I felt a Bible special was appropriate because, though most people claim to believe in the Bible, most haven't read it through all the way, don't question anything in it, nor really know much about its origins or functions throughout history.
As most of you know, my background is in Christ centered faiths. I was raised LDS (Mormon) and left that faith officially when I was 18, then I converted to Catholicism a year after that and wanted to become a priest. I've studied the Bible and religion intensely. Ironically, it was the study of the Bible itself that led me out of Christianity.
In order to give this piece some structure, Let's start with the most complicated topic.
Where did the Bible come from?
Contrary to how it seems to come across from the pulpit, the Bible didn't simply fall from Heaven into the hands of mankind fully assembled and ready to go. Nor did angels or the Spirit of God descend to men and speak the words of it to them and poof, ready to go. No, it's a lot more complicated and interesting than that.
To really get down to it, let's divide this into three subsections, the Torah, the rest of the Old Testament, and the New Testament.
The Torah, also called the Pentateuch, are the first five books of the Bible. They are known by other names, the Law, the Books of Moses, etc. These books are the very foundation of modern Judaism. Jewish Law and much of the Jewish identity are found in these books. The five books of the Torah are: Genesis (the creation and early history of the world), Exodus (the story of the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt and fleeing it), Leviticus (the laws of the Jewish people), Numbers (stories of the Hebrews time between Egypt and the Holy Land), and Deuteronomy (additional laws of the Jewish people).
Tradition holds that Moses received and wrote the entire Torah on Mount Sinai. This is why the books are called the Books of Moses. However, there are issues with this. The biggest problem is that the death of Moses is described in Deuteronomy chapter 34. If Moses supposedly wrote all of the Torah, how did this get there? Some say that it was added after. But if others can add to the books, how much of it was added to?
It turns out, there were no original books Moses wrote. In fact, I'm going to say something that will upset many Christians, but it is an easily verifiable thing to research on your own. In the decades upon decades we have dug, studied, and researched the Bible and nations mentioned in the Bible, there has been absolutely no archaeological evidence to prove the existence of Moses or anything in the Exodus story. In fact, there's no evidence Hebrews were ever even slaves in Egypt. This isn't like someone denying the Holocaust. Seriously, do your own research on it from various accredited universities and religious scholars and they will all tell you that the Exodus story is at best legend on par with King Arthur and Greek heroes.
So, if there was no Moses to write these books, where did they come from? The current theory accepted by most religious scholars is that there are various authors of these five books ranging over the span of nearly 1,000 years. Nobody knows exactly who these groups were, but scholars have identified at least four different sources: the Yahwists known as J, the Elohists known as E, the Deuteronomists known as D, and the Priestly source known as P. Each of these groups wrote and added to the Torah. Their writing styles are different. Just like English, Hebrew changed a lot over the centuries and the Torah has older sounding Hebrew next to newer sounding Hebrew. It is believed that these groups wrote different parts of the books for different reasons and often rewrote entire parts of the same story stitching them into the older narratives.
For an excellent example of this, you only have to look at the first two chapters of Genesis. You have two creation stories in Genesis, one through chapter 1 and another completely different creation story beginning in chapter 2 verse 4. The two creation stories contradict each other in the order and method of creation. Most Christians are unaware of these two stories and read them as one story glossing over the contradictions. But they are there. The second story appears to be the oldest story written by the J source. The story in chapter 1 appears to be from the E source and is much later in origin and shares similarities to creation stories of the Babylonians.
The rest of the Old Testament:
The rest of the Old Testament includes diverse writings over hundreds of years and are traditionally divided up as: writings, greater prophets and lesser prophets. The writings detail Israel's history and include the poetry and wisdom books. The greater prophets detail the prophecies and lives of the most influential prophets. The lesser prophets detail the prophecies and lives of the less influential prophets.
Strangely, we don't know who wrote any of these either. The history books usually don't name their authors, and some like books of Kings and Chronicles contain much of the same history, but with differing emphasis and contradicting details.
The prophecy books often name the prophet who wrote them, but it was common in the ancient world for people to write books in the name of other people, particularly celebrated people. Isaiah is a great example of this, because the book as we have it prophecies events that happen over several centuries and contain two different writing styles. This has led scholars to believe there are two separate authors claiming to be Isaiah in the book that comes to us now.
Back to the earlier point I made that there's no archaeological evidence for Moses or the Exodus. This is true of pretty much all characters in the Torah. There's no archaeological evidence for anyone existing in the Bible up to King David. Anything after David we have better evidence for.
The New Testament:
The New Testament has three parts to it: the Gospels, the epistles, and the Apocalypse or Revelation of John.
The Gospels are four books detailing the life of Jesus. These were written anywhere from 40 to 100 years after the life of Jesus. Three of the Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke have lots of similar details and are called the Synoptic Gospels. The fourth Gospel is the Gospel of John which is wildly different with contradictory details to the Synoptic Gospels. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels and the other two Synoptic Gospels borrow heavily from it. It's also theorized that there is a lost book known as the Gospel of Q which Mark and the other sources borrow from as well. Though to date, this book has never been found. None of these are believed to actually have been written by the authors mentioned in the names, but instead it's believed they were written by others in the names of these individuals or later attributed to these men.
The epistles are various letters to local churches, individuals, or just for a general audience. These letters are written by Paul, James, Peter, and John. Most of the books are attributed to Paul, and indeed, he's the most influential early Christian figure. These books are meant to be guides for the early church as well as general statements of proper belief.
