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. Neitschze, F

    To Rebecca J. Please enlighten me as to the whereabouts in the bible concerning what you say I was talking about. I'm neither looking to pick a fight nor do I, nor have I ever claimed, to be a student of the bible, whichever bible that may be, as you apparently are. Merely seeking enlightenment – please enlighten. You may remember me as "best buddy".

    February 23, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  2. Julie in Austin

    The problem with "There's no such as the Bible" is that the Bible-concept we have today is not the Bible-concept of the source. It reminds me of a comment by a former rabbi of mine in response to an antheist - "The G-d you don't believe in, I don't believe in either." The Bible that Mr. Beal believes in, I also don't believe in. And I don't just mean the parts about the divinity of Jesus, I also mean the way the texts are approached.

    Jewish texts have never been as rigidly interpreted as many Christians are taught they are. Nor are books such as Psalms intended to be treated as collection of hidden prophecies. The Jewish approach to studying and understanding our sacred texts bears little or no resemblance to the Christian approach.

    February 23, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  3. kira

    All the above seems to just verify that the BIBLE is the greatest Novel ever written

    February 23, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  4. Muneef

    Any one knows any thing about Al-Jinn?

    Al-Jinn sura 72:
    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
    Say (O Muhammad): It is revealed unto me that a company of the Jinn gave ear, and they said: Lo! we have heard a marvellous Qur'an, (1) Which guideth unto righteousness, so we believe in it and we ascribe unto our Lord no partner. (2) And (we believe) that He – exalted be the glory of our Lord! – hath taken neither wife nor son, (3) And that the foolish one among us used to speak concerning Allah an atrocious lie. (4) And lo! we had supposed that humankind and jinn would not speak a lie concerning Allah – (5) And indeed (O Muhammad) individuals of humankind used to invoke the protection of individuals of the jinn, so that they increased them in revolt (against Allah); (6) And indeed they supposed, even as ye suppose, that Allah would not raise anyone (from the dead) – (7) And (the Jinn who had listened to the Qur'an said): We had sought the heaven but had found it filled with strong warders and meteors. (8) And we used to sit on places (high) therein to listen. But he who listeneth now findeth a flame in wait for him; (9) And we know not whether harm is boded unto all who are in the earth, or whether their Lord intendeth guidance for them. (10) And among us there are righteous folk and among us there are far from that. We are sects having different rules. (11) And we know that we cannot escape from Allah in the earth, nor can we escape by flight. (12) And when we heard the guidance, we believed therein, and whoso believeth in his Lord, he feareth neither loss nor oppression. (13) And there are among us some who have surrendered (to Allah) and there are among us some who are unjust. And whoso hath surrendered to Allah, such have taken the right path purposefully. (14) And as for those who are unjust, they are firewood for hell. (15).

    February 23, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  5. Superchik1017


    February 23, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  6. Me

    Of course the Bible exists. It's a book written in 1611, and it was written by people (not God).

    February 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  7. Hersh

    And yet the bible (whichever one you pick) is complete and utter rubbish from start to finish.
    Who the hell cares about this or that translation when it's all a bunch of made-up BS in the first place?

    You religious nuts need to get your priorities straight. Truth is more important than a lie...and if you don't care about evaluating anything to discover what is a lie and what is not, then you don't deserve any say in how this world is run.

    February 23, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  8. CQ

    Just when you think it can't get worse!
    American Life League has uncovered damaging new information regarding the anti-Catholic activities of San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West.

    Specifically, the new information included in a prepared dossier released at 2pm Eastern today reveals the following highly concerning details:

    Catholic Healthcare West granted money to the San Francisco Health Plan, a health care program that provided funding for abortion to children as young as 12.

    Must have really covered this one up, from December of last year

    February 23, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  9. kirk

    way to go sara yes yes

    old testament hebrew
    new testament greek
    outstanding point

    February 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  10. Horace Browning

    The King James Bible, any edition, is (not was) the perfect, infallible,infinite word of God. Psalms 12:6,7 KJV1611A.V.

    February 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Ross

      The KJV is perhaps one of the most flawed translations of the Bible having been translated from inferior texts. Much higher quality extant texts have been found since that time.

