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My Take: There’s no such thing as the Bible and never has been
February 22nd, 2011
06:00 AM ET

My Take: There’s no such thing as the Bible and never has been

Editors note: Timothy Beal is the author of "The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book." He is a Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University.

By Timothy Beal, Special to CNN

When things get messy, when the ground drops out from under us, we conjure myths of pristine and happy origins.

Unemployed, we might find ourselves longing for that former job as though it had been ideal, a time of complete self-fulfillment, forgetting how we dragged ourselves there some mornings, hoping for something better to come up.

In the middle of an ugly divorce, we might find ourselves longing for the early years of the relationship as though that had been our time in Eden, forgetting the stresses of money, unreliable used cars, in-laws and learning to live together.

These Edenic myths are illusions whose power lies not in their real presence but in their expression of what we really, really wish were true. But they also have the power to remove us from full, mindful living in the present, which is messy, unstable and insecure.

And that’s the stuff that opens us up to others, making us vulnerable to the real-life risks of relationship.

So too with the life of faith. We may long for an original, solid rock, a foundation that will not falter in the storm. For many, that rock is the Bible. But that, too, is an illusion.

Ronald Reagan once said that if he were shipwrecked on a desert island and could have only one book to read for the rest of his life, it would be the Bible.

I wish someone would’ve asked, which one? Which version? Protestant? Jewish? Catholic? Orthodox? Syriac? Each has a different table of contents.

The Jewish one obviously doesn’t include the New Testament, but it also has a different order, beginning with the Torah, considered the core of scriptures, then the Nevi’im, or “prophets,” then the Ketuvim, or “writings.”

The Catholic Bible includes all of the Protestant Bible plus seven additional books, known as the Apocrypha, as well as significantly different versions of and additions to the books of Esther and Daniel.

Different Orthodox Bibles (Greek, Ethiopian, Slavonic, etc.) include those plus other apocryphal books as well as a collection of poems known as the Book of Odes. So does the traditional Syriac Bible, but it does not include Revelation and four other New Testament books found in other canons.

And which translation would he bring? There are dozens available, and they vary widely in both style and theology. Many of the most popular ones today are highly interpretive “meaning-driven” versions in which translators don’t translate word-for-word but instead write what they believe conveys the equivalent meaning of larger blocks of text.

So “my cup runneth over” might become “you blow me away.” Or a passage buried in Leviticus that prohibits a man from lying with another man as though with a woman (other no-no’s in this list include adultery, sex with a woman on her period, and marrying a divorcee or a brother’s widow) becomes a universal ban on homosexuality. Put two translations side-by-side, and you may find yourself hard pressed to know if they’re even translating the same passage.

And which edition would he bring? A good old-fashioned floppy black leather one? Or a niche-market edition like "The Golfer’s Bible," loaded with full-color pictures and “inspirational messages teed up to reach the golfer’s heart.”

Then again, depending on the terrain and climate of his island, "The Waterproof Bible: Sportsman’s Edition" might be a more practical choice. How about one of the many Manga Bibles on the market? Or a Biblezine, a Bible in magazine form filled with jump-off-the-page callouts and graphic features on balancing work and play, shopping, healthy eating, and finding love? Or one of the thousands of study Bibles loaded with notes and commentaries telling you what it means according this or that (usually conservative) viewpoint?

These various Bibles are not only different in physical form, but their value-adding content is also values-adding, steering readers toward theological, moral, and political views.

You get the point.

There is no “the Bible,” no book that is the one and only Bible. There are lots and lots of Bibles. They come in many different physical and digital forms with a great variety of content – different canons, translations, notes, commentaries, pictures, and so on.

Don’t believe me? Next time you’re in a big box bookstore, check out its huge Bible section, or just type “Bible” in the search box of an online store, and prepare to be overwhelmed. The Bible business sells more than 6,000 different products for over $800 million a year – all sold as “the Bible.” It’s a flood of biblical proportions.

