“99% of the Bible Would Not Even Be Missed”

It’s not the Good Book…and it’s not a good book to curl up with
In April 2015 the Gideons announced that they had given away their two billionth Bible. The American Bible Society probably isn’t far behind. I don’t doubt, moreover, that the Bible is the best selling book of all time, as is often claimed; it’s also been translated into more than 2,000 languages. So a lot of people on the planet own the Bible.

But how many of them read it? No matter how it has reached so many people, most of its owners don’t find it a page-turner. It’s probably the least read best seller of all time. Believers know they ‘ought’ to read it—but, no doubt about it, it’s a chore. They are stumped by so much of what made it into the canon. It doesn’t feel like God’s Word. Shouldn’t it be the best stuff ever?

Indeed, scripture can harmful to piety. Hence some Bible readers, when they come across the despicable parts, naively run to their pastors or priests to be rescued from shock and doubt. These paid propagandists, who are masters of slick apologetics, offer doubt-deflecting excuses.

May I make a suggestion? Spurn the canned excuses; forget the priest or pastor if you really want to know why the Bible is so alien and troublesome. Turn instead to non-religious experts on the scriptures. They are not obliged to follow the party line. Peter Boghossian has said, “Doubt is your intellectual conscience pleading with you to be honest with yourself.” Don’t let religious professionals suppress the honesty instinct.

Here’s a good place to start

This title alone should snap believers to attention: “Why Biblical Studies Must End.” Hector Avalos wrote a book by that title, and an excerpt from the book is included in John W. Loftus’s 2011 anthology, The End of Christianity.

If you want to know why you can stop reading the Bible, and why scholars can stop devoting careers to analyzing every last syllable of it, spend a couple of hours studying this essay. Avalos describes half a dozen subdisciplines of Biblical Studies, showing pretty convincingly that the field has outlived its usefulness. His essay is a handy tutorial, with abundant footnotes to guide further study.

At the outset Avalos acknowledges the discoveries made by dedicated Bible scholars—and the irony: “…it is those very discoveries that show that the Bible is irrelevant in so far as it is part of a world radically dissimilar to ours in its conception of the cosmos, the supernatural, and the human sense of morality.” He calls attention to an article by Christian scholar Daniel J. Estes, who proposed rating Bible passages on a scale of 0 to 10, with “close to zero” for texts that are obsolete; any text that rates a 10 “would be considered a directive that Christians must still follow.”

“When pressed to find examples of ‘total continuity’ between the original biblical audience and today’s Christian audience, Estes admits that ‘[i]ndisputable examples of total continuity between the two audiences are relatively rare.”

Relatively rare. So why are the Gideons giving away billions of Bibles? Many Christians, if polled anonymously, might agree with Avalos’s blunt assessment: “…if we were to go verse by verse, I suspect that 99 percent of the Bible would not even be missed…”

The Six Subdisciplines of Biblical Studies

In the essay Avalos discusses (1) translation; (2) textual criticism; (3) biblical history & archaeology; (4) historical Jesus studies; (5) literary criticism, and (6) biblical theology. Chances are, most Christians have never given much thought to these categories, so it’s no surprise that they don’t have the tools to challenge the superstition that the Bible is the Word of God.

(1) Translation

Bible translators have one job, right? To make clear, honest renderings of the ancient documents. But they know that some texts are just too incriminating. “In some cases, the Bible’s philosophy is so barbaric and violent that it defies why anyone would consider it sacred at all,” Avalos notes; hence, “Bible translations ‘lie’ to keep the Bible alive.” Polytheism in the Old Testament, for example, is disguised by translators. “Most readers will miss the fact that ‘the Most High’ and ‘the LORD’ are two different gods, among many other gods…” Avalos cites other examples as well, e.g. texts concerning genital mutilation and anti-Semitism are mistranslated on purpose. He notes that translators go along with

“…the assumption that the relevance of the Bible is best maintained by using translation to hide and distort the original meaning of the text in order to provide the illusion that the information and values conveyed by the biblical authors are compatible with those of the modern world.”

There are so many different translations of the Bible because scholars and theologians disagree, especially about how best to nuance embarrassing texts when rendering them into a modern tongue. They will be coming up with new translations forever—what’s the point?

(2) Textual Criticism

And just what are they translating, anyway? Is the original Bible manuscript kept safe in a monastery somewhere in the Middle East, or perhaps at the British Museum? Few of the faithful seem to grasp that there is no such thing as “the original Bible.” Some scholars dedicate their careers to comparing thousands of the old manuscripts, to reconstruct the exact wording of the lost originals—which cannot be done: “The ‘original text’ proves to be a mirage unless we have access to the entire transmission process from inception to current copy.” “Textual criticism,” Avalos points out, “in fact, has helped destroy any notion that there ever was a stable entity called ‘the Bible.’”

“But God did inspire the originals!” So say the apologists. What an irony: God gave us the Bible, but neglected to preserve the original manuscripts. Shouldn’t that make us suspicious? Just as the translators should give it a rest, so too should the textual critics. If 99 percent of the Bible would not be missed, why bother? Nailing down the original text doesn’t seem worth the effort:

“Textual criticism of the Bible becomes more than ever an elite leisure pursuit that will have difficulty asking taxpayers and churchgoers to continue funding an endeavor that brings joys akin to solving Sudoku puzzles but provides little benefit to anyone else.”

