Sign up ×
Christianity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In 2 Tim 3:16, Paul writes

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (NIV)

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (ESV)

Does this mean that all scripture (the whole Bible) is from God and of equal importance, or are there some parts of the bible which we need to take more seriously than others?

For example, are Jesus' words more important than Paul's?

I'm looking for a Protestant/Evangelical point of view, but I'm interested in others too.

share|improve this question
Seems like a good question, but you do know that "inspired" $5.00 word translation right? –  Peter Turner Dec 11 '12 at 12:19
@PeterTurner I don't know what you meant by $5.00 word translation, but I don't think that makes a difference to my question. I've edited the original question to try and make it clearer –  Greg Dec 11 '12 at 19:28
no it's fine I was confused because I've never read "God-Breathed" as a translation for "Inspired" before. I just remember teaching my CCD kids that "Inspired" means that and I figured the answer would be obvious given the religious definition of inspired. –  Peter Turner Dec 11 '12 at 19:39
In response to BAzzle: That the Pentateuch was "indeed written wholly by Moses" is as theoretical as the Documentary Hypothesis. Truth is often a subjective thing. –  gpence Nov 11 '14 at 22:51

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The phrase "God-breathed" is a translation of the etymological roots of the Greek θεόπνευστος. Most English versions of the Bible translate this Greek word as "inspired by God". ("Inspire" is derived from the Latin word inspiratio, which like πνευστος, originally denoted breath or spirit.)

There is no consensus on what it means to say that all Scripture is inspired, even among Evangelical Protestants. In an essay titled How Can The Bible Be Authoritative? Evangelical Anglican scholar N.T. Wright dispenses with the notion of the Bible as a collection of "timeless truths", in which each verse is authoritative on its own.

A regular response to these problems is to say that the Bible is a repository of timeless truth. There are some senses in which that is true. But the sense in which it is normally meant is certainly not true. The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned. It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth. It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time. He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be.

Rather, Wright recommends reading each Bible book as a book, rather than a set of verses. Only in this way can we understand the context of what God has to say to us.

In private reading, and in informal group meetings, we need again to experiment with new ways of reading scripture. Anyone who has heard an entire biblical book read, or even acted (think of Alec McCown on Mark, or Paul Alexander on John; I have heard the same done with Galatians, and very impressive it was, too) will realize that such things as chapter-divisions, or almost any divisions at all, can be simply unhelpful. We need to recapture a sense of scripture as a whole, telling and retelling stories as wholes. Only when you read Exodus as a whole (for example) do you realize the awful irony whereby the making of the golden calf is a parody of what God wanted the people to do with their gold and jewels . . . and only by reading Mark as a whole might you realize that, when the disciples ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand, they are indeed asking for something they do not understand.

Wright argues that thinking of inspiration in terms of inerrancy or infallibility can lead us into traps, but that we can avoid these traps by taking the Bible seriously as a whole.

If we really engage with the Bible in this serious way we will find, I believe, that we will be set free from (among other things) some of the small-scale evangelical paranoia which goes on about scripture. We won’t be forced into awkward corners, answering impossible questions of the ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ variety about whether scripture is exactly this or exactly that. Of course the Bible is inspired, and if you’re using it like this there won’t be any question in your mind that the Bible is inspired. But, you will be set free to explore ways of articulating that belief which do not fall into the old rationalist traps of 18th or 19th or 20th century. Actually using the Bible in this way is a far sounder thing than mouthing lots of words beginning with ‘in—’ but still imprisoning the Bible within evangelical tradition (which is what some of those ‘in—’ words seem almost designed to do).

But rather than giving a single answer about how God speaks to us through Scripture, Wright insists that whenever we truly engage with the Bible and seek to understand what God has to say to us, we find that God not only speaks to us but transforms our lives.

