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. Amadea

    Timothy Beal is a professor of religion and he doesn't believe the Bible is real?????? I'll bet the math teacher doesn't believe in counting, the physics teacher doesn't believe in the law of gravity, and the geography professor doesn't believe in maps.

    March 20, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  2. jtone

    i find it amazing that this guy acually started to compare the imperfect lives of humans and our neophyte wantings and that it somehow lines up with the pefect love and understanding of god. "We were born of corruptible seed"(meaning it's our nature to shipwreck our selves) We needed jesus the day we were born, long before divorce or any other trivial bad occurences in life. you cannot find 1 contradiction in the bible. people way smarter than you have tried for thousands of years to find some, any,one conflicting sentence. that much material over such a span of time and if i gave you 100 more years you could not come to me with one thing you can prove false.... by default you now understand fact: THE BIBLE You might set scholars of the same cloth against each other, you cannot do that to the person who created you . My most conclusive feeling comes from knowing how tongue tied you'll be trying to explain your ridiculous book at the white throne. who's your daddy..............? JESUS

    March 20, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  3. JAFO

    my new favorite guilty pleasure- reading comment threads about religious topics.... i only wish i had gotten to this one sooner

    March 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  4. E

    Someone send a copy of his book to Robert A. J. Gagnon, he needs a little perspective about the "word."

    March 17, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  5. Kathy

    Oh, Mr. Beal. You wrote a whole book on that? There's certainly enough material to make a book, but why? Everybody knows that the Bible is NOT one book, it is a collection of writings, with many opinions on which writings to include and which translation to use. Arguing that the Bible doesn't exist because of this is really disengenuous. You're preaching to the choir here – the people you'll convice are those who already agree with you.

    March 16, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  6. Randy Rogan

    I am praying for Timothy. The Bible has been proven over the centuries to be authentic and the true word of God. What the Bible says has also over time been further validated by discoveries over time......these discoveries always validate and prove what the Bible has stated, and nothing the Bible states has ever been proven to be wrong. Timothy, you might want to read Josh McDowell's book "Evidence that demands a verdict", and others like Morrison's "Who moved the stone". It is interesting how humans think we know so much and have it all figured out, when we cannot even begin to comprehend the mind and power of God.....it is beyond our reach, but even so, God loves us and demonstrated his love through Jesus Christ.

    March 16, 2011 at 5:59 am |
    • JAFO

      i am constantly amazed when religious people fail to actually know what they are talking about when it comes to history. its one thing for you to talk about your faith in the invisible flying spaghetti monster, and only describe your faith, but please don't say that history proves the invisible flying spaghetti monster exists. history if anything (and only a fool could think otherwise) shows absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the bible is the word of god. that jesus actually lived? a HUGE maybe. that the israelites were an actual tribe? sure! that jericho was a podunk town? yes. as far as a whole lot else? ummmmm.... yeah. its cool though, i know you won't believe it. just for the sake of your kids, limit the nonsense to matters of faith, not history, because then you are misled at best, and at worst a liar

      March 19, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  7. Nathan

    The issue today is, that most people see the "Bible", as literal translation. It is not. If you look at the history of all Bible types, they are written many years after the stories occurred. As a man who strives to be more like Christ, I do not need the Christian bible, bibles or any one book to lead the way. I know from reading different Christian Bibles, that Jesus was a great man of many virtues I want to hold for myself. I want to help mankind better itself for our future children to look back on and say, I want to be even better than that. Religion is flawed, because mankind is also flawed. I have been poked fun of because if my faith in something I can not see, and also made fun of because I have no answers for my Atheist brothers issues and debates with my faith. I am not on this earth to appease man, but I am on this earth to show my savior and lord that mankind is not lost in hatred and suffering and immoral deeds as those that were before the previous retribution.

