God’s Bible

Here’s another provocative cartoon from David Hayward:

David points out that the Bible’s repeated references to “the Word of God” are not about something that can be called “the Bible.” This is true – and ought to be obvious – for several reasons. First and foremost, when the texts that eventually came to make up what we call the Bible were written, they were not yet part of a collection known as “the Bible” and so could not yet be referring to a collection that included those same writings. Second, the usage within the Bible is much broader, ranging from God’s word that creates and which confronts human beings through the prophets in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, to the Word as Jesus in parts of the New Testament.

This is a crucial point to grasp, whether for understanding the Bible, or avoiding bibliolatry, or understanding why it is folly to ignore evidence from anywhere other than the Bible when assembling one’s viewpoint on a given matter.

I’ll say it again, since it is a crucial point: When the texts that now make up the Bible were written, there was as yet no Bible. And so to use those texts to justify limiting the “Word of God” to the Bible is to make them mean something very different than they meant when they were written.

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  • Dave H.

    Thank you for stating this so clearly. Also, I think the trinity, especially the Holy Ghost, is adorably portrayed in this comic!

  • Jesse Toler

    Bible just means ‘book’ and to that extent the Bible as we know it is relatively young, but I think the cartoon misses that.

  • Susan Burns

    What does it mean that DBR is also used to identify the Holy of Holies which is a specific place inside the temple?

    • I don’t honestly know, apart from the classic suggestions, none of which seem entirely satisfactory. I would welcome input on this from anyone who reads it and whose primary expertise is in the Hebrew Bible or Semitic languages. What does דְּבִיר mean in 1 Kings 6:16?

    • Susan Burns

      This word has something to do with schooling or swarming. The root describes the action of animals that move as if they are one organism. Herds of animals, schools of fish or swarms of bees change direction together as if directed by some unseen force. How does every individual member of a school or herd know what movement the member next to it will make at the moment it makes it?

  • To say that the word of God is limited to what is in the Bible is indeed like saying that the rainwater held in the cistern is all the rain that ever falls. But does that make the rainwater in the cistern any less thirst-quenching? And do we denigrate the Bible because a handful of people idolize it?

    • Really? A handful?

      And this cistern has been standing around for hundreds of years. A lot more than rain has fallen into it.

      • Of all the people who consider the Bible authoritative, indeed only a fraction idolize it.

        No books have been added to the Bible in 2,000 years. Opinions about it, however, have mounted.

        • Not quite true.

          The Old Testament shows clears signs of scribal editing and recombining long before the NT was even in existence. The gospels were clearly copied (imperfectly and conflictingly) from earlier texts; and biblical textual scholars identify evidence for later tampering by Christian copyists. Sure, we can verify some very old scraps of manuscripts, but none of them date to the time they were written.

          • But maybe it’s the analogy that’s at fault. The bible looks less like a cistern and more like a storm drain after a flood.

          • Then you should have no problem drinking. After all, it’s not the receptacle or the conduit that matters, but rather the rain that passes through it.

          • No, Mike, I don’t know many people who make a habit of drinking from storm drains.

          • My point was that since you bear witness to the abundance of rain, you can dispense with storm drains and drink from your own cup.

          • There you go! Who needs the dirty water in the bible! I’ll be my own prophet and write my own bible – like Joseph Smith!

          • Then how is it that Bibles today are so similar?

          • First because for centuries the bible was only allowed in versions authorized by the Catholic Church. In the last few centuries, because textual critics publish their work and academically share notions about how to decide which of the tens of thousands of textual variants found in ancient manuscripts should be regarded as closest to the nonexistent originals. There are scholars who devote their entire careers to parsing out the which of all the thousands of divergent texts to use in the English translations you read at home.

            But for those who only read their bibles in English, there is a much simpler way to see the variations in source material. Read two gospels side by side and notice all the differences. Whatever men put together the “original” texts, couldn’t agree on the basic story.

          • What variations exist are about minor points, not major ones. Jesus lived, taught the ways of God, performed miracles, suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried…and was raised from the dead – on such major points there are no variations.

            Given their age and handwritten transmission for so many of those years, what’s really amazing about the biblical document copies is not their dissimilarity but rather their similarity.

          • How arbitrarily you decide what are minor points. And when two gospels completely contradict each other on such tales as the genealogy of Jesus, the entrance to Jerusalem, the suicide of Judas, the discovery of the empty tomb, and many other details – it’s rather silly not to question their reliability.

            As far as the “amazing”ness of an ancient text being handed down with what you call “minor” variations, it’s not peculiar to Christianity. You could say exactly the same thing of other ancient texts. For example, similar to the dead sea scroll discoveries but much older, bamboo renditions of the Tao Te Ching dating to 300 BC were discovered in 1993 – and they were “amazingly” consistent with later texts.

