What about the Bible? 

Chapter three of
Dear Kim, this is what I believe . . .                           by Bill Loader
Dear Kim,

You have probably heard all kinds of things said about the Bible. What is it really? Let me begin by picking up where I left off in talking about Jesus.

The Bible is our major source of information about Jesus. This is because it contains, in the New Testament, a collection of writings from the first hundred years of Christianity. They were written in Greek. Among these writings are the four gospels which preserve for us many of the teachings of Jesus and tell us much about the kinds of things he did. Mostly they concentrate on the period in Jesus’ life when he went about as a teacher, the last year or so of his life.

One of the reasons why people wrote the gospels was that those who knew Jesus directly were dying out and there was a real need to preserve an account of what Jesus said and did. But they were written quite late in the piece, after the Church had been in existence already for 40 or 50 years. This means they are a mixture of what Jesus may have originally said or done, mostly in the form of helpful anecdotes, and what people thought he might have said or done. People seem at many points to have added detail or occasionally trimmed it, in order to make things clearer or to bring out what they saw was the important point.

The gospels

Three of the gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are very similar in detail. It looks as though Mark was written first, around 70 CE. Matthew and Luke independently reworked Mark’s version of the events about 10 to 15 years later, adding in more material that had come to hand and rearranging the material. By the way they reworked Mark’s story we can see the kinds of changes and additions which were probably made over the 40 years before Mark was written. It is not hard to imagine how, during this period, people shortened stories or collected sayings with similar themes or added brief comments to help people understand what was said.

So that is what the gospels are: collections of memories about Jesus made by the second and third generations of Christians. They don’t claim to be anything more than that. That was enough, because the material they contain gives us a good impression of the kind of thing Jesus taught and what he did. Even when we sometimes cannot be really sure whether Jesus said this or that, or whether it was something the Church thought he said, it doesn’t really matter, because it has all been produced under the impact of Jesus’ influence. His impression has left its mark on the material and from that impression we can get a fairly good idea of what Jesus was like. That is why I have been quite confident in the last chapter in drawing the picture I have drawn.

We can find this impression of Jesus also in the other writings. The fourth gospel, John, is different from the others in being written more like a drama, with a lot of freedom in describing events and creating the conversation pieces. Jesus speaks in the language of the Church and makes direct claims for himself, which are really the claims which the Church of the time was making for him rather than anything he actually said. But, for that reason, people have often found it the most powerful gospel in putting in a nutshell who Jesus is. If people have a deep hunger for life’s meaning, Jesus is ‘the bread of life’; if people thirst for life, Jesus gives ‘the water of life’. These are typical of the way the fourth gospel sets before us Jesus as the answer to our big questions about life and God.

These were not the only gospels to be written. The others we know of stem from much later and are highly legendary and of little use for reconstructing history. The exception is a collection of Jesus’ sayings, called the Gospel of Thomas. Some sayings in the collection may well be authentic. Most are variations of what we find in the first three gospels. Thomas does not offer anything radically different among its older material. It looks very much like a laterversions of the kind of collection which Matthew and Luke had access to when they expanded Mark. These days most who try to research the historical Jesus also look at Thomas, even though it remains a matter of dispute whether it is really an independent source of evidence.

The evidence has led the vast majority of researchers over the past century to conclude that Matthew and Luke began with Mark’s account, added in sayings which they both knew from a collection like Thomas, and constructed the rest from other independent information and from their own creativity. The common sayings source which Matthew and Luke share is commonly called, "Q" (the first letter of the German word for source: "Quelle"). A small minority believe it was the other way round: Mark abbreviated Matthew and Luke or Luke knew Matthew as well as Mark. These theories have generally failed to explain why the latest writer would have left out so much of the material of major importance.

The letters

The earliest Christian writings we have are the letters which Paul wrote. He had founded Christian communities in many of the major cities of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and Greece. He couldn’t be everywhere at once and so took to writing letters to keep in touch with them and to deal with local problems as they arose. Fortunately we have a number of these letters. They are all fairly practical, dealing with issues as they came up, although they are framed in a rather formal style. They allow us to see how he understood the Christian faith in the 50s, only some 20 years after Jesus’ death. They are therefore particularly valuable in preserving how people thought about Jesus in earlier times and in adding to our impression of what Jesus must have been like.

