How Do BAR Readers Differ? You Tell Us

From Strata in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review

We all know that BAR readers are better educated, more literate and know more about the Bible than Americans generally. How do we know? Well, we just know.

But what about BAR readers’ attitudes toward the historical accuracy of the Bible? Do they differ from other Americans? And, if so, how? We may be able to answer those questions.

A recent Gallup poll of more than a thousand American adults offered three different attitudes toward the Bible’s historical accuracy, as follows; after the question we give the percentage of people who agreed with the particular viewpoint (totaling 96 percent; 4 percent had no opinion):


Over time, the percentage of the first category has declined somewhat from earlier Gallup polls. The second percentage has remained about the same, and the third percentage has increased somewhat.

How do BAR readers compare? We are taking a poll. Cast your ballot below. We will publish the results.

We’d also like your views about the matter. Are these three attitudes the only ones? Are they described accurately by Gallup? What do they tell us about Americans (and perhaps about Gallup)? What will the answers tell us about BAR readers? And what will a comparison tell us about ourselves?

However, the answers depend on you. Please cast your ballot.—H.S.

Cast your ballot below. Check back in November 2014 for the final results!

The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.

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  1. Margaret Lois says

    Voted 2 but fall between 2 and 3 in reality….maybe a continuum of 1-5 with each of the statements being the odd numbered one. Agree with someone above who reads 3 as the reality and at the same time theologically opting for 2.

  2. Elli says

    I agree, there needs to be an option in between two and three….something like, “God inspired the recording of myths and superstitions and legends and fables because he likes teaching through these methods.”

  3. Martha says

    I agree with Margaret Lois and Elli. There needs to be an option that says “God inspired the recording of myths, superstitions, legends, fables, history and moral precepts. “. There is much history in the Torah and the moral precepts are for the most part proven to be the way we should live together. But there are also many stories from other cultures and stories that contradict other stories. As I study more, I realize that from the beginning (I.e., two differing creation stories) we are required to discuss, question and achieve synthesis on our own. That’s why God gave us free will.

  4. Barbara says

    I have just finished doing a study of the book of Judges. It turned my stomach to read the graphic details of how the people of God lost their way and did such evil.
    When we finished this study my Bible study group spent some time discussing and wondering how Judges ever made its way into the Bible when we are told all scripture is inspired by God.

  5. Erik says

    None of the answers adequately describe my views. I cast my vote for option #2, but with leanings toward the very important role of mythos (in the sense that parables and mythology often relate profound truths better than a purely empirical model); and a lack of importance on theism, which however, is not to be read as atheism, but rather akin to Tillich’s Ground of Being concept.

  6. Jolynn says

    In 2012 Gallup conducted a poll that reported that 46% of Americans believe the world was created in six days. If you look at that in light of this Pew poll that means that a hefty number of ppl who don’t believe the bible is true still believe in 6 day creation! I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s quip: there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Looking forward to the results.

  7. susan says

    No question to show how many of us are atheists?


    I checked number 1, but when I say that I take the Bible literally, I don’t mean that literally. :-) Rather, I read the Bible as I would read any other book: it is usually pretty straightforward to determine what is intended to be read literally and what is figurative or poetic. I doubt there are many people who think that Jesus’s parables were intended to be understood as true stories relating actual events. Or that a statement like “the mountains clapped their hands for joy” or “his heart broke” is intended literally. Granted, there are cases when it might be unclear — especially when describing subjects not within normal human experience, like Heaven and angels. But surely the REAL question is not, Do you take every word in the Bible literally? But rather, Do you believe that the statements which were clearly written as descriptions of actual events, and which you would surely understand to be intended as descriptions of actual events if they did not include things that you find difficult to believe, like miracles, are in fact actual events, or do you say that anything that you find hard to believe must be re-interpreted symbolically?

