The Best, “Badly Written” Book

Note to the reader: This is a very long, very documented response/refutation. Please read it carefully. And beware of snark.

Is the Bible “badly written” as some assert? First, think about how subjective that statement is. 

Let’s say that it’s true, which would depend upon the literary standard that it is being compared to, so what? Truth can be articulated in inelegant methods, that doesn’t change the nature of truth. Truth is true regardless of its presentation. So, when people, such as Valerie Tarico does in this article, claim that the Bible is poorly written it should beg the question, according to what standard?

Valerie claims that,

Millions of Evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible was essentially dictated by God to men who acted as human channelers. Each phrase is considered so perfect that it merits careful linguistic analysis to determine His precise meaning.

Well, yes and no. 

We believe that portions were the product of direct dictation, and the text itself often alludes to those moments, but we also recognize that, by and large, what we are seeing in the text is the experience of a people interacting with God being played out against the backdrop of history, and that Scripture is the means by which God has chosen to speak to his people in these last days, something that I’ve discussed at length here as well as the lecture that I gave on the doctrine of inspiration. And since this is the case, careful study of the revealed word enlightens the believer. 

If that were the case, one would have to conclude that God is a terrible writer. Although some passages in the Bible are lyrical and gripping, many would get kicked back by any competent editor or writing professor— kicked back with a lot of red ink.

There’s nothing anachronistic about that comment? I mean, if we’re supposed to take dictation theory seriously, then there’s nothing to object to since 1) we don’t know the order in which statements were made or 2) when particular books were written. The order of the canon is somewhat arbitrary. Not to mention the fact that dictation theory has no explanation for textual variation. 

Mixed messages, repetition, bad fact checking, awkward constructions, inconsistent voice, weak character development, boring tangents, contradictions, passages where nobody can tell what the heck the writer meant to convey. . . .  This doesn’t sound like a book that was created by a deity.

There’s a lot of subjective opinions in that statement. What “mixed messages”? I’ve dealt with some here on the blog that are easily handled by a simple careful reading of the text. 

Repetition” and “bad fact checking”? She does realize that the books of the Bible are the products of multiple authors that had access to different sources, and that there are multiple “facts” that go into events? 

Inconsistent voice”? I’m going to guess that Valerie has never been in a conversation or tried to relate a conversation in writing. It can get all over the place. 

Weak character development”? Since much of Scripture is about what happened, who it happened to, and the results, I guess the characters got pushed aside I favor of the narrative. 

Boring tangents”? It’s only boring to the person who thinks that it’s boring, but as certain scholars, like Michael Heiser, often point out, “If it’s weird or boring, it’s probably important,” which is something that he points out in this series of presentations:

Contradictions”? I think that what she means is really that there are paradoxical statements that are dependent upon things like context. 

Passages where nobody can tell what the heck the writer meant to convey”? Like…what? I noticed that the only charge that she provided a link to was the one about “contradictions” and it was to an article by Bart Ehrman. Just because you have problems understanding it doesn’t mean that the original audience did.

Each of these charges has been responded to in one form or another over the years and demonstrated for what they are:  baseless and nit picking. 

Valerie goes on writing,

A well-written book should be clear and concise, with all factual statements accurate and characters neither two-dimensional nor plagued with multiple personality disorder—unless they actually are.

I essentially agree. The problem is that I don’t look at the Bible as a book as much as a collection of books. And each book is judged on its own merits in accordance with its place in history and the author(s)’s intentions. What the biblical authors do is give people snapshots, vignettes of moments in the times and events in people’s lives. Sometimes they play fast and loose with the facts in order to move their story along. If anyone has ever read a historical novel that seeks to cast a character into a particular situation in history they’ve seen this, not saying this is what we’re dealing with though. More importantly, if you’ve ever read biographies, especially in the ancient world, you’ve seen this. Writers can telescope events—expanding or contracting them to help the narrative. The authors determine what is important to them, what facts are relevant to their case, and how they want to portray particular individuals. We do this in our own liveseveryday. 

