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The Bible
Icon bible.svg
Gabbin' with God
Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever written.
Isaac Asimov[1]:316
The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?
Søren Kierkegaard[2]:201

The Bible is an anthology of books that Christians (and, to a lesser extent, Muslims, and, as for the Old Testament, Jews) regard as holy scripture and as the revealed word of God. Depending on what sort of faithful you speak to, the Bible is:

  1. a collection of parables,[3] metaphors, and moral imperatives
  2. a literal account of the history of the world and of all knowledge to be had therein
  3. a mixture of both 1 and 2

The Bible includes a staggering number of myths that readers may interpret either literally or allegorically, largely depending on their level of education and/or faith.

While the Bible — and other works such as the Qur'an, the Bhagavad-Gita,Wikipedia and the Egyptian Book of the DeadWikipedia — may have some merit as literature, do have a lot of clever quotes, and may be worth studying for their impact on several millennia of history and philosophy, they have negligible moral authority for non-believers (unless supported by non-Biblical ethical theories).

Basic structure[edit]

The Bible has written all over it the fact that it is a human-edited, socially constructed collection of books, put together by people over many, many centuries.
Michael Shermer[4]

Christian convention divides the modern Christian Bible into two main sections: the Old Testament (often referred to as "the bad one") and the New Testament (erroneously often thought to be "good"). Each of these consists of many individual "books", conventionally subdivided into chapters and verses for easy reference. The "chapter and verse" divisions are late developments, not extant in the earliest manuscripts, and though quite convenient for readers, sometimes give a false sense of discreteness. This can result in a frequent divorcing of Bible quotations from their context (quote mining shows the ugly results). Division into chapters and verses also often features in Bible-like works such as the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon.

The term "book" is also misleading, as it is a catchall term for many different kinds of writing that vary enormously in length and purpose. "Books" of the Bible may be historical-type accounts, laws, folk legends, lectures, poetry, ≈ writings, letters, or combinations of such. As such, a Bible verse quoted in isolation needs to be interpreted differently depending on which part of the Bible it comes from.

The Tanakh (a.k.a. The Old Testament)[edit]

A Bible with a proper warning label affixed.
Another Bible with a proper warning label affixed.
See the main article on this topic: Old Testament
Not to be confused with Ott TänakWikipedia, an Estonian rally driver.

The Hebrew Bible (known in Jewish tradition as the Tanakh and in Christian tradition as the Old Testament) is a collection of Jewish holy books, starting with the five Mosaic books, or Pentateuch. These tell a mythical story of the origins of the peoples known to the ancient Hebrews, beginning with the creation of the world; contain many laws, both religious and secular in nature; recount a detailed mythic history of the Jewish people; and have many books of prophecy, literature, and philosophy. It exists in several different canons. The universally accepted books are all written in Hebrew; those books considered apocryphal by the most conservative canons are often written in Greek or Aramaic rather than Hebrew, and a few, accepted mostly by Eastern and African churches, exist only in Coptic or Ge'ez.

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, wrote:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

The Hebrew Bible can be roughly divided into three sections, although textual analysis appears to show that editors have moved across sections:


See the main article on this topic: Torah

The Torah (Hebrew) or Pentateuch, 'Πεντάτευχος' or 'five rolls' in Greek, contains the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. While many fundamentalists claim that the Bible is the direct "Word of God" (a pretty-much necessary claim, with their wish to return ad fundament ad fontes), Julius Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis identifies four separate main authors: J, or "Yahwist"; E, or "Elohist"; P, or "Priestly"; and D, or "Deuteronomical," all of whom were assembled into the final Torah by R, the Redactor, who may have been Ezra. Although the documentary hypothesis was once universally held among scholars, the consensus has since been lost as the documentary hypothesis has come under great scholarly scrutiny, most notably from Umberto Cassuto and Gleason Archer.[5][6]

Nevi'im (prophets)[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Book of Isaiah

The Prophets are the attributed authors of a series of books that claim to foretell the future of the Israelite and Judahite nations. The actual contents of the books vary widely, from first-person accounts (Isaiah, Jeremiah) to allegorical tales (Ezekiel, Hosea) to apocalyptic writings (Daniel) to novellas (Jonah). While it is generally agreed by those of Abrahamic faiths that these record then-future events and judgments meted out by YHWH, exactly which events are widely disagreed upon between Jews and Christians. For the most part, most Christian thought holds that messianic prophecies in the Nevi'im are direct references to Jesus, while Jews hold that they refer to a messiah who has not yet arrived.