      February 23, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @Horace and Ross

      It seems you two have just proved the authour's point.

      The bible – a book (bad fiction, in my opinion, of course) that says believe me cause I say beleive me cause I say believe me..., which always reminds me of the scene in "The Wizards of Oz" where the wizard (the machine) says "Ignore the man behind the curtain!"

      February 23, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • geraldh

      So God waited until 1611 to give the people a perfect version. KJO is silly. Language translations are by their nature incomplete and you reject Catholic infallibility doctrines, what makes you think that the translators who came up with the KJV were infallible in their translation. You contradict your own objections.

      February 24, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • HotAirAce

      I just love it when christians cannot agree on the one true faith. While christians and other believers argue about how many imaginary beings can dance on the head of pin, the rest of will be getting on with reality.

      February 26, 2011 at 1:27 am |
  11. kirk


    you have no standing ill shred you like meat i can do this alll day i have TONS OF PROOF
    BRING IT IM WAITING ill post 3 to 1 or more on founding fathers and the bible
    and folks will see how fooolish you are

    February 23, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Daryn

      You haven't presented any proof whatsoever. You have presented tired old stuff that children can disprove, but you haven't done anything other than mumble your misguided imaginary quotes. You prove nothing and say, let me make sure I have it correctly, that you'll "shred people like meat". Shred them with what? The nonsense you failed to research? You don't have the intellectual prowess to shred newspaper.

      February 23, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  12. kirk

    The Bible is worth all the other books which have ever been printed.”
    Patrick Henry quote

    February 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Daryn

      Your imaginary quotes are amusing, but you cannot possible expect someone to take you seriously when you trot out thoroughly disproven nonsense.

      February 23, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  13. kirk

    “It can not be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!”
    Patrick Henry quote

    February 23, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Daryn

      Nice try, but it's a swing and a miss!

      A famous "quotation" by Patrick Henry:
      The first apparent forgery that we ran across was a famous sentence allegedly written by Patrick Henry:

      "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!"

      An impressive statement. It certainly gives credence to the belief that the founders of America were all or predominately devout Christians. It is a popular quotation. A search for the phrase "this great nation was founded not by religionists" on http://www.google.com returned almost 1,000 hits! One common feature of most of the quotations is that they do not cite the source. We suspect that most webmasters have simply quoted the writings of other webmasters.

      It turns out that Patrick Henry probably never said this. At least, nobody has been able to locate it in any of his surviving papers. It is almost certainly a forgery.


      February 23, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  14. kirk

    It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.”
    George Washington quote

    February 23, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • leiLnoigileR

      That's a lie. Washington was not an overly religious man. Read some history

      February 23, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  15. kirk

    there is one lord one god to worship anythgn else is to worship demons

    should i listen to and idiot like you or the founding fathers
    no contest YOUR OUTTA HERE

    February 23, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • leiLnoigileR

      Try some basic grammar lessons before you go posting anything else. Your quotes are mostly fabrications and your English, quite frankly, sucks.

      February 23, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Michael

      Wow, it seems like the pot calling the kettle black for you to be calling someone an idiot. Is this the “do unto others” Christian message hard at work here?

      The founding fathers, what the?

      Please tell me you aren't one of those people who has bought into the whole he never told a lie and he chopped down a cherry tree propaganda stories that we feed our kids here...oh wait you are here to proclaim the bible is the end all. Nevermind.

      February 23, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • Tallulah13

      Many of the founding fathers were deists. Certainly Jefferson had no use for christians. You really should have some knowledge about those you wish to emulate.

      February 24, 2011 at 2:48 am |
  16. Sarah

    Mr. beal, if you have such a problem with all the translations why don't you just read it in the Greek or are you not able?

    February 23, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Ross

      Which one of the 5309 extant Greek versions?

      February 23, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  17. Mao

    Regarding various translations Mr. Beal asks:
    "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?"

    He asked a question in which he could have found the source of the meaning behind Reagan's statement but instead he turned it into an attack of ambiguity.
    If a person is having trouble with a translation, they can always go online and look up the Greek. Put effort into study.

