The Bible has a complicated history as it was written thousands of years ago by a number of different authors in different circumstances, thus, the answer to this question is not entirely straightforward.
So, is the Bible a primary source of information? Parts of the Bible are primary sources of information as they purport to be written by the authors themselves. Other portions of the Bible are recordings of the memories of others who related in the information to the author and are thus not primary sources.
There are many nuances to that answer, however, which I will explore throughout the rest of this post.
Primary and Secondary Source Information is Frequently Mixed Throughout Biblical Acounts
An example of primary and secondary sources in the Bible comes from the story of Christ’s crucifixion. In the gospel of Matthew, he records parts of the story which he witnessed first-hand and thus are primary sources.
Matthew personally saw:
- Jesus Christ was taken by soldiers
- Christ went to Golgotha
- Christ was nailed to a cross
- Chief priests, four women, soldiers, and disciples were present at the crucifixion.
- The sign above Christ said “This is Jesus, King of the Jews”
- Jesus Christ died
Matthew may or may not have personally seen:
- Simon, a Cyrene, was compelled to carry Christ’s cross to Golgotha
- The veil of the temple was rent in twain
- The conversation between Pilate and Christ
- The bodies of dead saints coming back to life
- The conversation between Joseph of Arimathea and Pilate
Matthew was certainly a first-hand witness of the most important parts of the story, but some details in the story may or may not come from first-hand knowledge. It is important to understand, however, that a primary source need not come from first-hand knowledge. An interview, for example, is a primary source. Matthew may have interviewed others who did see those events, which would mean his information was primary, but we are reading it second-hand.
Portions of the Bible which are Primary Sources of Information
Much of the Bible is filled with religious teachings. They are statements of wrong and right and faith and devotion. Thus, they are really not primary nor secondary sources, but simple teachings. The stories, however, can be proven as first or secondary sources.
A few examples follow:
- Primary source – Jesus healing the 10 lepers as recorded by Luke
- Unknown – The story of David and Goliath was recorded by Samuel. Samuel was a contemporary of David, but it is unknown if Samuel actually witnessed this event in David’s life or if it was told to him.
- Primary source – Paul’s letters to Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, etc.
- Primary source – Christ calling the sons of Zebedee to the ministry was recorded by a son of Zebedee.
- Probably not a primary source – The entire book of Luke. Most scholars agree that the Book of Luke was written by Luke after the time of Christ. His sources of information were likely Paul (his missionary companion) and another source (who scholars sometimes refer to as “Q”).
Portions of the Bible which are Secondary Sources of Information
Not all of the stories in the Bible are written by the person in the story. For example, no portion of the Bible was written by Adam or Eve, or even any of their contemporaries. Adam and Eve’s story is recorded in Genesis, which was written by Moses in the late 1500s BC. Thus, the entire account is a secondary source.
Another example is the writings of Paul. Many of Paul’s teachings are about the actions of Christ. Paul was not one of the original 12 disciples of Christ and in fact was antagonistic to Christianity in his early life. There is no record in the Bible of Paul ever even meeting Jesus Christ. Thus, Paul’s teachings, though valuable for study and devotion, would not be considered by a researcher to be a primary source of information.
Does the Biblical Translation Impact the Answer?
Not necessarily. There are many ancient copies of the Bible and all differ slightly in detail because they were translated by different people from different original texts.
Thus, if the question is if the current King James version of the Bible you may hold is an original source, the answer would still be largely yes, but that the original source has gone through a translation which must be verified for accuracy.
For example, if a researcher interviewed someone in a foreign language and an interpreter translated it for you, it doesn’t automatically make the information a secondary source, but it is a layer of change which should be investigated.
Was the Bible Indeed Written by Those who We Historically Say They Were Written By?
The argument that casts doubt upon the classic understanding of these sources is that it is possible that many of the books in the Bible were not actually written by the writers they say they were written by.
Some say that some of the books were likely ghost written under their names by others in a common practice of the day of writing from another’s perspective.
This is possible and does not impact my belief that the Bible contains exactly what God wants it to contain, but from an academic standpoint it would change the answer to this question. This question has no answer as scholars will undoubtedly debate it until the end of time, but it does at least deserve to be mentioned in this academic look at the information in the Bible.