What Does the Bible Say about Itself?

Strictly speaking, nothing. The Bible we now have contains no statements about “the Bible.” When the texts we now have were written, the contents of the Bible (the “canon”) were still being debated by both Jews and Christians. The word “Bible” had not even been coined.

The Bible we now have does contain statements about certain sacred writings (i.e. “scriptures”). In other words parts of the Bible do say something about other parts of the Bible. But no part of the Bible says anything about the Bible in its entirety. 

Many writers in the Bible, especially the prophets, do claim to be speaking God’s very words.

Phrases like “Thus says YHWH” occur over 400 times in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament). But claims like these are not claims about any larger collection of writings.

Here are some general observations.
*The writers of the Bible seem to agree that there is a group of writings that are positively alive with God’s Spirit.
*They do not say exactly which writings should or should not be included in this group.
*They seem to agree that God was intimately involved in the production of these writings.
*They seem agree that these writings are useful and even authoritative.
*They do not spell out precisely how God’s involvement and the writers’ involvement intersect.
*On some occasions, they seem to indicate that substantial parts of these writings are no longer binding.
*On some occasions, they seem to refuse to equate their opinions with what God says.
*On some occasions, they seem to admit that human hard-heartedness got in the way of God’s Spirit, even though God remained intimately involved.

Now here are several specific examples of passages used when people are talking about biblical authority:

2 Timothy 3:15-16: “From childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All scripture is inspired by God [theopneustos: “God-breathed” or “God-spirited”] and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

This is one of the most frequently quoted passages among conservative Christians who insist that the Bible is infallible and inerrant. But notice: what counts as “scripture” is not spelled out, because Christians and Jews are still making up their minds about that. Furthermore, this letter does not include itself among the “sacred writings” it mentions. Those writings already existed in Timothy’s childhood. “God-breathed” or “God-spirited” is a suggestive image, not a precise doctrinal statement. It does not mean “infallible” or “inerrant.” After all, Genesis says that Adam was God-breathed yet exceedingly fallible. Nor does “useful” mean “error-free.” It means “useful”; that’s the biblical adjective, not “infallible” or “inerrant.”

John 10:34-36: Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? [Psalm 82] If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ —and the scripture cannot be annulled [lit.: “broken”]—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?

In this passage Jesus appeals to his own people’s scriptures to defend the legitimacy of his claiming a uniquely intimate relationship with God. Even though he is quoting a psalm, he refers to it as part of their “law.” And as an aside he says that these scriptures “cannot be broken,” i.e., cannot be annulled, as this translation puts it. Again this is another suggestive image but not a precise doctrinal statement. Both he and his opponents agree that their lives must be guided by what their “law” says. It’s authoritative, but precisely how it’s authoritative is not spelled out.

Also, there’s something very strange going on here in the way Jesus interprets this psalm. Here’s Psalm 82: “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah. Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’ They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, ‘You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.’ Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!”

Notice what’s really strange here: what Jesus calls “those to whom the word of God came” are actually other gods! They do seem to be lesser gods than “the Most High.” They’re mortal—they’ll eventually die. But the crucial point is that the writer of this psalm was not a monotheist (someone who believes there is only one God). This writer believes that God is not the only god, just the highest one. And Jesus doesn’t seem to notice this! Most importantly, even though he says the scriptures cannot be annulled, this scripture he quotes has in fact been annulled by later Jews and Christians who embraced monotheism.

Matthew 5:17-18: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Mark 7:18-19: He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

Mark 7:18-19 seems to abolish, not fulfill, the Torah’s teaching about clean and unclean animals (see Leviticus 11:1-47; Deuteronomy 14:3-21a). Dietary restrictions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are far more than one letter or one stroke of a letter; for Christians they have all passed from the Law; but all things are not yet fulfilled. Why do conservatives ignore Mark 7:18-19 when they quote Matthew 5:17-18?

Matthew 19:8: “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you do divorce your wives.” Mark 10:5: “Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you.”

According to Jesus in Matthew and Mark, Moses seems to have interfered with God’s intended instruction on marriage and divorce. How is this law “fulfilled”? Or is it annulled?

2 Peter 1:20-21: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but people moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

“People moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God”: This applies to prophecy; it says nothing about other kinds of scripture. This passage also seems to speak against interpreting scripture privately. 2 Peter is not included in any surviving list of New Testament writings until the mid-4th century (300s). One list calls it “disputed”; the other simply lists it. Does that make any difference? Why or why not?

2 Peter 3:16: “Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”

[Again:] 2 Peter is not included in any surviving list of New Testament writings until the mid-4th century (300s). One list calls it “disputed”; the other simply lists it. Does that make any difference? Why or why not? This passage does seem to equate Paul’s letters with other scriptures.

1 Corinthians 7:12 & 25: “To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.” “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.”

Does Paul think he is writing sacred scripture here? Paul does not claim to be infallible here or to be saying, “Thus says the Lord …” These are his own opinions. He does consider them trustworthy, while counting on God to work through him. “Trustworthy“ does not mean “infallible“ or “inerrant.”

So again, let’s return to the general observations:
*The writers of the Bible seem to agree that there is a group of writings that are positively alive with God’s Spirit.
*They do not say exactly which writings should or should not be included in this group.
*They seem to agree that God was intimately involved in the production of these writings.
*They seem agree that these writings are useful and even authoritative.
*They do not spell out precisely how God’s involvement and the writers’ involvement intersect.
*On some occasions, they seem to indicate that substantial parts of these writings are no longer binding.
*On some occasions, they seem to refuse to equate their opinions with what God says.
*On some occasions, they seem to admit that human hard-heartedness got in the way of God’s Spirit, even though God remained intimately involved.

Given how open ended these claims about sacred scripture are, we should not be surprised when people of faith wind up describing the Bible differently. There can hardly be only one, precise, “biblical” view of the Bible. And when scholars raise and pursue questions about historical or scientific accuracy, authorship, etc., they cannot be accused of denying or ignoring what the Bible says about sacred scripture.