Prophets such as Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha have no currently extant writings attributed to them; however, the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, as well as Joshua and Judges, are generally put in the Nevi'im in the Jewish canon. These tell the history of the Jewish people, following on from the events of Moses' time that are recounted in the Pentateuch.

Ketuvim (writings)[edit]

The Writings are those books in the Hebrew Bible that are not part of either the Torah or the Prophesies. They are the most diverse group of texts in the Tanakh, including collections of wisdom and aphorisms, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; fictional novellas, such as Ruth, Job, and Esther; poetic writings, such as the Song of Songs and the Psalms; and apocalyptic literature, such as the Book of Daniel.

New Testament[edit]

The corpus known as the New Testament in the Christian tradition starts with the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke (collectively referred to as synoptic gospels), and John, which tell the story of Jesus' time on Earth, his crucifixion and return to life, miracles he allegedly performed, and his philosophy and teachings. It then contains many letters to the nascent churches, mostly written by Saul of Tarsus after his conversion and taking the name of Paul. These are collectively known as the "epistles". The New Testament wraps up with the book of Revelation, a story thought by some to be about the end of the world, or at least the Roman Empire.

The New Testament is written almost exclusively in "koine," the form of Attic Greek that was the lingua franca of most of the Mediterranean basin under the early Roman Empire.

The Gospels[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Gospel

The Gospels are essentially biographies of Jesus. While none of the four agree in every detail, there are enough similarities between the first three (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to identify them as having come from a common tradition; as a result, they are known as the synoptic gospels ("from the same viewpoint"). Essentially, Mark is thought to have been the first written, with Matthew and Luke both drawing in different ways on both Mark and a hypothetical collection of sayings of Jesus, called "Q"[note 1] (from the German Quelle, meaning "source"). As a general rule, Matthew is generally understood to be the most Jewish of the three, while Luke is thought of as a gospel for Gentiles.

The gospel of John is somewhat more problematic, as it presents a much more spiritual view of Jesus and his ministry as well as a much more hostile attitude towards "the Jews". The gospel of John from the very beginning portrays Jesus as God; the other gospels are not as blatant in their divine view of Jesus, although such divinity can be definitely traced in them.

The author of the gospel of Luke is also likely responsible for a second collection called the Acts of the Apostles, a history of the early church: first under the original Apostles, then under the guidance of Paul of Tarsus. Of the four gospels, Luke was written by a historian,[7] with the initially-skeptical,[8]:66 renowned archaeologist Sir William Ramsay even commenting, "Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians."[8]:222

There are many other gospels, many wildly divergent from the four accepted in the Bible. Of the many found, the one considered by Biblical scholars to be the most authentic is the Gospel of Thomas, a very early collection of sayings, similar to the hypothetical Q gospel but with a decidedly Gnostic slant. Although it is widely rejected, there are a very small number of scholars who believe that the Gospel of Thomas should actually be counted as the fifth gospel.[9]

The Acts of the Apostles[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles (Acts), penned by Luke as a sort of sequel to his gospel, is unique in the New Testament. It is both a history of the doings of the early Christians, from Pentecost to the Council of Jerusalem, and a travelogue of the journeys of Paul of Tarsus by land and sea throughout the eastern Mediterranean Sea area, ending with his arrival in Rome.

The Epistles[edit]

The Epistles are a series of letters, about half of them attributed to Paul of Tarsus, that are believed to be the earliest available evidence of the doctrine and structure of the original Christian Church. Most of them take the form of doctrinal and church management advice to a specific congregation or even person, and often cover much material not mentioned in the gospels (in fact, many skeptics of Christianity draw a sharp distinction between Jesus' teaching and Paul's, seeing Jesus as more accommodating and Paul as more moralistic).

