22But the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Galatians 5: 22 – 23 – Revised English Bible
16God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God, and God in him. 17This is how love has reached its perfection among us, so that we may have confidence on the day of judgement; and this we can have, because in this world we are as he is. 18In love there is no room for fear; indeed perfect love banishes fear. For fear has to do with punishment…….
1 John 4: 16-18 – Revised English Bible
In my last post, I urged the importance of creating time and peace, to allow God to talk to us individually through the Bible. In this post, I want to look at the nature of the Bible and tackle some of the pitfalls we should try to avoid. My final post will give advice about which readings to start with, where additional help can be obtained and summarise some basic principles. Please do stick with me through this most important of topics!
Nature of the Bible
Whilst reading the Bible, we need to remind ourselves constantly that it was written by human beings. Christians do not believe (as I believe Moslems do) that the Bible was dictated by God to a human being, who then wrote it down. Christians believe that human beings (many of them over many centuries) wrote their individual parts of the Bible, but that they were inspired by God in doing so. For more details on this issue of inspiration, see my earlier post:
Because the Bible was written by human beings, they’re inevitably affected by the culture in which they lived; it would be impossible for them not to have been. And if we try to think ourselves back to what the culture was like in this country 1,000 years ago, we start to realise how difficult it is to think ourselves back to the Middle East between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago! Should we even try, if it’s so difficult? Some people believe it’s impossible, but I do think that we have, at the very least, a duty when reading the Bible not to attribute twenty-first century thinking to what we’re reading (indeed we owe that to any subject or period in history). If you’ve got the time to read about what life was like in Biblical times, then that’s excellent and will help you.
Two things should be uppermost in our minds whilst reading. Firstly, we should actively reject any temptation to consider that those who lived so long ago were dumber than we are. They didn’t of course have our technology, but they may have been spiritual beings in a way that we’ve almost forgotten how to be? And they most certainly were not assailed by modern life on all fronts, so possibly had more time for meditation and contemplation than we have in our world, with its obsession with ‘sound bites’ and ‘click bait’.
We should also try to attune ourselves to what we think culture may have been like at the time of the writings. This takes practice. As an example, in the story of what is known as ‘The Prodigal Son’ in Luke 15, we read that when the son reappeared, the father ‘ran to meet him’. This conveys to us that the father loves the son enough to run towards him. But what if we also try to picture him running, and realise that he would have had to lift his long robes and (disgracefully) expose his knees to his servants? Does this not add to our understanding of what the father is prepared to do, to demonstrate how much he loves his wayward son?
Is the Bible ‘inerrant’?
Some people consider the Bible to be ‘inerrant’, without error. I struggle to understand how they could arrive at such a conclusion. If you start at the very beginning of Genesis, you fairly rapidly run into the following issues:
- There are two separate, different and incompatible creation stories: Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:2. And then Genesis 2:3 to Genesis 2:25.
- They’re written by two different people. In the English translations, you can tell this, because the first writer refers to ‘God’ and the second to the ‘Lord God’. Biblical scholars call the two writers the ‘Elohist’ and the ‘Yahwist’.
- The Elohist tells that God created man and woman at the same time, as separate individuals. The Yahwist tells that man was created first and then woman was derived from man’s body.
- The Elohist creates animals before man. The Yahwist says that man was created first and then the animals are created for his benefit.
There are many such small errors and inconsistencies in the Bible; some commentators do intellectual ‘double-back-somersaults’, to try to pretend that these errors aren’t there, or aren’t real. I prefer to accept the humanity of the errors and to state loudly that none of the errors make any real change to what we believe as Christians.
And if God’s intention was for us only to have one definitive, inerrant version of the Bible, why have four gospels, written over about fifty years, come down to us, all of which have completely different stories of what happened on Easter Morning? (Read Matthew 28, Mark 16 (note that scholars accept that Mark’s story originally ended at verse 8, with no resurrection story at all!), Luke 24 and John 20 and 21. Then tell me that these accounts are all the same and compatible with one another! The truth is that we live in a world that is obsessed with factual accuracy. Maybe the ancients were wiser than we are and knew that it was not factual accuracy that mattered, but meaning?
