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The Missing Bible

The history of Christianity is often the history of doctrinal dispute, arguments about what the Church should or should not believe. This history is often framed as if the Church fell into division after existing an original “pure” form, yet historically no such a pure form can be found to have existed. Like most social [...]

Okay, Google, How Was the Bible Written?

Okay, Google, how was the Bible written?

You were curious, so you asked. You opened your web browser and recited, “Okay, Google, how was the Bible written?” And here were your first-page results:

  1. Truthnet.org, “How Was the Bible Written? How did the prophets write the Bible?”
  2. Everystudent.com, “History of the Bible – Who Wrote the Bible – Why It’s Reliable”
  3. Biblica.com, “When was the Bible written?”
  4. Biblica.com, “In what language was the Bible first written?”
  5. BibleOdyssey.org, “How Was the Bible Written and Transmitted?”
  6. Wikipedia.org, “Bible”
  7. Bible.org, “2. How the Bible was Written”
  8. PBS.org, “NOVA | Origins of the Written Bible”
  9. Carm.org, “When was the Bible written and who wrote it? | List of dates”
  10. Newsweek.com, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”
  11. PBS.org, “From Hebrew Bible to Christian Bible | From Jesus to Christ”
  12. NewRepublic.com, “A Newly Deciphered Babylonian Tablet Details Blueprints for ‘Noah’s Ark’”

Google helpfully recites the opening paragraph of the article from Bible.org (result #7). Thanks, Google. While we could immediately start reading the sites offered up to us, it would be smart to get an idea of how reliable and helpful they actually will be. The common-sense question we might ask, then, is, “Who are the people who run these sites?” (In case you were wondering, I didn’t ask Google this one; I looked up the sites myself.)

Google's Top Results for "How was the Bible Written"

Faith-based sites, with a strong trend toward biblical literalism

  • Truthnet.org “is a group of people who are involved in letting the world know about the exclusive truth found and expressed in the teachings of the Bible.”
  • Everystudent.com “is a safe place to explore questions about who God is and what it might be like to know God.”
  • Biblica.com is “passionate about reading the Bible well so we can live it well. For over 200 years, we’ve helped millions of people access and experience God’s Word, so it can transform their lives.”
  • Bible.org—Google’s favorite to read aloud—exists “to freely share the good news from God to the entire world so you can KNOW the Truth about life and eternity.”
  • CARM stands for “Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry.” Enough said?

Public media, crowd-sourced data, journalism

  • Wikipedia.org—do I even need to tell you?—is “a multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project supported by the Wikimedia Foundation and based on a model of openly editable content.”
  • PBS.org is “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.”
  • Newsweek “is a premier news magazine and website, bringing high-quality journalism to readers around the globe for over 80 years. Newsweek provides the latest news, in-depth analysis and ideas about international issues, technology, business, culture and politics.”
  • “Tailored for smart, curious, socially aware readers, The New Republic covers politics, culture and big ideas from an unbiased and thought-provoking perspective.” (Could possibly be placed with Bible Odyssey below?)

Academic and nonpartisan sites

  • BibleOdyssey.org is a project of the Society of Biblical Literature, “the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible based on the Humanities’ core disciplines.”

How do these sites fare in answering the actual question we posed?

For the sake of time and space, I’ll stick to one example from each of the groups above.

Truth.net. This turns out to be an apologetic defense of the inerrancy of scripture, specifically the Old Testament, based on the fact that people in ancient times did write stuff down (i.e., it’s not all oral tradition). It speaks generically of “critics who attack the Bible,” and names only one ostensible critic, Julius Wellhausen, who died in 1918. It never actually quotes or adequately summarizes Wellhausen about his Documentary Hypothesis but instead quotes a critic of Wellhausen. It’s possible to be a biblical literalist without being so generic in one’s criticism of alternative views.

What’s going for it:

  • It acknowledges that people might “agree on the inspiration of the Bible” even if they don’t agree on how it was written. Perhaps this allows for variety of opinion at least within circles that embrace biblical literalism?
  • It challenges oversimplified claims that “nobody could write” in the ancient world. One wonders if any credible scholar actually holds quite this simplistic a view, but I can at least imagine a conversation taking this turn in the local pub.

What it needs:

  • up-to-date information (a lot has changed since 1918!)
  • a more charitable treatment of opposing views instead of putting up an oversimplified version of Wellhausen’s argument as a “straw man” that presents no real challenge
  • awareness that the existence of writing in ancient times has little bearing on the documentary hypothesis, which could just as easily describe the blending of multiple written as multiple oral traditions (indeed, it was likely a mix of both!) into the Bible

PBS.org. This is a nice follow-up on the article above because it also begins with oral transmission and the written word, but it tells a more complex story of the transition from mostly oral to mostly written culture while observing that even into the Second Temple period (530 B.C.–A.D. 130) and beyond, “a fierce ideology of orality would persist in rabbinic Judaism.” It also includes information about the Christian New Testament as a natural outgrowth of the same forces that shaped rabbinic Judaism.

