We may be at the forefront of a much needed conversation about the Bible and the role of sacred religious texts. From Karen Armstrong’s new book ‘The Lost Art of Scripture’ and atheists like Dawkins using his newest book to comment on the Bible, something may be brewing. Also, who would have imagined that in 2020 the Bible remains one of the bestselling books that many people misunderstand.
One of the great joys of my life has been to help people experience the ‘spiritual’ convergence that happens when a commitment to reading the Bible ignites a deeper love for Jesus. Yet, when this does not happen, something more problematic ensues. It is a laissez faire approach to the Bible that causes some people to forget the sacredness of the Scriptures and sacrifices that were made to give us the readable versions we enjoy today.
With the hope of providing a deeper appreciation for taking the Bible seriously, here are four important issues that everyone should know about the Bible, its reliability and the unparalleled place it should have in our lives.
I. It took many years for ALL the books in the Bible to come together.
We are fortunate to have such a diverse collection of books that make up our Bible. This often overshadows the process that led to recognizing and compiling the books authoritative today.
When people became aware of this they often get uncomfortable. For some, it stirs certain doubts about whether the Bible can be reliable.For others, this historic process fuels strange theories of how we got the Bible. As one person once remarked, ‘I guess I just thought the Bible fell out of the sky.’
Nothing could be further from the truth. As we work through our assumptions about the Bible, we are confronted with new and surprising ways that God works. In fact, I think it can be encouraging to remember that God was fine with using broken, yet inspired, people in this mysterious process that required patience and wisdom. A wonderful reminder about how God still works today. There is nothing to fear here.
As this process unfolded the truth about Jesus, the resurrected one, was already being passed on orally, in stories and songs circulating for years, before the written letters we have in the New Testament began taking shape.
At pivotal moments, by the Spirit’s leading, there emerged key criteria that Christian leaders used to discern which ‘books’ were to be selected. Mostly they were identified by the supposed authors and the communities they came from. It soon became evident that some letters demonstrated an inspired status because they magnified the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Further, many of these writings were already being used, in an authoritative way, in early church communities.
2. Most of the Bible is in a language that Jesus did not speak.
Except for a few passages in Aramaic, the Old Testament is written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. The Greek N.T. uses the common Greek language of the people which was the dominant language at the time. Jesus, from all the examples we have, most likely did not speak Greek. Aramaic was his native language. .
While it can seem strange to leave so much space to the messiness of translating a Jewish story from a Aramaic Rabbi into Greek it is time to see this as a gift that keeps on giving.
While understanding the Bible today requires some knowledge of the Jewish/Hebrew story of Israel, God wanted the good news found in Jesus to reach everyone. Translating the message of Jesus into Greek, and later Latin was just the beginning. Eventually your own language of preference was also considered so that the message of Jesus would be a gift which all people could and should have access.
Consistent with the teaching in the Bible, all cultures and their diverse languages, would have to grapple with how to best interpret the truth of who Jesus was and is.This is not an easy task, yet we can thank God for committed textual scholars making sure that Jesus is still understood as news of great joy for all people.
3. In an oral (Spoken) culture, writing the words of Jesus was not, at first, a priority.
One probable reason for the delay in writing the teaching of Jesus was that many believed He was coming back during their lifetime. Some stories in the Bible seem to imply that. As scholars continue to explore the deeper meaning to this, it is not a point to be concerned about. Misunderstandings were common with the disciples even when Jesus was with them.
Another understandable reason for not quickly jotting down the oral teachings of Jesus was that many people could not read. It was customary at the time for people to memorize everything and grapple with ideas in a church community. Something we are wise to return to today.
If you have read the Bible you know that Jesus used parables; stories with a twist, to teach deep truths about the Kingdom of God and his place as the one sent from God. These stories seemed to be memorized and shared before written.
Following Jesus death, resurrection and ascension, roughly dated at 33AD, the church began to grow. The Word of God was an early reference for Jesus as the ‘logos’ God incarnate/enfleshed. Having been raised from the dead, just as He had promised, His followers would now have to learn how to pass on the most essential things He said and did. Later on new challenges would make it urgent to write and compile together those teaching in written form.
4. The Books are not in chronological order and numbers/chapter were added later.
It took approximately 25–35 years (an estimate that many scholars still debate) for some of the early works to actual take on written form. Moreover, even when the written form of the biblical letters begins, it is Paul, who was himself transformed by Jesus, who writes first . This is a reminder that churches, even as the Bible is coming together in written form, were already in need of wisdom that aligned with the life Jesus commanded his followers to live.
As for the four gospels, the order you find them in the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) is not chronological. While John is the last one to be written, Mark is most likely the first one.
While space doesn't allow for an in-depth explanation here, we are wise to remember that the books selected had a distinct focus on making the message of hope in Jesus known. Small changes were made over time that provides the clarity we enjoy through our modern versions of the Bible. This is due to the work of many scholars. One in particular is Stephen Langton, an English Church leader who was pivotal for adding chapters and numbers as found in our modern versions of the Bible today.
EMBRACING THE AUTHORITY OF THE AUTHOR
There is a new confidence that can emerge when we understand the way our faith was passed on. Coming to terms with both our history and our human limitations can be a humbling experience and an opportunity to trust God in new ways.
In an age when the world is in search of humble and discerning leaders, perhaps a fresh commitment to studying the Bible is where we can begin. As we study and grow, it should become evident that the Bible draws us into a new way of life offered to us in Jesus, the author of our faith.
No doubt people will continue to reflect on the diverse role of religion and faith in changing times. For Christians, may I suggest we consider a deeper approach to the Bible that helps us model the life of it’s author, Jesus, the Word of God. Martin Luther, the reformer, once stated,
“Whatever promotes Christ is the Word of God to be sought and found in Holy Scripture”
In my context, plans are underway to possibly remove lessons on religion from schools. It makes sense that many are confused about the role of religion when we consider that Christians themselves are unaware of their own tradition. Perhaps, the greatest contribution we make at this time is to begin to take the Bible seriously again. It his my hope, that this will help others to consider the authoritative way of life proposed by Jesus, the one the Bible speaks of and points to.