Luther’s confidence in the Bible, the Word of God rang out loud and clear: “A man’s word is a little sound that flies into the air and soon vanishes; but the Word of God is greater than heaven and earth, yea greater than death and hell, for it forms a part of the power of God and endures everlastingly.”
What better way to start the New Year, then, than with a renewed confidence in the truthfulness, authority and sufficiency of the Bible, God’s Word? It is an anvil which has worn out many hammers, a book which has transformed the lives of countless millions and shaped cultures, and has been the one firm place to stand for the people of God seeking to understand themselves, to know their Maker and Redeemer, and to move the world. The Bible’s textual purity, internal consistency, factual reliability, historical durability, overall clarity and absolute authority have been confirmed over and over again in the face of repeated assaults. And we can be grateful for anything which reinforces our confidence in its truth and power.
This, as we shall see, is exactly what Dr. Robert Beckford unintentionally provided in his Christmas Day programme, Who Wrote the Bible? shown on Channel Four. Beckford is a lecturer in African Diasporan Religions and Cultures at the University of Birmingham, a speaker at Greenbelt, and a telegenic media academic. He is also a Christian, although, at least in respect of his attitude to Scripture, a deeply inconsistent one.
The programme adopted the familiar format of a personal quest for truth, in this case, the truth about Who Wrote the Bible? The presenter begins in a place of certainty – Moses wrote the first five books, the Old Testament gives us an accurate history of Israel, the Gospel writers were eye-witnesses whose accounts are consistent, and so on. But he has a niggling question or two and so he sets out on an honest journey seeking the “truth” wherever it may lead him and however uncomfortable it may be. He interviews relevant authorities and, surprise, surprise, discovers that life is not as simple as he thought at first, that the truth is an unsettling thing and that the easily held beliefs of his youth must be relinquished. Filmed in places such as the Sinai desert, the bustle of old Jerusalem and the catacombs of Rome, we have the usual camera combinations: talking heads interspersed with the presenter climbing barren hills or walking crowded streets as he reflects on what he has just heard and then looking straight to camera for the thoughtful conclusions he wishes us all to reach with him. We are meant to accompany him as he travels and talks and we are also meant to accompany him as he moves from confidence in the Bible to scepticism dressed as maturity.
Robert Beckford’s own words
The storyline of the programme was simple, consisting as it did of the emerging contradiction of traditional views of the Bible’s authorship, reliability and consistency. The following quotations give a reasonable sense of Beckford’s “discoveries”:
1. “In the last few months I’ve been on a quest to discover the origins of the Bible, to find out who the biblical authors were and what they were trying to achieve … I’ve learned who wrote the Bible, and then who rewrote it afterwards. It’s made me doubt some of my basic Christian beliefs.”
2. “The Christian within me wants to believe that Moses wrote the Bible and that … he heard the voice of God and was able to write things down … but the historian in me questions that and wonders whether it’s actually possible to write down that amount of literature … in this place.”
3. Disagreement with Bible-affirming archaeology: “This is a bombshell. Archaeology now tells a completely new story of Jewish origins.”
4. The exodus and the early monarchy were “not at all as the Bible tells us.”
5. “Modern archaeology has exploded the idea that the Old Testament is an accurate account of ancient history.”
6. The first five books of the Bible: “Four different sources? Then Moses can’t have written it at all and believers have been hoodwinked for centuries.”
7. “Now we learn that the Scriptures disagree on the very nature of God.”
8. “The so-called law of Moses turns out to be the work of many human hands. What I once thought was the word of God was now beginning to sound like something out of Stalin’s Russia.”
9. Paul’s writings: “… not that he bothered with Jesus’s story as such; instead, he wrote a kind of rule-book for the early church.”
10. The four gospels were produced not by eye-witnesses but by a “Christian version of Chinese whispers.”
11. “That the first gospel writer was relying on hearsay is a bit of a thunderbolt.”
12. Mark’s gospel is “less a record of events than a self-help guide that says suffering and persecution are the best way to God.”
13. Matthew was a “salesman of a Jewish Jesus” who launched a “PR campaign for a very different kind of Christ” which was trying to “supplant Mark, to take it over.”
14. John was involved in “writing extra, slightly unreal speeches for Jesus … peddling a specific new angle.”
15. Beckford asks “whether it discredits the gospels if they’re not just simple reportage?
16. “We don’t know what really happened. But maybe we don’t need to. Because if we see these texts as an attempt by a community to work out what’s happening in its life by reflecting on the life of Jesus then we can see them as books of faith – they aim to communicate faith. So it seems to me, if you read the gospels as standard historical fact then it’s just as dangerous as reading the Old Testament that way because you’re going to miss the point of what they’re really about.”
