Modern Christians and Their Sacred Text: "The
Bible," "The Word of God," "Scripture"
How do YOU know what is right or wrong in the eyes of God? Many Christians respond to this question by quoting verses from the Bible. Easy enough, only if things were this straightforward. But they are not. And here's why.
"God said" begins many Christians' statements about what and why they believe as they do. How do you know "God said"? Because God said it in the Bible. How do you know God said it in the Bible? Because the Bible is the Word of God. The Word of God? Yes. What does that mean? It means that what God said can be found in the Bible. How do you know that the Bible is God's Word? Because the Bible says so. You mean God spoke English in the Bible? Well, no. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek. What does the Hebrew and Greek say? I guess what the English says. Really? Which Bible? The Bible. Is there only one Bible? Once the Christian examines the statement "God says so because the Bible says so" more closely, he or she soon realizes that more is required of him or her in their thinking. Let us proceed.
What do early Christians and modern Christians have in common? And does this make any difference in how modern Christians understand themselves today? The recent rise in interests in the recovery of ancient Christian practices and beliefs in American culture has flooded the market place with books of all stripes, both scholarly and popular, ranging from Gnostic Christianity to Celtic Christianity, from the practice of early Christian scribes and their copying of texts to how early church fathers interpreted the Bible. The latter has given rise to the tension between historical readings of the Bible, readings that attempt to understand, objectively, what the author meant in his own time and place, and theological readings of the Bible, readings that attempt to understand the biblical text in interaction with modern Christian doctrine(s) by sometimes appealing to precedents such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Theological readings reflect conformity with "churchly" readings of the Bible, i.e., what Scripture means, while historical readings reflect readings of the Bible that suit what Scripture meant at the time it was first authored. If one wants to understand the meaning of a biblical text, one must necessarily start at the beginning, what Scripture meant, and work out from that point. A commitment to this position will invariably run up against the modern position, what Scripture means or the theological reading of Scripture, e.g., historically, the doctrine of the Trinity was not available to the earliest Christians, and there was no one Holy Spirit as Deity, as Third Person of the Trinity.
Despite the lapse of some two-thousand years and the obvious differences between the world of antiquity and modernity in customs, manners, innovations and technological advances, followers of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, then and now, share the same name: "Christians" (Acts 11:26). The relationship between then and now also hinges on the acceptance of a certain set of written matter known as Scripture; for earliest Christians the Hebrew Scriptures in Greek (the Septuagint) and for contemporary Christians what has become known as "the Bible." Christians read the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, to inform themselves on life issues: devotional, prayerful, counseling, and guidance. The records of the lives of the Israelite kings, prophets, the later life and ministry of Jesus, and the letters of Paul serve as guides as to how Christians should conduct their lives both in their relationship with God and with others. The Bible then is the center around which every Christian finds his or her orbit. (Catholics tend to place equal emphasis, if not more, on the Papacy and the Catholic Catechism. Protestants are served exclusively by sola scriptura, "scripture alone." This was one of the sticking points that emerged during the Protestant Reformation).
Much of what is recorded in the Bible, however, is gauged differently by different Christians. Firstly, the Bible records practices, beliefs, and events of ancient civilizations that lived a very different lifestyle than many modern Christians are accustomed. Certainly no Christian church practices animal sacrifice and sprinkles blood on the altar, but this was done by Moses at the behest of God himself as found in the Bible. Oftentimes, when a preacher is reading a passage from the Old Testament, the congregation cannot relate to the life-setting or to the ancient near-eastern mannerism that the passage describes; he or she must wait until the preacher applies the passage to the contemporary life of a Christian, making use of the passage not as a historical piece of evidence but rather as a model for Christian conduct and action in the world today. Other practices recorded in the Bible have not found their way into the Christian churches of today, partly because of the advancement of western society into the modern era; and partly because the texts of the Bible are a product of a civilization that is foreign to Christians in the west: the ancient near east (modern-day Middle East) and the Mediterranean world of antiquity. Consequently, for most Christians the Bible becomes a tool for life applications in a purely modern Christian context; the Bible is read for devotional purposes as Grandma might read it.
Secondly, Christians are often divided on doctrinal issues derived from the Bible. Pentecostals point to 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 as support for speaking in tongues in church, while other Christians revile such activity as "childish," citing 1 Cor 13:8-11 as a proof-text. Protestant Christians cite the breaking of bread and drinking of wine as symbolic gestures while Catholic Christians cite the bread and wine as the literal body and blood of Jesus changed as they are through the mysterious process known as transubstantiation. For some, hell is eternal. For others, hell is only temporary punishment. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity, an otherwise Christian doctrine accepted by most other branches of Christendom, Eastern, Western, and Orthodox. Other beliefs in the early history of Christianity, such as the pre-existence of the soul and the resurrection of the spirit, were designated as "heresy" and usurped from the church; and so today most Christians believe that a human being (soul and physical body) comes into existence for the first time at birth and that their soul and physical bodies will one day be raised to heaven. Because of this (along with many other factors), there is no one Christianity, instead there are Christianities, and this diversity can be traced back as early as the first century. Yet, even then, all Christians were reminded to be of "one mind," that is, of the same understanding (Acts 4:32; 1 Cor 1:10). As there are many different Christianities, there are also many different Bibles. The phrase "the Word of God" as applied to the Bible gives the illusion of uniformity and consistency: there is only one Word of God, THE Bible. But if I pick up the King James Version will it look just like the New American Bible Version? The answer is No. What gives?