Other New Testament writings include further letters of this kind from later times, some of them looking more like sermons sent to be read out to the congregation with a few greetings attached. Some letters were written in the name of one of the important leaders of the early church, like Peter or Paul, though not directly written by these leaders, themselves. Apart from the letters and the gospels the New Testament collection also contains Luke’s second volume to his gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the history of the early church in its first 40 years, and the Book of Revelation.

The Book of Revelation is a collection of visions, full of symbols and codes which have fascinated people for centuries. We now know that the strange codes and symbols relate to the Roman Empire in the first century and were a way that one Christian writer tried to help local Christian communities cope with Roman oppression. Some of the images it uses are quite strange. Unfortunately, people who do not know its historical background treat it as though it is a prophecy of world events of their own times. It has become the happy hunting ground of fanatical religious groups. It is not referring to Russia or China or Iraq or the Pope or the modern banking system, as various of these groups have suggested! Reading it in its own terms and its own time, you can see how inappropriate all this is. Yet its stark images still have something to say wherever political powers act oppressively against minorities and flout God’s priorities.

The New Testament is the precious collection of early Christian writings. They came together partly because people valued them and made many copies of them and partly because later Church Councils set them apart as the authoritative selection for purposes of defining authentic Christianity. This had happened by the beginning of the fifth century.

The Old Testament

The larger collection of writings in the Bible is the Old Testament, written in Hebrew. It consists of writings of old Israel preserved by the Jewish people. It contains the major stories from their history which they looked to for their identity and where they encountered God. It also has much legal material, including detailed instructions of how the temple system was to run. Some of its most exciting material is in the writings of the prophets, who were kind of freelance preachers who used to challenge political and religious leaders of the community on matters of justice and truth, often in the face of great personal danger.

There are also collections of proverbs, poetry and shorter popular stories and the large psalm collection used in Israel’s worship. Right at the beginning of the Bible we find a series of well known stories: the making of the world and of people (two different versions); Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel; Noah’s ark; and the Tower of Babel. These are similar to many of the ancient myths of the peoples of the region. They belonged to the wider culture. They are not historical, let alone scientific descriptions. Yet they have a special quality, for they have been retold with significant modifications to bring out deep insights into human life and God.

Take the story of the tower of Babel, for example. It tells of people wanting to make a tower which would reach up into the heavens. Those in the heavens reply by destroying the tower and from that day people were scattered all over the earth with different languages. We can just imagine a little child asking, ‘Why do people speak so many different languages?’ and a parent telling the story. Yet at a deeper level this ancient myth alerts us to the tragedy which occurs when people overreach themselves in the endeavour to assert their importance, how it can bring division and lead to breakdown of communication and relationships. This is its message in the scriptures, not a theory about languages. Often we get the truth about life best from stories that are not necessarily true in the literal or historical sense.

Written by human hands

All of these writings were written by human beings in particular circumstances. They reflect those circumstances and the world view of their time. Naturally there is a lot of variety within the collections in quality and style. Some accounts of history are more valuable than others. Some preserve deeper insights than others. This is only to be expected of a collection of writings coming from almost a thousand year time span.

Even within the New Testament, where the time span is less than 100 years, there is considerable variety. With four different account of Jesus’ life, there are inevitably quite different slants on some events and some contradictions in detail. Overall such things did not matter; what mattered, as far as the New Testament was concerned, was that this collection was the major resource for what Jesus was like and the kind of impression he made on his followers. Who and what Jesus was, rubbed off on these people. Their writings allow us to sense something of the impact of who he was and what he did.

With the Old Testament it is similar. It is the body of writings belonging to a particular culture, Jewish culture, but Christians have always seen in these writings and in the history which they recount a place where the God-light has shone through in human affairs. In this regard its writings are quite mixed. There are awful stories of cruelty and massacre which their authors thought were willed by God. But there are also moments of tenderness and human love, challenges about social injustice and profoundly sensitive descriptions of what it means to live with pain. There is something of God captured or reflected in these writings which rings true to the picture we get of God through Jesus. But it is there in the mix typical of such a collection. To try to cut out the offensive nationalism of some parts or to try to distil only the purist thoughts would be an impossible task.

The same is true, ultimately, of the Bible as a whole. It is a human book by human authors written in very human situations in very human ways. Yet it is precisely as it is, that it has been a source of inspiration to so many down through the ages. It is a place where people have seen the light shining, have heard God speaking, have found their lives opened up in a new way.