The authorship of many of the epistles is disputed; in particular, a good number of letters attributed to Paul are known to have been written by other authors in an attempt (an accepted rhetorical technique at the time) to expand Paul's body of work, while others are attributed to other apostles (John, James, Peter, Jude). One particular work, the Letter to the Hebrews, stands out as being completely anonymous; despite occasional attributions to Paul, Hebrews' author has a drastically different literary style from known Pauline writings and is generally agreed to be unknowable, given current manuscript evidence.

Revelation to John[edit]

A significant ongoing theological dispute revolves around the definition of the end of the "world" described in this book. Catholics and some mainline Protestants maintain that the book was about a prophesied fall of the Roman Empire, while most conservative Protestants believe it refers to the end of the world as a whole. The canonical status of Revelation has been questioned by many for centuries, with many theologians considering it doctrinally unsound or even complete gibberish; however, no current Christian denomination fails to include it in its accepted canon.

Due to the now-almost-two-millennia delay in the return of Jesus for the final judgment — and despite being, essentially, a report of a really bad mushroom trip — the Revelation to John has become a dominant part of much evangelical/fundamentalist theology.

This book contains two verses, which are often considered to be an interpolation added by later amanuensis (Revelation 22:18-19), that state: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book." Many modern Christians — being unaware that at the time it was written, Revelation was not part of a greater anthology — mistakenly believe this to be a commandment not to add to any part of the Bible or take anything out, often conveniently ignoring that Luther considered seven books of the Old Testament as Apocrypha as noted further down and that saw Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation in a similar way. However, again, as the Bible is an anthology, these verses apply only to Revelation.


Take some time and put the Bible on your summer reading list. Try and stick with it, cover to cover. Not because it teaches history — we've shown you it doesn't. Read it because you'll see for yourself what the Bible is all about — it sure isn't great literature. If it were published as fiction, no reviewer would give it a passing grade. There are some vivid scenes and some quotable phrases, but — there's no plot. No structure. There's a tremendous amount of filler, and the characters are painfully one-dimensional. Whatever you do, don't read the Bible for a moral code. It advocates prejudice, cruelty, superstition, and murder. Read it because we need more atheists. And nothing will get you there faster than reading the damn Bible.
Penn Jillette, Penn & Teller: Bullshit![10]

The Bible opens with a story of how God created the Universe, the Earth, animals and people on the Earth, and pretty much everything. He makes two people, Adam and Eve, a man and a woman, respectively. God, Adam, Eve, and all the animals inhabit the Garden of Eden, a paradise in which the couple can live under only one stipulation: they must not eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or they shall surely die. Of course, since the book was written by a man, the woman screws everything up, with a bit of prompting from a snake. When God finds out that Adam and Eve have eaten the apple fruit (that may or may not have been an apple), he decides to make them suffer and eventually die and kicks them out of the garden he made for them. The only people worth talking about at this point were inbred from this first couple.

Adam and Eve have two sons: Cain and Abel. To please God, both children make sacrifices. Cain offers fruits and stuff, while Abel slaughters lambs. God is not a vegetarian, so he is more pleased with Abel. Because he cannot handle rejection, Cain does the only rational thing and murders his brother. He is sentenced to exile, and Eve bears another son, Seth. Seth kind of gets the whole human race thing going, but God gets kind of pissy because the people have become perverse, committing ghastly atrocities. God sends a flood to wipe out the entire population, with the exception of an alcoholic named Noah and his family. Then Noah and his wife get down to another round of inbreeding, and all modern humans can trace their lineage to them. Within a few more thousand years, all the different 'races' of humanity have diverged, and all the plants, animals, insects, etc. have repopulated the Earth.

Years later, one of the descendants of Noah, Abraham, is called by God to father the entire race of the Jews. He has a kid named Isaac, and Isaac becomes the father of Israel/Jacob, and Israel/Jacob becomes the father of Joseph, the first real main character. Joseph is abused by his brothers for having a pretty coat. He goes to work for the Egyptian Pharaoh because he can magically tell the future by reading people's dreams. This puts Joseph and the Hebrews in the favor of the Pharaoh, until another Pharaoh who does not know of Joseph takes the throne. He enslaves all the Hebrews in Egypt. The next main character is an orphaned Hebrew murderer named Moses, who was raised by the Egyptian royalty. He leads a resistance and eventually escapes Egypt with his people, God introduces this lengthy set of laws and customs, and then everyone wanders around the desert for a while; after Moses dies, his people go on to create Israel without him. A bunch of crappy stuff happens to the Jews, until Jesus is introduced.

