Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Pondering the Inspiration of Scripture*

The Greek word graphē is usually translated by the English words, scripture or writing. By capitalizing the first letter of the word (Scripture) translators intend their readers to understand the word Scripture to be referring to Sacred Writings. According to the lexicons graphē is used exclusively so in the New Testament, regardless of whether, or not, the first letter is capitalized.

            Sacred Scripture is a writing believed to have been inspired by God, as it is stated in 2 Tm 3:16: "Every Scripture (graphē) is inspired by God (theopneustos)." That is to say, the writing is "God breathed," or infused by God. The ancient Hebrews believed that the prophets were inspired by God (Hos 12:10; 1 Kgs 13:20; 1 Kgs 17:1-2; Ex 12:1-2; Ex 15:1-2; 2 Sam 7:4-5; Neh 9:30; Zech 7:12; Ezek 24:20-21), and linked the prophet's inspiration to writings believed to be written by the prophet (Jer 30:1-2; Jer 36:1-2). Thus, the inspiration of the prophet came to be transferred to the "writings" of the prophet, and in this way the writing also became the Word of the Lord; as they believed the spoken word of the prophet was as well. The early Christians continued this practice of extending inspiration from writers to their writings, as 2 Tim 3:16 clearly shows (cf. 2 Pet 1:20-21).

            Truth be told, however, one can never know if a person is inspired by God and likewise one can never know for certain what inspires an author, even if the author specifies the source of inspiration. One only knows for certain what one is told. And the only way of telling if a text is "inspired" is by the judgment of literary critics on the literary excellence of the writing and/or the number of persons who opined it either inspired or inspiring. In both cases, however, that a writing is inspired by God or by the author is a matter of opinion. There are no objective criteria of a writing by which one can identify, or quantify, inspiration of texts. Inspiration is not a physical feature of a piece of literature like language, handwriting, and stated ideas. In the church, however, people believe the New Testament is inspired simply because they have been taught to think that way. It is a learned response and does not represent a critical judgment upon the inscription or inspiration of the texts.

            If one insists that a given text has been inspired, on what basis can one reasonably eliminate the human author as the actual genius behind the inspiration? Personally, I think that Psalm 23, a thoroughly religious piece, is both an inspired text and an inspiring text. It crosses the lines of most religions and offers strong encouragement for those walking through "the valley of the shadow of death." Another thoroughly secular piece in the New Testament that I consider inspired and inspiring is 1 Cor 13:1-13. God is not even mentioned in these sentences. I also consider the poem "The Road not taken" by Robert Frost to be both inspired and inspiring and it has nothing to do with religion or ethics.

I cannot say with any degree of confidence if it was the genius of God or the unknown human author that inspired these three narratives. It could have been both, I suppose; who can say with any degree of confidence? It is possible that "God" provided a degree of inspirational "spark" to motivate the writer's writing, but the psalm, the essay on love, and the poem were obviously crafted through the natural abilities of the human author. To call any of them "Word of God," however, is a bridge too far. Such a description overlooks the role of the human author in their creation.

What do you think?  

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*I have written earlier on this subject: see Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion, blog: "Revelation and Meaning," Saturday, August 31, 2013:

"Is the Bible Inspired?" Thursday, December 5, 2019:


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

I ponder, was Jesus inspired or was he gifted, or both.

Longman Dictionary of Psychology and Psychiatry:

inspiration - "The sudden grasp of a creative idea"

giftedness - "membership in the group of 0.5% of children who score 140 or higher on IQ tests."

A quote from Burton L Mack, "“Jesus can be ranked among the creative minds of the Greco-Roman age. But he would have been more the poet or the visionary, less the systematic thinker, for his teachings turned on insights and suggestions, not on strategies for promoting a long-range plan.” (Who Wrote the New Testament? 1989, 47)

As I see it, God can be, but doesn't need to be in the conversation; however each of us needs to be open to the potentials that life brings to our attention.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

In my world, Intelligence, experience and effort create literature and other creative endeavors. “Inspiration” is the combination of these factors to produce new connections, in other words, the ability to use previous knowledge to form novel (more or less), “high order” relationships. (It’s a “theory of learning” thing.) Gods are not in the equation.

