I'm a fairly well read atheist, who was baptized Catholic, raised mostly Christian (with different sectual overtones), my father is Muslim, and I went to private religious schools in elementary school and College, and who has had many religious friends and influences. I have read the Bible a few times, but also read information about the Bible and its origins, and I enjoy discussing these subjects with people far more educated than myself. These are my opinions on the history and origins of the Bible, not to malign others views -- just because I get a certain peace and closure out of writing my thoughts down.
I'm not a religious scholar by any means, but many of my opinions come from information obtained or documented by them, and can be verified through them. I respect learned men, and pious men, just not close-minded or ignorant men. You can find many of each, or exceptions in all walks of life. I'm not an intolerant person, nor an intentional heretic; though some will see me as one, since I am a bit too pragmatic for many people's taste. Hopefully they are not too intolerant to understand where I'm coming from, and not too close-minded to consider reading more on this subject.
Remember, this article is not an implication on others religion, their God, or their belief in God. This is just a perspective on the origins of the books that are the Bible, from my point of view. To understand what a Biblical Religion means, you must understand the origins of that religion (and the Book of teachings itself). I like and value theologians, scholars, and those that have beliefs and convictions and stick by them, as long as those convictions don't intrude on the rights of others. So this is certainly not an attack on those with different beliefs; just an alternate perspective on the same truths.
The five books of Moses - the Pentateuch
The Bible says that the books of Moses were given to him by God in Sinai.
Actually the literal translation is a little rougher; it says Moses was given "these words", which may have referred to that caption, sentence, paragraph, section, book, or all five books. People argue over this phrase; many want it to mean everything that was written in the entire book - ignoring that the entire book wasn't written or compiled for another thousand or more years. And they want it to only be the future books that they say were added, and not the ones others say were added. This conveniently eliminates debate and discussion, but that's taking some serious liberties with what was likely meant, if that wasn't an editorial addition in the first place. And if it did mean "everything that was to be written or added", including the New Testament a thousand years later, then why should things like the Apocrypha, Koran or Book of Mormon, which are just further extensions to the Bible, be excluded?
While the original inspiration for the stories might have been inspired by God or even dictated to Moses, Scholars believe they were written, or at least edited, by four different men. Remember, the stories were told to Moses, and then many believe retold for a thousand years as a verbal tales, before finally being written down in the first scrolls; though none are sure how long between oral became written. Even if the scrolls were written down immediately, they've been rewritten and translated and edited and the hand (and flaws) of man is obvious.
The reason that scholars think there were four different authors of the Pentateuch is because of different tones and personalities in the books, and logical concepts like Moses couldn't write of his own death (in the past tense, before it happened) and so on. This is supported with logic, because you have things like the doublets in these books; the same stories told two times from different views with conflicting details. (An example is one part of Genesis that describes Noah and the ark with two Animals of each kind, and another version, which describes groups of seven). Now either Moses, and thus God, was schizophrenic and arguing with himself, or more sanely, by the time the books were first written down or compiled, the editors had to combine different verbal tales of the Torah - and rather than take liberties or decide which was the voice of God, they wrote both contradictory versions for future generations to decide. (Actually, that seems pretty wise and noble of them).
Over time, scholars have noted the four different tones (origins) of the written books of Moses. The four different authors (or editors) are known as E, J, P and D, since we are never going to know their real names. One author refers to God as Yahweh (mispronounced as Jehovah) - thus the J standing for Jehovah. The other main author refers to God as Elohim (Lord), so he is known as author E. The author P appears to be a Priest who wrote in a different style and seemed to focus more on information about the priesthood. While the book of Deuteronomy has yet another, totally different tone and goal from the other books, and is considered to be written by author D. Most of the differences in tone are obvious in Hebrew, and edited out or lost in translation to other languages.
About 1000 BCE, King David created his Kingdom with two high priests and had two heirs (sons). Once he died, there was competition for the power (big surprise), which of course resulted in a fractioning of "the promised land". Each faction appears to have created their own competing book(s), each with their own tone and tales, meant to glorify or empower their positions. Author J was from the North (Isreal), while E was from the South (Juda).
After generations of issues like invasions, entropy, outside influences, and so on, Judaism was almost lost. A sort of reformation happened a few hundred years later, and sort of a clarification and stronger set of laws appears to have been found or written in this extra scroll that was Deuteronomy. These additions coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) aligned themselves with the political and religious persuasions of the King of the time (Josiah).
