How Should We Regard the Bible in the 21st Century?
Even as you read the title of this article you are likely to come to this question with a number of possible attitudes :
|Contempt||:||Irrelevant stories put together in a very different age, by groups of people trying to understand their world. Or more cynically – rulers and priests trying to build a system of belief to subjugate and control a nation.|
|Literally||:||The word of God from beginning to end. We should read it, believe it, follow it and trust it absolutely.|
|With a Pinch of Salt||:||There are some good bits and bad bits. Parts of it make moral sense, other bits are abhorrent – explainable as “that’s the way they did it back then”. We should use it as a guide but not absolutely. Some of it may be true – even the bits about God existing (maybe) – but you can’t take all of it seriously.|
academically and emotionally it can be thought about in a very different way
For the avoidance of doubt this article is NOT trying to convince you of the truth of any of the above points of view. We are merely trying to suggest that academically and emotionally it can be thought about in a very different way ~ dare we say viewed closer to what it really is!
Turns out that there’s another way to view it and even understand it (well some bits ~ I’m not sure I can ever relate to coveting an ox so much !)
The problem is that “The Bible” can be a very pejorative term. It stirs up all sorts of feelings, good~bad~indifferent, depending on our point of view, the way we’ve been brought up or good/bad experiences you’ve had with “people of faith”.
But what if we try to look at it through a different lens and put aside the baggage we bring. In this article we hope to do that.
What is It?
It’s Not One Book
It’s not just one book but many different ones all jammed together. It’s the work of many different authors and editors writing at different times, in different places, and crucially it’s different kinds of writing – poetry, history, law, prophecy, proverbs, stories, letters and many more (an important point that we will circle back to later on). To say the least , it’s all very … different.
To Illustrate How Different this “Book of Books” is…
Imagine you had a bound volume in front of you called Britain, which claims to be a one-volume history of the British Nation.
You open it up and look at the contents. What you see is :
- A collection of ancient myths about the people who built Stonehenge, focusing on one particular family
- An early telephone directory
- A book of famous British quotations
- A series of short biographies of very minor characters· from the period just after the Romans left
- A history of the Norman Conquest written by a man who lived about four centuries later
- Some songs and poetry from the time of Shakespeare, but without any music
- A collection of law, which mixes up the Magna Carta and the latest Health and Safety regulations
- A dream about the future written by a Polish church leader with English as his second language
- A history of the kings and queens of England and Scotland from the fifteenth century onwards
- The same history of the kings and queens, only this time ignoring Scotland &cutting out all the bad bits
Clearly there is something weird going on, and yet the above illustration is pretty much the kind of thing that the Bible contains, but from a middle eastern point of view where they were searching or pondering on God.
How Was it Put Together then ?
Lets be clear – It was written down by humans, edited by humans and put together by humans*. The humans that put it together largely did so at a series of gatherings or councils. We won’t go into the details here but you can read our other article “How Was the Christian Bible Put Together? Who Wrote it All?”
Suffice it to say it was brought together to include the widely circulating Jewish Old Testament writings – some that had been around for thousands of years – plus the most common story books and letters in circulation and in common use by Christian churches all over the Roman Empire at the time.
a key criteria was simply the experience of the Church. A book that had been valued and used by a wide range of churches, and across generations, was much more likely to be accepted
The Church did not rush into declaring a definitive list, and discussions continued for a long time. Even as late as 325 AD the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 340) listed as disputed works: James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Revelation. But a key criteria was simply the experience of the Church. A book that had been valued and used by a wide range of churches, and across generations, was much more likely to be accepted than one that had only gained local currency.
So not so much a patriarchal conspiracy to present only one point of view but a practical bringing together of writings most people held as meaningful and holding truths.
*HOWEVER depending on your point of view that doesn’t preclude divine inspiration or intervention in the making of the Bible we have today. Indeed when you understand the times and history in which it was written : the wars, genocide, disasters & calamities that befell the people writing it and the very precarious survival of some physical scriptures ~ then, dare we say it, but the survival of these writings, many of which are several thousand years old, is nothing short of a miracle!
What’s in (& not in) it?
Even within the same book there are different types of writing
As we’ve already mentioned it’s not just one book but many different ones all brought together. The crucial point to realise is that it is all kinds of DIFFERENT types of writing – poetry, history, laws, prophecy, proverbs, stories and letters. Even within the same book there are different types of writing.