When a person holds a Bible in their hands, it is deceptive to think that such a book has always existed. The Bible is not a book, but rather is a collection of many historical narratives, poetry, and casual letters composed over a long period of time in the Ancient Near East and Palestine. Some books are rewrites of earlier ones (1 and 2 Chronicles are later editions of 1 and 2 Kings) and some letters mention other letters having been "signed, sealed, and delivered" by the same author (Paul) but that do not appear in our New Testament (1 Cor 5:9). The term "the Bible" is a near transliteration of the Greek word for "book" (biblos). The earliest extant occurrence of this term in reference to a set of Christian scriptures is found in the second century (ca. 170) Christian document 2 Clement 14:2 in a plural form "the books" (ta biblia), "the books and the Apostles declare . . ." What books these were is not mentioned and it certainly did not refer to all of the books of our present-day Bibles at that early date. The books in the Bible are called "canonical" books. The word "canonical" comes from "canon," a word that Greeks borrowed from the Semitic language group, where it meant "stalk of wheat," "cane," "reed," and later "measuring rod." In Greek "canon" came to mean "straight edge," "ruler," and later "rule" or "norm." In early Christianity, "canon" came to mean "norm for distinguishing right from wrong" or "norm for behavior." During the fourth century the word canon was applied to a collection of scriptures that were considered "right" or "normative" for the church. Athanasius of Alexandria is credited as the first to use it in this sense. Canon came to mean "Bible" as a catalogue of ecclesiastically recognized, sacred books that could be reliably read as "right." The question of which canon was not always a settled issue and still remains a problem to this day as we shall see below.
The division, Old and New Testament, is purely Christian. The phrase "new testament" can also be rendered from the Greek as "new covenant," and was being used for a body of Christian texts as early as the second century; this led to the use of the designation "old testament" for the scriptures of Israel. It would still, however, be several centuries more before Christians in the Latin and Greek churches would agree on the twenty-seven works in our present-day New Testament as "canonical." Irenaeus of Lyons (writing ca. 170-180) is credited as being the first to assert the division "old testament" and "new testament," claiming that both testaments were "scripture" (graphe). Irenaeus first used the term "new testament" or "new covenant" in Greek (kaine thiatheke) and Tertullian is credited as the first to use the phrase "new testament" or "new covenant" in Latin (novum testamentum). What they called "new testament" though was not our New Testament of 27 books, but rather a "new covenant" based on gospel texts. Precedence for such a "new" covenant is proven to come from Jeremiah 31:31–33, "The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with Israel." The word "new" here has the connotation of "renewal" and it may have had this force when first used by believers in Jesus as they echoed the language of Jeremiah in 2 Corinthians 3:6, ". . . God . . . who has made us ministers of a new covenant (kaines diathekes)," i.e, a "new testament," which was the gospel message–the death and resurrection of Jesus and all that it accomplished for the creation. God had renewed the old covenant with Israel with a new dimension–this covenant reached beyond Israel to include Gentiles in God’s people. A fixed set of specifically Christian texts that were "authoritative" as the present-day twenty-seven books of the New Testament was first established in 367 by Athanasius of Alexandria in his 39th Festal letter in which he laid out for his churches the contours of the biblical canon, both Old and New Testament. He indicated which books should be read in the church and which should not. This was not final, for some questioned the authority of 2 Peter (among other texts) and claimed that other books should be included, such as the Shepherd of Hermas.
The first Bible translation was the Greek Bible, known as the Septuagint, so-called for the alleged seventy (septa) Jewish scribes who were commissioned by Ptolemy to translate the Hebrew (Old Testament) texts into Greek for Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jews living in the Diaspora, i.e., lands outside of Jerusalem, between the fourth and third centuries B.C. The Septuagint would become the biblos for the earliest Christians. The writing and the collecting of the texts that are known to modern Christians as the Old Testament has a varied history that is not as "clean" and "straight" as one might think. The same might be said of the New Testament texts. These texts started out in an oral tradition; they had a life of their own before being committed to writing. The Old Testament books were composed over a long period of time. For instance, the book of Isaiah was not authored by a single individual who intended to sit down and write a text of sixty-six chapters in length. The same might be said for the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets whose names are attached to Old Testament writings. At that time, there were no chapter divisions and versification of chapters.
The texts that have come to us as the New Testament were written, copied, and compiled not unlike any other text in antiquity as we see at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus" (Luke 1:1–3). Luke writes as a true historian and even says that many others had already done what he has set out to do here, that is, "compile a narrative." As physical specimens of written matter, the letters of Paul are no different from letters written and delivered during his day. Their content is a different matter, for Paul was no easier to understand in his day than in our own (see 2 Peter 3:16).
The English Bible has its own separate history apart from the writing, copying, collecting, translating, and transmission of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin biblical texts. Often times, the English Bible is called, as a book, "the word of God." What does it mean for a Christian to call the Bible "the word of God"? By what authority does a Christian make such an assertion about a book? Does it mean that the Bible is inerrant, word-for-word, and all true as evangelical Christians claim? Does it mean that the Bible is directly from God? What does it mean to call the Bible "scripture"? As far as Christians are concerned it all means the same thing: the word of God = Scripture = the Bible. The authority of the Bible as a reliable, divinely inspired, and infallible text has been defended by theologians and scholars for decades, most notably B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration, Paul J. Achtemeier, Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture, N. T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture, Charles H. Pinnock, The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible, and Ben Witherington, III, The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible. But what do "scripture" and "the word of God" mean? Let us begin with the term "scripture."
