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. Justina

    Another idiotic Westerner trying to stop people from reading a Bible.

    February 22, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  2. Justina

    Answers: Versions don't matter though you need New Testament along with Old Testament, as long as you are willing to read it. Additional books don't touch major doctrines, though the exclusion of some canon books make you miss out valuable and important things. Translations are rich only in English language but various translations say exactly the same thing when you read with the surrounding context. Honest, wholesome reading makes you come to the exact same conclusion with the Evangelical Bible scholars. Never mind edition. Want an original Bible? Just get one in the bookstore and start reading instead of whining like Mr. Beal! And if you really care so much about the original Bible, you'd just read the one you have again and again. There's nothing you can do when you are not willing to read the Bible.

    February 22, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
  3. Justina

    The problem only occurs to the English monolinguals who have determined not to read any English Bible that's available. Mr. Timothy Beal is a typical of those who NEVER read through any of the Bible listed. How dishonest and unscholarly. Bashing Bibles makes good money nowadays. Stupid Westerners.

    February 22, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Billy

      I thought selling bibles made good money, that is why there are so many different kinds!!!! $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ Keep buying those bibles, makes those "Holy" guys happy. Why don't you let your children stay the night for story time, I am sure they old crusty guy would love that as well.

      February 22, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • Justina

      Billy, don't blaspheme against your Creator God. You are the one who need Bible stories. Selling Bibles making good money? Let it be!! So many of us died to get one because the Bible is better than anything life can offer! But the Bible we've got was given free by the most beautiful missionary.

      February 22, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  4. KeithTexas

    If you are surprised or offended by this mans story then it is for certain you are a Fundamentalist Christian. It is also obvious that you do not know much about the things you believe.

    Your book is not infallible. It was written by men and they weren't necessarily inspired by God. This is a test actually. If you are a person of faith all this could be true and you would still believe. If this shakes your faith, you need a new relationship with your higher power, God or what ever you call It, Her, or Him.

    February 22, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • NL

      I think most of them are used to living, or prefer to live in ignorance of such things as this, and it's easy to when they live is such close knit societies and depend solely upon approved sources for all their information on the subject. CNN does a real service by bringing the other side of things to their attention. Here's hoping that it will actually 'reach' a few people out there.

      February 22, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • AmazingSteve

      You could also turn to atheism. I've had pretty good luck with that one, so far.

      February 22, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  5. Seetheway

    "Life is crazy uncertain, so it’s understandable that many of us want religion and especially the Bible to offer deliverance from it." It is God who offers us the deliverance! The bible shows us what the consequences are, when we refuse to believe that God delivers us from the crazy uncertainties of this life on earth.

    February 22, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  6. ElaineB

    LOL!! Oh, Mr. Beal, most people know about the different translations and how the different Bibles came together! Did you think you would shock us all into atheism? Too funny. You just keep protesting your brains out if it makes you feel better.

    February 22, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  7. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc, Int'l Intst'r

    I would prefer to beleive there is no such thing as you being a professor of theology. theresa noelle younan

    February 22, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  8. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc, Int'l Intst'r

    You are just from the same cut of convoluted confuscion people. theresa noelle younan ymma-iii i-pic

    February 22, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
  9. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc, Int'l Intst'r

    Why did you beal yak so much like there isn't such a thing as a bible then you ended with glorification referral to quotes from it. theresa noelle younan ymma-iii i-pic

    February 22, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  10. Bruce_B

    I disagree with Mr. Beal's statement that "... many of us want religion and especially the Bible to offer deliverance ...." I am a Bible believing Christian and I do not want religion, I want to have a personal relationship with God. And I do not believe that the Bible offers deliverance, that's what Jesus does.
    As for the article as a whole, I disagree with it because the Bible is basically an instruction manual and as one's faith matures, one may seek different versions to suit that maturity level. If you want to know what is right for you, ask your Holy Father, He won't steer you wrong, just be sure to actually LISTEN for the answer.

    February 22, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • Lucy S.

      LISTEN carefully: it's your conscience.

