Monday, September 10, 2007

The Bible was written by historically situated humans

Is the Bible the Word of God or the words of humans? In my view, it is both. Like the historic creeds of the church that affirmed Jesus as being both fully God and fully human, the Bible is at the same time the Word of God and the words of humans.

Many well meaning Christians believe the Bible consists of the very words of God. That is, each word of the Bible was inspired, or breathed by God, through human scribes who simply recorded every word that God spoke to them. Theologians know this theory as verbal plenary inspiration. While such a view still seems very prevalent in many churches, this opinion does not take seriously the historical setting of the Bible, or the history of the Bible itself. If we are to read these texts faithfully, then we should come to understand them as historically situated texts written by historically situated human authors who had their own views of God, humanity, and the world.

In my mind, this is the only way we can explain the many diverse views we find throughout the Bible. Humans who wrote these books did so from their own perspectives of the world and how they thought God was working in the world. Moreover, they had their own assumptions about the world, and the texts they produced are not always timeless truths that apply to our lives. We can even see that some parts of the Bible occasionally come into conflict with other texts in the canon.

But the human history of the Bible from its origin, through its transmission and collection, also raises the issue of whether or not the Bible is inerrant, a term meaning without error. I have chosen not to see the scriptures as inerrant, for the word inerrancy calls for so many qualifications that the term looses any real meaning. Moreover, the inerrant view is dependent on certain theories of inspiration, and many who hold to inerrancy will claim that the Bible is inerrant only in the original writings, known as the autographs. The problem with this position is that we do not have the autographs, and we cannot with certainty reconstruct what the originals actually said.

Any knowledgeable scholar of the Bible can tell us that the variety of manuscripts of biblical texts that we now posses demonstrate errors made by copyists, whether they were intentional or unintentional. Biblical scholars have developed methods through which they seek to determine original readings of texts, but we can never solve with sureness every one of these errors. While most of these errors, known as variants, are minor, and none of them present serious challenges to the most important doctrines of Christianity, there are some among the New Testament manuscripts that are quite significant.

For example, while most English Bibles continue to include Mark 16:9-20 at the end of Mark’s Gospel, a reader of the narrative should see a note that informs her that this ending does not appear in some of the most ancient manuscripts. Indeed, I know of no serious expert on Mark that thinks that these verses were part of the original text of Mark. We also find that many important manuscripts do not contain the famous story about the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. This does not mean the story did not happen, but it does mean that the passage was most likely not in the original text of John. There are other important variants that we could discuss, but the mention of these two is enough to raise serious questions about the inerrancy of the Bible. Moreover, these errors also demonstrate that the Bible has a history that has been influenced by humans from its origins, through its transmission, down to its translation.

What does this historical reality mean for people who read the Bible to find theological truth and encouragement for faithful discipleship? It means that we must first do the hard work of interpretation, reading the Bible as historically informed people who understand that God has given us minds for critical thinking. It also means that the truth of scripture is not dependant on an error free Bible. Rather, the truth of the Bible is found in the practice of those who are transformed by its message of grace and redemption.

No comments: