Is the Bible an Anthology—or a Unity?

F.F. Bruce, a biblical scholar rather better known in the 1960s than he is today, once said this:

[T]he Bible is not an anthology; there is a unity which binds the whole together.

Bruce, as an “old school” conservative scholar, has long been passe in academic circles, and this kind of statement of his is easily refuted, but since there are fundamentalist apologists who continue to quote Bruce in defense of a literalist reading of the Bible, I think that Bruce’s statement deserves a fresh deconstruction.

First, it’s a ridiculous assertion.

Of course the Bible is an anthology and not a unity. There is no evidence that, for example, the writer of the Genesis story mandating circumcision for Abraham’s children, and setting it as “an eternal covenant”, would have accepted Paul’s assertion that the practice could now be superseded by additional revelation. The unity that one might perceive between Genesis and Paul is contrived by the Christian reader, and not accepted by, most obviously, the Jewish reader.

There is, in short, nothing inherently “harmonious” between the book of Genesis and Paul’s spiritualizing notions about circumcision. 

Interpretive contrivance also takes place with regard to the unity of the gospel accounts and Paul’s writings. There is simply no reason whatsoever, for example, to believe that the writer of the Gospel of Mark would have accepted that his book was in harmony with any—let alone, all—of the other three gospels and the letters of Paul. Indeed, there are very good reasons to think that the Jesus of Mark’s gospel is very different from the Jesus found in Matthew, Luke, John, or Paul’s letters.

You can SAY that these writings are all (ultimately) harmonious portraits of Jesus, but this is only because you are intent upon harmonizing them (not because you have any EVIDENCE that the authors would have accepted the harmonization).

Furthermore, we have absolutely no way of knowing whether Paul would have agreed that his doctrines were consistent with, say, Matthew’s gospel (or any of the other gospels) for the very simple reason that Paul had never read any of the gospels, and thus could not tell us what he thought about them!

This needs emphasis. A third of the New Testament was written by someone who had never read the gospels. Scholars universally acknowledge that Paul died BEFORE Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John had been written.

In short, all of our “harmonic” and “unifying” interpretations of Biblical texts take place from the vantage of an a priori premise that they should, in fact, somehow harmonize. We know what we are searching for, and so we find it. It is a form of circular reasoning that one can do with any two (or more) texts.

I can say, for example, that all the ideas in Shakespeare harmonize beautifully with the Bhagavad Gita, the plays of Euripides, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and the Gospel of Mark. I can build a harmonious intellectual/theological system that “accounts” for every line from all these texts, and yet all that I have done is engaged in a process of creative association and repression, privileging the interpretive importance of some passages over others and making everything “fit.”

In other words, I have simply ignored the authors’s intentions and understandings of their own works, as well as the way that the first audiences for these works would have received them.

Put simply: Biblical “harmonization” is an ahistorical, creative form of reading. If I read the Bible (or any two texts, for that matter) in this way, I have not really harmonized anything, nor do I know whether the original authors or audiences would have accepted—or even understood—my harmonization.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Is the Bible an Anthology—or a Unity?

  1. Hi. Thanks for your comment on my blog the other day. I have now made a brief response – http://tinyurl.com/beoua3 – if you’d like to see it!

  2. santitafarella says:

    Richard,

    I read your reply.

    It’s not enough for you to “rather disagree.” If you make claims you need to offer some reasonable supports for your claims. I made a claim (the Bible is an anthology) and offered supports for that claim, and why it is reasonable to assert such a thing. You made a claim (the Bible is a unity) but have no reasonable support for offering the claim. As a pastor you have a moral obligation to tell the truth, and when you don’t know the truth about something to honestly admit that you don’t know.

    You claim, for example, that Moses “hoped in Christ” and would have supported Paul, but you have zero evidence to support your assertion. If you say, I simply believe it by faith, then fine. But once you assert that it is reasonable to be a believer in the Bible’s unity—or more reasonable than to believe that it is an anthology—then you have moved into the realm of argument.

    —Santi

  3. Santi,

    A further reply at http://tinyurl.com/beoua3!

    Hope you find this one a little more satisfying!

    -Richard

  4. santitafarella says:

    Richard,

    I read your further reply.

    I’d like you to notice that you made not a single intellectual argument in support of your notion that one book (like Genesis), written at a particular place and time by a particular author, should be understood in the light of another book (like the gospel of Matthew) written at a different place and time and by a different author.

    Nor (for example) did you offer a single reason to believe that the author of Genesis would have agreed with or approved the story and ideas that Matthew had written.

    What you have done above is simply made a more elaborate assertion than your initial post. You’ve engaged in a proclamation—your version of the good news—but you have not supported your proclamation with any rational supports.

    To be generous, the closest you’ve come to a support for your argument is that you think that the Bible tells a good story from Genesis to Revelation. I agree that the Christian reading of the Bible as whole IS a very good story. I think it has enormously attractive appeal as a story, and I understand why people believe the story as you do.

