Studying the Bible

What does it mean to study the Bible scientifically or objectively? How is this different from studying the Bible subjectively, that is with respect to its subject, its readers? What might be the advantages of studying the Bible objectively? What would be its purpose? Or, the real question might be: can the Bible be studied objectively given that it is dear, on a subjective level, to the hearts of millions?

If, for example, I posted a survey where one had to fill in the blank, “the Bible is ______?,” I suppose that I would receive a number of differing responses. I suppose furthermore that these different responses would all be subjective in nature. They would all be premised by an unarticulated “I think that the Bible is….” or “I believe that the Bible is….,” or “My inherited tradition, culture, or faith community informs me that the Bible is….” But what is the Bible apart from what we think it is, or believe it to be, or have been instructed to say it is (see also)? In other words, what does the Bible itself say that it is, apart from whatever we may wish, believe, or feel about it?

What if I started with the premise, “the Bible is a collection of contradictory texts,” would this be an objective statement or a subjective statement? And more importantly why? In fact, it is an objective statement: the biblical text itself says that it is composed of numerous contradictory texts and traditions, regardless of what you or I may think, feel, or believe. The forthcoming entries will bear this out. But let us pause here for a moment, and think about this.

What if we started with this statement: the Bible is composed of 66 books. Subjective or objective? Well, the table of contents informs us that this is an objective assessment: the Bible is composed of 66 different books, and we might furthermore conjecture that these 66 books were written by different authors and for different audiences and purposes, and prompted by different historical circumstances. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The Bible is composed of 66 different books is an objective statement because it does not depend on the reader’s religious or non-religious persuasion; but rather, it comes from the biblical text itself. Furthermore, the Bible’s table of contents, its 66 different books, was established by its compilers and editors, a process that spanned 6 centuries (from the 5th c. BC to the 2nd c. AD)! When the biblical canon was set in stone in the 3rd c. AD, many of the titles of the Bible’s books were by then part of inherited tradition. But let us go back further in time. In the 3rd c. BC, when the Hebrew canon was approximately equivalent to our “laws and prophets” or the Torah and Prophets, Greek titles were given to the 5 Hebrew scrolls that now make up the 5 books of the Pentateuch or Torah. Before this, the title of each scroll was the first Hebrew word of that scroll. So the book of Genesis, the Greek title, was originally a scroll entitled bere’shith, the first Hebrew word of the scroll, “in the beginning.” At any rate, from the 3rd c. BC onwards this canon grew through the addition of more and more books, until finally the texts of the emergent Christian movement were added. Thus the Bible was composed from 66 books. But what if we went further back in time, to say the editors who actually made the bere’shith scroll. Who wrote that scroll? What texts and traditions are in that particular scroll? In other words, that scroll is also composite! It is composed out of earlier texts and traditions which were written by different authors. How do we know this? By objectively studying the Bible. In other words, the biblical text of the scroll bere’shith informs us that it is composed out of different texts.1 How so? Through its textual data: the different styles of its Hebrew, different emphases and vocabulary used in different parts of its text, and indeed duplicate stories, different chronologies, anachronisms, and numerous contradictions in its various narrative and theological details (roughly 90, at a contradiction a day that’s 3 months worth!). These are the textual data. These are the Bible’s own objective data. The conclusions we draw from this data are a different story. That’s where the discussion needs to happen. But the objective fact is: the Bible contains thousands of contradictions. This is the textual data collected. Why they are there, and what they mean are different sets of questions, and we will pursue these as well. But as objective and factual as the statement that there are 66 books in the Bible so too the statement that the Bible contains thousands of contradictions (I am estimating here, but I think we will get into the thousands). But wait a minute, the reader interjects, how does this mesh with my own subjective, “the Bible is _____”?