          • “and many other details”

            That’s my point: details.

            “As far as the “amazing”ness of an ancient text being handed down with what you call “minor” variations, it’s not peculiar to Christianity”

            Apparently, the same Beau Quilter who said that the Bible’s texts vary widely is now saying they are as consistent as the Tao Te Ching’s. To which BQ shall we listen?

          • Mike, please …

            Every time you choose to obfuscate, it really makes us question your motives.

            As any reader can see, we are talking about separate issues:

            First issue: the reliability of the “original texts” – to the extent that we can know what the original texts looked like. Whatever you think of later transmissions, the original synoptic gospels are clearly an inconsistent mishmash of earlier sources. Just read them side by side – it’s obvious!

            Second issue: the later transmission of the bible, with tens of thousands of copy errors in the existing manuscripts. Sure, many of them are minor grammatical differences, but they also include plenty of whole verse interpolations. You can see many of these by simply comparing an old King James bible with a modern translation.

            Third issue: you seem to be suggesting that what similarities do exist are “amazing”, considering how long biblical texts were transmitted by copying. Here, you parrot many current apologists who proclaim this as a miracle revealing the inspiration of the bible. Of course, this is hogwash. This is how all ancient religious texts tend to be passed down through the clerical practices of hierarchies. With lots of copy errors (to be expected), basically similar stories (after all, major STORY changes would be too obvious to the laity), and occasional interpolations that tend to support their current adapted doctrines. Scholars argue sometimes about how many verses are interpolations after the originals; but the fact that whole verse interpolations happened is not supposition – it’s beyond dispute.

            And we haven’t even mentioned the issues of pseudepigraphy and false attributions.

            Whatever the bible is, it certainly isn’t a cistern of pure rainwater.

          • Beau,

            First issue: Speak for yourself. I’ve read the gospels side by side for years. They don’t strike me the way they do you. They seem to be consistent, coherent, and compelling testimony of a peculiar first-century life.

            Second issue: I compare the King James Version with modern versions all the time. I see no material differences.

            Third issue: I don’t say “amazing” in a supernatural sense. I think it’s amazing that any ancient text is preserved for us in essentially its original form. Of course, it’s undeniable that the Bible is supported by such an abundance of manuscript evidence that no other ancient document or set of documents can match it.

          • Fortunately, I don’t have to speak just for myself – there are many careers made out of the scholarly study of the huge variation in early Christian texts and historical belief.

          • Textual criticism is a valuable discipline because proper study of all the variations helps us get even closer to precisely what the originals said.

          • It does much more than that. It gives us information about the communities that collected and copied ancient texts, and gives us insight into the ancient world. Properly conducted biblical study looks no different than the study of any ancient texts.

          • Not every ancient text claims to present communication from our Creator. Thus there is an extra dimension of study appropriate to those – even if one believes the claim is made falsely.

          • There are many ancient texts for which this claim is made, and representing many different religious viewpoints. Scholars should treat such texts, and the claims about them. in the same way.

          • Unless one of them turns out to be more persuasive on the point than the others.

          • As LaPlace said, “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.”

          • Then LaPlace will be happy to know that I find the evidence for Jesus Christ more than meeting that standard.

          • I’m not a mythicist. I think it’s quite likely that an apocalyptic prophet named Jesus was crucified around 2000 years ago. But there are too many miracles and gods to count in texts that have survived antiquity. I don’t see how those recorded in the Bible have any more claim to authenticity than the oracle of Apollo or the visions of Mohammed.

          • The key claims of the prophets and apostles of ancient Israel are:

            1) They spoke for the single God who created everything

            2) They spoke of this God as personally visiting the world as Jesus of Nazareth, having provided many varied prophecies of Him hundreds and hundreds of years in advance.

            3) They spoke of this Jesus as raised from the dead and made Lord of all creation such that all humanity should obey Him

            4) They spoke of God as, through this process, having solved the problem of death.

            Irrespective of whether you think these claims are true or not, please identify how many other ancient texts can match these four claims in scope, relevance, and importance. (Obviously, Apollo and Mohammad don’t even make the first cut.)

          • MIke

            This makes no sense (in fact, it’s just weird). You could list the specific beliefs of ancient Greeks or modern Muslims, as you have listed your beliefs, and they would claim that their beliefs have more scope, relevance, and importance. In fact, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 billion Muslims certainly do see their beliefs as having more “scope, relevance, and importance” than yours.

            Frankly, Mike, from a perspective outside Christianity, the claim that a human/god resurrection has any inherent scope, relevance, or importance at all just seems silly.

