The Bible has a long and rich history in Western society; no one can deny this fact. Its wisdom has brought many people comfort in times of sorrow, distress and confusion. Its stories have spoken to the hearts of believers for generations. Yet, the Bible is also often misunderstood, whether by untrained lay persons or by misguided pastors and scholars. In fact, I would be willing to say that many, if not most people, who read the Bible may not be familiar with some critical issues surrounding its origin, the differences in one Bible from another, the complexities of interpreting the Bible, and the problems inherent in trying to make the biblical material applicable to our modern world.
I cannot answer fully all of these questions, but we can engage in honest discussion about these issues. In my view, a serious and robust faith is not based on intellectual apathy, but grows from asking the most difficult and troubling of questions.
Let’s look at the question of the origin and transmission of the Bible. If we are to come to some understanding of the Bible as a source of faith and belief, then we must also become aware of the Bible’s origination and development.
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.
Indeed, the authors of the biblical texts were so limited to their own space and time, as are we, that their claims about God do not fit other claims about God from other biblical authors. We can even see that some parts of the Bible come into conflict with other texts in the same canon.
Honestly admitting this reality 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 loses any real meaning.
Any knowledgeable scholar of the Bible can tell us that the variety of manuscripts of biblical texts that we now possess demonstrates errors made by copyists, whether they were intentional or unintentional. 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? First, it means that we must admit that the complexities involved in explaining the origin of the Bible are numerous. Second, reading the Bible faithfully means we must do the hard work of deconstructing, as best we can, the historical, social and political assumptions of the author in order to find the heart of the gospel that is meaningful for our world.
C. Drew Smith is the Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.