How the Bible Works, October 20, 2017
How the Bible Works
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Someone asked me recently if I believed in the Bible. I said, “No.”
Now that doesn’t mean that I’m not really a Christian, or that I don’t treasure the Bible. But the Bible is not the object of our faith. We believe in God alone. We are involved in a relationship of trust and faith with Jesus Christ. We don’t believe “in” the Bible. Rather, the Bible is a tool for us to show us something about who God is. The Bible is a rather messy library of books which tells us something about how our ancestors in the faith thought about God, and it can help us figure out how we might think about God in the 21st century.
So I don’t believe in the Bible. I believe in God. I trust Jesus Christ. We are in a relationship with the one whom Christians call the living Word.
Let me to say more about the Bible.
The Bible is not a book. In fact, the Bible is a library of books, written by many different authors over the course of some 1200 years. There are 39 different books in the Old Testament, and 27 in the New Testament. These books contain many different kinds of literature: poetry, letters, wisdom sayings, prophetic oracles, genealogies, ancient myths, hymns, laments, historical writing, short novellas, apocalyptic writing, gospels, and so on.
The Bible contains diverse theologies and perspectives. It follows quite obviously from the first point that each writer has his or her own personality and purpose in writing. Each writer reflected the times in which he or she lived. This fact (and it is a fact) accounts for some of the contradictory elements we find throughout the Bible. We don’t have to harmonize those different elements. We can live with the differences, because they reflect a different purpose and a different time. They show us different ways of looking at God.
The most obvious example is that there are two birth stories of Jesus which are quite different from one another. Matthew tells the story one way; Luke tells it quite differently. Most often, we try to harmonize the stories, and so we get a very crowded stable: Mary, Joseph and the baby are surrounded by shepherds, magi, sheep, camels and angels. But Matthew doesn’t say anything about a manger or shepherds. Luke doesn’t say anything about magi. They are two different stories, written to two different communities, with a very different perspective on what the birth of Christ means.
We see similar differences in the Old Testament. 1 and 2 Kings tell a historical tale about the monarchy in Israel. 1 and 2 Chronicles retell the same story about 300 to 400 years later, and from a much different perspective. We need not harmonize the two accounts. What is going on here is an internal dialogue within the Bible which helps us see that it’s okay to think differently about God’s activity in the world. There are different perspectives, and each is valid.
The various writings of the Bible are windows onto the times in which they were written. The gospels and other “historical” writings were never intended to be unbiased historical reporting. These reports were written many years or centuries after the event.
For example, the stories about King David in 1 Samuel are not a “life of David”. Rather, they show us how David came to be seen long after his death. In the same way, Matthew’s story of Jesus is not a “life of Jesus”. It is Matthew’s way of telling the story some 50 years after the crucifixion to his particular community. Luke tells the story differently, as does Mark. John tells it much differently than any of the other three gospels.
Both Old and New Testaments took shape in response to a crisis. The Old Testament was edited and collated in response to the crisis of Israel’s exile in Babylon from 586–539 BC. Every book of the Old Testament was composed or edited from that time on. Without an exile, there would have been no need for a Bible to recount the story of God’s dealings with Israel.
The New Testament was formed slowly over two and a half centuries. The first time we see the New Testament in the shape we know now was in 345 AD. It took shape in response to various crises in the early church, when the church felt a need to tell the story of God’s dealings with the church in the particular way we know it today.
For many people, this will be an entirely new way of looking at the Bible. Scholars have known these truths for at least the last hundred years. What I find exciting about this approach is that it opens doors for us to explore the Bible and our faith from fresh angles.
This isn’t about being edgy for edgy’s sake. It’s about respecting and relating to the Bible’s own character. This is how the Bible was put together. It didn’t drop down to us from above. It was written by human beings trying to figure out who God was and how we can relate to God.
It means that the Bible is a little more messy than we might have thought. But life is messy. And the Bible bears witness to God’s presence in the midst of the mess.