What the Bible Says

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When talking about a religion or belief system, please be particularly careful to ensure that any comments are fair and helpful.

This article is part of the 'Ground Up' project.


For some people, the title of this article will be like a red rag to a bull: for them, it is absurd to suggest that the Bible says anything to us today - they see it simply as a library of 66 ancient books which are hard (perhaps impossible) to understand, and certainly have no contemporary relevance.  For others, the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, with a divinely-inspired message which speaks with the same clarity to us today as it did to its original hearers.

Both of these groups approach the Bible through a faith lens; other faith perspectives are also available.  But what if we tried a different approach?  It is comparatively easy to start with what we believe, and explain what the Bible means in the light of that faith.  If we are creative enough, we can find ways to make the Bible say (or appear to say) almost anything we choose.  But it is fairly obvious that we can only do this if we are prepared to twist and minipulate the text.  What if our aim is to do the opposite - to avoid importing our own views and values into the text, and instead listen to what it might have to say to us?  What if we were to put all the various faith positions to one side, and attempt to understand the text of the Bible, solely on the basis of the available evidence?

We cannot, of course, do this perfectly.  But, maybe, we can do it welll enough to be worthwhile.  We cannot approach any subject without some beliefs and assumptions, and this is especially true when we are dealing with the ancient world and religion.  But, difficult though it may be, we may find it interesting and helpful to make the attempt, and see where this takes us.  We can focus our attention on the evidence, and we can strive to be clear about the beliefs and assumptions which we bring to the table.

Many people believe they know what the Bible says, and what it means, and they are very keen to tell the rest of us.  But, as every historian knows: it is very easy to misunderstand ancient texts.  One common problem is that we read into them ideas and principles which are important to us today but were unknown when the texts were written.  But the good news is that a great many historians and theologians (both people of faith - of many faiths - and people of no faith) have studied these things, and there is a great deal of agreement about most of the important details.  And, unsurprisingly, when there is disagreement, it often arises from beliefs which are added to the text, rather than the text itself and the evidence relating to it.

So we can start, not by believing that we understand the Bible, but by recognizing that we do not yet completely understand it, and by recognizing that there is a large amount of material available to us to help us come to a better, more complete and more accurate understanding, based on evidence rather than faith.  If we follow this strategy, we should be able to discuss what the books of the Bible actually say, in a way which is as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, seeking to make the fewest and most reasonable assumptions, based on the evidence available to us.

The Questions To Ask

This approach means that we will be asking some obvious questions, but deliberately not asking other questions which people are inevitably going to be interested in.  We are starting from the text of the Bible - to be precise, the Protestant Bible: the Roman Catholic Bible normally includes some additional material which would complicate the discussion and not add a great deal to the core material.  And we are starting from the text of the Bible as we have it today, so the 'original text' means, in this context, the text as we have it today, in the original languages.

There are basically three areas we need to ask questions about, if we follow the evidence.  Firstly, we can ask about the meaning of the texts.

  • What does the original text say?
  • What do we know of the historic and cultural context when it was written?
  • How were the words used at that time?  What was their meaning or their range of meanings, what associations did the words have, and in what context were they normally used?
  • What did the original recipients understand the text to be? 
  • What did the original recipients understand by the text?
  • What are reasonable English translations of the text?  What does each translation lose and gain, when compared with the original?

Secondly, we can ask about the faith communities who compiled the two collections (the Old and New Testaments): their records are part of the historic evidence, which does not have to be taken at face value, but should not be ignored either.

  • How did these faith communities understand the texts they brought together? 
  • How did they understand what they were doing, in creating each of these two collections?

And thirdly, in asking these questions, we also need to keep half an eye on ourselves, on our own language and culture.

  • How does our language and culture affect the way we read the text?
  • How does our language and culture affect how we examine and evaluate the evidence?

Finally, here are some questions which we will not be asking, most of the time.

  • Why was this text included in the Bible, and why was some other text not included?
  • Did this event actually happen as the text describes, and if not, what really happened?
  • What did the source documents and oral traditions used by the author of this text say?

Why are we avoiding some questions?  This is partly because we are trying to be concise (as requested), and partly because any attempt to discuss both questions about meaning and questions about intent at the same time almost always produces an unsatisfactory result.  When we ask, 'what does this text say?' and also, 'did this event happen as the text describes?' at the same time, the result is generally confusion because the two questions operate within different frameworks.  They are both valid questions, but need to be taken one at a time.  This is, in part, because questions about the intention and purpose of the original author inevitably involve speculation, so it moves us from examining the available evidence to creating a plausible picture - plausible to us, living in a very different time, and asking very different questions from the original author.

The Meaning of Ancient Texts

We are often far too simplistic and literal in our reading of ancient texts.  Many ancient writings are complex and subtle, with intricate patterns and word-play.  They used irony and satire as well as any contemporary writer.  They brought together comedy and pathos for dramatic effect.  They used logic and paradox to search out and express truth.

We are often far too individualistic in our reading of ancient texts.  Our starting point tends to be, "How does this affect me?" but, in context, the question would probably have been more like, "How does this affect us - my tribe, my community?" 

And we are often far too dismissive of the cost of preserving texts.  We often forget that preserving text in the ancient world was costly: you might scratch your shopping list on a clay tablet, but recording something on parchment, and copying old texts to ensure they do not get lost, required both commitment and serious resources.  You don't make that sort of investment unless you believe that preserving the material is worth the cost.

To take one obvious example: it is easy to find people who have noticed that we are presented with two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis, and imagine that this is a new discovery.  They tend to explain this in one of two ways.  Sometimes they suggest that the person who first put Genesis together as a single book did not notice there are two accounts - presumably he (it was probably a 'he') was not bright enough to spot the contradictions, or was not paying enough attention.  And sometimes they suggest that he just didn't care - there were two contradictory stories available, and he thought: I can't decide between them - let's just throw them both in, and let people worry about it later.

When we look at the historic context, several things are clear.  Firstly, this is not a new discovery: Christians and Jews have been discussing the meaning of the two stories and the relationship between them for as long as we have records.  Secondly, neither of those simple suggested pictures is at all plausible.  The early chapters of Genesis were demonstrably written with a great deal of attention and care.  And we have to consider not just the original author, but also the communities which transmitted the material through the centuries, and the communities which recognized Genesis as an important part of their cultural identity.  All the evidence we have suggests that they knew the material backwards; they all understood very clearly that there are two stories which, if taken literally, contradict one another; and they know what they were doing when they included both of these stories within the one book.

To Clarify

There are quite a few references to 'evidence' here.  We potentially have a problem about what is considered to be evidence - time will tell whether or not this is significant.  The aim here is to concentrate on the things we can agree upon, whatever our faith position - so (for example) we have access to many old copies of the texts which form the books of the Bible, we also have many other ancient documents, and a great deal of other material (such as bones, pottery and jewellery) which has been preserved and is studied by historians.

And when we talk about putting faith to one side in this exercise, this includes all faith - not just the Christian faith.  We don't have to believe in the Christian - or Jewish - God before we attempt to understand the Bible, but we do need to recognize that the authors of the various texts clearly did believe in this God.  Equally well, while we recognize that some people believe God does not exist and miracles are impossible, this is also a faith position which we are not going to impose upon the text.  You are free to believe whatever you like; our aim is simply to understand what the text says.


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