When did the term "scripture" come to designate certain Christian writings set apart from other Jewish and Christian writings as authoritative for the church? In Greek, the word for "scripture" is graphe, which simply means inscribed "writing" or "written characters." This is the term that is translated as "Scripture" in 2 Tim 3:16. Hellenistic Jews qualified the term graphe as "priestly writings" (hierais graphais) to refer to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. Jews in the Rabbinic period used the term "holy writings" (hagiais graphais) for Hebrew texts of the Old Testament. But the Old Testament itself makes no mention of "holy writings." The idea of a set of writings that are "priestly" or "holy" perpetuates a Jewish rather than a specifically early Christian usage. Thus, in Romans 1:2, Paul is able to use the phrase "holy scriptures" (graphais hagiais) to refer to texts attributed to Old Testament prophets. This is not the same as calling these writings "inspired," but simply that they are theologically "set apart" from other writings. Sometimes, Paul can use the term "scripture" by itself without any qualifier such as "holy" to indicate a record of the declaration of the divine will (see Galatians 3:8, 22). The author of 2 Peter 3:16 seems to imply that a number of Paul’s letters might rank alongside "the other writings," i.e., "scriptures" without naming what those are. While "scripture" can indicate a definite (yet unnamed) writing or set of writings that should be taken seriously, this is certainly not unique among Jews and Christians.
Today many Christians claim that the Bible as "scripture" is authoritative because scripture is "inspired" as we see in 2 Tim 3:16, "All scripture is inspired of God." So much is pinned on this one verse that it holds the lion’s share of arguments for the divine inspiration of the Bible. Many Christians assume that "scripture" (graphe) in this verse refers to our modern Bible, when in fact 2 Tim 3:16 was composed at a time when there was no New Testament and, furthermore, the Old Testament as we have come to know it had not yet been canonized. Another favorite proof-text for the inspiration of the Bible is cited by some to be Acts 1:16 where "scripture" is said to be that which "the holy spirit spoke through the mouth of David." The specific scripture refers to Psalm 41:10 as it relates to Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, but to use Acts 1:16 to show that the Bible as we know it today is an utterance of the holy spirit is untenable, especially in the light of the question Which Bible? as we will see below. And it is debatable whether King David truly composed the Psalms, let alone doing so as one inspired. Literacy was not widespread in the ancient world. Most likely, David did not know how to read and write, as was so common among Kings in the Ancient Near East. That know-how was the property of trained scribes alone.
How can "scripture" be called "the word of God"? To call a "scripture" by the phrase "the word of God" seems to have the support of John 10:35 (here, only in reference to a particular Psalm 82:6), but originally, the phrase "the word of God" was a common phrase used in the Ancient Near East to introduce communication from a deity; "word of x" where "x" is the name of some deity. In Akkadian texts, the phrase introduced communication from a deity through a prophet, e.g., "word of Ishtar . . .". In the Old Testament the phrases "word of God (dabar elohim)" and "word of the Lord (dabar Yhwh)" are likewise used in contexts of oracular divination and relates to the communication of matter from a higher, spiritual source, Yhwh, to a lower, physical reality, that of human beings. These phrases occur three-hundred and ninety-four times in the Old Testament while the plural form "words of the Lord" around forty times. In each case, the "word of God/Lord" is a divine communication in the form of commandments, prophecy, words of admonishment, help, guidance, and promises. Historically, the "word of God" was direct verbal communication from God, hence, word of God (note: the verb form of the Hebrew noun dabar, "word" or "thing," means "to speak"). The phrase "the word of God" did not reference a particular book or set of writings. Indeed such words from God might be transcribed (see Jeremiah 36:2) and subsequently destroyed (see Jeremiah 36:23). And certain texts thought to be handed down through prophetic or priestly tradition might be called "holy writings" by Jews. In the Greek New Testament the phrase "the word of God" occurs forty-two times with much diversity and only occasionally references written matter. In a few instances it refers to unspecified Hebrew scriptures, but also to "the good news of the kingdom of God," as preached by Jesus, inspired speech, as an act of God’s creation, prophetic words, words communicated by an angel on behalf of God, and as a reference to Christ. Primarily speaking, the word of God was communication from God Himself.
Are the books of the Bible that we identify as "Scripture" the only ones? Not historically speaking. The books of the Bible that we refer to, collectively, as "Scripture" or "the Scriptures" were not always the only books that Christians called "Scripture." During the early Christian centuries, early church fathers sometimes referred to non-canonical Jewish and Christian texts as Scripture by quoting from them with the introductory formula, "For the Scripture says," e.g., from such texts as The Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Enoch, 1 Clement, and Baruch. This raised books that are not in our Bibles to a level of authority as that shared by canonical and apostolically authoritative texts such as 1 Corinthians and the Gospel of Matthew. This state of affairs by no means stands outside of the New Testament. The New Testament book of Jude, containing a mere twenty-five verses and placed before the last book of the New Testament, contains a direct quote from 1 Enoch 1:9 in verses 14 and 15. If the Bible is inspired, and Jude is in the Bible, does that mean that this passage from 1 Enoch is also inspired since it, too, appears in Jude in the Bible? If that is so, then what about the rest of 1 Enoch? Likewise, in the Old Testament, the author of Ezra 7:11–26 quotes a source from the Persian archives. Is this material, already existing as written matter by a "pagan" author in a "pagan" land, inspired of God because it is in the Bible?
