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.

Stay in touch with the Slacktivist on Facebook:

Ralph Reed's history with casino moguls
Donald Trump's B-list 'evangelical advisory board'
Untold millions are still untold
'Game of Thrones' and the Bible
  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    The point is what you said in the beginning:

    I want politicians to be men of biblical faith if possible, everyone legislates based on their internal moral or ethical (read spiritual) codes. If a politican is a practicing bible Christian I would HOPE (big if) that He would legislate in a way that is pleasing to God.

    And I reply, they are and they do and that’s exactly the problem.

  • nolidad

    It appears you confuse people sitting in a pew with practicing Christians. Though that sounds judgmental it is not intended to judge. Proof is in the pudding as they say. And many fall far short of governing as Bible believing practicing Christians. They may attend a “christian” church but if the Word of God doesn’t influence how they wish to act when legislation covers basic morals, ethics and thte like then they are not acting biblically.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    For one who just offered yourself a pat on the back for not judging, you’re keen to place a distinction between Christians and people merely going through the motions. I suppose it’s because no true Christian does the kinds of things that result in bad outcomes. You’re welcome to make that distinction. I’m inclined to a certain form of Christianity myself, but I suspect you and I would disagree on the details.

  • Betwixt-and-Between

    …d’oh!
    Clearly, I need to work on my reading comprehension. I’ll just go back to lurking, thanks.

  • nolidad

    I know that in this post Christian era in America- try8ng to legislate using Scripture as a guide is trouble (though many of our laws were based on Scripture even if non biblical lands mirrored those laws)

    Even ethical questions are solved based on ones worldview perspective. In the middle east it is not wrong to kill and rape and beqat people ini many situations- their ethics are based on their moral background which comes from the Quran.

    The issue about the ham sandwich is a real problem. the solution is not difficult but is not easily posted here for it goes into issues of systematic theological studies and applications.

    You bring up the gay issue. When did this become a basic human right? Is pedophilia abasic human right if a 9 year old consents? Is bestiality? Is polygamy if the wives consent? What is your authority for declaring something a “basic human right”. Both the old and new testaments declare that homosexuality is sin against God (as well as adultery and fornication) If God is God and I am convinced beyond doubt He is- then we should obey Him. I am also convinced our nation is continuing its death spiral because though not perfect and guilty of many things it has not just turned its back on God but is growing hostile towards HIm and God is ratcheting up His judgment. It is no coincidence that we went from the greatest exporter of missions and bibles to now the greatest exporter of porn. We cannot slaughter over 60 million children and not have God react. HE is loving and kind BUT above all else He is holy and will not be mocked. A nation that begins with covenants and charters and its first nationally elected leader in his first act leads all the fed governemnt to church to consecrate this nation to the glory of God and then falls so far from that lofty goal will be judged if it doesn’t return to the Lord. Most people do not realize we are balancing on a very precarious ledge as a nation and one puff of trouble could topple this nation.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Ahem.

    Is pedophilia abasic human right if a 9 year old consents? Is bestiality? Is polygamy if the wives consent?

    This shows you really don’t understand consent if you think a nine year old or an animal can offer it. That’s why the word is always paired with the qualifier: meaningful consent. Consent must be provided by someone presently capable of understanding the full ramifications of what it is they are consenting to. Some also add other qualifiers to that, like “enthusiastic” and “ongoing.” All of these disqualify children and animals, as well as most forms of incest between closely related family members.
    Polygamy is a different issue in that it’s more of a legal issue. Marriage can be tricky enough with only two partners involved when it goes sour! I think it’s still fully possible to make polygamy work if every partner is involved in ongoing legal agreements with what happens to what property in the event of a divorce (meaning each new partner causes all previous legal agreements to become void and necessitates the drafting of another one), but ultimately this would have to be a case-by-case basis sort of thing with a lot of legal facilitation.

    I am also convinced our nation is continuing its death spiral because though not perfect and guilty of many things it has not just turned its back on God but is growing hostile towards HIm and God is ratcheting up His judgment.

    Actually, for the most part, we’ve been doing a lot better in recent decades than we’ve done in a long time. Homicide rates in particular have been dropping like a stone since the 1990’s.