17. “Canon formation is all about a group of rich and powerful people putting texts together and deciding who they want to include in orthodoxy and who they want to exclude.” It was the “work of men rather than the work of God” and Beckford is worried that “something wonderful might have been lost in what was essentially censorship.”
18. “… all the evidence shows us again and again that women were apostles” and the formation of the canon was about “power relations” designed to exclude women from leadership.
19. “First the so-called law of Moses turns out to be the work of many hands. Then I find that much of the Old Testament was ruled by ancient politics as much as by divine insight. The New Testament, too, turns out to be a masterwork of spin – written by people who were nowhere near the events they describe – all gathered together by powerful editors who made sure to keep out ideas they didn’t like.”
20. “Who wrote the Bible? Well, I’ve learned that biblical authorship is messy and it’s messy because life is imperfect and if we can find God in the imperfections of our lives, of my life, then maybe we can find God in the messiness of the text. Who wrote the Bible? Well, it’s a complex question and it takes some thinking through and that tells me that to have faith in the world today is to ask questions and never have the wool pulled over your eyes.”
These quotations largely speak for themselves but it might be worth listing some of the many and various weaknesses and failures in Beckford’s argument. He engages in sensationalism (3, 11), overstatement (3, 4) and mere assertion combined with argument from authority (what “Finkelstein says” is assumed to be true with no evidence provided). There are errors of fact: Jerusalem is referred to as Jesus’s birthplace, (though later it is said to be Bethlehem); it is said that Jews returned from exile in 516 B.C. Extra-biblical sources are privileged when they conflict with biblical sources (Assyrian accounts over against the record of II Kings 19). Beckford uses loaded language (“masterwork of spin”, “hoodwinked”, “hearsay”, “censorship”, “Stalin’s Russia”) and misrepresentation (9, 12). He presents complementary perspectives as contradictions (7). He is guilty of non sequiturs, claiming, for example, that widespread literacy was needed for the editing of a complex book. And he ignores or suppresses careful and well-researched scholarship which supports the reliability of Scripture.
Perhaps Beckford’s most elementary failure of argument lies at the heart of the programme. Repeatedly, he sets up false dichotomies. This is when you ask a question such as “Is this a chair or it is a piece of wood?” Or, if I serve soup with a ladle, it is like asking “Is it the ladle which serves the soup or is it me?” So Beckford asks, is the Bible written by humans or by God? Or again, do the gospels have a persuasive intention or are they historically accurate? Is the canon the work of men or the work of God? Is the Bible inspired by God or a piece of literature? University of Birmingham colleague, Mark Goodacre and bishop of Durham, Tom Wright both try to steer Beckford away from this blunder. Wright even says that we should “grow up beyond this rather sterile either-or”. The Christian answer to each of these questions is, of course, “both”. But Beckford will have none of it.
And, ironically, given that he tells us that he is “really suspicious about all compilations, including the Bible”, Beckford has produced a highly selective compilation which is a deeply polemical piece of work designed to persuade the viewer of a particular viewpoint. He is not an unbiassed observer because in all the world there is no such thing. He believes that fallen and finite human minds have the capacity and the authority to sit in judgment upon the Word of God and that is a very definite (and dangerous) theological position to occupy. It is not an “objective” stance and “has God said?” is neither a new nor a morally neutral question.
Perhaps I am making it sound as though there was nothing good in the programme. That is not the case … there were some really nice pictures. But that was about it.
No, actually, there was one other good thing – but it was unintended. If a programme as riddled with errors, prejudices and superficialities as this, is representative of mainstream, media-approved, semi-scholarly attempts to undermine the sort of confidence in Scripture’s reliability, consistency and authority which has marked orthodox Christian belief for two thousand years, then the Bible and its lovers can have little to fear from the arguments of sceptics. The danger lies not in the force of their arguments but in the slickness of their presentation and in the alliance between a humanist media and a pluralist academic world.
The mouthpiece of the Spirit
Beckford tells us that “the Spirit gives you the ability to see the ignorance, the bias and the prejudice that was involved and raise questions about the legitimacy and accuracy of what took place.” Since this is clearly what he thinks he is doing in the programme as a whole it constitutes a not very subtle claim on Beckford’s part to be the mouthpiece of the Spirit. He’s too late. It is true (II Peter 1.20-21) that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit” but the words they spoke are located precisely in Scripture. Here, in the Bible, we have “something more sure” and it is to this written Word of God that “we do well to pay attention”, in this New Year and in as many New Years as God grants us.
Craig Blomberg - The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (1987)
Lee Strobel - The Case for Christ (1998)
Peter Jensen – The Revelation of God (2002)
Paul Helm & Carl Trueman (eds), The Trustworthiness of God (2002)