What Is The Bible?
Beloved God, please take these words and form in them a word of yours. Where they are true, may they bless those gathered to listen. Where they are in error, I pray that no harm would be done. Amen.
What is the Bible? I’ve been asked to answer this question several times over the course of my ministry. The question is often asked by a young person, especially young people who have very little acquaintance with the bible. So let’s start at the basics.
- The Bible is not one book, but a collection of writings that various religious groups - in this instance Jewish and various Christian denominations - have agreed upon as canon (canon means, according to wikipedia: “a set of texts (or "books") which a particular religious community regards as authoritative scripture.”
- There are different kinds of writings in these different biblical texts. Some are poetry - like the psalms - some are histories - like Samuel 1&2, Kings 1&2, and Chronicles 1&2. There are also ancient mythologies - like the 2 creation stories in Genesis - as well as Wisdom writings - like proverbs. The prophets take up the greatest number of pages in the canon and are their own style of writing. The Gospels are the four books that function as biographies as well as the collection of teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. And there are letters - called epistles - in the Christian Bible mostly from Paul (or others pretending to be Paul - we call these pseudo-pauline or deutero-pauline epistles, which may have been written by Paul’s followers.) Finally, there are the apocalyptic writings. These writings are not necessarily all about the “end times” but definitely encompass some sort of divine revenge upon oppressors who have made the lives of the oppressed so terrible that a divine cleansing seems to be the only acceptable solution to those living through such horrible moments.
- Not all Jewish and Christian groups agree with the collections of sacred texts contained in our pew bible. Roman Catholics have more and some Jewish groups have less - not just the lack of the Christian Scriptures, but fewer Hebrew texts, too.
- In order to be more respectful of our Jewish heritage and our Jewish contemporaries, we are tending to use the terms “Hebrew Bible” for what has long been called the Old Testament, and “Christian Bible” for what has been known as the New Testament. This is not a hard and fast rule, but an emerging shift in religious semantics.
- In the 3rd and 4th century there was much debate as to which sacred texts to include in the canon. One interesting argument was over the gospel of John. It was up against the Gospel of Thomas - now considered a gnostic gospel - and the two had equal numbers of devotees. The gospel of John just barely beat out the gospel of Thomas. Similarly, letters - or epistles - were required to be claimed as authoritative by the region to which they were sent as well as proven (as best they could be) to be written by the person who claims to have sent them.
- When it comes to biblical translations, things get really dicey. We don’t have any original manuscripts and in fact have multiple copies of many of the sacred texts from the early centuries of Christianity. There are often discrepancies, especially missing or additional verses or words, such that modern translations will often footnote where they had to make a decision as to which manuscript to utilize.
- Translations, as you can experience firsthand when talking to someone who has a different native language, always loses some of its meaning. Idioms are the worst. Try explaining to a Congolese student what “when the chips are down” means or to a Korean student what “till the cows come home” implies and you’ll see some of the problems we have when we translate Hebrew into Aramaic into Koine Greek into 21st century English. And don’t even get me started on the accuracy of the rhyming couplets of the King James Version.
- We also have historical, literary, and cultural contexts that get lost as we read the scriptures. Different literary styles of the ancient cultures place more emphasis on story-telling than on discerning fact from fiction. History, almost always told from the viewpoint of the conquerors anyway, often have very narrow insights into what really happened. On the book laws are often carried out or not carried out very differently in practice than in theory.
- Then you get the reading levels of each of the translations. The Good News Bible is on about a 5th grade reading level, the New International Version is at about an 8th grade reading level; and the New Revised Standard Version is at about a 12th grade reading level. There are so many other options that vary in how they were put together and who they were translated for that we cannot begin to cover them all.
Ultimately, the bible is a collection of writings about a particular people’s experience of God in ancient times in the location of what we generally refer to as the middle east. Biblical studies are complicated, fascinating, and must be contextual to have deep understandings for what these ancient writers might still say to us today.
Individual passages, taken out of context, can cause and have caused great harm and indeed have been used as an oppressive tool - which may be the most biblically blasphemous sin. It has been used to oppress women, slaves, people with dark skin, gay people, and, most ironically, the poor.
When read through the lens of the prophets (the majority of the Hebrew Bible) and the gospels (the majority of the Christian Bible) we read about the experience of a God who sides with the poor, the oppressed, the meek, and the compassionate. Economic justice is the backbone of the scriptures. There are well over 2000 verses just about economic justice in the biblical canon. Oddly enough, given the amount of hot air wasted on it from pulpits, there is very little in the bible about sexual purity. It just isn’t that important. Jesus and the prophets never address it except where the disadvantaged are being taken advantage of. Don’t rape people, don’t use people, don’t objectify people. Love one another. That’s about it there.
The trajectory of the biblical canon moves toward more and more justice, more and more love, more and more compassion. As the people who experienced God lived more into their faith and into the fullness of God’s love, their understanding of God also shifted. We move from “eye for an eye” (itself a shift toward justice since before then if your neighbor poked out your eye you were in your rights by killing off his whole family) to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” We move from women being of less worth than cattle to husbands and wives “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
There is also some pretty funny stuff in the bible. Goliath taunts a little shepherd boy and then gets knocked out by him. Balaam’s donkey starts talking to him and pretty much gives him a sarcastic slap in the face. And Paul criticizes his critics with some pretty choice word play that pretty much says that they didn’t… um... circumcise themselves enough….
The poetry of the bible is rich and full of love and wonder and wisdom. The wisdom in the bible has plenty that still holds true, because there truly is “nothing new under the sun," as we read in Ecclesiastes. And as we read the stories and teachings of Jesus we continue to be inspired and excited about this Way of life that we’re being called to.
I love the bible. It was written and transcribed, translated and paraphrased by thousands of people over the millennia and has been read and meditated on, exegeted and expounded upon by hundreds of thousands more. It is not divine in itself yet it points us to the divinity that we yearn for and crave. For some the canon is long closed and for others, like myself, the story of God will never end and continues to be written, but for all of us there is a richness if we will only immerse ourselves in the pages of its flawed tradition and truly human history. I encourage you to read a little bit of it, if only a verse or two, every day. Ask questions, prayerfully consider what you might need to learn from its pages, and remember that it is rarely as simple as it seems.
The study of the bible can and should be a lifelong process. As we grow and change in our faith and emotional development our understanding of the bible should also grow and change.
I will end with a question that I asked my Greek professor while at seminary and his answer. So, if all this translation stuff is so convoluted, which version of the bible should we use? His answer was perhaps the most important thing I learned in Greek class that year. He simply replied, “the one you will read.”