    March 16, 2011 at 3:11 am |
  8. William Van Hoose

    I found this article to be a fascinating full with facts I know to be true read. Sadly enough, many self professed believers would argue most points made here to the point of going to blows. They will stand on the myth that their 72 books, (As stated, dep...ending on translations and or religion) is the literal word of God. It is not! Any believer who has truly heard that call knows that those bibles cherished by the Christian masses today is filled with inaccuracies in translation, man's interpretations, Satins lies, and is grossly incomplete. They know this because the call comes with certain responsibilities to seek what is true, and God's spirit leads them to that truth. It takes a whole lot of digging that is never ending. Because Satin has had a long time to convolute not only man's bible, but the foundations of the gospel of Jesus Christ right down to what people wrongfully believe about it. For example: If you research ancient text, (Hebrew/Greek) you will not find any mention to, or the idea of a "Trinity theory." Not until after the bible was translated into latin, and then again, not until after 328ad was this concept introduced into the doctrine of the Universal Church. Any believer who has actually done their homework knows that the concept was first introduced by Constantine at the first Councils of Nicaea in 327ad. The Apostle Paul warns us to, "Work out our own salvation with fear and trembling..." I believe his warning to be an edification to what Christ warned us about the most. That is, "Do not be deceived." The bible it's self is an inspirational tool. It is we who need to see it's uses, and seek further information that has been left out by man, and or Satin's design.

    March 15, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
    • Satin

      Quit using my name in vain! Just because I'm a textile product doesn't mean you can profane me.

      March 15, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
    • Jefferson

      Satin is not as bas as the other fallen angel, Polyester

      March 16, 2011 at 5:14 am |
    • Tempted by Satin

      I appreciate your message, William. Satin has lured me into temptation before. I thought it would be an innocent trip to Linens n Things for some inexpensive bedsheets for my new guest bed, but before I knew it I had spent well over the 30 dollar limit I had allotted for the purchase. If I had stayed away from Satin's temptations it could all have been prevented. I pray to gossamer and all that is good and velveteen that I will be forgiven.

      March 16, 2011 at 8:01 am |
  9. Eric


    March 15, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  10. Chad

    With all the confusion surrounding the origin, books and teachings of Christ – a loving Father in Heaven would give is children another testament of Christ, His Saving Atonement, and how Christ provides grace to overcome the pains of this world – natural or otherwise. He has – The Book of Mormon – Another Testament of Jesus Christ. Pick up a copy and feel the peace only Christ can provide.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Dan


      Read Isaiah 8:20. The prophet points out that is a man claiming to be a prophet does not speak according to the Law, he is no prophet. There is nothing in the Law ddeclaring that the Messiah would appear to the American Indians while he lay in the grave, before the resurrection. That was Joseph Smith's original idea, which put him in disagreement with the Law, making him a false prophet. He preached another Gospel - one that the Apostles did not give us, which makes him and his teaching anathema.

      March 20, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  11. jd

    Does this bus go to Cleveland?

    March 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  12. Smokey

    As anyone who's studied literature can tell you, reading is an exercise which depends on the reader as much as the text. So even if all Bibles were identical, it wouldn't matter because all readers are unique at all points in time, therefore no two readings of the Bible could ever be identical. This fact does nothing to diminish the significance of scripture. My personal preference is for the Oxford Annotated Version of the Bible, which contains much useful background information pertaining to the manuscripts which translations are based on, and the many possible interpretations of various phrases.

    March 15, 2011 at 5:43 am |
  13. Antonio Juarez


    I can't comment on Christian Bibles, or translations, but the Jewish canon has a clear and established history. The first part, the Torah, is understood to have been given by G-d to Moses (except, perhaps, for the few lines at the end about Moses' death). As far as the Prophets and the Writings, we know there were many prophecies and other inspired writings over the years. However, we also know which Assembly of Sages decided what should be included in the canon, and what should not be – and when they decided.

    Classically, one can consider the argument about the book of Job. It raises what some consider the most challenging of all issues – how can bad things happen to good people if an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing Master is running the world? Whether or not such a book should be included in the canon was no small decision. In my opinion, the integrity of the Sages and the Jewish tradition are bolstered by their willingness to face such a question rather than hide from it.

    March 15, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • His Noodly Appendage


      March 15, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • jason

      and in your book, how old is Moses? yeah the word GOD, no correction needed....

      March 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  14. sarah

    The King James 1611 from the Textus Receptus is the pure unadulterated word of God in the English Language. If God be God, he is able to preserve the words He breathed which have power and life- eternal life – in them. Psalms 12:6-7 The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

    March 14, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • Powder

      Shhhhh, don't the folks at Gideons! They'll have to do a recall!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • murf

      The King James Bible, the "pure unadulterated word of God in the English Language"?? The level of ignorance is astounding. King James I of England/VI of Scotland is responsible for the King James version and if he didn't like something, he changed it. It is probably one of the worst translations of the collective writings known as The Bible. Not to mention the forced language and rhyming changed meanings as well. Please, read something besides the Bible and the internet for once.

