What is the Bible? An error-riddled, impossible book – the Word of God

Updated 4/23/17. The existence of the Bible is a problem for some of the dogmas of Atheism and Christendom – the book is not what either camp says it is, but it is the Word of God.

The amazing faith of Atheism

Regarding the claims of atheists, that there is no God; good evidence shows the Bible is a book humans could not have created with ordinary human abilities – those that Western scientists, lawyers, doctors and philosophers acknowledge as extant. Other evidence shows the Bible could only have been produced by humans assisted or directed by a superhuman intellect – one able to accurately predict the future and accomplish ends through the actions of free-willed, finite and imperfect human beings. These are subtly and substantively different ways of saying essentially the same thing; the infinite Creator exists, is all that exists, and is living, loving, conscious and intelligent.

Most human (god-conscious) beings recognize the basic truth of this, though many of us humans, myself included, live lives, at least part-time, in certain circumstances, as functional Atheists, by denying the reality and primary importance of God through our words and actions.

The evidence for the above claims is laid out further below. The point is the existence of this evidence creates a problem for adherents of the religion known as Atheism. Namely – one, the belief there is no intelligent being behind the Multiverse, and, two, the belief that humans are either conscious and free moral agents, or collections of chemically and quantum-physically animated but lifeless particles, the product of billions of years of evolution through random DNA mutations and natural selection, with the phenomenon of ‘intelligence’ and seeming ‘consciousness’ arising from these ‘happy’ accidents.

A superhuman intellect could, in theory, be a spacetime-travelling or beyond-spacetime entity – angel, demon, God, alien or other. The existence of the Bible requires the existence of a superhuman being or beings interested in and capable of creating the real and imagined history of Israel, Biblical prophecy and the historical existence of Jesus called Christ.

The failure of the ‘inerrancy’ standard

On the other hand, many fundamentalist/conservative religious adherents claim the Tanakh/Old Testament is the inerrant and infallible Word of God. However, the truth is the Bible is riddled with errors and contradictions in fact, history, theology, morality and logic – from an ordinary, Western, human (limited and fallible) perspective (see links below in this section).

This is unsurprising, given that ‘the Bible’ is a compilation of ‘books’, poetry, prose and prophecy, and historical, social, political, legal and economic records, that were written down, and edited, in different times and places, by numerous imperfect human beings who had a variety of complex views and interests – personal, economic, political, religious, spiritual, moral and philosophical (see section below on the Documentary Hypothesis).

These individual and group views and interests sometimes coincided and sometimes conflicted with those of other biblical writers and their own interests, creating the apparent conflicts, and presenting an even richer and more complex picture of Yahweh as God, and of his relationship with Israel and Jesus Christ.

The errors and contradictions do not mean the Bible isn’t the word of God. In fact, the evidence shows he hid his word in the human text of the book, and in between the lines, and it shines clearly in open minds and hearts.

In the words of the illustrious slave-holding-and-raping, God-fearing philosopher, liberty-defending statesman and U.S. founding father Thomas Jefferson:

The whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills. – Letter to John Adams, (24 January 1814)

The greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill. … The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.  – Letter to William Short (31 October 1819)

Some of these words of Thomas Jefferson may seem harsh to believers, but note that this man, who was wrongly presumed by many in his day to be an Atheist, was a strong admirer of Jesus, recognizing him to be an extraordinary and good man.

Also, Jefferson may have been a bit too harsh; if God decided to work through ‘inferior’ minds, perhaps to demonstrate that “[His] power is made perfect in weakness,” then who is Jefferson to object? Who but God could accomplish this? It’s not the kind of things most humans would choose, expect or bet on.

Also, there are some interesting resolutions for many of the apparent contradictions and errors, though some of these strain credulity, and others are fatal to the traditional, literal notion of inerrancy/infallibility. However, again, the resolution of seeming flaws isn’t necessary to demonstrate that the Bible is from God (see section below on evidence).

