Timothy Beal and Is There a Bible?

A friend asked me to comment on Timothy Beal’s blog post on CNN entitled “My Take: There’s no such thing as the Bible and Never has been”.

Beal is a good writer, but my first reaction was negative. After all, it’s an article that begins with its conclusion.  I’m sure it will be applauded by those who already agree, and denounced or ignored by those who don’t.  In church we call this “preaching to the choir,” and I’m definitely in a different choir than Timothy Beal.

It’s natural, but I believe these days we are starting to buy our culture’s own propaganda. You know, the one that says southerners are always dumb, Republicans are always rich, sexual promiscuity is always enlightened, and anyone who believes the Bible is true is uneducated at best, and raving mad at worst.

Thus Beal begins with this: “When things get messy, when the ground drops out from under us, we conjure myths of pristine and happy origins.”

He then repeats the thought with this: “We may long for an original, solid rock, a foundation that will not falter in the storm. For many, that rock is the Bible. But that, too, is an illusion.”

This is where Beal begins. It’s the assumption that people reach for faith only because they can’t deal with life, and that faith is nothing more than our own conjured up illusion of the way we wish things were. It’s the evolutionary view of religion. We needed religion to explain things at one time, but now in our enlightened age, we can understand our world without resorting to myths. Religion then, becomes nothing more than a psychological defense mechanism.

Hogwash. This doesn’t accurately describe why so many scholars, scientists, poets, writers, leaders, and world changers have expressed a much deeper spiritual life than one that merely helped them escape from personal problems. People often use alcohol as an escape, but how many hospitals, orphanages, feeding centers, universities, or nations have been built with a love of alcohol at the core? That would be the funny premise of a movie, but not the reality of history or the present. How many scholarly works of philosophy, history, archaeology, or science have resulted from a weekend bender? Precious few.

And yet I’m expected to believe that a faith which has inspired mankind to incredible heights, and been perverted toward incredible lows, can be explained away by my desire to conjure up a myth to explain away my fears?

That’s too simple.

The faith that comes from the collection of books we call the Bible is bigger than that. It’s deeper. It’s far more vast as anyone who has explored it knows. And I don’t say this just because I want it to be that way. I say this from experience. I say this because I have more books on spiritual matters in my personal library than I’ll probably be able to read, and they are merely a drop of the torrent of thought that digs into the deep things of God, and yes, that Bible.

So at the beginning, I disagree with Beal’s opening assumptions. And yet, Beal moves beyond the assumption into many details over the Bible’s origin, its varied history, and differences in source material. His point of view sounds convincing at times, but there are many Bible scholars who understand the same historical facts and yet would paint a much different picture.

With those who share the assumptions of Beal, textual differences in various manuscripts are highlighted. Differences in English translations are emphasized. Confusion over what the Bible ever said, seems a forgone conclusion.

It’s almost as if Beal and others do not believe people of faith actually know there have been differences in manuscripts, or have noticed there are different English translations. On the contrary. Those differences and various translations are not ignored or glossed over, but studied in detail by scholars and people of faith everywhere, and at every point in history.

We aren’t surprised to discover a human error in recording a Divine message. Why would we be? It’s the message itself we are searching for in the rubble of man’s efforts.

It’s why modern Bibles are filled with footnotes concerning differences in manuscripts here or there, and passages of Scripture that may be erroneous in this place or that.

Beal did not make any new revelations. Every Bible college devotes time to studying and understanding the very issues he brings up.

Beal begins by asking what Bible we are talking about. “…which one? Which version? Protestant? Jewish? Catholic? Orthodox? Syriac? Each has a different table of contents.”

They do have a different table of contents, but that is certainly irrelevant. Comparing the Jewish books, with the Christian Old Testament, the differences are minimal. The Jews use Hebrew names for the Old Testament books instead of English names, and where the English translation splits Samuel into two books (I & II Samuel), the Jewish version just keeps it together as one big book. They also put the books in a different order. But it changes nothing.

None of those differences change the claims, the story, or the teachings of the Bible, anymore than splitting this post into 2 shorter posts would change what I am saying. (Might just make it easier to read.)

Christian Bibles have differed only in whether or not to include some extra Old Testament books and additions, typically called the “Apocrypha”. The Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church include them, the Protestants do not. Everyone accepts the traditional 66 books, however, without the additions. In fact, the 66 books that every Christian group has accepted as part of the Bible, came together just a few centuries after the New Testament was completed. (Notice how I said, “just a few centuries” while Beal writes “it wasn’t until the 4th century.” I’m saying six, he’s saying half-a-dozen. ) Fact is, we’ve had the Bible in virtually the same form as that one in the dresser of your motel, for a very long time.

