The Bible Isn’t What You Think It Is: An Introduction to Biblical Scholarship and Textual Criticism
Sometime last year I developed an interest in Old Testament studies, specifically the historicity of the events concerning Israel’s origins. Having attended a combination of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches throughout my life, some of the topics I came across were fairly new to me and not something that I ever remember being covered in Sunday School (at least not in any real depth).
My curiosity was mostly piqued by some difficulties I had run into trying to reconcile modern, mainstream Christianity with the characteristics of the god I’d grown up knowing and experiencing. While the Evangelical perspective is that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, I was interested in learning how the culture at the time the various books had been written might have influenced the scriptures as we know them today. Was there a human component that was causing these spiritual discrepancies in my mind, or was I just trying to force my views of what I think God should be on the Bible?
As it turns out, the culture in the Ancient Near East (the area of the world where most of the OT takes place) did have a significant impact on the way the Bible was written. While I won’t get into any of the hard evidence and research I’ve found in this introductory article, historians and academics have uncovered a ton of information about the Bible, its authors, and cultural influences at the time that have completely transformed the way I view it today. This article is an introduction to an effort to share some of that with you.
Modern Christianity has a crippling tendency to take a single stance on an issue, refuse to deviate from it, and label anyone who believes otherwise as a heretic. I have no doubt that some of the people reading this content will have similar feelings — and I understand that. I still struggle immensely and spend many sleepless nights wrestling with the information I’ve found. My challenge and advice is that you lean on your faith, prayer, discernment, and convictions as you reconsider how learning more about the history, culture, and background of the Bible might transform your faith.
Let’s Get Some Things Out of the Way
Before we go any further, I think it’s a good idea to stop here and establish a few things. First and foremost, I consider myself a Christian. I believe that Jesus was God in the form of a real, living human being who came down to earth, died for us, and rose again so that we might not have to experience the penalty of sin if we choose to follow him.
Second, as Christians (or non-Christians), it’s okay for us to disagree on the finer details of the Bible and what it means for Christianity. Our faith doesn’t rely on Moses ever having been a real person or the Psalms having been written by David to be real or true. You may not and won’t always come to the same conclusions I’ve come to. And in a way, that’s expected — scholars, historians, and theologians don’t even always see eye-to-eye on some of these topics. I also suspect that if you bring some of these topics up with the members of your own church or small group, you’ll find you’re a lot more divided than you thought.
The Bible challenges us to approach everything in life with a level of discernment. That includes our own faith. But at the end of the day, a personal belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection and the love he’s called us to bring to the world is the only thing that matters. As I document my own personal interpretation and challenges on this journey I’ve taken, all that matters is that I can bring everything back around to that critical belief.
What is textual criticism?
Textual criticism, simply put, is the study of the Bible and how time, history, and human emotion have impacted and influenced the transcriptions of the Bible we have today. The various books were written, compiled, and translated over a period of more than 1,500 years by hundreds of people and organizations. As arguably the most influential book on the planet, many historians and theologians have dedicated their life’s work to uncovering the real meaning and intended messages documented by the Bible’s various authors.
Textual criticism also addresses some of the continuity issues in the Bible. Whether you believe they exist or are meaningful in any way, there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible, and historians have been able to glean a lot about the authors and their cultures from just these (sometimes minor) differences.
If you don’t believe me (or any of the historians and theologians I’ll be referencing), consider the following:
- In Genesis 1, we learn that God creates plants and vegetation as well as animals before man, but are told in Genesis 2 that man is created from the dust of the ground before any plants or vegetation have grown or before any animals have been created
- The Old Testament is adamant about the existence of only one true god, yet in 2 Kings 3:27 we read about an enemy king who sacrifices his firstborn son to his own god (not Yahweh) to successfully invoke a wrath upon the Israelites that prompts them to retreat from battle
- Ceremonial law in Exodus 12:9 forbids the Israelites from eating lamb that has been boiled, while Deuteronomy 16:7, when describing the same law, states the lamb is only to be boiled (your translation may say ‘cooked’ as an attempt to correct this, but the original Hebrew text is most certainly ‘boiled’)
You may or may not find these inconsistencies to be important, but they’re evidence that the translation of the Bible we have today is not flawless. Often searching for the reasons these flaws exist can help us understand the greater or lost meaning behind a passage.
Before I move on, it’s worth noting that not all inconsistencies are meaningful. Humans are not perfect and it’s not unrealistic to assume that minor errors were made as the Bible was transcribed into its various forms and languages (even Martin Luther recognized this¹). Discernment and external evidence can help determine when we’re splitting hairs versus something happening beyond the text that influences the meaning or interpretation of a passage.
Yes, it’s possible that you might be wrong about at least one belief you have from the Bible
How can I be so confident? Because the way Christians interpret the Bible has been evolving since it was written.
For instance, it wasn’t too long ago that Christians were using Ephesians 5:7 to condone the use of slavery:
Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.
Or this passage from Psalms 93, that along with many others, led Christians to believe the earth was the literal, unmovable center of the universe, which we know today isn’t true:
The LORD reigneth, he is clothed with majesty; the LORD is clothed with strength, wherewith he hath girded himself: the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.
I’m not certain that we have any misinterpretations as significant as these, but I’d also guess the Christians living during those times likely thought the same thing.
How did this happen?
Many of the errors, mistranslations, and inconsistencies I’ve explored are not a result of someone going back after the fact and altering a passage or word (although that does happen), but a result of when and how the Bible was written.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s very likely that it wasn’t written in chronological order starting with the origins of mankind in Genesis. There’s a lot of debate as to when various books were written, but scholars have a general idea — and it points back to arguably the most significant point in Israel’s history: their captivity in Babylon around ~600 BCE.
Without digging too much into the details (yet), modern biblical scholarship postulates that much of Israel’s history hadn’t been well-documented up until their captivity. The time spent as captives prompted a response from the people to begin documenting their history and origins as a sort of rallying cry to unify the nation during the difficult time. It was also a time to reflect on their own culture and document it as they were being forced to assimilate with Babylon’s culture at the time. As a result, scholars see a lot of cultural influences relevant at the time of captivity injected into other parts of the Old Testament that wouldn’t make sense to be there if they had been written during the time the events had actually happened.
I won’t dive into these details just yet, but it’s important to understand that many of the Old Testament’s passages were written by a weary, discouraged, defeated Israel trying to reclaim what was rightfully theirs and prove to the world that their god was bigger, tougher, and more powerful than anyone else’s.
Note that at the time of captivity, Israel had also been split into two different kingdoms for some time. We’ll see later that this split will also have a large influence on much of the Old Testament and how the people in it are portrayed.
How can we tell?
I touched on it briefly in the section above, but the obvious evidence for these claims comes from a linguistic analysis of the Bible. Language transforms over time, often influenced by political and cultural activities at the time, and an understanding of Ancient Near East history has allowed scholars to better hypothesize when certain books were written.
A good analogy would be to dig back into your e-mail archives and find an e-mail you had sent to someone sometime during the 1990’s and compare it with a recent e-mail you’ve exchanged with someone. If you removed the dates and asked someone to tell you when each was written, it would probably be pretty telling to them based on the language you used as well as any cultural references you might have mentioned. For instance, you might have used words like “ cool” and “ rad” or referenced Surge in your e-mail from the 1990’s, while using words like “ yeet” or “ totes “ and referencing TikTok in your e-mail from today.
Now take this concept and apply it to the books in the Bible that were written and compiled over a period of ~1,500 years and it shouldn’t be a stretch to assume that historians and linguists can easily pinpoint when a particular passage was written simply from the language being used.
Additionally, scholars have a fair amount of archaeological evidence (or lack thereof) to help them understand what was happening at a given point in time that can often be compared to the Bible to verify its accuracy.