“Inspired” is a word that I wouldn’t use to describe the gospels, though the early gospel Mark is "a really good story," and certainly not the letters, though there is some fun "word play" in those. It’s a collection of what the early Church Fathers considered to have come from apostles or buddies of apostles (and "Paul") as they faithfully “remembered,” thus “close to the source,” which in the second century became considered a form of “God” by many, thus I suppose the gospeleer’s or “pen pal’s” logos would be “God’s logos.” (Ignatius was an early purveyor of Jesus Christ as “our God,” but he seemed a bit confused now and again. At one point, Ignatius is even a “word of God”` if the letter recipients are silent concerning him.)

If I want to read what I consider “inspired,” I reach for any number of books, generally fiction. “Good literature is what one enjoys reading,” (my parents’ mantra), not necessarily what someone else says about it. I would never make the error of mistaking “inspiration” (as in writing that enthralls me) with a supernatural source. Not even Zane Grey or those tablets Moses grabbed written by God in Exodus 31. .Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative) makes a plausible case of “biblical narrative as prose fiction”(p. 193), speaking of the Hebrew scriptures. What he writes (primarily well-known elements of fiction) is applicable to Christian narratives, too.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Charlie, you hit the nail on the head when you wrote "One only knows for certain what one is told." The only reason people like my friend (whom I asked about the pericope adulterae story) and my family and myself in the past... The only reason we believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God is that someone we respect told us it is. You're right- we tend to believe what we're told, particularly by respected authority figures.

Christians place the same level of "God breathed inspiration" upon the entire NT... From John to Luke to Paul to Peter to James to Jude... It's ALL inspired by God and therefore the direct words of God. Not so in Judaism. They place different levels of inspiration upon the three sections of the Tanakh: Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim. As you know, the Torah consists of the first five books also known as the Pentateuch. According to the teachings of Judaism, these are the words God directly spoke to Moses. The Nevi'im consists of second tier writings and prophecies that they call "inspired writings" meaning they don't come directly from God's audible voice but from dreams, visions, revelations, etc. This includes the major and minor prophets, Kings, Samuel, Johsua, Judges, etc. It's not on the same level as the Torah. Then comes the third tier writings called the Ketuvim which is just "writings" and includes Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Songs of Songs, Lamentations, etc. Also referred to as "Wisdom writings," and is not on the same level as the first two sections of the Hebrew bible. They consider them to be scared scripture but not the direct words of God. I wish the NT would be divided up into those categories, it would seem more realistic and relatable than labelling the whole thing as inerrant.

When I asked my friend about whether or not John 7:53-8:11 should be kept in its original form, she said yes it should... I said "Even though it never happened and is not historically accurate?" She said it doesn't matter whether or not it really happened or how much later it was added- the story still belongs in the chapter of John because it is consistent with Jesus's other teachings. The textual inconsistencies just didn't matter and like me, she had never even noticed the disclaimer before. And she can't remember whether or not her pastor mentioned the disclaimer. I doubt he did. I've never heard a pastor even use the word "original manuscript."

Which comes back to Charlie's sentence that jumped out to me "One only knows for certain what one is told." People don't pay attention to what the Bible actually says, they only pay attention to what their pastor SAYS it says. (The one exception to that statement are Jewish rabbis, they pay closer attention to the words of the NT than any Christian I've ever seen) Elizabeth

Community Christian Church said...

As I writer, I understand inspiration as in, being inspired by a setting or circumstance but to suggest that God inspires writing of any kind projects a kind of anthropomorphism onto God which is, in my judgement, primitive (at best). God is not a person and does not prefer one sports team over another, nor does God contemplate the sex lives of dogs, birds, or people. As Aristotle insisted, if there is a God, God does not know that we exist and if God did know that we exist, God would not care one way or the other.

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks for the comment Roger. Could you provide me with the cite for the paraphrase of Aristotle?
Thanks. I would like to read the broader context.

Elizabeth said...

A few questions come to mind for the scholars among us who delve into the origins of that which lay people (such as myself) refer to as "Sacred Scripture."

With all the many years of digging into the original manuscripts and transcribing them and carbon testing them and researching the exact origin of their authors... I know Charlie traveled overseas to personally translate and put together fragments of newly discovered ancient texts near Nag Hammadi... Not to mention the scholars here who were involved with the Jesus Seminar... I openly wonder what is your opinion of people who sit in church, listening to sermons, reading their Bibles day in and day out- never once pay the slightest attention to the meticulous research unearthed by thoughtful and careful scholars like Charlie. Does it bother these conscientious truth seekers that pastors ignore their footnotes and disclaimers? I can tell you from personal experience- clergy persons purposefully divert our attention away from any historical references that contradict the established orthodoxy of church doctrine. No questions allowed.