“Hold up!” some will say. “Stop the madness! We’ve got to save the Bible! We’ve got to get back its original, pure, unadulterated Word, before there’s no turning back the tide.” An understandable response to this alarming scene of biblical liquidation.

In my new book, "The Rise and Fall of the Bible," I say, OK, let’s try that. What we discover is even more surprising than all the diversity of Bibles on the market today. Here’s the thing: Not only is there no such thing as the Bible now; there never has been.

There is no pure original, no Adam from which all Bibles have descended. During the time of Jesus, there were many different versions of Scriptures in circulation, and no central publishing house or religious authority to standardize the process.

Same with the early Christian movement. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 4th century that there was even an official canon of Christian Scriptures. Even then, moreover, there were lots of unofficial varieties. The “story of the Book” is a fascinating one, with many surprising turns, but the upshot is that the further we go back in history, the more biblical variety we discover. “That old time religion” is an illusion.

For many of us, it’s more than a little disconcerting to realize that there’s no pristine original Bible to recover, that it’s messy and plural all the way back to the beginning. But is it not also a very familiar feeling?

Trying to save the Bible by recovering the Adam of all Bibles is as futile as trying to save the marriage by recovering the Eden of married life. There’s no such thing, so there’s no going back. Our desire for a pure, unadulterated, original Bible, “in the beginning,” is an illusion that shields and distracts us from the real, unstable, often terrifyingly ambiguous relationship with another that is the life of faith.

Life is crazy uncertain, so it’s understandable that many of us want religion and especially the Bible to offer deliverance from it. But it doesn’t. It’s not a rock but a river, not a book of answers but a library of questions. When we take it seriously, and soberly, it calls us deeper into the wilderness – away from the sunny shoreline of the island and toward the uncharted interior.

That wilderness, like the ones in which the Israelites wandered and Jesus was tested, can be a place of danger and disorientation, but also of renewal and reawakening.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Beal.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Catholic Church • Christianity • Judaism • Opinion

soundoff (1,016 Responses)
  1. Jeff

    The problem with any scripture is interpretation, and whether you're a reader or a linguist working on a translation, you're fallible because you're human and you bring with you all of your unique life experiences that color how you view the world. WHAT WE REALLY NEED IS FOR GOD TO GIVE US A PROPHET like He did for the people in Biblical times to help us understand scripture. WHY HAS HE TREATED US DIFFERENTLY THAN THOSE PEOPLE in this regard? The simple answer is that He hasn't. He HAS called a modern-day prophet, and there is proof of his calling. Not proof that you'd see with your eyes, but know with your heart and mind.

    The Prophet's name is Joseph Smith and the proof of his calling as a prophet is called the Book of Mormon. Check it out at mormon.org/joseph-smith, google it, or ask your local Mormon neighbor for more info on how the calling of Joseph Smith to clarify and deliver God's message to His children is a reality that you can benefit from. I know that Joseph Smith was called as a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is a witness to that calling because I asked God and He responded in the affirmative. You can too.

    February 22, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • sockpuppet

      The book of Mormon directly conflicts with Revelations 22:18-19. And don't quote something out of the Book of Mormon to argue against that.

      February 22, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • Magic

      Jeff,

      "I know that Joseph Smith was called as a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is a witness to that calling because I asked God and He responded in the affirmative."

      Many, many, many other people have asked God that same question and got a negative response. Why is that?

      February 22, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Magic

      sockpuppet,

      "sockpuppet

      "The book of Mormon directly conflicts with Revelations 22:18-19. And don't quote something out of the Book of Mormon to argue against that."

      What makes you think that the Bible is the word of "God"? And don't quote something from the Bible to argue for it.

      February 22, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  2. forgiven

    Maybe one day he will get a version he can understand. They all say basically the same thing just printed for different people groups to understand. I really hope he isn't teaching students this crap.