Should the Bible be read ‘literally’?
If it’s wrong that we should assume that the Bible is inerrant, then it’s even more wrong if we try to read the Bible literally. Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the Bible will tell you that it’s absolutely crammed with the most beautiful metaphors; it’s almost the Bible’s one defining feature. The greatest truths, let’s call them ‘eternal truths’, are possibly only capable of being told memorably in parables, which may be why Jesus often used this form of story. Does the fact that the ‘Good Samaritan’ story is just a story make it any less ‘true’ or valid as a guide to how we should behave?
On Good Friday, ‘at midday a darkness fell over the whole land, which lasted till three in the afternoon’ (Mark 15:33). Those who try to equate a three-hour darkness with an eclipse that lasts a few minutes, are hopelessly missing the point; a lack of light means that the whole world has been plunged into metaphorical, Godless darkness. In John 1:36, John looks at Jesus and says: ‘There is the Lamb of God’. Does he mean that Jesus had become a lamb, an animal? Of course not, that would be preposterous.
What about the miracles? Surely we have to accept that they happened exactly as described?
I genuinely don’t mind whether people find it easier to see the miracles as having happened exactly as described, or whether they prefer to see them as metaphors. But whatever your views, I would say that if you read the miracles as fact-certifiable, but you fail to pick up the deeper metaphorical meanings, then you’ll maybe miss the entire point of the stories. Matthew 14: 28-31 tells the story of Jesus walking on water, in the midst of a gale. I don’t mind you believing that Jesus has supernatural powers, I genuinely don’t. But if we read this story and fail to pick up the deeper meaning, that faith in Jesus helps us to stay afloat through life’s storms and dangers, then we’re missing the main part of the story. Why can’t a metaphor be even more true in the sense of ‘eternal truths’ than a supernatural story? If the supernatural story gets in the way of your faith, then look for a deeper, metaphorical meaning. If it doesn’t get in the way of your faith, fine, but still look for the ‘eternal truth’ behind the story!
Does that mean that we can ignore the Bible, as it’s not true?
Absolutely not! This is a rather silly accusation that’s often levelled at people who write as I have. I think those who criticise in that way, feel that once you suggest that maybe not every single line in the Bible is factually certifiable, then the entire Bible loses its meaning and its ability to guide us. It’s an incredibly recent view of the Bible.
I comprehensively reject such an idea. It comes from a very modern viewpoint, that suffers from a total obsession with facts, at the expense of ideas. If you look at the differences between the stories told by the gospel writers and accept that their objective was nothing other than to get the readers and listeners to believe, to have faith in Jesus, then the fact that there are differences between the gospels drops away and becomes completely unimportant. And God has a way of working this through, as well. Those of us who’ve lived with the four gospels all our lives will attest to the fact that after a while, the four gospels have a way of merging into one, in our minds. Where, for example, do you find the Three Wise Men in the Bible? The answer is the ‘Magi’ appear only in Matthew, and the number of them isn’t even mentioned.
The Bible’s full of eternal truths, told by many different individuals over many centuries, in many different cultural backgrounds, and all inspired by God. It talks to all people and all eras differently. This doesn’t mean that God is changeable, but that he has a way of cutting through our own cultural prejudices. Be wary of organised religion if it tells you to leave your questions at the door!
In my final part of this three-part blog, I’ll cover what the Bible has to say about God’s nature; how the Bible can be and has been misused, some basic principles that should guide you, what the best passages are, to get you started. And finally, where you can find help on your Biblical journey.
Heavenly Father, be with us as we try to touch you through the words of those who you inspired to write the Bible. Help us to keep an open mind, and to look for meanings that are more than ‘skin-deep’. Amen