At the same time, these errors and contradictions are useful in helping currently relgious people actively seeking to know and understand the Truth of God that the Bible does not meet the false standard of ‘inerrancy’ imposed on it by fallible and imperfect human beings. Various researchers have done an excellent job of cataloguing these many errors and contradictions:

Websites

Books

In effect, fundamentalist Christians and Jews have set up a Strawman Argument not being made by God, which God-and-religion-hating Atheists find easy to knock down, while ignoring good evidence for the existence, perfection and love of God embraced by spiritual people not trapped by the idea that the Word of God need be ‘inerrant’ by human standards, and working with these people to develop a more moral society.

It’s simpler and more appropriate to embrace the plain, simple truth and love of God, evident from open-minded study of the Bible’s text and other evidence extant in the natural world. God does not need to meet human standards of ‘perfection’ to accomplish his perfect will. The Word of God is a stumbling block to people – on purpose. It says so in a number of places in the Tanakh, and Jesus called people’s attention to this on a number of occasions.

Not everything in the Bible is literally true, or relevant today. However, if something is in the Bible, this itself does have significance and meaning for us today. Good evidence (below) shows that God used human agents to create this book, and he hid his word in it for those who would seek it out, see it and care – the sheep who know their shepherd’s voice. As an individual you may ask and receive answers to your own questions about what this means for you.

Evidence for God as commissioner and ultimate author of the Bible

The Documentary Hypothesis and evidence for earlier dating of texts

Over the last two centuries, as industrialization and the scientific method have claimed a dominant place in human civilization, thousands of scholars have compiled an impressive body of evidence demonstrating that a traditional religious view, that the first five books of the Bible (the Torah or Pentateuch) were written by Moses, is false. Indeed, this fact was recognized by some sincere adherents of the Jewish and Christian religions early in the second millennium CE (Friedman, pp. 15-21).

A major turning point occurred in Biblical scholarlaship with the development of the Documentary Hypothesis in the 1800’s. This hypothesis is based on textual evidence that there were multiple authors (J – Yahwist/Jehovist, E- Elohist, P – Priestly, & D – Deuteronomist) involved in the creation of the Torah, and that they lived centuries after Moses’ time.

These authors, drawing on earlier oral and written sources in developing their texts, as well as their own traditions and imaginations, created separate, complete and independent narratives as histories of the world and Israel, and as vehicles for promoting their religious ideology and worldview. Two or more later redactors (or redaction committees) combined these separate accounts of the history of Israel and the world into the Torah text we have today.

The Documentary Hypothesis (DH) remains the most credible explanation of the Torah, and it’s credibility has been strengthened by competing scholarly models (Supplementary Hypothesis [SH], Fragmenatry Hypothesis, [FH]) that have emerged in recent decades, that have failed to account for the full range of evidence, even as more evidence has come to light that supports DH.

At the same time, these three hypotheses agree in certain important respects. For instance, all hold that the Torah had multiple authors with similarities and differences in their worldviews. The newer models differ from the DH mainly in their explanation of how and when the various parts were written and by whom, and how and when they came to be combined, and by whom.

For a lucid explanation of the evidence and arguments for the DH, as well as commentary on the alternative hypotheses, see Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman. In the preface to the 2nd edition, he notes the strengths of the DH, which critics have yet to come to terms with:

  • The convergence of many different lines of evidence.
  • Linguistic evidence for the dates of texts.
  • The narrative continuity of texts that are ascribed to particular authors.
  • How well the texts match the history of the periods from which they come.

Who Wrote the Bible?, p. 11

Finally, in answer to claims that there are no other examples of ancient works being composed in this way – examples have been discovered. As noted at the link, even if it were true that the Torah is the only example of this kind of composition, this would not disprove the DH, it would just demonstrate the uniqueness of the Bible.

Another phenomenon that has occurred in recent decades, in conjunction with attempts to reject the DH, is that of scholars proposing later, still later and even later dates for the completion of the Torah, with some claiming it wasn’t finalized until the first or second Century BCE. DH scholars have proposed J as the earliest writer, as early as Solomon’s reign, but if not then, the work was finished before the fall of Israel to Assyria in 722 BCE. Late dating requires ignoring that J, E, P, D and the Court History of King David were composed in Classical (pre-Babylon exile) Hebrew.