    "You do not wish to know anything. You wish, only to speak. That which you know, you ignore, because it is inconvenient. That which you do not know, you invent. But none of that matters...except...that he was a good man, a kind man, who cared about the world, even when the world cared nothing for him." – Delenn

    February 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  18. Eric Flickinger

    The study of the origin of the book we call the Bible is nothing short of spectacular. Setting versions temporarily aside, consider this: The 66 books of the Bible were written on three continents, in three languages, by about 40 different people (kings, shepherds, scientists, attorneys, an army general, fishermen, priests and a physician), over a period of about 1,500 years, on the most controversial subjects, by men who (in most cases) had never met, by authors whose education and background varied greatly.

    Yet … though it seems totally inconceivable, the 66 books maintain harmony with each other. Other new concepts on a subject are expressed, but these concepts do onto undermine what the other Bible writers say on the same subject.

    Either this happened by chance or something else is going on.

    Are you looking for a good source of study material on the Bible? Check out http://www.BibleProphecyTruth.com. Great for believers and skeptics alike.

    February 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • NL

      That's like saying that it's totally amazing that all vampire books mention that the creatures like human blood.

      Then again, the character of God changes so dramatically from beginning to the end of the bible that it's hard to see how people can say it's the same one throughout.

      February 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Joker

      "though it seems totally inconceivable, the 66 books maintain harmony with each other"

      Keep telling yourself that. You might want to check out the Council of Nicea. Amazing how a story comes together when you cherry pick what is to be in it. Its not like only 66 books were written. If you are aware of the council then you are eather foolish or dishonest.

      February 23, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Mao

      @ joker
      There was a group of intelligent and skeptical students at Canterbury High School in Ottawa who gathered together to talk about the formation of the Bible. They concluded that it was through the council of Nicaea. However they also concluded that was when the Bible was written.
      Just because a person spouts "council of Nicaea" doesn't mean they actually comprehend how the Bible was formed nor the complexities of the Bible.

      February 24, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Mao

      @ Joker
      I shouldn't leave things like this, but I used a wrong word. I shouldn't have put in "however" but rather "and". Reason being is that the Council of Nicaea had nothing to do with the formation of the Bible.
      You are actually the dishonest one (claiming to know something you know nothing about).

      February 25, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  19. hilltop

    The author is posturing for a book tour. Highly suspect motivation. He completely disregards the fact that the bible has approximately 25,000 pieces of manuscript spanning thousands of years. It is by far the most well attested piece of literature in all of history. Regardless of whether you are a believer or not, you have to respect the shear volume of its evidential support. Homer, with all of its scholarly maneuvering, doesn't even come close in verifiable literary support or accurate historicity. You can disagree with biblical content, but an honest seeker must acknowledge and respect its durability.

    Critics must learn to distinguish the difference between content and interpretation of content, as well as abuses of content. Where are the honest skeptics?

    February 23, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Ross

      Yes, and those 25,000 extant copies contain over 30,000 word and sentence variations, omissions, disagreements and the like. That's a lot. Those who hold to biblical inerrancy simply have not studied about the book they claim to know and love.

      February 23, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • hilltop

      obviously you have not examined the evidence. Google is not a recommended authority.

      February 23, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • Tallulah13

      Google is a search engine. It simply leads you to sources of information. You can find some very valid information online. Perhaps you were thinking of Wikipedia.

      February 24, 2011 at 2:42 am |
    • hilltop

      Yes. Thanks.

      February 24, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  20. Frogist

    The point I take from this article is humility. With so many translations and word-of-mouth and obvious political influence of their holy book, any Christian should be humbled. Their rock-solid "truths" when they try to justify their actions with "the bible" should dissipate into introspection about where those "truths" really come from and what they mean in the bigger picture. The bigger picture being the world outside of one's personal sphere, especially the world of non-Christians. And this should especially be impressive upon them when trying to influence public policy that affects another person. I think the author is so very right in saying it is a "library of questions" not a book of answers. Maybe by understanding that The Bible you have is just one of many bibles, Christians can refer to it humbly as a personal interpretation, rather than the rule of all law for all people.
    In truth, it is a rule we all have to learn eventually, Christian and non-Christian alike – sometimes what we consider a rock is nothing more than moveable sand. It doesn't mean that all rocks are a lie, just that we should lean on each rock cautiously or look like a fool when we fall face first in the sand.