The Bible. Which Bible? Which Text?
The phrase "the Bible" is used by Jews and Christians for their holy book. The Bible comprises 24 books for Jews (the Old Testament), 66 books for Protestants, 73 books for Catholics, and 78 books for most Orthodox Christians. Thus, the Bible creates a problem of its own when we ask the following question: Which Bible? One does not have to decide on any one of the hundreds of English versions of the Bible presently in print to answer this question. We may simply point to two Bibles, the Catholic Bible and the Protestant Bible. The difference? The Catholic Bible contains books known as the deuterocanonicals, or "second canon," such as the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, Judith, additions to Daniel (Bel and the Dragon and Susanna), to Esther, and finally the Letter of Jeremiah. A third Bible might also be found in the Orthodox Bible that includes these books and adds as deuterocanonical 1 Esdras, the Prayer Manasseh, Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees. The term "deuterocanonical" was first coined in 1566 by Sixtus of Siena to describe texts of the Old Testament whose canonicity was defined for Catholics by the Council of Trent, the 19th Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church that convened in Trent for three periods between December 13, 1545 and December 4, 1563 as a response to the Reformation. This "second canon," however, by no means emerged during the Council of Trent as a reaction to the Reformation. Regional councils in the West published canons that included these books as early as the fourth and fifth centuries. The Council of Trent simply confirmed these early western canons. It’s easy for Protestants to dismiss the deuterocanonicals as a Catholic error just as it is for Catholics to defend the canonicity of the deuterocanonicals on the authority of the Council of Trent. But the problem goes deeper than this. If "all Scripture is inspired of God," and because of this, the Bible is the Word of God, then why are there two Bibles? If the book of Tobit is in one Bible, isn’t it, too, the Word of God? And if so, shouldn’t it appear in all Christian Bibles? The heart of the problem lies with how the phrase "the word of God" is used by modern Christians in the following equation: the Scriptures = the Bible = the Word of God, and all of it "inspired."
The problem with forcefully arguing for the divine inspiration of the Bible is many-fold: again, which Bible? And more technically, which text, for both the extant Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testaments differ among themselves, sometimes insignificantly so and other times considerably so, as any biblical scholar, conservative or liberal, Evangelical or Catholic, Jewish or Christian, will admit. Today, some scholars who admit of the textual problems of the Bible but who, nevertheless, want to maintain that the Bible is still inspired speak of "inspired errors." This is nothing more than an accommodation out of the fear of detracting from what is believed by them to be the sacred authority of the Bible as a "God-breathed" book. Who erred? God? Or the author so inspired? If these are errors, then can they be corrected? Shouldn’t they be corrected? Would God want to give His children erroneous information?
The belief in the Christian Scriptures as authoritative goes way back. One of the most eminent Christian theologians to have ever graced planet Earth was Augustine (354–430) who believed that because the Scriptures are inspired by God, they are completely free from error and therefore to be believed absolutely. Seeing that there must be a sign to indicate such authority of the Scriptures (Augustine was not dependent on pure "belief" that the Scriptures were true and divine in and of themselves), and miracles and prophecy were of a by-gone, Apostolic period, Augustine grounded Scriptural authority as true and divine on the existence of the Catholic Church itself: "I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church" (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, 5.6).
Saint Jerome (347–420), a contemporary of Augustine and the patron saint of Biblical Studies, was one of the leading grammarians and translators of his day; he writes, "my life, almost from the cradle, has been spent in the company of grammarians, rhetoricians, and philosophers." Unlike Augustine, Jerome’s stance on the Scriptures stemmed from a position that sounds quite modern: textual criticism. Jerome, who made his famous Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate, complained in a letter, dated 383, to Pope Damasus, as his reason for his translation, that the Latin texts varied so much that "there are almost as many forms of texts as copies." Jerome’s Vulgate was not so much a "translation" as much as it was a "correction" of the Latin versions. In this same letter Jerome speaks of copies of biblical texts scattered the world over that differ from one another and versions that contain "false additions." As one who translates the Hebrew and Greek texts into Latin, he complains of the possibility of being called "a forger and a profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make changes or corrections therein." But Jerome was privy to the fact that the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin biblical texts of his day, particularly New Testament texts, were so many and varied that "readings at variance with the early copies cannot be right. For if we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which (text); . . . If, on the other hand, we are to glean the truth from a comparison of many, why not go back to the original Greek (language) and correct mistakes introduced by inaccurate translators, and the blundering alterations of confident but ignorant critics, and, further, all that has been inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake?" (NPNF, series 2, 6.488). Jerome’s translation of the Psalter from the Greek Septuagint into Latin was, in his life time, claimed by him, to have been copied to the point of corruption: "Long ago, when I was living in Rome, I revised the Psalter . . . in accordance with the Septuagint version. You now find it again corrupted through the fault of copyists, and realize the fact that ancient error is more powerful than modern correction" (NPNF, series 2, 6.494). Where, indeed, lies the "truth" in such texts? Let us, for a moment, admit that the scriptures are inspired. This can only be said of the original text. We have none of the originals of any ancient text, let alone biblical texts. Only copies exist. Which copies are inspired? Is a copy inspired? Jerome, too, mused, ". . . we can no longer speak of such a thing as truth when there are variations in that which is said to be true." Modern textual criticism has borne out Jerome’s observations.