The Bible, clearly, is also to be used in a thousand different ways within the pastoral work of the church, the caring and building up of all its members. Again, there is much that I could say here, but little space. Suffice it to note that the individual world-views and God-views of Christians, as much as anybody else, need to be constantly adjusted and straightened out in the light of the story which is told in scripture. But this is not to say that there is one, or even that there are twenty-one, ‘right’ ways of this being done. To be sure, the regular use of scripture in private and public worship is a regular medicine for many of the ills that beset us. But there are many methods of meditation, of imaginative reading, ways of soaking oneself in a book or a text, ways of allowing the story to become one’s own story in all sorts of intimate ways, that can with profit be recommended by a pastor, or engaged in within the context of pastoral ministry itself. Here, too, we discover the authority of the Bible at work: God’s own authority, exercised not to give true information about wholeness but to give wholeness itself, by judging and remaking the thoughts and intentions, the imaginations and rememberings, of men, women and children.

share|improve this answer
Completely agree with you that the bible needs to be read in the context it was given, and that reading the whole of a book is very important to understand each part of the book in context of the whole story/argument. But it doesn't really answer the question of the importance of scripture. Is all scripture equally God's word, or are some parts (such as Jesus talking) more important? –  Greg Dec 11 '12 at 19:34
@Greg: What Wright is saying (as I understand him) is that the Bible as a collection of books is God's word. We can't slice it up into parts and say this part is God's word or that part is God's word in itself. God's word is the whole collection. –  Bruce Alderman Dec 11 '12 at 20:08

As covered in From a Fundamentalist standpoint, what does the phrase "Inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God" mean?

Definition of the term "Inspired": The doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible means that the Bible in the original documents is God-breathed, that it is a divine product, and, because it is divine, the original documents are inerrant.

  • "inspired" does not mean "inspired" in the common sense, as in an artist is inspired to produce a great work, or a football team is inspired to perform better than normal die to a very motivational speech. In the doctrine of Divine Inspiration, the term carries the connotation that the words are the actual words of God.

  • Many cite [2 Timothy 3:16][1] as the source for the term "inspired". The term "God Breathed" is translated from the Greek word "Theopneustos", which conveys the idea of God directly filled the writer with the necessary knowledge - the God breathed the knowledge into the writer.

  • From Clarke's Commentary on the Bible, we get two possible meanings for the idea of how this worked:

    1. That every thought and word were inspired by God, and that the writer did nothing but merely write as the Spirit dictated.
    2. That God gave the whole matter, leaving the inspired writers to their own language; and hence the great variety of style and different modes of expression. (This is the understanding that is most common in Baptist Churches in particular, and in most Fundamentalist Churches in my admittedly limited experience.) This is known as Plenary Inspiration.

    More possible meanings are available at

share|improve this answer
Thanks David. Great explanation for Inspired. For the 2nd part of the question, does that mean that some parts of scripture are more important than others e.g. If Jesus is God then Jesus' words ARE God's words, where as Paul's words are his own but he was given the idea by God. So Paul's words are not as important? –  Greg Dec 11 '12 at 19:17
I'm not sure if my original question was clear enough so I've re-woreded it slightly –  Greg Dec 11 '12 at 19:28

The meaning of 2 Timothy 3:16 hinges on the meaning of two words in that verse:

1. θεόπνευστος

(theopneustos), "God-breathed, inspired by God"

This word occurs only once in the New Testament, in 2 Timothy 3:16. However, it is a compound of two common Greek words meaning "God" and "breath," so translating it is easy enough.

Exactly what the writer of 2 Timothy meant by it, however, is a matter of much debate among Christians, over many centuries. Various Christian theologians, denominations, and churches have come to different conclusions, in line with their views of the Bible and its inspiration. So there is no definitive answer; it is a matter of perspective.

However, in forming a view of the meaning of "inspired by God," it helps to know that our English words "breathe" and "inspire" reduce to only one word in the Biblical languages. If you wanted to say either "breath" or "inspiration" in Hebrew or Greek, you would use the same word.

For example:

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

This is usually interpreted to mean God literally breathed life into Adam. But it could also mean that God vivified Adam from God's spirit, which can be seen as the breath of life spiritually. Consider this incident in the New Testament:

When he [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20:22)

In this incident as written, Jesus physically breathed on his disciples (which is a little hard to picture), and in connection with that breathing invited them to receive the Holy Spirit.

It is unlikely that he literally meant that his breath was the Holy Spirit, and that his disciples were literally receiving the Holy Spirit as his breath touched their bodies. Rather, it is likely that Jesus meant his physical breathing on them to serve as a memorable physical image and metaphor of receiving the Holy Spirit--which is a spiritual and divine reality, not a physical one.

