Is the Bible really special? (BBC Breakfast)

Here’s the video from a BBC Breakfast conversation this morning about the Bible, triggered by a poll this week that showed that some children didn’t know much about the Bible.

It’s obvious why Christians believe the Bible is special – for them it is a religious document and divinely inspired. But I think many Christian advocates of the Bible who make secular arguments for its general significance have a tendency to overreach themselves – they invariably exceptionalise the Bible and make claims for its uniqueness.

The arguments are usually either that the Bible is a uniquely beautiful work, a uniquely moral work, or uniquely vital for understanding European and global culture. I think they are all problematic.

Firstly, I’ve read the Bible in English and the New Testament in Greek and I can think of many works of literature more beautiful (for me, pretty much all of George Eliot, Homer, Greek tragedy, and E M Forster and a whole lot more, but tastes differ!)

Secondly, there is actually quite a lot of dubious morality in the Bible, like the endorsement of compliance in the face of oppression (turning the other cheek), an endorsement of slavery, and a lot of sex discrimination. Our moral thinking has advanced significantly since it was written and there are consequently much better morally improving stories than those it offers (in fact, there always have been).

The argument that the Bible is uniquely foundational to our culture is the strongest of all the secular arguments for Biblical knowledge, but it is overplayed. Much of our history and culture in Britain is not related to the Bible but builds on the aesthetic, legal, social, political and other achievements of cultures like Greece, Rome, Northern Europe, India, and the Arab world and we are now consciously part of a global culture that offer unparalleled diversity to enjoy and learn from.


  1. I’ve been running through a couple of open courses on both the Old and New Testaments, and it seems to me that many of the aspects that make them fascinating to study (heterodox authorship; allusions to and critiques of other Ancient Near Eastern texts; profound moral ambiguity) are exactly the sorts of things those advocating wider readership would prefer people not pick up on. ‘Secular’ arguments in favour of the bible are almost always bunk because they try to transform what is at heart a radical ancient text into a politically inoffensive handbook of bland platitudes, which are almost always severed from their original context. Additionally, because the implicit aim of most groups promoting ‘secular’ bible appreciation is that the text ultimately be used in a doctrinal or dogmatic context (and even many anti-theistic groups* have a certain rhetorical interest in representing the Old Testament dogmatically) it’s extremely unusual for anybody to read it against the grain of its modern doctrinal context. e.g. We’ll endlessly bring up Leviticus (whether to bolster our own bigotry or to admonish that of others), but rarely consider the surprising sex-positivism of how God’s first interaction with humankind in Genesis is basically an instruction to have it off with one another. This is NOT to say that the bible should (or could) be rehabilitated as a manual on liberal sexuality, because that was never its intent and other texts serve that purpose far better (just as other texts are more successful in articulating literary beauty or modern ethics). But the Bible is an incredibly complex 4000+ page text that only ever seems to get debated in soundbites. My impression is that if people were to correctly situate within its Ancient Near Eastern context then it would be utilised/appreciated far less often, but far better.

    *Not including the BHA in this categorisation!

  2. Christopher Shell


    (1) You are aligning yourself with the fundamentalists by speaking of ‘the Bible’ as though it were somehow one book. Undeniably, ‘it’ is not. ‘It’ a multi-author library written over a period of many lifetimes – in fact, centuries. Your generalisations about the whole Bible are for that reason, as you’ll agree, questionable.

    (2) For example, you imply quite incorrectly that its literary quality is uniform. Few if any of the authors had literary quality as their main aim. But we had Song of Songs 2 and 1 Corinthians 13 at our wedding. Surely you’ll agree that they ain’t at all bad.

    (3) The remark about slavery is inaccurate – see Revelation 18.13 (human traffic is the 28th and climactic/worst Roman cargo). See also the letter to Philemon: slaves are treated as equal brothers; ‘time off’ from life as a slave is seen as a good thing. Correct: the first Christians did not plan an immediate slave-rebellion – though Wilberforce was Christian through and through, which is what gave him his power by his own admission.

    (4) When you say ‘our moral thinking has advanced’ is this a sign that you believe in the myth of inevitable progress? There are no logical arguments in favour of progress being inevitable (see e.g. R Nisbet – by which I don’t mean Robin of ‘Horace’ fame). This uncritical way of thinking one is a ‘progressive’ tends to be tied to an equally uncritical and massively ideological teleological view of history. Yet I’d guess you are no more a follower of Spengler and Toynbee than I (grand unified view of history in all its complexities). On the contrary, history and moral progress/regress have, in the real world, endless ups and downs. For example, post-1960 secularisation has brought a 500% regress in all sorts of family-connected matters (breakup etc._, as you won’t need reminding.

    (5) Commenter Paul is correct that people tend to read the biblical books too often through the specs of their own culture or ideology: the surest way to make interpretative mistakes. Any true scholar is the enemy of ideology.

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