The last book is attributed to the apostle John, but this is doubted by most scholars as the writing is so wildly different from the Epistles of John. This book details the end of days expected to happen either in the lifetime of the author or shortly after it, and it borrows heavily from old testament apocalyptic literature.
Now that we have talked about where these books come from, let's tackle the next question.
How did we get these books?
Well, there's no shortage of books that could have made it into the Bible. Some were always stronger candidates than others, but the number of books that didn't make it is astonishing.
Let's start out with a big statement, there is no single agreed upon Bible in Christianity. There are several depending on the Branch. Protestant Bibles include 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. The Catholic Bibles however include 7 additional books in the Old Testament as well as additions to the books of Esther and Daniel known as the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical Books. There are also additional books recognized as canonical or at least inspired books in the various Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches.
In addition to these, there are other books not included in any canon of the Old Testament known as the Pseudepigrapha. These books are generally seen as books with sketchy origins written by people falsely claiming to be biblical authors.
With the New Testament, there are 4 gospels that made it into the canon, but there were dozens of other gospels at the time. Many were written by a long since gone collection of Christian sects known as the Gnostics, though others were debated and went in and out of the canon until it was solidified later.
Same with several of the other books in the New Testament, in fact, the books of Hebrews and Revelation almost didn't make it into the final cut.
Which books got included in the Bibles we read today and which ones were excluded were largely decided by books being commonly decided they were inspired books by custom and tradition, as well as councils of men getting together and deciding centuries after the books were written which were and weren't inspired scriptures. In other words, the Bible you know and love today in your living room comes to you after centuries of debate and books floating in and out of it.
Which leads me to the last thing I want to talk about.
What nobody is going to tell you about the Bible:
1. The Bible is not filled with sunshine, rainbows, and inspirational stories. Most of the Old Testament is filled with harsh stories and archaic laws that are hard for modern eyes to read.
- God commands the Israelites to commit genocide against the Canaanites in order to take their land and dedicate it to God.
- There is a man in Judges named Jephthah who offers his daughter up to God as a human sacrifice in exchange for him winning a battle against the Ammonites.
- In Judges, there is a priest who gives his concubine up to a mob to be gang raped, then when he finds her dead, cuts up her body and sends it to the Twelve Tribes of Israel starting a war against the City of Benjamin.
- Lot offers up his virgin daughters to an angry mob so that they don't rape his angelic guests. Later in the story, Lot's daughters get him drunk and sleep with him to get pregnant.
- Several kids make fun of the prophet Elisha for being bald, so he calls upon God for vengeance and a bear mauls the kids to death.
- If a child is rebellious, the parents are to have the child executed.
- Gay people are to be stoned to death.
- People who work on the Sabbath are to be stoned to death.
- A woman betrothed to another man, if raped in the city, must marry her rapist after he pays the woman's father.
The New Testament, while less dark than the Old Testament, also contains parts hard for modern eyes to read.
- Jesus commands his followers who look on someone with lust to pluck their eye out and cast it away.
- Jesus tells his disciples that those enemies of his whom didn't want him to reign over them should be brought before him and slaughtered.
- Jesus encourages some to make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.
- God requires Jesus to be a blood sacrifice and to die an excruciating death to make up for how imperfect mankind is.
- The Book of Revelation depicts the slaughter and torture of most of mankind through supernatural events, plague, and man made disaster. Much of this is carried out by angel's at God's request.
2. We do not possess a single copy of any of the original manuscripts for any of the books in the Bible. Not one. All we have are copies of copies hand written decades to centuries after the originals were written.
In addition to that, we see a lot of variation in the texts we do have. In fact, for the New Testament alone, there are more variations between the copies of texts we have than words in the whole New Testament. Some of the stories you know and love are not in any of the earliest manuscripts we have, but added centuries later. For instance, the story of the woman caught in adultery and Jesus saying, "Let he among you without sin cast the first stone," is a much later addition. Also, the resurrection story in Mark was added much later and there are two versions of it.
3. Many of the doctrines claimed to be biblical in origin actually come centuries after the books were written. While these doctrines are inspired by the text, they're not original doctrines of the text.
- The doctrine of the Trinity has roots in early Christianity, but doesn't come into its present form for several centuries afterward.
- The belief that Christ had two natures, fully God and fully man was hotly debated in the first few centuries of Christianity, and indeed never accepted by the Oriental Orthodox Christians.
- The belief that mankind's nature is totally depraved and all worthy of Hell from birth develops nearly a millennium after the life of Jesus and is still not found today in the Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox churches.
- Belief in the Rapture and Tribulation doctrines develop in the 16th and 18th centuries. To this day, the Rapture is largely an American belief or a belief of those who's churches have strong ties to American churches.
There's a lot more that can be said about the Bible, but these are some things I felt more people should know about a book by which they swear their lives and rely on for their beliefs. I don't want people to simply take what I say about the Bible as the gospel truth, so to speak. Instead, I hope I inspired curiosity about the book and will have more people reading up about it.
If you want to learn about the Bible yourself, here are some excellent sources I've enjoyed over the years:
A PBS Nova documentary called, The Bible's Buried Secrets: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/bibles-buried-secrets.html
And the following books:
A History of God by Karen Armstrong
The Complete Gospels by Robert J. Miller
Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman
Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman
And of course, the Bible itself. Some good versions of that are
The New Revised Standard Version
The New International Version
The English Standard Version
and my two personal favorites:
The Oxford Study Bible
The New American Bible: St. Joseph's Edition. This is a Catholic Bible with dozens of notes, pictures, charts, and explanations of archaeology, customs of the people, the ancient understanding of the world and the origins of the Bible.
That's all for now. Until next time, peace be with you.