For this article, one main takeaway is that NO scholar is seriously proposing that the Torah – or even any part of the Tanakh – were completed AFTER the birth of Jesus Christ. Rather, ALL maintain it was complete BEFORE Jesus – if not many centuries before. The existence of the Septuagint alone proves this.

Finally, even if the Biblical ‘minimalists’ are proven correct – that very little of the Old Testament is historically accurate – this actually makes the life, person and divinity of Jesus Christ seem even more incredible than it already does – not less. Jesus may or may not have believed that Moses and only Moses wrote the Torah, but the fact that hundreds of millions of religious people have falsely believed this over the last two thousand years does not make the fact of Jesus any less true – it just makes it even more fantastic to behold.

The unique nature and history of the land and nation of Israel

The book of the people Israel states they’re descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and his twelve sons, called to take possession of the land of Israel, to be set apart and the means by which the human race would be delivered from sin and suffering, by being the nation from which the Messiah would emerge at the appointed time.

According to their book, the Jewish people are to be blessed in this manner because of the faith of the Patriarchs and Moses, not because of the goodness or worthiness of the Jewish people. Unlike many histories, their history records their continual faithlessness, including of their leaders, towards the one they call God.

It’s said that History is written by the victors; in this case, the victors are the prophets, often ignored, and sometimes persecuted and killed by the Israelites, who convicted Israel of sin by their words – and those who survived the destruction of Judah by Babylon in 586 BCE and were taken into captivity, along with their sacred writings.

Back to the beginnings of Israel. According to a growing body of archaeological and textual evidence, the nation Israel emerged from a number of different groups emigrating from other places, including from Canaanite cities in the lowlands and on the Mediterranean coast and from East of the Jordan River, and settling in the Canaanite highlands in the first Millenium BCE.

The Egyptian Merneptah Stele is one piece of external evidence that the nation Israel existed as a distinct people by 1200 BCE, and was recognized as such by other nations in that part of the world.

The relatively recent discoveries in Israel of the Stepped Stone Structure, the Large Stone Structure and the fortress Khirbet Qeiyafa all demonstrate that an organized political state with significant economic resources and activity existed by the tenth century at the time of King David. Artifacts discovered at these sites confirm names and other details from biblical accounts.

The prophet Ezekiel, who lived during the time of the 6th Century BCE Babylonian Captivity: “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.” Ezekiel 16:3.

Also note Exodus 12:40; the italicized words are absent from the Masoretic text (1000 CE), but present in the Septuagint (200 BCE) and the Samaritan Pentateuch: “Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt and Canaan was 430 years”.

The statement about the Israelites being in Canaan AND Egypt for 430 years seems a bit strange, given its placement in a story that purports to tell how ALL the Israelites that settled in Israel after the Exodus came FROM Egypt, where they were slaves. But it seems less strange when considered in the context of an editor working to integrate separate accounts and lists from various sources that sometimes corroborate and sometimes conflict with each other. The statement also makes sense in the context of the nation of Israel emerging from politcally disaffected Canaanites as well as immigrants from Egypt.

The Masoretic text is held by rabbinic Jews today to be the authoritative text, but there are thousands of mostly small but some significant differences between it and more ancient manuscripts, including the above. Considering how often in the text of the Bible and the history of Israel deception was used to allegedly accomplish God’s will, intentionally leaving out the words ‘and Canaan’ would harmonize the story a bit better, and make Israel seem a bit more racially pure and make readers feel a bit better about their origins and their receieved texts.

Regarding the origin and stages of development of the Hebrew language; it’s a Canaanite Semitic language. While the Jews/Israelites also referred to themselves as Hebrews (from the patriarch Abram), the term ‘Hebrew’ was not used in reference to the language they spoke and wrote in, until the 11th Century CE.

At some point, likely after 1200 BCE, the Levites arrived from Egypt with their God and stories. They settled in the area and engaged in communication and trade with those already settled there, contributing to the development of a society and nation. There would have been some points of tension, including over religious differences concerning the truth and nature of God, including his names and titles, in particular over the Canaanite term for God, ‘El’ (and ‘Elohim’; plural of El) and the Hebrew name ‘Yahweh’, as well as what exactly this God wanted from and for his people.