What’s going for it:

  • It tells a complex story about oral and written tradition rather than an oversimplified claim.
  • It includes the Christian New Testament without treating Christianity as a wholly separate phenomenon from Judaism.
  • It shows awareness that modern readers may not share the worldview of ancient readers.
  • The name and credentials of the author are included.

What it needs:

  • acknowledgement of a wider conversation and diversity of views about this subject, without necessarily having to go in depth about those views
  • better coverage of how both Judaism and Christianity came to “close” their canons

BibleOdyssey.org. This article begins in what strikes me at least as a more natural starting point: that “Bible” means “library.” Oral versus written transmission is covered, but is not the primary thrust of the article. Rather, this article explains a bit about canonization, including taking the time to define it as the “process of including certain books as Scripture and rejecting others.” This article also describes how scribes physically copied texts and why not all manuscripts of the Bible are exactly the same.

What’s going for it:

  • It does not overemphasize oral versus written tradition, which was only one factor among many in the development of the Bible.
  • It defines terms and doesn’t overwhelm the reader with details.
  • It makes very clear that there is no one Bible or biblical text. Variety exists across canons based on the concerns of particular communities.
  • The name and credentials of the author are included.

What it needs:

  • frankly, even though this article offers a more well-rounded response to our actual question, it doesn’t have much “curb appeal” compared to most of the other sites on Google’s top list
  • links to more information (although the “ask a scholar” option helps), especially given how much competing responses to this question offer by comparison
  • like the article above, it does not really imply wider conversations about this subject or alert the reader to interesting points of dispute

You Got Me, Google

From cringe-worthy statements like this opening line from EveryStudent.org—“unlike other religious writings, the Bible reads as a factual news account of real events, places, people, and dialogue”—to perhaps overly harsh accusations against biblical literalism like this one on an otherwise interesting NewsWeek article—“they are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch”—it is clear that asking Google about how the Bible was written opens a raw spot in the Western psyche. Is Google, like a good psychiatrist, probing our reasons for asking the question? Have we revealed our cards unexpectedly to the algorithms that impassively map the emotional turmoil spurred by our favorite text to love and hate? This is one historical question for which a straightforward historical answer may never be good enough.

Shameless plug: we’ll be talking about this pain point at the next national meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, with Harvey Cox, author of the brand new book How to Read the Bible. Why not join us?

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

Historical Reasons Not to Limit the Contents of Your Bible

Whether you’re Christian or not, it’s tempting to assume that the Bible is the Bible is the Bible. Modern versions have a set number of books that only slightly differ depending on whether you picked up a Catholic or Protestant version, but otherwise it is what it is. But how settled, really, are the contents of your Bible?

The story is complicated, even without referring to translation issues. I’m referring to the actual big-picture decisions about what books should be considered of topmost value to Christians. In my previous post I gave an overview of Westar’s Christianity Seminar discussions on martyr stories and the emergence of Christianity. Here, I offer a report on Jennifer Wright Knust’s specific presentation on how early Christians were actually using the martyr stories, and what this can teach us not only about the first few centuries of Christianity but also, by implication, about modern biblical literalism.

Biblical literalism generally refers to reading a text for the plain or apparent meaning conveyed by the grammar and (limited) context. Setting aside the problem of how you literally read a translated text, were early Christians even reading the text “literally”?

As it turns out, that is practically a non-question. Early Christians were reading all sorts of texts they considered sacred and of doctrinal significance, many of which you won’t find in a modern Bible at all. This isn’t even a matter of individual Christians who defied the “official” version. Competing lists of biblical or “canonical” books appear even after the famous letter of Athanasius in 367 CE. Texts like the Letters of Clement, 1–4 Maccabees, the Odes of Solomon, Acts of Paul and Thecla, and so on, could be bound up in the same books as the biblical texts we know and love (or love to hate, as the case may be).

These mixed books come without explanations or excuses. A book’s canonical status had no bearing on its popularity. The collectors behind a given library of Christian texts had wide-ranging spiritual interests and actively put resources toward preserving texts they felt addressed both rituals/practices that mattered to them and important doctrinal issues. Even as late as the sixth and seventh centuries, Christian collections continued to vary in their content. “Christians in late-antique Egypt did not limit themselves to Saint Athanasius’ famous canonical list, … even in monasteries, where he was regarded as a hero of the faith,” Knust observed.