Valerie scoffs,

A book written by a god should be some of the best writing ever produced.

Well, and let’s just play along here for kicks, wouldn’t it be fair to compare it to works produced contemporaneously? If we take the assertion that the Bible was written over a 1500 period ending almost 2000 years ago, shouldn’t we be comparing it to works produced then? Even if you hold to the most stubborn form of dictation theory you have to concede that God, in his wisdom, wanted to make sure that what he was doing was understood by a particular audience at a particular point in time. What’s interesting is that the New Testament authors recognize that the Old Testament was written by and for the Jews—as its primary and initial audience—with it only becoming more widely known later with the appeal to tradition and disbursement of its Greek translation. So, shouldn’t the standard of comparison be Jewish or other Semitic writings of a similar age? And the New Testament contents be judged against its contemporaries in Greek? 

When we do compare them we find no significant difference in manner of composition or style. In fact, that’s how the dating of their production in history is established. Yeah, that’s how absurd the assertion is. 

Valerie writes,

A well-written book should be clear and concise, with all factual statements accurate and characters neither two-dimensional nor plagued with multiple personality disorder…

Um, why? And by what standard? Human beings are incredibly complex creatures, so complex that we seem to manifest what can only be described as “multiple personalities”, and the authors of scripture relay this understanding very well. But let’s be clear: in the context of the biblical story, the main character is God; therefore, everyone else is merely a supporting character, merely helping to move along the story of the Triune God’s work to redeem a particular people for his glory. We get to see all of God’s character on display as his justice, his mercy, and his wrath against sin, are put on display. 

But why, overall, does it so fail to meet this mark? 

Again, what’s the standard? The Bible is a composite work from a culture with a completely different standard for what comprises “good literature”. More than that, many books of the Bible are clear about the fact that they are just providing a representative sample of the available information, such as in Joshua, the book of Numbers also cites another text, as well as several instances in the Book of First Kings (here and here). And those are just sample instances. 

One obvious answer, of course, is that neither the Bible—nor any derivative work like the Quran or Book of Mormon—was actually dictated by the Christian god or other celestial messengers.

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My sincerest condolences go out to the family of the straw man that lost his life in coming to that conclusion. To quote myself on this issue,

God has ordained the Scriptures as the means by which he intends to speak to his people.

Nothing in that conclusion implies that the entirety of Scripture is a result of dictation, although the text does have moments where certain things are directed to be written such as in Exodus 34 and Jeremiah 30, and then the books themselves serve as a record of what was dictated in a specific instance, they are the exception and not the rule. Further, this is a distinction between the doctrine of inspiration, which deals with how the scriptures originate, and what can be called a doctrine of application, or that which God is saying through the text. Jesus was clear: the Scriptures exist for the purpose of God to speak to his image bearers :

Have you not read what was said to you by God…(Matthew 22:31,ESV)

Valerie scoffs,

We humans may yearn for advice that is “god-breathed” but in reality, our sacred texts were written by fallible human beings who, try as they might, fell short of perfection in the ways that we all do.

The link in the quote goes to a promotional page for the book by Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God, whose core argument is that the doctrine of inerrancy is essentially a bunch of hogwash. The endorsements, a litany of liberal theologians and a few outright heretics, demonstrate how essential such arguments are to an attack on the faith. There have been a number of responses, including this one by Dr. Michael Heiser which includes a scholarly, peer reviewed response as well as a second, near point-by-point response to Stark’s “response”. As R.C. Sproul noted in his publicly accessible commentary on the Chicago Statement,

[Inspiration] guarantees that the writings of Scripture are true and trustworthy. That is, they are not false, deceptive, or fraudulent in what they communicate. (p. 28)

Further on he states,

[We (inerrantists)] say that though the biblical writings are inspired, this does not imply that the writers knew everything there was to know or that they were infallible of themselves. The knowledge they communicated is not comprehensive, but it is true and trustworthy as far as it goes. (p. 29)

The fact is that whether or not you agree with those statements, they convey the truth about what the authors themselves said about their works because they never made those claims. 