As the population grew and their society developed, these tensions would have come to a head, and socioeconomic and political leaders may have decided something needed to be done to unite and preserve the developing state and social fabric. Evidenced by the text of the Bible, archaeology and history, these tensions were apparently resolved at some point by agreement that these were simply different names for the same God, and the merging their cultures. Again, Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman is a helpful resource for understanding the evidence and issues.

It’s not yet clear to science how exactly it happened, but obviously, somehow, the Jewish nation of Israel, and their culture and religion, came to be formed from these origins, and the texts were written that we have today in the Bible, and the Middle East is a seething cauldron of tensions today, given the claims that Israelis and Palestinians both make on the land. The Bible itself says consistently that throughout this history there were religious and cultural tensions between the Israelites and the pagan peoples already and still in the land, with the pagan nations neighboring them, and with Israelites themselves who were persuaded to follow gods other than Yahweh.

Possibly including through the use of violence – as the Bible says was repeatedly the case – the religious belief system and culture known today as Judaism was developed and enforced with social, economic and political tools and pressures. Those who resisted this cultural-religious transformation may have been driven away or killed (as the Bible says many ‘apostate’ Hebrews were on many occasions). The four separate texts that were combined to produce the Torah all contain stories of deadly mass violence perpetrated by Levites, including those with likely-Levite authors. The Bible says the Levites were authorized to teach Israel’s history and law to the Israelites; the Bible we have today is what they taught – plus the material and edits added to it later.

It might be expected that those who survived persecution and purges and stayed in the land would have fervently or quietly adhered to the new belief system and history of their people, passing it on to their children and future generations ‘for their own good and the good of the nation’ perhaps, while remaining silent if they knew the truth to be any different. The truth would have died when they did, leaving the next generations with only the ‘pious fraud’ to hold on to as truth.

However, again, the history given in the Bible shows that the Israelites, individually and as a people, were regularly and continually faithless to Yahweh, with the religion and sacred writings being maintained by the prophets, priestly classes and some ‘good’ kings’. Sometimes they may have wielded great power and influence, and at other times they may have felt like minorities in their own land.

But, eventually, Northern Israel fell to Assyria in 722, and their prophets and priests blamed it on the faithlessness of the people and their kings. Then, a little over a century later, Southern Judah fell to Babylon, taking the religious and political leaders into capitivity for 70-some years. There, the survivors preserved and further developed their religion, and when the Persian King Cyrus the Great restored them to their nation, even paying for the Temple to rebuilt, the people were significantly more humble, receptive to the religious teachings, and unified and disciplined in their practice of their religion. The Old Testament closes with this period of rebuilding and reaffirmation of faithfulness to Yahweh and the Law of Moses.

Israel’s religious and ruling authorities, the priestly class and royal court, were the ones that controlled the nation’s religious doctrines and texts. As humans are known to do, and like pretty much every ‘elite’ class in history, they engaged in deception and intrigue to protect and promote their views and interests (see below). What’s unique is how these deceptions have made Israel and their religion so successful, as a meme and and as a force in world history and civilization.

Biblical examples of deception being used to accomplish God’s will

‘Pious fraud’ serving God – Boy-king Josiah fulfilling prophecy as religious tool

The unique character of Jesus in history

See the article on this site: Who is Jesus? Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, son of the damned

Messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus

What book on Earth contains true prophecy – accurate accounts of events, written down before they take place? Would such a thing be remarkable, evidence that the words are from the Creator of the Universe? The Bible says so:

You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by Yahweh?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message Yahweh has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. Deuteronomy 18:21-22

“This is what Yahweh says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come—yes, let them foretell what will come. Isaiah 44:6-8

On a number of occasions, the Bible challenges false gods and those worshipping them to accurately predict the future, and claims that the reality of God and the divine source of the words of Yahweh’s prophets could be known by whether or not their prophecies came true. IOW, the Bible says don’t believe the Bible if the prophecies are unfulfilled.

