Christians have not been ‘reading the Bible this way for 2,000 years’

Whenever I write something critical of the relatively recent dogma of “biblical inerrancy,” someone always responds by insisting that Christians have been reading the Bible this way for 2,000 years.

That’s not true. It’s not possible.

Christians haven’t been reading the Bible this way for 2,000 years, because for most of the last 2,000 years, most Christians weren’t reading the Bible at all.

For the first of those 20 centuries, Christians weren’t reading the New Testament because it was still being written. Even 1,900 years ago, many of the texts we refer to as the New Testament were still a work in progress.

For much of Christian history, many of the biblical texts read by most Christians were neither texts nor biblical. (“Descent of Christ to Limbo,” church fresco in Florence by Andrea di Bonaiuto, ca. 1368.)

It took another 200 years after that for those texts to be collected into anything like a formal canon. That only came about after Emperor Constantine made Christianity Rome’s official religion. The next step, then, was to translate the Bible into Latin so that every Roman-therefore-newly-Christian could read it. Jerome didn’t finish that project until 405.

At that point — 1,600 years ago — it might finally have become possible for Christians to start reading the Bible in the same way that white evangelical inerrantists read it today, but that’s not how they read the Bible. Take a look at Augustine or any of the other early church writers from the first five centuries of Christianity and you’ll find all kinds of approaches to the text — wildly inventive allegorical schemes, symbolism, reinterpretations of the New Testament almost as radical as the NT authors’ reinterpretations of the OT — that would give contemporary defenders of “biblical inerrancy” the howling fantods.

Well, then, what about after Augustine? How did Christians read the Bible in the next several centuries?

They didn’t. Not most of them, anyway. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476 and literacy in western Europe collapsed right along with it. During the Dark Ages, books were hard to come by, and people who could read and understand them were too. Christians were reading the Bible during those many long centuries, but not most Christians. It was read by, and within, the church. The prevailing hermeneutic, in other words, was nothing like the individualistic, face-value literalism that characterizes the approach of modern inerrantists. The prevailing hermeneutic was to interpret the Bible as meaning what the church says it means.

The majority of Christians during those centuries didn’t read the Bible at all, lacking both the ability and the opportunity to do so. They heard bits of the Bible read to them — in Latin, which they may not have understood — and they learned a lot of biblical lore from songs, statuary, pageants and plays. That was mixed in, of course, with a lot of other lore that was likely regarded as biblical, even though it came instead from, say, the Gospel of Nicodemas or the Vision of Tundale.

That’s how things remained for about half of those 2,000 years during which Christians have supposedly been reading the Bible in just exactly the way we’re reading it today.

The big changes didn’t come until more than 1,000 years after St. Jerome finished his Latin translation. The biggest change didn’t have anything to do with the church itself. The biggest change was technological — the invention of the printing press and the publication of the Gutenberg Bible in 1454.

Another big change came with first the Geneva Bible and then the King James Version in 1611 — more than a century after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, these made English translations of the Bible widely available for the first time. And thus, for the first time in the English-speaking world, it became possible to begin reading the Bible the way that proponents of “inerrancy” read it today.

So if we can’t say that most Christians have been reading the Bible this way for 2,000 years, can we at least say that some Christians have been reading the Bible this way for 400 years?

Yes, I think that’s fair. I think the same hermeneutic now championed by Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist faction and by things like the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” first began to take shape about 400 years ago.

And here’s a brief timeline of some of that theological development:

1607: Jamestown founded in Virginia.

1611: King James Bible published.

1619: First 20 Africans sold into slavery in Jamestown.

1620: Plymouth Bay Colony founded in Massachusetts.

1636: The Desire, the first North American slave ship, built and launched in Massachusetts.

1643: Plymouth adopts a fugitive slave law.

1657: Virginia adopts a fugitive slave law.

1661: King Charles II of England calls for the Christian conversion of African slaves.

1667: Virginia passes law saying that slaves who convert to Christianity will remain slaves.

From there on it’s just a matter of filling in the details.

The shape of contemporary white evangelicalism — including the way it reads and interprets and wields the Bible — flows from that. That’s where the argument began and that’s where the argument remains.

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  • AnonymousSam

    Given that the majority of our nation’s politicians are practicing Christians, particularly the Republican party… well.

