Introduction to Biblical Criticism

The Christian Bible is a failure on all the points that its proponents claim makes it relevant and necessary for our contemporary time.  It is touted as a moral and ethical guide, as well as a history of god and his special relationship with his chosen people, the Israelites. Fundamentalists maintain that it is an inerrant document written and interpreted by people with god’s inspiration. It is bewildering and egregious that an ancient document replete with violence, men and god’s pathologies, child sacrifice, genocide and assorted cruelty should have such an influence over the current political and cultural scene. 

Biblical quotations and passages are used to excite prejudice and violence against gay people, women, doctors who perform abortions, disobedient children and more.  Politicians, media, educators and religious leaders make use of the Christian Bible for their own ends, which are most frequently based on expediency rather than problem solving to create a more viable society.

Fundamentalist Christians would dictate our morals by Leviticus.  They would replace evolution with creationism.  Advances in science, such as stem cell research, are opposed on all sides by religionists who cite the Bible to justify their objections to modernity.  The Bible is used as a prop to maintain injustice in the name of god.[1] We live in the 21st Century with minds shaped by a document that has no extant originals, and which was written by aggregates of scribes and religious advocates.  This document was added to, redacted, translated and interpreted by people in different historical periods who had different agendas and messages to deliver to believers.

The Old Testament and the New Testament

The Old Testament’s gathering of its 5 most important books, including Genesis, is called the Pentateuch. It was finalized by the Deuteronomist scribe in around 640 to 609 B.C.E., during the reign of King Josiah.[2]  It was added to and redacted over the years, up to around the 2nd Century B.C.E.

The New Testament is composed of gospels written approximately between 70 and 100 C.E., and epistles, written between 57 and 67 C.E., along with books of later dates.  The earliest gospel was Mark.  The writers known as Luke and Matthew based their gospels partially on Mark, but they seem to have borrowed heavily from an earlier writing, called Q (Quelle, the German word for source.) This early source seems to have primarily contained Jesus’ spoken words. Such a document is not extant.  There are no original manuscripts for the New Testament.[3]

There are no original manuscripts for the Old Testament.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are copies of earlier works.  They are a collection of 972 Texts from the Hebrew Bible and extra biblical material dating from 150 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.[4] They were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancient Greek, and are the earliest copies of the Old Testament that have emerged so far. Fundamentalist biblical scholars twist themselves into knots in their futile attempts to establish the veracity and similarity of the extant copies, but such scholars are at best, mistaken, and at worst disingenuous.  Most of the volumes on the Book List below discuss the vast amount of various versions and copies of both Old and New Testaments. Our world perception is partly based on the compilations of a document for which we have no originals. This is not a fact that is discussed as openly as it could be in media reports, and certainly not from the pulpit. As a result, much of the public has a misapprehension that the exegesis and translations of the Bible are based on original documents. 

What of the morality and ethics of the Bible?  Biblical scholars, religious leaders, and politicians routinely call for a return to the morality of the Bible.  Attempts to discuss the errors of the Bible are seen as dangerous, as fundamentalists insist that people are not able to do without its moral guidance. C. Dennis McKinsey, in The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errors, cites wholly repugnant practices and beliefs discussed in both the Old and New Testaments. Some of these practices are cannibalism (260-261,) death penalties meted out without mercy or common sense (263-264,) human sacrifice, including that of children (273,) and denigration of homosexuality and women (265.)[5] 

The question of biblical ethics has been settled by objective scholarship.  There is very little.  What of the question of miracles and prophesies cited in the Bible?  Even many theist biblical scholars believe that such reports are fictitious and do not take them seriously.[6] The same can be said for the outright inaccuracies and howlers in the Bible with regard to science, mathematics, geometry, the flood and so on.[7]

Joe Edward Barnhart, in his excellent article “The Bible and Violence” in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus Books, 2007. 134-137) has categorized many types of violence portrayed in the Bible. Such types may be found in both Old and New Testaments.  There is “Extermination,” which the American Puritan preacher, Cotton Mather, partially used to justify killing Native American Indians in the 17th Century.  Mather cited Israel’s alleged exterminations of Amalekites, Canaanites, Midianites and other peoples, with god’s approval.  The Bible describes the violence and mayhem both commanded and carried out by the god Yahweh. Barnhart characterizes such passages as the “Pathological Rage of the deity.” According to Barnhart, there is another type of destructiveness that can be described as “Cosmic Dualism;” apocalyptic violence is excused by claiming the victims have brought it on themselves by refusing to believe in Jesus and Christianity. There are additional kinds of Biblical barbarity. Barnhart cites example after example of violence visited on the Israelites, a type of cruelty designated as “Violence Turned upon the Chosen.” Yahweh orders his people to carry out “Genocide,” even in some cases, slaughtering the innocent animals belonging to the enemy.  Barnhart designates a particularly repugnant practice in the Old Testament, “Sacrificing Children to God.”  He has some interesting thoughts concerning a type of biblical violence he calls “Blood Sacrifice.”  There is a sense that victims of blood sacrifice possess ritual impurity, that they are somehow not genuine human beings, but agents of contagion and pollution.  Barnhart maintains there is a connection between the everlasting torments of Christian hellfire with the ancient Judaic practice of human sacrifice by fire.