    It is no coincidence that we went from the greatest exporter of missions and bibles to now the grea test exp orter of porn.

    We are still the greatest source of missionaries in the world– 127,000 to Brazil’s 34,000.

    As for pornography, no pun intended, but: Beats me. The most religious states in the US are also the largest consumers of porn. Go figure.

    We cannot slaughter over 60 million children and not have God react.
    This is usually the time I point out Numbers 5:11-31, Numbers 31:17, Hosea 13:16, 2 Kings 2:23-24, 2 Kings 15:16, 1 Samuel 15:3, Psalms 137:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Leviticus 20:9, Exodus 12:29…

    The Bible… isn’t a good place to be for a child, though the first example is the most egregious.

    “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband, may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”

    Still love the repeated statements that our elected leaders aren’t Christian, when it’s almost impossible to become elected if you aren’t.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Even ethical questions are solved based on ones worldview perspective. In the middle east it is not wrong to kill and rape and beqat people ini many situations- their ethics are based on their moral background which comes from the Quran.

    I pointed out that a standard of governance that starts from the principle that harming another human being is to be prevented if possible, punished if not, is one that does not depend on any religious faith at all and actually depends only on the fact that we all have nerve endings that tell us that pain is bad, so purposely inflicting pain is doing harm.

    It’s about the closest way to root an ethical code in our evolutionary history/development that I know of.

    Obviously there are more complex gradients of harm than the purely physical, but that’s only because we’re capable of certain abstractions which other species probably aren’t.

    I am also convinced our nation is continuing its death spiral because though not perfect and guilty of many things it has not just turned its back on God but is growing hostile towards HIm and God is ratcheting up His judgment.

    If you believe the social gospel and things like James 5:1, then I definitely agree that this business of constantly succouring the wealthy at the expense of the poor is causing problems.

    But in terms of things like crimes, for all the sensationalism in the press–

    well, shit, don’t believe the numbers. Go to New York City or any other place that used to be perceived as some kind of crime-ridden anthill back in the 1970s and 1980s.

    The crime’s not there anymore.

    That’s what AnonymousSam is driving at with the homicide stats.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com/ Ross

    Is pedophilia abasic human right if a 9 year old consents? Is bestiality? Is polygamy if the wives consent?

    Well, the first two are impossible since neither an animal nor a nine year old child can meaningfully consent.

    But I’m sure you didn’t mean to pull the classic bigot-move of equating beastiality, pedophilia, and homosexuality.

    We cannot slaughter over 60 million children and not have God react.

    Absolutely true. Thankfully, no one’s slaughtering 60 million children.

    In fact, the complete and utter lack of divine retribution, by your own standards, confirms this to be the case.

    As an american, the attempts to conflate church and state and let religion determine law angers and frightens me. As a christian, attempts to blame your own bigotry and small-mindedness on the bible enrages me.

  • dpolicar

    Oh, you’re adorable.

    You bring up the gay issue. When did this become a basic human right?

    For my own part, I don’t care much about hairsplitting about what is or isn’t a “basic human right.”

    For example, if getting the support of my neighbors in building a committed family relationship with someone I love and trust and respect, and who loves and trusts and respects me, isn’t a basic human right, that’s OK with me. I still think it’s a good idea, because it makes life better for people.

    And if you think it’s a good idea for people like you to have their lives made better in this way, but not a good idea for people like me to get the same support… well, in an egalitarian society it’s not up to me to prove otherwise. It’s up to you to demonstrate compelling reasons to discriminate against people like me. And yes, as you say, in this era in America, a particular religious denomination’s interpretation of a particular scripture doesn’t qualify as a compelling reason.

    We cannot slaughter over 60 million children and not have God react.

    I assume you’re referring to terminating fetuses here. Far more fetuses are terminated by natural processes — that is, by the hand of God, on your account — than by the hand of Man. If God objects to terminating fetuses, God should stop doing quite so much of it.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    One who may go to a Christian church but is trusting their goodness to save them is not a Christian.

    So you believe in works, not faith? That’s a change. :)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X