Hey, Devout Christians: How Did You Get Your Bible?

Most churchgoers seem to be clueless 

Other words come to mind as well: indifferent, complacent, gullible. Quite bluntly: There is a lack of curiosity. If the church says that the Bible was inspired by a god, isn’t that good enough? In fact, it is one of the great ironies in the ongoing debate between believers and atheists that the Bible is one of Christianity’s biggest embarrassments. Atheists—anyone outside the faith, for that matter—can point to countless passages in the Bible and ask, “Is that really the god you believe in? Why do you follow/adore/worship Jesus when so much of his advice in the gospels is so bad?” Professional Christian apologists work very hard to make the Bible look good—make it look like it came from a divine author. But the huge problem is that so much of the good book is just awful.


But then there’s the process that created the Bible—as it exists in gleaming splendor on church altars, or the plain copies the devout have in their homes. How did dozens of ancient documents, written in languages that most laypeople today don’t know, end up in a book so widely revered?    


The last stage of this process is translation—and that has produced substantial confusion. There are dozens of different English Bible translations, many of them turned out by different translators with their own faith-based agendas. In a posting here a few days ago, 16 October 2023, titled Dr. Hector Avalos on Mistranslating the Bible, John Loftus showed a few pages from Avalos’ book, The End of Biblical Studies


[For those who follow this blog, be sure to check it every Monday. Loftus has announced his intention of posting especially value material—drawing largely on the content from the past—on a weekly basis.]


Christian apologist Bible translators take on the task of disguising what the Bible actually says, and Avalos offers examples. 


It took a long time—as the Bible documents were being written over the centuries—for the concept of ONE powerful god to emerge as orthodox. But this wasn’t the case in Deuteronomy 32:8-9; Avalos quotes the Catholic New American Bible:


“When the Most High assigned the nations their heritage, when he parceled out the descendants of Adam, He set up the boundaries of the peoples after the number of the sons of God; while the LORD’s own portion was Jacob, his hereditary share was Israel.”         


Avalos comments: “Most readers will miss the fact that 'the Most High' and the 'LORD' are two different gods, among many different gods, here. The term translated as 'the Most High' is probably the name of a god, pronounced as Elyon, and the term translated as 'LORD' corresponds to the Hebrew name we pronounce as Yahweh, ancient Israel’s main god.” (p. 43, The End of Biblical Studies)


The same translator trick, Avalos notes, is used in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning when God created…” 


“The word ‘God’ is probably best translated as the name of the specific god named ‘Elohim.’ If one were to be even more literal, one might note that Elohim is actually a plural noun, which could be translated as ‘gods’.” (p. 45, TEBS)


Since humans began imagining gods thousands of years ago, deities were given names. And the god who eventually stood out as the primary god of the Hebrews was Yahweh. Christians pay homage to this practice with the common formula, “In Jesus’ name we pray”—and even in the opening of the Lord’s Prayer, “…hallowed be thy name…” I suspect, however, if we asked Christians what their god’s name is, most would draw a blank. Yahweh wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind—primarily because translators have disguised it. Whenever we see the word Lord—in the Old Testament—in all caps, i.e., LORD, this is their substitution for Yahweh. Perhaps pious translators suspect that their god having a name makes him look like other gods. 


Just beyond the pages Loftus included in the 16 October post, we find a section titled Sugarcoating Jesus—that also in a project of translators, as Avalos explains:


“Christianity often markets itself as more inclusive and loving than the religion of the Old Testament and Judaism. However, this has required using mistranslations to hide or suppress some of the darker discontinuities between what Jesus taught and what current versions of Christianity want their audiences to think Jesus taught.” (p. 50) 


He refers specifically to the infamous Luke 14:26, in which Jesus states that hated of family, and even life itself, is required of those who want to be his disciples. Avalos adds, “According to this text, Jesus acts more like a cult leader who actively attempts to transfer allegiance from the believer’s family to himself.” (p. 50)


And he shows the efforts of some translators to disguise the plain meaning of this text; they want to deflect attention from alarming cult flavor of this quote. For an exhaustive analysis of this verse, see the 39-page chapter, “The Hateful Jesus, Luke 14:26” in Avalos’ book, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. The pious scholars who oversee translations have a cherished, idealized Jesus firmly embedded at the center of their faith. They can’t let even the Bible get in the way.


Some translators/editors go so far as to print the words of Jesus in red—even Luke 14:26! —to assure readers that these are the real words of Jesus. More deception. There is no way whatever to verify that the Jesus-script in the gospels is based on words that Jesus actually spoke. Churchgoers are inclined to trust their Bibles; the use of red ink for Jesus-script is a violation of that trust. 


The beginning of the Bible-assembly process is also problematic, for those who are so sure that the Bible was divinely inspired. The blunt fact is that we don’t have any of the original Bible manuscripts. The traditional names of the gospel authors—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—were added later to these anonymously written documents. The very first manuscripts of these authors have been lost. So how do we know exactly what they wrote? The invention of the printing press didn’t happen until well more than a thousand years later, so the manuscripts were copied by hand—in an era before electric lighting and eyeglasses. If the author of what we call Mark’s gospel handed his freshly finished document to three copyists, it is inevitable that each copyist would have made different errors—and those errors were repeated in copies made from those copies. So what do we have? Hundreds or even thousands of gospel copies that contain countless errors. There are scholars who devote their careers to careful examination of the old manuscripts, trying to discover the wording of the original. 


Here's another factor: copyists sometimes added words that reflected their own theologies—or if they felt something was missing. Hence we have the fake ending of Mark’s gospel, i.e., 16:9-20, which isn’t in the earliest manuscripts of the gospel. What a strange text is included here (vv. 17-18), Jesus-script promising believers: 


“…by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”


Many modern translations put 16:9-20 in a footnote, but in two old versions of the RSV that I own, even in the footnote, vv. 17-18 are printed in red. Why would modern Christians want to be assured by Jesus that they can pick up snakes and drink poison? The translators/editors use another trick as well. The footnoted material is credited to other authorities. How do manuscripts cluttered with errors and additions qualify as authorities? Isn’t this an attempt by these pious scholars to disguise the mess that exists in the ancient manuscripts? 


What are the implications of this state of affairs for the claim that the Bible was divinely inspired? Is it even remotely credible that the Christian god who took the trouble to guide the minds of New Testament authors—to write the truth—couldn’t be bothered to protect the manuscripts from error and corruption? How does that make sense? It is even more embarrassing that the first complete manuscript of the New Testament dates from the fourth century; how many errors/additions/corruptions does it contain? How far removed is it from the content of the original manuscripts? One of the things that scholars argue/speculate a lot about is the presence of interpolations, i.e., texts that may have been inserted by copyists. There are hints that a verse or two, here and there, look out of place. What a sloppy, haphazard process. Bible god seems to have been asleep on the job.


It's hard to argue convincingly that the Bible is the Word of God. It’s not a stretch to say that the Bible you hold in your hand today in processed Word of God. Or more correctly, the Bible is processed word of men who were confident they were somehow in tune with the divine and wrote accordingly. So much in the Bible betrays its obvious human origins: the author of Luke’s gospel—whoever he was—included the hate-your-family verse. Who wants to argue that this was divinely inspired? There is so much in the Bible that falls far short of great moral teaching—there is so much that is frankly horrifying—and this is not hard to figure out, even for ordinary churchgoers who make the effort to read/study the Bible. Which most don’t bother to do, hence far too many of the laity appear to remain clueless.     





David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 


His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here