    If you accept that it is INTENDED to be a description of an actual event, of course we could still debate if the story is accurate or not. Personally, as a Fundamentalist I often find it much easier to have rational conversations with atheists than with liberal Christians. The atheist and I agree that the words on the paper mean what they say, and the question before is to determine whether those statements are accurate. We can then debate the historical and scientific evidence, etc. But the liberal Christian says that the words DON’T mean what they say, that we must search for the “deeper meaning”, and in fact that the words mean whatever he in his totally subjective opinion wants them to mean. There’s no way to debate such interpretations. We just go in circles. “Well, if YOU want to interpret that to mean that Jesus actually went to a real place called Capernaum, that’s fine for you. But I prefer to think of Capernaum as a state of mind, and ‘walking’ as a way to describe the meditation that leads us to that state of mind …”


    Jolynn: Yes, a fascinating comparison (i.e. that a Gallup poll finds that 46% of Americans believe the world was created in 6 literal days but this Pew poll finds that only 28% take the Bible literally). I suppose it’s possible that one poll or the other was biased in some way. Frankly I suspect it brings up a classic problem in polling: Questions — and answers — are subject to interpretation. The Gallup question was pretty concrete and unambiguous. I think this question is a little more amorphous. Could some number of people have said, Well of course the parables aren’t literal, and so checked #2? Or might someone have hesitated over checking #1 because he doesn’t believe that translations necessarily preserve the originally-inspired meaning? Etc. Or was there a relevant difference in how subjects for the poll were selected?

  10. Andrea says

    None of the choices seem appropriate to me. With knowledge mostly of the Hebrew Scripture I find the Bible to be an often fragmented, certainly contradictory, and endlessly fascinating book of history, theology, customs, and laws from ancient times. I also take issue with the words, “recorded by man.” Surely there is the hand of a female author in Song of Songs.

  11. Gloria says

    As with many others I am somewhere between 2 and 3. The Bible has too many contradictions and has had too many revisions and errors, even if one wanted to take it literally. It is a book recorded by man. But, it is also our book about our relationship to God and each other and God’s relationship to us. If one reads it metaphysically it become a clear blueprint on how to live our lives. As I said, somewhere between 2 and 3.

  12. Ray says

    I find the Bible is a record of peoples’ experiences and understandings of the Divine. Because it is about the divine it is in a sense “inspired” by the Divine. However, I checked #3 as I find it a record of experiences and understandings. Therefore, as a human creation, there is problematic material in it.. This does not diminish it as an inspiring tool. Teaching how to live today by reflecting on the biblical past using our reasoning ability – study, traditions, research and checking with others..

  13. Mari says

    Just to bo on record: there are indeed avid readers of Biblical Archeology who are secular humanits, agnostics, atheists. One can be fascinated by our early history without being in any way seeking for proocs of a divinity.

    I first came to the magazine out of a fascination with ancient Rome. Raised as a mostly cultural Jew, I have been for most of my life a deeply skeptical secularist. Nothing I read here changes that mindset.

  14. Mary says

    In the Gallup poll, the second statement reflects my viewpoint more closely than the other two. My actual viewpoint is as follows: The Bible is the true inspired word of God, written over a long period of time, with the intent of being understood by a wide range of readers of different cultures and times in history and despite differences in levels of literacy and scientific education. Thus, interpretations may vary and still be correct within the context of historical era and circumstances. A continuing challenge is the need to discern the truth in the many messages in the Bible. In addition to our own study, we must rely on interpretations by a wide range of Bible scholars and theologians, not on individual leaders or special groups.
    Example: Today there are leaders and groups who think they are defending the Bible by claiming that creation as described in Genesis was accomplished in six earth days. In addition to scientific evidence and logic that say otherwise, they are missing clues in the Bible itself. Psalm 90:4 says, “A thousand years to you are like one day; they are like yesterday, already gone, like a short hour in the night;” and 2 Peter 3:8 “. . . There is no difference in the Lord’s sight between one day and a thousand years; to him the two are the same.” For those who take the Bible literally, Genesis 1:16 says God created the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day. The “formless and void” universe created on the first day of creation in Genesis 1:1-5 seems similar to a description of the formless universe that science tells us exploded into being about 13.7 billion years ago.
    Those who study effective communications today are told, “Keep it simple, -”. The original communicator knew that. The description of creation in Genesis is a simple account of a process that took eons of time. Theologians should help reconcile science and religion.

  15. Mary says

    Mine is No.14

  16. Mahlon says

    I believe the Bible and all other “holy” books to be only the word of men; some of it history, some of it inspired by a desire for power & influence, and some of it inspired by true wisdom–but none the subject of divine influence, even though I believe there is a God.

  17. Clark says

    Marked #2, because I cannot exactly take the Bible as exactly literal. Jesus refers to many of his teachings as parables (E.g. Mt 13:18). The stuff is true, because it teaches what is true. The Bible teaches the mind of Christ (“annointedness”). Jesus is the Word of God.

