How Do we Know Which Parts of the Bible are Inspired?


On a message board an atheist named Magus asks me:

Which parts of the bible are the "true" word of god, if any? Do you believe that the bible is only a reflection of the way that the people who wrote it or do you believe god wanted it to turn out the way it did? If you believe some parts come from god and other do not, how do you determine which is which?
Of course I heard these kidns of questions all the time.

Which parts of the bible are the "true" word of god, if any?

Not a matter of Parts. You can't dissect a narrative line by line and ask "what parts of this narrative are the result of the writer's genius and what parts are just banal filler?" You can criticize different aspects of course, but you can't say 'this sentence is genius and this sentence is not a product of genius." The whole narrative works together to create a solid word. Narratives communicate in many subtle says. you can't limit the number of insights one can deduce from a work of art.

Fundamentalists look at the Bible in a certain way and atheists look at it in reaction the fundamentalist way. The basic assumption is made by both that the text of the Bible is, from the "In the Beginning" of Genesis to the "even so come quickly Lord Jesus" of Revelation as words transmitted from God to the mind of the authors. As though Moses sits down, takes pen in hand and a lights shines on him and a voice in his head says (in a booming echo like way) "write write write, this is it...."In in in The the their beginning beginning beginning...." I don't think it works that way. I am willing to understand that when the prophets say "this is what the Lord says" they may be repeating word for word the exact verbiage God gave them to say, although not necessarily. But for most of the Bible I doubt that it works that way. I think people were just using the ideas that came to them as a result of their religious experiences, and as a result they used those concepts and feelings in the different ways that it occurred to them to use such material. They put their ideas of God into the stories and those who had real experiences really captured the nature of God's grace, and those who did not genuinely experience God failed to capture such things.

The real problem is the model. The model of the fundies says that God is writing a memo. The Bible is the word form "the Big man upstairs" and just like an executive writing a memo. Moses is taking dictation. But that model assumes directly handed down verbiage, it's even called "verbal plenary" meaning "all the verbiage is inspired." That's NOT the model I use. I go by a model that views the Bible as a collection of writings which are based upon human encounters with the divine. People experience God in different ways, usually beyond words; to speak about that they must call up from the deep recesses of their spirits (minds) that intangible part that produces art and literature, and they formulate into words their experiences. That means they have to load the experince into cultural constructs.

A cultural construct is an idea that is suggested by culture, by association with other people in society and the symbols and analogies and metaphors that tacitly speak to us at a level we understand but can't necessarily articulate. In the ancient world life was cheap, people were used to thinking in terms of either wiping out the other guy or being wiped out. The ancient Hebrews magnified their culture, but a romanticized view of themselves and their struggles into narrative form and used that framework to express the wordless sense of the numinous that they experienced through contact with God. The tendency to want to wipe out other people, to destroy totally every trace of their existence and lives, is part of the cultural constructs which act as a lens to give words to the writer's deep and hidden senses of God communicated through wordless sensations on the mystical level. So they build into the narrative a bunch of stuff about wiping these guys and those guys but what we need to understand is the major point being made.

For example, in the bit about the Amalekites, I'm pretty sure the bit about the infants is added in latter. I think we see real evdience in the text that it's been tweaked. But the real point is not wipe out the Amalekites nor is it that it's ok for us to wipe our enemies, the real point is obey God. Saul didn't obey God and the incident was a down fall for him. Now it doesn't matter that the incident is this failure to wipe out the infants it could have been anything. They wrote it like that. The real point is do whatever God tells you to do. But that God is not going to tell us to wipe out our enemies and destroy their kids is pretty obvious to most of us. We can defend that description well enough to say "God did not command this." We can even put it up to religious experience. My experiences of God tell me God doesn't want this. But why did the author of that part of the Bible (presumably Samuel) think that God did tell him that? Because he's filtering the experience through his cultural constructs.

Now you might ask "but then how can we learn moral truths? Our moral understanding is not static. Our understanding evolves over time. The ancient Hebrews could not understand this was wrong because it was common place in their day. We understand the wrong of it because culture evolves. Jesus understood it was wrong. Jesus did not say "wipe out the Amalekties" he said "turn the other cheek." He even corrected the understanding of the OT generations when he said "you have heard it said an eye a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you turn the other cheek." With the Bible we do not proof text. We don't determine what to do by one verse. We use the preponderance of the evidence, meaning everything we can understand about the Bible. We don't stop there, we study and understand what others have said about it. We use the words of the saints and the great theolgoians as precedents and bench marks to help us interpret. Samuel was not speaking with authority for all time in telling that story. He was merely telling a story he heard soem someone and putting down on paper some tradition (probably the real author was writing from Babylon in the exile--that's the most heavily redacted part of the Bible). He was putting into the work his understanding of God from his experiences as well what he had been taught. But the end result is a narrative and like all narratives it only works to accomplish its task when we try to understand it as a narrative and not force it into molds where it doesn't fit such as memo from the boss, military communique, or auto owner's manual.

It doesn't make sense to say "this is inspired and this isn't." That would be like saying "which feet of Elliot's The Wasteland are inspired and which aren't. You can't segment things in that way. We need to understand the bible as literature. It's major function is to bestow grace upon the reader. you read it to be healed to find spiritual edification and to understand God's laws. There are those who think it should be read like an instruction Manuel for a car. They seem to think it's going to tell us ever move to make in the same way that the owner's Manuel tells us how to change the oil. Since the Bible is a collection of different works written over a long period of time it doesn't make sense to try and fit the whole collection into one model and understand it all in the same way.

We don't have to understand exactly the role of inspiration nor do we need to look for the inspired parts as opposed to the banal parts. What we need to do is understand the over all preponderance of teaching and weigh that in light of what God shows us in our own lives. When we do this grace is bestowed, we are healed, we are drawn closer to God but we do not have to relate to it as if we are reading the instructions to change the oil in the car.