From where do thoughts come to us? Logically, one would think they arise out of the life experiences, reading, and the pondering of the thinker. A letter that a distraught friend finds inspiring, a creative solution to a complex problem, and sage advice at the right time (Proverbs 25:11-13), all constitute the essence of an inspired thought arising within a person. A successful writer will write what s/he knows. If s/he wants to write convincingly about something in an unfamiliar area, s/he must live the subject area until it becomes like a second skin, and then, just perhaps, s/he will have a pregnant thought that can be nurtured and expressed convincingly.
In my experience, sudden “inspiration” enters my brain, as an unprompted, errant thought that surprises me. It does not enter firing all synapses in my brain, fully formed, like an authoritative dictating voice. It is fragile and malleable, and I must massage it into a “solid” abstract idea, that will, with pondering, perhaps, become a concept forming the basis for writing.
Inspiration begins as a passing brief thought that must be fleshed-out into a formal idea, which I must work at developing into a concept.1 The ephemeral thought that quickly passes through the mind constitutes the essence of inspiration. Ideas and concepts, on the other hand, must be hammered-out of experience by the hard work of the one who had the errant thought. People that are inspired may produce a written text that others may come to value as inspiring because it speaks to them. In our culture we generally call a written text inspired if it inspires us. The exception to this general practice is the Bible. In our culture it is generally regarded as inspired, when most of it is anything but inspiring. It does, however, contain inspiring passages that have even made their way into secular culture.2
Calling a written text inspired or inspiring is a judgment that others bestow on the significance of the writing. It is a personal judgment. Nothing at the level of paper and ink inevitably makes the written text inspired; the author’s written ideas and concepts may inspire others, but it is the writer that is inspired and not the written text. The written text is a record of the inspiration that previously came to the writer, which others may or may not find inspired or inspiring. One can never know if the author of a written text was actually inspired to write.
In Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (OT) and the seven deuterocanonical writings that one finds in the Catholic OT,3 it is always the writer who is described as being inspired by God (Job 32:8, Wis 15:11; LJr 6:4; 1 Mac 4:35; 1 Esdr 9:55). Only once (so far as I can tell) are written texts in the Bible (both Protestant and Catholic) described as inspired. Second Timothy 3:15-16 claims that the “Holy Writings” (iera grammata) are inspired (theopneustos, or literally, “God-breathed”). The term “Holy Writings” is “the name for the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament in Greek.”4 Second Timothy, along with First Timothy and Titus, is one of three texts in the New Testament (NT) attributed to the anonymous writer, dubbed the “pastor,” because the content of the three texts is concerned with church matters. That the pastor claims to be Paul, and is not, makes the pastor a pseudonymous author. The earliest evidence for the three “pastoral” writings is a papyrus fragment of Titus, which has been dated from 100 to early 3rd century common era.5 In general, however, the pastoral texts are thought of as 2nd century.6 In the early second century the NT did not even exist. Hence, the writings that later came to be included in the NT had not yet achieved the status of canonical literature in the sense of the Greek translation of the OT. Hence, the author of 2nd Tim 3:15-16 was referring to the OT Scriptures. The NT had clearly achieved the status of canonical texts (Athanasius calls them “Divine Scripture”) by the 4th century however, to judge by the Easter letter (39) of Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria in 367,7 although he stops short of calling the NT writings “God-breathed,” as the pastor did.
Why would someone think the 27 NT written texts are “inspired”? What is it at the level of the written text that might lead someone to the idea that they are inspired as their authors may have been? Is it because one believes the original writers to have been “God-breathed”? Such a belief says nothing specific about the written texts themselves, and believers in other religions counter with their beliefs in their own special religious literature, which they find inspiring or inspired, such as for example, the Koran (Islam), the Rig Veda (Hinduism), the Avesta (Zoroastrianism), Tao Te Ching (Taoism), Guru Granth Sahib (Sikhism). But believing a thing to be so does not make it so.
Is it because one regards the ideas of the written texts as inspired or inspiring? That, of course, is something everyone must decide for themselves, because if any inspiration happened, it happened to the original author of the text. The written text itself is produced by the flawed abilities of the human author. Whether the original author’s written ideas are to be accorded the quality of inspired or inspiring is a personal decision for every reader. What does your dentist think?
Missouri State University
1These three words are generally conceived as synonyms in English.
2Hedrick, “Is the Bible Inspired?” Wry Guy Blog, Thursday, December 5, 2019: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=is+the+bible+inspired
3The seven deuterocanonical books, not a part of the Hebrew Bible or the Protestant OT, were originally in the Christian Bible (the Septuagint) before being removed by the Protestant reformers. They were later declared canonical for the Catholic OT at the fourth session of the Council of Trent 1545-1563: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Trent
4Martin Dibelius, Die Pastoralbriefe (HNT 13; 2nd ed.; Tϋbingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1931), 74.
6W. G. Kϋmmel, Introduction to the New Testament (H. C. Kee, Trans.; rev. ed.; London: SCM, 1975), 384-87.