I often like to employ models that we are more familiar with in an attempt to explain what is meant by the objective or scientific study of the Bible. For example, what if our object of study was Nature? How might we proceed objectively? Regardless of one’s subjective, personal, or handed down views and beliefs about Nature, a scientific study would start from examining the object of study, Nature herself. So the first part of understanding Nature and her workings would be to simply collect Nature’s observable phenomena—our data. From the collected data we would now employ our intellects, hopefully, and attempt to explain the observable data by postulating a hypothesis. This hypothesis would then by tested by others, compared against other data, etc., and if verified often enough eventually become scientific truth. There are limitations of course. The observable data collected in the archaic past of the sun’s rising up out of the ocean, etc. had led our ancestors to conclude that the sun revolves around the earth. Obviously more advanced types of data yield more advanced hypotheses. At any rate studying the Bible is no different. One must start with the observable textual data, period. All subjective, personal beliefs are to be set aside. Obviously starting with the textual data is already a huge step. One has to acquire the ability to read the text in its original language, and understand the text in its own, not ours, historical and literary contexts. In short, the Bible’s contradictions are part of these textual data. If we proceed like the Nature example above, the next step is to attempt to explain our observable textual data by postulating a hypothesis that best explains that data. For instance, the current hypothesis among biblical scholars, indeed verified repeatedly and taken as fact, is that the textual data of numerous contradictions has led us to conclude that the Bible’s texts, even the Bible’s individual books, were composed by different authors and compiled together by scribes and editors of a later period. This conclusion is strengthened considerably when other textual data are brought into the fold, such as the different styles and vocabulary of the Hebrew, different passages’ different theological emphases, etc. Many of the forthcoming posts will not only identify the textual data, but attempt to identify the two different authors who wrote the two different texts or verses that now contradict each other, and explain the historical circumstances that prompted these two conflicting texts, and why they were later preserved side-by-side creating the contradiction that is now present in the composite biblical text that has come down to us.

Thus the scientific and objective study of the Bible moves from collecting the textual data, to postulating hypotheses that best explain this data, to verifying the hypotheses. Why then does the large majority of, predominately, Christians, have a problem with this? Often the reaction is to claim, rather rhetorically, that the Bible has no contradictions. This is to refute the textual data. That is, this is to neglect the very biblical texts themselves! In fact, in most reactions what is at stake is not the Bible, but a personal belief system. This has become more important than the text itself. Or, their belief system or faith institution informs them about what the biblical text is regardless of the textual data itself! These are all subjective engagements with the text. Rather than starting from the textual data, they start from inherited, personal, or cultural premises or beliefs and then proceed to explain away the textual data. The methodology, if it can even be called that, is totally negligent of the actual text. For these types of individuals the text is only important as a vehicle to legitimate one’s personal or cultural premises irregardless of what the text actually says or does not say.

Now I realize the sensitive nature of our topic; I realize the rhetorical nature of the whole discussion; but one cannot neglect the biblical text and impose their own interpretive framework onto these texts prior to, and in lieu of, examining them objectively on their own terms. As a biblical scholar, my life’s pursuit is studying these texts, the authors that composed these texts, the historical and literary circumstances that prompted these authors to write their texts in the first place, and last but not least to defend these texts and their authors by advocating the study of these texts in their own and unique historical and literary contexts. I am not advocating that we adopt what they say. That is the role of the theologian, or at least he thinks that’s his role. No, I’m adjudicating for the authors and their texts by promoting an understanding of these texts on their own terms, not ours. If I were a Platonic scholar, for instance, I might be advocating a correct understanding of Plato and his texts by studying them as products of his historical and literary contexts, and advocating against their out-of-context appropriation. So too with the Bible’s texts.

Again, the objective, factual reality of the situation is that the Bible itself reveals its numerous textual contradictions, from minute narrative details to sweeping theological and ideological disagreements. The discussion is NOT whether there are contradictions in the Bible or not. That is as clear and factual as the Bible’s 66 different books. The discussion is what does this imply? Where do we go from here? What conversation ensues from this point?