      March 18, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Dan


      The Holy Spirit did not inspire anyone to translate the word "Passover" (pesach) as "Easter" as was done in the book of Acts. It was a decent translation in its day, but it was just a traslation.

      March 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  15. blessedgeek

    There is no such thing as the NEW Testament.

    The OLD covenant/testament = covenant given to Noach and to all the world.
    The NEW covenant/testament = covenant given to Israel thro Moses

    March 14, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • Dan

      Correction: The Old Testament/Covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai
      The New Testament/Covenant as revealed by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 31:31) was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

      March 20, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  16. Bob

    I did some research on your book online.

    Starred Review. The role of the Bible in Western culture is undisputed. It has defined the Judeo-Christian ethic in so many ways it's hard to imagine the Western world without this inspired book. However, as Beal so eloquently explains, the specific role played by Holy Scripture has morphed over the years. In particular, it has taken on the role of "cultural icon"—inerrant guide, big brother, worthy oracle. This is a new phenomenon: witness the number of specialty Bibles available in Christian bookstores. Raised in a strict, religiously literalist home, Beal (Roadside Religion), a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, has evolved into a top-notch scholar who makes a compelling case against the idea of a fully consistent and unerring book, positing instead a very human volume with all the twists and foibles of the human experience, truly reflecting that human experience. He presents a convincing case for a radical rereading of the text, an honest appreciation of this sacred book. An engrossing and excellent work, highly recommended. (Feb.)
    (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

    I will certainly be buying and reading it. You remind me of a couple of brave professors I had at the university who made a profound effect on my development in the faith.

    March 14, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
  17. Dave

    To each his own... but if every man in this nation was not necessarily of Christian faith but actually "Christ-like" in their ways and the spiritual leaders of their respective homes, the moral fiber of this country would be revived. Our prisons wouldn't be overloaded, theft and violent crime would be at an all-time low and marriages would be saved. There would be fewer teens pregnancies and broken homes would be the exception and not the standard. Say what you want about the Bible and Christianity, but if people were more Christ-like, the world would be a better place.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Brooke

      You know I actually kind of agree with your point that if people were more christlike the world would definitely be a better place, however it offends me and my intelligence when people infer that I need a book to tell me what is right and wrong. I know right and wrong because I am a human being and have an innate moral compass.......we all do but some chose to ignore it. This moral compass does have the ability to evolve and change due to the times, just like EVERYTHING else. But some people make it sound like if there was never a bible then people would be running around murdering everyone that they didn't like or agree with (oh wait, its actually the bible that DOES say that lol) I do what is right because its the right thing to do, not for fear of punishment. Now to end with one of my favorite quotes....."with or without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things, but for a good person to do evil things, that takes religion"

      March 21, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  18. Don

    Amazing how reasonably intelligent humans can believe in something written by humans who also believed the Sun revolved around the Earth. Keep on with your "faith" no sense in a few facts getting in the way of a good story. Religion is what will destroy the planet. The good Christians are never going to get along with the good Muslims because they both believe in different fairy tales.

    March 14, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • Acaraho

      It is most likely that the gods in the Bible were really alien visitors. I believe there is a life force in the universe with which we are all connected and that our deeds on this Earth are taken into account when he pass over but to say that there were historical appearances by gods, angels, devils, and other beings that we elevate to divine status is just ignoring our ancestors interpretations of things they just could not explain in their physical world.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • biblis

      Please show me where it says in the Bible that the sun revolves around the earth.

      March 17, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • bumster

      I think you've missed the point. Religion is not about being more right than the the other guy, or about ignoring science because your version of the bible says something different, or about being bamboozled into a set of beliefs despite what common sense or logic tells you. Science strives to discover and explain the physical world – it makes no claims on discovering or explaining morality. That's where religion SHOULD come in. In the same way that when science doesn't know the answers it strives to find them, religion too doesn't always know the answers but strives to find them. Just as scientists disagree, so too do religious people disagree. They debate both effectively and ineffectively to find an answer. In science, it's a messy open market place to figure out the answer. So too in religion – don't mistake the messiness of debate to mean that the debate is meaningless. It's an answer struggling to be born.