One or two hundred years later, Esra combined all the book variants into one combined set that is believed to be the first Torah. Thus the first five books of the Bible are a compilation and not a pure handed down single version; which is obvious to those who read it. This theory of compilation and multiple writers is known as the "Documentary Hypothesis", and was accepted by Pope Pious XXII in 1943. Pious even issued an edict to explore this hypothesis, and all the variations of Biblical authorship.
Now the Pentateuch is not the entire Bible or Old Testament, just the books of Moses. Over the previous few hundred years, and next few hundred years, people were combining other religious stories that were created or told by prophets, farmers, priests, and other men. Each of these had books or stories meant to tell of their perspective on God, from their point of view (bias), which is reflected in their tones.
Many of these stories (and even the stories in the Pentateuch) are suspiciously like stories much older than the age of Moses, and are pre-Christian or pre-Jewish. The story of creation and the great flood have interesting variations tracing back to pre-Egyptian times or other primordial religions far older than Judaism. Many claim this is just coincidence or independent confirmation of the tales, and not proof that the Christians (or Jews), or the many authors or prophets plagiarized and altered their stories from tales that were already out there. And whether they did, or did not, does not change the accuracy of the tales or even the integrity of the authors; since they did not have the same intellectual property rights or attitudes on plagiarism that we have today. The goal was to save these stories to enlighten others with the nature of the universe.
After a while the collection was spread all over, quite diverse, and very confusing. Each was a book, but many of the books of the Bible referred to other books. Today the Bible still refers to missing books that have been lost - but at the time it was not one set of books, just many stories that were later made into a completed tome.
In 300 BCE, 72 men, 6 from each of the 12 tribes of Egypt, were brought to Jerusalem to collect the various verbal or written stories into one book (to be used for the Library in Alexandria). This was known as the Septuagint after the number of scholars; 72. They collected and translated many variants and books of the Bible (at that time) from Hebrew to the language of common men; Greek. Even the term "Bible" comes from this translation; "Ta Biblia" which is Greek for "The Books". Sadly, the original variants of this book, along with innumerable others, were destroyed when there was a fire at the Library of Alexandria. However, there is no doubt that this first major editing, which created the first version of the good book through judicious compiling, editing, and eliminating of materials; not counting previous editing's of the Pentateuch, or many subsequent editing's and additions.
A few hundred years later, Jesus was born - and Judaism took a bit of a turn. The new prophet (Messiah) and his followers made a new Testament or set of stories about the life of Christ and times immediately following is death. And these stories were later collected and written down. The release of each of these new stories was considered "good news" or "godspel" - which was the origins of the word Gospel.
The first of these was written down probably 35 years or so after his death, the remainder coming over the next few decades. The books were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and so on; they were written by anonymous authors and only attributed to the others. The oldest fragments (and they're only fragments) we've been able to find of these books were written a couple hundred years after the death of the authors.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all have a similar feel; so much so that religious scholars believe that the authors of Matthew and Luke were actually copying from the older text of Mark. But there's also enough commonality between Mathew and Luke, that can't be traced to Mark, that scholars believe there is another source; the mysterious gospel Q that appears to have been lost in the ravages of time.
Saul of Tarsus (Paul) was a traveler, and created the first Christian Churches, and spread his message via mail letters to his congregations. These letters, which were copied many times, were later littered throughout the compilation of books that became New Testament. Modern theologians agree that many of these letters were written by Paul's scribes and not by Paul himself; one (Romans 16:22) even has the scribes name included (Tertius).
All the stories and writings of the New Testament were also spread out (geographically and secularly) and separate; with different books in different regions or sects. Christianity wasn't really a religion, it was many different teachings, each focusing on some aspects of the teachings, with many not having access to the rest. That's probably why there's so much redundancy between books like Matthew, Mark and Luke; they are really separate variants on the religion and only later brought together. It wasn't until a few hundred years later that the books were combined into one set, that they combined all the various Christian teachings. During this combination effort there was another wave of politics to choose what to include, eliminate or alter; again coincidentally aligning with the philosophy of the editors or sponsors at the time.
While there were some doublets in the old testament, and we get similar duplications and contradictions (perspectives that don't always agree) in the New Testament. However, in the New Testament there are also triplets and more. We hear of things like two genealogies of Christ, different versions of the birth (three wise men or three kings), different ways that Judas died, and so on. You can see the same process went into the editing and combining process of the New Testament that happened with the old.
It took hundreds of years to finally decide on what stories were in, and which were out of the Catholic (or Christian) Bibles. This was done by the hands of men, and of course had various biases and politics. Finally, in the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine ordered 50 copies of the entire Bible; quite an expensive collection. The Church had to standardize the book, throw out the stories the church didn't like, and get the final edits (interpretations) in. There are many books that didn't make the cut, quite literally.