There is no way to state definitively what the writer of 2 Timothy meant by "God-breathed" or "inspired by God."

However, the example of God breathing into Adam's nostrils the breath of life so that he became a living soul, and the example of Jesus breathing on the disciples and inviting them to receive the Holy Spirit, suggests that inspiration when spoken of something that comes from God, such as the Bible (seen by Christians as "the Word of God"), means having life in it from God--especially spiritual life, which is the presence of the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of Truth (see John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:6).

From this we can at least conclude fairly reliably that when the writer of 2 Timothy speaks of "God-breathed" or "inspired by God," he means that it contains the living spirit and truth of God.

2. γραφή

(graphē), "Scripture, writing"

Unlike theopneustos, which occurs only once in the New Testament, graphe is a common word, occurring 51 times in the New Testament. It is related to the basic, common Greek verb meaning "to write." In its various forms and derivatives, this word occurs over 300 times in the New Testament. It is simply the common word for "writing."

The noun form graphe in the New Testament is almost always used to mean "Scriptures." For example:

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. (John 5:39)

No New Testament canon had yet been adopted during the era in which the various books of the New Testament were written. The usual meaning for graphe, then, is the Old Testament scriptures, or Hebrew Bible.

The Old Testament canon

Even the Jewish canon, or Hebrew Bible, had not been fully settled by New Testament times. However, at a minimum the Torah, or "Law," which is the first five books of our Bible, was well-established at that time. And the Nevi'im, or Prophets was fairly well codified as consisting of:

  1. The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings
  2. The Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets

These are almost certainly the books Jesus was referring to whenever he spoke of "the Law and the Prophets." However, Jesus also refers to Daniel as a prophet (Matthew 24:15), and in addition to quoting the Psalms several times as Scripture, in Luke 24:44 he explicitly includes the Psalms with "Moses" (the Law) and the Prophets as being written about him (prophetically).

So the Old Testament books that Jesus referred to the most, and gave the greatest weight to, were those contained in the Jewish Law and Prophets, plus Daniel and the Psalms.

The third division of Jewish scripture, the Ketuvim, or Writings, containing the rest of the books that are in the Protestant Old Testament (it does not include the Apocrypha), was not so clearly defined in New Testament times. Though they are referred to or alluded to at various places in the New Testament, they seem not to have carried the same weight that was given to the Law and the Prophets.

So when the New Testament refers to "the Scriptures," it is especially referring to the Law and the Prophets as defined in the Jewish canon, plus Daniel and the Psalms. These are the books that were given the greatest weight as Scripture in New Testament times.

Graphe in 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 3:15-16

Since the New Testament canon had not yet been determined at the time that the various books of the New Testament were written, it is very unlikely that any of the writers of those books would have referred to them as "Scriptures" in the sense that we give to that word today.

In English, we are blessed with many words to refer to written materials.

In New Testament Greek, there are only one or two that are commonly used. One of them is graphe and related forms. The other is the word from which we get "epistle," which means a letter written to a person or group, very much the way we use the word in that sense today.

Because of this, the writers of the New Testament would have used the word graphe not only to refer to Scriptures as we understand them, but to refer to any written material as written material.

Most of the places where this word occurs in the New Testament, the meaning is not in question, because it is clearly referring to the Old Testament Scriptures as outlined above. That is the most likely meaning of "Scripture" in 2 Timothy 3:16.

However, there is one passage in the Epistles where, because of the context, it cannot mean only the Old Testament Scriptures:

So also 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. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

Christians, especially conservative Christians, commonly read this to mean that already at the time of the writing of 2 Peter the letters of Paul were being seen as Scripture. And by extension, putting this verse together with 2 Timothy 3:16, the traditional interpretation is that all of the books that are now included in our New Testament canon are stated to be "Scripture" and "inspired" or "God-breathed" by the New Testament itself.

However, this view is anachronistic. Once again, at the time that the various books of the New Testament were written, there was no set canon of books of the New Testament.

So there is no basis in statements made in the books of the New Testament themselves for the idea that the writer(s) of 2 Peter and 2 Timothy were saying, "All of the books that were later canonized as part of the New Testament are Sacred Scriptures and are inspired by God."