Apart from the problem of which copies and which words lies another hurdle: The actual words of the Bibles and what they say is one thing, but the meaning those words convey is something else. If the words of the Bible are inspired by God, then is the meaning they convey inspired as well? If so, then this raises a problem: in many cases there are multiple meanings of the same text, as is the case with language in general. For instance, in 2 Tim 3:16 the Greek verb "to be" (eimi) is lacking in the Greek text, and so in English "is" can be grammatically placed in one of two places: "All scripture is inspired of God"; or "All scripture inspired of God is profitable . .". Consequently, the result is two different meanings. In the first, "all scripture is inspired," but to which scriptures does this refer? In the second, "all scripture inspired of God is profitable," and this simply emphasizes the profitably of inspired scripture without saying what inspired scripture is. Apart from the possibilities in the Greek texts lies the possibilities in the English translations, especially when it comes to punctuation. Greek had no punctuation and so English periods and commas can make a world of difference in meaning. For instance, Romans 9:5 may be punctuated in three different ways producing three different, yet possible, meanings: (1) a comma after "Christ" where this would be a rare instance when Christ is referred to as "God" in Paul–"and of their race, according to the flesh is the Christ, who is God over all be blessed forever" (following NIV); (2) instead of a comma after "Christ," a period may be placed. Christ would be understood as separate from God, and hence, not God–"and of their race, Christ has come in the flesh. God is over all and blest forever" (following NAB); and (3) a comma after "Christ" and a period after "over all." Christ is separate from God–"and of their race, according to the flesh is the Christ, who is over all. God be blest forever." All three are possible according to the Greek text and two of the possibilities are found in English versions, NIV and NAB, but they say two different things. Which English version is conveying the truth? Does one need to be inspired by God to interpret the words correctly or supply the correct punctuation in a translation? If so then why do so many different interpretations occur among Christian preachers, ministers, priests, biblical scholars, and bible versions? Who’s inspired? Who isn’t? And how do you know? Shouldn’t the correct interpretation be based in the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, rather than in the translated language, English, where precious meaning is often lost and distorted from the Hebrew and Greek? I chose these two passages, 2 Tim 3:16 and Romans 9:5, because each are often used as proof-texts for pivotal church teachings: the Bible is divinely inspired, and Christ is God.
An English-speaking Christian need not know Hebrew, Greek, or Latin and be trained in the hard science of textual criticism to see the problems behind his or her Bible. A perusal of the English Parallel Bibles that present several translations of the same texts on facing pages will quickly inform the English reader that the Bible is not as straight-forward as he or she might have once thought. For instance, the famous Johannine Comma in 1 John 5:7 reads "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit: and these three are one." In the Oxford Precise Parallel New Testament this verse, important for Trinitarian theology, appears in the King James Version, the Amplified Version, and the Rheims New Testament, but it does not appear in the more modern versions, the New American Standard Version, New International Version, New American Bible, or the New Revised Standard Version. Jerome would have, unfortunately, nodded in vindication. The English reader rightly asks, What is going on here?
The origin of the Johannine Comma is traced back to a fourth century Latin homily Liber Apologeticus thought to have been written by Priscillian of Avila (died 385) or by his disciple Bishop Instantius. This homily is the first work to quote the Comma as an actual part of 1 John. The Comma seems to have originally arisen from a marginal note in a Latin text (date unknown) that seems to have understood 1 John 5:7,8 to symbolize the Trinity through the mention of the "three that testify, the spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are of one accord," which is what the Greek text actually says. Although no clear details exist, apparently the part of the Latin homily that includes the Comma in 1 John 5:7 found its way into copies of the Vulgate around 800. This passage was then back-translated into Greek. In all of the thousands of extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, only eight are known to contain the Comma. The oldest of the eight dates back to the tenth century as a variant reading offered as an alternative to the main text. The other seven Greek texts that include the Comma date to the sixteenth century or later, four of which include the Comma hand-written only in the margins. So how did it get into our early English versions? Answer: Erasmus’ third edition of the first printed Greek New Testament.
Erasmus’ preparation of the first Greek text of the New Testament for printing in movable type occurred during the sixteenth century. The first two editions of Erasmus’ Greek text lacked the Comma. Several theories exist as to why it was inserted. Erasmus was urged to include it in his third edition of 1522. He relented if he could find it in a single Greek text available to him. This Greek text was made available to Erasmus, but a text concocted by a Franciscan, and so, true to his word, Erasmus included the Comma but with a caveat in the form of a footnote that expressed his suspicion that the Comma had been prepared to confute his two earlier editions. Erasmus’ third edition became a chief source for the King James Version of 1611, thereby fixing the Comma firmly in the English versions for centuries. Translators of twentieth-century English versions realized that the Comma should not be in our Bibles and so it no longer appears. One parallel Bible, The Word: The Bible from 26 Translations, gives the Comma at 1 John 5:7, but without any English parallels and a footnote that reads: "The words between ‘bear record’ (verse 7) and ‘the spirit’ (verse 8) are now recognized as not adequately supported by original manuscripts"; not the we have original manuscripts, but that our best Greek manuscripts lack the Comma.
