For the last few months, I’ve been starting to come to grips with the scholastic world of what I might call scriptural archeology – the mass of information about the history of the Biblical texts, their original sources, the layers of editing apparent in some of the books (just like the layers of ruins and ancient foundations underneath major cities) – in short, all the ancient evidence about how the current appearance of the Bible relates to its deep and often-hidden history.
I’ve also become increasingly aware of the history of the specific collection of books we modern Christians call “the Bible,” and how it has developed over time, and in fact how different Christian traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, and mainline Christian) have different ideas about what constitutes the Bible. Its history is also complex and fraught with many twists and turns and archeology of its own.
In this sense, one might consider the Bible to have evolved over time.
And just like there is a debate among the more scientifically-minded Christians over the topic of evolution of the species and of course mankind itself, one might discuss whether these changes in what we call the Bible were a natural evolution or were guided directly by the Hand of God – an intelligent design of the Scriptures, as it were.
When I was much younger, I simplistically understood the Bible to be incredibly static. This is perhaps not surprising, partly because over the course of a life of just a few decades, which is a mere blip on the scale of the Biblical timeline, it has been essentially static. But because of this fact, I believe that I had assumed that the Bible essentially sprang fully formed from the mind of God. Perhaps each book was written at different times, but nonetheless each one appeared to me to have been fully and completely written by God Himself, merely with a human scribe.
Thus I present this musing about some ways in which Scripture came to be: was it evolved, intelligently designed, or created?
For most of my life, I’ve believed that if God did create the world, He chose to do it through the processes that are self-evident in the universe around us. As a person with long history in the sciences, and a passion for general knowledge and a propensity to study all kinds of science merely for its own sake, I’ve never been able to reconcile the world I see with an instantaneous creation “ex nihilo.” A major reason for this sense is that it would require me to believe that God created a huge amount of false evidence to fool mankind into believing that the universe and the earth and all the species are very old, millions and even billions instead of a few thousand years. I cannot imagine why God would do this, when He reveals Himself in the Bible as a God of Truth. For example, when I look at the Grand Canyon in all its majesty, and can easily see much evidence of millions of years of history, including types of rock and strata and a variety of fossils from vastly different epochs, I would need to accuse God of lying to mankind to believe He created it all in a 40 day flood. That conflicts with everything I know about God’s core nature of truth.
It occurs to me, then, that much the same thought process applies to the Bible.
There is much that we know about the very nature of mankind, and the development of our processes of communicating in writing and orally. We have several millennia of well-documented and well-understood human history apart from or external to the Bible, including archeology but also many different other forms of research. There are many thousands of ancient examples of written communication that inform us deeply about the creation and development of languages over the millennia. Specific to the Bible, we can trace the evolution of the Hebrew language, starting from various similar Semitic languages long before the time of Jacob, to proto-Hebrew writing, through the earliest written true Hebrew dialects, into Biblical Hebrew, and eventually into modern Hebrew. Within the communities that study these matters, there is broad agreement about the processes and timelines. More and more archeological evidence appears from time to time that refines but generally supports the existing understanding. Aside from a burst of new understanding, the scholarly consensus is fairly well established and nearly universal.
When one applies these scholarly principles to the Biblical texts, one is confronted with a choice: we either continue to believe that the Bible was created “ex nihilo” in its current form, free of any evolution, or we must admit that the process could not possibly have been so clear and simple as we would like.
And if we don’t accept such an un-evolved creation narrative of the text itself, we must also then consider whether it evolved naturally, or was intelligently designed. Did God allow man to write His story as the wide variety of individuals each wished, or did He guide them carefully to ensure the appropriate final result?
It’s pretty clear to me that the Bible did not spring from the mind of God fully formed, but that it was written with a wide variety of methods and dialects by a wide variety of contributors, most of them quite unnamed.