Why is there a barrier between clergymen (and women) and biblical scholars? When churchgoers start finding these discrepancies on their own- it starts to seem like our pastors are trying to hide something from us.... Is that what's going on? Are we being purposefully misled?? Elizabeth

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Elizabeth,
I think that church folk deserve better than they are getting from their clerics. It also strikes me that church folk in general do not really want to be informed about historical matters that might reflect negatively on what they believe. In a late night dinner in Greece, I shared some of what I have learned about the Bible with a Greek pediatrician and her husband, also a physician. She stopped me saying that she did not really want to know such things because it was too upsetting. In her faith she wanted everything to be easy to live with.

Anonymous said...

Charlie and Elizabeth:

Folks could easily study how Jesus used the scriptures of his day. But hell, that's far too much work! Here's a couple of many examples.

They would find that in Matt he supports the law and the prophets far far into the future (5:17-20) but at the same time suggests that true wisdom is in nature which reveals that friend and enemy are treated alike (5:43-48.)

They would also find that he mocks scripture: turning the protection of nations resting on the limbs of the mighty cedar of Israel into protection by the mustard seed shrub of God's kingdom (Ezek 17:22ff., Mark 4:30-32 and //s), and using leaven (Lk 13:20-21), a symbol of promise (Gen 18) as well as evil (Exod 12:19), as the generator of God's kingdom's growth.

There's also his remark "Beware of the scribes" ("scholars": Scholars Version) [Mark 12:38-40 and //s), perhaps because scholars are not real good at merging reason with other ways of knowing. I'll repeat an observation from my first post:

A quote from Burton L Mack, "“Jesus can be ranked among the creative minds of the Greco-Roman age. But he would have been more the poet or the visionary, less the systematic thinker, for his teachings turned on insights and suggestions, not on strategies for promoting a long-range plan.” (Who Wrote the New Testament? 1989, 47);

It would seem that Jesus was not worried about hanging onto scripture in any literal way. So what behavior constitutes a follower?

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg,, Pa.

Anonymous said...

I don’t really see the church as a place where people go to practice their cognitive skills. Nor should it be. “Church service” seems more a social and cultural event for people who enjoy it. The myth surrounding it is comforting to them, primarily because of their familiarity with them. They don’t come to the service wanting “new” stuff, just as one doesn’t go to a Stones concert to hear Dolly Parton or vice versa. Besides, most of the clergy have a set of beliefs, articles of faith to which they subscribe. Delivering the messages of their sect is just a portion of the responsibility, usually applied to tenets of the sect. Most sects set parameters long ago which included the authority of the Bible as the “inspired word of God.” What comes from a pulpit is generally recognizable to the audience, conflation abounds – where the magi & shepherds can play poker as soon as they take baby Jesus from the feed trough and the new parents hit the road for Egypt. Church is an escape from the world of logos into the world of mythos. Who doesn’t enjoy a fantasy movie? “Faith” is a difficult critter to whop, even with a stick. It slides around in a manner exactly like those balls of mercury we once played with until it became toxic. Attached to the main social event of the week for many, especially busy parents or lonely older folks, faith provides a rationale for community.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

Speaking from my own circle of family and friends, the behavior I mostly observe that constitutes his followers is this: obeying the Great Commission to witness to "lost souls" and preach the gospel to them so they can avoid going to hell. That's pretty much all they care about. Elizabeth

Elizabeth said...

While it's true that people don't attend church to exercise critical or rational thinking, sometimes facts collide with their feelings and the result is turbulent for some. Particularly those I described to Gene as missionaries of the faith. There modus operandi is convincing non-believers to join the faith... Naturally questions arise during these encounters. When they are unable to answer certain question or are challenged with facts they dislike (such as the pediatrician who spoke with Charlie in Greece)... There may be an occasional re-examination of one's assumptions about the origins of the Bible and how it was written. Yes, generally speaking most people go to church to sing songs and listen politely to the weekly lecture and chat with friends after the service. However some zealous churchgoers view themselves as fighting the good fight to "win souls." And I personally knew more than a few of them in Kansas City. They are the ones who take the bible literally and are persuasive at convincing unsuspecting victims of its inerrancy. That's the type of church I used to attend and I wish I had known then what I know now. It doesn't sound like anyone here has ever encountered what I would refer to as a "militant" believer. I am hoping that their ranks are dwindling. Elizabeth
PS: I saw on YouTube a militant street preacher get challenged by Rabbi Tovia Singer and it was amazing to see his face change from anger to openness & clarity.