A brief glance at both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible gives the lie to its proponents’ claims that it is an essential moral guide for our modern world.  How much suffering would be alleviated if contemporary society would adopt a secular ethical foundation based on reason and science, rather than the biblical foundation based on vengeance, ignorance, superstition and violence? (See Ethics)

Categories of Biblical Criticism

This lecture will cite the various categories of biblical criticism, as discussed by preeminent biblical scholars.  These scholars undertake the study of the Bible using the same methods of hermeneutics as scholars studying other academic subjects.  The categories discussed in this section references Robert M. Price’s “Biblical Criticism” in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible, C. Dennis McKinsey’s The Encyclopedia of Biblical Criticism, and Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies. (See the Bibliography below.)

There are 5 major forms of biblical criticism in the present day.  Christian fundamentalists cling to the concept of biblical inerrancy, but the Preface will maintain that the Christian Bible fails to hold up under the scrutiny of any one of the hermeneutics discussed here.  The 5 categories are historical criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism and criticism centering on the historic Jesus.[8] Most critiques blend several of the categories so the distinctions are not clear cut.

Historical criticism began as early as the 1440’s when Lorenzo Valla judged an important document called the Donation of Constantine (ceding the Papal States to the Church in perpetuity) was a fraud. Erasmus, John Colet, Spinoza, Martin Luther and John Locke were only a few of the important thinkers who insisted that biblical text should be studied as any ancient document, according to the original historical sense and with rationality.  Grammar and historical context began to be important to biblical studies.  Later thinkers, such as F.H. Bradley, expected historical scholars to not only determine truth about a document’s authenticity, but to have the ability to recreate a previous author’s mindset. Understanding his viewpoint would help to judge what caused him to write or perpetuate falsehood. Such a determination could illuminate portions of the difficulties and thinking of each era scrutinized.

Source criticism concerns questions of authorship and the “literary integrity” of books of the Bible. Julius Wellhausen was one of the greatest source critics. In 1883, he advanced the Documentary Theory, or Method, to maintain that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, or the Judaic Torah) was not authored by Moses. Some theist biblical scholars had insisted that even though Moses’ death was included in the narrative, Moses was still the author of the Pentateuch. They maintained that the inclusion of his death was proof of Moses’ powers of prediction. (See the bibliography below for Richard Elliot Friedman’s compelling exegesis of the compilation of the Torah, culminating in Ezra, the possible Deuteronomy scribe.) For such types of critique, source materials are gathered and examined for differences in style, history mentioned, and so on. Source criticism was crucial in the scrutiny of the New Testament, as well, determining how Matthew and Luke had rewritten the earlier Q document, which has never appeared.  They were both quoting the Q when they transcribed the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes.[9]

Form critics such as Hermann Gunkel maintained that the biblical scribes were not so much writers as compilers and collectors of traditional oral works which they wrote down.  Form criticism encompasses definitions of many different types of narratives.  There are etiological stories which explain how things came to be, such as why there is death.  There are ethnological stories that try to explain how things came to be between nations and peoples, such as how Jacob and Esau’s quarrel resulted in bad blood between the Israelites and the Edomites.  There are geological stories, explaining remarkable landmarks. Price believes the most famous story of the geological narratives is the “salinization of Mrs. Lot.”[10] There are many subcategories of form criticism, such as ceremonial stories. These stories supply a reason for a ceremony that is performed frequently, but for so long a time that people don’t remember why, such as Passover.  Legal questions, too, are accounted for in form stories.  Price touches on the anthropologist Malinowski’s theory of legitimization stories which maintain the world is the way it is because a god decreed that it is so. Who are we to try to change the order of things? Such stories legitimize the existing status quos of society, authority, class, and religion.

Form criticism is responsible for exposing Mark’s New Testament Gospel as inauthentic, a skeleton to hang several oral traditions on.  Karl Ludwig Schmidt put forward a theory which maintained that gospel forms were passed down in oral units and no detail was preserved in writing unless it served a set purpose, such as Jesus’ messianic lineage.[11] Robert M. Price has provided a well-documented examination of the disputations surrounding the concept of form criticism. The entire section is worth reading for the clarity it brings to the issues involved.[12]

Redaction criticisms are examinations of what has been left out of Bible copies.  There are many redactions in the Old Testament, but much of the focus of redaction is what the Evangelists left out of the gospels.  There may have been as many as 100 books lost, according to C. Dennis McKinsey.  Most of the redactions were for religious and political purposes, such as Luke’s Gospel toning down the eschatological teaching of the earlier Mark Gospel.  Since the end of the world did not seem as close as it once had, there was a shift in narratives.  The early Christians believed that there would soon be great destruction and death, after which god’s peace and justice would be established in the world. When the apocalypse failed to happen, they changed their goal to establishing a just and loving community among Christian believers.

 McKinsey and others state that many books were kept out of the Bible because they did not have the advocates the other volumes had.  McKinsey concludes that Church councils at Rome in 382, at Hippo in 393, at Carthage in 397, and again at Carthage in 419, fixed the list of books now present in the New Testament.  The Council at Carthage in 397 C.E. was especially influential.  It was such decisions, determined by politics and by vote, that gave us the 27 books of the Bible we have today.[13]

The Search for the Historical Jesus

The question of whether Jesus existed as a historical person is very troublesome.  Even discounting his putative divinity, it is difficult to make a truth claim for a real, though likely non-consequential preacher born in Galilee somewhere between 7-2 BCE.  This historical personage was supposedly born of humble parentage, was a preacher during his young adult life, perhaps predicting the coming end of the World and the reign of god’s justice on earth, perhaps preaching an ethical doctrine illustrated with parables and aphorisms.  However, there is little evidence of a person who could be distinguished from all the roving preachers of that era. Because of the dearth of verification, it is possible to consider the Jesus figure a mythical configuration. Jesus often seems a metaphoric scarecrow on which many religious, political, and scholarly schools have hung concepts in accord with their own aims. Many scholars, such as Earl Doherty (The Jesus Puzzle 2001,) Freke and Gandy (The Jesus Mysteries 2001,) and R.M Price, who has written several erudite volumes on the topic (See Book List Below,) have concluded that the supposition of a historical Jesus is completely mistaken.

