The Bible is a strange book with which we are sometimes way too comfortable. It’s easy to forget that this collection of texts comes from a world vastly different than our own. Thankfully, two authors have published a book to remind us of what the Bible actually is and how it came to be.
The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority was co-authored by Walton and D. Brent Sandy and published by IVP Academic in November 2013. The title might not keep you up at night with excitement—who among us has ever lost sleep by thinking about the copying and transmission of ancient texts?—but the propositions it raises are wholly important to anyone who considers the Bible to carry divine authority. Walton and Sandy both affirm the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, but they also are concerned with how the Bible’s inerrancy and authority are affected by the cultures in which the Bible was written and preserved.
To get a sense of what that means, consider this: how does the concept of biblical inerrancy—that is, the collection of texts of the Bible contain truth and no error—have meaning in a society in which people primarily learned through oral, not written, communication?
Each chapter serves as a proposition that lays the groundwork for what’s the come, and the first section of the book lays the dance floor upon which the following sections move. Walton and Sandy note the role of ancient documents and how they would have been used, as well as how tradition can survive before being written down.
A crucial part of the discussion comes in the form of the authors’ claims on the source of authority for the books of the Bible: “When we talk about the authority of Scripture, we can now see that we cannot construe authority around the idea that each book of the Bible was first constructed as a literary document—a book, by an author” (63). Instead, the authors point to two “focal points”: the authority figure guided by the Holy Spirit who is the source of the tradition that was written down, and the period right before the document is accepted as part of a canon, finishing a long process of composition.
Practically speaking, this means that Moses didn’t have to write the first books of the Bible and that Scripture wasn’t lying when it calls those works the “books of Moses”. It means that Isaiah didn’t pen all 66 chapters of the book bearing his name—but that doesn’t mean the authority claimed in that book no longer exists.
“When the New Testament speakers refer to the work of Isaiah, they are referring to the literary documents in their time that have been subsumed under the authority of the prophet. This has nothing to do with authorship, and therefore we ought not be including discussions of Isaiah as the ‘author’ of his ‘book’ when we talk about inerrancy. The claim being made concerns Isaiah’s unquestioned role as the authority figure behind that literature” (65).
The first section of the book helpfully sums up some of the arguments made earlier and gives examples of how books of the Bible attest to their own composition (and how that process may be different than what we assumed it to be).
Part 2, “The New Testament World of Composition and Communication”, begins by arguing that even with the existence of texts, the Greek and Roman worlds remained hearing dominant (84). Following this is a discussion on how Greek historians, philosophers, and Jewish rabbis understood the importance and role of written communication. The rabbis were particularly interesting on this matter. While they sought to guard the Law of Moses, they also preferred to teach by example, rather than by instruction (105). They also believed in an oral tradition that was binding on God’s people, which, when combined with the written Law, made up a “two-part Torah” (106). They also didn’t feel the need to write down their teachings, which is something we also see in Jesus’ ministry.
While Jesus likely had the literacy rate of scribes of his day (this is the view taken by the authors, at least), the culture in which he lived was not text-dominant. Walton and Sandy do a good job in pointing this out, such as when they note that the only people to whom Jesus ever says, “You have read …” are Pharisees and scribes; when addressing common audiences, though, Jesus employs, “You have heard it said …”, implying their primary method of learning was through oral, not written, communication (114).
The discussion moves on to what the Greek word “logos” meant when it’s used in the New Testament. Primarily, it’s referencing oral communication; its primary meaning, contrary to popular teaching in churches today, is not the Bible. Here’s why this is important: when Scripture records Jesus or the apostles or someone preaching the “word” of God, they’re talking about someone engaging in spoken communication, not through the written word. When Jesus commissioned his followers to pass on his teachings, he primarily had oral communication in mind (139). Oral traditions about Jesus, in turn, became the basis for what was written down.
This leads to a new question: how well were these traditions preserved in oral form? And what of the variations that we find in the New Testament? The authors first argue that some variance was allowed in the retelling of stories, so long as the central message was kept in tact (145-146). The authors draw from several places in which the gospels disagree with each other and conclude:
“Based on variants in written texts, we can infer that oral texts did not manifest a form of sacrosanct wording that prescribed and regulated every detail and every word, as if transmitters of the tradition adhered to the standards of modern historical accuracy. … Further, it is not necessary to explain away the differences by some means of harmonization in order to fit modern standards of accuracy” (150-151).
(A personal note from the reviewer: observations like this make me wonder if modern evangelical apologists simply don’t understand the Bible they’re trying to defend, since much of their activities to “contend for the faith” involve trying to prove that the Bible doesn’t actually contradict itself.)
