2 Peter 1:20-21
For you know this first, that no prophecy of Scripture springs from any private interpretation. For prophecy was at no time brought by man’s will, but men spoke from God as they were borne along by holy spirit.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.
So often we are caught in the middle of a denialist circle of logic:
So what makes the Biblical text and its canons of literature so supremely fascinating and reliable that people base their entire belief systems on it?
You would think that because of the absolute faith people have in the Bible it would have a lot going for it in terms of reliability. We would expect archaeological evidence of the events described, other writings by and about the writer(s) etc. However, other than the basic canon, this is simply not true.
History: Who wrote the Bible and when?
The Bible was written over the course of 1500 years by several groups and individuals. The result of this should be obvious to most of its readers. It is inconsistent in its message and there are many different writing styles throughout the books, chapters, and verses.
Written by about 40 different men (presumably not women) between 1513 BCE and 98 CE, from Moses to the Apostle John, we have the resultant 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books, accounting for 66 books in all. This is, undeniably, quite a remarkable tomb of literature gathered into a single sturdy text. These 66 books discuss history, poetry, prophecy, and theology, but were all written over vastly different time periods, making them inherently unreliable.
The Bible was assembled by an assembly of bishops in the early years of the Church, whereas the actual books and chapters are believed to have been written by various prophets, apostles and disciples. The Old Testament came from stories handed down by word of mouth over thousands of years in the Middle East and the first four books of the New Testament are openly attributed to the people after whom they are named, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The remaining books are believed to be the collaborations of early Christians.
The Gospels came into their earliest written firm because the exciting events of the early Church which they describe were shared orally first. Next they were compiled from these oral sources into a larger collection of sayings, and other materials. Finally, the formulae and hymns etc were committed to writing.
Other than the Biblical text there isn’t much known about the primitive state of the Church for the first couple of centuries of its existence. For most of the first 300 years, however, Christians were in hiding from their persecutors. In addition to this, most of the earlier Christians were poor people who were not literate or capable of producing or reproducing literature, nor did they have the infrastructure to do so.
The entire Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek by the Judaists long before Christian times. This initial translation is called the Septuagint. It was translated during the Hellenistic Era according to the “Letter of Aristeas” the Pharaoh, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285 – 246 BC). The pharaoh wanted a translated Bible for the famous Alexandrian Library.
There are places in the Old Testament and in the words of Jesus in the New Testament where the first five books are attributed to Moses’ authorship. The final form of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, however, is slightly more complicated than that. Modern scholarship is now arguing that these five books were produced by editors, or redactors, who gathered the writings from other authors at different times. (For those interested in reading more about this, this theory is called the JEPD theory or the Documentary Hypothesis of Wellhausen).
While it is traditional to assign authorship to the prophet who shares a name with the book, it is highly likely that others edited these books before they were produced in their final form.
In Contra Celsus, the title of a major work by the Church Father Origen of Alexandria written in 248 CE, Father Origen replied to the writer Celsus, a Christian critic, who had complained that, “certain of the Christian believers, like persons who in a fit of drunkenness lay violent hands upon themselves, have corrupted the Gospel from its original integrity, to a threefold, and fourfold, and many-folded degree, and have remodelled it, so that they might be able to answer objections.”
After the nearly 2000 year period during which the Bible was written there were also other books which were written down but excluded. No one knows the exact reason for their exclusion since the books have been lost, but it is believed that they were not “faithful to the faith.”
Till today Judaists reject the New Testament as inauthentic Judaism, whereas Christians believe the opposite. This is, however, not a unique phenomenon and can be found in many other religions worldwide.