    The most practical problem with “we should all be Christians” is that few of us agree what that means. Some people think being Christian means to unconditionally love their brothers and to support them without reservation, emphasizing charity in all its purest forms. Some people think Romans 1 is the entirety of Christianity and that purity is the end-all-be-all of what we are called to accomplish. Still others say that Christianity is the pursuit of wealth and that God favors His chosen by endowing them with riches. And then a few say that the truest worship of God is to speak of the utmost hatred of his enemies, which is everyone but the Elect.

  • AnonymousSam

    Actually, even though I don’t believe in scripture as being inerrant, I could read the texts as referring to themselves or even to scripture that didn’t exist yet — because Exodus does it quite blatantly. In Exodus 34:18-26, God atop Mount Sinai mandates to Moses the celebration of two feasts, Sukkōt and Shavuʿoth, which are interpreted to refer to events which haven’t yet taken place at the time of the narrative. The latter is the more conspicuous because it refers to the completion of the Torah, and if one notes, Exodus is only the second out of five books in the Torah…

    Of course, the simple explanation is that the Torah, and likewise the New Testament, contains a mishmash of material written at different times, some of which was inserted later or outright changed from the original in order to tie together a narrative which was, at one time, purely linear. By publishing it all at once with addendums and all, it could make references to itself.

  • AnonymousSam

    I was referring to both using the kindergarten insult, to be specific.

    Though now the appearance of GBA makes me wonder.

  • Carstonio

    While I agree about the practical problems, the principle problem with “we should all be Religion X” is that it’s contrary to individual religious freedom.

  • AnonymousSam

    In theory, we could easily repeal that law. I’m sure we could get a majority vote in Congress. The logical problem after that simply because which form of Christianity we universally adopt.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Ah, I forgot about the kindergarten insult. Not that I’ve tried very hard to remember the details of their blather.

    As for GBA – looking at her history, she seems mostly focused on RTC matters like whether or not it’s all right to let your kids watch “Christian” movies. I’m still wondering how so many right-wing and RTC newcomers came to visit and scold here in such a short time – I am getting a pretty strong Calvinist / Reformed whiff off all of them, I believe.

  • AnonymousSam

    GBA’s been around before, but not in some months. The fact that she came right out of the barrel with her favorite insult just makes me wonder.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Yes, because being banned from what is essentially a small portion of private space is the same as being systematically deprived of your civil rights by the government.

  • AnonymousSam

    It is a pathological condition of the modern martyr to perceive any and every act depriving them of privilege as the utmost persecution.

    Sigh, and I only have to worry about being murdered by Christians when I go outside. How hard it must be for them!

  • Anathema

    No, the author is arguing that that Augustine did not have the same interpretation as a modern fundamentalist. Fred Clark never said that he thinks that Augustine had the same interpretation as a modernist liberal.

    There are more than two ways to read the Bible. Try to keep up.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    I had the good luck to miss her earlier appearances, I guess.

    One reason to think of them all as different people might be the sheer amount of time it would take for just one person to post so many rants!

  • arcseconds

    That is not the opinion of professional scholars — people with Ph.D.s in a relevant discipline who publish in peer-reviewed journals and/or have positions at respectable universities.

    To my knowledge, there are two people who have some claim to be bona fide scholars in the relevant field who deny any existence to Jesus. Ironically, one of them is a Catholic priest.

    The rest have various religious viewpoints, including none at all, but they all think the most likely explanation for the artifacts we have is that Jesus existed.

  • arcseconds

    What kind of reaction were you expecting if you wander into a site run by a Christian and proclaim ‘Jesus does not exist’?

    And what were you hoping to achieve by such an utterance?

    The level of Bibilical literacy here is very high, by the way. It’s not quite the level of a biblical scholarship blog, but it’s certainly well into the ‘informed, educated layman’ territory.

    It’s not nice to wander in here and just presume we must be ignnerent without actually bothering to collect any evidence.

  • Carstonio

    The moral teachings attributed to Jesus may or may not have merit, but whether Jesus existed is irrelevant to that question. I say that as someone who doesn’t belong to any religion and who doesn’t know whether gods exist.

  • AnonymousSam


  • Oswald Carnes

    I command you in the name of Jesus to return to your father in hell from whence you came.

  • Jamoche

    I was stuck in line behind a guy once who decided to explain how to identify the “right” religion – it’s the one whose presidents don’t go to war. His examples: Carter was a Baptist, so Baptist isn’t the right one. Kennedy was Catholic, so no go there. Reagan was in there too, whatever he was. I was really hoping he’d get to “Nixon was a Quaker”…