    February 22, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Joe

      Think about it. As an example, the Christian church, and the word "church", was not invented before much of the new testament was written. Yet the new testament uses this word all over. How did this happen? Specific directions to ancient translators from "church" leaders to insert it in various ways. Why does it matter? There are many books written by modern "church" leaders telling Christians that if they love Christ, they must support their church, according to the bible (as translated). This is not just hypocrisy by modern "church" leaders, it is a direct contradiction of Jesus' own teaching regarding not putting temporal religious authority above God. As a Christian, I think this matters. Even though I am a student of the bible and see its authors as being inspired by God and it being a holy book, I believe we have to be careful to have faith in God, not in the bible.

      February 22, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
  3. Siege

    The Bible is the word of God because it says that it is.

    February 22, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  4. criticalthinking

    Check out codex sinaiticus, the oldest known bible on earth. It inconveniently fails to mention either the virgin birth nor the resurrection in its publication, but these "facts" were penciled into the margins over 400 years after its publication. The Myth is constantly morphing seeking some form of credibility. This simple fact causes a great deal of concern for me as to its validity.

    February 22, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  5. howabouthis

    God didn't make me, my mom and dad did. God did not raise me, my mom and dad did. God did not put me through college, I did. God did not give me my job, I did. God did not buy me my house, my car, pay my bills, etc. I did.

    February 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • vick

      But who gave you the breath to do all these things; If you Say, "I did" then who is telling your heart to beat? If you lose consciousness, who is telling your heart to continue beating and your lungs to continue breathing?

      February 22, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • AmazingSteve

      Your brain? You never took much anatomy, did you?

      February 22, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  6. Rahul

    The article and all the comments under it are good, sound reasons for becoming a Buddhist.

    February 22, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  7. The Bible is REAL

    What is the Bible? The book of life. What is life? God is life. What is the opposite of life? Death. What is death? Sin. Whats the meaning of life (God)? Why are we here? Who will you follow? Life is full of choices. Who will you follow? Our time here on earth, is about making that choice. Do we choose life or do we choose death? God gives all of us free will to choose our destiny. If you choose not to follow God, then you choose death. This folks, is the meaning of life. The Bible is a road map to life. And for all of you wondering about aliens...perhaps God is an alien. His righteousness is foreign to us. And yes folks, there is only one God and only one way to get to him and that is through Jesus. Who are we to question God? You think you're here by accident? The reason you're here is because God is weeding out those who are faithful to him and those who are not. So choose your path wisely. The narrow road that leads to life which few will take or the wide road that leads to destruction which many will take.

    February 22, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • someoneelse

      I have a magical tonic to sell you that will guarantee hair growth! 100 dollars per weekly treatment.

      February 22, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • LeeFromVA

      If I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don't know.

      February 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  8. LDReed

    I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
    Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

    February 22, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  9. Brian

    Thoughtless and uneducated article. Plenty of arrogance though. I'll give him that.

    February 22, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Kman

      How is this uneducated? You not being able to understand the article does not make it uneducated. Thoughtless implies random though carelssly put together with no strucutre. You sir, are an idiot. Go back to the kiddie pool.

      February 22, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • someoneswatching

      I agree! Completely laughable

      February 22, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • someoneswatching

      Correction I agree with Brian...

      February 22, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  10. someoneelse

    "When we take it seriously, and soberly, it calls us deeper into the wilderness " – so true, nothing takes you backwards into an uncivilised and remote place (of thinking) more than religion.

    February 22, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  11. Estevan

    You have a right to your opinion as do everyone else. But, as far as I'm concerned, I'd rather think rationally than accept myths and legend about a god who likely does not exist. You see, I believe in morals, having a conscious, treating people right, etc. It allows me to sleep well at night. That's a good thing about America – freedom of speech, opinions, etc.

    February 22, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Estevan

      This last post was in response to Laura's: "You have a right to your opinion as do everyone else. But, as far as I'm concerned, I'd rather believe that God and the Bible does exist than not. You see, I believe in morals, having a conscious, treating people right, etc. It allows me to sleep well at night. That's a good thing about America – freedom of speech, opinions, etc."

      You don't have to believe in a god or gods to believe in morals, having a conscience (not in a spiritual or religious way mind you), and treating people right.

