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Why we have a ‘messy’ Bible

Out of a desire to protect their claim that the Bible is God-breathed, evangelicals often ignore factors they think might threaten that claim. They don’t like the idea, for instance, that other ancient cultures have creation and flood stories similar to those in the Bible, so they either ignore them or try to explain them away.

Happily, a growing band of evangelical scholars are facing up to such issues and arguing that acceptance of them is fully compatible with accepting Scripture as God’s Word. But to accept them we have to admit that the Bible is not as tidy as we might like. It was given within a particular culture and time-frame whose messy, human marks and limitations are all over it.

This book—Inspiration And Incarnation: Evangelicals and the problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns (Baker Academic, 2005, ISBN 978-1-4412-0067-9)—argues that this is what we should expect of a God who became incarnate in Jesus. Enns draws a parallel, in fact, between Jesus (the living Word) and Scripture (the written Word). Just as Jesus was fully human, as well as divine, so is the Bible.

Enns focuses on the Old Testament to illustrate his thesis, dealing with three facets that some evangelicals have found difficult: (1) ancient Near Eastern literature and its similarities to parts of the Old Testament; (2) theological diversity in the Old Testament (e.g. in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes); and (3) the apparently cavalier manner in which the New Testament writers interpret the Old Testament.

I’m delighted to see such issues being tackled head-on at last. Far from weakening my belief in the divine origin of Scripture, this book has strengthened it considerably. I think it would do the same for you!

[Note: I read the Kindle version, so the figures after the following quotations are location numbers rather than page numbers]


Sometimes evangelical defences of the Bible are exercises in special pleading, attempts to hold on to comfortable ideas despite evidence that makes such ideas problematic. (110)

What some ancient Christians were saying about Christ, the Docetic heresy, is similar to the mistake that other Christians have made (and continue to make) about Scripture: it comes from God, and the marks of its humanity are only apparent, to be explained away. (181)

When compared side by side with other ancient legal codes, such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (see chapter 2), one can see significant similarities between the Mosaic law and those of other—older—nations. (218)

Both liberals and conservatives make the same error. They both assume that something worthy of the title word of God would look different from what we actually have. (245)

Showing how at home the Bible is in the ancient world makes it look less special in some respects—less unique. What can we say about the uniqueness of the Bible when, in so many areas, it bears striking similarities to the beliefs and practices of the other nations? This is precisely where the tension lies: the true faith of Israel and the false faith of her neighbours look similar. (480)

The structure of the book of Deuteronomy as a whole also seems to reflect the structure of the Hittite treaties. (516)

One portion of Proverbs is very similar to a body of Egyptian wisdom literature known as the Instruction of Amenemope… Amenemope is older (about 1200 BC), which suggests that the author of Proverbs likely knew of and was in some direct sense dependent upon this Egyptian text. (604, 628)

Are the early stories in the Old Testament to be judged on the basis of standards of modern historical inquiry and scientific precision, things that ancient peoples were not at all aware of? (693)

The problem really turns on what revelation means. What seems to be falsely implicit in the discussion is that revelation is by its nature unique, meaning that revelation will necessarily be thoroughly distinct from the surrounding culture. (719)

We do not protect the Bible or render it more believable to modern people by trying to demonstrate that it is consistent with modern science. (986)

Such a firm grounding in ancient myth does not make Genesis less inspired; it is not a concession that we must put up with or an embarrassment to a sound doctrine of Scripture. Quite to the contrary, such rootedness in the culture of the time is precisely what it means for God to speak to his people. (998)

Chronicles tells an alternate history of Israel, one that differs from Samuel–Kings because it is told from a different perspective and for different reasons, namely, from the perspective of those who had returned from captivity in Babylon. (1164)

The history of modern evangelical interpretation exhibits a strong degree of discomfort with the tensions and ambiguities of Scripture. The assumptions often made are that Scripture should have no tensions and that any such tensions are not real but introduced from the outside, namely, by scholarship hostile to evangelical Christianity. Whatever tensions remain are addressed either by posing some direct solution (however ingenious) or by moving the problem to the side (“We know it has to fit somehow; we just aren’t sure how”). (1366)

Job’s friends were not wrong in thinking that God blesses obedience and punishes disobedience. They were wrong in appealing to this principle superficially, without sufficient knowledge of the particulars of the situation. (1587)

Law is God’s revelation, but does that necessarily imply that it is static and unbending? Perhaps God himself understands—and in fact shows us—that even the law has a situational dimension. (1713)

Just a few verses after Paul, Barnabas, and Peter all came to the conclusion that circumcision is no longer binding for Gentiles to enter God’s family (Acts 15:1–35, esp. 15:2, 10–11, 28–29), we read that Paul has Timothy, a Gentile, circumcised. It was not the case, however, that Paul had temporarily become a Judaizer himself. Rather, Paul does what he does because the situation calls for it. (1875)

We see here that the Ammonites and Moabites are not permitted ever to enter the “assembly of the LORD.” … Ruth is a Moabitess, yet her first husband, Mahlon, was an Israelite from the tribe of Judah. She later married another Israelite, Boaz, and their child Obed became the ancestor to none other than David himself. (1891)

The messiness of the Old Testament, which is a source of embarrassment for some, is actually a positive. (2203)

To observe how the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament is to conclude that their notions of what constitutes a proper handling of the Old Testament do not always square with our own instincts—in fact, quite often, the differences are striking. (2292)

Jesus’ use of Exodus 3:6 in Luke 20:34–38, to say the least, is not an example of grammatical-historical exegesis. Evangelicals tend to protect Jesus and the apostles from the charge of engaging in such uncontrolled exegesis. (2697)

He was a mysterious Old Testament figure, someone who “walked with God; then was no more, because God took him away” (Gen. 5:24). There was clearly something special about him, and early interpreters went about the task of filling in gaps on this attractive biblical figure. Jude and 1 Enoch bear witness to this. (3031)

The rock that supplied water is mentioned twice in the Old Testament, in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20, that is, at the beginning and toward the end of the wilderness period. Early interpreters may have equated the two: they are the same rock. Hence, for the rock to have gone from Rephidim in Exodus 17 to Kadesh in Numbers 20, that rock must have rolled along with the Israelites throughout their forty-year wilderness period. (3144)

Apostolic hermeneutics violates what is considered to be a fundamental interpretive principle: don’t take things out of context. (3178)

A Christian understanding of the Old Testament should begin with what God revealed to the apostles and what they model for us: the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ for Old Testament interpretation. (3312)

The Bible sets trajectories, not rules, for a good many issues that confront the church. (3537)


I have done a synopsis of this book, available in PDF here.

Peter Enns has written a different book on this topic aimed at a more popular readership: The Bible Tells Me So. My review of it is here.

If this subject interests you, take a look at my review of another book covering similar ground here.

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