The rejection of a historical Jesus has been endorsed by Richard Dawkins, the preeminent biologist and atheist, and by Christopher Hitchens, both part of the New Atheist movement. (See Atheist Activism.) George A. Wells has of late determined that a historical, but non-important Jesus personage did exist.[14] The difficulty of ascertaining any facts concerning the historical Jesus makes for enduring speculation rather than enlightenment.

Robert M. Price lists some biblical historians’ projections concerning Jesus. (See the article citation below in Works Cited, “The Historical Jesus.”) He finds that Ben P. Meyer serves up a warmed over Jeremias, the biblical prophet.  Meyer sees Jesus as a messiah and a leader in a national repentance movement. (132.) Juan Luis Segundo creates an agitator Jesus of class conflicts. (132.) E.P. Sanders makes a case for an eschatological Jesus (132.) James Breech creates a Nietzschean Jesus (133,) while Marcus Borg modernizes Jesus even more, making him a charismatic leader of a movement grounded in spirit rather than in culture. (133.) In Jesus the Magician (1978) Morton Smith thinks  Jesus was a magician; it was not uncommon for roving preachers of the Jesus era to perform “magic.” John Dominic Crossan creates a hybrid Jesus that is part magician, and part Greek Cynic- influenced philosopher. ( 133). Burton Mack sees a significant correspondence between Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Mark, the early Q document and Cynic philosophy’s tenets. (133.) The Jesus Seminar is a current movement founded by John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk in 1985.  They are a group of around 150 scholars who vote to decide their collective view of Jesus. A brief description of the Seminar’s final picture of Jesus is that he was “an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage and faith healer who preached a gospel of liberation from injustice in startling parables and aphorisms.[15] The Jesus Seminar does not believe Jesus preached the end of the known world and a coming reign of god’s justice, but that instead he called for people to repair the world.  Bart Erhrman, however, sees Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet.[16] (See Book List.)

Robert M. Price is convinced that Jesus is a mythical figure, and not a historic person.  He bases his argument on what he calls the three pillars, or key points. First, why is there no mention of a miracle-working Jesus in secular sources of that era?  Second, the epistles were written earlier than the gospels, and those works provide no evidence of a recent, historical Jesus.  All that can be discovered in them is that a Jesus Christ, son of god, came into the world to die as a sacrifice for human sin and was raised by god and enthroned in heaven.  Third, the Jesus narrative is paralleled by Middle Eastern and Greek myths of dying and reviving gods, such as Baal, Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Dionysus and so on. Such early myths continued into the Hellenistic and Roman world and influenced early Christian ideas.[17] Tim Callahan, author of Secret Origins of the Bible (2002,) concurs with the dying and reviving gods concept. (See Book List Below.)

George A. Wells, in his scholarly article in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, cited belowpresents a different concept of Jesus.  He believes that Jesus was superimposed on the figure of Wisdom, a female primordial consort of god, who sat at his side and helped create the world. The Q tradition describes both Jesus and John the Baptist as human messengers sent by Wisdom to prepare for the imminent arrival of the supernatural son of man who would effect a terrible and final judgment.[18] “In sum,” states Wells, “the Jesus of the early Epistles is not the Jesus of the Gospels.”[19] He goes on to explain that the theological world is once again involved in a quest for the historical Jesus.  This will be the third search.  The first two ended in failure and were more for the purposes of finding theological proof than as historical projects.  We shall see what the third quest will uncover.

The conclusion to be drawn from such deep and exhaustive research is that each era and each scholar creates its own Jesus.  There is no conclusive evidence of a historical Jesus in the Gospels, the Epistles, or Roman sources.  The likelihood of success for the third quest for the historical Jesus is minimal. A skeptical stance seems to be the correct course concerning the historicity of Jesus.

The End of Biblical Studies

It is certain that the Bible is a document with serious moral, historical, factual and archeological flaws.  Hector Avalos, a biblical scholar, calls for an end to biblical studies. (The End to Biblical Studies. Prometheus, 2007) Avalos first discusses the well documented flaws of the Bible. The second part of his volume is more interesting. He provides a listing of the organizations, publications and media which he believes combine to keep bible studies alive as an institution.  He calls this aggregate “the infrastructure of Biblical Studies.” Avalos criticizes academe, the Society of Biblical Literature, The Journal of Biblical Literature, as well as the media publishing complex (books, films and television) for continuing the pretence that the Bible has significance for contemporary life.  He states that there should be an end to the field of biblical studies, that we know what we can concerning the Bible and its history by now.  He maintains that the remainder of the unsolved problems concerning biblical criticism and truth verifications may never be resolved. 

Avalos makes two significant points in his volume.  He believes that modern biblical scholarship has shown that the Bible is a product of cultures whose values and beliefs about the origin, nature and purpose of our world are no longer held to be relevant.  His second point is that, in the face of significant irrelevance, the profession of academic biblical studies still pretends to be consequential. Such a fruitless masquerade is carried out by practicing so-called scholarly disciplines that are often flawed, such as the production of mistranslations, skewed histories and so on.[20]  Avalos believes the very thought processes and concept formation of those ancient Biblical peoples, particularly in the area of ethics and morality, are foreign to the modern world, irrelevant, and often harmful. 

