They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Holy One your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Will you pray with and for me? Holy One, we strain to hear your voice speaking to us. Open our hearts and spirits to your word, in whatever way it comes to us. In all your names, amen.
Today is the first Sunday of our summer series on hard questions. Several of you had questions about the Bible, and because understanding a bit about the Bible will help us to answer some of the other questions that have been asked, we will start here, with the Bible.
There are two basic ways to view the Bible as we have it. The first sees the Bible as fixed, being either dictated by God or translators being directed by God, with every word literally true. If something is in the Bible, then what is said there should be our only guide for our actions and thinking on that topic.
The other way of looking at the Bible is that it was inspired by God, written by human beings who could not capture the essence of God or God’s meaning and intent in human language. This view acknowledges that languages change and that no translation can perfectly express thoughts and concepts of another language, and also that language reflects the culture and context of a certain time and place. Sometimes this understanding of the Bible leads to minimising or ignoring portions of the Bible that do not fit the context, or giving them an interpretation that doesn’t fit.
Which is “right?” Well, I personally lean towards the second, and you will see why in a moment. But in fact, neither is right or wrong—they are both opinion, views. There really aren’t ways to prove either of them—there are no original copies of any of the scriptures, nor did any of the ancient translators—and there have been several translations of the various books of the Bible throughout its history—leave any record of what they thought or how they chose which terms to use. As we get closer to our time, there are records and notes from the translators, but of course, they are translating translations, so it becomes very murky as to what might have been “the original.”
So, what can both views agree on? First is that the Bible—which comes from the Greek meaning “the books”—is in fact a collection of books. We know this, even if we don’t think about it much. There’s the book of Genesis, the book of Psalms, the book of Matthew, and so on. So it is, in fact, a collection of books, a mini-library of texts.
Some of the books are histories—such as First and Second Kings, or the book of Acts. Some are poetry and songs, like Psalms and Song of Solomon. Some of them are what we might call editorials today—essays calling people to action. Isaiah and Micah are examples of these. Some of them are strange visions, like Daniel and Revelation.
Besides being many kinds of books, the Bible also contains many styles of writing. The histories are mostly narrative—they tell the story. Some are rules for worship and living, like Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Others are full of metaphors, like Daniel and Jeremiah. A few, mostly in the New Testament, are letters. Some of them are mixed.
This can help us decide how to read a particular book and how it can be useful to us. When we are feeling down and frustrated, we can find words of comfort and support in Psalms—we wouldn’t look in Daniel, for example, or read one of the histories. Just as we might listen to music to help lift our sadness, the Psalms, which are songs, can do the same thing.
So far, both views would agree, I think. Now we come to the sticky part—translations.
We do not have any of the books of the Bible in the original language. The oldest manuscripts—written versions of the Bible, written down centuries before printing—were in an ancient form of Hebrew. By about the third century before Jesus’ birth, they had been translated into Greek, which was the common language of the world at that time, as English is the language of pilots and air traffic control today—the language of trade and government, the one to be used so that everyone would understand, no matter where they were from. Over time, the scriptures were translated into Latin and then other languages—French, German, English, and so on. Also, it wasn’t until about the 3rd century that there was agreement on which writings should be included in what we call the Bible—and even today, the Catholic Bible includes several texts that non-Catholics call “the Apocrypha,” from the Latin for “secret, obscure.” So which books are part of the Bible has shifted over time as well.
Now, as those of you who speak even a little bit of another language will understand, any language has words that do not have an exact equivalent in other languages. My favourite example is the German word “preiswert,” which means something like, “worth the price,” or “a bargain at this price.” There just isn’t an equivalent in English. Well, you can imagine if a simple concept like that doesn’t have an equivalent in two modern languages which have developed together in the same world culture, then finding current words that have the same meanings as ancient words—which is what happens in translation—is almost impossible. And when you think of some of the concepts that various books of the Bible discuss, you can imagine that ideas such as “sin,” salvation,” and “righteousness” are very difficult to translate.
An example is the word often translated as “slave” in English Bibles. To us today, slavery means lifelong bondage and unpaid labour, one person belonging to another. In ancient Israel, it was more like what we think of indentured servitude---a set time of working for someone in return for a set amount of money to be paid to someone else. If a person had racked up a lot of debt, for example, he or she could “sell themselves” into this short-term bondage in order to pay off the debt. At the end of their time, they were free to go. In Roman times, in Jesus’ day, slavery was much like we think of it today—except that Roman law allowed for, and sometimes required, slaves to be paid money that they didn’t have to turn over to their master, and which could be put towards the price of their freedom. So the meanings of words change over time, too—think of one near and dear to our hearts—“gay.” It used to simply mean happy, or pleasant—and now that meaning is almost gone, and it usually means “same-sex loving.”