Jesus, whose mother was a virgin, is the son of God. He came along and told people that they should believe in him because he was the only way into this awesome new paradise in Heaven. He proved all this, and that he wasn't faking, by doing magic tricks for any people who would stop and listen to him and running rhetorical circles around his strawmen adversaries. Then some hateful Jews (or possibly Romans, depending upon which part of the New Testament you believe) came along and got him killed because they thought his teachings were a threat to the temple. (Besides, this was God's divine plan all along.) Then he goes on to an underworld full of pain and suffering. However, a few days later, Jesus crawls back out, halo intact, and rolls away a rock (scaring two poor innocent women), then joins the people he taught, has them poke fingers in him, and tells spooky stories about the afterlife. He reiterates that everyone has to believe in him or they wouldn't make it to the happy afterlife. After this, Jesus goes up to Heaven and his students are left on Earth without him, waiting for the day when Jesus said he would come back.

The issue of "canon"[edit]

The process of canon formation has a significant implication: despite naïve views to the contrary, the Bible was not handed down by God as a complete package but was the result of a series of decisions made over the course of centuries by the leaders of different religious groups, decisions concerning a variety of works written by many authors also over the course of centuries.
Michael CooganWikipedia, The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction[11]

There are many books and parts of books that one way or another could be considered to be part of "The Bible"; however, various denominations (sects, to nonbelievers) pick and choose which ones they consider canonical — part of a recognized "canon". Multiple canons exist, and thus we have multiple bibles — even without the variations provided by numerous translations, by fallible copyists, and by diligent editors such as the man who produced the Jefferson Bible. Nevertheless, individual branches of Christianity have the habit of referring to their favored particular Bible as "the Bible" (e.g., King James Only). At the extreme, some regard only the New Testament (specifically, their chosen books for it) as canonical.[12]

The Ecumenical canon[edit]

All Christian churches accept the following books as canonical; their texts come from the Masoretic Hebrew used by Rabbinical Judaism and from the generally accepted Greek New Testament.

  • The Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • Histories: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles, Ezra/Nehemiah, Esther
  • Wisdom/Writings: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs
  • Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
  • Gospels and history: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts
  • The Letter to the Hebrews
  • The Pauline Epistles (including those not written by Paul): Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I and II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy, Titus, Philemon
  • The other epistles: James; John; I and II Peter; I, II, III John; Jude
  • Revelation (note that Revelation's canonicity was questioned as late as Martin Luther)

The Catholic canon[edit]

The Catholic canon derives from the Vulgate of St. Jerome and contains some, but not all, of the books deemed Apocrypha by churches using the ecumenical canon. It includes the full Ecumenical canon, as well as:

  • Histories: Tobit, Judith, the Greek additions to Esther, I and II Maccabees
  • Wisdom: Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah
  • Additions to Daniel: The Three Young Men (Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego), Susannah, Bel and the Dragon

The Eastern Orthodox canon[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Eastern Orthodox Church

The Eastern Orthodox canon is based on the Septuagint, and includes all of the above books as well as:

  • Histories: III (and IV in some churches) Maccabees, I and II Esdras (Ezra)
  • Wisdom: Psalm 151

The Oriental canon[edit]

These books no longer exist in complete form in Hebrew or Greek and are therefore considered canon by only a few churches.

  • Ethiopian Orthodox: Enoch, Jubilees, IV Baruch (a.k.a., Paralipomena ["things left out"] of Jeremiah), I–III Meqabyan
  • Syriac: Psalms 152–155

The Mormon canon[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Mormonism

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints uses the ecumenical canon with the exception of the Song of Solomon (regarded as Apocrypha[13]) but also adds three works of its own:


See the main article on this topic: Apocrypha

A subject of many canonical debates over the years, the Apocrypha, broadly, are books in the Hebrew Bible that are not universally considered inspired Scripture (most are in fact in Greek or Aramaic, though they may have come from Hebrew originals). Significant books known in the West (i.e., those considered canonical by the Roman Catholic Church)[note 2] include additions to Esther and Daniel, as well as the Wisdom of Sirach; the Wisdom of Solomon; the books of Baruch, Tobit, and Judith; and the books of Maccabees (the post-exile history of Judaism leading into the Hellenistic period, including the story of Hanukkah). Others still (I and II Esdras, additions to the Maccabees and Psalms, the Book of Jubilees, and a couple of others, some only handed down in Coptic or Ge'ez) are part of the canon of many Eastern churches, including the Eastern Orthodox communion and the east African churches such as the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

Though not part of most Protestant canons, the Catholic apocrypha appeared in the original editions of the King James Bible as supplemental material, not considered canon by the Church of England; in addition, the New Revised Standard Version is available in editions that include both Catholic and Orthodox (but not African) apocrypha, being one of the few Bible translations to do so. Bible editions with the Orthodox and east African canons are sometimes difficult to find in English, though Bibles with the Catholic canon are readily available.

Gnostic works — like the Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Thomas, and Gospel of Mary — show there were serious fights in early Christianity over which disciple's school had the true version of Jesus' teachings. No other church considers the Gnostic gospels canonical.

While not strictly meeting the mainline definition of Apocrypha, the Book of Mormon represents a significant extension to canon as used by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and by its many splinter movements.


Martin Luther preparing to translate the Bible into German.
See the main article on this topic: Bible translation

During the second temple period the priestly aristocracy controlled the temple library and the sacred texts. They were literate elites whose authority was threatened by the oral tradition. Groups like the Pharisees, in contrast, were largely composed of the lay classes. They invested authority in the teacher and the oral tradition. Both early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, which grew out of the lay classes, struggled with the tension between the sacred text and the authority of the oral tradition in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Although they acknowledged the authority of the written scriptures, they also asserted the authority of the living voice of the teacher. Christianity, however, quickly adopted the codex — the precursor of the modern book. Codices, with bound leaves of pages, appeared in the first century CE and became common by the fourth century.[14]

The original works that form the Bible were all written in ancient Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, after most probably having long been part of an oral tradition, and have been translated many times into and between many languages. Unlike Judaism or Islam, most Christians nowadays do not consider the original-language version of their holy book the only valid one; translations have been the standard form for the spread of the Bible, though it was forbidden to translate into English in 1523 for William Tyndale who was strangled and burned to death for his work.[15]

Early translations have proven quite significant in history: the Tanakh was translated during the Hellenistic period into Greek, leading to the Septuagint, the form of the Hebrew Bible that would have been familiar to the Jewish diaspora of the Roman era. This Greek Tanakh was the one that was quoted by the New Testament authors, leading to some interesting doctrinal glitches (e.g., the transformation, in the book of Isaiah, of the Hebrew עלמה (almah, "young woman")[note 3] to the Greek παρθενη (parthenē, "virgin") in a verse thought by Christians to refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus. There is some confusion among Bible translators whether to use the Greek or Hebrew renderings of such passages. The Septuagint is still the fundamental form of the Old Testament used in the Orthodox churches.

The second significant translation was St. Jerome's Vulgate, the basis for the Catholic canon and the most significant translation of the Bible into Latin. The Vulgate contains both the Old and New Testaments. While its canon (in somewhat modified form) is still used by the Catholic Church, and its influence still remains in Protestant Bibles, modern translations are generally based on more up-to-date critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek texts. The Roman Catholic Church kept the Bible confined to a Latin-only translation for nearly a thousand years, but the Protestant leaders of the Reformation movements demanded access to the Bible in vernacular languages, and the invention of the printing press meant that these translations could be made widely available.

The most famous of these in English is the King James Version, which was commissioned by King James I of England in 1604 and was finally published in 1611. It is considered by many to be one of the most significant works ever written in the English language — not just for content, but for beauty and style — and many fundamentalist Christians accept the KJV and only the KJV (sometimes even to the exclusion of the original Greek and Hebrew texts) as the inspired word of God in English. The KJV is not universally accepted as a reliable translation, though, being a) largely a mass correction of earlier English translations and b) based on later manuscripts thought to be at greater risk of corruption by mistranscription.

