The slogan of the Protestant Reformation was “sola Scriptura,” that is, a conviction that the Bible and the Bible alone contains God’s revelation to his people. The invention of printing made it possible to distribute copies of the Bible widely, assuring easy access to the sacred text in the vernacular. The assumption was that the Bible could be understood by the individual believer in its plainest, most obvious sense. For what would be the point of God’s revealing himself in a document that was inaccessible? Thus, since God would not lie, the world must have been created in seven days, beginning on 22 October 4004 B.C., Noah’s flood would have been world wide, putting Mount Everest under fifteen cubits of water, and so on, with every personage and event taken at face value. In an age of universal ignorance of modern science, such notions did no harm, as they were simply background for the spiritual comfort and nourishment the Christian derived from Scripture. In fact, the Bible could be described as scientific for the time in which it had been written; it is, after all, a rational conclusion, based on observation, e.g., that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Again, there were disastrous floods in the region of Mesopotamia that inundated the entire world as then known, and the biblical authors simply took it for granted, as a fact. But the point of the biblical narrative, here as elsewhere, was a moral one: the flood was a punishment for sin, and the magnitude of the catastrophe indicated the extent of the evil it righted.
Two developments challenged the naïve world view of the early Protestants. The first, ironically, arose from a desire to provide the best possible version by the use of linguistic skills and historical research; if God’s revelation is limited to the Bible the reader must have an accurate text. Study of the ancient languages, beginning with Greek and Hebrew, proceeded apace, and archaeologists began exploring the biblical sites. This scientific approach called into question many of the assumptions of the Reformers. For one thing, a definitive text was not easily produced. There are four different endings to Saint Mark’s Gospel, for instance, with little indication of which one is to be preferred. Similarly, the passage about the woman taken in adultery—John 7:53-8:12—has certainly been inserted into the fourth Gospel (perhaps from a different place in the Gospel, Ed.)  Archaeology, too, presented difficulties in that many of the events recorded in the Old Testament could not be verified. Developments in astronomy and Darwin’s theory of evolution put an end for many to the literal reading of the Bible or even to its inspired character.