Jacques Berlinerblau (see Book List below) calls for a secular Bible studies program, but does not make prescriptive suggestions to move such a program forward.  He points out that the Bible’s “diverse messages and contradictory readings influence us in ways that are not so much knowingly thought about and rationally assessed as they are enacted on a daily basis in a reflex-like manner”. Berlinerblau reminds readers that the seemingly godless economic calendar that mandates days of rest and days of labor still largely adheres to a religiously inflected calendar.[21]

The secular community continues to make dents in the huge religious/political/economic confluence that keeps our society entrapped within the conceptual paradigm of an outmoded document replete with violence, rage, injustice, superstition and supernatural events.  Our secular scholars chip away at the monumental fraud of the Christian Bible.  Bit by bit, we will someday supplant its dark and puzzling vision with a secular one of clarity and reason.

Lecture on Video: Biblical Criticism – Old Testament and New Testament

Lecture: Biblical Criticism – Old Testament and New Testament

Discussion on Video: Biblical Criticism – Old Testament and New Testament

Discussion: Biblical Criticism – Old Testament and New Testament

Recommended Books

Berlinerblau, Jacques.  The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Berlinerblau is a formidable scholar of ancient Near Eastern Languages and Sociology.  He has written a concise, erudite, and witty critique of the fabrication of the Old Testament and offers some cautions to readers concerning paying attention to religion’s claims.  He proposes a secular hermeneutics (interpretations.) Berlinerblau believes that attitudes from the Bible, perpetuated by fundamentalists, are rampant in American culture.  He thinks that secularists should take up the task of adding to biblical scholarship with their own outlook and methodology.

Secular Bible offers an interesting proposition.  The author maintains that secular hermeneutics should give up any interpretive project that attempts to ascertain what an earlier author or editor was trying to say in the numerous biblical copies that have been handed down.  He thinks that there are so many possible meanings that most attempts to untangle interpretation fall into what he calls the “meaningless jungle” of the Hebrew Bible. He believes that the new secular hermeneutics should reject the notion that the text of the Old Testament is coherent at all.

Berlinerblau discusses the state of Bible Studies in academe and finds it is not held in much esteem by other academics.  Bible study, with some exceptions, is still in the hands of the religious and is suspected of “boosterism.” Indeed, he is correct.  Even some bible exegetes complain about church governing bodies and ministers who, either from ignorance or unwillingness to discuss biblical errors and inaccuracies keep ordinary Christian congregations in ignorance of biblical difficulties.  Such a cover-up creates shock for some believers when they are faced with the truth. Berlinerblau does not chart a course or offer a set of prescriptive methods for a secular study of the Bible, but rather opens the question up for consideration.  Personal commitment to Christian “truth” and reconciling the errors of the Bible is rampant in biblical studies and merely forwards more confusion.

Secular Bible discusses two cultural examples of the Bible’s extreme openness of interpretation: intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles and homosexuality.  He notes that exegetes, whether conservative Christians or gay supporters, write on biblical pronouncements as gays, or as fundamentalists.  Each group tries to interpret the Bible for their side.  He hopes for a time when interpreters will write about conclusions that are not necessarily in line with their personal convictions.  For example, some interpreters have written objectively and against their own point of view, that Leviticus 20:13 condemns the penetrator caught in a homosexual act to death. The passive partner may also be condemned, but this is unclear.  Most civilized exegetes find such a stipulation repugnant, but there is no use trying to whitewash Leviticus.  Berlinerblau would like to see more truth statements concerning biblical passages rather than attempts to demonstrate that the Bible is with one’s own party.

Berlinerblau is fun to read.  He is a concise, elegant and witty stylist, who delivers his contrarian message in about 141 pages of tightly written text.  However, the volume contains another 40 pages of extended notes.  There is no bibliography, but he does offer some titles of interesting texts for the reader’s consideration.  Both beginners and intermediate students of biblical criticism will find the Secular Bible accessible, thought-provoking and bracing.

Callahan, Tim. Secret Origins of the Bible. CA: Millennium Press, 2002.

None of Tim Callahan’s information about scripture is secret, of course, but he is quite correct in his contention that the ordinary religious congregant does not easily hear the truth concerning the Christian Bible.  Biblical scholars argue among themselves about biblical inerrancy, redaction, sources, and so on, but shield the general church populations from disturbing information that might shake their mistaken beliefs.

Callahan, the religion editor for Skeptic Magazine, is a master of comparative mythology, languages and literature and has written a rich and illuminating volume. The concept that reported biblical events were versions of earlier mythological narratives is not new, but the author explains the transmission of ancient gods, goddesses, and myths to the Bible in a very scholarly, accessible, and thorough manner.  He is well versed in languages and explains language transformation, demonstrating how the names of the earliest deities became transformed into the names of Judeo-Christian biblical personages.

Callahan gives a good example of transmutation of older myths into the Bible with the story of Genesis and the narrative of 6 days of creation, Adam and Eve, and the serpent.  Genesis 1’s creation story originated first in Mesopotamia, and then in Babylonia with the god, Marduk, around 1400 B.C.E.  Genesis 2’s story can be traced back to Ptah, the Egyptian god, and the Greek figure, Prometheus, who breathed life into man.  Eve was likely the goddess Ashera, the consort of Yahweh, the Israelite god.  Judaism did not become monotheistic until the 7th Century B.C.E.  Callahan states that the various creation stories are a “monolithic distillation of myths in which finite gods and goddesses presented a less than perfect world…” The creation and fall narratives in Genesis are part of the greater family of mythic systems of the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, according to Callahan.