Most likely, graphe in 2 Peter 3:15-16 is being used in a broader sense to mean various writings that were being circulated among the early Christians. A modern way of saying this would be that he is referring to the then-existing body of Christian literature, which included various letters of Paul.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, on the other hand, the most likely meaning of graphe is the same as its meaning almost everywhere else in the New Testament: the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures.

Which books are most important?

Based on all of this:

  1. We can draw some reasonable conclusions from the New Testament about which books of Old Testament carried the greatest weight. Those books are the ones included in the Jewish Law and Prophets, plus the books of Daniel and Psalms. Lamentations could also be included as an extension of the book of Jeremiah.
  2. We cannot draw any strong and reliable conclusions from statements within the books of the New Testament about which books of the New Testament are inspired by God, or are the most important, or should be included in the Christian canon of Scripture. Historically speaking, those determinations fell to later Christian councils.
share|improve this answer

2 Timothy 3:16 says that all scripture is God-breathed. The words clearly have the meaning that all scripture is inspired by God.

If Paul wrote these words, he can only have been writing of the Old Testament, since there was no notion of the books of New Testament as 'scripture' during the first century, and in any case, Paul lived before the first gospel was even written(1). Alternatively, according to the consensus of New Testament scholars (2), Second Timothy was written in Paul's name by an anonymous author decades after his death. In this case, we may choose to accept this claim on its merits, but it would not have the imprimatur of Paul himself. The real meaning of 2 Timothy depends on its provenance.

(1) John Carroll explains in The Existential Jesus, page 11, that the consensus of scholars is that Mark was written first, around 70 CE.

(2) Burton L. Mack says in Who Wrote the New Testament, page 206, that Second Timothy was undoubtedly written during the first half of the second century.

share|improve this answer

I don't know how I got to this board really, but ill answer your second question directly since that seems to be what's missing. In my opinion all scripture has incredible value, equal value, in that it all gives a piece of the picture of God's nature, who he is, the depths of his character. So if you neglect one part of scripture, you're working with a less than compete view of God. However, in terms of importance, there are certain parts of scripture, like the words Jesus says about the most important command or Paul's summation of the gospel, that you could essentially base your entire life off of and so I believe they are "more important." Neglect of the rest of scripture, though, could lead you to an ignorance that causes you to misuse the knowledge you do have (for example if you read the gospel but fail to read that the gospel is intended for everyone or that we are being sent to share it). Hope this helps in some way..better late than never. God bless.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to the site! This doesn't really have much to do with your answer, but I find that sharing the following tends to help new visitors avoid mistaking the purpose of this site. I do hope to see more from you! When you get a chance, please see How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Apr 25 '14 at 19:47

I think i see it a bit differently. The scripture Jesus is talking about was the Torah. There was no NT for 300 years after Jesus was killed. When you see the term "scripture" in your NT, know that it refers to Torah and not the NT. The NT is a collection of writings attributed to the authors' name but in reality we dont know who wrote them. So my answer would be if its scripture your after, the OT trumps the NT hands down.

share|improve this answer
But lots of the Old Testament is either anonymous or of disputed authorship too. And this doesn't really make a lot of sense overall... the question is about Paul not Jesus, and why would you think scripture only meant the law, not the whole OT? –  curiousdannii Oct 13 '14 at 4:56
Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. Here are some meta posts about this site to help you learn how we do it here: What this site is about and How this site is different. This post is okay but really could be much better. You need to make a better case for your assertion. I hope to see you post again soon. –  fredsbend Oct 13 '14 at 5:08
Awww, im minus one already. –  BAzzle Oct 14 '14 at 3:30
Awww, im minus one already. Thanks for your reply. The Torah was indeed written wholly by Moses. The prophets are attributed as being the authors of their respectively named books. We know precisely who wrote the Tanakh. We have no evidence to suggest that the Gospel writers authored their named books. It was custom at the time for others to write a gospel/book and attribute it to someone else, but thats another story. The word scrpture does represent the whole Tanakh, but is mostly quoted and applied to Torah observance. Read –  BAzzle Oct 14 '14 at 3:46

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.