Well, those are two of the problems with translations—words in one language don’t have exact equivalents in another language and any language depends on a culture for the meaning of words. And then there is the fact that these problems get worse with each translation—we have to assume that each translation is a little further from the original intent or meaning.
Another difficulty with reading the Bible literally, besides translation issues, is that many of the books of the Bible speak in metaphors, not in literal truth. Genesis may say that Methuselah lived to be 969 years old, but we know that, biologically speaking, that is impossible; human bodies cannot last that long. And the ancient Hebrews knew that too; they understood that it simply meant a very long time, or that Methuselah’s dynasty lasted that long—he is supposed to have died just before the flood, so metaphorically, he may represent the old way of life before the flood.
I think we can say the same for the creation story—Genesis is not a science textbook, but an account of how the world came to be. There are actually two creation stories in Genesis, by the way—and both are metaphors, ways of describing something that no human was there to see. They are a perfect example of what I mean when I say that some things cannot be described in human language, and so we understand what is meant only imperfectly.
Some people might say, “OK, that makes sense, but what about the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy?” Here we are back to the culture and context question. These were idealised laws, set down by the scholars and priests after the Babylonian Exile six hundred years before Christ. When the first Jewish people came back to Jerusalem, after about one hundred years in exile, they joined other Jewish people who had not gone into exile, and whose religious observance had changed—we know them as Samaritans. So the people returning from exile felt they had the only “pure” and “true” form of Judaism; and they recorded laws reflecting their idealised version of Judaism. We know from the language and some of the words used that none of the texts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy could have been recorded before the Exile—they were written afterwards. So—and here is where context comes into play—they were the idealised laws of the scribes and priests who were attempting to re-establish Judaism in Israel and Judah. The laws draw careful lines around what is Jewish and what is not, who should do what and when. It’s doubtful they were ever followed completely; the later history is full of kings and queens who worshipped other gods or who didn’t obey every law as written in those books, especially the release of captive and return of land to the original owners in the Jubilee year—there is no record of it ever actually being observed. They were ideals, not reality; something to aspire to, and never reach.
Another thing to bear in mind is that we as Christians look to the second part of the Bible for our understanding of God—the New Testament. We don’t dismiss the Old Testament—or Hebrew Bible as I prefer to call it—but it is seen as a backdrop, a setting for Jesus and his message. Some Christians give the New Testament priority over the Hebrew Bible, saying it is more important in terms of rules and guidance. This is part of the reason, for example, that Christians do not follow Jewish dietary rules—the rest of the reason is the separation between Judaism and Christian in first or second century.
Finally, no matter what we believe about how the Bible came to be, we have to remember that the Bible is only one part of our understanding of God. We do not have faith in only the Bible; there is more to Christianity than the Bible. Indeed, if the Bible is the centre of our worship, the focus of our worship, then we are committing Bibliolatry—worship of the Bible instead of God. The Bible is one way we come to know God and understand Jesus and Spirit. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, suggested a four-part way to understand God: Scripture, that is, the Bible; reason, or human understanding; experience, what we know from our own lives; and finally, tradition, what has been historic practice or understanding. We need to use all four of them as we think about God and formulate our understanding of God. I often use it as a test or check on something I read—what does Scripture say about the question? What about reason, or science? What has my experience been with regards to the issue? And what has been the traditional understanding? Sometimes these overlap—reason and experience, for example, or reason and tradition.
As Christians of the 21st century, we should be reading the Bible with this understanding—that it is not in its original form and has not been for centuries; what that original form meant to the people who first used it is not something we can easily grasp today because of the gap in time and culture; and that it is only one part of our quest for communication with and understanding of God. Given that, this collection of books called the Bible is full of wisdom and insight into humanity, and is the source of Jesus’ message of love and reconciliation. Don’t worship it or treat it as the rulebook, but do read it, study it, and make it a part of your life. There are many web sites, apps, and books available—I’ve put a list of the ones I like the best on the back table. Reading, studying, and meditating on the Bible can lead us to a deeper understanding of our own relationship with God and a clearer perspective on our call to serve God and the world. In all God’s many names, amen.