          • Well, since you reject as nonsensical, weird, and silly the answer proposed by Jesus Christ to the most fundamental questions of human existence (i.e., “Where did we come from, where are we going, and what is going to be done about death?”), whose answers to these questions do you find more plausible?

          • It is your response that was weird, nonsensical, and silly – that you somehow think stating the specific tenets of Christianity proves that they have more “scope, relevance, and importance” than any other religion in the world. Every religion makes claims of “scope, relevance and importance.” And they can all be fascinating to study.

            I wouldn’t presume to name one person who has all the answers – that is a religious presumption.

            The answers to the first two questions you pose can’t be answered in a blog comment but they do involve far more knowledge about the universe and human life than we’ve ever known before, as well as still more unanswered questions than religious people tend to be comfortable with.

            The answer to “what is going to be done about death,” seems to presume that death is an anomaly to be resolved – something that is unnatural in the universe. Death is natural; nothing can be “done about death”. It may not be pleasant to face, but we know that all humans must face death eventually. As far as what comes after death, my favorite quotation comes from Mark Twain:

            “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

          • Just because someone whistles past the graveyard doesn’t mean they’re happy about having to go in.

          • Yet go in they must. There has never been an exception.

          • Quite right – though there has been one notable exit out the other side.

          • Incidentally, on the subject of questions and answers, I’ve really enjoyed James’s recent posts on this topic:

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2013/01/questions-vs-assertions.html

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2013/01/a-day-in-the-park-questions-and-answers.html

          • I read and commented on both.

          • Good for you – anyone else who is following – take a look!

          • I would add that the writings in the Bible never explicitly claim to be a communication from God.

          • Does the phrase “Thus saith the Lord” ring a bell?

          • Yes, Mike. Now be honest. Is that the phrase that begins the gospels? The letters of Paul? Or is it a phrase that introduces quotations in the Bible that actually make up a tiny fraction of the contents of the Bible as whole?

          • I was responding to your comment “I would add that the writings in the Bible never explicitly claim to be a communication from God.” Now you are trying to make a different point.

          • No, I’m not making a different point at all; this is exactly the point I intended. The Bible has narratives in which a character will occasionally say “Thus saith the Lord” in reference to a single quotation, but you don’t find scriptures that support the belief that the bible itself is inspired, or that any particular book of the bible is inspired, or is a communication from God.

            Christians usually find support for their beliefs within biblical scriptures. But biblical scriptures do not support this one particular belief that, for many Christians, is fundamental – that the Bible itself is a canon of writings that are inspired by God – a communication from God to mankind. Yet for many Christians, the belief in the inspiration of the Bible is foundational.

            James has dealt with this issue in earlier posts; for example:

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2011/06/sola-scriptura-from-the-archives.html

          • A quick online search of the King James Version indicates that the phrase “Thus saith the Lord” is used 413 times.

            Aside from that, what do you think Jesus meant when He said, “Scripture cannot be broken”? (John 10:35)

          • Mike,

            This is kindergarten Sunday school logic. However many times the KJV says “Thus saith the Lord”, the phrase never once refers to even one book of the Bible, much less the entire Bible.

            And now you’re suggesting that, in his reference to Psalm 82:6, Jesus is declaring that all of the unwritten New Testament is “scripture” – whatever it may mean that “Scripture cannot be broken”. At best (and this is a real stretch), you might infer that one book in the Bible (John) sees another book in the Bible (Psalms) as a “communication from God”.

            Simple question. Why do you believe that the modern Christian biblical canon (ignoring for now the differences between the protestant, catholic, and orthodox versions of the canon) is a communication from God?

            Even if the Bible were to claim it’s own inspiration, it wouldn’t mean very much (I am inspired, because I say I am inspired). But the Bible doesn’t even do that much.

          • The Bible’s testimony about itself is only incidental. It’s real testimony is about Jesus Christ.

            I find that the Old and New Testaments together tell a single cohesive, coherent, credible, and compelling story about how God entered human existence, and thereby showed us how to live in a troubled world.

          • I understand.

            I find that the Old Testament consists of representative texts from one ancient mythology. The New Testament consists of representative texts from a less ancient, more derivative mythology. They are interesting in that, alongside islam, buddhism, hinduism, and a few others, they are mythologies that are still believed by religious people in the world, and so still have an influence.

          • In terms of the New Testament’s claim to have witnessed the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s prophecies (written across a period 400-1,500 years in advance of the NT) about a single figure, I know no parallel in ancient or modern history. Do you?

          • It would be difficult to parallel something that doesn’t exist! There isn’t a single NT reference to OT prophecy, that isn’t either vaguely applied or completely out of context – often awkwardly out of context!

            You and I have already had that conversation:

            http://blogforthelordjesuscurrentevents.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/answer-to-rmwilliamsjr-at-james-mcgraths-exploring-our-matrix-blog-post-the-bibles-authors-were-inspired-by-god/

          • I’m all for not repeating. Thanks.