Readers might want to read Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (See Below) before attempting Callahan. Friedman supplies an understanding of the fermenting political culture the early biblical scribes lived and worked in. Callahan provides an exegesis for many biblical narratives, chapter by chapter, including Isaac, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Jacob, the 12 Israelite Tribes, the Egyptian Exodus, and Sampson. He elucidates their relation to past narratives of other peoples. The two volumes will open up new vistas for the reader who has not been exposed to secular concepts of biblical study and provide the more experienced student with new insights.

Callahan has researched the mythic origins of Jesus’ nativity, passion and resurrection narrative in the New Testament and finds the story is  based on earlier dying and reviving god myths from the near East.  He is of the opinion that the ancient exclusionary myths of Jewish and Palestinian people in the Mid East are helping to keep the two states from a viable peace in the present day.  Callahan also discusses myths that still influence United States culture.  He would like to make people more aware how our modern belief systems in the 21st Century are based on a primitive thought structure.  Such fables are still influencing our attempt to find solutions to enormous social difficulties with mythology rather than reason. Callahan discusses the deep psychological needs of people and how the biblical stories resonate with a reality beyond literal truth for many. 

Secret Origins is written in an easy to understand, literary style and is well researched. The author is well versed in ancient history, archeology, linguistics, numismatics and more which equips him to delve into scriptural “truths” with scholarship and depth.  The volume contains copious illustrations to help explain the points brought forward.  It is indexed thoroughly and contains an excellent bibliography.  There is a small section listing biblical encyclopedias, dictionaries and bible compilations that is very helpful for readers who want to study biblical criticism more thoroughly.  Highly Recommended.

Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.  New York: Harper One, 2005.

Bart Ehrman has constructed a very fine, intriguing story that explains why what we think we know about the Bible is skewed.  Ehrman discusses the fact that the Bible we read today is a copy of copies of copies of copies and so on.  These versions were written by different scribes with different sets of skills and diverse motivations.  Ehrman takes the reader through the early days of the Christian Church when most Christians were illiterate.  Letters from Paul and other church leaders were read to different communities as instruction.  There were gospels (only 4 made it into the Bible), apologies, and more.  A former merchant, Marcion, donated money to the early church and compiled a “canon” of collected books that comprised the sacred texts in the mid 2nd Century C.E. He was later pronounced a heretic.

Scribes copied versions of “sacred” manuscripts and frequently made errors when transcribing a word.  Ehrman makes an excellent case for how a small error or change can alter a text significantly and make it very difficult to get a clear sense of intent when studying various biblical texts. Scribes also made changes that they thought would make more sense. Forgeries were rampant at the time of the early church. Some scribes had a religious or political agenda when they altered text. Later on the church altered texts to reinforce church doctrine, which was decided in a series of councils. (See Preface above.)

Ehrman explains the methods used in textual biblical studies.  He gives an interesting account of the Dutch humanist Erasmus’ publication of the Greek New Testament around 1516.  His text became the standard for 3 centuries, the version that most Western European printers used.  Erasmus had very few early manuscripts to consider and many of them were from the late medieval period.  Ehrman maintains that many textual critics are beginning to believe we do not have an “original” text for the New Testament, that there may not be one that is extant.

Misquoting Jesus is the best book for beginners who want to know more about text formation, compilation and transmission.  Ehrman is a fluent, communicating and concise writer.  This volume lacks a bibliography which is always a problem for readers who want recommendations for further study.  The book is additionally interesting for atheists because Ehrman includes his journey from fundamentalist scholar to agnostic during the course of his Bible studies.  Highly Recommended.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bart Ehrman published Jesus just prior to the Millennium of our time in 2000.  Someone, perhaps Stephen Jay Gould, pointed out that our millennium was filled with primarily secular fears, involving computer and communications breakdowns, and not as many pronouncements of the Second Coming of Jesus as might have been expected.

Ehrman lays out a depiction of Jesus as an apocalyptist.  According to the author, Jesus was an itinerate preacher who believed the world was very soon coming to an end, and that god would overthrow evil.  Huge numbers of people would perish in the process, but in the end, there would be peace and justice under god’s reign. Ehrman believes that Jesus was convinced that this apocalypse would happen in his lifetime, or his disciples’ lifetimes. After Jesus died and the end of the world did not happen, Christians began to refer to his teachings as metaphysical and to forge a new concept.  They maintained that the “Kingdom” could be faithful Christians working together in a community for mutual peace and justice.  Jesus was turned into a god incarnate.

Ehrman takes up about 8 chapters in the volume discussing how New Testament scholars evaluate evidence in scripture, its history and so on.  He includes an abbreviated explanation of contemporary New Testament scholarship which will be particularly interesting to readers who have a sustained interest in biblical criticism.

Ehrman explains the times that produced Jesus, and states that many 1st Century Jews had apocalyptic ideas, some probably related to their Roman domination.  He lists the sources for knowledge of Jesus- the four gospels, The Gospel of Peter, Gnostic texts, epistles, and non-Christian literature.  Finding the truth is difficult, as such texts are not wholly reliable. Ehrman explains the criteria scholars use to assess reliance.