Other popular translations include:

  • The New International Version (used widely by many Protestant denominations. The Study Bible is dominated by Fundamentalists.)
  • The New American Bible (the standard translation of the American Catholic church)
  • The New American Standard Bible (considered to be the most literal English translation available)
  • The English Standard Version (considered to be the second most literal English translation available)
  • The New Revised Standard Version (used by numerous denominations in English-speaking countries, including some Jewish and Canadian Catholic congregations; created by people who thought the NASB was not liberal enough in its theology. Liberal or not it's a favorite among scholars, used by Oxford for their first study bible.)
  • The New English Translation (the "NET Bible") (a freely available, wholly online translation)[16]
  • The Reina-Valera translation into Spanish (the most widely available Protestant translation for Spanish speakers)
  • The Jerusalem Bible, a series of Catholic translations into western European languages (the flagship language being French)
  • The Douay-Rheims Bible, a Catholic translation of the Latin Vulgate (not the original Greek and Hebrew documents) into early modern English; used primarily by traditionalist Catholics
  • The New World Translation, made by Jehovah's Witnesses

As can be seen, the issue of Bible translation is often just as fraught with knee-jerk sectarianism as Christianity itself.

The issue of translation accuracy, often seen as something of a tempest in a teapot by nonbelievers, is taken very seriously in some quarters, from squabbles over inclusive language in some of the modern translations to issues of nomenclature (some particularly literalist sects prefer to see the names of the characters in the original Hebrew and Greek rather than their more popular Anglicized forms), to outright accusations of apostasy due to differences in source texts (KJV-onlyers often blame a Satanic conspiracy for certain places where the names of God and Jesus do not appear in non-KJV translations, for example).

Except in cases of blatant textual corruption,[note 4] most Bible readers do not consider choice of translation to be of great importance and largely a matter of the churches' and individual readers' choices. Christians work very hard to translate at least parts of the Bible into every possible language, dialect, creole, pidgin, and slang, and generally view the prospect of people reading even quite informal translations as better than their not reading any at all.[note 5]

Legal issues[edit]

A problem that has come to light in the Information Age for many users of the Bible, ministers and skeptics alike, has been that of copyright. While the original texts of the Bible are in the public domain, most translations are under copyright and not always under terribly permissive licensing. In practice, this has resulted in the use of the King James Bible and other older translations almost exclusively for free distribution of the Bible — a somewhat problematic matter, given that many prefer to read more modern language.

While most versions of the Bible are readily available in online form from their publishers, such translations cannot be readily reproduced en masse. As a result, some groups have begun translations with the express intent of making them available for freer use, the most important in English being the New English Translation[16] (i.e., the NET Bible, copyrighted under a liberal reuse license) and the World English Bible[17] (public domain).

Literal guide to truth[edit]

See the main articles on this topic: Biblical literalismBiblical scientific errors, and Biblical contradictions
Until the Enlightenment, this narrative framework was considered historical in the sense that it was accepted as an accurate, even inspired, account of what had taken place over thousands of years in the biblical writers' chronology. What the Bible said was true, in every detail. By the late 19th century, developments in astronomy, geology, and other sciences, along with discoveries of ancient Near Eastern texts, had made it clear that in many details, and in terms of its chronology as well, the Bible was often unreliable and sometimes just wrong. Certainly the date for creation was no longer tenable, nor were dates for the many following generations in Genesis and subsequent books, in part because of the impossibly long lifespans attributed to individuals, such as 969 years for Methuselah, 175 years for Abraham, and 120 years for Moses. The confidence that had made Ussher's chronology possible was irrevocably eroded.
—Michael Coogan[11]

Some people claim the Bible is a) the word of God and b) a reliable source on historical events. It is easy to observe that, unlike, for example, the Qu'ran, most of the Bible does not even purport to be quotation from God and that most people who believe it is literally true are unfamiliar with most of its contents. Here are some more detailed problems:

  • The Bible is a hodgepodge collection of oral history, poetry, legend, myth, genealogy, prophesy, and visions, some of which date back to nomadic tribes in the Middle East. The problem with oral histories is that they change over time, and there is no way to verify what the original version of any of the accounts in the work might have looked like.
  • The oral histories that were eventually included in the Bible were written down by different groups of people over centuries and copied by hand numerous times, introducing changes and inaccuracies in the process as with any text that is copied.
  • Numerous versions of chapters that have been included in the Bible by various groups (Jews, Gnostics, and Christians) exist, and arbitrary decisions have been made as to which ones to include in what is accepted as the modern Christian version of the Bible. Chapters that have at one time or another been included and then removed from the Bible are called the Apocrypha. Some of these, most notably what are believed to be Gnostic texts, differ radically from the currently accepted version of the Bible. Also, some sects (especially Catholic and Orthodox) include some books that others (especially most Protestant sects) leave out, or vice versa, so there is the additional complication that there is no single Bible as such, but several different ones to choose from.
  • Both the Old Testament and the New have numerous internal contradictions that render any attempt to deem words of the Bible literally true impossible. For example, there are two different accounts of creation in the Old Testament, two radically different versions of the Ten Commandments, and major contradictions among accounts of the life of Jesus in the New Testament.
  • Linguistic and textual analysis of the Bible has demonstrated that some chapters have elisions or additions made by different authors, making a determination of the 'original' or 'true' version of the Bible problematic.
  • There is ample evidence that some elisions and additions to some chapters were made for political reasons or to express a religious viewpoint that differed from that held by the original author of the chapter.
  • Historical sources show that the New Testament is factually inaccurate on matters including the reign of Herod, the Roman census, and many archaeological statements.
  • Most whales physically cannot swallow humans, having evolved to eat krill and plankton. Also, they aren't fish (Jonah 1:17).

Despite the above issues the Bible, when contrasted with actual archeological findings, is found to be a highly fictionalized account about what happened during Antiquity in a small corner of the world and to a people, Israel, that except during the times of splendor of David and Solomon at least according to such book, lived under threat of far more powerful neighbors, suffering slavery, humiliation, and looting at the hand of these other nations plus internal crises that weakened them, while attempting to thrive in a desertic region of weather as hard as unpredictable.

It's easy to understand why Israel looked not just for the protection of a god much more powerful than the ones of the nations that surrounded them but also one that allowed no others before him to be worshipped and signed an exclusive pact with such people, as such view unified and allowed them to ultimately survive, becoming first the center of the Hebrew identity and later on the same of the Christian one. This also explains why in the Bible the actual and mythical histories of both Israel and its religion are so intertwined[18].

Supremacy of the Bible in Christian thought[edit]

For the Bible, despite all its contradictions and absurdities, its barbarisms and obscenities, remains grand and gaudy stuff, and so it deserves careful study and enlightened exposition. It is not only lovely in phrase; it is also rich in ideas, many of them far from foolish. One somehow gathers the notion that it was written from end to end by honest men — inspired, perhaps, but nevertheless honest. When they had anything to say they said it plainly, whether it was counsel that enemies be slain or counsel that enemies be kissed. They knew how to tell a story, and how to sing a song, and how to swathe a dubious argument in specious and disarming words.
H.L. Mencken[19]

While it is acceptable to question God or his motives, questioning a literal interpretation of the Bible is frowned upon by Christian fundamentalists. The Protestant dogma of sola scriptura[20] holds that everything necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible; the Bible is venerated, not only for its history and the major themes of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, but in its own right as "The Word of God." The Bible itself has become an idol for some in modern Christianity, especially those who espouse a specific translation (the most notorious being the Anglophone King James Version-only movement or those holding a single verse as sufficient — John 3:16); such people expand the concept of sola scriptura to the idea of all-sufficiency, whereby everything worth knowing is to be found in the Bible and anything that contradicts it is heresy. Such Biblical inerrancy is the hallmark of Christian fundamentalism.

A major reason for the primacy that fundamentalists place on the Bible, and a literal reading of the Good Book, is that placing greater emphasis on the Bible enables the community of faith to interpret the "Word of God" directly without the mediation of a priest. Protestants insist on a personal relationship with God, which is more difficult with an entire Church hierarchy standing between the individual and God. (At least that's how it's supposed to work in theory. Ignorance of Biblical context, combined with the authoritarianism displayed by many conservative preachers, makes that more dubious in practice.[note 6] Not to mention, a relationship with someone who never responds to you is hardly a personal relationship.)