We can’t discuss every book in this article but to give you a flavour here are some of the genres…
|Genre||Books Found in||How to Read it|
|Law||Exodus 20, Leviticus ,Numbers, Deuteronomy||The Law sometimes refers to the first 5 books of the Bible (The Pentateuch), sometimes to the whole of the Old Testament. It’s divided into 2 main categories : Ritual Law: How to worship God ; Civic Law: How to treat others, food laws, etc.|
|Wisdom Literature / Advice||Proverbs and Ecclesiastes||Wisdom literature is full of very helpful but very general advice. It should be read as a generalized truth to which exceptions may occur. It should NOT be read as a dogmatic promise.|
|Narrative/Story||Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Daniel, Jonah (and in smaller sections throughout most of the prophets), Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts.||These are the kind of books that most often lead to contentious reactions – especially in the way they are read.
A Narrative tells a story. Sometimes that story is intended to be true, sometimes not, sometimes a little of both. In Biblical narrative you’ll see some redundancy, as certain books cover the same events from different perspectives for different audiences.
Some of these books can be treated as history (in the modern sense of the meaning – more of that idea later), some have to be treated as ‘stories’ illustrating a general observed truth or some meaningful spiritual point.
|Poetry/Art||Psalms and Ecclesiastes||One of the more surprising types of writing in the Bible is poetry – effectively “emotion in print”. Its poetry can be highly introspective whilst trying to share elements of the truth with a reader. In biblical poetry, you may see a writer work his way from a carnal mindset at the beginning of a passage, exhibiting emotions like jealousy, anger, bitterness and pride, to a more spiritual point of view at the end.|
|Apocalyptical Literature||Revelation and Daniel||A type of literature where the message is expressed in vivid and bizarre symbolism, claiming to be a revelation from an angel to a great figure of the past like Moses, Abraham, etc. Most of Revelation and parts of Daniel are considered to be apocalyptic literature, Apocalyptic literature uses symbols to convey deeper meanings than everyday language. Symbols are used to express truth, not to frighten or confuse, but to aid in understanding.|
|Letters (aka Epistles)||Ecclesiastes, Luke, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, and Jude.||Yes some of these ‘books’ are simply old letters. Most are letters from the apostle Paul to the many different Christian churches that were springing up all around the Mediterranean. They contain encouragement, observations and interpretations on what was happening in the young churches as well as various theological ruminations.|
As you can see there’s such a wide variety of genres that you CAN’T treat or read each book in the same way.
The Bible is NOT an encyclopedia of doctrine, with everything already worked out. Indeed, if you view all the books together and in their proper context then you will see that the Bible actually shows the working-out going on. It is in fact, the very history of the working-out.
Stories may be used to challenge and explain, to connect and to work things out but they do it by inviting us to think, not telling us what to think.
Neither is the Bible a unified theology1 but it is a unified story. Stories don’t deal in systematic thought. Stories may be used to challenge and explain, to connect and to work things out but they do it by inviting us to think, not telling us what to think.
Despite that people seem to persist in trying to turn the Bible into a systematic theology. But the Bible refuses to behave that way. There’s-nothing systematic about the Bible, largely because it’s about humans who, despite valiant efforts throughout the centuries by various· philosophers and intellectuals, generally tend to prefer unsystematic thinking.
1 Theology comes from two Greek words: theos meaning God, and logos meaning word. So it’s really having words about God. But according to the OED, the Greek term originally meant ‘an account of the gods, or of God (whether legendary or philosophical)’. It’s only from the thirteenth century AD onwards that ‘theologia’~ came to designate a department of academic study.
Is it True?
“Did it actually happen?” and “Is it really true?” – These are not the same question!
Because today when we say “is it true” – we often mean is this an historically accurate account. But what WE mean by “history” is actually a pretty new concept.
It’s important to state though that this is not some weaselly way to try to shift things with a clever linguistic ‘slight of hand’ – just think about this for a moment …. this goes back to our discussion above about the Narrative/Story genre.
History as we know it ?
Questions about the historicity of the Bible are pretty common.
Herodotus & Thucydides were Greek historians, in the 5th century BC, who were first to propound the idea to write histories based on verifiable facts ie the first “modern” historians. This is the kind of view of “what is history” attitude that we have today.
The trouble is this was not the way some of the early narratives/stories are expressed. We’re not saying they make it up, just that it’s expressed differently to how we do it. They were mixing real events and observable truths.
The Old Testament books of Joshua through to Esther – very different books, written in different styles at different times – are lumped together as ‘the historical books’. And because we have a post-Herodotus view of history we view them as ‘our’ kind of history – the documented verifiable kind, with dates and recorded statements. But they’re not actually like that.
There are parts of the Bible which are more like ‘our kind of history’. And those really are the ones written a lot later when the idea of writing a different kind of history had begun to take shape. Ezra and Nehemiah, writing in the sixth century BC, pay a lot of attention to documentation.