The problem is with that tricky word “perfect”. The biblical authors most often use it to refer to something being complete or sufficient to the task, as compared to being a partial construct or insufficient. So far, all that I’ve seen in Valerie’s article is a complaint about the way that a set of documents are written without being given a coherent and consistent standard by which to judge them. 

Valerie notes,

Far from being a single unified whole, the Bible is actually a collection of texts or text fragments from many authors.

There’s so much truth there and even more falsity. 

It’s true that the Bible—which can be literarily classified as an anthology—has many authors and is a collection of texts. No one is denying that. However it is not a collection of “fragments”. The further back in time that we go, the material textual evidence does become more fragmentary because the matter on which it was written has degraded. However, the message is consistent in the witnesses of the text (ie the manuscript tradition). So, it seems like she’s conflating the text with the manuscript evidence for the text. These are not the same thing. 

Valerie continues,

We don’t know the number of writers precisely,…

Why is this relevant? It’s not. 

…and—despite the ancient traditions that assigned authorship to famous people such as Moses, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—we don’t know who most of them were.

She links to an article by Bart Erhman, which has his usual collection of charges. But here’s the kicker: there is no evidence of any debate in the early church over the authorship of the gospels. It’s a moot issue for them. There’s even no concern for authorship of the Jewish Scriptures. If they weren’t concerned, why should we be concerned?

She continues,

We do know that the men who inscribed the biblical texts had widely different language skills, cultural and technological surroundings, worldviews and supernatural beliefs—along with varying objectives.

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What does any of this have to do with anything? How about…nothing.

She says,

Scholars estimate that the earliest of the Bible’s writers lived and wrote about 800 years before the Christian era, and the most recent lived and wrote almost a century after any historical Jesus would have lived.

Duh. Going on,

They ranged from tribal nomads to subjects of the Roman Empire.

So?

To make matters more complicated, some of them borrowed fragments of even earlier stories and songs that had been handed down via oral tradition from Sumerian cultures and religions. For example, flood myths that predate the Noah story can be found across Mesopotamia, with a boat-building hero named Utnapishtim  or Ziusudra or Atrahasis.

The question is, who borrowed from whom? There’s no question that there some scholars argue that there are common “literary motifs” that pop up in the literature of ancient cultures that are used to tell the stories of and about various figures but, and this has to be kept in mind, correlation is not causation. It’s very easy to make assertions, it’s hard to prove them (Dr. Heiser notes that in this brief post). And while I don’t necessarily agree with the way some of the arguments made, this article does an adequate job of sorting out the various assertions in regard to the various flood accounts, namely that,

[The biblical] author [never] “borrowed” or “copied” the story from the Babylonian version, because the two end up having very different emphases, but rather the later biblical author was probably impressed by the Babylonian tradition and took it to be the authoritative shape of the story. He adopted that shape, but transposed it, bending it to his own purposes. (Emphasis added). 

Basically, what Valerie is saying is that the biblical authors were incapable of having an original thought. Well, the same thing could be said about those that the biblical authors allegedly “borrowed” from. The problem is that when we look closely at those supposed and alleged similarities, they aren’t even that similar. 

Citing Bart Ehrman’s work in Misquoting Jesus and Forged, Valerie states,

Pseudonymous writing was so common among early Christians that nearly half of the books of the New Testament make false authorship claims or were assigned famous names after the fact. When texts claiming to be written by one person were actually written by several, each seeking to elevate his own point of view, we shouldn’t be surprised if the writing styles clash or they espouse contradictory attitudes.

Um, really? Why is it that the Christians were very quick, early on in being able to spot them and not hold them up as authoritative? 