Ehrman maintains that Jesus claimed kingship, which was allegedly tacked on to his cross at his execution. This contention was not made publicly but privately to his disciples.  All Judas needed to do was tell the Romans such a claim and that would be enough pretext to execute Jesus. Ehrman maintains that the understanding of Jesus needs revision.  He does not believe that Jesus should be depicted as an ethicist, a family values preacher, or a preacher working for social justice.  Jesus wanted followers to leave their homes and families and strive for the rapidly approaching Kingdom.  Many critics think Ehrman’s reading of Jesus makes sense, and perhaps it is correct.  But some will find R.M. Price’s theory more salient. (See Price, Below.) Price believes that there are many projected faces of Jesus and that it is highly doubtful if there was an actual person. Jesus might be a compiled myth. The atheist reader, faced with many versions of Jesus and the fact that there are no original extant texts, may wonder if any objective knowledge of the historical Jesus, now in its third phase, will be found.

Friedman, Richard Elliott.  Who Wrote the Bible? New York: Summit Books, 1987.

Friedman is a professor of Hebrew and comparative religion.  In Who Wrote he begins a quest for the Old Testament authors of the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Torah.  It is a fascinating journey and a literary and historical detective story. He manages to advance the documentary study of the Bible.  By careful sorting out of word usages and other scholarly devices, Friedman comes to the conclusion that the first 5 books were several different works by diverse scribes.

Friedman believes the two scribes who wrote the original versions of their people’s oral stories and traditions were J and E.  Each version was written from the cultural viewpoint of the people from which it came.  One scribe was from Israel, perhaps an advocate of the priestly family of Shiloh, and the other was from Judah, an advocate of David’s royal house.  The Israelite kingdom fell and a scribe combined both books.  Then the Priestly work came along in King Hezekiah’s time, with the Jerusalem Aaronid priesthood in favor.  This work was the P version and an alternative view of the JE combination which had hostile views of Aaron, god, and history.  In the age of King Josiah, the Shilonite priesthood came to power and put together a law code and a history down from Moses.  The fall of the kingdom and Josiah’s death caused the Deuteronomy writer to put down an account of the disaster.

Who was the Deuteronomy writer who reconciled all the earlier versions of the Bible?  Friedman believes that it was Ezra.  Ezra provided the form that would be handed down for millennia.  Friedman discusses the methods and aims of Ezra.  In all, his statements are interesting and backed up by formidable scholarship.

A compelling aspect of Friedman’s study is his thinking on how the man-made Bible has impacted human faith.  Friedman explains how the combined E and J versions made the Biblical story richer, more open to interpretation.  When the P version was written, god became cosmic and transcendental.  The god of JE and D pictures a personal god, talking to people, and moving about the world.  The two pictures of god were brought together by the redactor to create a new balance.  God was both universal and personal.  Friedman explains the writer had other motivations but the result was the Judaic, and then the Christian, idea that god is concerned with each person.  God is also depicted as a loving but torn god.  His mercy frequently delays or tempers his justice.  Such a unique combination of biblical synthesis has influenced our contemporary sense of religion.

Friedman has a clear, accessible style, sharing with readers and not condescending to them.  Beginning students can easily follow the text.  There is a selected bibliography at the back for further reading.  Who Wrote the Bible?  is an important text that is even-handed and respectful of the Bible.  It is a splendid piece of detection of biblical origins and editing.

McKinsey, C. Dennis.  Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995.

McKinsey begins his volume with an overview of some of the main critical points concerning biblical study.  He discusses the fundamentalist view of biblical inerrancy.  He quotes fundamentalist biblical scholars about their fear of a slippery slope.  They are worried that if there are a few admissions of biblical error, most of the Bible will become vulnerable to the same charges.  He explains the Bible canon’s origins.  The Church fathers gathered the New Testament writings together in 397 C.E. and voted by majority on the books to be left out and those to be left in. (18) McKinsey explores the fact of the redacted, or excluded, literature from the Bible.  There is a large amount of literature of this type-possibly a hundred suppressed gospels. (20) The Catholic Bible includes the Apocrypha, but there is more excluded literature than that. The Christian world is evenly divided on whether the Apocrypha are canonical.  Protestants find them full of errors, inaccuracies, and having no sign of their being inspired by God. (21)

McKinsey discusses biblical authorship, quoting theist scholars as to their lack of information concerning the authorship of many biblical volumes. (22)  He goes on to write about original versions (none exist – 23), and variances (thousands of manuscripts purporting to be accurate representations of the originals-26.) Fundamentalists insist that none of the variant versions affect the material aspect of the Bible. (29) Apologists also insist that one must know Greek and Hebrew to interpret the Bible correctly, but McKinsey points out that critics who know these languages still disagree. (31) McKinsey finishes with interpretation. Apologists try to insist on literal readings but even they pause when the passages are too fatuous.  They also fall back on the non issue of Christian martyrs dying for their beliefs and the attempts to ban or burn the Bible. (34). Such arguments have no bearing on the truth of the Bible. 

After laying out a concise array of biblical criticism and its errors, McKinsey attacks the entire Bible, based on its violations of scientific, mathematical, medical principles and so on.  He faults the Bible for its poor ethical positions, such as approving war and slavery.  He cites the disgraceful positions of the Bible concerning homosexuality, human sacrifice and intolerance.  He attacks prophesy, showing how often it is false, and he questions why it would be believed even in theist quarters, when god admits to having deceived prophets in the past.

McKinsey is not easily refuted.  He has undertaken a painstaking study of the Bible and has found it so riddled with textual errors that he concludes there is probably no truth in it.   He passionately disputes biblical passages that claim belief in the Christian lord is liberty. (469) He denounces belief in Christ as slavery.  McKinsey thunders that one may expect deceptive statements from a religion that proclaims misery is a welcome test of one’s faith, lack of valid evidence for biblical teachings are a challenge to one’s beliefs and the remedy for ineffective prayer is more prayer (469.)

