By Nick Brzozowski
Can we be honest?
The Bible is really hard sometimes. Was there really a worldwide flood? Was Jonah swallowed by a fish? Can Christians get tattoos? And why does all this matter?
For three thousand years, the Bible has inspired and transformed lives and nations. It would be impossible to fully comprehend all of the ways that this one ancient piece of literature has influenced our world.
But…it has also confused a lot of us too. It has also been used to support evils like slavery and misogyny.
Today, Christians are asking questions about science, politics, abortion, gender and sexuality. While some are wrestling with the Scriptures for answers, many are beginning to abandon this book, along with their faith, seeing it as repressive and oppressive.
Instead of ditching the Word because it is difficult and confusing, would you consider leaning in more? What if we just need a better understanding of what the Bible is and what it was written to accomplish?
I believe the problem is not the Bible, but how little we truly understand it.
With a better understanding, the Scriptures can connect your soul with God, help you answer the challenging questions of today, infuse you with strength and hope to endure the worst adversity, expand your imagination and expectation for what is possible and so much more.
So, let’s explore five questions to help us get our heads around this big book!
What’s in the Bible?
The Old Testament
The first part is the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures (the sacred text for Judaism). It is sometimes referred to as the Tanakh, which is actually a fun acronym: T (Torah), N (Nevi’im), and K (Ketuvim).
The Torah, meaning “law” or “instructions,” contains the first five books, which act as a foundation for the Old Testament and the rest of the Bible. The themes from this collection are repeated over and over again. In it, you’ll find the story of creation, Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, the ten plagues, and the Ten Commandments.
The Nevi’im, meaning “prophets,” contains Israel’s history from arriving in the Promised Land (where the Torah left off), to their exile and return back to the land. And the Ketuvim, meaning “writings,” is made up mostly of poetry and wisdom literature.
The New Testament
The message of the Tanakh is that God created the world good, but humans continue to disobey and send creation into chaos. Throughout the narrative and writings, there are hints of God doing a different kind of work to bring about a new creation through a chosen leader. A few hundred years after the last book, Jesus comes, claiming to be that leader and the fulfillment of God’s work.
The New Testament, written by the apostles (Jesus’ closest followers), documents Jesus’ ministry and death (the Gospels), the launch of Jesus’ movement (Acts), and various writings between churches and church leaders in its first generation (the letters).
Other Second Temple Writings (Apocrypha)
While the Old Testament was being compiled, around 400 years before Jesus, other books were being written. While helpful to understanding ancient Israel and Jewish teachings, Jews and Christians alike have debated for centuries whether or not to include them with the rest of the sacred writings.
Today, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have decided to include it, while Protestants have removed it.
Over the years, discoveries have been made of other ancient documents dated 100-200 years after Jesus and the New Testament. Books, such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, and The Gospel of Judas, have been universally rejected from inclusion in the Bible.
This is for two reasons. First, the content of these books does not align with the message of the Bible. Upon reading, it is obvious they don’t belong. Second, they were written well after the apostles were around.
What’s the Story of the Bible?
It might surprise you that the majority of the story focuses on ancient Israel.
Basically, the Bible is made up of several hundreds of stories, creating one unified story of God bringing order out of chaos. He does this by choosing one person, Jesus, out of one context, in particular, ancient Israel.
Now, you’ve got the story in a nutshell, here are a few more details:
God creates the world (Genesis 1).
God puts humanity in a heavenly spot, the garden of Eden (Genesis 2).
Adam and Eve reject God’s voice, causing a curse on creation and exile from the garden (Genesis 3).
Their one sin is followed by violence, death, and chaos (Genesis 4-5).
God performs a de-creation event to purify the world through a big flood (Genesis 6-9).
God chooses Abraham and his family to start a new nation (Genesis 12-50).
God chooses Moses to deliver Israel out of slavery (Exodus 1-19).
God sets Israel apart by providing them with law and they wander in the wilderness for 40 years (Exodus 20-Deuteronomy 34).
Joshua leads Israel into the Promised Land (Joshua).
Israel doesn’t have a central leader (Judges, Ruth).
Israel’s kingdom (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles).
Babylon and Assyria invade Israel (prophets).
Israel returns back from exile, but things aren’t the same (Ezra, Nehemiah).
Jesus’ life and death (Matthew - John).
The Early Church (Acts - Jude).
The end of the world (Revelation 21-22).
How Did We Get Our Modern Bible?
We get our current translations in three phases: writing, compilation, and translation.
First, the Bible was written by 40 people in the span of 1000 years. Early on, people recognized these prophets’ writings as significant and began copying and teaching, and memorizing them.
