Have you ever tried to read the Bible cover to cover? Even among Christians, a minority make it all the way through.
According to the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling organization, the average American household contains 4.4 Bibles, but 57 percent of people say they read from it less than five times a year. Even those who read more often tend to return to brief passages that they find inspiring while skipping the troublesome parts. The book may be the world’s best seller, as some folks like to crow, but most copies collect dust—and for good reason. The Bible is a hard slog.
God-Breathed? Not By the Look of Things
Millions of Evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible in its entirety was dictated by God, who channeled his message through the minds and voices of human men. Each phrase is considered so perfect that it merits careful linguistic analysis to determine his precise meaning. In support of this approach, Evangelicals quote the Bible itself. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NIV).
If, indeed, all scripture were God-breathed, 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. (The idea of a “red letter Bible” takes on a whole new meaning when you look at it through this lens.)
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.
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 piece of the answer is that neither the Bible nor any derivative work such as the Qur’an 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.
Many Christians and Jews recognize this.
Among themselves, Christians and Jews differ widely in how they think of the Bible. Adherents may hold what is called a high or a low view of scripture or something in between. At the high end are biblical literalists who think that their book of scripture, in its entirety, is a timeless and perfect message from heaven. At the low end are modernist believers, who see the Bible as a collection of human documents, but nonetheless a precious record of humanity’s struggle to understand what is real and good. In between these two lie those who think their version of the Bible, among all the world’s holy books, is uniquely inspired and inspiring.
All of these cherish the Bible’s familiar phrases—selectively—as part of their worship routines.
Unparalleled Literature, Then?
People who hold varying (even conflicting) views of the Bible as scripture generally unite around a derivative view—that the Bible represents one of humanity’s greatest literary achievements. Without a doubt, the Authorized King James Version, completed in 1611, shaped the cadence and contents of English literature for the generations that followed.
Angelou (a devoted Christian) wrote with a Bible on her desk for both spiritual and artistic inspiration. “I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about,” she told the Paris Review. She also called the Bible musical. “I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.”
Angelou is not alone in appreciating the Bible’s poetic passages. “As the one work that has held moral and religious sway over the Judeo-Christian tradition for thousands of years, the Bible is unsurpassed in world literature,” proclaims one publisher.
This view has been unassailable for centuries, even as belief in the Bible as holy scripture has dwindled. What do we do with the Bible if we don’t revere it as God’s word? We revere it as writing.
For those who have left religion behind, emphatically endorsing the Bible as great literature softens the blow, as does the claim that Jesus was a great moral teacher. In societies that remain predominantly Christian, these stances are conciliatory. They act as peace offerings between neighbors, a way for adherents and others to find common ground.
But how much of what the Bible contains is actually great writing?
Critics point out that New Testament stories written in Greek are harsh and utilitarian when compared to the great Greek classics, and many Christian biblical scholars acknowledge this without flinching. This is in part because the New Testament writers did not use the same language as those epics, plays, and poems, which were written in Classical Greek. New Testament writers, by contrast used Koine Greek. “Koine,” says Princeton Theological Seminary graduate Ken Jacobsen, is “pidgin Greek … developed by Alexander’s armies to communicate, not to impress. It’s a step down from Classical Greek.”
Lay New Testament scholar Tim Widowfield clarifies that Koine isn’t precisely a pidgin—since pidgins are contact languages with no native speakers—but rather a lingua franca, a trade language used much as English is used today by both native and non-native speakers. “Koine Greek is simplified Attic Greek, where a great deal of case collapse, pronunciation collapse, smoothing, etc. has occurred, which makes it easier for foreign speakers to learn.”
Matt Anslow, whose PhD focused on Matthew’s Gospel, elaborates:
Anyone who knows even a cursory amount of Ancient Greek is aware that numerous New Testament texts are written in a basic or even bad form of that language. It’s unclear to me why it should be shocking to anyone but biblical literalists that some of the biblical authors—for whom Greek might have been a third or fourth language—would produce sloppy prose.
The book of Mark is widely considered by fans and critics alike to be the roughest of all the gospels, so much so that Hippolytus of Rome, in the third century, called the writer of Mark “stump fingered.” The other synoptic gospels, those thought to be based on Mark or a shared source, are more polished. That said, some folks who prefer the rough less-educated writing in Mark describe Matthew and Luke as “writing by committee.”
Orthodox theologian, scholar, and polemicist David Bentley Hart 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.” Consider the first line in his translation: “A revelation from Jesus the Anointed, which God gave him, to show his slaves what things must occur extremely soon.”
James Parker, while reviewing Hart’s book for The Atlantic, accepts the veracity of the gospel stories and defends the poor writing as a mark of authenticity: “The New Testament [is] a grab bag of reportage, rumor, folk memory, and on-the-hoof mysticism produced by regular people, everyday babblers and clunkers, under the pressure of a supremely irregular event—namely, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Even Parker calls that first line of Revelation “aggressively maladroit.”
“The reason for the roughness of Mark’s gospel and for the dumpster fire of John’s Revelation,” says Widowfield, “is not an intrinsic problem with Koine Greek, but with the abilities of those writers, for whom Greek may have been a second (or even a third) language.”
