Textual Criticism and the Bible

I recommended some books by Bart Ehrman to a couple of you before you knew I was an atheist, so I think I owe a word of explanation. What I like about Ehrman’s works is that he explains the textual critical approach to the Bible. Ehrman did not invent this approach. Rather, it has been around since the mid 1800s and has been endorsed by the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant Churches for a hundred years. In fact, fundamentalism originally developed a hundred years ago largely in reaction to the widespread acceptance of textual criticism.

Now, learning the textual critical approach to the Bible did not make me an atheist. In fact, it actually served to preserve my faith for several years after I left fundamentalism. I became an atheist because basic Christian doctrine ceased to make sense to me, not because of textual criticism. After all, if textual criticism made someone an atheist, we wouldn’t have many Catholics or mainline Protestants today now would we! Instead, I actually think that the textual critical approach puts up a better defense of the faith than does fundamentalism. Similarly, I think that the textual critical approach makes the Bible a much more rich, interesting, and fascinating book than does the fundamentalist approach. Let me explain both of these points.

The fundamentalist approach to the Bible sees it as 100% inspired and inerrant word for word. If it says Jesus picked wheat on the Sabbath, that’s what he did. If it says he drank wine mixed with gall on the cross, that’s what he did. If it says women should remain in the home and be silent in the church, well, that’s what women must do.

The textual critical approach to the Bible views it as an ancient document that may contain errors or inaccuracies. Different books may contradict each other, passages may have been added in by later copyists, and books may not necessarily be written by who they say they’re written by. Now to someone raised a fundamentalist, this may sound incompatible with faith, but, again, if it were we would have no Catholics or mainline Protestants. Rather, these believers hold that while the Bible may contain human errors and human opinions, it is nevertheless a holy book that contains theological, metaphorical, and moral truths.

Why do I argue that the textual critical approach actually puts up a better defense of faith than does the fundamentalist approach? The answer is simple. The fundamentalist approach is self-defeating to anyone who really looks at it. Here are two examples as to why this is the case:

1. There are numerous contradictions between the four gospels.

2. Paul contradicts himself concerning whether women are allowed to be leaders in the church or not.

The fundamentalist response is to simply argue over and over again that there are no contradictions, but that is the equivalent of putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and closing one’s eyes because one does not want to see or hear what is sitting right in front of it. The fundamentalist approach tries to explain away the contradictions, but anyone not invested in preserving the fundamentalist faith will admit that such contradictions do indeed exist. I see this as highly problematic. It’s a bit like trying to force the Bible into a box, even if that means closing one’s eyes to reality and simply repeating “the Bible is inerrant in every way” over and over again to drown out any opposition.

In fact, I think the Bible can only be seen as “perfect truth” when one releases the idea that every fact has to be literally correct and lets go of the assertion that there are no contradictions. Why? Because as long as people insist these things, they are denying reality. If we accept that there are contradictions or “differences,” we can see that the real point is the greater moral truths, not the little nitty gritty. Does it really matter whether Judas was hung or whether he fell from a cliff? Rather than falling all over ourselves trying desperately to reconcile these two, why not just admit that there is a contradiction here but that the point clearly is that he met an evil end? This is what the textual critical approach does.

In addition, I think that the textual critical approach to the Bible is a better defense of the faith because the fundamentalist approach causes anyone willing to admit the contradictions to question Christianity itself. This is because the fundamentalist approach bases all of Christianity on there being no contradictions in the Bible, and anyone willing to admit that there are indeed contradictions watches Christianity crumble before her. This is what started to happen to me after I opened my eyes to the contradictions and dropped my desperate attempts to reconcile them. This left me frantic – what was I to do? I would have left religion altogether right then and there except for one thing: I learned about the textual critical approach to the Bible, and it explained and solved all the problems I had with Christianity. And I loved it. It made the Bible appear more beautiful to me than it ever had before.

Now you may be wondering how seeing the Bible as containing errors or contradictions could possibly make it appear more beautiful or believable. This may seem confusing, so I think I will try to provide some examples. I mentioned before that there are contradictions between the gospels and within Paul himself, so let me explain how the Catholic Church understands these seeming problems using the textual critical approach. (I use the Catholic Church as an example because I myself was Catholic for a time; if I had been Episcopalian or Evangelical Lutheran, I would use them as examples instead.)

The Catholic Church holds that there are contradictions between the gospels, but that that is not a problem. The gospels contradict each other in part because those who wrote them were not trying to write literal histories of exactly what happened. Instead, each gospel teaches a specific theological message, and each of these is different. We should not expect the gospels to agree in every detail, and we should stop trying to simply combine them into one story. Rather, we should try to understand each one on its own terms, looking at what it is trying to communicate about Jesus. How much more interesting and meaningful this makes them! No longer are the contradictions a problem, and no longer do we lose nuance by assuming they’re all telling the same exact story. While they may be technically telling the same story, each writer tells it differently, emphasising the specific points about Jesus that he wants to make. And you know what? This is okay. I like this understanding better, much better, than the fundamentalist approach. Put simply, it explains many of the problems and simply makes more sense. I also feel that it adds a richness and depth to the gospels that is missing in the fundamentalist approach.