Constantine also actively eliminated all sects and variations of the church/religion except his one true interpretation. Christianity became far more unified; but at what cost? Those not in the majority were persecuted.
One persecuted group was the Gnostics. Recently there was a find of the Nag Hammadi Library which had some of the oldest versions of the books, but with some variances. A very interesting and credible one, even though it has never been canonized and thus is all but ignored, is the Gospel of Thomas.
The better known find is the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls have many different versions of the same books, with some pretty fascinating differences and some contradictions. There were also many new and unfamiliar passages. This implies that a couple centuries before the modern Canonization of the Bible that we know, there were many different editions and perceptions of the same story. So much for the purist attitude that there has been no human influences on the Bible.
Some of the oldest changes in the Christian version of the Bible are the books of the Apocrypha (also called the Pseudepigrapha). The Apocrypha are books that are Biblical in nature, but are not canonized; at least for that particular sect or religion. For example, Old Testament Apocrypha are books that were in the Septuagint (original Greek Bible), but were later taken out during the canonized Palestinian Hebrew Bible. The Jews had had another editing after the original Septuagint; but theirs was more about elimination of all new materials written in anything but original Hebrew or Aramaic (eliminating the Greek or other additions). This throwback helped to differentiate them further from the Christians. Ironically, the Catholics accepted some of the books from the original Jewish Bibles that the Jews do not. The New Testament has plenty of Apocryphal books as well. And there are many other books that are not considered holy, but were research material and references to the biblical authors, and other relevant stories of the time. All can be interesting reads. Here's a few links to get started:
Many religions or sects also accept slightly different versions of the same stories. The stories either branched, were told different or stressed different things, or people in that religion decided which versions of some stories they found most credible, or aligned best with their beliefs. Other religions added more books, which others don't accept (like the Koran or Book or Mormon). In fact, some could argue quite reasonably that the only true word of God is the Ten Commandments and everything else has just been the addition, elaborations and interpretations of man; but then we wouldn't need to go to Church and tithe as often now would we.
That's kind of a cool thing about history; if you take any story that has been told by hundreds of people, over hundreds of years, you'll find many variants. If you search among the variants, you can find one that fits well with your beliefs or the message you want to get across; whatever those beliefs are. And you can just add information and clarification that overrides or changes the context of statements you don't agree with. A modern example is the fable of Santa Claus or Saint Nicolas; there were quite a few variants stories and fables that were diverging, until there were political or economic motivations to combine and commercialize them in America; and we created a commercial religion. We didn't even know what Santa looked like, often being svelte and wearing green, until Coca-Cola put Santa in their red-and-white colored theme in their Advertising so they could sell more sugar water. A century later that has settled into the collective consciousness of society, and no one remembers anything else or even realizes that Santa Claus as we see him is a creation of advertising people for Coke. Imagine if Coca-Cola had two or three thousand years, and persecuted those who contradicted them, and had the money and power to destroy all competing stories and evidence?
Some of the biggest variations in the Bible are not just because of which versions of the books or stories, but of the limits of language, and their interpretations or translations even if you could find the "one true" version.
Remember, for the majority of the history of the oldest stories of the Bible, it was orally passed down. We know the problems in the game of telephone, where kids whisper something in each others ear in sequence, until the output only comically resembles the input. There were efforts made to prevent as much error or loss in religious tales, but still we know that variations and interpretations crept in. Proof is in just the different versions of the written stories we have; not counting the many variants that have been destroyed or sealed away - imagine how many variants there were in verbal tellings? Our humanity has not changed. Later these stories were converted to written form to help make them less mutable; but that may not have helped as much as people would think. While writing is more stable than memory or verbal stories, you must also remember the languages that the Bible was written in and translated from; Hebrew or sometimes Aramaic.
Scribes who tried to be accurate wrote biblical Hebrew, but ancient written language is not nearly as precise as modern written languages. As much as 25% of the words in the bible (Hebrew) have disputed meanings or multiple meanings; imagine what that means to each sentence, paragraph, chapter or book. The way they wrote was even worse. Hand written, in a language that didn't have numbers but used letters instead, and was usually written in all capital letters with no spaces between words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. No capitalization. No punctuation. Oh yeah, and no vowels. All those modern additions help with the clarity of the written word.
A commonly used (Anglicized) example of what this means is; GODISNOWHERE. Is that "God is now here", or "God is nowhere"? Kind of different meanings, don't you think? Now make it GDSNWHR and put it in with other phrases before and after it (also of disputed meaning) and not knowing where to break things up. "Goods now here", "Go do sin, whore!", "Godson, we hire". There are lots of potential meanings. Now dispute what 25% of the words mean (like "God" or "no"). The Bible is not clear of meaning by any stretch. Those that claim irrefutable knowledge of what was said or meant obviously don't know what they are talking about.