  18. David R says

    #1 is the truth for me. I believe the reason faith exists is because man is imperfect and in fact sinfully flawed which extends to every aspect of his existence past, present and future until God’s kingdom. Specific to this debate flaws exist in his recording of God’s word, his interpretation of God’s word and it’s recording, his constantly migrating belief system and the science that he practices to prove or disprove anything. The facts are that biblical things exist and have been substantially proven in qualitative and quantitative means. All other arguments are of “degrees” (multiple meanings intended).

  19. Judith says

    It is encouraging that there are more people in #2 than in #1. Let’s hope they all eventually move to #3.

  20. Steve says

    Firmly No 1. It appears to me the more humanity moves from belief in God and His holy word, to self belief and living for oneself, a world obsessed with wealth, belief in science and technology, and in most instance cases cares little for others, a world that shows less tolerance for those whose beliefs are different from their own, a world that spends vast somes of money on find bigger and better ways to kill each other, a world that depletes our resources at an alarming rate, a world where natural and man made disasters are occuring at an alarming rate, one would think that reading and believing what God has to say in the Bible might not be such a bad idea.

  21. Len says

    Although I understand what is being said in #3, I fall more in between #1 and #2. I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God but that He used man to record it. Therefore, it does reflect the transcribers cultural context. I believe that it is meant to be taken literally except in places where allegory, figures of speech, cultural context, and such like deem otherwise. In other words, in certain passages there needs to be an interpretation to determine meaning. In such cases I believe that God has given the Holy Spirit to guide and direct us.

  22. Drexel says

    Like a number of folks above, I would’ve chosen an option between 2 and 3. I lean heavily on the 3 side, but there’s some mighty inspiring and inspired material in the Bible.

  23. Christopher says

    I chose 2, but in reality it is because 1 does not adequately explain the issue. I believe the Bible is the Word of God, but it is certainly not all to be taken literally. Based on the different genres of Scripture, some of it is figurative. God inspired much in the way of symbolism (Ezekiel, Daniel, or Revelation, anyone?), but the symbols have concrete meanings if understood in the context of the original authorial intent. That is where a well-thought out hermeneutic is crucial. But, yes, indeed, the Bible IS the Word of God, word for word. Just some of those words are figurative in meaning.

  24. John says

    Mark Johansen (8,9), Andrea (10), Mary (14) all capture my thoughts. Fundamentally, however, I doubt that a survey will help us. The act of surveying a large number of individuals on a subject of this depth assumes that faith/religion/unbelief is a purely subjective, private matter. Beyond that, the surveyors must oversimplify to make the responses manageable, and they must classify the responses in a way that is not fine-tuned to the variety of responses that would paint an accurate picture of the target audience. If the target audience is BAR readers, then we can assume that there is a tilt toward science in our thinking, but that we are not all scholars. I would like to add 1) the term “Bible” means for most of us a canonical set of books that require a lifetime of study to begin to comprehend, 2) the writings are heavily edited and redacted over centuries of human interpretation, 3) humans had a hand in writing it all down, so it reflects the cultural and social environments of the times written or redacted, and 4) God has a significant role in guiding us how to read and understand it as the Word of God.

  25. Kathy says

    Haven’t time to read all of the comments but must agree with the first few. The bible is a marvelous book about people’s perceptions of God but it is also a wonderful combination of literature, a cultural record, stories, myths, legends and wisdom literature. There is a great deal in the bible but for me most importantly it is like a window on an ancient world showing the ideas and world perceptions of people of the ancient world. Some of it is not necessarily relevant because science has shown the nature of the world and the universe to a greater degree but the ideas presented are pretty good for an ancient people with no scientific understanding. On the other hand the ideas presented about god and interactions with people are still very relevant for every age. Even here, thought we can see a progression from the perception of ‘violence in the name of god’ to the greater importance of peace, justice and love of neighbor.

  26. Edward says

    Those that choose other than #3 live in a fantasy world. That is their right and privilege, but one wonders how they make any logical decisions as they go through life. One can believe in God and/or Jesus as God and still see that #3 is the logical choice.

  27. Jim says

    I think that, like many of the commenters, I am between #2 and #3. The creation and transmission of this collection of stories, history and culture has been carried out by human beings,but the values and spiritual experiences which these texts help to inspire have a divine component. I think of the text as the means of transmission, like the phone lines, and the divine element is the voice that comes through the line. Humans built the line, God talks!