    February 23, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Logicrevealsall


      I am very impressed by your take on the article. I think you make several valid points. I did notice this phrase though;
      "And this should especially be impressive upon them when trying to influence public policy that affects another person."
      I've seen this phrase in some form or another thrown around on these boards quite a bit. I have to wonder though, isn't Chrisitianty just a specific set of beliefs? Isn't that what everyone uses when voting for or against something? To say that Christians should not use their set of beliefs to vote on public policy is no different than telling hom0se-xuals they shouldn't vote for legisltation that further's their cause. People always vote based on beliefs and singling this out for a reason to ridicule christians is a ineffective argument. (For the record, I'm not singling you out on anything, that phrase simply made me wonder).

      February 23, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • hilltop

      The author is correct that the bible is a collection of books. 66 to be exact. The human authors of these books were not trying to create a bible, they were simply respondiing in obedience to their maker. The final product we have now is a compilation of books gathered by followers of Christ throughout the old and new testament era used to instruct and guide all people about the will of God.

      The physical evidence doesn't support your confusion. Innumerable amount of people from every walk of life have found a solid rock to stand on because of the truths found in the bible. Nations where the bible is or was respected live free lives, conversely, nations that don't respect the bible, live with far less freedom. You are dishonest to acknowledge otherwise, or have never been abroad.

      February 23, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Maybe


      "Nations where the bible is or was respected live free lives, conversely, nations that don't respect the bible, live with far less freedom."

      Islam respects the Bible, especially the OT; and they rule/dominate in countries with very little freedom.

      February 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • bettejodux

      Frog, in a way, i'm responding to Logic, he or she did not request a reply. Remember: a religion is a belief and a belief is something that is not true-if it were true it would not be a belief, it would be fact. I prefer to reason my way through a predicament than pray, go to church or just sit around hoping everything will work out. I roll up my sleeves and get to work. I am a secular humanist, an agnostic atheist, I do not know if there is a god, but then, neither do 'they'. They believe. Simply, I am not a believer. i live on Kauai, a blue state. I write a column. Maybe some of you would like to visit me at http://bettejo.wordpress.com/ i have a poisoned pen, a sharp tongue and a kind'a cute sense of humor. Sometimes. Laughter is important, too. I'll also save you a front row seat peering into the soul of Kauai. Scroll around. Leave a reply. Peace and love Bettejo

      February 23, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • hilltop

      You make my point exactly. Islam has very little respect for the bible, nor christians, and only a peripheral acknowledgement of a islam defined christ.

      February 23, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Muneef


      Welcome back it's been quite some time since last participated..peace.

      February 23, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • Muneef

      Think Quran has passed a similar case where there were many books with different ways of recitations written by men out of memory but at a certain time all of them books were gathered studied and made in to a correct one, otherwise we would have suffered the same as your Holy Book ,but now the suffering is the translation and explanations differs to some although it is one book...?,

      February 23, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • hilltop

      aristotle's work on the art of persuasion argues that a person comes to his conclusions in life based on three factors, logos (intellect), pathos (emotion), ethos (social). An athiest does not come to his/her beliefs based soley on facts observed. There is also a component of pathos and ethos involved. At least 1/3 of all your beliefs are emotionally motivated and only 1/3 evidential. What you espouse requires as much if not more faith to believe than christians. You should not ridicule believers simply because their process is more visible and yours less. You are guilty of your own accusation.

      February 23, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • james

      @hilltop and kirk.
      you don't have the answers any more than any of us who post our opinion. I find peace and meaning in embracing my questions and hoping that those with whom I dialogue have enough respect for me to recognize that if I've got a question or a differing opinion about the great beyond, I've already considered simple answers, or I've arrived at my divergent opinion forthrightly. For me, the the most spirityally gratifying facet of contemplation is the appropriation of my own faith.

      February 24, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • hilltop

      Well said. Christians are only asking for the same respect.

      February 24, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
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