Now, we must admit that not every church early in history necessarily held the same texts as authoritative in every circumstance. And even when there was contention, there was always a general consensus. Valerie, by way of Ehrman, makes the case seem a whole lot worse than it actually was. But let’s, again, keep this in mind: where’s the debate and what was it about? The burden is on the one making the claim that there was a mass of pseudonymous writings to prove it. Most likely the opposition will point to the Nag Hamadi library of Gnostic materials as evidence, but no Christian took them seriously and, when they are mentioned, it’s either passively, just in passing, or they are condemned for what they are. There are a few texts, Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas for example, that held some sway in the early church, but were ultimately labeled as “helpful” but “not authoritative”.

Valerie, returns to stating the obvious, historical context in regard to the language of the New Testament and the use of Koine Greek, which was the lingua franca of the time. She notes that David Bentley Hart has produced a new translation of the New Testament, she summarizes that it, “follows the voices and idiosyncrasies of the original text.” 

So, a scholar with a particular view generates his own translation of “the text” of the New Testament. Pardon my,  so what?” I would be interested in knowing what Dr. Hart considers “the text” to be (ie a particular stream of manuscripts or textual collation). Oh, here’s an interview of Dr. Hart on The Michael Knowles Show discussing his translation.

Valerie states,

Christians may treat the Bible as a unified book of divine guidance,….

Which “Christians”? I have to ask because I, as a Christian, don’t do that. I believe what Paul said that the Scriptures were for, that being, “teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness”. It does have a unified message that starts all the way back at the beginning of time and is fulfilled at the end of it.

…but in reality it is a mix of different genres: ancient myths, songs of worship, rule books, poetry, propaganda, coded political commentary, and mysticism, to name just a few. 

Yeah, we recognize that there is a thing called “genre” and that the Bible, because it is a collection of texts of various genres, there is a context in which they are to be interpreted and find their application.

She goes on,

Translators and church leaders down through the centuries haven’t always known which of these they were reading.

Let’s keep in mind that translators are only, or at least should be, interested in rendering the text from one language into another, and that there are different methods of translation that may be dependent upon knowledge of the genre that you are translating and similar genres in the language into which you are translating. And, yes, there have been those in the church through history who have not made proper distinctions in the text to determine interpretation and application of the text. She makes a point about comedians playing with the difference between the literal and the figurative to conclude,

Whether they (—me interjecting, I’ll assume by “they” she means “Christians”—) realize it or not, biblical literalists in the pulpit sometimes make a living doing the same thing.

Um, yeah. That’s true. What does that have to do with her thesis? How about…nothing.

She writes,

The books of the Bible were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, though not in the modern versions of these languages. 

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When Roman Catholic Christianity ascended, church leaders embraced the Hebrew Bible and translated it into then-modern Latin. 

Well, that’s an anachronism, because there was no such thing as “Roman Catholic Christianity” for about 500 years afterJerome’s vulgate translation. And the problem with that is that the Hebrew Bible had already been translated into Koine Greek around 125BC, and had been translated because there were Jews who couldn’t read or speak Hebrew. And why did Jerome produce such a translation? Because there were Christians who couldn’t read or speak Greek.

They also translated texts from early Jesus-worshipers and convened committees to determine which should make it into their canon of scripture.

By “they” she means Jerome. Dr. Michael Kruger points out that that there were already lists of accepted texts (ie canon of Scripture) in existence some 75 to 150 years before the first church councils were ever convened (eg the Muratorian fragment). More than that, if you go back to this earlier post of mine, the nature of revelation is canonicity. File this under #fakenews.

Ironically, some New Testament writers themselves had already translated Old Testament scriptures in ways that changed their meaning.

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This is simply someone speaking out of the depths of their ignorance. The differences between the Old Testament reading and the New Testament quotation of it is often explained by the fact that the New Testament authors were quoting from the Septuagint;

they (the New Testament authors) cited the Septuagint because their readers were familiar with it—as well as, in general, with the Greek language. It was impor­tant to bear in mind that the Septuagint was prepared not by Christians but by Jewish scholars before the coming of Christ.

In fact, the Septuagint readings often reflected an older reading, or at least understanding, of the Hebrew text at places where the Masoretic text differs in its own readings when compared to similar elements in the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

Dubious translations bolstered key doctrines of the Christian faith, the most famous being the Virgin Birth.