One refrain I hear often about the trustworthiness of the Bible is that we must believe it is inerrant, at least in the original autographs (the first copy written by the original author). However, there are some major troubles with this assertion.
For one thing, no such autographs exist for much of the New Testament, and simply cannot exist for much of the Old Testament. We simply have no proof of an original copy for any of the gospels or epistles of the New Testament; newly discovered texts from time to time don’t all agree with each other in numerous important details, although there is some general consensus on what portions are trustworthy and canonical. And for the Old Testament, the date of the supposed writing of many of the books – especially the critical five books of the Pentateuch, Genesis through Deuteronomy – was well before the earliest evidence exists of any written Hebrew language. At best, scholars have determined that some evidences of an Egyptian hieroglyphic script may exist from around the time of the captivity in Egypt when Moses rose as a leader of the Hebrew people, and one scholar has asserted (but without broad agreement by the community) that the first Hebrew alphabet was created by Moses from a handful of the many thousands of Egyptian glyphs. But that was at best a “proto-Hebrew” written dialect and was not in common use for no less than hundreds of years after Moses was dead.
So if Moses effectively had no written Hebrew language in which to record the autographs, the only logical conclusion is that he in fact did NOT write those books, at least in any sense that we use the word “write.” And if he did write them in the converted Egyptian alphabet, it was so rudimentary that it would be impossible to convey the range of information and meaning in later copies.
Going deeper into this conundrum, we also discover that various portions of many of the Old Testament books – and especially the Pentateuch – show very clear evidence of multiple authors, in particular by exhibiting a startling variety of dialects and time frames of authorship even within a given book.
Most scholars, at this point, agree that most of the Old Testament’s Pentateuch and history books were compiled into a written form in the eighth century BCE, during or after the Babylonian captivity – as much as a thousand years after the events in the stories, long after the dates asserted by many study Bibles.
So an honest review of the archeological and scholarly evidence leads me to conclude that there simply ARE no original autographs of any books of the Bible, and more stunningly, many of the books that we do have cannot have been “written” as we simplistically thought.
(As an aside, this means that the evangelical assertion that the Bible is inerrant in its original autographs or manuscripts is absolutely pointless. They don’t exist, and so functionally the Bible that we have cannot be said to be inerrant. Any attempt to claim, therefore, that a particular translation is inerrant is deceptively self-serving. It cannot be proven in any meaningful way, and this leaves the teacher with carte blanche to assert anything he wishes about the text.)
So, as a rational being who desires to know Truth, what do I do with this information?
My first instinct is to assert that God, in His supreme intelligence, foreknew this entire process would take place, and positioned the right men to accurately record His true Word for posterity. Even their fallibility was one of God’s tools to have His word properly recorded. After all, He is infinite and infinitely aware and infinitely powerful. Surely He could bring this to pass.
But while it’s an attractive theory and would eliminate a lot of my concerns, I’m beginning to find this to be rather simplistic.
For one thing, as I’ve begun to study the Bible’s history, I find compelling evidence of areas of internal disagreement in the text. For example, there are two creation accounts in Genesis 1 versus Genesis 2-3, and they bear some rather striking differences. There are two accountings of the kings of Israel that also bear some rather striking differences. There are genealogies that don’t completely line up. And there are many other messy dis-congruous aspects to the Bible. It’s tempting to try and rub out these issues and make them go away, presenting them as mere parallel retellings of the same stories, or coming up with rational explanations of the apparent disagreements, but this idea bothers me: why would God do that? If He were intelligently designing His perfect word, His perfect history, then why introduce such disparities in the first place? Why force mankind to play these games, and likely arrive at incorrect conclusions? Why not simply make it utterly clear and unambiguous? Even a human author would do that – if his goal was to present a unified, easy-to-follow picture of the deity about which the book was written.
No human would design a religion’s owner’s manual like this.
