1. The Bible is a set of books written by human authors. The texts were marked by the cultures, languages, personalities, and historical moments of the different authors. In an introduction to the Old Testament class the teacher would often start talking about the different traditions named J,E,P and Dt. What I remember from my teachers is that the J and E were written more or less in the period of the two Kingdoms—Israel and Judah. When Assyria captured Israel and its capital Samaria some of the E texts from the north were brought down south to Judah. The J texts of the south were then blended with the E texts of the north. Then came the so-called “reform” that unified all Judah under the governance of Jerusalem and the Temple; the Dt tradition began. Experts say that there are many layers of the Dt, so possibly there can be Dt1, Dt2, etc. After the Babylonian exile a new tradition of authorship emerged and wrote texts now identified as P texts.
2. The texts were not only written they were also edited. So, for example, the book of Deuteronomy is considered to contain many layers in which editions can be discerned. The book is not, therefore, completely Dt, it also has J, E and P elements in it. One reason why this is the case is because after the Babylonian exile all the different texts circulating were compiled—assembled—and in the process were also edited. This explains why, for example, we have two creation stories in Genesis.
3. The gospels in the New Testament were written also by human authors. The Mark account was the earliest, and then came the Matthew and Luke accounts, and finally the John account. Each has its own “version” of presenting Jesus and this was mainly due to the community to which each author addressed his text. Now, not only were there four gospel accounts. There were many in circulation. In the 1st century some “Church-Fathers” made a kind of “selectioning” and they accepted the four gospel accounts and they rejected the many other accounts.
4. Today there is what is called as “textual criticism” that investigates the different existing manuscripts of both the Old and the New Testament. Experts here will say that we really do not have the original copies of any of the ancient authors. What we have are copies of copies of copies of copies. Experts note that there are many discrepancies among the manuscripts. Comparing one manuscript with another manuscript of the same book, experts identify discrepancies. They conclude that in the process of copying a copy of a copy of a copy, scribes may have either made mistakes in copying (they may have been drowsy) or they may have deliberately added their own “opinions” to the text. Later the text becomes an “official text” ready to be published in a nice smelling book; and the text contains the possible errors and additions. Readers will then say “this is the Word of God” without realizing that chunks of what they read are “words of scribes”.
5. So one can be challenged by a question: how sure are we that what we read really came from Matthew, for example, and even from Jesus himself?
6. Do I propose that we drop our faith based on Scriptures? No. What I want to say is that the whole Bible is also a cultural product. It did not fall from the sky, it was not a verbatim dictation from God. When someone uses the Bible to justify violence, in the belief that God himself condones violence, it is wise first to pause and recognize that human authors put in violent texts in the Bible. There is no need to conclude, immediately, that God himself (herself) is pro-death penalty, for example.