An essay donated by R. C. Symes
"Is the Bible the Word of God or Myth of men?"
A Progressive Christian interpretation.
Part 1: Bible origins, variations, forgeries, etc.
Is the Bible, the Word of God, fact or fiction? Or is the Bible more a creation of fallible men who are expounding their own messages while claiming God’s inspiration and approval? Is the Bible true and historically accurate? Or if the Bible has many errors, contradictions and falsehoods can it truly be the word of an all-wise God? The answers have profound implications for Bible believers and their claims about biblical inerrancy.
Before we attempt to answer the question whether the Bible was the divine word of God or a man-made myth (only men wrote the Bible – women were viewed as inferior and unworthy), we should first be clear about which Bible we are talking about. Surprisingly, Christian denominations cannot agree on what constitutes inspired Holy Scripture. Is it the Bible of Roman Catholics, Protestants or Orthodox Christians? Roman Catholics claim that the Bible contains 73 canonical (authentic) books, while most Protestants accept only 66 because they reject the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books, and Orthodox Christians accept 76 books. Each denomination claims its Bible is the true word of God. Which one is to be believed?
Christian denominations in the world today agree that the New Testament contains 27 books, however there is little consensus among them as to what God’s word really means. Is it any wonder that with over 20,000 denominations, there are competing Christian interpretations about the means to salvation, atonement, the nature of the sacraments, prophecies, Christ’s Second Coming and other doctrines based on the Bible? If God is not the author of confusion or disorder as the Bible says (1 Corinthians 14:33), how is all this disagreement to be explained? Is it not more likely that the Bible is really the work of men, not an all-wise and all-powerful God? Surely God could have provided better guidance and clarity as to which scriptures should have been included in His book and what they mean.
How was the Bible compiled?
The Hebrew (or Old) Testament of 24 books was written from about 1,000 BCE (Before Common Era) to the beginning of the 1st century CE and was not formally agreed to by Jewish rabbis until about the 10th century CE. These books were accepted as canonical mainly because of traditional use. The early Christians used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint (which included the Apocrypha) that was completed around 200 BCE. The Septuagint translation sometimes varies from the original Hebrew wording (e.g. the Greek version of Psalm 22 claimed by Christians to prophesize Jesus’ crucifixion, says in verse 16, “they pierced my hands and my feet”, but the Hebrew version says “they have hacked off my hands and my feet” (New English Bible translation)). This loss of limbs did not happen to Jesus at his crucifixion.
For the early Christians, deciding on what books to include in the New Testament was complicated. Jesus left no written material before his death about 30 CE. The 27 canonical books of the New Testament were written between about 50 to 150 CE. Scholars can determine approximate dates of biblical manuscripts by the material used to write on, the style of writing, historical references in the text, etc. However, there were over 40 other Christian gospels, books and letters in circulation from the second to third centuries (e.g. Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Ebionites, Acts of John, 3 Corinthians, etc.), before the canon of the New Testament was finalized late in the fourth century.
Who decided what was in and what was out?
In the first three centuries there were many versions of Christianity. Even Paul complained of different preaching to his (Galatians 1:6). Theological disagreements grew over the decades with different gospels and epistles supporting one view about Christ over the other. The Catholic faction, which was organized better through its hierarchical leadership and deft use of the Old Testament to strengthen the legitimacy of its teachings, eventually won out and suppressed the other “heresies”. This faction eventually declared which books would be acceptable as God’s word, but for its first 300 years, Christianity did not have the New Testament as we now know it.
The finalization of the New Testament canon was based less on objective criteria and reasoning than on the tradition of which books were widely used in churches and recommended by authorities as being genuinely authored by an apostle. Sometimes curious reasoning prevailed as can be seen by Bishop Irenaeus’ explanation of why there are only four gospels:
"It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are, since there are four directions of the world in which we are, and four principal winds ….” (Against All Heresies, 3XI8, c. 180 CE).
There was much competition and confusion in the first few centuries as to what really was the Word of God. Biblical literalists have to admit that this was a strange state of affairs to be tolerated by an omnipotent God concerned about the dissemination of his truth.
Our New Testament versions are not the originals:
The original Greek manuscripts of the books of the New Testament have not survived. What are extant are hand written copies of copies of copies – over 5,600 fragments or complete copies in the original Greek, with 94 per cent dating from the 9th century. The earliest is a tiny fragment from the Gospel of John dated to the first half of the 2nd century. The earliest complete copy of the Gospel of Mark (which was written about the year 70) dates from the 4th century. Our earliest copies of Paul’s writings come about 150 years after he wrote them. Mistakes and intentional alterations in the copying process resulted in thousands of variations in these texts until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. The differences were mostly spelling and grammatical errors, but also there were some deliberate omissions, insertions and mistranslations in the New Testament. There are some significant differences and contradictions in the biblical texts that have a bearing on historical accuracy and Christian theology.
The earliest surviving version of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus (circa 300 CE), contains the book the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas that had been read in churches for years. They were eventually expunged from the canonical New Testament for not reflecting orthodox thinking. There are other books that are actually referenced by New Testament writers that are missing from the canon. For example, Paul urges believers to read his letter to the Laodiceans (see Colossians 4:16). It is disputed as to whether the surviving Latin copy, originally in some Bibles, is genuine. Also, the writer of Jude references the Jewish apocryphal book of Enoch as though it was authoritative (Jude 14-15). It is ironic that Jude is accepted into the Biblical Canon, but the book he quotes from is not. The early New Testament was a fluid entity for many decades and determining what was really the Word of God was controversial. Ultimately, men who did not personally know the authors of the scriptures made the decisions.