And that raises the other thing. I desperately WANT there to be a simple, easy-to-follow rule book for my religion. I don’t want God to be complicated. I find it painful to consider the need for complexity and interpretation and wrestling with a messy text. But I’m coming to believe that wasn’t the reason that God has for giving us His word. Rather than a simplistic rule book written by God, I’m beginning to understand the Bible as a messy human document written by flawed men that were themselves wrestling with this infinitely complex and deeply “other” God. The point of the Bible is not to be a rule book, but to guide us into our own wrestling match with God. Much like Jacob wrestled with God and forever after walked with a limp, we are expected to wrestle with God to the point that the very wrestling match forever changes us too. Wrestling with a book won’t do that – only wrestling with the Creator Himself can do that, because, when we’re wrestling with a book, we can decide how we want to interpret it to suit our doctrine or our existing assumptions about the God that it describes.
In fact, that is perhaps one of the strongest arguments to me for understanding the true nature of the Bible. When I review various English translations, comparing for example the ESV, KJV, NIV, and NASB, there are often significant differences in meaning by the words and phrases that have been chosen to translate the oldest-known original texts. Pick any controversial topic, and you will find major disagreement in the resulting translations. This ultimately occurs because the translators, despite their determination to accurately represent the original language, were approaching their job with a latent set of often unconscious biases and understandings about the nature of God and the Bible itself and the subject matters at hand. Even when I go back to an original language source, like an interlinear translation, and I consider all the possible meanings of a given Greek or Hebrew word, I’m still using my own cognitive biases in selecting one of them.
(After all, there are only about 8,700 unique Hebrew words in the Bible, compared to about 11,000 unique English words. There’s a lot of room for varying interpretation of the Hebrew; many Hebrew words have many possible interpretations depending on context.)
With all of this in mind, I cannot assert with any humility that I’m correct in any given understanding of a scripture, or that I’ve necessarily picked the “right” translation to use.
The only thing I can do is to wrestle with God over it: to allow His Holy Spirit to show me things, sometimes even things not necessarily present in the text, and invite me into conversation with Him about it, and let His living Word – Christ – be the answer, instead of trying to force my mind into the confines of the written word. In so doing, I’m walking down the same path as Paul or Peter or any of the other New Testament authors, wrestling with the text and sometimes being asked by the Lord to upend some aspect of intellectual understanding and be confounded by a Holy Spirit word that in some mystical way goes beyond the mere text.
Naturally, my brain long trained in evangelical theology says “Danger, danger! You’re setting yourself up as your own god over the Bible – it’s supposed to be the other way around; you let the word conform you to itself, and God will never speak against the Bible when He speaks to you.”
I think that misses the point. It’s not setting myself up over or against the written word – it’s recognizing the limitations of the written word and being keenly aware of the scriptures that tell me that the word points to the Word.
And I think there’s solid precedent in the word for this principle. Consider Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where all his very solid and well-trained understanding of the Hebrew Bible was upended by a supernatural encounter with Christ. Or consider Peter’s vision where God reframed the Torah’s dietary laws at the same time as He reframed the separation between Jew and Gentile.
“Okay,” you will likely argue, “but those stories are IN THE BIBLE. That’s part of the historical record, and we can’t use that to allow for such things to happen today. All that flux ended at the time the Bible was completed.”
“Okay,” I will respond – “when was the Bible completed?” There was significant disagreement until the fourth century about what constituted the Bible. Even since then, new discoveries continue to reveal aspects of the “original” texts that were in fact added later than that to cover over some uncomfortable challenges to interpretation. Consider the upheaval in the Biblical world when the Dead Sea Scrolls were found – and were found to reframe our understanding of a number of Bible texts. And as I noted in the very beginning of this article, there is still significant disagreement between Orthodox and Catholic and Evangelical and mainline Christians about which books are canonical. Even within the non-Catholic/non-Orthodox world, Christians disagree about the validity of several New Testament books (notably Revelation). So what is “in the Bible” is not even fully settled today.
