The Bible’s reliability


  • Two questions on a similar theme:

    The first is from RM, Ireland

    Is the Old Testament an account of actual people and events, which took place in reality, or a late literary construct designed to give a community a sense of self-identity?

    The second (and longer question) is from TD, USA

    I don’t understand why so many people base their lives, thoughts and values on every word in the Bible, when it’s origins as ‘the word of God’ appear quite dubious. How do we know that all the authors were writing the word of God? I don’t mean to be flippant but what if some of them were drinking when they received their inspiration, or were on hallucinogens, or simply over zealous and thought they were getting “divine messages” as many people since then also claim to have had?

    My understanding is that the Bible was written over a period of about 1500 years, by about 40 people, few of whom personally knew Jesus. The Bible was translated in and out of several languages, large parts of it were evidently passed down verbally for centuries before being written down, and we all know how information changes rather dramatically when passed orally from person to person. Various kings and rulers took liberties with the Bible, editing it to suit their own needs and beliefs, and surprisingly, none of the Bible was written during Jesus’ actual life or directly afterward (my understanding is that the earliest parts of the New Testament were written from about 10 to 60 years after Jesus’ death).

    Where does this leave us? How can we treat this book as the be-all-end-all word of God with so many people quoting it as though its words are indisputable truths, when it appears to be a patchwork quilt of unclear origin? Can you help me?

    It is fairly clear that, in the case of the Old Testament as we have it today, there has been some later editing (often called redaction) of earlier writings, within the context of an ongoing process whereby unreliable writings were weeded out of the collection. This is one way of describing the process of canonisation.

    The New Testament does not display much blatant evidence of redaction, although this may have occurred in the gospels as various stories were chosen for inclusion. Far more very early manuscripts exist for the New Testament than the Old Testament and so it can be quite clearly seen that there was little variation in the written tradition – once stuff was written down!

    The fact that these stories may have been transmitted orally at first, or have been translated, do not necessarily mean that they are less reliable. In fact, modern historians will go to great lengths to track down survivors of historical events in order to gain first-hand oral testimony. Within the culture of the Middle East at the time, there was great emphasis on accurately telling and retelling stories. Of course, they may have ‘grown in the telling’, but that does not mean that they are completely untrue.

    Then, as now, translators took great pains to translate accurately, hence the ancient tradition that earned the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament the moniker ‘The Septuagint’ – so called because allegedly seventy translators combined to produce the translation.

    The Old Testament does seem to carry some marks of later redaction, particularly in the Pentateuch. The classic expression of this is the JEDP source criticism hypothesis. This seeks to unravel the various strands of the Pentateuch according to both the language used and the emphasis of the particular passage. J and E refer to strands that use different names for God, either ‘Yahweh’ (Jehovah) or ‘Elohim’. D is the hypothetical ‘Deuteronomist’, who was concerned with matters pertaining to the Law, while P represents the Priestly redactors, who wanted to explain and defend the cultic practices of ancient Israel.

    Outside the Pentateuch, the various history books bear the marks of religious redaction as well. Chronicles, in particular, is written solely from a religious point of view, judging the various kings of Israel and Judah as good or bad, depending on how faithful they were to the worship of Yahweh. The Chronicler (although the author may have been more than one person) refers to the, now lost, Annals of the Kings of Israel or Judah and presumably, these were his sources.

    Within the prophetic writings, as well, the historical foundation myths of the Israelite nation were often reiterated to demonstrate God’s covenant favour with his people. The fact is that the Old Testament is both a record of events and a later interpretation of those events from a religious point of view, both inside and outside the mainstream cult.

    Such redaction does not necessarily diminish the authority of Scripture. Similarly the long drawn-out process of canonisation can actually be seen as enhancing the authority and reliability of the Bible. The fact that these various writings, which stretch over a long period of history, have been weighed and accepted many years later by intelligent and, sometimes, critical people implies they have a certain resonance and strength. Many other books, ‘Gnostic gospels’, creation myths, prophecies, philosophies and apocalyptic visions of the end were disregarded during this process. These rejected, non-canonical books are usually weird in the extreme.

    There is, of course, the question of uncritically accepting what the Bible says as ‘The Word of god’. It is a logical fallacy to insist that all your doctrines be based on the Bible, as that dogma itself is not Biblical. It is also recommended that Biblical writings are not always read and applied at face value, without in-depth study of those writings. Many of the errors found in modern spin-off semi-Christian movements (e.g. the Mormon practice of ‘baptising for the dead’) stem from literal applications of Scripture.

    It is the testimony of the historical and catholic Christian tradition that the Bible preserves the only reliable account of God’s involvement in the world that culminated in the Incarnation. In the light of that tradition, the fact that the books of the Bible each had to earn their place in the canon of Scripture and prove their worth within the context of a living faith, adds authority to the Bible. It does not, however, mean that Christians should read the Bible uncritically and apply it ignorantly.

    Thanks for your questions RM and TD.

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