  28. Richard says

    I suspect some things were not originally intended to be taken literally, but over time people did start to think they were.
    Other stories have errors because although they tried to explain what happened they didn’t really understand (gave it their best shot).
    Some things may have been written purely for political reasons and the author new it wasn’t true.

  29. Eric K. says

    Need a category between 1 & 2. “The Bible is the actual Word of God, but not everything is to be taken literally”, i.e. there is poetic language but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the actual word of God. I do not hold a Muslim view of the Word for Word where if the grammar is wrong so it God, but I do believe that besides scribal errors/comments, the Spirit of God used the personalities and educational styles of a large body of authors to communicate exactly the message He intended.

  30. Carey says

    The Bible is the actual word of God recorded and transcribed by men. Therefore, we should expect some glitches (errors) in literal translation. However, none of these errors are of a significant nature. I see virtually no contradictions, understanding that certain accounts are intended to be allegorical, and therefore, literally non-literal. We are advised to use discernment in interpreting the actual meanings and contexts of the recorded accounts. That is the exciting challenge of the Bible, and the ultimate test of life. I vote #1.

  31. Dean says

    #3 – I also enjoyed reading the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad. These ancient texts give an excellent look into the minds of our ancestors, but we all must come to realize that they were the works of man in their attempt to explain and put meaning to the world at that time. Very interesting, but fables and myths nonetheless.

    Please take some time to research human civilization and religion origins. Doing so will give you a much clearer understanding of how our belief systems came about. Also, our actual history is no less awe inspiring without some ‘intelligent agent’ pulling our strings.



  32. Lyn says

    1 and 2 …. the BIBLE is the WORD OF GOD — but there are passages that only pertained to the people they were spoken to — BUT they can be inspiration to all of us — TAKE UP YOUR MAT AND WALK — that was personally told to a lame man by JESUS —- but we can be inspired to pray for others and ourselves — whether we are healed or not — we are encouraged that GOD is with us and will never leave us ever :)

  33. Brad says

    I would tend to agree with Mark J. The Hebrew language is quite specific about word tenses that are only found in particular genre of writing. In Genesis 1 to 2:3, for instance, there is a very high statistical correlation (>98%) that the verb tenses specify a historical reading. The scroll was written as a literal history of events as they were dictated to Moses by God.

    I would be interested to hear about those who see contradictions in the Bible. Please point them out for discussion. As for any errors that exist, there are well over 5,500 well preserved manuscripts of the New Testament. See this website for information on the availability of manuscripts for other ancient authors like Plato, Aristotle, etc.

  34. Brad says

    A research paper by Steven W Boyd, Ph.D on the statistics of Genesis Hebrew.

  35. Jim says

    I chose #2, but really I would be between 1& 2. As others already elegantly pointed out, there are some obvious places where Jesus is speaking in parables or a prophet describes a vision that is not meant to be taken literally. But I find that if I have faith enough to believe Christ resurrected and atoning for my sin, everything else (6 days of creation, 10 plagues, Jonah swallowed by a great fish, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, Daniel in the lions den, etc.) is small potatoes. Besides that, the more we learn about science (astronomy, genetics, biochemistry, etc.) the more learn the Bible is true. The Big Bang, Darwinist evolution, & other recent scientific theories are beginning to require more faith than the Bible as more scienctific discoveries & evidence are learned.

  36. Eric says

    The Word of God is the will of God. How else are we to know just what His will is for each of us. Research is necessary to rightly divide the Bible (II Timothy 2:15). The Bible interprets itself ( I Peter 1:20 and 21). More at

  37. Ivor says

    It’s all propaganda, to further a lucrative idea ideal and feather the nests of of the powers that were.
    They knew how easily people of 2000 years ago could be easily fooled, so they had scribes, and gave them carte blanche, to come up with the most outrageous, fantastical stories.
    This is how King Constantine, converted, they all new they were on to something, that would make them all rich beyond their wildest dreams……..BIGGEST SCAM IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND!

  38. missy says

    People. The bible isn’t supposed to be taken completely literally! It’s full of poems and parables! Hence my answer of #2!

  39. gabriela says

    It’s for sure inspired by God,but at that time humans hadn’t the words and the knowledge to put In writing all that God told them.So they wrote only that
    they understood

  40. Emmanuel says

    I chose #2. I believe the Bible to be inspired by God, but it won’t make sense to take everything in it literarily as some parts are obviously poetic and figurative.

