Assumptions about the Word of God

At the end of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments, Moses and the future leaders of Israel stand on Mt. Nebo surveying the promised land. Moses will not be allowed to enter Canaan because of a prior failure to obey God, so he gives Joshua and Eleazar some final instructions, which include a set of scrolls Moses has drawn from a leather satchel. “Eleazar,” Moses says, “set these five books in the ark of the covenant, by the tablets of the Ten Commandments….” These five scrolls (though we see only one thick scroll) are obviously the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, commonly known as the five books of Moses. We must assume that Moses had the foresight (before leaving Egypt) to pack plenty of pens, ink, and papyrus and then found time, while leading several hundred thousand rebellious Israelites through a deadly desert environment, to write these words down (though in the movie we never see Moses write anything).

We also assume something else. Since Moses and God regularly speak to one another, the words Moses has written must be words God spoke to him. These five scrolls are, literally, the word of God. Since these words come from God, they are both revelatory and authoritative. They are, therefore, to be kept in the ark of the covenant, alongside the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and referred to for guidance and direction.

With this image of biblical authorship in mind, we easily slip into making some other assumptions. These assumptions may or may not be strictly entailed by this first naiveté, but they do represent a cluster of ideas congenial to it. One implication is that there must have been original autographs of each book of the Bible. An original autograph would be the manuscript existing at the moment the author wrote the last word…. It is true that some passages or books in the Bible could not be eyewitness accounts. Moses, for example, could not have witnessed any of the events recorded in Genesis, his first book. However, since God spoke directly to Moses, we can trust that Genesis is historically accurate.

A second assumption, which becomes important to some people, is that the authors who are named in the Bible must really be the authors of the books that carry their names. Though the Pentateuch nowhere explicitly claims that Moses wrote all five books (at best, only parts of them), tradition has always made that claim. If, however, the Pentateuch resulted from a long process of oral tradition and was gradually reduced to writing over the course of hundreds of years, we may suspect the veracity of the stories it tells. A long period of editorial redaction, combining several disparate sources into one story, allows for the possibility of error to creep in, and the presumed reliability of an eyewitness account disappears. This doubt is especially problematic for the books that explicitly identify their authors.

A third assumption, less obvious than these first two, is that God could reveal something to a biblical author that has no particular relevance to that author’s historical time. That is, biblical authors faithfully recorded what God revealed to them, even if they did not understand what their written words meant. When the prophet Isaiah confronted King Ahaz, for example, at a moment when Ahaz was worried about foreign invasion, the prophet said the king was to ask for a sign from God—it could be anything Ahaz wanted. But the king, in a show of false piety, said he would not “tempt the Lord” in that way. Angered by this refusal, Isaiah responded by saying that God would give Ahaz a sign anyway: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa 7:14, KJV). According to some Christians, this verse does not refer to any event during Isaiah’s time but rather to the virginal conception of Jesus, 700 years later, and is cited by Matthew as a prediction of Jesus (Matt 1:23). There is nothing in the book of Isaiah or the historical record to indicate that, in that particular crisis of 734 BCE, a virginal woman did miraculously become pregnant and give birth to a son named Immanuel. Both Isaiah and Ahaz must have been puzzled at this word from the Lord because it referred to nothing in their subsequent experience….

One final assumption congenial to this view of biblical authorship (which the example of Isaiah 7:14 raises) is that the Bible rises above all historical conditioning. Though any given biblical passage may refer to specific historical events—either current or to come—it is not conditioned or limited by those historical realities. Those passages in the settlement stories found in Joshua and Judges that have God commanding the Israelites to commit holy war against the Canaanites are examples of what I have in mind here. That is, the Israelites are to kill not only the fighting men but also all the Canaanites, including the women and children. Our term for such annihilation is genocide. Such passages appall us today (especially in light of the holocausts of the past centuries), and we recoil at the idea of God commanding such an immoral deed. The best explanation for such stories appearing in the Bible is to say that they reflect a limited understanding of God, common to all the people of that part of the world at that time. God never commanded such a thing. In other words, the perception of God recorded in such stories is historically conditioned by the accepted standards of that particular time and do not represent (either then or now) the actual character of God.

This understanding of biblical authorship as a literal record of words spoken directly by God is most certainly wrong. The reasons for believing it is wrong are the burden of the chapters of this book, and I will not rehearse those reasons here. It is important, though, to recognize at the outset that our question is empirical, not theological. That is, it is not a matter of saying whether God could have given us the Bible in the way depicted in this movie and novel; if we believe that the Bible is in some sense God’s revelation, then God could have done it that way. Our question, instead, is did God do it that way? How did the Bible come to be? The only way to answer empirical questions is to survey the relevant facts. In our case, that means reading the Bible carefully and looking for the evidence that would confirm or deny the idea that biblical books were written by individual authors under the direct guidance of divine inspiration. If we find evidence from the Bible itself that undermines this popular point of view, then we need to ask two further questions. The first is, “How did the Bible come to be, in light of the actual evidence we now have?” And the second is, “What does this new understanding of authorship imply for our use of the Bible, especially our understanding of its authority?”

This post originally appeared in the Introduction to “This is the Word of the Lord”: How the Bible Became Text and Why It Matters by Bill Thomason.

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