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Dubious”? The only thing that’s “dubious” around here is all the ignorance she’s spewing. But hey, she’s simply playing to her audience here. I would direct everyone to Dr. Heiser’s work on the question both in print and in the form of this presentation on the virgin birth in regard to prophetic fulfillment.

Most English versions of the Bible have been translated directly from the earliest available manuscripts, but translators have their own biases, some of which were shaped by those early Latin translations and some of which are shaped by more recent theological considerations or cultural trends. 

Yeah. That’s somewhat true. I think that I mentioned that somewhere…oh, right, I did an entire presentation on it. 

After American Evangelicals pivoted away from supporting abortion in the 1980s, some publishers actually re-translated a troublesome Bible verse that treated the death of a fetus differently from the death of a person. The meaning of the Bible passage changed.

What she links to is an article by Fred Clark who clearly has no understanding of Greek participial formation or the difference between identifying someone who is an Apostle versus someone who is counted among the ones first sent out to proclaim the gospel (the Greek form of apostolos being used here in its more general form), making great deal over misunderstanding whether a name is meant to be that of a man or woman. Much of his argument is derived from comparing the 1971 edition of the NASB to its 1995 update, which is fallacious for several reasons, namely 1) the discovery and implementation of new grammatical rules in the original languages, which occurs as more data is collected and refined, and 2) the discovery of new manuscripts. This is simply attributing malice instead of ignorance. 

More than that, because the meanings of words can change over time, how they are commonly understood also changes. Translators recognize this and when they do their work, they attempt to render the text in the most commonly understood terms. Comparing English translations can give one a fuller understanding of the text only if one understands the translation methodology and philosophy that goes into their production. Just refer to my video.

But even when scholars scrupulously try to avoid biases, an enormous amount of information is simply lost in translation. One challenge is that the meanings of a story, or even a single word, depend on what preceded it in the culture at large or a specific conversation, or both.

Um, doesn’t she think that the meaning of her statements depend upon their usage in her current literary or historical or cultural context and the specific conversation that she’s using them? In a word: yeah. What often gets “lost in translation” is the vast amount of information that is implied going from a high context society to a low context society and what is expected or understood in each one.

Image source: high context versus low context societies 

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Skipping down over some questionable examples, Valerie remarks,

As a modern person reading the Bible, one can’t help but think about how the pages might have been better filled.

And there’s the problem for Valerie: a modern person with modern priorities didn’t write the texts which comprises the Bible. Nothing like a little chronological snobbery, eh? The problem is not with the Bible. The problem is with Valerie, who complains,

[The] minds of the writers were fully occupied with other concerns. In their world, who begat who mattered(!) while challenging prevailing Iron Age views of illness or women and children or slaves was simply inconceivable. (Links removed)

Um, yeah, because they were the ones who were writing it so it naturally reflected their concerns. The texts that the biblical authors were writing had to mean something to the people who were reading it then. To quote myself on this,

[What] we call the Bible was written to a specific people at a specific time. The Old Testament was written to the people of Israel. Paul’s letters were written to specific churches that had specific problems, questions, or needs. They were written to people who lived in specific circumstances, with a specific worldview, and they have been preserved for us,…

More than that, when we compare biblical commands to the typical practices and expectations (eg slavery in Hammurabi’s code) of the ancient world, everything begins to change, something that Dennis Prager illustrates in this video:

Remember that “chronological snobbery” I mentioned? Yeah, that’s her problem, alright.

In the end, Valerie, steeped in her ignorance and bias, comes off sounding like a bitter ex-wife: the Bible would have been so much better if she had written it or at least had some editorial input. I think that Valerie, like so many other fundamentalist atheists, wants the Bible to read like an instructional manual, with a series of step-by-step instructions. What’s the obvious problem with that? 

The obvious problem with such thinking is that there’s no relationship, no joy and, above all, no love.

 The Bible is a love story told over a thousand generations. A story of a holy and just God who loves an underserving and corrupt people. 

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