(As another aside, it’s worth noting that one key verse many evangelicals quote to support the absolute locked-down nature of the Bible, from Revelations 22:18, “if anyone adds to” this book, “God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book” is itself in stated a book which was of long disputed reputation and canonicity. And that doesn’t even begin to address the misinterpretation of the phrase “this book,” which refers to the book of John’s Revelation itself, not necessarily to the entire Bible.)
So I’m increasingly of the opinion that many Christians in fact idolize the Bible itself, over and against Christ to whom it points. When there is a dispute between what Christ is saying and the Bible, the Bible wins for them every time. But what I see in the scripture is a clear and bold statement that Christ is the Living Word, and only He is fully trustworthy and fully worthy of all honor and praise.
Given the long and difficult and complicated history of the written word, and the current variety of interpretations, I find it impossible to believe that the Bible is actually complete in the sense that I would wish it to be complete. It would be much easier to believe as I used to, where any and all questions can be readily and simply answered by suitable application of the proper verse and chapter.
Consider that if I do, in fact, believe that God is infinitely able to foresee the future, then I must also admit that He absolutely knew that this uncertainty would exist. He knew that we would end up with a messy, complicated set of texts of uncertain origin and inability to guarantee that any given translation is correct or inerrant. If He is infinitely powerful, He could easily have created a text with utter traceability and lack of ambiguity and that would be timelessly unquestionable.
But He didn’t.
My only conclusion is that He didn’t want to do that. For some reason, He must have wanted it to be messy and complicated and inscrutable. If I truly believe He authored the Bible, then I must also believe that He authored its messiness and controversy.
I now believe that any and all questions about God and His Kingdom and our relationship with Him can only be answered by the suitable application of the Spirit of God, informed but not controlled by verse and chapter. He will point me to all truth, and that Truth is Christ, the Word Incarnate, not the written word. Faith comes through hearing, and hearing by the word. The written word is the genesis of this process, not the end of it, and it’s what allows me to begin to hear the Spirit. The written word points me towards God, and I’m not intended to worship the written word, but rather the Living Word. If I refuse to listen to what the Living Word reveals to me because it conflicts with a rather messy written word, I’ve missed the mark, and I’m likely to miss something that He is trying to say or do in me or through me.
Here’s the thing: this belief structure contains a very serious implication: it places on me a very serious and sober requirement for a lively and trustworthy and viable relationship with the Living God, such that I can hear His voice accurately. There’s no allowance for letting anyone else do the hard work for me. No pastor or elder or teacher can carry that load. They may hear the voice of God for them, but I can’t assume it to replace His voice to me.
I can anticipate another argument here: “But God put those people into our lives to help us grow and mature and stay safe from false interpretations.” Okay, but I think we’ve extended it much too far. We have effectively handed the keys to our spiritual car over to them, and trust them to hear God FOR US instead of to confirm what God is saying to us personally. I call it “McDonalds Christianity” – “Pastor, I’ll give you my tithe and you provide the burger and fries; I don’t have time or inclination to kill the cow or dig up the potatoes.” What if, instead, our relationship with those people was walking together, teaching each other how to hear God ourselves, and relying on the Holy Spirit in each other to point out when we miss the mark? That’s a long, long way from letting someone else do the hard work and just swallowing whatever doctrine they present, because we assume they’re God’s voice for us.
I’m sure this discussion will rock a few boats. This thinking has certainly rocked my own boat. I’m also sure that these conclusions are utterly unacceptable to many evangelical Christians. I know that I flat out rejected such thoughts for decades, even when I became aware of the messy nature of the Bible. I just assumed there was some simple answer that tied it all together, if I just studied long enough and hard enough, and memorized and internalized enough scripture verses. As I discover that not to be the case, it’s certainly deeply disconcerting. But I find it’s drawing me closer to God Himself – learning the limitations of the Bible leaves me needing to depend on the One who it reveals. And I think that’s the whole point, anyway.