For example, the Bible’s many contradictions, differing styles, theologies, etc. has led myself and numerous other biblical scholars to conclude that the Bible is a composite work produced by men. This best explains—I would argue only explains—what the textual data reveal. To choose a couple examples from the many forthcoming contradictions I will post, it is no coincidence that texts written by Levite priests have Yahweh declare that they, the Levites, are the sole mediators of Yahweh’s words, that they are high priests, etc. It is no coincidence that the form of religion and belief that Yahweh commands Moses to speak (Deuteronomy 12-26) is exactly in accord with the views, beliefs, and religious system of the Levites themselves who penned this text. Now, we might not think anything unusual with this. But the textual data of the Bible is that this literary procedure is reproduced on numerous occasions, creating in fact, competing religious systems, and contradictory commandments, laws, and belief systems accredited by these authors to Yahweh himself. So for example, when we read carefully what Yahweh says in the book of Leviticus, namely that the Aaronids (the sons of Aaron only), are high priests contrary to the Levites, that they alone are Yahweh’s mediators and the Levites are reduced to mere ministers of the Aaronids, that only through sacrifice can one atone for sins and not confession as preached by the Levites, or more precisely the Levite’s Yahweh, etc., it can be no coincidence that in these laws and commandments, which are placed on the mouth of Yahweh, that Yahweh himself is presented advocating and legitimating the very views and beliefs of the specific priestly guild writing the text, and, contrary to the views and beliefs of their rivals, the Levites and the Levite’s Yahweh! We will examine this more closely when we get to the contradictions in these books. But in short, this was the function of ancient literature, and we are allowing these ancient texts to speak for themselves. In this particular case, the Levites and Aaronids wrote specific texts that each advocated their religious beliefs, views, and their position as high priests by writing these sentiments directly into the mouth of their god! Again, we will look at numerous contradictions like this in the forthcoming months. What the Bibe is, therefore, must be answered on its, and its historical and literary context’s, own terms. Yes, there are biblical books where the author presents Yahweh speaking. There are ancient books of every culture that do this–part of the textual data that should be amassed. But just studying the Bible alone, scientifically, affords us the occasion to see that many of these so-called words of Yahweh are actually the very words of the texts’ authors. When we see numerous texts employing this ancient literary technique, and moreover, presenting Yahweh as the spokesperson for their own views and agenda, and contrary to Yahweh’s other words in other texts written by other authors employing the same technique, how can one conclude otherwise.

In other words, when in the composite text that we now call the Bible we find: Yahweh declaring that only Aaronids can officiate as his priests and Yahweh declaring that all Levites can officiate as high priest; Yahweh declaring that sin is atoned through confession and Yahweh declaring that sin is only expiated through the sacrificial cult, no exceptions; Yahweh declaring that he gave laws and commandments at Sinai and Yahweh declaring that he only gave the Ten Commandments at Sinai; Yahweh commanding to exterminate all the Canaanites without pity and Yahweh declaring to tolerate them and live in their midst; Yahweh declaring that the wilderness generation were disloyal and rebellious and Yahweh declaring that they were a paradigm of loyalty and faith; Yahweh declaring that he may be offered sacrifices at any altar and Yahweh declaring that there is only one altar where sacrifices are to be offered up; Yahweh declaring that the people saw him at Sinai and Yahweh declaring that they only heard his voice; Yahweh declaring that circumcision is an eternal covenant and keeping the land depends on observing this very commandment and Yahweh declaring the Mosaic laws as the covenant and keeping the land is dependent on keeping these laws; Yahweh declaring that he dwells in the midst of the people and Yahweh declaring that he only resides in heaven; Yahweh commanding Passover to be celebrated by all at Jerusalem and Yahweh commanding it to be celebrated at each person’s home; Yahweh commanding that animals for consumption must be ritually sacrificed and Yahweh commanding that they don’t have to be sacrificed ritually, etc. one must conclude that Yahweh is being used by these authors, each with their own contrary views and beliefs as a spokesperson for each of these authors’ agendas. These are all the personal, and competing, views, theological beliefs, and religious systems of our biblical authors. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. We will review these in detail and discuss them in the months ahead. The same literary technique gets employed by the gospel writers as well. But we won’t even get to those contradictions until 2015!

So remember, let the biblical text speak first, on its own terms–and that’s very different from letting the Bible speak (read this)–collect its textual data, and form hypotheses from there. If these hypotheses clash with your faith, well that’s a discussion we can embark on as well.

Footnotes    
  1. If the reader is interested, by far the best scholarly book out there, that I’ve read, on the texts and traditions that went into the making of the book of Genesis is David Carr’s Reading the Fractures of Genesis. I don’t agree with all of Carr’s assessments, certainly, but he is honest toward the text, meticulously pays attention to what is happening at the textual level, and offers up a convincing hypothesis on how the book of Genesis came to be. It is a good solid read.

3 Responses to Studying the Bible

  1. Elisabeth Strout says:

    Hi Dr. DiMattei,

    Thanks again for your work here. Is there a copy of the Torah available online or for purchase that has separated out all four sources, and pasted them together, so that you can read each as a continuous narrative?

    Thanks!

  2. Elisabeth, nice to hear from you. This has already been posted by another reader, here I believe http://contradictionsinthebible.com/moses-takes-wife-or-not/#comment-539

  3. Elisabeth Strout says:

    Oh, fabulous – thanks so much!!

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