Second, the Bible was compiled, arranged, and canonized. Basically, conversations had to be made about which of the scrolls in distribution were to be included (canonized) and how to organize them.
For the Old Testament, this happened after Israel returned from exile.
For the New Testament, this process began soon after the letters of the apostles were in distribution and were recognized through various councils of church leaders throughout the following couple hundred years. But, as early as in Peter’s lifetime are Paul’s letters considered Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Third, the Bible was translated from the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. During the time of Alexander the Great, a popular translation of the Bible, called the Septuagint, was written from Hebrew into Greek. This is significant because the apostles who wrote the New Testament were reading the Septuagint, even quoting from it specifically.
For hundreds of years, there have been hundreds of English translations. This is for a few reasons. As the English language evolves, so there is a need for new translations. As we make more discoveries of ancient manuscripts, our translations get remarkably accurate.
Some translations are meant to be easier to read while others trade off readability for likeness to the original language. And, sometimes, translators are forced to make some theological calls when translated, leading to translations with slightly different theological frameworks. (For instance, some translations will read “brothers,” and others “brothers and sisters.”)
Is the Bible Inerrant?
This is a hotly debated and nuanced question.
Growing up in church, I was taught that the Bible was 100% true, without any mistakes. But, then, in seminary, I came to learn that it has thousands of textual variants. I wrote about this here.
Since then, I have heard all kinds of claims of errors throughout the Bible. The universe wasn’t made in seven days. Adam and Eve didn’t really exist. No way was there a worldwide flood. They could not have gone to this town. The numbers here were wrong. This account contradicts this account. The science is wrong in this poem. And on and on.
Despite all the critiques, I still believe the Bible is inerrant, meaning that everything in the original copy corresponds to what is true. But, there is room for debate over the nature in which the text corresponds to the truth.
For instance, when we say, “the sun will set at 7 pm tonight,” we accept that as true even if the sun did not technically set until 7:05. Technically, it was the earth that rotated, not the sun setting. But, the expression is still considered true. In the same way, I believe the entire Bible is true, despite some technicalities!
Pastor Andy Stanley points out that too many Christians have left their faith because it was built on a “house of cards.” He encourages Christians to ground their faith in the resurrection of Jesus as the central event and belief, rather than being afraid of one unfortunate discovery toppling everything down.
Even though I haven’t heard any strong enough evidence to challenge the Bible’s inerrancy, I think Stanley has a good point. Inerrancy should not be the foundation of our faith.
However, I do think it is critical that Christians see the Bible as God’s Word. It is the primary source in which we discover God’s will for us. If we don’t recognize the Bible as the primary way in which God communicates with us, then our faith and morals, and sense of the metaphysical are only subject to our reasoning and conscience. And, I, for one, am very aware of how self-deceptive I can be.
In other words, believing in the inspiration of the Bible (that it is God’s Word) is more significant, in my opinion, than accepting the inerrancy of the Bible.
But, how can God’s Word have mistakes if he is perfect? Now, while it is God’s Word, the Bible is also a work of humans, who are fallible.
Should We Read It Literally?
Yes and no.
Yes, Jesus did literally live on the earth. He literally died and literally rose from the dead. Our entire faith and hope are dependent on that being true.
No, mountains do not sing (Psalm 98:8). Jesus does not want us gouging out our eyes (Matthew 5:29). And the Good Samaritan was never born (Luke 10:25-37).
The Bible is written within various genres, including narrative, poetry, law, parables, apocalypse, and letters. Reading the Bible accurately means interpreting it in light of its context. That means that a literal reading of Scripture is often times a poor reading of Scripture. Authors regularly employ personification, exaggeration, analogy, and other figures of speech.
There are times when it is changing to know whether the author is using a figure of speech. But, the important thing to do when seeking to interpret and understand the Bible is to know what it is ultimately doing and what it was made to be.
Consider the following.
Even though it contains history, it is not a history textbook. It is not always chronological. Numbers are often rounded or possibly exaggerated. Some seemingly critical details are missing, while seemingly trivial details are included.
Even though it nourishes our souls, it is not a devotional. Devotionals are neatly packaged for daily inspiration. The Bible contains chapters on the construction of the Temple and how to deal with mold in your house. Unlike devotionals, more is required from you as the reader to discover its relevance to your life.
Even though it contains instructions and morality, it is not a rulebook. Some rules apply to us today (like not murdering). Some do not (like not getting tattoos). And finding the difference is a great way to know who God is and what he is up to.
So, what is the Bible? It is meditation literature, designed to be read slowly and thoughtfully. Its structure and use of themes make it the greatest piece of literature ever written. It is created to be read and reread, forwards and backwards, each time discovering about God, life, and even yourself!
Bible Project: What is the Bible
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