    But that is a very different thing from saying that the author of Genesis or the book of Exodus would have understood or approved of your use of their books, or accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of their stories. In this sense, the Bible can only be an anthology. Obviously, Jews read the Bible very differently than Christians, and they do not accept your interpretation that the New Testament functions as a unifying force upon the Hebrew Bible.

    I’d also like to note that Mormons add books to the Bible which (for Mormons) tell a unifying story, but you wouldn’t say (obviously) that for you, as a Christian pastor, the books in the Mormon canon are a beautiful additional and higher unity that incorporates the Bible into them.

    But this is precisely the gesture that you engage in with regard to the Hebrew Bible. As a Christian, you have taken the books of Judaism and added the New Testament to them, and put them to unified use in a way that Jews completely reject (just as you reject the additional “unity” that Mormons bring upon the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament).

    Furthermore, canon formation was a highly subjective and contentious historical process. Prior to the fifth century CE, Christians did not agree on what books should be in the New Testament. Some didn’t accept the book of Revelation; others rejected the letters of Paul; still others only used one of the gospels (without accepting all four). The variety of texts that may have been in or out, and the very fact that all of these varied sects of early Christianity saw their version of things as a perfect “unity” and “fulfillment” of the Hebrew Bible, ought to give you pause.

    You have asserted that there is a unity to the Bible, but it is a unity that derives from your imagination, not from anything inherent to the texts themselves.

    I think that if you would simply acknowledge that you believe the unity of the Bible by faith, and not because it can be derived by sensible reasons, that you would be on more solid ground.

    Since you are a person committed to truth, I would like to ask you to read a short essay, and tell me what you think. The essay is titled, “The Ethics of Belief”, by William Clifford. Clifford’s essay was written in the 19th century and can probably easily be found online.

    I think that it is unethical what religious clergy do with regard to the truth (that is, they make very large assertions unsupported by probable reasons or evidence). Clifford’s essay reflects on the ethics of this practice.

    I feel that you have engaged in it here, and am curious to see how you read Clifford’s essay.

    —Santi

  5. santitafarella says:

    Richard,

    Yes, I’ve read the whole Bible.

    As for your comment that “all the support and evidence I have of the Bible’s authority and unity comes from within the Bible itself,” you do recognize this as circular reasoning, yes?

    Your conclusion that the Bible is “one book with one coherent message” and “without error and in perfect harmony with itself” suggests to me that you’ve never really read the Bible with the attention and seriousness of a close reader, and have read very little serious critical scholarship on the Bible.

    How, for example, do you explain coherently the miracle story of the blind man healed outside of Jericho? The story appears in all three gospels, but with details that cannot, logically, hold together. Please look them up and compare them. Did Jesus heal one blind person or two? Did he do the healing before he entered Jericho or after leaving Jericho?

    A close reading of the three stories reveals details that cannot be logically reconciled.

    If you are going to be a pastor, and post apologetic material at a blog site, you owe people honesty and complexity and close reading of the Bible.

    One of the first things an honest Christian leader does in the 21st century is admit that the Bible is NOT inerrant. Too much scholarship has to be ignored to treat the Bible in such an intellectually juvenile fashion. It is like denying that the earth is old and that plants and animals have changed over time. A pastor shouldn’t be someone promoting scientific ignorance or ignorance about what critical scholarship has discovered over the past two centuries with regard to the Bible.

    If you don’t know what scholarship and archeology clearly says, for example, about the Exodus (it didn’t happen), or about the destruction of Canan (ditto), then you are simply promoting ignorance, treating the Bible as history in places where it is not history.

    There is no excuse for not being a grown up about these things. The first duty of any person is honesty and truthfulness.

    —Santi

  6. TomH says:

    Santi,

    You overreach.

    “Good scholars, honest scholars, will continue to differ about the interpretations of archaeological remains simply because archaeology is not a science, it is an art. And sometimes it is not even a very good art.”
    – William Dever, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Arizona

    http://www.aish.com/ci/sam/48939077.html

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    Back in the 19th century, archaeological scholars determined that the Hittites didn’t exist–that the Bible was wrong.

    More recently, scholars determined that Tacitus proved that the Bible was wrong in calling Pontius Pilate a prefect, “Tacitus anachronistically identifies Pilate as a procurator, when the proper title would have been prefect.” The Bible gets this correct and, in fact, there is no contradiction. The scholars were wrong.

    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/tacitus.html

    Conclusion: We should be very cautious in asserting things to be so, since so many things that we know aren’t so.

    I am intrigued by the main thesis of your post and plan to reply to it later.

  7. santitafarella says:

    Tom:

    The Dever quote is a pretty weak peg for hanging doubt about some of the broad conclusions of contemporary archeology on. And why is it that your very cautious statement about when to assert things to be so does not extend to the Bible itself? In other words, if the Bible says that the ancient Israelites decimated ancient Canaan (in the book of Joshua) and highly trained archeologists say it didn’t happen, why is the skepticism going toward the contemporary people and not the anonymous author of the book of Joshua?

    —Santi

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