So what does this demonstrate? Written matter, of any kind, has its vicissitudes. As one scholar has recently noted, "Books, scrolls, and tablets—any kind of writing material, in effect—are a tabula rasa, subject to various manipulations in the realm of religion." This bit of modern critical inquiry is confirmed in the Bible itself that declares that scribal corruption of the torah, a Hebrew word meaning "law" and used to designate the first five books of the Old Testament, existed even in the day of Jeremiah who warned: "How can you say, ‘We are wise, we have the law of the Lord?’ Why, that has been changed into falsehood by the lying pen of the scribes" (Jeremiah 8:8). The written "word of God" (torah) here is changed into a lie, yet "God does not lie" (Hebrews 6:18). Apart from Jeremiah 8:8, another problem for the inspiration of the Bible is found in the Bible itself, in 1 Corinthians 7:40, ". . . and I think I have the spirit of God." Here, Paul uses the verb dokeo, "to seem," that expresses "uncertainty" about a thing, "I seem to have the spirit of God." So, we have an inspired text (inspired because it is in the Bible) whose author is not sure whether he truly is inspired. If anything, those texts that refer to the inspiration of Scripture support better the idea that "whatever God says is true" than the inerrancy or inspiration of the Bible, which, in fact, is a much later debate that didn’t come to a head until the era of the Reformation.
"The Word of God": Communication from the Spiritual World of God
If "God does not lie" and yet His "written Law" is accused by none other than the eminent Jeremiah himself of being corrupted and changed "into falsehood," then where does this leave us? If the word of God stands forever (Isaiah 40:8), then where is that security actually found in a written text that can be falsified (Jeremiah 8:8), come from a "pagan" source (Ezra 7:11–26), or be destroyed by fire (Jeremiah 36:23)? Once God’s words are reduced to written matter, even if transcribed accurately, it is, at best, a tertiary source, and potentially corruptible. God is the primary source and the human transcriber of God’s word the secondary source. A good example of this 3-tier, top-down level, primary (God), secondary (human), and tertiary (script), is found in 2 Peter 1:20-21. Verse 20 says that "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation," where, at that time, prophecy of scripture would have referred to the books ascribed to the Old Testament prophets, e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc. Verse 21 is altogether different. Its speaks of prophecy as an utterance spoken not by the impulse of a man, but by a person "moved by a holy spirit to speak from God." So, too, no interpretation of scripture should be a matter of the impulse of a man alone, it "is [not] a matter of one’s own interpretation." That is the point. Here, the primary source is God from whom a holy spirit comes, the secondary source is the person "moved by a holy spirit to speak from God" (= Greek text, not "the Holy Spirit"), and the tertiary source is the script, the "prophecy of scripture" whose interpretation is not a matter of one’s own interpretation but should be done by one guided by God (recall Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:26–40).
What if a reader during the third century misunderstood the content of a biblical text? Or it gets miscopied by a later scribe? Whom shall the reader call on for guidance and conversation? Let us ask this of ourselves. What if a Christian today is reading a corrupt text? A "wrong" version? What if he or she cannot understand the meaning of a biblical text? Especially a text whose content is so pithy, yet so "cosmic" in scope, that one wonders if even the original readers fully understood it? For instance, Romans 8:18–25 hints that the creation will one day enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God. Does this mean all of creation, the plant and animal kingdom, rocks, minerals, the stars, the planets, the moons, etc.? Or does it refer to only a part of creation? Paul does not say. He simply says "the creation" which implies everything. It would seem that some of what is written in the New Testament (and Old for that matter) lends itself but poorly to written instruction and explanation. So many details are best left to oral instruction, and, as I said earlier, what we read in our Bibles originally survived as an oral tradition, that once reduced to writing, lost much of its truth content by being filtered through many different minds over a period of many different centuries and lands.
Jesus delivered his teachings as oral instruction and commissioned his apostles to do the same. The one thing that cries out here is this: Jesus, as far as we know, neither wrote any of his teachings for later generations to read, nor did he command his apostles to do so. He very well could have, for at an early age he was quite literate as exhibited by his reading from the Hebrew texts in the temple and questioning the Jewish scholars of his day. We have the gospel according to Matthew and Luke, but not according to Jesus. Could it be that Jesus was privy to the fact that written matter serves as a poor medium for divine instruction? The answer is, Yes. The gospel of John records that the Apostles were to be "reminded" of what Jesus taught them while on Earth, as well as things that he did not tell them by that which is pure spirit, i.e., the spirit world, and not by that which is recorded in a book (see John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12–15). This does not, however, deface the importance and value of the Bible, as we will see below.
The only sure way of getting the incorruptible, unchangeable word of God is directly from God Himself: "Ask me of things that are to come" (Isaiah 45:11). The Bible records that God can, in fact, speak: "The Lord (Yhwh) came down in a cloud and spoke to him" (Numbers 11:25). So, does this mean that the Bible as a copied, translated book of texts compiled over a span of several centuries is unreliable? Is it a "dangerous book" as one author has described it? Or "nonsense" as another has described it? Of course not. We should be indebted to those individuals who wrote, copied, compiled, and canonized texts that have become known to us as the Bible. For if it were not for those persons, the original authors, their secretaries, later scribes (male and female), monks, and the first English translators who paid with their very lives to bring the Bible to us in English, then Christians would be without sufficient testimony, that is easily disseminated in written form (at least nowadays), about the very issues that I speak of here. The Bible is important and necessary, not as a divinely inspired, infallible book, but rather as an informative book about God, His plan of Salvation, and Christ, that is, unfortunately, very often misunderstood and, because of this as well as the claims for its "divine inspiration," is made the butt of ridicule among doubters.