      February 22, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Tim

      Absolutely. Let's all get past this "the people close to me (my community, church, ...) are good with problems. The people far from me (other countries, other faiths, atheists) are evil." Jesus says that he has sheep in other pastures; who are we to decide that only our pasture has "good", and all others are "evil". People need to stop thinking their faith needs to be enforced or evangelized because they are afraid of the "evil" everywhere else, and start realizing that God is big, can take care of Himself, and if they focus on Jesus, loving the people around them, and loving everybody else as Jesus has suggested, perhaps more people will voluntarily come to Jesus than can be dragged.

      February 22, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  12. Siyajkak

    A personal relationship with God is best anyway. I don't think God would ever trust the sole source of his wisdom to a book that could be burned, edited, or misinterpreted, especially since it was in a time when only a small portion of the population could read, and the masses would have to rely on a couple peoples interpretation of an edited, translated, sketchily amalgamated text. Prayer, meditation, and life experience are, short of verbal communication with God, the best way to shape one's faith.

    February 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  13. razor

    There is one Bible, the author is wrong. There are many incorrect versions of the Bible, which is what he is referring to, but there is one correct infallible Bible, There are slight variations of it ie The King James version etc, however the theology and message is identical throughout..there is plenty of archeoligical evidence, if you need proof, it has been meticulously translated from Greek and Hebrew into the modern Bible but words and message remain. there are, however, many excuses to deface the Bible and the written word of God, by above author(s)

    February 22, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • CW

      The Bible was written by man, and is thus fallible. To say otherwise is completely disingenuous.

      February 22, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Broken Hill

      The King James Version choose from different Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.

      There is no one "Hebrew" version of an OT book or one "Greek" version of a NT book. In fact, the KJV relied on a lot of late Byzantine manuscripts which were more modified than than early ones we had available today. So, the more modern translations have more of the older, more original material that the more modified material from the Byzantines.

      February 22, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  14. Jonathan

    i love the devil

    February 22, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  15. maxim1323

    i got a d in my biology class.... i hate school and learning

    February 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  16. Muneef

    Al-Baqara sura 03:
    trust in the bible... nothing else

    February 22, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Muneef

      Using my name to post some thing like that is very dishonest act and if you were a little religious you would have thought twitch before doing so and that might be the difference were morals play a role to shape personality as when there is no religion where would the morals come from???

      Scriptures;
      (Torah Moses/Zaboor David/Angeel Jesus/Quran Muhammed).
      History repeats it self. 

      Hud sura 11:
      In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
      Alif. Lam. Ra. (This is) a Scripture the revelations whereof are perfected and then expounded. (It cometh) from One Wise, Aware, (1) (Saying): Serve none but Allah. Lo! I am unto you from Him a warner and a bringer of good tidings. (2) And (bidding you): Ask pardon of your Lord and turn to Him repentant. He will cause you to enjoy a fair estate until a time appointed. He giveth His bounty unto every bountiful one. But if ye turn away, lo! (then) I fear for you the retribution of an awful Day. (3) Unto Allah is your return, and He is Able to do all things. (4) Lo! now they fold up their breasts that they may hide (their thoughts) from Him. At the very moment when they cover themselves with their clothing, Allah knoweth that which they keep hidden and that which they proclaim. Lo! He is Aware of what is in the breasts (of men). (5).

      Al-Maeda sura 05:  
      Lo! We did reveal the Torah, wherein is guidance and a light, by which the prophets who surrendered (unto Allah) judged the Jews, and the rabbis and the priests (judged) by such of Allah's Scripture as they were bidden to observe, and thereunto were they witnesses. So fear not mankind, but fear Me. And barter not My revelations for a little gain. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are disbelievers. (44).

      Al-Baqara sura 02:
      Verily We have revealed unto thee clear tokens, and only miscreants will disbelieve in them. (99) Is it ever so that when they make a covenant a party of them set it aside? The truth is, most of them believe not. (100) And when there cometh unto them a messenger from Allah, confirming that which they possess, a party of those who have received the Scripture fling the Scripture of Allah behind their backs as if they knew not, (101).