For me, reading the Bible or hearing it discussed is like walking in a familiar garden. As a biblical scholar, I know most of the plants quite well. Some parts I don’t find attractive. Here and there, there has been too much hacking about, when people have tried to straighten things out. Some of the garden beds look too much like they have been fitted into the going fashions. But at other points I just stand in wonder and it’s as though I see things for the first time. It is always deeply rewarding to be in one of those ‘God moments’ that the Bible can make possible.

The holy Bible and fundamentalism

You will see from what I have said that I am quite comfortable with seeing the Bible as it is and that I don’t feel I have to pretend it is something else. I used to believe that Christians should see the Bible as absolutely perfect, without error, as God’s own words and that to be critical of any part of it would be a terrible sin. Having come to know it in its historical setting and to see it as it is, I think I have a deeper, more profound reverence for it than I had before. It is holy because it has a unique role in preserving and opening up an encounter with Jesus and so with God. But for me it can do that without my having to pretend it is free of contradiction or offensive parts.

One of the most unfortunate things which has happened in many parts of Christianity is that people have gone overboard in their enthusiasm for the Bible and have ended up making false claims about it which do more harm than good to what it is on about. I say: it is the garden where I encounter God; I could use other words like: God speaks through it. When some people use the shorthand expression, ‘the Word of God’ for the Bible, they mean what I mean here, though I think the term has become so misleading I would prefer not to use it.

But if, instead of staying with revering God, I then go on and start revering the book, I could very easily end up claiming the Bible is somehow not human but divine. I would be more inclined to do this, the less I knew of its origin. So I could easily find myself claiming this is ‘the Word of God’ and mean something like: God controlled what the people wrote; it is completely without error and contradiction; it is permanently valid in every thought and rule it utters, quite independent of when the rule was written, by whom and for whom. This approach is commonly called fundamentalism and the same sort of thing is to be found in most religions, when people declare old traditions to be final, unchangeable, infallible authority.

I used to believe in the Bible in this way. People taught me that this was the only way to read the Bible and I believed them. For a while I tried to persuade everyone else this was so. In many ways it was simpler to ask people to believe everything the Bible said than to suggest it was complicated, with some things to be believed and some not. It also gave me a good feeling to believe I had the answers to everything, right there in the Bible. I shudder now at how arrogant and foolish I was, though I was very sincere and serious about it all.

It produced in me a narrow and inflexible attitude about what was right and wrong and about what people should believe. And I firmly believed I was right. When people believe like this and as long as they remain fixed in their attitude to the Bible, it can be like beating your head against a brick wall if you try to suggest alternative ways of looking at things. Many of the groups that go knocking on street doors are like this and so are many Christian groups today. I think I have a good understanding of what it is like to believe like this and to be so convinced.

When I reflect on it now, I can see that I held so intensely to such views not only because I thought they were right, but also because I was afraid of the alternatives. It seemed to me at the time that anything other than believing every word of the Bible was an offence to God and would destroy my faith. I can remember that the thing that changed my mind was not so much someone’s arguments as someone’s example. I began to see that there were people who believed differently from me whose lives were full of love and caring, who were clearly in touch with God. Underneath I began to realise that I need not fear exploring other ways. There were real caring Christian who were not fundamentalists. I did not have to stay rigid and closed on the issue.

Freedom from fundamentalism

Later I realised that it was just this kind of rigid attitude towards religion and the Bible that Jesus and, later, Paul had to confront. Without realising it, I had been more on the side of Jesus’ opponents than on the side of Jesus. The Bible, the Old Testament, as it was in Jesus’ day, was quite unambiguous in much of what it asked people to do. For instance, it had clear instructions about the sabbath which made it clear that people should do no work. Jesus was prepared to override these with other biblical concerns when it came to healing people. Fundamentalists among the Pharisees could not see past the sabbath law and found Jesus' behaviour outrageous. Jesus responded: 'The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath.' He argued that compassion for people was the key biblical value, not keeping every law.

In Paul’s day the Church had to decide whether it was going to admit non-Jews into the Christian community. The first Christian were Jews. The Jewish scripture, the Old Testament, lays down procedures which non-Jews should follow if they want to join the community of God’s people. It entailed going through a ritual which included circumcision of males, the cutting of loose skin from the end of the penis. In the name of openness and compassion Paul and his colleagues gave up the scripture command. Clearly they were operating on a different basis from the Bible-believing fundamentalists of the day. They were operating and living on the basis of the compassion that is at the heart of the biblical writings, not on the basis of the letter of its rules and regulations. Already then there were Christian fundamentalists who could only see such flexibility as an offence against God.

