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How accurate is the Bible?


Question & Answer

Nancy from Illinois, writes:
I hear people quote 2 Timothy 3.16* as their way to “prove” the Bible is historically accurate and should be obeyed in every way. With all the violence and out-dated rules in the Bible, this interpretation seems hard to justify. Is there another way to read this?

Answer: By David Felten

Dear Nancy,

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that 2 Timothy 3.16 is one of the most misused passages in the Bible – responsible for untold grief and misery. Why? Because this is one of the “proof texts” exploited to claim that scripture is inerrant, perfect, and without error. Over time, It’s been used in arguments justifying (among other things): slavery, the inequitable treatment of women, the pillaging of natural resources, and the hatred of other cultures and religions. Most often used as evidence of inerrant scripture’s witness to its own authority, 2 Timothy 3.16 has been so valuable as a pious rhetorical sledgehammer, that many otherwise intelligent people have been slow to admit that it doesn’t actually say what they claim it says.

First of all, it’s in correspondence that was written by someone who is not who he claims to be. Although the text starts out with “I, Paul,” the majority of scholars agree that 2 Timothy wasn’t written by the author of the authentic letters of Paul. The tone, grammar, vocabulary, and subject matter just don’t align with the original Paul. The vocabulary and theological ideas are so similar to those in the epistle to Titus that Titus, 1 Timothy, and 2 Timothy are generally considered to be from the same source. Written somewhere between 85 and 100, these “pastoral epistles” were written as small fellowships of Gentile and Jewish Christians started organizing themselves into what would become the church.

Authorship aside, keep in mind that much of the authority of this passage is placed on a very narrow interpretation of just a couple of words: “scripture” and “inspired.”

When Timothy was written, the canon had not yet been set. Some books of what we now call the New Testament probably weren’t even written yet. So it’s debatable exactly what “scripture” is being described. It’s likely that the γραφὴ (graphe) spoken of by the author is Torah, not the gospels or the Pauline letters, but Hebrew Scripture – never mind how presumptuous it would have been for the “I, Paul” of this letter to imply that his own writings were equivalent to scripture!

The other critical phrase, “inspired by God,” is just one word: θεόπνευστος (theh-op’-nyoo-stos). It can also be translated as divinely breathed or infused with the spirit. Contrary to the image taught in Sunday School, it in no way implies that the texts were “dictated” word for word. I like to think of it the same way as I think Mahler’s 2nd Symphony or John Cotrane’s Naima are theopneustos. I think even Dr. Suess is theopneustos – especially as I remember holding one of my children, reading quietly, and marveling at their recognition of new words and concepts. These are, for me, a lot more God-breathed than, say, Leviticus.

Then, because of the ambiguity of the text, scholars haven’t even been able to agree on the relationship between our focus words “scripture” and “inspired.” Technically, the passage can be translated as either “All scripture is inspired and useful” or “All inspired scripture is useful” (which have very different meanings!).

As Bishop Spong says, the Bible is not a weapon. And yet 2 Timothy 3.16 – an otherwise unremarkable recommendation to be familiar with the teachings of one’s tradition – has been misused over the centuries to shut down objections and promote questionable doctrines. With what we know about this passage today, its continued use as justification for “all the violence and out-dated rules in the Bible” is way off base.

~ Rev. David M Felten

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author

David Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona. David and fellow United Methodist Pastor, Jeff Procter-Murphy, are the creators of the DVD-based discussion series for Progressive Christians, “Living the Questions”.

A co-founder of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology and also a founding member of No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, David is an outspoken voice for LGBTQ rights both in the church and in the community at large. David is active in the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church and tries to stay connected to his roots as a musician. You’ll find him playing saxophones in a variety of settings, including appearances with the Fountain Hills Saxophone Quartet.

David and his wife Laura, an administrator for a large Arizona public school district, live in Phoenix with their three often adorable children.

* All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3.16)

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