I. THE TEXT
The Bible isn’t usually self-referential. It’s not usually known for being meta. That being said, we just heard from two scripture lessons in which the scriptures themselves play a prominent role. In the passage from Nehemiah, after the people have returned from the Exile in Babylon, Ezra the scribe performs a public reading of the Instruction of Moses. The word translated as “Instruction” is the Hebrew word Torah. It is generally believed that the Torah as we know it, the first five books of the Bible, came into its final form during the Babylonian Exile. So, this passage may reference the first public reading of the Torah. And we are told that there men and women there listening and an atmosphere of celebration and praise, with people interpreting the text to others to help them to understand it. It’s a pretty momentous event, all things considered.
And in the Gospel lesson for tonight, we read of Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth, being given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and reading from chapter 61, a passage that will effectively define his ministry:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
At the end of the passage, he declares the scripture to have been fulfilled as they heard it.
In both of these passages, the reading and reflection on the scriptures occupies a central place in the narrative.
For those of us in the Protestant traditions, the Bible holds a special place of honor. Our entire worship life is focused around the reading, exposition of, and response to the scriptures. The element of worship known as the Scripture-Sermon is the centerpiece of protestant worship services. (In Catholic services, it is the Eucharist that is the center.) And we take the Bible very seriously. The choice of which translation to use is often fraught with theological or ideological consequence. There is a tug of war going on between the New International Version of the Bible and the New Revised Standard. When the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the first major American revision of the King James Bible, was published in 1946, the editors received death threats. Indeed, there are still Christians who insist on using the King James believing it (erroneously) to be the most authentic translation. But these squabbles about scripture are nothing new. When St. Jerome translated his Latin Vulgate version in the early 5th Century, relying on the Hebrew text of the Old Testament rather than the Greek of the Septuagint, people were outraged because his translations changed the wording of some of their favorite verses.
It is a central book in our life and experience. Even people who are not religious have encountered images, expressions, and metaphors that come from its pages.
The Bible is generally considered to be the best-selling book of all time. It’s hard to get exact figures on just how many since it has been published by a multitude of publishers, in hundreds of languages, in varying editions, for millennia. Its imagery and motifs are found everywhere in society and even our language is peppered with phrases that have Biblical origins: “a cross to bear”, “a drop in the bucket”, “a fly in the ointment”, “a house divided against itself”, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, “an eye for an eye”, “in the twinkling of an eye”, “pearls before swine,” “reap the whirlwind,” “the powers that be”, and many others.
It has served as the libretto for dozens of films, provided the imagery for countless novels, films, songs, and poems. It is used in public ceremonies. It is given as gifts. Thanks to the Gideons, it is found in every hotel room in the country.
It is clearly a book of importance and prominence. But what kind of a book is it? How ought we look at this sacred text?
III. WHAT THE BIBLE ISN’T
The Bible is perhaps one of the most frequently appealed to texts. That is, when defending an argument or point of view, people will frequently say, “The Bible says…” as if that settles the argument. And given the number of issues that people quote the scriptures for, we might legitimately wonder what kind of book the Bible is assumed to be.
A. Science Textbook
For some people, the Bible is a science textbook. And in it are all the mysteries of the universe explained. The Bible is the primary source of argument against evolution. It is used to argue for an earth that is only 6,000 years old. And it is sometimes appealed to in making an argument against environmentalism, given how soon the world is going to end anyway.
But is the Bible a reliable science text? In the book of I Kings, we read of the construction of the Temple and by the Phoenician builder Hyram of Tyre under the orders of King Solomon. The text records:
He also made a tank of cast metal called the Sea. It was circular in shape, fifteen feet from rim to rim, seven and a half feet high, forty-five feet in circumference.1 Kings 7:23 CEB
For those of you paying attention, you’ll have noted that the diameter of the basin or “Sea” was 15 feet and its circumference was 45. That means, that according to the Bible, the value of pi is exactly 3.
In addition, the Bible describes the sky as a dome set over a flat earth and the rains as the waters that flow through windows in the dome, allowing the waters that surround the world to come through. We know that the world is not flat covered by a dome, but round. And the rains come from evaporated water that has condensed in the upper atmosphere.
