Christians Can Figure It Out: the Bible Isn’t God’s Word

Part 1 of 6: The Bible is not self-authenticating

Those intrepid Gideons claim that they are dedicated to “making the Word of God available to everyone.” The American Bible Society doesn’t hesitate to call its product “God’s Word.” Behind this positioning is a PR campaign that has endured for centuries, fueled, of course, by that famous text, 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

In this text, the words “inspired by God” translate God-breathed. So, “God’s Word” isn’t far off the mark, in terms of nailing the concept.

This is not an especially novel idea, since the Torah had long been venerated, but the author of 2 Timothy could not have been thinking of the gospels and epistles, because that collection of books hadn’t happened yet. Thus applying this verse to the New Testament is taking it out of context—and we’re not supposed to do that, right?

Nonetheless, pious folks today, especially of the evangelical variety, champion this text as proof positive that the Bible is the Word of God: “It says so right there!” But are these believers generous enough to include the scriptures claimed by other pious theists? Hey, it says all scriptures. Muslims and Mormons are very much in love with their own sacred books, confident that they too possess the Word of God.

The bigger problem, of course, is that folks who don’t believe in the Bible in the first place won’t be convinced by 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Why should they? All-scripture-is-inspired-by-God is a faith claim, as much as Neptune-is-the-god-of-the-sea is a faith claim. Where’s the hard evidence, outside the Bible, to establish this claim?

But it’s a losing proposition. Let me provide a similar faith-claim that shows exactly why. For example: Is the Roman Catholic Church right that the pope is infallible? I was raised on the Protestant side of a Catholic-Protestant divide in small-town Indiana. We ridiculed the Catholics for two things especially: all of those “idols” in their church (our stark Protestant churches had no statuary at all) and the very idea that the pope was infallible. Now, I’m pretty sure we had no idea, really, what that meant. Our idea was a caricature of the dogma—we did not know its history, the politics behind it, and the restrictions that apply (the pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals…who knew?).

But here’s the point. If a Catholic had said to any of us, “It’s true because the Church says it true,” we would have said, “Give me a break! We think the Catholic church is wrong about just about everything, it’s fake Christianity!” It didn’t matter what that church said. As Glenda the Good Witch told the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz, “You have no power here! Begone!” Likewise the argument for inspired scripture based on the Bible itself has no power. The Bible’s authority is not established outside the circle of those who already believe it. “Needless to say, the assertion that the Bible is divinely inspired because it says so in the Bible is an egregious application of faulty logic.” (Peter Brancazio, The Bible from Cover to Cover, p. 484)

So if anyone wants to make the case that the Bible is God’s word—and that it is self-authenticating—then they’ll have to find another way to do it.

But, too bad, so sad, it’s still a losing proposition. Because, when push comes to shove, even many Christians would back away from defending the Bible as God’s Word—well, those Christians who have read it with some care. They might be okay with the protocol of swearing on the Bible (e.g., in court), but swearing that everything in the Bible is trustworthy, well—how can I put it?—that’s just a joke. How in the world can the Gideons and The American Bible Society still get away with the insane positioning of their product? Do they think no one is paying attention?

Offered enough of an incentive—maybe a thousand dollar prize?—I suspect that a lot of Christian could rise to the challenge of listing a thousand Bible verses that fail to make the grade, that undermine all the hype about Word of God.

Two of my favorite clobber quotes about the Bible come from Hector Avalos and Randel Helms:

“If we were to go line by line, I suspect that 99 per cent of the Bible would not even be missed” (Avalos) and “…inattentive readers will even be more surprised to learn that the Bible is a self-destructing artifact” (Helms).

Would the thousand-dollar incentive be enough to get Christians to be honest about the Bible? Please go through it, line by line, and mark the verses that can be ruled out as Word of God—on the basis of defective morality, bad theology, silliness, excruciating tedium, blatant contradictions, crude inventions, insulting fantasies, magical thinking—none of which can be credited to a reasonably capable divine author. [There will be another article in this series of 6, one on why God would get an “F” as a writer, and I’ll go into more detail in that article.]

My primary point right now is that astute Christians can see very well that the Bible is a self-incriminating, self-destructive document. It falls far short of being self-authenticating; the claim in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 doesn’t hold water.

There’s a very helpful tool, by the way, to guide those who are up for the task of wading through the Bible verse-by-verse to test its quality. Steve Wells has done the wading, and produced The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. He sorted Bible verses into several broad categories, and indicated how many verses there are in each category. Here’s a partial list:

Absurdity: 2,178
Injustice: 1,541
Cruelty and Violence: 1,316
Intolerance: 701
Contradictions: 462
Conflicts with Science and History: 428
Misogyny and Insults to Women: 383
False Prophecy and Misquotes: 231
…but also, Good Stuff, 507

How can the Bible have so much crap in it—without people noticing? Because they don’t want to notice it, and because the PR campaign has worked for hundreds of years.

The Bible’s status is propped up by magical thinking: the idea that, once upon a time, a collection of books passed under the magic wand of ancient church bureaucrats and thus became God’s Word. To whom would this appeal? Note that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is aimed at those who are sure they “belong to God.” Once personal identity and integrity have been thus compromised, you can kiss critical thinking goodbye. When folks are assured that they belong to God, and are under the tutelage of those who wave the magic wand, it’s not hard to get away with a lot of crap.

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.