  41. LISA says

    I also agree that there needs to be an option between #1 and #2, an option stating that the Bible is the actual, inspired Word of God and is to be understood according to the syntax,grammar, context and writing and cultural style of that particular section (or our best, current understanding of these). Hence, I could go with either 1 or 2, but given the forced choice format then I will go with the one with the higher view of scripture in the absence of more precision, This is because while #1 does not account for the linguistic complexity of the Bible, #2 does not sufficiently look to the Bible itself in its complexity for some basis of interpretation. If I have to make a choice between misunderstanding the words or disregarding the words of someone I love and respect, and I am given no other choice, I’ll take a risk on the former; I find that #2 risks the latter in the absence of clarification. But I would prefer an option that decreases the propensity to do either.

  42. LISA says

    #41 should read “David,: not “Lisa” (#@! browser defaults).

  43. Larry/Martha says

    I’m actually between 1 and 2: the Bible is the factual Word of God, but those “words” as we see them are subject to an enormous variety of translations. Good Christian believers will cling to a certain translation – say the KJV if you’re English-speaking – and therefore overlook or misinterpret a number of passages whose translated text actually reads closer to the Hebrew/Greek originals.
    The Hebrew Bible is also filled with puns, typically impossible to translate. Therefore, the direction of their context is lost on us who are not scholars in contact with the original texts ( = nobody!).

  44. Peggy says

    I fall between 1 and 2 because of the range of literary styles found in the Bible. I would change the wording to read, “and everything in it should be taken seriously, with attention being paid to the literary genre being used.” For example, when the prophets speak of the huge swarms of locusts but mean the invading armies. Or when Jesus said that John the Baptist IS Elijah. There we can see his sense and know that John is not literally Elijah.

  45. Peggy says

    I very much like what Mark wrote in number 8. Well said, Mark.

  46. Douglas says

    Unfortunately, social scientific survey questions by nature usually miss necessary nuances that faithfully express actual opinions. So if these are the only three choices in the universe of options, then my choice is #3. In my faith tradition (United Church of Christ) we look to the word of God speaking in and through the Bible but we don’t equate the Word of God with the Bible (nor do we presume that the Bible is the only word of God). In one sense it’s unfair to expect the Bible to live up to our contemporary criteria of truth. Truth for us usually means accuracy, especially in the claims the Bible makes about history and the physical world. That is why, as Mark (8) correctly points out, fundamentalists and atheists have an easier time debating each other: because both presume that the Bible’s claims to truth must be accurate–they happened just the way the Bible describes it.
    However, when we try to test the Bible’s accuracy against scientific warrants for explaining the physical world or historical warrants for explaining the past, serious students of the Bible quickly realize that the Bible’s historical and scientific accuracy is quite unreliable. Sometimes its claims are close to fact, though many other times they are not. I prefer to advocate that the Bible is theological fiction. Much of it was composed long after the events occurred that is supposedly reported and for theological not historical or scientific reasons. This applies as much to the stories of Jesus as to other events such as the creation story. In addition, many of he narratives of the Bible clearly demonstrate being influenced by the religious literature of its day, literature that is extant and easily compared. But, just because a story didn’t happen just the way it was told, doesn’t mean it isn’t true or have relevance to forming how we make sense of life and the world around us. Works of fiction can communicate deep truths about humanity and life even though the stories didn’t really happen. The bible’s power to communicate truth is not tied up with its accuracy but its ability to communicate powerful truths, such as the effective power of reverence, trust, love even in the most difficult of times.

  47. Harold says

    I agree that there should be a choice between 2 and 3. I believe that there inspired passages in the bible. I also believe that it includes stories that illustrate varies theological or political points but may not reflect objective historical fact. I also believe that people with non-orthodox views can benefit from the stories in the bible. For instance one can believe in reincarnation and have an appreciation for the issues and teachings. A belief in reincarnation can also be compatible with an interest in Biblical Archaeology. I’m sure many people who have travelled to ancient sites have had a feeling of having been there before.

  48. Judy says

    I choose number 1, and agree most closely with Christopher (23). However, I think it is not complete. It is the actual INSPIRED Word of God, but we must take into account that it contains figures of speech which must not be taken “woodenly”, and need to be properly exegeted by a person highly knowledgeable in the original languages with a literal, grammatical hermeneutic in order to develop a proper theology.

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