Elsewhere the mustard seed is described as being the smallest of the seeds, when the orchid seed is smaller still. There are a number of other botanical and zoological misstatements, particularly in the classification of animals and things like considering the rabbit to be an animal that chews its cud.
Now, there are a whole bunch of people who engage in elaborate mental gymnastics to account for how ?=3 or to explain the zoological missteps. And then there are the real loons who insist that the earth is actually flat. They deny all the photographs to the contrary as an elaborate hoax and often use the Bible as the proof text for their beliefs.
But for those of us who take things at face value, who are generally reasonable and trust in science as a reliable basis for knowledge and understanding, we cannot come to the conclusion that the Bible is a reliable science textbook. That, then, cannot be what the Bible is trying to be. At least, not trying to be it successfully.
B. A History Book
Unlike the other religions of the ancient world: of Babylon, Greece, and Rome, the religion of Israel and of the early Church was a religion that saw God at work in real history. That is, David, Solomon, and the kings of Israel were understood to be actual historical personages, unlike legendary heroes like Gilgamesh or Achilles. Jesus is understood to be a real teacher and healer, a real person in history unlike Mithras. Last semester I talked about how the references in scripture to the various Roman governors and vassal kings is meant to ground the story in history rather than “once upon a time”. And so, we think of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as “historical” religions, that understand God as working through actual history rather than confined to a time of legend.
And so it should not surprise us that there is a fair amount of history in the Bible. The books of I and II Kings, I & II Chronicles, and some of the prophets, in particular have frequent reference to the reigns of various kings of Israel and Judah. There are historical references throughout the text. But is the Bible, then, a history book?
Well, off the bat, we run into some troubles if we make that claim. For example, there is a lot of trouble with the census that Luke mentions in his gospel. King Herod died in 4 BC, and the census under Quirinius was conducted in AD 6-7. It is, therefore, impossible for the census to have overlapped with the reign of King Herod. Further, even were there have been a census during the time of Herod, since Herod the Great was a vassal, the census would not have included his territory.
Even were we to somehow reconcile Luke’s details with the historical record outside the Bible, we’re forced to look at the fact that the different Gospel accounts provide different histories: in Matthew, Joseph and Mary already live in Bethlehem where Jesus us born. After his birth, warned by the magi, they flee to Egypt for a few years after which they return to the land of Israel and settle in Nazareth. In Luke’s gospel, Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth, go to Bethlehem for the census where Jesus is born, and then after a few weeks return to Nazareth. If each is purporting to be a historical record, we are faced with a difficult problem in figuring out how they should be reconciled.
In addition, the development of archaeology has challenged many of the stories in the text. As more and more thinkers in the 18th and 19th Century began to cast doubt on the Bible as a reliable source of history, the Biblical Archaeology movement began in order to defend the Biblical record. However, these archaeologists wound up demonstrating that there were large parts of the narrative that could not be defended historically. The most famous example of this was the discovery that the city of Jericho, famously destroyed by Joshua in the Bible, had been long deserted at the time this conquest was supposed to have happened. To this day, Biblical Archaeology is divided into two camps: maximalist (who assume the Bible is reliable unless proven otherwise and minimalist (who assume that practically nothing in the Bible is reliable unless specifically proven). But given the issues and the ongoing tension with archaeology and secular history, the Bible doesn’t seem to be first and foremost a history text either.
C. Law Book
Then, perhaps it’s a law book. There is certainly a fair portion of the population who views it that way: as a series of rules for living. It certainly seems to act like that sometimes. And people frequently insist that the laws of our nation were in some way inspire by the principles of the Bible. So, I suppose we could look at the Bible as a legal guide.
But then we’re presented with a problem: which of the many laws are we supposed to follow? The Ten Commandments are nice and generally agreed upon, but there are over six hundred commandments in the Torah alone. We can agree to follow the rule about not murdering, or not gossiping, but what about the rule that says we’re not supposed to eat shellfish? Or what about the one that would require us to stone a rebellious child to death? Or the ones that prohibit shaving? Or the ones that command us to destroy the cities of those who worship a different god?
The problem with this approach is that if we look at the Bible primarily as a legal resource, it just creates more work for us in trying to discern what to do with all of these laws and rules. We’d have to develop a system of legal interpretation, commentary, and application in case law. We’d have to have a developed scholarly and legal tradition who spent all their time debating the meaning and application of the commandments and how they ought to be understood. Now, there already exists that system: it’s called Rabbinic Judaism. But that’s not how Christianity has engaged with our sacred texts. So as with science and history, our scriptures seem to be much more than just a collection of laws.