Since no original biblical texts exist today, and if the problems of which Bible and which text do exist, then how is the Christian to gauge for him or herself which parts of which Bible are doubtful and which parts of which Bible are reliable or closer to what the original might have said? Biblical scholars, especially text critics, are trained to deal with this question, but I am speaking here to the lay Christian: the Bible’s importance is not to be found in the belief that its actual script is divinely inspired. The Bibles do not point to themselves as divine or true. What Christians have come to know as the word of God is really not God’s words. The reduction of God’s words to the changeable and corruptible physical matter of script can never take the place of the unchangeable and incorruptible spiritual source from which we ultimately derive God’s words. As such, the Bibles point beyond themselves to a greater, higher source, that is, God– "Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Philippians 4:6). God’s modus operandi of communication with humanity is recorded in the Bible and it is here that we see the Bible’s (any version, any text) importance for modern Christians: not so much as an authoritative Book because the words in the Bible are God’s words, but rather because those words (in any language) record how God directed, guided, and dealt with human beings, especially in the area of verbal communication with them, as well as preserving the basic gospel message of Christ (with more meant to come from the spirit world–see John 16:12).
Early on in the Old Testament we see clearly that the "word of God" was a word spoken by one who was especially adept in the field of prophetic activity: "a word of the Lord was uncommon in those days and prophecy (some read "vision") infrequent" (1 Samuel 3:1). By Hebrew parallel construction, dabar adonai, "word of the Lord," equals hazon, "vision," a Hebrew term having to do with the communication of some matter from the spirit world of God (God is a "spirit" source [Isaiah 31:3 and John 4:24]) via a prophet who had the capacity to either receive visionary experiences and report them to his community or go into a trance as a spirit spoke through him in the first person. Frequently, in the Old Testament, God’s communication is never described as to how it came, simply that it did: "The word of the Lord came to me and says . . ." or so-and-so "inquired of the Lord and the Lord answered." This was also the case among the earliest Christians, but what of modern Christians?
Earliest Christians and Communication with the Spiritual World of God
Despite that distance in time and place, early Christian beliefs and practices can sometimes still be found in modern Christian churches. Most all Christians practice some form of water baptism (infant or adult), read from the Scriptures, participate in the Lord’s supper, sing hymns, make offerings, proselytize, and gather in a specially designated place on a certain day for worship and fellowship. All of these are recorded in the New Testament and in early Christian texts as standard Christian practices of that time. But what about other Christian practices of that time that have not survived to this day? What about prophesying "in the spirit" during a church service (1 Corinthians 12 and 14)? What about visionary experiences commonly had by early Christians (Acts 10:10; 2 Corinthians 12:1-4)? What about after-death communications experienced by Christians (Luke 16:19-31 and 24:36-43)? What about the casting of lots to make a decision (Acts 1:23-26)? What about healing diseases done without the administration of drugs (Acts 5:15-16)? What about the experience of spirit possession and exorcism (Mark 1:23 and 5:3; Acts 16:16 and19:11-17)? What about talking with your spirit guides (Acts 23:9)? What about the manifestation of spirits and angels (Acts 12:7-15)? These, too, are recorded in the New Testament and early Christian literature as standard procedure among Christians along with baptism, the Lord’s supper, reading of Scripture, singing of hymns, missionary work, and gathering together in Christian fellowship. If early church practices such as baptism and the Lord’s supper still remain with us today, then what has happened to the spirit experiences? Are they simply a product of a by-gone, archaic, naive society? Both early Christians and modern Christians share a belief in a heavenly afterlife in a celestial spiritual sphere. Yet the early Christians were educated about that spiritual sphere by those beings who inhabited it known in the New Testament as holy spirits or angels (a spirit is an angel, Hebrews 1:14). But modern Christians know nothing of this. Modern Christians go no further in their thinking about "spirit" other than what has been told to them about the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity. They also expect to know of the afterlife only once they have died and passed over.
Indeed, many sincere and honest Christians would feel out of place or spooked about such visionary and spirit experiences. Many reject such experiences as "outdated," satanic deceptions and interventions, or hallucinations, while others might accept them as real but only within the boundaries established by their church, for example the Catholic church’s role in monitoring Marian apparitions around the world (as if only Mary and no other female spirit could appear). Also many Christians see in spirit phenomena very unstable, transient, unpredictable, intermittent, and even dangerous experiences that can harm, confuse, and bewilder and that remain in the shadows of everyday life; the spirit world is the stuff of haunted houses, dark shadows, graveyards, howling black dogs running in the night, a full moon, demonic possession, exorcism, evil, things that go bump in the night, and paganism. The modern Christian will ask, What do spirits have to do with Christianity?
