In other words, for any of the Bible to be true and without error, all of the Bible must be true and without error.
For many Christians, this assumption is attached to what is called the doctrine of Biblical inspiration. This view assumes that God led holy men in the distant past to write down a revelation about God and God’s world. And because God led them, or inspired them, to write these things down, everything in it must be true.
In this view of Biblical inspiration, it is assumed that each part of the Bible must deliver factually true and historically accurate information from cover-to-cover regardless of its literary genre, when it was written, or other contextual elements that may suggest otherwise. What the Biblical authors say about human relationships to divine beings, to salvation and judgment, to the ancient Hebrews’ history and the way it’s presented, and everything else in between, the Bible is true and accurate. In other words, Biblical inspiration necessitates and requires that the Bible is in fact a perfect book with absolutely no errors, no contradictions and no inconsistent teaching.
3 Reasons this is a Myth
1. The Bible is an ancient library of books.
A very old library: Any thoughtful consideration of how we might understand and read the Bible must take these two things into account: 1) It is ancient (very old) and 2) it is a large collection of books. We might say, as Brian McLaren has written, that the Bible is a “library of books.” In other words, it wasn’t simply written by just one author, and it wasn’t just written in one sitting or even within the same time period. Even the most conservative Biblical inspiration view assumes the Bible was written by at least 40 authors. It was likely much higher with several editors in various sections (read a critical commentary on the Biblical book titled, “Isaiah”).
The Bible wins “book taking the longest to write in the history of humanity”: The Bible’s library of books was also written in the span of 1,000 to 1,500 years. This includes several major developments in the history of the ancient Hebrews, including cultural shifts, theological shifts, economic shifts, and political shifts. All these changes are to be expected over a period spanning over a thousand years. It’s to be expected with any people group or nation, ancient or modern. Just think about our own nation’s history. The political, economic, ideological shifts alone are numerous from the 18th to the 21st century.
2. Biblical authors believed the earth was flat and controlled by hundreds of gods and goddesses.
Ancient Near Eastern Worldview: We should expect nothing less from them. They saw and inhabited their world through an ancient Near Eastern worldview and context. Not only did the ancient Hebrews believe that the world was flat (not round), but that it was the center of our galaxy. If you’ve studied modern science, you know the earth is round (not flat) and it’s not the center of our galaxy. The sun is.
Hundreds and hundreds of divine beings: Another example, they believed the divine realm included hundreds of gods and goddesses. The ancient Hebrews were not initially monotheists. That came sometime after their return from or during Babylonian exile. Yes, this is in the Bible! As the book of Exodus details, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Law of God and communicated to the Hebrews what the Law said, they continued to believe in the existence of other gods even though they believed that Yahweh (their god) demanded sole allegiance among the gods (“You shall have no other gods before you” and “Worship Yahweh your God and serve him only” assumes as much as well as the fact that they continued to worship other gods during the time of the kings even though Yahweh commanded them not to).
Many Christians, unfortunately, have mistakenly assumed that the first of the 10 commandments was about God demanding that the Hebrews stop believing in the existence of other gods. But that is not the language being used in Exodus. Yahweh commands them to not have any allegiances to other gods. Their allegiance and their worship belonged to him alone. Now this does not somehow mean that in reality there actually does exist hundreds of other gods in the universe, then or now (as much at the Marvel and DC films have made the idea interesting and fun). It simply means that at that time in their history, the Hebrews believed in the existence of other gods, often worshipped several, and Yahweh appears to concede this assumption when he gives the first command. For many of us today, this is hard to wrap our heads around. Most people in the West, if they believe in God (or a god) at all, likely believe in one, not hundreds.
Btw, the above two beliefs are a short list. I could go on about the Hebrews’ practice of stoning their rebellious children, owning slaves (which sometimes included their own people), and bragging about how Yahweh gave them the land of Canaan even though that meant committing genocide against the entire Canaanite population who lived there prior. Again, this is still a short list, but I digress.
Were the Biblical authors liars? Since the ancient Hebrews wrote about their belief in the existence of other gods and their assumption that the earth was flat, does this somehow mean they were telling lies in the Scriptures? Well, no. It’s not so much that they were lying as they were products of their time. So while they at times communicated things that were not factually true (as we understand it today), they were writing about and speaking about the world according to how they saw it. It was true for them, even though it’s not true for us.
Reimagining God: Over the centuries, they began to revisit how they understood and saw the world, and they changed their minds about many things. And this didn’t just happen off the cuff. They reimagined God and the world because new experiences and situations presented new information and new possibilities (I first heard the language of “reimagining God” from Biblical scholar Peter Enns). Often times, these new experiences involved trauma and pain (the Babylonian exile being one of those).
