Bibliophilology (or, What Kind of Book is the Bible?)

The Tianjin Bahai Library in Tianjin, China

I’ve listened to arguments about the Bible all of my life.  I’ve heard it mocked by literature professors and defended by fundamentalists like King Kong cradling Ann Darrow at the top of the Empire State Building (I suspect, if it had a personality, that’s about how much the Bible would want to be protected).  Usually attackers and defenders talk past each other.  Often, I’m not sure that either have read it.

In part, the confusion arises from the lack of clarity about what kind of book the Bible is.  There are different approaches.

A Math Book

Some people think of the Bible like a math textbook.  It is a book of brute facts reducible to logical certainty, and if any one of them is wrong, the whole thing is suspect.  If there is an error in the math book, we’re going to have to scrutinize every problem to make sure the authors didn’t do it more than once.  Aggressors like to point out discrepancies in the biblical texts (Mark 16:5, Luke 24:4), and say that they’ve found a fatal flaw.  Defenders foolishly agree to the argument and concoct desperate explanations about how Once Upon A Time there was a perfect Bible, but then there was a copying error.  This would be like claiming this blog was written by Tinkerbell, and then when someone presents a video of me typing it myself, I reply, “She’s very tricky, isn’t she?”

The mistake is giving in on the idea that the Bible is like a math book to begin with.  The authors had no intention of communicating ideas that work like mathematics.  The statement “The Bible is true” makes as much sense as saying “The tree is true.” That’s not a valid way to evaluate it.

A Novel

Some then say the Bible is like a novel.  It’s a fascinating collection of stories that might have moral points, but they are not grounded in history.  Here, there is immediately a problem – all the history.  The authors of the Bible at a number of points clearly think they are reporting historical events, unabashedly with their own opinions about the events – who was the greatest warrior, who was a liar, and why God did what he did.  The historical character of the Bible is inescapable.  Bart Ehrman, who is not a religious believer and who is deeply skeptical about religion, said of Jesus, “He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees.”

A defender of the novel thesis might argue then that it is historical fiction – a novel created out of historical events, but truly fiction.  However, from the earliest recorded events to the present, a growing and countless population have believed that some cross-section of the historical events recorded in the Bible actually happened as the Bible said they did.  The authors meant for much of it to be historical, even if inescapably biased, and most readers take that fact at face value.  That reduces the sorting out of the historical from the non largely to an act of bias.  It’s unsurprising that holders of this thesis usually say the supernatural elements are the fiction, regardless of what else might be historical, and that viewpoint comes from a predisposition to a certain ideology, not to a study of history.

A Compilation

Both of these approaches spring from a kind of fundamentalism that the Bible doesn’t encourage.  A better way to think about the Bible is as a compilation of various forms of literature.  There are within it long lists of names that were created specifically to be kept in a file cabinet.  They were not meant to be devotional material – they were meant to keep a paper trail of land owners.  There are poems which have no more truth value than a flower, which is still an infinite kind of value.  There are historical narratives that are brute facts – events that happened and which are recorded by eye-witnesses.  There are fabricated parables, stories created to make a point that don’t even attempt to pose as history, prophetic and apocalyptic predictions of the future, collections of practical advice, records of military conquests, virtue and vice lists, and more.

No two types of literature are the same.  They serve different functions, communicate in their own styles, and must be evaluated according to the norms of that style.  That, for any serious reader and serious believer is not a threat to faith.  It’s a challenging and thought-provoking invitation to a deep study of God.


One thought on “Bibliophilology (or, What Kind of Book is the Bible?)

  1. So, it’s a math book, a novel(?), a compilation of poetry, of history… sounds like a good read; something for everybody! 😉 It’s a great how-to self-help book to boot! 😇

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