On the Origins and Inadequacies of Biblical Authority

An Atheist's 
& Agnostic's 
Guide to God

 

From where does the Bible, the holy book of Judaism and Christianity, get its authority, an authority on which rabbis, priests, bishops, popes and preachers through the ages and to this day have based their own personal authority?

It was claimed that the Bible gets its authority from God, either because He dictated it directly to those who originally wrote it down, or because He inspired them.

Being the Word of God, one was expected, and required, to believe it. Argument was only permitted about its interpretation - and until relatively recently even that by just a select and literate few .

In truth, I suggest (rather than claiming indisputable divine authority), the Bible gets its authority not from God, but from men and the magical  power the of the written word.

Long before words were ever written down they had powerful magical properties, conveying meaning and giving extra powers to those best able to use them. Stories were told and passed on from generation to generation, some developing into the myths of the ancients. Those gifted with high intelligence, good language skills and good memories, who learned, remembered, retold, adapted and elaborated on these stories, especially when they did so with an air of authority, became powerful, if not leading, members of society. Thus, families of priests, and a priesthood, would have developed.

With the development of writing, words and stories could be written down, giving them even more significance and even more power to those able to read and write.

When something is written down it acquires an aurora of reality and much greater importance than something that is not. I have noticed that when writing my diary. What I donít write down usually gets forgotten and effectively ceases to exist, while what I write down is preserved. The writer appears to have power over reality. Nowadays, when most people can read and write, that is not quite such a big deal, but at the beginnings of recorded history, when only a tiny elite of priests were able to read and write, this must have given them immense power over their illiterate fellows.

The Bible contains some of the very first stories committed to and preserved in writing. That is where it derives its authority - rather than from God. Those who first claimed that it was the word of God did so, deliberately or not, to bolster their own authority, which they based on it. And when they were the only ones who could read and copy the texts they had authority indeed. No wonder the Catholic Church was not happy when in the Middle Ages lay people started reading the Bible for themselves -  it deprived the Church and its priests of much of their power. However, that power was so great that even today, although virtually everyone can read and write, it continues to exert a very strong influence on people and society.

We are taught that the development of monotheism was a great cultural step forward. Whether it was or not, it was also a great help in securing and making absolute the authority of those whose power was based on the sacred texts in question.

There is an inherent, and very real, human need for an authority greater than oneís self (as a child needs the authority of its father). In Western Civilisation, it was the Word of God, contained in the Bible and, until the reformation, communicated exclusively by the Catholic Church, which provided this need. As an instrument of power it has been used and misused to great effect.

Those who reject their need for an authority greater than themselves cannot progress along the road of human development from our animal origins without becoming corrupt (terribly corrupt when they acquire great or absolute power, e.g. Hitler, Stalin, Saddam and many a lesser known dictator).

Man is not sufficient unto himself, but needs the guidance of a higher authority to lead him beyond his animal nature. However, it is time to move on from the Bible, which is of immense historical and cultural importance and interest, at least for Western society, but whose persisting authority and influence is now a dangerous anachronism, obscuring and retarding the development of more enlightened and useful concepts of a higher authority (i.e. God).