Part 3, titled “The Biblical World of Literary Genres”, examines important distinctions between how we understand the role of texts compared to ancient writers. Ancient writers might have written “event-based texts”, but that does not mean that they were trying to record history in the same way that modern historians would (211). The law of Moses and the books of the prophets are further explored, as are the genres of the Gospels, which may have been modeled after Greco-Roman biographies, in which it was acceptable that there could be variations of the same story (243). The authors go on to propose how the Gospels and Paul’s letters could have been preserved orally before being written down.
Part 4, titled “Concluding Affirmations on the Origin and Authority of Scripture”, focuses on the implications of what Walton and Sandy have spent most of the book discussing. Especially of interest is how the composition of Scripture and the predominance of oral texts would have on the apostle Paul’s claims that Scripture is inspired or “breathed out” by God (2 Timothy 3:16). Likewise, Peter insisted that prophecy comes from the Holy Spirit, not from the imagination of men (1 Peter 1:21).
With regard to Peter, the authors point out that the chief apostle was speaking of oral prophecies that had come before and were being denied by false teachers (261-262). When Paul wrote of Scripture being inspired, he was focused on the function of Scripture, not necessarily proposing a doctrine of the Bible (271). Furthermore, the apostle claimed that his oral teachings also had divine origin, which casts into doubt the idea that he assumed his letters had greater authority because they were written:
“There is no evidence in this passage that Paul was seeking to place the written text of Scripture on a higher level of authority than the oral texts. Viewed from the perspective of oral culture, why would he? The oral and written texts in which Timothy had been trained were viewed as equally authoritative and were essential instruction for the community of believers. Paul’s point was not to provide the ultimate definition of a doctrine of written Scripture” (273).
Readers shouldn’t assume the authors want to damage the doctrine of inerrancy; remember, they simply want to understand the word better in light of the culture in which the Bible was written, preserved orally, and eventually written down. That said, they recognize the weaknesses with the term and how certain passages of Scripture can be considered inerrant. How can a proverb, for instance, be inerrant when proverbs are known generalizations (277)? The authors go on to argue on how to be better readers of Scripture, the role of the Holy Spirit as we study our sacred texts, and the conclusions to draw from the concepts discussed.
What I Liked
There’s no part of this book that isn’t important, which is a testament to the authors’ ability to stay on point. Each proposition lays the foundation for the following arguments, and you can’t fully grasp what’s said later by skipping the earlier chapters. One of the shortcomings of Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One was that some of the propositions were too short and didn’t allow for enough discussion or evidence. The Lost World of Scripture doesn’t share that weakness.
The discussion on variances within the tradition (and later, the text) was especially interesting to me. For many people (and I used to feel this way, too), the Bible can’t be trusted if it contradicts itself. Since it was inspired by God, and God cannot make mistakes, then the Bible can’t possess a single mistake. If it does, then it couldn’t have been inspired by a perfect God. By showing us the process by which tradition would have been communicated and handed down, Walton and Sandy shed insight into the text that God actually inspired. We don’t need to view variances as a threat or spend considerable time trying to prove that, to name one example, the Easter accounts don’t provide different versions of what happened on that fateful Sunday morning. Jesus, the apostles, and their culture would have shrugged at your concern and wondered why you were hyperventilating about something that wasn’t a big deal and was even expected among storytellers.
What I Wished For
The authors don’t hesitate to discuss the possibility that the books of the Bible had more than one author (especially since they weren’t “authors” and “books” in the way that modern readers understand them). I was hoping they would explore the idea that Paul didn’t write all the letters that have his name attached to them, such as Colossians and the two correspondences to Timothy. If this were true and Paul didn’t write them, then what impact would that have, if any, on our understanding of the Bible as divinely inspired?
I have another issue with the book. In the fourth section, the authors make a claim that appears contrary to what they’ve been arguing: “If the Bible does not offer the Word of God, no other doctrines are secure” (276). This seems odd in light of the idea that an oral culture could preserve, faithfully, the teachings of God without a written text. If the Word of God depends upon the Bible to be offered to humanity, then how did the early church function without a complete Bible? On the first reading, this statement struck me as an exaggerated effort on the part of the authors to reaffirm their evangelical credentials, which I’m sure some people will question after reading this book.
Should You Read It?
There’s no considerable reason why you shouldn’t.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from IVP Academic for review. I am not compensated for my work or encouraged to write about the book in a positive light. My opinions are my own.