Quantcast
Connect with us

Why is the Bible so poorly written?

Published

on

- Commentary

Millions of evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible was dictated by God to men who acted essentially as human transcriptionists. If that were the case, one would have to conclude that God is a terrible writer. Many passages in the Bible would get kicked back by any competent editor or writing professor, kicked back with a lot of red ink—often more red than black.

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 dictated by a deity.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 enduring relevance, 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.

Why does the Bible 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 we all do.

But why is the Bible so badly written? Falling short of perfection is one thing, but the Bible has been the subject of literally 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 generally terrible quality of much biblical writing (with some notable exceptions) by literary standards.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 around 100 CE. 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 mythsthree sets of Ten Commandments, and four contradictory versions of the Easter story.

Forgery and Counter-Forgery

ADVERTISEMENT

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 practice was so common among early Christians that nearly half of the books of the New Testament make false authorship claims, while others were assigned famous names after the fact. When books 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.

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, gospels (yes, this was a common literary genre), 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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, calling it the Old Testament. They also translated texts from early Jesus-worshipers and voted on which to include in their canon of scripture. These became the New Testament. Ironically, some New Testament writers themselves had already quoted bad translations of Old Testament scriptures. These multi-layered imperfect 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 Protestants 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

Inside Baseball

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….

ADVERTISEMENT

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 forbiddenWe 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

ADVERTISEMENT

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

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

And that’s what makes the Good Book so very bad.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and legal efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. And unlike other news outlets, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from billionaires and corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click to donate by check.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. Unlike other news sites, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.



Report typos and corrections to: [email protected]. Send news tips to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Florida teacher removed after bizarre rant about students not standing for the pledge

Published

on

Students were faced with a white-board rant in a classroom attacking anyone not standing up for the Pledge of Allegiance.

The moment went viral locally on Thursday after students posted Daniel Goodman‘s “inappropriate” message to students at First Coast High School in Duval County, Florida, The Atlanta Black Star reported.

“THINK: We had about a half million Americans die in our Civil War, which was largely to get rid of slavery. There are no longer separate water fountains and bathrooms in Jacksonville for ‘white’ and ‘colored,’ as Mr. Goodman remembers from the 1960?s. We had an amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowing women the right to vote. We have had a Black president. The superintendent of Duval Schools is a Black woman. Mr. Fluent, our principal, replaced a Black man. Mr. Simmons, who now is a DC PS admninistrator.”

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Missouri official choose Dr. Seuss’ ‘Oh the Places You’ll Go’ for swearing-in ceremony instead of ‘The Bible’

Published

on

A Missouri county official is being both celebrated and attacked after a decision to forgo The Bible for her swearing-in ceremony and opted for a copy of Oh, The Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss.

The Friendly Atheist at Patheos captured the story, posting a photo of St. Louis City Councilmember Kelli Dunaway's children holding a copy of the book while she took her oath of office.

This was the scene last week at the STLCO government center. Democrats took back control of the council and @DunawayKelli was sworn in on a copy of “Oh the Places you’ll go” with her children❤️ so proud to be part of #TeamKelli pic.twitter.com/iJ1dxfZ1Zg

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

Trump predicts New York Times will go out of business when he’s out of office

Published

on

In a permission tweet, President Donald Trump announced that his presidency is the only thing keeping the New York Times in business. Yet, somehow, they're also attacking him and lying about him.

"The New York Times will be out of business soon after I leave office, hopefully in 6 years. They have Zero credibility and are losing a fortune, even now, especially after their massive unfunded liability. I'm fairly certain they'll endorse me just to keep it all going!" he tweeted.

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1163238629730373632

Since taking office, subscriptions for The Times have increased dramatically. According to an August report, The Times boasted a 4.7 million increase in subscribers for the second quarter. Their revenue growth was 5.2 percent. It certainly is a modest increase, but it's also an increase in an era when newspapers are struggling to survive.

Continue Reading
 
 

Thank you for whitelisting Raw Story!

As a special thank you, from now until August 31st, we're offering you a discounted rate of $5.99/month to subscribe and get ad-free access. We're honored to have you as a reader. Thank you. :) —Elias, Membership Coordinator
LEARN MORE
close-link
close-image