‘Did it actually happen?’ and ‘Is it really true?’ – these are not the same question!
When we get to the New Testament period, we have a mass of archaeological, social, historical and literary material to support the Gospel accounts.
So, “Is it True?” is really about letting the text be what it is. It’s about the kind of writing we are dealing with.
The Bible refuses to behave like ‘proper’ modern history. It does not conform to our expectations. If we insist on viewing the Bible as ‘our kind of history’, then we will always face difficulties. The writers and editors of these ancient books are not trying to provide an objective, documentary-style, official history on our terms. They are telling a story – a story about the Israelites, their behaviour and their relationship with Yahweh.
How Should it be Read?
This is probably the nub of the question on “How we should Regard the Bible in the 21st Century”
Given that it is a work of several genres of literature what you can NOT do is read every book in the same way!
You clearly can’t read Law the same way as poetry nor can you read EVERY bit of it as being absolutely ‘literal’. Otherwise when Jesus said “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved” we’d have to conclude he was made of wood and was extremely useful at keeping drafts out!
So a key question to ask yourself about ANY biblical text is :
|“What kind of writing is this?”|
Because a lot of the arguments about the Bible are really arguments about what kind of writing we’re dealing with.
As with any great work of literature, be it Beowulf, Shakespeare, Chaucer or Dickens, you also have to ask :
|“What is it trying to say?”|
|“What truth or observation is being conveyed here?”|
|“Who was this written by and for whom?”|
|“What is the context in which it was written?”|
There’s also a something to ponder in the very title of this article ~ “How WE treat the scriptures in the 21st century?”. The Bible hasn’t changed ~ but we, as 21st century humans, have.
As inhabitants of the 21st century we don’t think or live like humans in the 3rd century, the 17th century or even the 20th century – each generation has to understand and interpret the Bible from within its own context and zeitgeist. So if the Bible hasn’t changed but WE have, we need to look into the Bible stories more closely and more intelligently – not just overlay it with our cultural zeitgeist ~ that is tantamount to intellectual and historical arrogance ~ thinking that the current way of looking at life, the universe & everything (to borrow Douglas Adams phrase) is the correct, most logical and best way.
And Finally …
Back to the original question : How should we treat it in the 21st Century?
As we’ve seen the Bible is a lot of different things all jammed together so any answer is bound to be a simplification. So for what it’s worth, maybe we should treat it for what it mostly is … a history of men and women struggling with everyday life, struggling to define, understand and make sense of God over thousands of years and across at least 2 world religions (Judaism & Christianity). As with most human endeavours – it’s messy. Sometimes they even seem to get it right, sometimes spectacularly wrong – but that’s the point. The endeavour is presented warts and all – the glaring failures as well as the successes. The difficult bits haven’t been edited out despite what conspiracy theorists may say. But then that’s part of the attraction and makes it all the more authentic to any century and any generation – we just have to try to approach it with an open mind.
The problem is that we continue to approach it with a prejudiced set of filters – a kind of ‘Zeitgeist fog’. We also tend to treat each part in exactly the same way, when in fact it contains many different types of writing, written for many different audiences, requiring very different approaches to the inevitable ‘does this contain truth?’ question.
So what about the 3 attitudes we presented at the beginning of this article :
|Contempt||:||It definitely has something to say about the human condition, on life, death and how we ponder meaning – so it would be foolish to dismiss it outright, especially as those who would do that rarely have read much of it.|
|Literally||:||You can’t read it literally – it’s full of analogies, stories and parables – which definitely DIDN’T occur in real life. But as we’ve mentioned that doesn’t mean they don’t contain any truth. Remember also you can’t treat each book the same – they are different things !|
|With a Pinch of Salt||:||If you understand what type of literature that you’re reading and who it was written by and for whom, then you won’t need to “take it with a pinch of salt” because the real meaning and truths it might contain will be more apparent.|
Whether you believe in the Bible’s revelation of a single Judaeo-Christian God that its stories, letters, poetry and varied histories all point to, is another matter entirely – BUT it’s all there in its unvarnished, ‘warts and all’ literary glory, for anyone to explore and appreciate – if approached with an open mind and an eye to what type of writing you are reading. The Bible is not a book of soundbites, it’s really a progressive revelation over thousands of years. We have to think about this stuff.
There’s only so much that can be presented in such a short article. Much of this article has been inspired by Nick Page’s excellent book “The Badly Behaved Bible” ~ it’s witty, insightful & believe it or not – very funny! We can heartily recommend it.
|How Was the Christian Bible Put Together? Who Wrote it All?|
|Was Jesus a Real Person?|
|The Spread of Christianity in the Ancient World|
|Is it Possible to tell what Jesus looked like?|