The Homeric Question
Homer is a classical author believed to have created the marvellous epic poems, The Odyssey and The Iliad, around 800 BCE. For as long as there have been scholars to analyse his works there have been looming questions about his authorship. To summarise very briefly: It is widely believed that Homer was a blind bard who belonged to the long standing tradition of oral poets who could memorise a vast number of formulaic lines and recite them on cue. Because of this his work survived long enough for it to be compiled and transcribed by one specific individual, Peistratus, Athenian ruler 546 to 527/8 BCE. To this day there are many groups of people who believe very different things about who wrote these texts. Some say they were created by Homer and past down orally until they were written down by many different people. Some say Homer was the author who compiled and wrote down the stories from other oral poets. There are popular theories, but no one is in complete agreement with anyone else. The Unitarians and the Analysts are two such opposing schools of thought.
Heinrich Schliemann, an excavator of Hisarlik (where Troy is believed to have been, in modern day Turkey, historically Anatolia) in the 1870s, interpreted the books of Homer literally in order to choose his site. He was also an important excavator of several Mycenaean sites. Unfortunately, although his findings lent credence to the fact that these may have been real places, controversy surrounding possibly fabricated masks, such as the gold mask of Agamemnon, and other items led scholars to believe that the people depicted in the ancient epics were not real, or at least not real in the way the poems describe them.
With regards to the truth in his tales, many have wondered whether the great siege of Troy or the wily Odysseus were once real, but mounting archaeological evidence not only shows that Homer knew little about geography beyond his homeland, but also that these stories were simply elaborated fables with little to support them. It is likely, however, that a Troy did exist, and there are uncovered ruins to account for this. Oral tradition is subject to great distortions after just a couple of generations, especially with each bard giving different versions of the story. Not only that, but the bards used to change their stories for interest and variation, and the results of this have given rise to internal inconsistencies similar to what we see happening in the Bible.
This question of Homeric authorship runs parallel to the question of Biblical authorship. The solid, tangible proof that the text exists now is not proof of its authenticity, truth or originality. It is easy for scholars to make announcements about recent findings about Homer because his poems are not regarded as religious literature, despite their iconic place in the ancient world. It is decidedly harder to make similar announcements about the Bible, for example, when there are currently millions of people all over the world who will find some convoluted way to refute it.
Furthermore, the argument of fulfilled prophecies is often used to prove the authenticity of the Bible, but for every “fulfilled” (or rather “misinterpreted) prophecy there are hundreds upon hundreds of verifiably false ones. For example, throughout the New Testament the end of the world is continuously prophesised as being close at hand so that those living at the time can witness it. Paul is also often found telling the people to whom he preached that they would all bear witness to the second coming. It is glaringly obvious that none of these monumental prophecies came true, amongst countless others. Matthew 23:24
Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
That generation ended 2000 years ago and there has been no second coming nor any world’s end.
Despite this, much like the prophecies of Nostradamus, they are often far too vague to be attributed to anything in specific. It’s also fair to mention that nowhere in the Bible will you find countries such as the United States, Russia, China, Korea, or Great Britain prophesised, though Christians will tell you they are simply because of some loose wording on behalf of the myriad of authors.
So why should we care about whether the Bible is a reliable text or not?
Because there are severe dangers in believing in fantastical Biblical prophecies when they have no grounding in truth whatsoever. The Bible is one of many religious texts which can become extremely volatile and dangerous when left open to interpretation or taken literally.
Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.
Father found guilty in prayer death case
“Dale Neumann, 47, was convicted in March 23, 2008, for the death of his daughter, Madeline, from undiagnosed diabetes. Prosecutors contended he should have rushed the girl to a hospital because she couldn’t walk, talk, eat or drink. Instead, Madeline died on the floor of the family’s rural Weston home as people surrounded her and prayed. Someone called 911 when she stopped breathing.”
This might be vaguely forgivable on a societal level… if this was an isolated incident.
But it’s not.
To cut a long story short, the Bible is an unreliable text. Oral traditions are hazy at best, and even eye witness accounts of events can be vague and misleading when written down that exact same day, as most modern day news articles can show you. We have no reason whatsoever to rely on shepherds and workmen writing several thousand years ago over two thousand years for facts of life and death.