In response to an earlier version of this article, British historian Mike Stuchbery took to Twitter. “This doesn’t mean [the Bible is] inherently bad, or lacking in value—the Bible has some of the finest prose in any language, across its multiple iterations. It’s just a wreck, structurally and tonally.”
But the problems aren’t just structural and tonal; they are substantive. The Bible has been the subject of thousands of follow-on books by people who were genuinely trying to figure out what it all means. Despite best efforts, their conclusions don’t converge, which is one reason Christianity has fragmented into over 40,000 denominations and non-denominations.
Beyond the qualities of the prose itself, why is the Bible such a mixed bag? Here are a few additional reasons for this tangled web of disagreements and the dismaying quality of much biblical writing by modern standards.
Too Many Cooks
Far from being a single unified whole, the Bible is a collection of texts or text fragments from many authors with varying objectives. 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.
Most 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.
The New Testament borrows heavily from the Old. Some argue that the Gospel stories about Jesus contain little but a recombination of Old Testament passages, archetypes, and tropes, making it hard to glimpse any historical man who may be hiding in the myths. “The bulk of the Passion Narrative was stitched together out of dozens of allusions to the Jewish Scriptures, and much else in the Gospels is based on passages from the Psalms, the Prophets, and the tales of Moses, David, Elijah and Elisha,” says Neil Godfrey, who founded a hub for lay secular Bible scholarship.
Bible writers, in both Old Testament and New, 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.
Histories, Poetries, None-of-These
True believers 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, mysticism, propaganda, gospels (yes, this would become a popular genre during Christianity’s infancy), and coded political commentary, 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, turning a speech into a poem or vice versa, shifting context, or subtly tweaking someone else’s words. 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, making it their Old Testament. They also translated texts from early Jesus-worshipers and convened committees to determine what should make it into their canon of scripture. These became the New Testament.
Sometimes New Testament writers themselves relied on translations of Old Testament scriptures that changed their original meaning. Dubious translations bolstered 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, one publisher retranslated a troublesome Bible verse that treated the death of a fetus differently from the death of a person. The meaning of the passage shifted from indirect support for abortion to indirect opposition.
Translators and copyists typically had good intentions, says New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. Changes they introduced, now seen as “corruptions” of earlier texts, often were well-meant attempts to clarify an awkward or confusing text by making it say what they thought it should. Jacobsen notes that this polishing process included aesthetic improvements. The King James Version, he says, “was consciously composed in what was—even then, ‘old fashioned’ English in order to add a sense of dignity to it.”
But even when translators 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, teenage perceptions aside, doesn’t come close to translating across 2,000 years of history.
Forgery and Counter-Forgery
Bart Ehrman has written two books about forgery in the New Testament, texts written under the names of famous men to make the writings more credible. This includes the epistle 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 likely make false authorship claims or were assigned famous names after the fact. The early Catholic councils that finalized what did and didn’t get into the Bible relied in part on these authorship claims.
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 when the writing styles clash or they espouse contradictory attitudes and make contradictory truth claims.
It’s Not about You
Evidence suggests that the Gospel According to Matthew (likely not authored by Matthew) was written for an audience of Jews. The author was a recruiter for the ancient equivalent of Jews for Jesus, and 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, and the author, in keeping with his goals and audience, timed the events differently. This is just one of many explicit contradictions between the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Author Clark W. Owens says that even in aggregate, the gospel stories had a purpose that was specific to the cultural context of the writers. They were written in response to “the Roman oppression of the Jewish culture and the eventual obliteration of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. which is transparently alluded to in the gospels.” Per Owens, “Jesus is a midrashic creation by a culture under siege, meant to embody and idealize that culture, and to stand for the holy and immortal one who triumphs in and through his own persecution and death.” United Methodist minister Rich Lang describes the Book of Revelation as coded political commentary about the same situation.
In sum, many contradictions and peculiarities in the Gospels and 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. Our yearning for a set of clean answers to life’s messy questions has created a mess.
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 … .
A modern person reading the Bible might 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 filled with other concerns. In their world, who begat whom mattered(!) while challenging prevailing Iron Age views of illness or women and children or slaves was simply inconceivable.
The Pig Collection
My friend Sandra had a collection of decorative pigs that started out small. As family and friends learned about it, though, the collection grew to the point that it began taking over the house. Birthdays, Christmases, vacations, thrift stores … when people saw a pig, they thought of Sandra. Some of the pigs were delightful—lovely and well crafted—some, 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, quality, 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.
If we were to treat the Bible as merely an anthology of Iron Age texts, the variable quality and internal contradictions would be no issue. If, however, we are to treat it as an apogee of spiritual guidance or world literature—either one—a good culling might do a lot to improve things. Imagine a version of the Bible containing only that which has enduring beauty, wisdom, or usefulness.
Unfortunately, the collection in the Bible has been bound together for so long that Christian authorities (with some noteworthy exceptions) don’t trust themselves to unbind it. Maybe the thought of deciding what goes and stays feels overwhelming or even spiritually dangerous.
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 and our society to the worldview and very human imperfections of our Iron Age ancestors.