The Book That Isn’t

The Bible is many things but there are somethings it is certainly not. Addressing some of these common misconceptions helps clear the way to better understand the scriptures. What I mean is not the odd factoid that Bible geeks love to point but the common problems with how we perceive and use the holy text. 

The Bible is NOT A BOOK

First of all the Bible is not a book. The word “Bible” is from the Greek which means the books. It is more like a compendium, a collection of different things. Of all facts about the Bible this seems the most obvious. During countless church services we are told to turn to this or that book of the Bible. However, when I hear people speak or use the scriptures, they mostly treat it as if it is one uniform thing. People make blanket statements about it which may only apply to one portion of it and no more. Once you recognise the diversity in the biblical texts you will be able to treat every portion of the Bible in the way it ought to be. It is called the Holy Scriptures not only because it is made up of numerous writings but also diverse of kinds. Leviticus is completely different from Romans, Song of Solomon and Acts are not the same. One cannot study any organization without recognising the number and diversity of parts whether it’s human anatomy, a football team or Holy Writ.

 

The Bible is NOT SIMPLE

Following on from the diversity of scripture is recognising its complexity. The Bible was written by over 40 different authors, in three different languages, across three continents, over a period of about 1,500 years addressing multiple genres and themes. The Bible is not a simple collection of writings. The diversity of the writings added to the fact in was written in antiquity makes it challenging. We have to figure out how all these different parts, like a complex literary engine, fit together and work. It is not simply a religious text or a historical account or a book of revelation. The academic study of the Bible and related matters cuts across several different fields from archaeology to biblical criticism, history, and theology among other things. We need to have a sophisticated view of the scriptures because it is actually sophisticated.

 

The Bible is NOT PERFECT

One of the interesting notions of modernity is applying scientific levels of precision to all kinds of knowledge. We transfer these kinds of standards to the scriptures as well. Ancient documents do not adhere to modern critical standards. The study of the manuscripts traditions shows differences and variations. There are errors in copying, spelling mistakes, additions, omissions and a host of other things the discipline of textual criticism tries to sort out. As for the doctrine of inerrancy it is something I hope to discuss in the future. Apart from textual problems the biblical authors write things that are hard to reconcile. One famous example is that the resurrection accounts in the four Gospels do not perfectly match. Sometimes the scriptural record is vague or seemingly contradictory. Some of these challenges with time explanations do emerge but there are certain things we might never know. When people try to debunk it because of these challenges they must remember the Holy Scriptures never claim to be inerrant. If the scriptures were written by imperfect human beings we should not expect a perfect text. All this is not to say the Bible is error ridden. On the whole it is consistently reliable even though there a few challenges here and there.

 

The Bible is NOT COMPLETE

The Bible is not comprehensive. It does not address every issue under the sun neither does it claim to. Almost all Christians accept the biblical canon that is made up of a minimum of 66 books. One thing that we must recognize is that the biblical authors were not trying to write the Bible. They may have had a hint that what they were contributing to a larger tradition but they had no way of knowing what it would be exactly. As I earlier mentioned the Bible is a canon, a collection of authoritative works. The word canon comes from the Greek which means a measure. The idea of a canon is not to say that these are the only things that are in the Bible. It is rather to provide a standard. Of all the documents available, these are what we think as a community is authoritative based on a certain criteria. The Bible references works that we no longer have access to today. It also references things which are not in the canon that we do have access to. The canon is not closed in the sense that it does not interact with extra-canonical material. To understand the scriptures we often have to look beyond the accepted canon. The Bible was not written in cultural or cognitive isolation. It engaged with its own day. We likewise need to engage with the scriptures in an open manner.

 

The Bible is NOT A MANUAL

Due to print and other forms of media almost anyone can own a personal copy of the Bible. This is a relatively recent thing in the Bible’s history and in fact in the history of literature in general. The individualism of modernity lulls us into thinking that the scriptures are our own personal manual from God. In a community like Capernaum where Jesus lived the scriptures would be found at the local synagogue. In that sense it was the community that owned the scriptures. As Christians we have inherited the scriptural tradition from the Jewish community. The Bible is of its era even though it offers a transcendent message to all humanity. Prof Walton’s maxim again rings very true, the Bible is written for us but not to us. We need to understand what it was communicating to its original audience before we can apply it to our contemporary and personal contexts. We cannot selfishly interpret the scriptures to suit our own needs.


So far I have said the Bible is a complex, incomplete, imperfect collection of ancient literature. Honestly, if someone said this to me a short while ago, I would have probably strongly disagreed. The problem with saying what you do not think something is, is that you do not say what you think it really is. Sometimes it is easier to say what you don’t accept than what you do. I called the Bible complex but I did not say it is unintelligible, incomplete but not without use, imperfect but not unreliable, ancient but not irrelevant.

My views might be misconstrued in theological terms as a low view of scripture. I am absolutely convinced that the Bible is the word of God. The problem is that we have set unreasonable demands on scripture with doctrines or ideals that are divorced from the content of the text. The doctrine that every scripture is inspired by God is something I strongly affirm. However, inspiration does not mean it came verbatim from God. (Probably, the only time that ever happened was with the original tables of the Ten Commandments.) This illustrates the problem of doctrinal divorce from the text where every single word is specially selected. The Bible never describes inspiration as rote prophetic dictation.

Even though I have been a Christian for most of my life, I later had to face the fundamental issues of the Bible. For what reasons should I place unwavering confidence in the Holy Scriptures? Developing a more sophisticated view of the word of God is paramount in dealing with the challenges of the scriptures. The Bible is probably the most scrutinised book in the world. With over simplistic notions about it any challenge to the text seems like an all-out attack on Christian faith. Some have left lecture halls shell shocked to find things are not as pristine as they thought. Others go to unreasonable lengths to justify “orthodox” Christian teachings. Orthodoxy should not be preached or defended for its own sake but because of what it actually means, particularly if it is true.

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