Some folks claim that the Bible’s message is clear and precise. That its moral outlook is unambiguous. However, before even opening to the first page, there are several reasons for doubting this claim. These reasons can be discussed by comparing the Bible to the genre of well-written, peer-reviewed academic papers, which can, I think, be regarded as reasonably precise, unambiguous literary forms.
1. A well-written academic paper has a single focus. It is constructed, from start to finish, with one fairly specific concept in mind.
The Bible does not have a single focus. It is a long and complex narrative containing a very large number of different messages, teachings, and reportage.
2. A well-written academic paper is written by either a single worker or multiple closely collaborating contemporaries. This lends itself to a cohesive, internally consistent product.
The Bible has a very large number of authors, on the order of several tens, most of whom never met a another contributor.
3. A well-written academic paper expresses the original ideas of the author (or authors). In other words, the distance between the origination of the ideas and their arrival in the literature is short and direct. The ideas are described by those who know them best, and who are therefore in the best position to explain them.
In many, if not most cases, the Bible does not express the original ideas of its authors. It reports ideas that had already existed for some time, either in other written works or in oral traditions. As a result, the ideas may have been significantly degraded or transformed between their original conception and their appearance in the manuscripts we have in our possession today. Furthermore, the authors of these manuscripts might not have understood the ideas as fully, or in quite the right way, as originally intended.
4. A well-written academic paper has a specific audience in mind. It is usually directed at people who have some prior understanding of the subject matter, and are therefore in a good position to interpret the language used.
It is difficult to see what the intended audience of the Bible is. It’s tempting to say “everyone”. But if this is the case, then precision communication might be made more difficult, because everything must be explained in broad enough terms for any reader. In a sense, this argument appears to run counter to what I’ve already said: I’m suggesting that greater precision and clarity might be achieved by the use of more difficult language – language that the lay person might not understand. But I don’t think there is any great problem here. A physics author, for example, will not be able to communicate her ideas with optimal rigor and precision if she is unable to use equations or scientific jargon. The same goes for people in other fields too, including moral philosophy.
This does depend on the complexity of the material, of course. Some ideas are just not that complicated, and can easily be expressed in prose that anyone could understand. I’m of the view that such ideas form the bulk of what’s found in the Bible, so I concede that my fourth argument may fail. However, many Christians consider God’s moral worldview to be so complex that no human can properly describe it, regardless of the language used.
The final step, of course, is to open that first page. To read the book and see if it somehow escapes the above problems. Having read it myself, I’m not optimistic. Better, I think, to stick to those well-written academic papers.