      February 22, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Lucy : LISTEN carefully: A conscience can not be measured or touched but just like God many know and have faith that it is there. 🙂 Peace Kid

      February 22, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
    • NL

      Mark from Middle River-
      But the conscience can be affected by drug abuse and brain damage, like our personality that religious folks like to think of as the 'soul'. An addiction often overrides a person's conscience, and they will hurt others in ways that they never would have before, with less remorse. This suggests that both the conscience and the soul reside in some part of the physical brain, right? That they can be altered, damaged and even destroyed. We can see these effects so there is no need for faith.

      February 23, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • Maybe

      Yes, NL, and observing the personality and behavioral changes in people with brain injuries or degenerative brain diseases shows just how organically based this trait of 'conscience', or judgment, is.

      February 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • NL

      Would you believe that I've heard believers actually argue that brain damaged people's souls are actually restored when they get to heaven, and that infants, even embryos' souls are magically matured to a level where they too can worship God in heaven? Since some people also believe that they will be able to talk with their dead loved ones as well, can you imagine what kind of conversation you would have with a miscarried fetus? Oy!

      February 23, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  11. Tim Lawson

    Well Timothy. If you don't get it while your alive. It'll be explained to you after you die...unfortunately.

    February 22, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  12. chris

    a crutch? perhaps but most of you have never lived in abject poverty, had your brothers and sisters killed in war, or even your parents murdered by armed robbers. You dont understand and can never how much the idea of seeing a relative who died a terrible fate, and you being left here unable to do anything about it. You can only hope there is a hell for the criminals and a heaven for your wonderful family members that did not deserve such cruel fate. The human being yearns for justice for fairness, for equality, this is something unique to us, we might have been like the other sentient beings but we're not.

    February 22, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Lucy S.

      Jesus loves everyone equally and all He asks is that we 'love one another.' That includes criminals. Who are we to judge?

      February 22, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
  13. Neitschze, F

    I once was God's best buddy. I "believed" everything the "bible" told me. "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, ...." Then I noticed how undeserving individuals, i.e., politicians, the wealthy, business magnates, etc., were growing more powerful and wealthier while those who were playing by the rules and doing the right things simply because they were the right things, were, in effect, given the short end of the stick. (I'm being as civil as I possily can). I reached the conclusion that, if there IS a god, he/she is doing a really poor job if all the nonsense of a just, loving god is to be believed, which it simply is not – to be believed, that is.
    I believe that there had, in fact, been a god, a creator of the Universe, heaven, earth, the mountains, the sea, plants, animals and, his crowning glory, Man. (puke) I believe this god got things in motion creating the seasons, the ability of the species to become self-renewing, self-perpetuating so that a cycle of life could continue. Nothing special, just species practicing perpetuation of themselves. At that point, god stepped back. Some say died. I don't know which. Doesn't matter. The point is, god separated him/herself from having dealings with the everyday minutae of life in the Universe, at least the Universe we know. Who knows if he/she is simply watching from afar, or off creating a parallel Universe. After all, if you're god, you can do these things, no? What you experience in your day to day musings could be either random events, or, and I can square this with an absentee god, your living a pre-destined plan set forth by god before he/she left town. There's not that much difference between you bible thumpers and me except for one detail. You believe in a god that is involved in your everyday life. I believe in a god that made my existence possible, but who is not involved in MY everday life. If he/she were, the wrongdoers would be in hell where he/she sent them, and the righteous would be the recipient of his love, caring, kindness and sense of fairness. But hey, that's just me.

    February 22, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
    • Rebecca J

      You must not have read the Bible "best buddy", because what you are talking about is explained.

      February 22, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Lucy S.

      I agree totally. I once was a devout Catholic but am an agnostic now. What you as well as the article's author says, is true.
      No intelligent person could possibly believe the Bible, especially the Old Testament, as anything but myth.

      February 22, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • Tzigan Pax

      If things go right, then people thank "God," and praise him for helping them. If things go wrong, then how is this not God's doing as well? If God does exist, he's kind of a jerk.

      February 23, 2011 at 1:11 am |
  14. Robert Hagedorn

    It's messy and plural. But there is a beginning. Do a search: The First Scandal.

    February 22, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  15. Dan I Am

    Good article ! Worshiping the man-written bible is idolatry. Seek the Great I Am. Be a Christian Deist.

    February 22, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • AmazingSteve

      Or try just not believing in nonsense until someone gives you a real reason to. Your call, really.

      February 22, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  16. Justina

    Another Bible-illiterate writing on the Bible which he never comprehended.