See also[edit]

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Bible.

External links[edit]

Read more at World Religion News: "These 11 Bible Verses Are Said to Turn Believers Into Atheists"


  • Bible Gateway, including translations in various languages (even in Koine Greek and Hebrew, for the needs of the non-wimps).
  • Oremus Bible Browser, including the King James and NRSV translations. The latter even includes all of the apocrypha used by the Eastern Orthodox churches.
  • The Skeptic's Annotated Bible includes the text of the King James Version along with much commentary specifically geared towards refuting Biblical inerrancy.
  • The New International Version The International Bible Society presents the most popular translation of Anglophone Protestant Christianity.
  • The NET Bible, a translation from the original sources, under a liberal copyright.
  • The New American Bible is a favorite of the US Catholic Church, and includes the Apocrypha that are part of the Catholic canon.
  • King James Version Bible. Searchable, with pretty artwork next to it.
  • Moutn Bible Browser. AI powered Bible verse study with multiple translations.



  1. No, not that Q.
  2. The exact term used is deuterocanonical, roughly meaning "secondary canon"; despite an apparently equivocal name, the RCC does consider them fully inspired scripture.
  3. The debate of whether almah means "young woman" or "virgin" is even more complicated in languages other than English. German, for instance, makes the difference between junge Frau ("young woman") and Jungfrau ("virgin"). Culturally, an almah was unmarried and thus was automatically presumed to have been a virgin. Disentangling "virginity" from ancient terms for "unmarried women" is perhaps impossible for some cultures.
  4. The Jehovah's Witnesses' New World Translation mentioned above, due to major doctrinal deviations (particularly in John 1, where "was God" becomes "was a god"), is often cited as an example of twisting Scripture to match doctrine.
  5. E.g., the Cockney Bible includes a positive foreword from the then-Archbishop of Canterbury to this effect.
  6. Except in that bastion of free thought and skepticism, Conservapedia, where they've discovered that some parts of the Bible are, in fact liberal forgeries.[21] See Conservapedia:The Conservative Bible Project.


  1. Yours, Isaac Asimov, edited by Stanley Asimov (1995) Doubleday. ISBN 0385476221.
  2. Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard by Søren Kierkegaard, translated by Charles E. Moore (2003) Orbis Books. ISBN 1570755132.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Parable.
  4. Penn & Teller: Bullshit!  "The Bible — Fact or Fiction?" (S02E06)
  5. The Documentary Hypothesis: And the Composition of the Pentateuch. Eight Lessons by Umberto Cassuto (2005) Shalem Press. ISBN 1590458710.
  6. A survey of Old Testament: Introduction by Gleason Leonard Archer (1964) Moody Press. ISBN 0802484468.
  7. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenic History by 104–107, as summarized by MacDowell
  8. 8.0 8.1 Ramsay, The Bearing Of Recent Discovery On The Trustworthiness Of The New Testament by W. M. Ramsay (1915) Hodder and Stoughton.
  9. The Fifth Gospel (New Edition): The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age by Stephen J. Patterson et al. (2011) T&T Clark, ISBN 0567549062.
  10. Penn & Teller: Bullshit!  "The Bible — Fact or Fiction?" (S02E06)
  11. 11.0 11.1 The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Coogan (2008) Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195305050, page 23.
  12. See the Wikipedia article on the Wikipedia page on "Biblical canon".
  13. Section 91 Doctrine and Covenants, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
  14. Origins of the Written Bible by William Schniedewind (November 17, 2008) PBS.
  15. See the Wikipedia article on William Tyndale.
  16. 16.0 16.1 NET Bible
  17. World English Bible with Deuterocanon
  18. Biblia (Link in Spanish)
  19. H.L. Mencken on Religion, edited by S. T. Joshi (2002) Prometheus. ISBN 1573929824. pp. 84-85. Quote reprinted from American Mercury, 1930.
  20. What Do We Mean by Sola Scriptura? by Dr. W. Robert Godfrey (c. 2002) The Highway.
  21. Essay:Adulteress Story by Andrew Schlafly, Conservapedia (archived from May 23, 2019).