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. Robert

    this is the first time i see this reflected in an article, and it's great to see those exact words. "There is no Bible."

    ignorant religious haters, get a grip!!! there is no bible!!! there is a torah, there are other miscellaneous jewish writings, there are gospels, there are epistles, and there's john of patmos' apocalypse, and all of them were written by MEN and bound together by MEN. they may contain wisdom and be inspired by God. that doesn't change the fact that they were compiled (and don't forget, translated an interpreted) by MEN.

    i truly believe that if humanity embraced the teachings of Jesus, life would on earth would be a paradise. but the so-called "christians" are the LAST ONES to understand the teachings of Jesus! They're stuck in their ignorant hatred, and wouldn't understand the concepts of Love your enemy, and Turn the other cheek, if they hit them in the face.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  2. disappointed

    What a poorly researched article. Where are the sources? Whose expertise does he use? Seems to me like Beal is drawing upon thin air for his many broad sweeping statements. Shocking, for such a scholar.

    November 6, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  3. Anon

    Comparative religion can really make one an atheist.

    October 16, 2011 at 1:24 am |
  4. DB

    I think the author got the reaction he was looking for. And it justified his point. Atheism holds just as much credibility(If not more) than any religion out there, and religious fanatics aren't willing to discuss it without repeating empty statements and mentioning flames of hell.

    March 23, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • EricL

      He wasn't advocating Atheism as valid or Christianity as invalid; I'm not sure how you got that out of the article.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  5. JD

    I would rather live my life as if there is a God, then die and find out there isn't, than to live as if there is not a God, and then die and find out there IS. Scriptures have been preserved through the years for a purpose: to show us our need for God. As for me, I choose to believe!

    March 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • SeeTheMagnitudeOfDrivingBlind

      I, personally, feel that devoting my soul to someone/something should be weighed as something much greater than "because someone said so". Have you considered that you are selling yourself too cheaply when you don't even research the facts of what you have invested so greatly in? I will certainly not believe something that requires my soul in order to "be safe". If God cannot see the rightousness in that, then he is no God I want to have any type of eternal companionship with.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Anon

      No, you've been indoctrinated to think that you need to believe.

      October 16, 2011 at 1:29 am |
    • Simon

      "to show us our need for God"

      Yes. *Our* need. But that does NOT mean there actually is a god…

      November 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  6. Peace

    All your answers can be found in:

    "The BIBLE The QUR'AN and SCIENCE"
    by Maurice Bucaille

    March 22, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  7. Scientist&Atheist

    Fundamentally, Faith is nothing but an excuse for stupidity.

    March 22, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Hospital Chaplain

      That's a woefully inadequate statement. Have you been a part of a research study on this? Or is your position based on purely anecdotal evidence? You sound like the fundamentalists I know who believe that April 1st is the holiday for atheists. Where is your curiosity?

      March 23, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • seriously?

      and apparently your enlightened state is an excuse for arrogance and laziness.

      November 15, 2011 at 7:08 am |
  8. Islam

    Thats because we know that the Bible has been corrupted by us human beings and there is no original version left. The Quran tells us that for a fact. Whereas there is one one and always has been ONE version of the Quran, which is the eternal truth. Stop bible-hunting, start reading the Quran and find the truth!

    March 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • New

      Life just makes sense when you read the Quran. The Torah Bible and Quran are just our handbooks from our creator. Its very comforting to know that the Quran has been preserved since it was sent down from the Angel Gabriel.
      Religion is not corrupt, its human misinterpretors are.

      March 22, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • vince

      I'm not sure that's quite true. In the beginning when it was decided that the teachings of Mohammad should be written down, there were actually quite a few versions and it was causing lots of problems. I'm not sure who it was, maybe Mohammad slave that was the first to become a "Muslim", but someone orderd all the other copies/version to be burnt so they could all agree on just a single version. One has to wonder what was so different in the other versions?

      March 24, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  9. melissa

    its very sad that so many of you spend so much time & energy attempting to 'defraud' God, Jesus & the bible. Someday you'll have the oppurtunity to realize you were wrong. Are you trying to change the Christians' minds to are you trying to convince yourself that you're right? Either way, all us 'nut jobs' will be sad to see you spend your eternity in the flames.

    March 22, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Chris

      What a christian thing to say. I'm sure Jesus would be proud of you, you Pharisee.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • cykill

      Yup, the holy ones are always ready for murder. You don't believe their story your supposed to burn in hell forever. An ending that bible thumpers of course are ok with.

      March 23, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  10. thomas

    have any of you considered what the world would be like without religion?

    March 20, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Pam

      Yes, I think it would be a wonderful world. I see nothing about religion that isn't hypocritical and mean. Relgiion is the most tyranical, mean-spirited, means of oppression there is. People kill for their stupid religions. People beat up other people for not believing the fairy tale they believe in. If you believe that every act you do reflects on your relationship with the spiritual world and that other people are no more connected to God than you are, you would then take personal responsibility and not think that you are "forgiven" because some guy said you were. Religion is for the weak minded. Being a good person has NOTHING to do with religion.

      March 21, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • jota

      yes, it would be a world with one less reason for stupid people to point at others and say "different, must be enemy"... granted, far from being the only argument used for discrimination, but still a step in the right direction. so:yes indeed, great. when can we expect delivery? 😉

      March 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • vince

      I think the world would be worse off. Humanists seem to feel that without Relgion things would be better. I don't believe that's true. Greed would still run rampant. There would still be jealousy and violence - it just wouldn't be in the name of a religion. All the major religions try to emphasize the "good" over "evil" .. evil being that which you "know" is wrong (by whatever cultural definition you use) and do it anyway, usually for personal gain. Religion gets a bum rap.

      March 24, 2011 at 12:14 am |
    • Ty

      "..have any of you considered what the world would be like without religion?"

      Which one? Whose religion, David Koresh? The religion of the Zayan Indians? Heaven's Gate Cult Religion?


      July 3, 2011 at 12:46 am |
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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.