    February 22, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • Ryan

      Agreed, did this guy read Dan Brown as he was walking through Barnes and Noble's bible section or does he know anything about Judaism or Christianity? The Holy Book (biblos) is a collection of writing inspired by God, not published by Gutenburg but rather was assembled by those who witnessed Christ in order that others might know the GOSPEL. If he wasn't so concerned about the copyright, he might just discover the reason it was canonized. The Jews didn't know about Christ, but feared and obeyed God and kept his scripture on their hearts. The Catholics and Protestants have a different reason for their canon. For the Jews it was written that they and their descendents may fear and love God. For the Christians the new testament was written that, "you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God." Disagree with my faith if you want, but seriously, this guy needs to take a more scholarly approach to his writing....

      February 22, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  17. Muggle1992

    Excellent article! I am currently taking a college course about the New Testament at a Christian College and I have been amazed at how the New Testament actually came to be. My professor even admitted that no one knows why the books that are in the traditional version of the New Testament were chosen. All of this, of course, doesn't take away from the religious, literary, and cultural impact of this great book.

    February 22, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • JPopNC

      If you're taking a Bible course at a Christian college and they can't explain how the books of the NT were chosen, then you need to find a new college.

      February 22, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  18. John grant

    Could any of you people who cling so tightly to the bible, and the rest of the 'god thing' please tell me why you need that sort of crutch? Is it because you need a road map telling you how to live? Is it because you are afraid to face it all by yourself? It seems to me that if you truly believed that some all powerful being created you in it's own 'image and likeness' you would be perfect just the way your creator is. I just do not understand the need for it all. Thanks

    February 22, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • Dan Harvey

      John, I think you miss the point. One does not believe the Bible because he "needs a crutch"; rather, one believes it because he is convinced it is true. To believe ANYTHING without examing its veracity just because it gives one guidanceor a sense of purpose is foolishness. Conversely, to not believe something that is demonstratably true because doing so would mean having to alter your life – and you rather like doing your own thing now and don't really see the need to change – islikewise foolishness. I believe the Bible and Christianity to be true because of the evidence for it, not simply because I want to believe it. I don't expect you to just take my word for it and there is not room here to present a full defense, but if you are interested in examining this subject further I would strongly recommend "Evidence That Demands a Verdict" by Josh McDowell.
      I would also challenge your beliefs: if you (presumeably) don't believe in a Creator, then do you have solid scientific evidence to explain the origin of life without one? Your answer will be something along the lines of "Well, scientists think that maybe...". You won't find anything different because nobody has yet been able to explain it. Evolutionists just presume it must have "somehow" happened and try to take it from there. So do you believe it because of the evidence or just because you want to?
      Finally, God made us in His image (and initially perfect) but he gave us free wills and the ability to choose to do wrong. Unfortunately, we all do. Fortunately, in Christ he provided a Savior.

      February 22, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
    • Whit

      So true. Do you have to have a book to believe in God? I've got some things I want you to believe... let me wright them down! I believe in God. No book necessary. And I believe Bible stories are valuable life lessons, but Bishops, Popes and other religious seem to think it's a good reason to argue. They can't even agree on what everything in it means. Someone once asked, "Without the Bilbe, how do you believe?" Are you kidding me? Bibles themselves aren't proof, for all the reasons listed abouve. I ask them, "How do you not?"

      February 22, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  19. A US phenomenon...

    "Next time you’re in a big box bookstore, check out its huge Bible section," the funny thing is, this applies to the US only. In Canada, you would be lucky to find half a shelf assigned to such babble. Maybe this shows that the population in Canada is more diverse, or maybe this shows how much of the US is influenced by fundamentalism and controlled by persons that exploit this for there own purposes.

    February 22, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • JPopNC

      Have you ever been to Canada? They're almost faithful than the US. There's even a famous Canadian who professes his Christian faith, Justin Bieber.

      February 22, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  20. Kendall

    Is it me..or was this whole thing just a nit pick piece?

    February 22, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • Gedwards

      It's not you.

      I'm still trying to find the point he's trying to make. It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or college professor) to know that there's no master Bible.

      February 22, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • markcu

      just a plug for a book....his book...but he might come out with a new edition at some point in the future, so therefore it must be worthless and cannot contain any valid points!

      February 22, 2011 at 9:32 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.