And since people from ancient Syria, to modern times, have wanted others to have the Bible in a form they could read and understand, today we have lots of “versions” of the Bible. Again, I find this irrelevant.

Syriac Bibles are like our English Bibles in that they are translations of the original Greek and Hebrew. Translating from one language to another always results in differences, depending on who is translating. One can translate a language nearly word for word, or one can paraphrase what the original was talking about. A translator might use formal language or translate into street language.

You find this in different “versions” of the Bible. The New International Version of the Bible was translated into 7th grade level English, and the Message Bible was translated into even simpler levels. The King James Version translated the Greek and Hebrew into the English of the 1600’s, and the New King James updates it into our modern English.

Beal wants us to throw up our hands at all of these versions, concluding that there is no Bible we can truly know. Yet, even if we added another 10,000 versions tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the fact we still have ancient manuscripts from which all of our versions are based. And since these versions of the Bible are drawn from many of the same ancient sources, the vast majority of our “versions,” differ only in style. The claims, the story, and the teachings remain consistent.

Beal’s insinuation that these versions, or the different arrangements, or that the small collection of apocryphal books makes the whole thing meaningless, is a short-sighted view which comes from the assumption that all these books are meaningless anyway. After all, they are just myths conjured up to make us feel better.

I disagree with those assumptions. For me, a difference or change in a manuscript or translation is something to study, but not something to make me reject the entire idea that God communicated an incredible message through man. Mistakes, misspellings, miscopying, differences of interpretation are expected from human beings. I don’t stop with those differences, I study to see past them.

Why? Because the message, the story, the claims, the teachings, are still powerful, and still applicable, and incredibly, still standing.

Believe me, there IS such a thing as the Bible.

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6 thoughts on “Timothy Beal and Is There a Bible?

  1. Good points CP, more than balance to Beal’s article.

    Especially “It’s the assumption that people reach for faith only because they can’t deal with life” – this is something that most Christians will have heard before, and it is such a clear demonstration of how spiritually fallen our natural minds are, that ad hominim is pretty much the best we can come up with.

    Lord open his eyes…

  2. “Fact is, we’ve had the Bible in virtually the same form as that one in the dresser of your motel, for a very long time.”

    If by “very long time” you mean the last 30 years…maybe you’re right.

    But honestly, the differences between the NIV and King James are just the tip of the iceberg that Beals shines a very bright light on. I find your response more of a cover-up than illumination.

    Long ago when I was trying to find out if it was worth treating the Bible as something more than myth, I took the time to read a Bible from around the 1900’s. In a passage regarding homosexuality (Corin 6:9 maybe)it used the word homosexual, but the footnote read “that is Catamite”.

    If you take the time to find out what Catamite means (“The junior partner in a paederastic relationship.”) you realize it has nothing to do with two adults in a relationship. It has to do specifically with men, and specifically with an boy/man relationship.

    If you think that Catamite actually means the same thing as homosexual, then yes, your Bible has been the same for a long time, because you would then think that 2 lesbians could be Catamites. Or you could be honest, and admit that the Bible and it’s meanings changes a little or a lot, through every translation, through every “update” and through every human interpretation.

    I think if you are that kind of honest, you will also admit, you have not had a Bible in “virtually the same form” for much more than the last 30 years.

  3. If you take a look in the article above, there are quite a few references to the fact that translations differ through time, due to different manuscript family sources, new archeological discoveries, or simply just different translator opinions etc.

    I’m not so sure that you can make the arguement that there have been any significant changes to the text however…..certainly not enough to alter doctrine.

    Besides, the focus should not really be on the word ‘catamite’, which is an interpretation itself, but on the original greek word(s) that Paul used – arsenokoitēs and malakos, and their historical cultural meaning.

    Here is an interesting article on the subject, the last part summing up that;

    Proposition 2. In every instance in which the arsenokoit word group occurs in a context that offers clues as to its meaning (i.e., beyond mere inclusion in a vice list), it denotes homosexual intercourse.17

    Proposition 3. The term arsenokoitai itself indicates an inclusive sense: all men who play the active role in homosexual intercourse. Had Paul intended to single out pederasts he could have used the technical term paiderastïs.