McKinsey’s style is clear, incisive and convincing.  Beginners can easily read this volume and profit from it. The Bible does not withstand McKinsey’s erudition or his passionate denunciations of deluded belief. McKinsey’s study is arguably the best compilation of biblical errors, wickedness and inanity. He also provides suggestions for getting the message to the media.   His latest book, with added material, is Biblical Errancy: A Reference Guide. (2000.) Readers comment that it is helpful for debating biblical issues.

Price, Robert M. Deconstructing Jesus. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2000.

Robert M. Price has taken the concept of there being too many Jesus figures to fabricate into a salient whole a step further than earlier scholars.  What he has in common with such writers is the belief that the laying out of so many theories concerning the historical Jesus sinks the entire array into a meaningless chasm of non-interpretation. It is clear that the early church authored definitions of Jesus that had a great deal to do with politics and culture and very little regard for the “true” identity of Jesus. 

Dr. Price, however, does not stop with the ancient world, but demonstrates that some scholars in the present day have created different “identities” of Jesus based on their own belief systems or intellectual conceptualizations. Some scholars have seen Jesus as a proponent of Cynic philosophy.  Jesus’ area of the country was influenced by Hellenistic ideas; there was a strong Cynical faction who followed the 4th Century Greek philosopher Diogenes’ naturalistic tenets.  There were many Essenes in Jesus’ region, as well.  They believed in purification, heeding the Sabbath, and ritual immersion. Some scholars see Jesus as an advocate of Essenian concepts. The Gospel writers had an Essenian background and were up against the dominant Judean Temple parties, according to Price.

Price examines the old myths and “romances” that correspond to the gospel stories.  Price believes that Jesus was, at best, a Judaized version of the ancient mystery religions.  He presents an interesting “principle of biographic analogy.” In other words, when one sees heroic and/or mythic elements in a story, warning signs should be attached to them.  Such a principle would also include virgin births, turning water into wine, and other “miracles”; they are all strong indications that the stories are myths.  Burton Mack, John Crossan and Russell Shorto have covered some of this same ground before (See Book List- Further Reading), but Price has moved a step further.  He is not a dogmatist, so he leaves the question of Jesus open enough for the reader to pursue the study on her own.

Deconstructing Jesus discusses the origins of Christ’s reconstruction, actual Jesus movements, Christ cults and spends an entire chapter on Jesus’ death.  Price calls the entire story of Jesus’ alleged death on the cross the Cruci-Fiction. Price is a member of the Jesus Seminar. (See Preface) However, he does not agree with the group’s collective view of the historicity of Jesus or the picture of a liberal, ethicist Jesus.  He believes that scholars often “fall down a well chasing Jesus and then see their own faces.” He states: “It seems to me that Jesus must be categorized with other legendary founder figures, including the Buddha, Krishna, and Lao-tzu.  There may have been a real figure there, but there is simply no longer any way of being sure.”

Deconstructing Jesus is a well written, provocative volume and a welcome salvo concerning the array of meaningless identities of Jesus.  Too many groups with motivations of their own co-opted this possibly unimportant or nonexistent figure and used him in the accounts they wrote to argue for their own agendas. Some readers find the work difficult, but most consider the book easy to understand and humorous.  Price is a leading scholar of Jesus studies and his knowledge and erudition are on view in Deconstructing Jesus.

Silberman, Neil Asher and Israel Finkelstein.  The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press, 2002.

There is almost no archeological proof for the events in the Old Testament.  In fact, the Bible narration has been steadily chipped away by archeological findings in recent years.  It would seem that around 630 to 600 B.C.E., in Jerusalem under the reign of King Josiah, a national epic was compiled as a means of propaganda, to unite and energize the population with tales of past glory and grandeur.  Despite the archeological findings, both Silberman, a well known author on archeology, and Finkelstein, director of Tel Aviv University’s excavations at Megiddo, attempt to salvage the Bible and preserve it as a purveyor of a great legend.  However, their findings and conclusions are impeccable.  The results of their investigation are devastating to any biblical claims of being the true history of the Israelite people.

There is no evidence of Exodus. There is no written record of a large group of slaves leaving Egypt at one time.  The Egyptians were meticulous record keepers and there is no possibility that such an event would not be recorded. Rather, there were probably many small movements that took place over a long period of time, according to the authors.

There is no evidence for a decisive military conquest by Israel over the Canaanites around 1200 B.C. The Canaanite towns at that period were small, undefended villages with no mighty walls to topple.

There is a mention of a King David, but no evidence that David, or his son Solomon (who might be a historical personage) ever reigned over a large area, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, or built wealthy palaces.  The dates for the period mentioned would be about 1000 to 900 B.C.E.  There is no evidence of any architecture that is monumental.  In fact, Jerusalem was a small, rather poor village at that period.

Abraham and the other patriarchs were supposedly active around 2000 B.C.E. The stories about them are replete with camel caravans.  The problem is that camels became domesticated and used no earlier than 1000 B.C.E.

The Book of Deuteronomy which brought all the 5 books of the Bible up to date was “discovered” in the walls of the temple rebuilding around 620 B.C.E.  The economic and cultural conditions of this later era seem to be in some accord with the biblical descriptions of an earlier time.  Deuteronomy even confirms the reforms King Josiah was pushing through prior to his death, which was around 600 B.C.E.  As happens so often in historical accounts, the past is used to serve people’s present needs. (See Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible above in the Book List for a rounded picture of the compiling of the Torah, culminating in Deuteronomy.)

