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.