      March 19, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  19. enricorosan

    If I were shipwrecked on an Island and could only have one book to read it would be : COSMOS (authored by Carl Sagan).

    March 14, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • nightlight

      My vote would be for a book along the lines of "How to build and navigate a boat using naturally occurring materials."

      March 14, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • Aethrys

      As for me, I'd opt for the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. With any luck I'd be able to signal for a lift before the planet is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

      March 19, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  20. justme

    The common thought by the anti-Christians is that because we cannot prove the existence of God, we are closed minded for believing in him. However no one has dis-proven the existence of God, but for some reason it's not closed minded to not believe in him? Personally the fact that so many are trying to dissuade us from believing in God makes certain biblical claims ring true in my mind. Seems to me a lot of people do not want to believe in a higher power because believing in God some how degrades their level of intellect. I think contemplating the existence of God requires more intellect than the existence of a test tube you can hold in your hand. I pray each of your lives is touched in a way to give you the proof you need. One thing is for certain, given enough time we will all know the truth. You may now carry on with how ignorant you think I am so you can gain confidence in your opinion by tearing mine down. I don't need anyone’s approval to feel good about my faith.

    March 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • ERE

      I think you misrepresent an idea here. The issue of close-mindedness is of course endemic to people of all stripes. But in reference to being close-minded 'because you believe', I would say that's making a leap. It's not Belief exactly. It's what often comes with belief – self-righteousness. It is a rare person who is willing to admit that he Believes but does not Know. You see, once you Know, then you become close-minded. After all, what's to be open about? You've got the answer. And to be clear, there are a hell of a lot of atheists who are just as dogmatically close-minded. The safest person to be around, in truth, is an agnostic – unsure, but willing to be moved, certainly hopeful to be. That you are a Believer doubtless brings joy and comfort to your life. I would ask you though, are you able to honestly wish joy and comfort to those who believe otherwise than you? Can you honestly say you view them without thinking them bound for hell, or somehow short of the mark? If so, then bravo to you, because that is what makes you openminded.

      March 14, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Hayabusa

      You really feel that non-believers need to prove that god doesn't exist? You probably don't believe in Zeus and Apollo though, right? Good grief. You really think that murderers and child rapists will also go to a special "heaven" as long as they repent? Sounds like a pretty good deal. So anyone can do whatever they want, and be rewarded just as the person whom has lived a a giving and kind life, as long as they pray to the magic man in the sky? Cool deal.
      Wake up! Religions were created to control the masses in ancient times. Nothing more. Don't you think, if there really was a god, with the power to heal, that by now, at least one amputee would have been granted another hand or foot?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Stevo

      Absolutely, and besides that, this guy is overlooking a massive reason as to why there are so many versions and translations: we don't know Greek and Hebrew! Both languages with multiple meanings depending upon several nuances within literary structure. Not to mention the cultural/sociological gap concerning the original author, audience, and content of each book that involves careful observation, interpretation, and application. The fact of the matter is that the Holy Bible is a miracle: an ancient library of 66 books with nearly as many individual authors spanning thousands of years from generation to generation that tells us both the one-themed story of Yahweh pursuing His creation and teaches us multiple lessons that are still applicable up to now, not to mention the countless prophecies that have been fulfilled and are presently being fulfilled. Promote your views, press your agendas, persecute the Church, but you'll never defeat the Holy Bible. It's outlived much smarter and much more diligent men.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Michael

      You all are missing the point: If God were proven to you by wonders many of you would still not believe. You can find examples of this in the Bible that "is not real". People who come to Christ recognize that their is a beeter way for man to live, in love and their inability to actualize it. This realization points them to the moral law, giver of love God, No one who seeks to be his own saviour, who fails to recognize that he is a failure at love and rightness can only no God by becoming humble. All this questions about the Bible's validity is superfluous to recognizing your self as a sinner, as your pride will surpress the truth that is before you.

      March 16, 2011 at 6:09 am |
    • achepotle

      Nobody has disproven the existence of unicorns or leprechauns either....your head must be filled to bursting with imaginary friends and enemies!

      March 17, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
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