic) reality. One example that stands out prominently is the story of Noah’s son, Ham, who saw his father naked, resulting in God cursing Ham’s son, Canaan, “for all time”. What a marvelous setup for the later destruction of Canaan by God’s hand. When one realizes that the stories themselves were created to explain the present, rather than to record the past, they become much easier to understand. There are many other examples of this phenomenon throughout the Old Testament scriptures.
The New Testament is even trickier. Here, we have what starts as a sort of “underground” Jewish movement that was unsupported by the mainstream scribes responsible for copying/maintaining the Old Testament text. Most of the followers of Jesus, who maintained the early manuscripts prior to the time of Constantine, were not professionals, and it shows in the inconsistencies between the manuscripts we have available. The issues of historical legitimacy is certainly less concerning in the New Testament, because there actually is corroboration for much of the New Testament narrative in non-Biblical sources. Plus, we have countless more extant manuscripts of the Bible, including the New Testament, than any other ancient documents, such as those by Plato, Homer, and other classical writers of the time. It is thus quite probable that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed a real person who lived around the time the New Testament says he did, and it is likely that the gospels provide a relatively accurate picture of his teachings. But even the gospels were written in the late first and early second centuries (most of Paul’s letters pre-date the gospels); these were not first-hand accounts and likely include embellishments customized by the particular author for their particular audience, and for the particular objective they were trying to achieve. Regardless of technical accuracy, though, the teachings found in these pages are fantastic, powerful, and still relevant today.
The impact of this man named Jesus is undeniable, historically. At the very least, he is the central figure of a tradition that has lasted over two thousand years and has grown into the largest religion on the planet! Certainly, this is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of who or what he was. There is little reason to doubt that St. Paul, also, was a very real, early proselyte for Christianity, who founded a number of churches in the region, and to many of which he wrote letters from prison.
All that said, it should be noted that the canonization process these books underwent is of fascinating and somewhat arbitrary design, so it becomes hard to believe that the texts, as organized, were “inspired” to be there, since it was clearly human decision-making that established which ones were and weren’t included. There were significant voices that did not want Revelation included, for example. Other books were “almost” included, but rejected in the final cut, e.g. the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Gospel of Thomas. The Gnostic gospels are another topic altogether. Written during the same period, these books were later deemed “heresy” by the official catholic church; but who’s to say? Why couldn’t one make the same “inspiration” argument for those books as for the canonized books?
The bottom line is that it is quite possible to respect the Bible, and believe that it is exceptional and valuable, without expecting more of it than it’s capable of delivering. By holding to a strict doctrine of inerrancy, many Christians are not only ignoring a wealth of scientific discoveries made in recent centuries in the disciplines of Archaeology, Geology and Paleontology, but are also missing out on the true richness of this compelling library of ancient books, which has changed countless lives for the better, and, indeed, has changed the world.
For More on the Bible:
- “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why”, Bart Ehrman
- “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It”, Peter Enns
- “Lost Books of the Bible”, William Hone
- “Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science”, Mike McHargue (ch. 14 “The Good Book” )
- “Big Questions”, Walt Groff & Mike Speegle (Week 2 – “Is the Bible Really God’s Word?”)
- “The Bible for Normal People” podcast, Peter Enns & Jared Byas (multiple episodes)
For More on Jesus:
- “The Case for Christ”, Lee Strobel
- “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”, Reza Aslan
- “Big Questions”, Walt Groff & Mike Speegle (Week 1 – “Is There a God?”, “Where Does Jesus Fit In?”)
- “Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science”, Mike McHargue (ch. 12 “Jesus”)