Codex Alexandrinus (c. 5th century) attests not so much to the achievement of universal status for these [the books of the Maccabees] and other books as to the endurance of local Christian canon lists, even in contexts where considerable thought and planning, not to mention expense, must have gone into a manuscript’s production. As an illustrated pandect, complete with decorative coronis and a now-lost set of canon tables, Alexandrinus was a luxury item wherever it was copied. … And yet it’s collection of sacred texts is unique and different from both Sinaiticus (mid-4th century) and Vaticanus (4th century).

Knust offered up three principles to guide our thinking about how texts were used by early Christians:

  • Religion and civic identity were, above all, public affairs.
  • Late medieval Christians did not limit themselves to the New Testament or Septuagint (Greek version of the Bible), so why should we, whether we’re studying the history or trying to define what it means to be Christian?
  • Christian manuscripts were part of a wider world of books and book-making.

Ironically, the torture of Jews in hell depicted in this Christian art mimics the tortures suffered by the Jewish Maccabean martyrs, whom the Christians venerated. (“Hell,” miniature from Hortus deliciarum, Herrad of Landsberg, c. 1185, reproduced in Heinz Schreckenberg, The Jews in Christian Art: An Illustrated History [New York: Continuum, 1996], plate 13. Photo Credit: Shira Lander)

Knust focused on the Maccabees as an especially interesting and telling case study. (If you aren’t familiar with the stories, you can read them here.) The Maccabees are Jewish stories that pre-date Jesus, yet they were wildly popular and were even celebrated by Christians at annual events. Over time, fully Christian locations including basilicas developed to venerate the Maccabees. One story in particular drew special attention and consideration by Christians: the gruesome martyrdom of a Jewish mother and her seven sons at the hands of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV (2 Macc 7) in the 2nd century BCE. As each son one by one refused to violate their religious commitments by eating pork, the King and his soldiers subjected them to torture and death, yet one by one each son faces his fate bravely. The first is scalped, has his hands and feet cut off, and then is fried alive in a pan while his brothers and mother look on. The equally terrible punishments that follow are described in vivid detail, and in the end the mother, too, is killed.

"These martyrs were upheld as models of the noble death by Jews and Christians, but were particularly important to late antique Christians," Knust said. In a detailed handout she listed the many "sightings and citings" of the Maccabean martyr story (see pp 6 & 7), which give a feel for the many ways it was used by Christian writers, such as this one from a commentary on Daniel by Hippolytus of Rome:

For we find also the seven martyrs who, under Anthochus, endured terrible punishments and were taken from the world. And so what of it? Was God not able to smite king Antiochus and to rescue the seven brothers? He was able, but he did not will to do this so that this example may become ours. For if he rescued everyone, who would he destin to testify? But if all were testifying and were killed, he would be reckoned by some of the faithless as being this: a powerless God.

What the various references reveal is a distinct shift in emphasis from the context of 2 Maccabees (the Maccabean revolt) to an interest in identifying model martyrs around whom a worship life could be constructed. "To Christians the Maccabeans were principally important for their precendent as proto-martyrs who suffered under a gentile tyrant, not for their role in the Maccabean revolt," Knust explained. By the fourth century, veneration of these martyrs only intensified, and even led to an official feast day (August 1). They were held up by Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, not in association with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah but for their "Christ-inspired fortitude given to all those who possess a pure mind both before and after the incarnation." Gregory claims the Maccabean martyrs for the specific work of establishing holidays and liturgy (worship & ritual practices), not just as an obscure exercise in rewriting history or stirring up doctrinal debates. This sort of work doesn't end with re-appropriating Jewish martyrs for Christian ends. Knust goes on to give examples from the apocryphal acts of the apostles, such as the Acts of Peter, and other texts that enchanted early Christians and played a meaningful role in their religious practices.

The point here for anybody interested in Christianity today is, I hope, clear: if what was meant by "the Bible" was so incredibly diverse even into the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries CE, it's difficult to see why we should limit our definitions of "Christian" to a smaller circle of texts. For Christians, this could mean a dramatic opening of the gates for self-definition, community practice, ethics, and even the understanding of Jesus' role in Christianity. For non-Christians, it means, at minimum, being cautious when making blanket statements about the history of "Christianity" as though there was only one definition of it in antiquity. But I think the more important lesson for Christians and non-Christians alike is to give the voices in these other texts a fighting chance. Read them. You might be surprised and delighted by what you find.

Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about Westar's Christianity Seminar. The report on the Spring 2015 session of the Christianity Seminar can be found here: "Christian Martyrs: Neither Uniform Nor Legion." You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.

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Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.