          • I just remembered a a very good biblioblog post on this topic:

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2012/12/the-bible-is-a-smelly-gross-pile-of-rotting-garbage/

            Peter Enns – The Bible is a Smelly Gross Pile of Rotting Garbage

          • I didn’t think you held as high a view of Scripture as Peter does.

          • I don’t. And I don’t care for Clint Eastwood’s politics, either – but he’s a terrific director!

          • So, I take it that you think Peter’s posts are “great” when he writes against the reliability of the biblical texts (Clint Eastwood as a director), and otherwise when he writes in support of it (Clint Eastwood on politics).

            I do not consider either a guiding light for my life. Rather, I look to Jesus Christ for that role. And there is no variation among New Testament texts regarding His overarching importance.

          • No, I always find Peter’s posts interesting whether I fully agree with them or not. And he encourages multiple points of view on his site – a very welcoming presence – like James.

            But I’m not trying to turn either of them into the “Paul”, “Apollos”, “Cephas”, or “Christ” of 1 Corinthians 1:12.

            You sound like someone Paul might have been addressing in the passage however.

          • You don’t know me as well as you think you do.

          • Well I daresay that’s true of all of us.

          • I hardly think so. I’m quite ignorant of you, though I have learned some things in the last couple of days. And what I do know is more about what you don’t believe than about what you do believe.

          • Well, apparently you think you know what I think I know of you.

            ‘You don’t know me as well as you think you do.”

            I never said I did. I’m quite ignorant of you, as well. I was only pointing out that the statement you made:

            “I do not consider either a guiding light for my life. Rather, I look to Jesus Christ for that role.”

            Sounded an awful lot like those that Paul was addressing in 1 Corinthians 1:12. Especially since I was only offering some interesting reads from Peter Enns – not trying to suggest who should be our “guiding light.”

          • I was responding to your suggestion that Peter’s prescription for evangelicals would be applicable to me. There are some points on which I would agree with the evangelicals (e.g. Jesus is Lord and the Bible is the word of God) and some points on which I would diverge (e.g. everyone is going to heaven, church is unnecessary and even counterproductive).

            As for testifying to the uniqueness and supremacy of Jesus Christ, well, I am always looking for an opportunity to do that. He’s worth that sort of preoccupation.

          • Do you feel the same way about James’ ideas? Not applicable to you?

          • I cannot make such a blanket statement about James or about Peter. My response was regarding a specific post by Peter to which you referred me.

          • Incidentally, quite a number of scholars would disagree with your last statement. There is a distinct difference between the Jesus presented by the synoptics and the Jesus presented by John. James has touched on this in his posts.

          • Really? In which of the gospels was Jesus not the most important character? And which scholars maintain this?

          • So if all scholars maintain that Jesus was “important” in a given gospel, that means they all agree? What sort of measure is that?

          • My point is that the Bible is much more coherent and pointed in its message than you are portraying it to be.

            It’s central message is Jesus Christ – crucified and resurrected. People, including scholars, may disagree about the details. They may even disbelieve the message. But it’s hard to deny that this is the message. Therefore, it cannot be an incoherent and impossible-to-understand collection of writings.

          • I’m not talking about fringe scholarly opinion. ANY NT scholar, including our host James McGrath, can tell you why the concept of High Christology is associated with the Gospel of John.

          • Sure, there’s a difference in style between the gospels. If it weren’t for John, we wouldn’t even have the term “synoptics.” But even if Mannheim Steamroller’s version of the Hallelujah chorus doesn’t sound like everyone else’s, it’s still the Hallelujah Chorus.

          • It’s more than a difference in style. If we didn’t have John, the term “synoptics” is the least of what we wouldn’t have. We probably wouldn’t have the concept of the trinity, or the divinity of Christ.

          • The Trinity is not a biblical concept. However, as for Jesus deserving divine status, John is hardly the only New Testament author to so testify.

    • Wonder

       No, but if you are in the presence of your loved ones, do you talk to them directly, or content yourself with re-reading their old letters?

      • Ah, this is a very good question.  

        When it comes to my physical loved ones, I put the letters away.  However, I have never known Jesus physically.  I only know Him spiritually.  Therefore, the letters keep me grounded so that I’m not carried away by thoughts I think are his but are inconsistent with his character as revealed in the letters.

  • arcseconds

    I understand that in the midrashic literature, it’s not so clear that G-d surpasses the Torah. There is a story about G-d putting on a cap and stole and reading his Torah (i.e. G-d is potrayed as a rabbi), and other accounts that strongly suggest that G-d isn’t really a distinct entity from the Torah.