hat is the Bible?

It is some two million words, organized into books chapters, and verses, gathered together over some two millenia, being a highly distilled, elegiac historical account of a tribe of Near Eastern people called originally the Hebrews and later the Jews and their successors called the Christians.

The Old Testament received its present form about 700 B.C. after some 70 years of work by 11 Jewish scholars; the New Testament received its about 400 A.D. after four centuries of difference of opinion about the origin and nature of Christianity. Many other texts were not placed in either canon by the editors, known as the Old Testament and New Testament apocrypha.

The Books are credited to many different authors and were probably written over a space of one thousand years. The precise authorship cannot be known; the first five books are traditionally written by Moses although they are written about him and describe his death as though written by a biographer. Many are semi-biographical; Job does not claim to be written by Job, nor Ruth to be written by Ruth. The Prophets include no doubt writings of theirs but as well editorial commentary describing their lives.

What credibility are we to attach to the books of the Bible? There is no parallel historical account of the Old Testament, and thus it cannot be independently verified. Much of it purports to be conversations with God, and the words of God to the Jews. How are we to know whether that is so? The assertion by the Bible that it is so cannot a priori be given any more weight than the assertion of the Bhagavad-Gita that it is the words of Krishna, or in general any writing which claims that it is the words of any supernatural being, let alone a natural being.

The God of the Books of Moses is a God with a temper, subject to being argued with by both braham and Moses, and disposed to talk directly to the Jews. Insofar as his words can be tested against our own experience, we can with assurance grant them validity, but can we know any more because of that than that the reporters of the Old Testament had experiences similar to our own. All we can be absolutely certain of is that the books of the Bible are the words of various men and women, more or less wise and accurate, and if each of them repeated one thousand times each day that those words came to them directly from God we would have no way of knowing it was true -- unless all of our words and thoughts come directly from God, which is of course possible.

How can we tell whether something is from God? Partly that depends on what we mean by God. If God is a being living above the clouds, we can know it for sure if he appears to us; I'm not sure we can know it if someone else claims that that God appeared to him. If God is an immanent force or power we can see his works, but then what do we mean by saying some message is from God? One message is as likely to be from God as another in that case. If God is a personal Spirit speaking to each of us individually, then that is not very different from the Quaker concept of the Inner Light guiding each person (whether that speaking comes from a God without or a God within) and in any case justifies each person following his own conscience even if it differs from what someone else claims is his conscience. There is plenty of evidence that men are led in different ways, historically and today. Let us not be quick to judge the message of another person, which they have received "from God" to be not so, nor be quick either to judge that which we believe we have received "from God" to contravene all the messages others have received.

In short, there is no absolute test, external or internal, by which we can prove the claim of a message oral or written, to be "from God". Whether "God" even gives messages depends on your concept of "God". Whether you believe in "moral law" which should govern your actions does not even require "God"; it is discernible in what happens to people and need not be proclaimed by fiat. The universe exists and functions (perhaps it doesn't even exist but only functions) and moral law and giving of messages are independent of the mode of creation of that universe. It may be that "God" is the Creator of the universe, the Proclaimer of Moral Law (governance by covenant rather than by natural process) and the Comforter or Confidant or Guide to us as individuals; none of those three, even if so, requires that the received text of the Bible be through and through word for word God's word in a way in which other texts are not. Because anyone thing in the Bible appears to me to be true (e.g. Thou shalt not kill) does not mean that everything in the Bible must be true, and even if all were true it doesn't mean that it would be any truer than what might be found in some other text, the Tao te Ching, or the Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, for example. God gives impartially of truth, or at least I see no counter-evidence to that.

One of the primary principles of Protestantism was that man could communicate with God directly, and did not need a priest as an intermediary; it follows directly as a corollary that man does not need a book as an intermediary however helpful it might be to some in some circumstances.

(originally published under the name of John Fitz)