3. Many ancient documents, like the Bible, include a combination of history, laws, legends, poetry, proverbs, etc.
It’s either all true or nothing at all: Many Christians assume that the Bible contains only historically reliable information and they do so simply on faith. That’s good and well but when you actually read what the Bible says you find a different story. Not to get ahead to my next blog dealing with Myth 2, but there are two sets of narratives of Israel’s history during the time of the kings (contrast the Samuel and Kings books with the Chronicles). Both claim to be Israel’s history. Both have divergent ways of talking about the history. Not only this, but as I mentioned in my second reason above, the ancient Hebrews changed their minds about their spiritual beliefs over the centuries. They went from believing in vindictive gods, to believing in one god (who sometimes acts vindictive), to a god who would rather pray for and die for his enemies (the Jesus’ story) rather than slaughter his enemies (as in the Canaan mandate). So when Christians say “It’s either all true or none of it at all,” how should we understand the Bible as a book of truth?
The whole truth and nothing but the truth: To be clear, it’s fair to assume the Biblical authors themselves communicated in writing truthfully about how they saw the world, what they believed about it, and how they lived in it, including what they believed about God or the gods, and what those gods demanded of them. However, that’s not what many Christians mean when they talk about the Biblical authors speaking the truth or that the Bible only contains the truth about God. Christians often assert boldly and perhaps naively that the Biblical authors wrote historically, as well as theologically, reliable and accurate information and that it doesn’t contradict itself (ever). Let’s bring this home, shall we? These well-intentioned Christians claim that everything the Bible says about God, God’s world, life and death, salvation and judgement and everything in between in every single part of the Bible is a perfect picture and perfect description of what God and God’s world are actually like. That the library of books we call the Bible that took 1000-1,500 years to write by over 40 authors and editors somehow magically and consistently tells the truth about God and the world, with out any real or serious contradiction. To borrow a famous phrase, the Bible tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (so help me God!). But that’s simply not the way the Bible works. At all. To be fair, if the “all or nothing view” is actually true–if that is the way things actually are–the internal makeup of the Bible should demonstrate this. However, it doesn’t as I’ve already demonstrated (I’ll revisit this again later in the series).
Teachers, priests, pastors and St. Paul: No one claims (or at least no one should claim) that simply because a teacher shares a lot of true, accurate, and helpful information in their classroom that we (or their students) should assume they can never be wrong or misguided about anything. Even college professors (yes, even Christian ones) share their opinions and interpretations which may or may not be accurate. Same is true for ministers like pastors and priests. Ancient writers, teachers and holy men of old also wrote things down that may be considered reliable, but not always reliable. It may be reliable in that it communicated truthfully how they saw the world, what they believed about God or the gods, and how they lived their lives in their time and place. But their writings don’t necessarily always tell the truth, or for that matter represent their history reliably (as we discussed in the above two paragraphs). Sometimes they even acknowledge that what they are writing is their opinion (consider St. Paul’s opinions shared in chapter 7 of his first letter to the Corinthian church). Just because the books of the Bible may reveal things that are true about God, human beings, and what it means to love people unconditionally (for example), this does not automatically necessitate that everything in the Bible should be taken without question as “truth.”
* Next in the blog series: Bible Myth #2. The Bible doesn’t contradict itself.
* If you missed the Introduction to this series, make sure to read 10 myths Christians believe about the Bible that are misguided, click here.
Resources on this topic:
For a deeper dive into the topic of the ancient Hebrews’ cosmology (how they saw, spoke about and wrote about the earth/land and the universe outside of it), I highly recommend Peter Enns’ book, The evolution of Adam: What the Bible does and doesn’t say about human origins.
For a deeper dive into the topic of the Bible as a library of books and the theological changes and progression in the perspectives of the Biblical authors over time, I highly recommend reading Brian McLaren’s A new kind of Christianity: 10 questions that are transforming the faith. This book also offers incredible historical detail, analysis and insight into the topic of the theological, political and economic changes and progression in perspectives Americans and American political leaders have had between the 17th and the 21st centuries.
For a deeper dive into the topic of the Biblical authors’ practice of reimagining their faith, God and the world from new angles following new experiences and situations in life, whether unexpected, traumatic, or exciting, I highly recommend reading Peter Enns’ insightful and often humorous books, The Bible Tells me So: Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it and his follow up How the Bible actually works. You’ll learn a lot and laugh a lot (well, if you have a good sense of humor that is).
For a deeper dive into the topic of Biblical inspiration that critiques the Biblical inerrancy view many evangelicals have and offers an alternative view rooted in the Bible’s incarnational nature see Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns and Inspired Imperfection: How the Bible’s problems enhance it’s divine authority by Gregory Boyd.