What emerged therefore was that some people were more concerned with rules and laws than they were with people. And, what is more, they represented God as more concerned with rules than with people. There is no doubt about their sincerity and devotion, but I see it as grossly misguided. Behind the two approaches are two different understandings of God. One pictures God as almost obsessed with getting people to do things ‘his’ way, like an egotistical person, pathetically self-preoccupied with his own power - a ‘god’ indeed! The other pictures God as compassionately reaching out to people making space for them, encouraging them and challenging them, wanting, above all, their wholeness. This picture of God also has room for guidelines and rules, but they exist for the sake of people and can be changed where a more compassionate option opens for us.

The danger of fundamentalism

This is the real danger of fundamentalism. It operates with a self obsessive image of God. Love takes second place to law; people take second place to rules. Taken to extremes it generates sectarian hate and fanaticism which produces suicide bombers and communities which sefl destruct. By contrast, Jesus shows the opposite stance. People matter. God cares. That is the overriding concern, not keeping laws.

The fundamentalist approach, including its common mildly mannered forms, has to take over into the modern era all the rules it finds in the biblical writings without modification. There can be no allowances made for change of culture or growth in understanding. In the later chapter on ‘Right and Wrong’ you will see how the fundamentalist approach tends to present a rigidly cruel response to a wide range of issues, from divorce and remarriage to homosexuality and the role of women.

The issue is confused, however, because most fundamentalists are not consistent, nor extreme. The same arguments they use to oppose equality of women should, strictly speaking, also lead them to oppose the abolition of slavery, to oppose women attending worship with heads uncovered, to oppose a banking system based on charging interest, because Bible texts can be found which oppose each of these. Yet among fundamentalists there is rarely a thoroughgoing consistency. On some questions, for instance, people will have no qualms dropping some scripture requirements, such as those which calls for slaves to obey masters or those forbidding divorce.

But frequently they also add other rules, like abstention from alcohol, or, in earlier days, from dancing, gambling, card playing, cinema. When I consider the way I used to think as a fundamentalist, I can see now that it was really a mixture of fundamentalism with particular cultural values thrown in which had, in fact, very little to do with the Bible.

I often see fundamentalists caught between their loyalty to the Bible as they understand it and compassion for people; but they are not free to choose love as long as they bind themselves to their understanding of the Bible. Or their compassion can operate only within certain set limits. That is very sad and the opposite of what the Bible is ultimately about.

I shall return to some of the above issues in the chapter on ‘Right and Wrong,’ The main point I am making here is that I think it is essential that we free ourselves from the kind of fundamentalism which I have described, in order to be free to be in line with what the Bible is all about: becoming part of God’s loving in the world. This is an uphill battle, because so many people fear that to depart from this attitude to the Bible is a terrible sin. If only they could see that it is a far greater sin to stay with it and cut oneself and others off from the freedom to respond with love and compassion to one’s fellow human beings.

Walking in the garden

If we are to approach the Bible as the precious collection of writings that it is and walk in its garden, how do we do this? One simple way is to pick up the Bible and read it, starting from the beginning or starting with a gospel. Using a good flowing English translation you can read large chunks at a time. Another way is to read it in small segments, using an aid to understanding like ‘With Love to the World’, which gives half a page comment for each day’s reading. I think something like this is better, because many parts of the Bible are obscure and need further explanation to help us make a connection with what they are saying. It is also valuable because the selection of daily readings matches those set to be read on the following Sunday in many of the major Churches.

Probably the most natural way to enjoy the garden is to go there with other people. Most of the writings were written to be read aloud in a group of people where they could be appreciated and discussed and reflected upon. That can be even better than having a commentary. They are writings that come from a community and are best understood in a community. In the community you can find resources and information which throws light both on what the writings of the Bible meant and how they may throw light on questions and issues today.

In fact, meeting with people who are also sharing the same journey, trying to live in the light of what Jesus was saying about God, can be one of the most enriching experiences of life. That brings me to the Church which can sometimes be just that, but all too often is not.

What about the Church?

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