See the amazing book Messiah in Both Testaments by Fred Meldau [free PDF] for an extensive cataloguing and insightful examination of the hundreds of prophecies about the Messiah that were fulfilled in Jesus.

Here are two exceptional and obvious examples of fulfilled prophecy. These alone have caused my jaws and knees to drop in awe and worship – and there are many more:

The unlikely history of Israel and the Tanakh

The history of Israel and the creation of the books in the Tanakh/Septuagint canon and the books in the New Covenant/New Testament canon is fascinating, moving and enlightening, whether or not it is wholly or partly truth or fiction.

And, if it’s mostly fiction, this does not deny or discount the reality of Jesus as the Christ. Rather, if the origins of the society and culture that Jesus lived in are mythological, it’s even more incredible that he’s the Son of God. And, according to the evidence we have, this is the case – the Messiah came to us out of human imagination moved by revelation from God (more on this in the sections below).

It is exceedingly unlikely that the relatively tiny nation of Israel – whether the one described in the Bible or the one documented by archaeology – a nation hated by its neighbors, pressed upon, invaded and even completely destroyed three times by powerful nations who were themselves later completely destroyed – would be the source of a book that is today considered holy by more than a few billion people – Jews, Christians and Muslims.

So many of the nations and peoples mentioned in the Bible have been lost to history, though some of them have since been confirmed by archaeology – why have Israel and its literature remained in existence, let alone become so influential?

For a long time, many scholars doubted the veracity of the Bible because there was no evidence the powerful nations of Babylon and Assyria had ever existed, so completely had they been destroyed, covered over by the sands of time – as prophecy said they would be. The Roman Empire declined and disintegrated, but it was not forgotten to history – unsurprising, given that its influence surpassed that of all nations before it, and that Christianity, which became the world’s biggest religion, became the state religion of Rome in the 3rd Century CE.

 

Christendom

The process of the New Testament’s (NT) creation is better documented than that of the Tanakh. The Christian movement was stimulated by the belief that Jesus Christ was God, risen and forgiving us for killing him with our sin. For holding this belief and rejecting others, Christians were despised, shunned, persecuted and marginalized by Jews, Greeks and Romans for the first few hundred years after Jesus. Still Christ gained disciples and his body the church grew like wildfire, from a cult into a religion. Paul and other apostles and disciples of Christ travelled the Roman Empire, spreading the gospel and turning the world upside down as people responded to the Good News and converted in droves.

Paul’s earliest letters may date to within 15 years of Jesus’ crucifixion, and all of the writings in the NT were produced within 100 years. A great deal of other writing about Jesus not included in the NT was also produced around his time or within a generation or two. This other writing was produced by his Jewish and Roman critics, as well as the various Christian camps, sects and churches that sprang up in the generations after his passing. These other writings may conflict with NT dogma on certain points, but they are in agreement that Jesus had been crucified and his followers were calling him Messiah.

Some of these other writings have been lost – after it became powerful, the Church attempted to destroy many writings that promoted alternative views of Christ. Others are preserved and studied today mainly by historians, academics and nerds. I’ve looked at some of these alternative Christian accounts, and, imo, the NT with the OT comprise more than enough info to produce faith in Christ, and there’s nothing crucial missing from these writings.

In 313 the Roman emperor Constantine converted and the Christian religion and church merged with that state. As noted above, the previous few centuries had seen the production of a great deal of literature in connection with Jesus Christ, which was held in varying esteem while being copied, circulated and discussed by Christian authorities who made their own lists of books. Following Constantine’s conversion, a series of councils was held involving men in positions of power in the state and church, and the NT canon became finalized. The 27 books in the NT today were those works considered authoritative, and would be the only books sanctioned by the church as revealing Christ to humankind.

The accounts and letters that make up the New Testament canon were written within the first hundred years of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the canon was finalized a few hundred years later.

The name Christ Messiah was called as a man was Jesus, pronounced yah-shua in Hebrew, meaning YHWH’s Salvation – God’s salvation.

 

 

 

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