Editor’s Note: “This is the second in a three-part article discussing my approach to the Bible. Previous articles are listed below:”
Part 1 – How it fell apart
Part 2 – Real People, Real Times, Real Reasons…
The previous article discusses many of the explanations and reasoning behind why my faith in the Bible fell apart several years ago, but like many articles on this site it is important to understand that the story does not end there. I did not simply walk away from the Bible, tossing it aside as if it were simply a dated, fictional book with no value. I was, and still am, continually drawn back to the scriptures. There is something beautiful found within. While I lost the ability to experience divinity within because of the literal, inerrant requirements that had been placed on them; I continued to return to them time and time again. Something within those pages called to me, something within stirred my soul and continued to pull me towards a better understanding of scripture that allowed divinity to reveal itself, free of the shackles of my previous conceptions.
Before we discuss how we read the Bible, it is important that we first understand that the Bible is not a single seamless work. There tends to be a common belief across modern Christian theology that the scriptures are not only inspired by God, but dictated by God Himself. This belief is central to the way much of the modern Church approaches their interpretation of the Bible and creates a belief that the Bible was written by a single author (God), arranged in the order we read it today, and meant to tell a complete narrative from the first page (Genesis) to the last (Revelation).
Instead I believe it is important for us to realize that the Bible is actually a library of books, written across thousands of years, by at least 40 different authors (although some academics suggest many more) and much later arranged in the order we currently read. Rather than a single narrative, these authors were writing at very specific points in time, each to a specific audience, and with their own specific stories to tell. It is vitally important to take each of the 66 books (81 if you’re reading the Catholic Bible) on its own merit. We should make every effort to understand who was writing the book, who they were writing the book for, what those people were experiencing, and what story the author was attempting to tell that audience.
For example, understanding the origins of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is crucial to understanding the story these books are telling. Traditional church history tells us that the text (except for the final 8 verses) was written by Moses, and finalized just before the Israelite’s were to cross over into the Promised Land. As a result, it is read as a direct, personal account of the nation of Israel.
Modern scholars have come to a different conclusion. The current consensus is that the Pentateuch was actually composed by multiple authors, and that the accounts which were finally placed together were actually written over centuries and pulled together from as many as 4 different written or oral sources. In addition, many scholars also believe that the final versions that we read today were finalized during the time of the exile of Israel, some time in the 5th Century B.C. As a result, the text should be read more as the Story of Moses and Israel, rather than a direct, first hand account.
Why does this matter?
Whether we are discussing the earliest books of the Bible or those found in the New Testament, understanding not only the origins of those books, but also the times that they were written, and the audience that they were written to is crucial. If the Pentateuch is written directly by Moses, then we are reading a first hand account of actual history and direct interactions with God unlike any other human since. This belief leads to the scriptures being read as not only a direct account of history, but a direct account of the commands from God Himself.
If you instead believe, as I do, that these scriptures were most likely compiled in the 5th century B.C., pulling from a multitude of historical sources, directed to a specific audience, and meant to tell a specific story; then your understanding changes a bit. Rather than a direct account of history, I believe that the final texts that we read today were meant to reassure the Nation of Israel, after a time of great trauma, that their standing with God and the promises that entailed were not broken. The complete and accurate history was less important than the story of God’s love, acceptance, and redemption.
The Stories Matter.
It is vitally important that all of scripture be approached with this level of detail and understanding. While traditional church views of scripture are useful, they should not define our entire understanding. We must attempt to understand not only who wrote the scriptures, but also the audience they are writing to, the circumstances that audience finds itself in, and what story they are attempting to tell.
Ancient history has never been written as we would write history today. In ancient history, the historical facts and details have never been as important as the story the author was attempting to tell. You don’t need to look any further than the Gospels to see this in action. Here we have four separate accounts of the life of Jesus, each telling the story from a different perspective, with different accounts, and even with different timelines. We see that the author’s are not simply trying to record direct history, but instead to tell a story. The writer’s of the Gospels are editorializing, adding, removing, and reordering events to not only tell the story of Jesus, but to tell it to a specific group of people, living at a specific time, and for a specific reason.
As a result, it is important that we not approach scripture from a simple, plain reading approach, finding straight forward instruction and authority. Instead we must also consider the supplemental historical knowledge which can assist us in understanding the story that is actually being told, and more importantly, why that story is being told.
The book of Romans was written to the church in Rome struggling with acceptance of Jews and Gentiles into a common audience. Many scholars believe that much of the book is a response to direct criticisms each group held of one another rather than a command directed towards them. Romans 1, for example, is often quoted alone in discussing God’s wrath against the sin of humanity, but it cannot be held in context unless it is also combined with Romans 2. By combining Romans 1 with Romans 2, and also understanding the time and place in which the book is written, we find the context refocused on the Grace of God and the peaceful fellowship of believers rather than His wrath, anger, and condemnation.
1 Peter was written to an audience suffering and afraid from the persecution they were experiencing under Nero. It should not be taken as a direct statement that all Christians will suffer persecution, but that persecution was simply a result of humanity. All people, even Jesus, suffered; and suffering should not be considered a direct condemnation of us or the Gospel of Jesus.
Even the Gospels are not exempt. For example, it is widely believed that the book of Mark was written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem around 70 A.D. Scholars tell us that the original text ends simply with Mary Magdalene and her companions finding an empty tomb. There is no reappearance of Christ as in other Gospels. Why might the Gospel of Mark leave out this portion of the story? Scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written, not only to retell the story of Jesus, but to remind the Christians of its day that the destruction of the Temple was not the end of their story any more than the empty tomb was the end for Mary Magdalene in her search for Jesus.
You see, understanding the cultural and historical issues that were present at the time of the writing of each individual book helps to illuminate the full story being told. For me, it adds, rather than detracts great beauty, hope, and fullness to the books.
But I do understand why so many people are reluctant to look at the Bible form different perspectives. Their identity has been created within this belief that the Bible as a literal, inerrant book; dictated by God. To look at scripture from a different perspective may result in their entire faith collapsing around them (as it once did for me). My goal is not to destroy the Bible for people. Many are not ready to consider other perspectives, and if you find great beauty and peace in the scriptures as you currently read them, then it may be wise to skip the rest of this series of articles. But for those of us who can no longer look at the Bible in that frame of reference and who have lost all faith as a result, I hope to reassure you of the beauty, divinity, and hope that still fills its pages.
I hope you join me through the rest of this series as we continue to look at the scriptures from a slightly different perspective, and in doing so, that you would discover the beauty, truth, and divinity within.
If you’re looking for further discussion regarding today’s article, I recommend the following resources.
- Peter Enns, When was Genesis written and why does it matter?
Part 3 of this series can be found at the following link:
The Stories Beneath The Stories