OPINION: How the Bible works

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

I’ve written about this before, and then I had another one of those conversations. She asked me, “Don’t you believe in the Bible?” I said, “No. Christians aren’t called to believe in the Bible. We are called to trust God.”

She asked again, “But didn’t God write the Bible to teach us how to live?”

Again, I responded, “No. The Bible is a record of how ancient people reflected on their relationship with God. The Bible is important—but it is only a tool which helps us think about the main thing, which is our relationship with God.”

So let me write once again about four things which I believe are true about the Bible.

1. The Bible is not a single book. It is a library of sixty–six books by different authors written over the course of about 1250 years. These books contain diverse kinds of literature: poetry, letters, wisdom sayings, prophetic oracles, genealogies, census reports, ancient myths, hymns, laments, historical writing, short novellas, apocalyptic writing, gospels, and so on.

2. The Bible contains diverse theologies and perspectives. Each of the books reflects the personality of the author and the social context in which it was written. Because there is such a diversity of authors and editors, it is natural to find contradictions throughout the Bible. It’s like writing an account of the history of the earth, one writer writing in 1300 and the other in the year 2010. You would get entirely different stories.

When we encounter those contradictions, our natural impulse is to try to harmonize them. But we should not give in to that temptation. These contradictions simply reflect the different purpose and time in which they were written. They show us diverse ways of thinking about God. After all, it is not uncommon for people to disagree with each other about what God is like. The interesting thing about these contradictions is that from an historical perspective, God’s spirit is always moving God’s people towards openness, welcome, inclusion, acceptance, and affirmation.

Let me give just three examples.

Deuteronomy 23 says that Moabites are bad and should never be allowed to dwell among God’s people. Centuries later, we read the short novella of Ruth, a Moabite, who is honoured as the grandmother of King David.

Again, the prophet Nahum says that God despises the people of Nineveh. Many centuries later, the prophet Jonah warns the Ninevites that God will destroy them. When they repent, God relents, and even Jonah must imagine a God who is larger than anything we can imagine, a God who yearns to be with all God’s people of every creed and colour.

A third example is the story of Jesus’ birth. There are two distinct versions of the story. We usually try to harmonize Matthew and Luke; as a result, we end up with a very crowded stable: Mary, Joseph and the baby 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 each author’s unique perspective on what the birth of Jesus means.

There are other such instances … which leads to my third point.

3. 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 decades or even centuries after the event.

For example, the stories about King David are not a “life of David”. Rather, they show us how later generations came to understand the significance of David long after his death. In the same way, the gospel stories of Jesus are not a “life of Jesus”. All four evangelists tell the story from their own point of view, about a generation or two after the events they describe.

4. 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 bce. It was a crisis of unimaginable proportions. Ancient Judaism had to rethink the very ground of its existence. The armies of Babylon destroyed the Temple and took the people away from the land they thought God had promised to them. They lost everything.

The Old Testament was composed or edited in response to that crisis and reflects the perspective of that time. Without an exile, we might not even have an Old Testament to recount the story of God’s dealings with Israel.

The New Testament includes writings from as early as 52 ce (the letters which Paul wrote) to as late as 125. The list of writings which our Bible includes didn’t come together until about 345 ce.

It’s important to note that there were other writings which were deliberately excluded from the Bible. The church chose these writings because they decided to tell the story of God’s dealings with the church in this particular way.

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 150 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 messier than we might have thought. But life is messy. And the Bible bears witness to God’s presence amid the mess.