The book’s style is quite accessible for armchair archeologists and very readable.  Some readers found it difficult getting through but ultimately rewarding.  There is a bibliography included at the end.  Recommended.

For students who are interested in looking up the Bible citations in the books included in the Book List, Bart Ehrman recommends the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible.  The 1989 edition was translated by an interdenominational translation committee under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, and is accepted by many “mainline” Protestant denominations. Another favorite is the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Ed.  There are augmented editions of this Translation.

Further Reading:

Albert Schweitzer. The Quest for the Historical Jesus. (1910;) Hector Avalos. The End of Biblical Studies. (2007;) Burton Mack. The Making of the Christian Myth. (1989;) Walter Brueggemann. An Introduction to the Old Testament.  (2003;) Randel Helms. Gospel Fictions.  (1989;) David Carr. Reading The Fractures of Genesis. (1996;) George A. Wells. Jesus of the Early Christianity. (1971;) D.C. Parker. The Living Text of the Gospels. (1997;) Earl Doherty. The Jesus Puzzle. (2005;) Don Cupitt. Jesus and the Gospel of God. (1979;) Hershel Shanks. Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls. (2010;) Mark S. Smith. The Early History of God. (2002;) Russell Shorto. Gospel Truth. (1997;) Bart Ehrman. Forged: Writing in the Name of God (1979,) Jesus, Interrupted. (2010,) Lost Scriptures (2005,) and almost any volume of Ehrman’s.  Lee Strobel. Finding the Real Jesus.  (2009.) Lee Strobel is the leading apologist for the Fundamentalist view of the Bible and Christianity in recent years.

In addition, The Teaching Company offers courses in the Bible. Most of the courses consist of 12 or 24 Lectures, about a half hour each. Some of the courses offered are: Story of the Bible; Book of Genesis; The Western Literary Canon in Context.  There are courses in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and more.  None of the Course Offerings may be critical of the topics discussed. (

Elaine Pagels is an expert on Gnostic thinking, and on the history of Early Christianity. Her new book, Revelations: Prophesies and Politics in the Book of Revelation, (March 6, 2012, Viking Adult, $27.95, $16.26 on is a fascinating interpretation of the Book of Revelation, which almost did not make it into the Bible.

Adam Gopnik, a superb writer, has thoroughly reviewed Ms. Pagel’s volume in the March 5, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. The New Yorker does not permit me to link to this site, so I will briefly describe some of the features of Revelation. Mr. Gopnik’s article is titled: What the Book of Revelation Really Means.

Ms. Pagels believes, along with many scholars, that Revelation was written toward the end of the first century, C.E., by a mystic, John of Patmos. Rather than a vision of the future, Pagels thinks that it is a coded account of the events happening at the time it was written. She believes that it is a broadly painted political cartoon (Gopnik’s interpretation) of the crisis in the Jesus Movement at the end of that century. Jerusalem had fallen, the Temple was destroyed, and despite Jesus’s promises, no saviour had appeared. Some of the apocalyptic features such as the Beast, 666, is apparently about Nero, the emperor so hated by Christians and others; the account of a mountain erupting probably refers to the eruption of Vesuvius, which took place in 79 C.E.

Both Gopnik’s article and Ms. Pagel’s book provide a wealth of information about not only the Book of Revelation but of early Christianity. A bonus for atheists is Gopnik’s irreverent style and erudite mockery of religion and his final serious condemnation of the violence and misery that such belief systems were responsible for.


1 Callahan, Tim. Secret Origins of the Bible. CA: Millennium Press, 2002. iii.

2 Friedman, Richard Elliott. Who Wrote the Bible? New York: Summit Books, 1997. 232.

3 Wells, George A. “Jesus, Historicity of.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 449.

4 Wiki.

5 McKinsey, C. Dennis. The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995. Chapters 13 and 14.

6 Long, Jason. Biblical Nonsense. New York: iUniverse, 2005. 169-181.

7 McKinsey, Chapters 4 and 11.

8 Price,Robert M. “Biblical Criticism.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 123.

9 Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: Harper One, 2005. 24.

10 Price, 127.

11 Price, 127.

12 Price, 127-129.

13 McKinsey, 22.

14 Wells George A. “Jesus, Historicity of,” in Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 448.

15 (Wiki

16 Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 244-245.

17 Price, Robert M. “Jesus at the Vanishing Point,” in James K. Beilby, et al. The Historical Jesus: 5 Views. Illinois: Intervarsity, 2009. 62-65.

18 Wells, George A. “Jesus, Historicity of.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 449.

19 Wells, 450.

20Avalos, Hector. The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 16.

21 Berlinerblau, Jacques. The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers must take Religion Seriously. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 141.


Avalos, Hector.  The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Barnhart, Joe Edward. “The Bible and Violence.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 123-137.

Beilby, James K., et al.The Historical Jesus: 5 Views. Illinois: InterVarsity, 2009.

Berlinerblau, Jacques. The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Callahan, Tim. Secret Origins of the Bible. CA: Millennium Press, 2002.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Friedman, Richard Elliot. Who Wrote the Bible?  San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1987.

Long, Jason.  Biblical Nonsense: A Review of the Bible for Doubting Christians. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse, 2005.

Mack, Burton.  Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995.

McKinsey, C. Dennis.  The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995.

Parker, D.C. The Living Text of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Price, Robert M. Biblical Criticism.”  In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 123-134.

Price, Robert M. Deconstructing Jesus. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2000.

Silberman, Neil Asher and Israel Finkelstein. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press, 2002. 

Wells, George A. “Historicity of Jesus.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  447-451.