The Bible Explained

November 03, 2008

Heh. Not really. I can't explain the whole Bible in a blog post. But I had an assignment for Old Testament class that had me writing to you guys as an audience, so you can find what I wrote below. It's an explanation of what the Bible is, in a big-picture sort of way.

In case anyone was reading my journals, they stopped because it turned out they wanted something else--something very specific--for those journal assignments and my blog posts weren't working for that. The other class, the spirituality one, has ended.

Anyway, without further ado, please read on.

There seem to be two ways most Americans view the Bible. Some view it as the inerrant word of God, and adjust their understanding of science to align with this view. Others view the Bible as obviously inaccurate scientifically, and thus kind of useless for any pursuit.

Most people have a pretty big misunderstanding of what the Bible actually is. I’m going to attempt to tell you what scholars nowadays think the Bible is, in the hopes of showing you other ways to appreciate the Bible. Before I get started, let me tell you where I’m getting my information. This info is drawn from lectures I’m taking in my Old Testament/New Testament class at Pacific School of Religion, and from our texts from that class, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, by John J. Collins and The New Testament: History, Literature, and Social Context, by Dennic C. Duling.

Think of the Bible as a building—as a small library. In the library are two wings, a large one and a small one. The larger wing contains the Hebrew Scriptures, so it contains more books, which are older. The small wing contains what the Christians call the New Testament—comparably fewer books. There are three things you should know about this Library.

1. The two wings were each built in response to unthinkable tragedy. In 597 B.C.E., the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem. Soon, they destroyed the Temple and took the priests and rulers of Israel into exile. This was unthinkable. It was drastic. It rocked the world of a people who believed that their God actually resided in the temple, protected them from harm, and carried out his promise to ensure that the land belonged to them.

Until then, it had possibly never occurred to the priests in Jerusalem that they would need things all written down. They had their Temple and their priests for history and knowledge, as well as their palace. A God, who counted them special among all nations, secured their history. But this changed after 597. While they were in exile, the priests and religious leaders began to assemble--perhaps from oral traditions and from various written texts--what amounted to a history of their people. This project continued, it seems, throughout their exile and into their return to Israel.

The tragedy that created the New Testament was two-fold. Many of the books that form the New Testament wing of our library were written after the SECOND Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, in 70 C.E. The second temple, built in 520 B.C.E. during the “Post-Exilic Period”, remained standing while Israel was conquered again and again by different powers. It stood until after the Jewish Revolt in 65 C.E., which angered the Romans so that they burned Jerusalem and wrecked the Temple.

While no longer unthinkable, this was the sort of violent, world-shattering act that was either supposed to herald Jesus’ coming, or that Jesus was supposed to prevent. Followers of Jesus believed that his return was imminent, that many of them would live to see it. Many had changed their entire lives, ordering them toward the expectation of Jesus’ return. But as they aged, and as they saw the Temple destroyed, many began to realize that this promise would be deferred indefinitely.

Like the Israelites of old, they did not see a need for a written history until tragedy and disappointment forced them to be more purposeful about writing things down.

Late in the first century, they began writing and assembling stories of the life and teachings of Jesus, and the period immediately after his death. During the early second century, these writings started to attain the status of “scripture” among believers, along with a number of letters sent among early Jesus followers. It wasn’t until the middle of the second century that an attempt was made to decide which writings were to be considered “canonical”—which books would be allowed into the library--and the question was far from settled well into the fourth century.
Both libraries, then, were constructed in sorrow, by a people who had suffered inestimable tragedy. In this light, both libraries can be seen as are attempts to piece meaning together during a crisis of faith, and to help their cultures and their beliefs survive against unlikely odds. With the stakes that high, they brought all that they could to the struggle, which brings me to my second point:

2. Many of the books in both wings are collaborative works. With the exception of a few of Paul’s letters and some of the smaller works of the prophets, most every book shows some evidence of having been written by more than one person, perhaps over the course of several centuries. Some books, like Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs, are clearly meant to be collections of poems, songs, and sayings. Some reveal themselves to be collections only after a careful reading. Genesis, for example, contains two distinct, contradictory creation stories and two contradictory stories of the Flood. Different writers are discernable throughout the books by their variety of voices, facts, themes, and names for God. Some, like Ecclesiastes, may have been written by one person, but was appended by others at a much later date.

The editors who collected these works together had no compunctions against modifying, redacting, and adding to the work they were collecting. At that point, the stories belonged to them. The editors, collectors, oral interpreters, and writers also had no problem writing their own agendas into the story, sometimes in the form of contradictions and anachronisms. And what were their agendas? That brings me to point three.

3. Both wings of our library were built and run by religious officials. For most of the library’s history, the books in it were read aloud to the people, and only religious officials were allowed in the “library” at all. They decided what books were in the collections, and kept a fair number of books out. Religious officials’ agendas are not uniform, of course, but they do have some common threads, such as:

- Need to maintain the religious order and structure. To maintain Temple authority and practice, examples of right practice needed to be evident in scripture, and so they were written in. Likewise, in Early Christianity, certain “heresies” were already evident, and the portions of the gospels were written in response to those heresies.

- Political and ethnic prejudices. The portraits of various kings in the Bible are all given to us through the lens of religious practice, with great value placed on orthodoxy and on kings who disallowed other cultic practices in Israel. In addition, many stories use “history” to make rather crude points about other races or nations.

- Response to contemporary tragedy. Because they are responding to current events of the time, the religious leaders fill the books with exhortations, promises, and proofs meant to assert that God will restore Israel, or that Jesus was Divine.

Even with all of the redaction and modification from religious authorities, they were unable to remove the diversity of opinion, the contradictions, the doubt, the confusion, and the pessimism evident all over the library, and that’s a great blessing, indeed.
In the end, the Bible amounts to a conversation—an argument, really--across the centuries, about the nature of God, the meaning of life, what’s right and wrong, and the sense or senselessness of human suffering. It’s an accessible example of how thoughtful people dealt with life in the ancient world. So the next time the Bible comes up in conversation, or you have some reason to think of it, please remember these few things:

1. Of course you pick and choose. Even liberal people fall into the trap of saying “why do you pick one thing out of the Bible to believe in and ignore something else”? Honestly, how can you not? It is such a diverse library full of collections that there’s no way to make a blanket statement about belief.

2. It’s okay to recognize and appreciate an honest attempt at wisdom without granting authority to that attempt. If you look at a book like Job, it’s clear that its writer is grappling with big questions. The result can be a fascinating and poetic read, and even a helpful one for your own journey, like a conversation with a friend who has a different point of view.

3. Remember the medium. We have so many media to work with, and so many tools at our disposal. When something unthinkable or unexplainable happens in our world, we have so many ways to be in conversation about it. Think of 9/11. I’ve seen comics, cartoons, movies, songs, books, photo albums, paintings, plays, blogs, novels, the list goes on. The means of expression, the genres within which expression was accomplished, and the tools for expression were comparatively limited for the ancient person. Most of you are writers. Imagine having only story, either written or verbal, to express the unimaginable, both good and bad. Imagine straining to make sense of what’s going on, with metaphor, parable, story, and myth as your tools. Would “factual accuracy” even be a consideration?

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