In addition, in holding with the scholarship of textual criticism, the Catholic Church holds that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This actually resolves a lot of problems, namely that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John speak in the third person (never “then we did this or that”) and sometimes misunderstand Jewish culture and even contradict known history. It also helps explain why they sometimes contradict each other factually. If, as the Catholic Church, following the textual critical approach, holds, the gospels were written down some time later as compilations of oral traditions and not by eyewitnesses, this is all explained. In fact, it makes the gospels make a lot more sense. The Catholic Church still sees the gospels as holy, inspired, and containing truth, just not the literal truth in every factual detail so important to the fundamentalist approach. Once again, I feel that this understanding adds a richness and depth missing in the fundamentalist approach.

Finally, the Catholic Church, in following with textual criticism, is okay with questioning who wrote which book of the Bible and which passages might have been later additions. For example, it holds that Paul likely did not actually write the letters to Timothy and Titus or I Corinthians 14:34-35. Rather, Timothy and Titus were probably written later on by someone other than Paul and with a very different intent from Paul. Once again, this explains the contradictions (Paul elsewhere talks of female church leaders and deacons while the letters to Timothy and Titus say that only men are to have positions of leadership in the church and command women to stay in the home). Again, this does not mean that we cannot see both as inspired. Rather, the textual critical approach once again explains the contradictions and reveals that we need to be aware that different authors were addressing different problems and making different points. Fascinating, isn’t it? Similarly, the Catholic Church also holds that I Corinthians 14:34-35 was an addition by a later scribe, not actually written by Paul (it does not fit with the context, it uses different vocabulary than typical, and it is in different places in different manuscripts). Once again, seeming contradictions in Paul are explained.

To me, the textual critical approach is much more fascinating and interesting than the fundamentalist approach. It explains the seeming contradictions and problems with the Bible in a way that the fundamentalist approach simply cannot. At the same time, it is in no wise incompatible with faith (as the many Christians who follow this approach confirm). One thing that especially appealed to me about the textual critical approach when I left fundamentalism is that it is okay with asking questions. Why is there a contradiction here? Do we really know who wrote this given book? And on and on. Unlike the fundamentalist approach, textual criticism views these questions as legitimate and seeks to answer them in fulfilling and intelligent ways (rather than just “because”). Sometimes it even says “I don’t know.” This was water to my parched soul.

Once again, I want to clarify that I adopted the textual critical approach to the Bible a full two years before I became an atheist, and it is absolutely NOT what made me an atheist. Rather, this approach allowed me to salvage and nourish my faith. It allowed me to let go of my constant drive to harmonize contradictions and admit that differences did indeed exist, but that that’s okay. The relief was palpable. I later became an atheist only when basic Christian doctrines ceased to make sense. The need for Jesus sacrifice, the concept of hell, the existence of the Trinity – these things simply stopped making sense. That, then, is why I left religion, not because I adopted the textual critical approach to the Bible.

Even as an atheist, I love learning more about the Bible from a textual critical approach. Of course, I now see the Bible as wholly and completely human in both development and interpretation. Yet while I no longer believe that there are inspired truths in the Bible, I still find it’s history and development fascinating. The Bible is probably the number one most important influence on the development of western civilization, and for that reason alone it merits attention even from those who do not believe it contains even a spark of the divine.

The whole point of this blog post is simply to emphasize what I see as the beauty and richness of the textual critical approach and its vast benefits over the fundamentalist approach, and to explain that this is why I recommend Ehrman’s works, not because I think they are subversive to faith (which I do not think they are). While the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant churches have endorsed textual criticism for over a century, Ehrman is the only author I have found so far who explains textual criticism in depth for lay readers. He doesn’t say anything new or anything scholars haven’t accepted for decades; rather, he seeks to explain it to lay audiences. I actually read Ehrman after I had already been an atheist for a year. Yet while I had believed in textual criticism before, my knowledge of it was limited to the information in the Catholic study Bible, which actually contains a decent amount about textual criticism and questions in the text. Ehrman explained textual criticism to me in much more detail and helped me realize once again just how rich this approach really is.

Now of course, I’ll readily admit that there aren’t just two dichotomous approaches. I think, rather, that there is a sort of sliding scale with the strict fundamentalist approach on one end and the strict textual critical approach on the other. Coming from a religious perspective, each has its flaws: the first tries to put the Bible in a box and the later can tend toward seeing the Bible as a solely human book (though I again contend that this is not necessarily the result). Plenty of Christians – perhaps even most – fall somewhere in between these two approaches. And so, rather than turning this post into a debate over this or that, I want to finish with a question: How do you view/interpret the Bible?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.