The Bible: Christianity’s Achilles’ Heel?

I have another quick break from student teaching, so here I am, back again for a short missive.

As can be seen in my critique of religious belief (accessible from the Essays menu to the right), I’m quite fascinated by the very human means by which religious belief is transmitted from place to place, and from generation to generation.

A text heavily protected against changes through a process like canonization is the ideal way to ensure that a religious message is transmitted with minimal changes over time. This is not to say that Christianity has failed to evolve – it certainly has. But the central message and the various mythological details that surround it have remained as precise as they were in the first few centuries after Christ (regardless of the imagination involved in their initial construction).

Unintentionally, then, the Bible, like the proverbial sore thumb, sticks out as an archetypal demonstration of religion as a human cultural phenomenon. Isn’t it amazing, many Christians exclaim, that Christianity has lasted so long – it must be divinely inspired! Not at all. It has survived so long, at least in part, because it is founded on a text which its followers revere as holy and immutable. Christianity avoids the problem of broken telephone, and the dissipation of message that accompanies this phenomenon, by studiously preventing changes to its text.

The real miracle, I would venture to suggest, would be the rise of Christianity in multiple independent cultures, none of whom had received information about the religion from its neighbors. The real miracle would be a Christianity that appears spontaneously within every human culture as naturally and as independently as singing and dancing.

Yet this is never seen. Christianity is – all believers must face it squarely – a tradition transmitted by people. It started in one very specific part of the globe, and its expansion can be traced carefully through the eons without any laws of physics, or indeed of human culture, being violated. And where a tradition is transmitted wholly by people, we cannot avoid the mistakes, inventions, and misidentified revelations that these people have.

I’ve just finished reading The Satanic Verses. It is a beautiful, sprawling novel (probably much like the two cities its characters inhabit – London and Bombay). The title of the book refers, at least in part, to revelations that Muhammad allegedly received from the angel Gabriel regarding the acceptance of three female pagan gods into Islam (for strategic purposes, of course). Not long after this revelation, Muhammad recanted, saying that the verses were the words of Satan. This little episode demonstrates as clearly as any that religion is a man-made endeavor, relying on human culture for its invention and transmission, molded to the wishes and desires of whomever happens to be the prophet – the “holy messenger” – of the day.

As I’ve suggested before, if every Bible were to disappear tomorrow – indeed, if every memory of the Bible were to disappear, too, Christianity would be gone forever.


4 Responses to The Bible: Christianity’s Achilles’ Heel?

  1. Have to disagree with this last paragraph, Keith. Alcoholics Anonymous tells its patrons within their Big Book that within every human being is the fundamental notion of God. This ideal is implanted and even without the Bible, we would still have awareness of the presence of a Creator, a Being, God. As I’ve already mentioned before in comments here, I knew there was something out there when I was a child in a crib. I couldn’t name it, but I sensed it.

  2. Keith says:


    With all due respect, I don’t hold much stock in what AA happens to write about God in their Big Book. They don’t know any more about the existence of God than you or I.

    That said, I kind of agree with you in the sense that humans are always going to ponder the origins of the universe, and ask questions about what the purpose of it all is, and this inevitably leads to the concept of a creator.

    But the comment I made in my last paragraph was actually more specific than this: if the Bible and all memories of it were to disappear, then *Christianity* would be gone forever. People might still think about the existence of a creator, but the details about Jesus, salvation, heaven and hell, and all the other trappings of the Christian religion would be lost forever.

  3. Just came back by …had forgotten about this posting. You don’t think that God could just as easily send more messengers as He did those who documented what is now the bible? He could and He would have. I disagree with you because you have no way of proving your hypothesis that if the bible never existed or if it completely disappeared, then “Christianity” would be gone forever.

    Christianity is “following Christ.” The details of Christ would be brought to us by God in some form or fashion because without Christ, His sacrifice on the cross, etc., we would be back under the Law of Moses, and the inability to connect with God because of our sin. I submit that we would be made aware of Jesus Christ just as we have been through the bible, all over again.

  4. Keith says:


    Yes, it’s possible, under the Christian worldview at least, that God would send another messenger to kick-start Christianity into existence once again.

    Of course, this time around it would be much more difficult to convince people, because you wouldn’t have documents originating mere decades after Jesus’ life – instead you’d have some self-proclaimed prophet talking about a man who lived more than 2000 years ago. So unless God was willing to send Jesus himself back to earth, or perhaps perform a few miracles, simply sending a new messenger probably wouldn’t be very convincing!

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