Biblical text variations and forgeries:
In the Old Testament there is a curious case of Biblical plagiarism (compare Chapter 37 in Isaiah with Chapter 19 in 2 Kings). Was the text about King Hezekiah asking for Isaiah’s prayers so important that God chose to inspire another writer to repeat the story almost word for word over a hundred years later? Or is it more probable that one author copied the words of another without admitting his source? (Also compare the copying of 2 Kings 20:1-19 with Isaiah 38:1-8 and chap. 39). So much for the divine inspiration and textual integrity of the scriptures guided and preserved by God!
In the New Testament there are a number of verses that we now know were not part of the earliest manuscripts or were poorly translated. For example, the authors of the most famous English Bible -- the King James Version (KJV) of 1611 CE -- did not have access to the earliest Greek manuscripts. The difficult doctrine of the Trinity is supposedly confirmed by the KJV wording of 1 John 5:7:
“There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”
This wording is not in the earliest manuscripts, but was added to some texts in the early 16th century, to support the doctrine of the Trinity (i.e., although the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each God, there are not three Gods, but only one God consisting of three persons). A more accurate version of the same text reads: “For there are three witnesses, The Spirit, the water and the blood, and these three are in agreement.” (NEB). It seems that copyists and translators could play fast and loose with the so-called word of God.
Likewise in the earliest Gospel, Mark, the final verses (chap. 16: 9-20) that describe the resurrection appearances of Jesus are an interpolation (i.e. forgery). These verses do not appear in the earliest manuscripts and the writing style is different, as is the choice of words and phrases compared to the original Mark. Mark abruptly ends his gospel with the women seeing an empty tomb, but there are no resurrection appearances. They are told by a young man to tell the disciples that Jesus is risen and will meet them in Galilee, but they flee in terror and tell no one. This ending was unsatisfactory for the forger, so he added verses reflecting Jesus’ appearances now listed in the other gospels. As well, he added references to believers conducting exorcisms, charming snakes, and having immunity to poison. Is this addition not by Mark still God’s word?
Not only are there additions to the New Testament, but also there are textual gospel variations due to omissions. For example, to avoid contradictory accounts about Jesus’ ascension to heaven, some manuscripts delete the reference to Jesus’ ascension on Easter Sunday evening found in Luke’s gospel. The phrase “and was carried up into heaven” found in Luke 24:51 was removed because it conflicts with the assertion that Jesus did not ascend until forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:3, 9-11; 13:31). Which is true – Luke or Acts?
Modern translation bias:
Variations in the Bible’s text are not just a result of limited access to the earliest manuscripts or poor translations of the original Hebrew or Greek. One modern translation, namely The New International Version (NIV), is a product of translators who are committed “to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s word in written form.” (NIV Preface, p. xxxiv). These translators have access to the best manuscripts, yet it is disturbing to note what they sometimes choose to leave out or deliberately change in the accepted manuscript translations used in most modern Bible versions.
For example, the NIV changes a contradiction in the received manuscripts by omitting words from the original text. In Genesis 2:17. Adam is warned by God in the original Hebrew text that if he eats fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “…you will die the same day.” (Good News Bible). The NIV translation removes the time reference to imminent death and says “…for when you eat of it you will surely die.” This is done to remove the contradiction in the Bible that says Adam, after he ate the forbidden fruit did not die but instead lived to the incredible age of 930 years (Genesis 5:5). Therefore, according to the original Hebrew version, God who cannot lie (1 Samuel 15:29 and Titus 1:2) indeed must have been a liar.
Is it too much to ask that the God of Truth would ensure, through inspiration or otherwise, that His word would be accurate in its original revelation and free of errors, additions and omissions in all subsequent copies and translations? How does the fundamentalist believer explain that all these variations in Bible versions are still the inspired, literal and true word of God?
What do Churches say about inerrancy?
According to the Pew Center for Research in 2006, 1 76 per cent of American Christians believe the Bible is the word of God (with 36% of those believing it contains His actual words to be taken literally). Most biblical scholars have abandoned the claim that God dictated the words of the Bible (in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek) to its many authors. There are just too many stylistic and historical differences in the texts to claim one Author for them all.
The claim of most Christians is that the authors were “inspired” by God to write what they did (2 Timothy 3:16). Many believe that because the Bible comes from God, it has to be inerrant, that is without any errors or contradictions with respect to history, science, morality and matters necessary for salvation. Other Christians qualify this inerrancy to pertain only to the original manuscripts. However, the originals are no longer extant and therefore there is no way of proving this claim. We are asked to believe that an all-powerful God preserved the original manuscript writers from error, but kept these texts hidden from us so that we have to rely on unreliable copies filled with mistakes. Why would God allow confusion of his word in this way?
The Roman Catholic Church has modified its position on the inerrancy of the Bible. Proclaimed by church Councils, and reaffirmed by Pope Leo XIII in 1893, it was held that all the canonical books:
“... are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; … it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.” (Providentissimus Deus, Encyclical Letter).
In more recent times the Church’s position has moved to the more ambiguous:
"... we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures." (Dei Verbum, Article 11, Second Vatican Council, 1965).
This statement can be interpreted as meaning scripture is totally inerrant or only inerrant with respect to matters of salvation.
A group of 300 international evangelical Protestant leaders met in Chicago, USA in 1978 and upheld the inerrancy of the Bible. They affirmed in part:
“Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.” 2
More progressive Christians do not consider the Bible as inerrant, but rather a product of fallible authors writing in the context of the beliefs, knowledge and mores of their times.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- David Masci & Gregory A. Smith, "God is alive and well in America," Pew Research Center, 2006-APR-04, at: http://www.pewresearch.org/
- Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy: A Short Statement, #4, at: http://www.bible-researcher.com/
Original posting: 2014-FEB-01
Latest update: 2014-FEB-01
Author: R. C. Symes