IV. WHAT THE BIBLE IS
It’s surprising to realize that the Bible itself never claims to be what so many assume it is. The most famous verse about Biblical authority is from 2 Timothy and reads:
Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character…2 Timothy 3:16 CEB
A number of New Testament scholars, including a former professor of mine Dr. Craig Hill, note that the grammar suggests a slightly different interpretation and that the text should probably read: “Every God-inspired scripture is also useful for teaching…” That is, the text is not making a claim about the nature of the scripture, but of its usefulness.
In any event, even were this verse to be understood in its traditional sense, what is the value of a claim about a source made by the source itself? That is, if someone were to say to you, “You can trust me!” and you were to ask, “How do I know you’re trustworthy?” it would be unsatisfactory for that person to respond, “Because I’m telling you that I am.” This is one of those things that Christians often miss: the Bible is only convincing as an authority if you’re already convinced of its authority. Settling an argument with “The Bible says so” only works if the person you’re arguing with already believes the same thing about the Bible that you do, in which case, the chances of having a deeper substantive theological disagreement is somewhat unlikely.
But there are a couple other verses that do reflect on the nature of the scripture. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, the author states that he has written a “carefully ordered account” of the gospel story. In John’s gospel we read the following:
But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.John 20:31 CEB
The author of John’s gospel makes it clear that the text is written with a purpose: to help the reader to believe that Jesus is the messiah. That is, the author is not claiming to write a biography or a history: but a testimony of faith.
Indeed, it has been often demonstrated that the most effective way of communicating faith is not through argument, or rhetoric, or disputation and proofs. It is through sharing one’s story.
That’s what the Bible is: it is a record of a people’s story of faith. That story is sometimes messy. It’s sometimes embarrassing. And much like our own stories when we tell them, we might get some of the details wrong, we might misstate things about the place we were, or have some faulty understandings of how the world works, but none of those things affects the power of the story we are telling. And that story is far more complex and powerful than a simple recitation of history, or geology, or law could ever be.
For the Bible is first and foremost a Testament: the record of the relationship between God and the people of God.
In the Book of Nehemiah, when the people hear the words of the Torah being read, they respond with praise and celebration. In Luke’s Gospel when Jesus reads from the Book of Isaiah, he uses it to define his mission: to proclaim good news to the poor, liberation to the oppressed, release for the captive, and the binding up of the brokenhearted. These are not the reactions of those who have read a science text, or a history book, and definitely not a law book. These are the reactions of those who have read an enduring witness to an encounter with God.
For that is what makes us, too, a People of the Book. We read the scriptures and we respond in praise and study, in service and in working for justice, in radical hospitality and in building community. We do so because even with all its flaws, its fuzzy understanding of the cosmos, its misstatements about historical detail, preserved in its pages is a powerful record of a people’s experience of God. It is a record full of questioning and wrestling, wonder and awe. It is a story that continues to inspire, perhaps all the more because of its complexity.
The Word that we read in the scripture is a different thing from the scientific word, the historical word, or the legal word. The Word we read about in the scriptures is the word that points to the Incarnate Word we encounter in Christ who is the Eternal Word of God made flesh. And in encountering that Word we encounter the living God.
We are a People of the Book because this book tells our story. It tells it in our language, reflecting our understandings, our limitations. But the story it tells has the power to transform us and the very world itself.
Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10
When the seventh month came and the people of Israel were settled in their towns, all the people gathered together in the area in front of the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Instruction scroll from Moses, according to which the LORD had instructed Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Instruction before the assembly. This assembly was made up of both men and women and anyone who could understand what they heard. Facing the area in front of the Water Gate, he read it aloud, from early morning until the middle of the day. He read it in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand, and everyone listened attentively to the Instruction scroll.
Standing above all of the people, Ezra the scribe opened the scroll in the sight of all of the people. And as he opened it, all of the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all of the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” while raising their hands. Then they bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground. They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting it so the people could understand what they heard.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all of the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Don’t mourn or weep.” They said this because all the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction. “Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our LORD. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the LORD is your strength!”
Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”