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.
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.
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.
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. A book written by a god should be some of the best writing ever produced. It should beat Shakespeare on character development, Stephen Hawking on scientific accuracy, Pablo Neruda on poetry, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on ethical coherence, and Maya Angelou on sheer lucid beauty—just to name a few.
No question, the Bible contains beautiful and timeless bits. But why, overall, does it so fail to meet this mark? 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. 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.
But why is the Bible such a mixed bag? Falling short of perfection is one thing, but the Bible has been the subject of thousands of follow-on books by people who were genuinely trying to figure out what it means. Despite best efforts, their conclusions don’t converge, which is one reason Christianity has fragmented into over 40,000 denominations and non-denominations.
Here are just a few of the reasons for this tangled web of disagreements and the terrible quality of some biblical writing (with some notable exceptions) by modern literary standards.
Too Many Cooks
Far from being a single unified whole, the Bible is actually a collection of texts or text fragments from many authors. We don’t know the number of writers precisely, 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. 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.
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. They ranged from tribal nomads to subjects of the Roman Empire. 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.
Bible writers adapted earlier stories and laws to their own cultural and religious context, but they couldn’t always reconcile differences among handed-down texts, and often may not have known that alternative versions existed. Later, variants got bundled together. This is why the Bible contains two different creation myths, three sets of Ten Commandments, and four contradictory versions of the Easter story.
Forgery and Counter-Forgery
Best-selling Bible scholar Bart Ehrman has written a whole book about forgery in the New Testament, texts written under the names of famous men to make the writings more credible. This includes the book of 2 Timothy, the one that claims that “all scripture is God-breathed.” 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.
The original language of the New Testament was Koine, a form of Greek spread by Alexander’s army that became a utilitarian lingua franca among the conquered. This is just one reason that the books of the New Testament often lack the poetic beauty of the great Greek epics, which were written in classical Greek. But another may be that for some of the writers, Koine was not their native tongue.
David Bentley Hart, Orthodox theologian, scholar and polemicist, recently produced a New Testament translation that follows the voices and idiosyncrasies of the original text. Of it, he says, “Where an author has written bad Greek … I have written bad English.” After producing his unretouched version of Revelation, Hart opined, “If judged purely by the normal standards of literary style and good taste, [the Book of Revelation is] almost unremittingly atrocious.”
Histories, Poetries, None-of-These
Christians may treat the Bible as a unified book of divine guidance, 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. Translators and church leaders down through the centuries haven’t always known which of these they were reading. Modern comedians sometimes make a living by deliberately garbling genres—for example, by taking statements literally when they are meant figuratively—or distorting things someone else has written or said. Whether they realize it or not, biblical literalists in the pulpit sometimes make a living doing the same thing.
Lost in Translation
The books of the Bible were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, though not in the modern versions of these languages. (Think of trying to read Chaucer’s Middle English.) When Roman Catholic Christianity ascended, church leaders embraced the Hebrew Bible and translated it into then-modern Latin. They also translated texts from early Jesus-worshipers and convened committees to determine which should make it into their canon of scripture. These became the New Testament. Ironically, some New Testament writers themselves had already translated Old Testament scriptures in ways that changed their meaning. Dubious translations inspired key doctrines of the Christian faith, the most famous being the Virgin Birth.
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. After American evangelicals pivoted away from supporting abortion in the 1980s, some publishers actually retranslated 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.
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.
Imagine that a teenage boy has asked his mom for a specific amount of money for a special night out, and Mom says, “You can have $50.” She is communicating something very different if the kid asked for $20 (Mom is saying splurge a bit) versus if the kid had asked for $100 (Mom is saying rein yourself in).
As the mom opens her wallet, the son scrolls through restaurant options on Yelp and exclaims, “Sick!” Mom blinks, then mentally translates into the slang of her own generation which, her son’s perceptions aside, doesn’t come close to translating across 2,000 years of history.
A lot changes in 2,000 years. As we read the Bible through modern eyes, it helps to remember that we’re getting a glimpse, however imperfectly translated, of the urgent concerns of our Iron Age ancestors. Back then, writing anything was tremendously labor intensive, so we know that information that may seem irrelevant now (because it is) was of acute importance to the men who first carved those words into clay, or inked them on animal skins or papyrus.
Long lists of begats in the Gospels; greetings to this person and that in the Pauline epistles; instructions on how to sacrifice a dove in Leviticus or purify a virgin war captive in Numbers; "chosen people" genealogies; prohibitions against eating creatures that don’t exist; pages of threats against enemies of Israel; coded rants against the Roman Empire….
As a modern person reading the Bible, one can’t help but think about how the pages might have been better filled. Could none of this have been pared away? Couldn’t the writers have made room instead for a few short sentences that might have changed history: Wash your hands after you poop. Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to. Witchcraft isn’t real. Slavery is forbidden. We are all God’s chosen people.
Answer: No, they couldn’t have fit these in, even without the begats. Of course there was physical space on papyrus and parchment. But 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.
It’s Not About You
The Gospel According to Matthew (not actually authored by Matthew) was written for an audience of Jews. The author was a recruiter for the ancient equivalent of Jews for Jesus. That is why, in the Matthew account, the Last Supper is timed as a Passover meal. By contrast, the Gospel According to John was written to persuade pagan Roman prospects, so the author timed the events differently. This is just one of many explicit contradictions between the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection.
The contradictions in the Gospel stories—and many other parts of the Bible—are not there because the writers were confused. Quite the opposite. Each writer knew his own goals and audience, and adapted hand-me-down stories or texts to fit, sometimes changing the meaning in the process. The folks who are confused are those who treat the book as if they were the audience, as if each verse was a timeless and perfect message sent to them by God. Their yearning for a set of clean answers to life’s messy questions has created a mess.
The Pig Collection
My friend Sandra had a collection of decorative pigs that started out small. As family and friends learned about it, the collection grew to the point that it began taking over the house. Birthdays, Christmas, vacations, thrift stores…when people saw a pig, they thought of Sandra. Some of the pigs were delightful; others, not so much. Finally, the move to a new house opened an opportunity to do some culling.
The texts of the Bible are a bit of a pig collection. Like Sandra’s pigs, they reflect a wide variety of styles, raw material and artistic vision. From creation stories to Easter stories to the book of Revelation, old collectibles got handed down and inspired new, and folks who gathered this type of material bundled them together into a single collection.
A good culling might do a lot to improve things. Imagine a version of the Bible containing only that which has enduring beauty or usefulness. Unfortunately, the collection in the Bible has been bound together for so long that Christian authorities (with a few exceptions) don’t trust themselves to unbind it. Maybe the thought of deciding what goes and stays feels overwhelming or even dangerous. Or maybe, deep down, Bible-believing evangelicals and other fundamentalists suspect that if they started culling, there wouldn’t be a whole lot left. So, they keep it all, in the process binding themselves to the worldview and very human imperfections of our Iron Age ancestors.
And that’s what makes the Good Book so very bad.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated.
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