Skeptics say the Bible is difficult to understand, that its structure and narrative don’t make sense, that it contradicts itself, even within the same book. But how did the authors let this happen? Why did the ancients themselves produce what can look like such an unevenly edited jumble?
I think people who edit Wikipedia (or indeed anyone writing a document that gets edited) can appreciate exactly what has happened when they look at the process they go through when writing. True we are working in a modern age, with computers instead of parchment, but the documents are still being written and edited by humans, with remarkably similar weaknesses and foibles that express themselves in the editing processes. In fact, when you look at it, I find the whole thing is much more remarkable for its similarities than for its differences. With modern technology you can follow every step of the editing process. A feature of Wikipedia is that there is a document history tab at the top of every page where you can see the time and nature of every edit, and compare differences between different versions, and see evidence of all the things I talk about in this article in action. You can easily compare an article with what it said three weeks ago, and see what is changed. Unfortunately such things are not available for the Bible, but careful detective work can show where and how the edits have happened, and thus explain some of the Bible’s more mysterious passages.
The frustrations and annoyances that document editors suffer today must have been much the same as those experienced by those people writing the Bible. Let me elucidate further by looking at several of the processes:
It is easier to add than to take away
Once something has been written down it gains owners who will fight for its inclusion. If someone wants to say something different, or even contradictory, it is very difficult for them to get the original passage removed. What often happens is that two different views are put down. “On the one hand … on the other …” is a common feature of Wikipedia. The two views are almost always written by different authors, and the article grows in length to include both views. It is virtually unknown for an article in Wikipedia to shrink in size.
Perhaps the most obvious example in the Bible of two competing views being written is the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. The story in Genesis 1 is from one particular author (the “priestly” source or “P”) and that in Genesis 2 from another author (the “Jahwist” or “J” source). These are two different myths of the origin of mankind, supported by two different groups of people. The authors of the book of Genesis must have had a dilemma. They were trying to write an “official history” but had two contradictory accounts, each of which would have had powerful supporters, capable of making life difficult for the authors if they wanted to. Which of these two accounts should the authors include? The easiest thing to do was to include both. So Genesis 1 got written with the seven days creation story; and then, so as not to upset the J supporters, Genesis 2 was added immediately afterwards with the Garden of Eden creation story. The numerous contradictions between the two (such as man being created at the same time as woman in Genesis 1, but before woman in Genesis 2) have been ignored or glossed over ever since.
When the book of Genesis was first written the first thing the two groups would have done would have been to check that their views were written into the book. After all, if you, as an author, have an article published in a magazine, what’s the first thing you read when you finally receive that magazine? Who cares if other things you don’t agree with have been added–at least what you have written hasn’t been taken away. So the editors of Genesis took the easy way out by including everyone’s story.
Words are changed by editors
People editing documents can’t resist the temptation to fiddle with the script, to add or change words here or there. Every editor is certain that his changes are an improvement on the original script. In Biblical times these editors would have been those people who made the first few copies of the original script. In some ways it gets better, but such scripts lose the clarity and direction you get from a single author. Many times the fact that this has been done in the Bible will be obvious. We can see this if we look again at the beginning of Genesis. In the Bible different words are used for God, the most common are “Elohim” (translated as “God” in most Bibles) and “Yahwah” (translated as “LORD”). It is only in Genesis 2 from verses 4 to 9 that the words “LORD God” appear together one after the other. Why is this?
What we are seeing is probably the work of the editor. The two sources, J and P, used the different words for God, J (who wrote Genesis 2) using “Yahwah” and P (who wrote Genesis 1) using “Elohim.” Now to make it clear that these were referring to the same entity, the editor inserted the word “Elohim” immediately after the first few mentions of the word “Yahwah,” so future readers of Genesis would not think that Yahwah and Elohim were different gods (even if they had been in the past!). This is obviously the sort of thing that would have appeared in red biro had the Bible been composed in modern times.
Editing by advocates
Wikipedia articles are edited by advocates. The people who take the time and effort to edit articles on Wikipedia are those who care massively about the subject, and so are willing to put in the considerable effort that it takes to argue their case. Try looking at the articles on “Criticism of Islam” or “Jihad.” The articles are frequently edited, but half of the edits are by Muslims who will only edit in favor of Islam, and the other half by skeptics who will only make edits to emphasize how bad Islam is. This leads to what is known as “edit wars” in Wikipedia where articles get changed to and fro, with both sides digging their heels in and getting more and more intransigent.
Can you see evidence of “edit warring” in the Bible? I think you can. Self contradictory statements are often the result of people trying to edit to get over particular points. The most important theological point in the New Testament is probably “what is the nature of Jesus?” Some people thought that he was separate from the father, and some that he was a manifestation of the father. So editors inserted sayings to support their point of view into the script. Take the following statements all from the book of John:
John 10:30 “The Father and I are one”
John 10:38 “The Father is in me and I am in the Father”
John 14:28 “My Father is greater than I.”
Each was probably sneaked in by an advocate of the different theological point of view, hoping to represent his view at the expense of the others. Once this had happened then another problem arose when the Bible has to be interpreted as the absolute truth. How could these contradictions be reconciled? Only by introducing tortuous twists of logic and philosophy leading to concepts such as the trinity. “The same yet different” theologies tried to reconcile the irreconcilable, leading to the tortuous and convoluted definitions of the nature of Jesus that we have today.
Articles start off flexible but crystallize
Go to Wikipedia and look at the history of different articles. They almost always follow the same story. At first things are flexible, sections get rearranged, the whole focus of the article can change. Then look at the later history. There are many edits, but the older an article gets, the less likely it is to change seriously and the more difficult it gets to make an alteration. Large amounts of effort are needed to change just a sentence. Other people watch and defend certain articles. These people have put a lot of effort into getting the article the way it is and don’t want to think that their effort has been wasted, and so will not willingly remove their edits. So the text becomes sacred.
Chose an established article and look at the effect of the last fifty changes. You will probably find very few important differences. So it is with scriptures. After a few years of flexibility a “canon” of accepted scriptures arise with defenders, and no further change is permitted. For anyone who has been editing Wikipedia for more than a couple of years these effects will be obvious. In the young, carefree days when Wikipedia was small, much could be added and written, and most would stay. Now every change is supervised by a bureaucracy that seems to delight in frustrating people.
The emergence and crystallization of the Bible can be seen in church history. Whilst there were many gospels circulating in the early church, with differing views as to what Christianity was, after a time (perhaps a hundred years), the situation crystallizes and everything gets fixed. Over the last 1500 years the Bible has genuinely changed very little.
You can sometimes find some old copies of the scriptures, almost identical to the modern Bible, but with one or two edits missing. An example of this is the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. This now has a fixed place in the Bible, but in the earliest Bibles it is missing or in a different place. This story was thus one of the last edits to get through the Bible before crystallization, and a lot of older Bible manuscripts leave this out.
This article shows you that understanding what happens when many authors are involved in writing something, such as Wikipedia, can help you understand the Bible. It shows that the Bible is itself full of passages that can be explained best by an understanding of human psychology, and the familiar features of multiple authorship and editing. It shows that most of the books in the Bible had many authors and editors, and shows that those struggles, frustrations and compromises that are so familiar to us today must have also been present in the past as people labored to write, copy and compile the scriptures.
Many of the ideas in this article were sparked by listening to Robert M. Price’s “Bible Geek” podcasts and reading his books. If you are interested in truly understanding the Bible, I suggest that you have a look at some of his work.