    Proposition 4. The meaning that Paul gave to arsenokoitai has to be unpacked in light of Romans 1:24–27. When Paul speaks of the sexual intercourse of “males with males” (arsenes en arsenes) in v. 27, he obviously has in mind arsenokoitai.

    http://www.equip.org/articles/is-arsenokoitai-really-that-mysterious-

    As for Bible = myth, there is quite a lot of evidence to support the historical accuracy of the books in the Bible.
    One site out of a million:
    http://www.facingthechallenge.org/arch2.php

    Im sure somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about will answer you soon, but please, don’t chuck out the Bible – greater men than both of us have tried and failed.

    PS. Check out CARM.org, lots of answers there. Maybe you could call the radio show up and have it out with someone who can handle your questions.
    I’d certainly listen!

  4. Lance, I have 17 different versions of the Bible on my computer and none of them had Catamite in it, so I looked it up online. I wanted to give you a decent answer. (albeit brief)

    Added Edit: “Catamite” is not the original word. It’s not the definition of the word, either. Catamite is a word used to translate the original Greek word. The actual Greek word is “malakos” which is a Greek metaphor. It doesn’t specifically mean Catamite. Some people have translated it that way, or put a footnote in there, but it has a broader meaning than that.

    The Jerusalem Bible from 1966 actually uses Catamite in the passage you mentioned. So does The New American Bible from 1970. So does a version of the New Testament translated by James Moffatt in 1913. Moffatt’s translation is his own, and is thought by many to be highly inaccurate. I have no opinion on him myself, but I bring that up so I can say this:

    Anyone can make a translation. Nothing stops them since we could all go look at the ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Trained Greek and Hebrew scholars have written versions of the Bible, and untrained people have made translations, too. Usually the best are the trained of course. I might try to translate Spanish, but I don’t know Spanish very well so my translation would probably have several errors in it.

    It’s a logical fallacy to claim that since someone translated a document differently than another person, that the original document itself is meaningless. The difference lies more with the translators. So here it is with that passage you mentioned:

    Remember, the ACTUAL word in I Corinthians 6:9 is “malakos” which literally means “soft to the touch.” A similar one arsenokoitēs is next to it. Malakos is used metaphorically in I Corinthians, and metaphorically it referred to “effeminate, not simply of a male who practices forms of lewdness, but persons in general, who are guilty of addiction to sins of the flesh” [VINES]

    So I can see why some guys might translate that Catamite, but the word itself wouldn’t JUST refer to Catamites. My Bibles translate it “effeminate,” “male prostitutes,” “men who practice homosexuality” “sexual perverts” “those who use and abuse each other” etc….

    The original word itself vague and general (as metaphors usually are). That’s why almost every Sunday, it’s common to hear a preacher explain to the congregation what the original Greek or Hebrew word meant. So everyone gets a more full understanding of the passage itself.

    When we say the Bible has remained the same, we’re not talking about the “translations.” Anyone can make a translation, and one translation can differ from another.

    When I say the Bible has remained the same, I’m referring to the fact that the books of the Bible have been accepted for a long, long time, and thousands of ancient manuscripts have been around a very long time, and those manuscripts are remarkably consistent. Consistent enough that nothing changes the actual story, teaching, truth claims, etc… Almost all major differences in manuscripts have been noted for a long time as well. Everyone takes those things into account.

    So when I said we’ve had the Bible for a very long time, I was referring to the fact that the Council of Nicea in 325 AD accepted all the books in our traditional Bible, with disputes over James, II Peter, II John, III John, and Jude.

    Then later the Council of Hippo in 393 AD accepted ALL of the books in our traditional Bible.

    Even Beal said we’ve had them since the 4th Century.

    So the books of the Bible that are in the dresser at our motel, have been accepted for 1,617 years. A very long time.

    My favorite Bible is the American Standard version of 1908. It translates things more simply and straightforwardly than most modern versions. Less room for inaccuracy that way, so I like it.

    But since it’s still a translation, I often go back and look at the original Greek and Hebrew words.

  5. I bet all those groups, and individuals, who wanted to print a “new” version of the Bible because they could sell them at bookstores and make money… (you know, the ones that advertise how easy they are to understand, how they use today’s language, how they have a great index feature, how they have devotions in them just for mothers, etc…)

    Never realized people would see all those “versions” in a bookstore, and claim there is no real Bible.

    Truth is, if we had just one English version or 10 million, it wouldn’t make any difference. We’d still be checking them against the Greek and Hebrew.

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