Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Is the bible a collection or a singular work?

Regular readers will know that I like to follow up on comments that people have made on earlier posts, and that is what I am planning for today.  This comment was left anonymously on my recent post "The Fallacy of the Taxi Cab Fallacy"

"You all do realize that the Bible is not a singular work, but a collection, right? There are certainly cases where Christians will engage in circular reasoning, but I don't think it's as common as everyone says.

It's not circular reasoning to say that, for example, writings in Mark give evidence to Matthew because these are two different books written by two different people at two different times in two different places. Saying they can't evidence each other is like saying that if I published a collection of scientific journals on a topic (let's call it "Journals"), none of the individual journals could evidence another one in the same collection because that would be using Journals to prove Journals.

Do you not see the problem there? Putting books in a collection does not then make them all the same book and thus incapable of evidencing each other. "
and a reply from @DerbySceptic said

@Anonymous It is clear that the bible is not a singular work but a collection of stories. This is evidenced in the gospels by the contradictory reports of supposedly one set of events.


So, can we unpick this?

To me it is quite clear that the bible is indeed a singular work in one sense.  Sure enough, it is a collection, but it is a particular sort of collection.  When the (more-or-less) present canon of the bible was 'suggested' (e.g. by Origen in the early 200s CE and confirmed by Athanasius in 367CE) it was not exactly done in an unbiased way like a scientific journal, with new work being presented for peer review and published contemporaneously. 

In fact, the faithful had worked through the many thousands of available documents and cherry-picked the ones that best represented the story that they wanted to portray.  Even poor Marcion, who first proposed a uniquely christian canon of the bible in about AD140, was deselected later when his version of the gospel of Luke was dropped in favour of the current form.

Considering the amount of apparent 'evidence' that they had to hand - as we are often assured that literally tens of thousands of fragments of early documents survive to this day - it seems surprising that the best they could do was the bible that we have now.  This is more like a collection of short stories than a scientific journal.  Such collections always have a theme.  You don't find books of short stories containing sci-fi together with ghost stories and murder mystery and romance.  They always have a theme.

So, in the case of the bible I agree that we have a collection but it is one that has been collected specifically in order to 'prove' that Jesus was the son of god and that it had all been prophesied in ancient times.  It also specifically excludes a lot of other documents (like the Gnostic documents, and the Gospel of Marcion) that could be equally useful as evidence but give rather different accounts of the apparent life of Jesus.

This is exactly why it fails to be convincing to the skeptical eye.  An independent peer review by serious historians would certainly have selected a different set of documents for inclusion in the combined work.  That is not even to mention that the 'ancient wisdom' that is the basis of the prophecies comes from people who hadn't even invented the wheel.  And as @DerbySceptic points out the collection is not very consistent in spite of this cherry-picking.

Maybe I am alone in my view that the bible should still be regarded as a single book, albeit made up from a collection of other documents, and that it can't therefore be used as evidence to support itself - but I doubt it.


SpaceGhoti said...

"Maybe I am alone in my view that the bible should still be regarded as a single book, albeit made up from a collection of other documents, and that it can't therefore be used as evidence to support itself - but I doubt it."

No. You are not alone.

Anonymous said...

"single book...made up of a collection of other documents." So, it's a collection.

Just because it is physically bound in one book does not make it a singular work.

Hilary said...

It's both... :)