Which of Our Bibles is the Inspired Version?

April 7, 2023

When my doctoral supervisor questioned me as to why I don’t use the word “inspired” when I talk/write about the biblical texts, I took some time to think about how to best and most honestly answer. My first reason is that the word “inspired” means many different things to many people. Thus if I say, “The biblical texts are inspired” there is a question as to what I mean by that, but also what will my hearers or readers understand that I mean. My second reason has to do with who and/or what people believe is “inspired”—is it the authors themselves or their writings or both? The third reason—which I will explain in this post—for not using the word “inspired” with respect to the biblical texts has to do with what I call “the persistently pluriform nature” of the biblical texts.

The texts that ultimately were—many centuries after their authorship—included in the anthology we call “the Bible” have always existed in pluriformity—i.e., in many different forms simultaneously. We don’t possess the autograph—i.e., original writing—of any biblical text and never will. There is even some question as to whether there ever was one “original.” However, even if there was, these presumed autographs are lost to us. All we possess are copies of copies, and there are no two copies of any biblical text that are 100% identical. (Please read that sentence again!) These are the realities of our extensive manuscript evidence.

And yet, “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,”[1] signed in 1978 by over 200 evangelical scholars and on which most evangelical rely to this day, states that “[I]spiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy.” A significant majority of text critical scholars would disagree that “the autographic text of Scripture…can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy.” Even given that the crowning evidence for textual pluriformity from the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery and analysis was not available to all until the early 1990s, there was still plenty of proof of pluriformity in 1978.  

The following quotations are from an article written by Kenneth Atkinson[2]—Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Northern Iowa. I have made some comments after most of the quotations to either clarify, correct, or share my own take on Atkinson’s and/or others’ remarks.

The problem is that what Christians and non-Christians call the Bible is a recent creation that constantly changes based on the discovery of new manuscripts. Therefore, it cannot contain the eternal unaltered word of God (80).

  • What we do have are thousands of Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek, mostly partial, manuscripts that date throughout a period of, at least, 1500 years, none of them identical to any other, from which biblical scholars (conservative, liberal, sectarian) make thousands of choices as they try to produce what they think is the best Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek texts from which translators can work.

Biblical textual criticism is the discipline that seeks to reconstruct the biblical text to the best of our ability based on the extant manuscripts. Unfortunately, evangelical and secular textual critics recognize it is impossible to reconstruct the Bible’s original text. This is because all biblical manuscripts contain errors, passages that make no sense, and grammatical constructions whose meanings are sometimes impossible to determine. Consequently, textual critics look at all the extant manuscripts and try to discern the best readings they believe are closest to the original. … This reconstructed biblical text then becomes the basis for contemporary Bible translations. This means that what many evangelicals believe is a translation of God’s inerrant word is a rendering and reconstruction created by scholars (82).

  • How close are their reconstructed texts to the originals? Bottom line: we can’t know because don’t have a single original text of any of the biblical texts by which to compare our reconstructed texts.

Although evangelical apologetic literature may claim “no viable variant affects any cardinal truth of the New Testament” (Gurry 2019, 207), the problem with such statements is we do not have the NT’s original text to compare with the numerous manuscript variants. Consequently, such statements that variants do not affect the Bible’s message—whether the OT or NT—are based on faith. They presuppose scholars can reconstruct the original text from countless variants and exclude those that represent later changes (83).

  • I used to be a determined apologist for the certainty with which textual critics could reconstruct the original text. However, after more than a decade of research, I became convinced that reconstructing the original texts is an impossible dream and a futile endeavour.
  • When the NT writers quoted from the Hebrew Bible, there was no one Hebrew/Aramaic standard text but rather there existed a pluriformity of ancient text types. In addition, the NT authors mostly quoted from the Greek translations (which also existed in pluriformity) and not so much from the various Hebrew/Aramaic texts that were available at the time.
  • That there was no one standardized text didn’t seem to bother those disciples of Jesus, so why should it bother us. This is how I came to the decision that I was no longer going to defend the Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek texts from which our modern translations come, as accurately reconstructing the originals. Rather, I except that we have what we have and that is both OT and NT texts in pluriformity and no originals.