A good example of this is Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Not only is the Bible vague about details that would identify the time period it took place during (no Pharaohs are mentioned by name), but scholars haven’t found any evidence outside of Israel’s own records verifying the accuracy of a ~1–2 million-person exodus from Egpyt². It might not be suspicious to assume that Egypt wouldn’t have documented this in fear of making themselves look bad, but certainly a neighboring nation would have noticed and mentioned something in their historical records? Especially when the numbers claimed to have taken part in the exodus rivaled the entire population of Egypt at the time³.
The absence of proof is not proof of absence
As scholars study these things, it’s important to note that not having strong evidence for something doesn’t necessary make it untrue. History is full of claims that we’ll never be able to confirm or deny with complete certainty because the proof was either destroyed or lost to time.
That doesn’t mean we can’t speculate or try to come to logical conclusions with the evidence we do have. After all, that’s what science is all about — making inferences based on data we do have, observing those inferences to determine if they’re accurate or not, and adjusting models based on updated information. History can be treated the same way.
The conclusions I’ll share with each passage I cover in subsequent articles will be a result of what I find convincing given the evidence scholars have collected combined with the convictions I have through my own personal beliefs. You’re free to come to different conclusions, and I encourage you to do your own research to ensure you’re comfortable with the decisions you’ve come to (I did mention I’m not an expert, right?).
What does all of this mean for the reliability of the Bible?
Coming to the conclusion that the Bible isn’t the perfect, absolute book you were taught it was growing up can be jarring. However, believing it isn’t historically reliable doesn’t invalidate its role in the Christian faith.
I believe this because many scholars have come to the conclusion that the Bible was intentionally written the way it is. When historians study other cultures living in the Ancient Near East, they often find exaggerated works or fables crafted by a society as a way of trying to explain why things are the way they are (also known as ‘etiology’). In our case, much of the Old Testament was retroactively written by the Israelites during their captivity and after to explain who their god was and why their actions ultimately led them to be taken as captives from their promised land.
Going back to an earlier example, it’s okay that Genesis 1 and 2 don’t align with each other. Modern scholars believe Genesis was simply authored by multiple people. It’s very likely that neither of the authors of the first two chapters intended for their passage to be interpreted literally, and the people who compiled and translated those passages over time clearly didn’t mind it either, or they wouldn’t have included it without first fixing the contradictions (which is something we see a lot of in the Bible). Instead, we have the author of the first chapter conveying the ultimate power and authority of God over creation while emphasizing the importance of the sabbath, and in Genesis 2 we find another author who wants to convey the importance of close, personal relationships with God and his desire to be intimate with every minute detail of creation.
What does all of this mean for us?
The only real conclusion I’ve come to since I’ve started this journey is that maybe we’ve elevated the Bible and its importance to our faith to a higher status than it was intended to have. I’m not saying the Bible is wrong — I still believe it’s a God-inspired book that can teach us about God and his character. It doesn’t always need to be historically accurate to do that.
I’ve spoken with a lot of people about the Bible and what it means to the Christian faith, and I find too many people rely on it to validate their faith. While it is a great tool, my faith has come through a personal experience with Jesus Christ and the evidence of his love that’s all around us.
I stumbled on a great quote on reddit earlier this year that I’ve come back to numerous times as I’ve explored these topics:
My studies into Ancient Israelite religion and it’s offshoots have changed how I interpret the Bible. It’s changed what I believe happened historically. But it’s confirmed over and over again to me that there is an undercurrent in history of a God who loves humanity and wants humanity to love each other and serve each other in that love.
The evidence for God outside of the Bible is overwhelming and is what gives me the comfort and motivation to continue studying these topics with unwavering faith. I pray for the same for you.
¹Graham Stanton, Gospel Truth? New Light on Jesus and the Gospels (HarperCollins, 1995) p. 8.
²Dozeman, Thomas B.; Shectman, Sarah (2016). “Exodus”. In Yee, Gale A.; Page, Hugh R. Jr.; Coomber, Matthew J. M. (eds.). The Pentateuch: Fortress Commentary on the Bible Study Edition. Fortress Press. pp. 137–178.
³Humphreys, Colin J. (1998). The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding Mathematically the Very Large Numbers in Numbers I and XXVI.