      February 22, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Muneef

      Correction: thought twice

      February 22, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Muneef

      How faceless act that was ?!!

      Ibrahim sura 14:
      In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
      Alif. Lam. Ra. (This is) a Scripture which We have revealed unto thee (Muhammad) that thereby thou mayst bring forth mankind from darkness unto light, by the permission of their Lord, unto the path of the Mighty, the Owner of Praise, (1) Allah, unto Whom belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth. and woe unto the disbelievers from an awful doom; (2) Those who love the life of the world more than the Hereafter, and debar (men) from the way of Allah and would have it crooked: such are far astray. (3) And We never sent a messenger save with the language of his folk, that he might make (the message) clear for them. Then Allah sendeth whom He will astray, and guideth whom He will. He is the Mighty, the Wise. (4).

      Al-Kahf sura 18:
      And recite that which hath been revealed unto thee of the Scripture of thy Lord. There is none who can change His words, and thou wilt find no refuge beside Him. (27) Restrain thyself along with those who cry unto their Lord at morn and evening, seeking His Countenance; and let not thine eyes overlook them, desiring the pomp of the life of the world; and obey not him whose heart We have made heedless of Our remembrance, who followeth his own lust and whose case hath been abandoned. (28).

      February 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Muneef

      After all agree with you we should have a book to live by...
      Luqman sura 31:
      See ye not how Allah hath made serviceable unto you whatsoever is in the skies and whatsoever is in the earth and hath loaded you with His favours both without and within? Yet of mankind is he who disputeth concerning Allah, without knowledge or guidance or a scripture giving light. (20) And if it be said unto them: Follow that which Allah hath revealed, they say: Nay, but we follow that wherein we found our fathers. What! Even though the devil were inviting them unto the doom of flame? (21).

      Al-Baqara sura 02:
      Even as We have sent unto you a messenger from among you, who reciteth unto you Our revelations and causeth you to grow, and teacheth you the Scripture and wisdom, and teacheth you that which ye knew not. (151) Therefore remember Me, I will remember you. Give thanks to Me, and reject not Me. (152).

      Sad sura 38:
      (This is) a Scripture that We have revealed unto thee, full of blessing, that they may ponder its revelations, and that men of understanding may reflect. (29).

      Al-Baqara sura 02:
      He giveth wisdom unto whom He will, and he unto whom wisdom is given, he truly hath received abundant good. But none remember except men of understanding. (269).

      Al-E-Imran sura 03: 
      Seek they other than the religion of Allah, when unto Him submitteth whosoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and unto Him they will be returned. (83) Say (O Muhammad): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and that which was vouchsafed unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered. (84) And whoso seeketh as religion other than the Surrender (to Allah) it will not be accepted from him, and he will be a loser in the Hereafter. (85).

      February 22, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  17. Jonathan

    The Truth: You are the type of person we need to protect our children from. May God direct you to find the intense help that you need. Save our children from the virus that is Christianity....we must protect our most vulnerable.

    February 22, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • BornAgain...

      Jonathan – you are only here for one reason, it's obvious because you don't have a clue what you are talking about... Quietly exit stage left please.

      February 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  18. maxim1323

    The bible: written by man, conjured up by man, to control others. That's all it is.

    February 22, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  19. Bob

    Clearly, there is such a thing as the Bible, and everyone pretty much knows what that the Bible refers to a well-known collection of ancient writings.

    The author, however, wants to deny the idolatrous position in which the Bible is held by many contemporary religious groups, particularly those influenced by evangelical viewpoints. And this is a valid point.

    February 22, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  20. Muneef

    Al-Baqara sura 02:
    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
    Verily We have revealed unto thee clear tokens, and only miscreants will disbelieve in them. (99) Is it ever so that when they make a covenant a party of them set it aside? The truth is, most of them believe not. (100) And when there cometh unto them a messenger from Allah, confirming that which they possess, a party of those who have received the Scripture fling the Scripture of Allah behind their backs as if they knew not, (101).

    February 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.