(3) Biblical history and archaeology

The church has made much of the Old Testament as ‘salvation history.’ Even among those who admit that much of Genesis 1-11 qualifies as etiological myth, there has long been confidence that the Old Testament tells the story of God’s outreach to humanity. But now we know that this is Hebrew folklore, with only slivers of history (at best) in the mix. Scholars and archaeologists who specialize in ‘biblical history’ have little to show for their efforts. Clinging to the Old Testament as a genuine source of god-knowledge no longer works, as Avalos notes:

“Biblical archaeology has helped bury the Bible, and archaeologists know it. Ronald Hendel was exactly right when he said, ‘Archaeological research has—against the intention of most of its practitioners—secured the nonhistoricity of much of the Bible before the era of Kings.’ We can now expand Hendel’s observations and affirm that there is not much history to be found in the era of kings either.”

“If biblical archaeology has to serve theology once more to be relevant, its days as a secular academic field are numbered. Either way, biblical archaeology ended in ruins—literally, socially, and metaphorically.”

(4) Historical Jesus Studies

Can it be true that Avalos’s 99-percent-wouldn’t-be-missed rule applies to the gospels too? Surely not, since, for most Christians, these are the most treasured books of the Bible. But sorry, by standards of historical reliability—as opposed to sentimental appeal—the gospels are woefully deficient.

Christians may be annoyed by Jesus mythicists, but mythicism is the least of their worries. In this major section of the essay, Avalos points out that no sound methodology has yet been identified to clarify who Jesus was. How can gospel fiction be separated from gospel fact? We cannot point to any specific story with any assurance whatever that it is based eyewitness accounts, oral tradition, or super-reliable memory mechanisms.

Avalos draws attention to the famous Jesus Seminar, scholars who thought they had identified criteria for nailing down the authentic deeds and saying of Jesus. But they were operating on their own preconceptions of Jesus.

“The Jesus Seminar has predetermined what Jesus or the early church thought, and then they have simply selected those verses that accord with what the Jesus Seminar thinks that Jesus thought…All they have done is create a Jesus in their own image, as Robert Price, and Albert Schweitzer before him, acutely argued.”

Avalos quotes one of my own favorite sentences from the work of John Dominic Crossan. The latter listed several of the contradictory portraits of Jesus proposed by scholars: “…that stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography.”

The Christians who lovingly thumb through the gospels have no clue that their beloved Jesus is an illusion; in fact, he cannot be found. “The quest for the historical Jesus,” Avalos says, “is an abject failure. Further progress is futile because we simply don’t have any preserved accounts of Jesus from his time or from any proven eyewitnesses.” Avalos delivers even more bad news with his book, The Bad Jesus: the Ethics of New Testament Ethics (2015).

(5) Literary Criticism

When all else fails, it is sometimes claimed that we should study the Bible because of its literary merit. But pious intent is commonly just below the surface. Avalos quotes one of the “virtuosos” of literary criticism, Robert Alter: “…by learning to appreciate the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God…” Oh please. Once again, the inspiration superstition gets in the way of shifting focus to many other works of consistently higher quality than the Bible. Another expert whom Avalos cites, Phyllis Treble, at least was honest when she was asked to differentiate between the Bible and Shakespeare: “I ask myself that question, and if I had a clear answer, I would give it to you.”

Avalos notes the danger of privileging the Bible:

“For every page of Hamlet that we might enjoy innocently, there is a passage of the Bible that prompted someone to kill another human being. One can’t say that about Hamlet. The differential in detrimental effect is also a main argument for ending a privileged status for the Bible in any modern canon.”

“…the current emphasis on literary and aesthetics becomes simply another device to maintain the value of the Bible in modern society.”

(6) Biblical Theology

One of the early lessons I absorbed in seminary was that a “theology of the Bible” is impossible, because its ideas of God are so contradictory—and too often downright horrible. But—what a surprise—theologians have worked a way around this. Avalos notes that Krister Stendahl, one-time dean of Harvard Divinity School, argued for a distinction between what a Bible text meant originally and what it can mean today. This, of course, gives theologians permission to do what they do best, i.e., make things up to suit their own sensibilities, which laypeople have always done anyway.

In other words, they pretend, as Avalos points out: “…the Bible is so foreign to modern life that it can survive only if people pretend that it is something other than what it is.” But why bother? Because even pious scholars are locked into Bible worship: “Despite the claims of academic rigor and increasing self-criticism, all biblical theologies have one thing in common: bibliolatry.”

So, don’t study the Bible

The supreme irony, of course, is that most of the devout don’t study it anyway. I could put together a simple Bible pop quiz that would stump most of the folks in the pews. So why not drop the pretense? Avalos wants folks to snap out of it: “What I seek is liberation from the very idea that any sacred text should be an authority for modern human existence.”

“…total abolition of biblical authority becomes a moral obligation and a key to this world’s survival. The letter can kill. That is why the only mission of biblical studies should be the end of biblical studies as we know them.”

Other Hector Avalos titles worth pursuing include, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005) and Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (2013).

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.