Demons and evil spirits were not the sole experience of the earliest Christians. Their experiences with spirit phenomena occurred regularly within an organization, what Paul called "the church" (he ekklesia), that met specifically for the purpose of communicating with "spirits" in an orderly manner. These spirits, however, were of a higher order than the ones exorcized; these were "holy spirits" and "spirits of God." This is explicitly recorded in 1 Corinthians 11–14 where Paul addresses appropriate behavior during communal Christian gatherings for the Lord’s supper and communicating with the world of good spirits: "as for you, since you have great anticipation for spirits," (1 Cor 14:12), "when you come together" (14:26), and "God is not a God of disorder but of peace" (14:33). The early Christian practice of "coming together in peace" for the purpose of "spirits" occurred alongside one of both early and modern Christianity’s pivotal liturgical acts: the sharing of bread and wine at the Lord’s supper. If modern Christians continue the earliest Christian practice of celebrating the Lord’s supper (see 1 Corinthians 11:20-34), then what has happened to the earliest Christian practice of communicating with spirits? Early Christians heard the gospel by those through whom "a holy spirit sent from heaven" preached it (1 Peter 1:12); the gospel was communicated by a spirit.
A Christian can believe in God, in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and can turn to the Bible for guidance and understanding without accepting that the Bible is inerrant, inspired, and infallible. Paul’s writings tell us as much: at times the substance of his writing is claimed as "a command of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 14:37); other times the substance of his writings is not from the Lord but rather is Paul’s "opinion" (1 Corinthians 7:6,12,25); and occasionally Paul is not even sure if what he says if from the spirit of God (1 Corinthians 7:40). Add to this the problems Which Bible? and Which text? discussed above and the Christian has a pretty good idea of where things stand today with regard to his or her Bible as the "Word of God." Furthermore, does the Bible contain all truth? Does the Bible ever claim to contain all truth? Or do we simply assume that it is God’s final word? In the light of these questions, how might we understand Jesus’ statement, "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all truth" (John 16:12,13). Here, there remain matters unspoken by Jesus that he, nevertheless, wants told at some future date. Are these "many things" recorded in our Bibles? If so, how can we tell? The old Byzantine icons of Jesus holding a gold-embossed Bible close to his chest in his left arm and raising his right hand in the air suggests that the Bible itself is sufficient for Christ and carries his stamp of authoritative approval. But which Bible was he holding? The communication of "all truth" is not left to a scribe or to a book but rather to the spirit of truth. Certainly, visions from God and the content therein, might be recorded in a book, as with the case of John’s Revelation. But it is always a communication from the spirit world of God itself that any higher truths come to human kind, an act of communication between spirits and humans that we see recorded in the pages of the Bibles. It is at this point that the churches stand in a precarious position: whereas they preach a living God, angelic visitations, the communication of God with Moses, and the reality of visions had by biblical figures such as Isaiah and John, they also assert that today one can only know that God through the Bible itself; visions, prophecy, angelic visitation–all a thing of the past. But as we have seen thus far, this attitude of the churches is not sufficient, unless they are willing to saw off the very branch upon which they sit. Even in the early days of the church we find clear testimony to the crying need of communication with God’s spirit world in the light of the destruction of sacred texts. The author of 4 Ezra 14 laments the fact that the written word of God has been burned. The only way to retrieve that word once more is from the spirit world of God itself:
For the world lies in darkness, and its inhabitants are without light. For your Law has been burned (recall Jeremiah 36:23), and so no one knows the things which have been done or will be done by you. If then I have found favor before you, send a holy spirit to me (inmette in me spiritum sanctum), and I will write everything that has happened in the world from the beginning, the things which were written in your Law, that people may be able to find the path, and that those who wish to live in the last days may live (vv. 21–22).
Wasn’t there another copy of "the Law" available to this author? This text does note that written matter penned by a human who is directed to do so by "a holy spirit" is useful for those who want to "find the path." But the truly inspired text can only be the original text, whichever way the person was inspired to write it at the time (visions? auditory phenomena? automatic writing where a spirit makes use of the human hands?). Here, we see again that written matter is only a tertiary and transient source; if it can be burned once, it can be burned again, or mutilated in some other way (recall Jeremiah 8:8). The primary source is always God, who may "send a holy spirit" as often as is necessary or as He sees fit to communicate His word anew.
Modern Christians are use to having the word of God accessible to them as a book that one can easily purchase at a Christian bookstore or even at a Wal-Mart. We can see it, handle it, and read it. A common dictum among Christians is that "God speaks to us through His written word," yet it is that very written word that records how God speaks from himself and not through a book. Unfortunately, the churches of today have done the very thing that Paul warned against long ago: "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophetic utterances, but test everything; hold fast to what is good" (1 Thess 5:19–21). Might God’s word come to us today in the same way that it is recorded to have come to the Israelites and the early Christians? That is, through the agency of His spirits, sometimes called "angels" (Hebrews 1:14), corporately known as "the Spirit of God/Truth" (1 John 4:2,6), that worked through a prophet (1 Corinthians 14:32), and that could be identified as a holy spirit by that spirit’s saying "Jesus is Lord" through a prophet (1 Cor 12:3)? If so, how are we to determine if it is in fact God’s word and not a deception as Paul warns in 2 Corinthians 11:14, ". . . Satan masquerades as an angel of light."? If one considers the prospect of communicating with spirits of God as a possible reality for Christians today, then one will be led to the following question: Have any scientific studies ever been done to show that such is possible today? The answer is Yes. One of the purposes of this website is to survey the early Christian data on spirit communication and determine how modern, scientific research in the areas of after-death experiences and communication with spirits bears out and enlightens for us the ancient texts.