The more you get into the Bible as literal word of God, the more it discredits the book or religion. Sorry folks, Science tells us certain things in the Bible are literally wrong; the earth was not created in 4004 BCE, it is not the center of the Universe and the Sun does not revolve around it, the mustard seed is not the smallest of the seeds, there was no global flood in the year 3000 BCE, and so on, and so on. These are just a few facts where the Bible is just wrong, and there are hundreds or thousands of examples like them. Those that pointed them out were persecuted, tortured or even killed.
Now you can deny truths you don't want to face, or you can allow a little clarity and flexibility and still keep your beliefs. If the book is a book of parables written by men (but inspired by God), and whose ambiguities are meant to be used to explore your beliefs, then it works much better than some literally perfect word of God. Unless you think that God was not omniscient; because you can't be omniscient and that wrong that often.
The argument that the earth being created in 7 days, could just mean 7 stages - or more importantly, what message was the Author trying to convey to man to help him in life? You don't have to be a literalist to have faith, and just because something is literally wrong does not mean it is spiritually wrong.
While there was no global flood, there could have certainly been regional ones - so the story could be generally true, but literally wrong. Or more importantly, what is the message or story of the flood trying to tell? There is more to the story than just the literal interpretation of the words. The tale was trying to warn men about the cost of their selfish hedonistic needs, which is far more important a lesson to learn than that of a particular flood or pillar of salt.
If you want to get into why many cultures believe there was a flood, it is easy. If you dig anywhere on earth, you can find skeletons of fish or shells, and so on. Almost everywhere has once been underwater, and almost everywhere has had massive rains and floods; just the whole world has not been flooded at the same time. Since primordial man didn't have carbon dating, they didn't know that; so they created the stories of a great flood (which are far older and wider spread than the Bible) in order to explain what happened; and to use the story to teach others important lessons, about consequences and cost of behaviors.
So man could have created the stories, and they can still create valuable lessons. Man could have accidentally (or intentionally) altered the letter of the law; and yet the law still be valid if you take it for it's spirit. Science and religion don't have to be at odds, if they both aren't close-minded about it. There are men of faith and science - but they have to be open minded.
The Bible appears to have been started as a list of laws; a spiritual history and guide given to the people to help them navigate life. These stories were meant to answer questions while asking others, and making people reflect on their nature and the nature of things around them; like their relationship to the world, others, their laws and their God.
Later the Bible evolved to become a documented history of a tribe (group of people). Later still, a spiritual and political manifesto to align itself with the politics and biases of men, to mean what men wanted it to mean, according to their agendas.
There are stories (Books) that are named in the Bible but lost to time; so it is not even a complete book. There were edits and so on. What we have today is not the same as what they've always had. The Bible has been mutable and a living growing and changing collection, written by men, managed by editors, controlled by publishers, and then interpreted by other men who were politicians and religious leaders but some assume were above their humanity by just being involved with the Bible?
There is no one Bible; since the history of the Bible there have been many versions. Certainly the English versions, which are at best 600 years old, are not the ultimate word of God; they are at best mans loose interpretation of other men's loose translations of what other men told them a few thousand years ago, at least if the poor transcriptions of what they might have said are to be believed and if our inaccurate languages didn't lose anything over time. And even the Bible itself is made up of versions of the same story told from many perspectives, with conflicting observations. Hundreds of religious sects have different chapters, and most can't agree on the same verses, and if they could, not on the significance that verse would have next to all the rest.
So the Bible is not a book of answers, it is a book of questions that people can use to explore their own spirituality and what religion or God means to them. If only they could get past their own hubris, or the hubris of their Churches, and read what the book says, or study its true history instead of the fables sold to them.
Even if everything I said against the Bible is true, that does not make the Bible (or its lessons) all wrong; just colored. Ancient alchemists may not have understood chemistry, so their explanation for why something happened when two chemicals were mixed was wrong - yet the outcomes (effect) was still correct. The same with religion; you can have faith, or understand the outcome, even if the explanation for why is not perfect.
The Bible doesn't have to be perfect for there to be God; and if there is a God, it is probably not as important which way you pray and reflect on your life and the Universe around you, but just that you do. The importance is not in the details of how or why, but in what is the result or what the final spiritual goal really is. Sadly, many have lost sight of the forest for all the trees - and miss the meaning and instead fight over the words or interpretations; missing the important message of the book, so they can win some egocentric battle over the irrelevant details instead.