The Hebrew OT and Greek NT texts that all scholars use are not God’s word. Rather, as all evangelical biblical scholars know, it is the word of biblical scholars (89).

  • I, in no way, believe the efforts of evangelical biblical scholars to reconstruct the lost original texts was some act of deception. I think they were sincerely motivated. But I am convinced that it cannot be done.

This means the Bible has never been a fixed text. It is a constantly changing book that reflects the opinions of the scholars in charge of selecting which manuscript readings to accept (89–90).

  • Even if one cannot read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, simply reading various translations that have been done in the last couple of centuries, in one’s native language, will show you how many changes have taken place in the Bible one reads.
  • Some of that is because any language changes over time; some words used two hundred years ago either are no longer used at all or don’t mean now what they did before. However, some of the changes in one’s translated Bible is because the Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek texts from which it was translated have changed as more ancient manuscripts are discovered and different choices are made.

“At every point of the inscripturation process, a given biblical book is autograph-like, fully inspired, and inerrant.”[3] Because evangelical and other biblical scholars constantly emend, change, and alter the texts of their critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek OT and NT, Grisanti’s doctrine of inspiration would also include contemporary scholars engaged in this enterprise as part of the divine process (91).

  • The processes by which “the Bible” came to us are not simple, but rather are complicated and even controversial. If I am going to hold the most recent NRSV (or any other version) to be “the inspired word of God” then I must believe that God inspired all the scribes who copied the scriptures, all those men (yes, men) who decided which books were inspired, all those who over the centuries have valiantly thought they could use the copies to reconstruct the original Biblical text, as well as all of the translators.
  • This is just too hard for me to believe. But also, the end products of these efforts is not “one Bible” but rather many Bibles which are different in content and order. So, which one is “the inspired word of God?”
  • Even the oldest anthologies of Jewish and Christian sacred texts that we possess in codex form—from the 4th and 5th centuries CE—are very different from our Bibles today and very different from each other.[4]
  • The factual evidence is clear to me, that is, that the biblical texts individually and thus the various anthologies of biblical texts have always existed in pluriformity.

Any reconstructed original text, whether by evangelical, liberal, or secular scholars, is merely a reconstructed text made by humans. It will never be infallible, but constantly changes. … Evangelical scholars should be honest and tell their students, parishioners, and the public that the Bible’s original text is lost. … All that is left are scholars’ reconstructed words… (92).

  • I used to suffer from the “throw the baby out with the bathwater” syndrome. If something wasn’t what I thought it was or should be, then forget it and throw it all out.
  • I’m undecided if God had any impact on what is written in the biblical texts or how to decide which portions represent truth about God’s nature, working, and will.

I am convinced, however, that some portions of both the OT and NT definitely portray a deity in whom I cannot believe, especially where via narrative, law, poetry, and/or prophecy God is portrayed as committing, commanding, and/or condoning violence. Often these are acts of unspeakable violence where whole groups of men, women, children, and even “every living thing,” are massacred or taken captive and treated as property of the victors. The image of the Warrior God as Judge who will send the unrepentant and unbelieving to an eternity of torment (e.g., Revelation 21:8, etc.) is not at all compatible with “ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν” (“God is love,” 1 John 4:8, 16).

My next blog post will deal with the “disturbing divine behaviour”[5] as described in the biblical anthology.

[1] https://www.etsjets.org/files/documents/Chicago_Statement.pdf

[2] Atkinson, Kenneth. “The Error of Biblical Inerrancy: The Bible Doesn’t Exist,” in Misusing Scripture: What are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible?, Mark Elliott, Kenneth Atkinson, and Robert Rezetko (eds.), New York: Routledge, 2023, pp. 79–94.

[3] Grisanti, M.A. 2001. “Inspiration, Inerrancy, and the OT Canon: The Place of Textual Updating in an Inerrant View of Scripture.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44:577–584.

[4] For lists of the contents of the oldest biblical codices, see McDonald, Lee Martin.  The Biblical Canon: In Origin, Transmission, and Authority. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. (Kindle edition), 442, 450–451.

[5] Taken from the title of Eric A. Seibert’s 2009 book, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press). This is a truly honest attempt to take on and explain how and why these texts are in our Bibles. It’s worth the read, for sure.

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