The Bible is not what you think it is.

Kristofer Carlson

Most people misunderstand the bible. This isn’t their fault. They have been taught to think of themselves as wiser and more educated than their forebears. They acknowledge the contributions of the historical greats, but believe that by standing on the shoulders of giants, they can see further and with more clarity. They approach the Bible from their modern vantage point and cultural biases. The Bible they claim to understand bares little relation to the Bible as understood by its authors.

One key to understanding the Bible is through the lens of literacy. In the ancient world, few people were literate. A literate populace is a relatively modern phenomenon. In ancient Israel, nearly everyone — even the illiterate — would say they had read the Bible. This is not a contradiction, but a difference in how we understand reading. In the ancient world, reading — even while by yourself — was primarily oral. A person who listened to a book being read would consider themselves to have read the book. Reading, except in rare instances, was a aural event and a communal act.

Authorship was thought of differently as well. The author of the text was the person who spoke it, not the person who wrote it down. Authorship had to so with the transmission of oral teaching from the original authority down through the ages. Moses spoke the Torah, and it was passed down from teacher to student for fifteen centuries until being compiled into scrolls during the second temple period.  How do we know this? For one thing, books didn’t exist prior to the Hellenistic era. While papyrus was invented around 3,000 BC, it was rare, as it was produced in Egypt from the papyrus water plant that grew in the Nile delta. It was used by scribes for record keeping, instruction, and as an aid to memory. However, readers probably were reciting from memory rather than reading in the modern sense.

As most authors spoke their texts aloud, any manuscript would have been produced by an amanuensis. However, prior to the Hellenistic era, most texts would have been memorized. Homer wrote the Iliad sometime in the 8th century B.C. However, he never wrote it down. He was blind, and speech to text technology didn’t exist. Homer was a storyteller who performed the Iliad before appreciative audiences. Other storytellers (known as rhapsodes) continued to perform the text. Each storyteller had their own style, and each performance was different, being adapted to the audience. We don’t know when it was first written down, but the earliest surviving manuscript fragments are from the late 5th or early 6th century, with the earliest complete manuscript dated to the 10th century A.D.

Today, we view authorship differently. While the Torah was first spoken by Moses, the school of Moses passed it along through the centuries. Using the original oral text as a guide, they edited, reorganized, and added to it. While the ancients viewed this as consistent with Mosaic authorship, we moderns view things differently. Today, a document claiming a particular author but written by someone else is called pseudonymous, meaning it was written under a false name.  When I tell you that most of the Bible was not physically written by the putative authors, most modern Christians would be offended; they would think I was calling its inspiration into question. Far from it, as inspiration has little do do with authorship in the modern sense.

Modern Christians think of the Bible as a set of manuscripts written by specific people under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. However, we know the Bible is a compilation of edited, pseudonymous texts. The Pauline authorship of his pastoral epistles is questionable. The Petrine authorship of I Peter is questionable, and II Peter was definitely written after his death. It is unclear whether the Apostle John is the author of Revelation. The book of Jeremiah exists in two very different versions; the earlier Septuagint text is longer and differently arranged than the later Masoretic text used in most English language translations.

Protestants would likely be offended by this. Their modern concept of authorship, combined with a faulty understanding of inspiration as applying only to the words on the page, forces them to defend the indefensible. The Orthodox are different. The text is inspired by God, certainly. However, the Holy Spirit works through the Church to recognize the inspiration of the text. 

First, books that contain obviously incorrect doctrine are not allowed to be read in the church. Next, books are assigned different levels of authority, such that catechumens are advised to stay away from particular books. Third, a lectionary is created, whereby passages are assigned to be read on particular days of the year. (When the first lectionary was created, Revelation was not considered to be inspired and, to this day, is not included in the lectionary of the eastern churches.) Ultimately a catalogue of approved books is created; this catalogue is a list of all the inspired texts. (In the ancient world, the term canon applied to the Rule of Faith, not to a list of books. The idea of canon as a list of books is an invention of the 18th century A.D.)

The book of Revelation (or Apocalypse of John) has an interesting history. It was written by someone from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) who called himself the John. Whether this was the Apostle John is a matter of debate among scholars. The Apocalypse of John was initially accepted for reading in churches. However, it fell out of favor in the eastern churches due to its use by heretics who interpreted its obscure metaphors to create heterodox doctrines. (Hebrews was excluded from reading in the western churches due its anonymous authorship. When the church lectionary was created, Revelation was out of favor and not included. In the 8th century A.D., the Eastern and Western churches agreed upon a combined catalogue that included both Hebrews and Revelation.

We have a catalogue of inspired text. However, not every inspired text is contained in the lectionary. Other books are underrepresented. Thus, even at the level of inspiration we have certain texts that are more important in the church than others. In Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestant churches, the Pauline epistles and the book of Revelation are of paramount importance. In most other Christian communions, the Gospels occupy a place of prominence, and Revelation is rarely mentioned in Church. (The Apocalypse of John is written in coded, metaphoric language to people who would have understood what he was saying. We have lost the key, and John’s obscure metaphors are a mystery that can only be unlocked in the fullness of time. Thus, Revelations is an inspired, yet problematic, book.)

For these reasons, and many more, the Bible is not what you think it is.