Want to initiate a religious war? Start a Bible study group without the very necessary examination and explanation of what the bible is and what it is not. For example - were the Hebrew Scriptures transmitted directly by God to a group of inspirited scribes? If not, how did it come to be? Was the New Testament handed down orally by the disciples to a select group of scribes after the death of Jesus? Again, if not ask what, when, where, and finally who wrote it - and to whom it was directed. Christians are often introduced to the bible as though it were a history book to be read in a precise order from Genesis to Revelation. Approaching the bible in this manner will inevitably lead to an early disappointment and a complete disinterest by the time you reach the books of Leviticus and Numbers. After all just how important is the Law of Offerings and Sacrifices, or the first census of Israel to our spiritual growth at this time of our spiritual exploration? For the novice I have always recommended a simpler and less detailed version of the bible, such as can be found in a children’s edition – these can give us the essence we need to progress in our search for deeper meanings later on. A ‘Complete Idiot’s’ or a ‘Dummies’ guide can be very helpful at all times. As Christians we need to understand the relationship between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.
What else should the reader know? To begin with learn why Catholics include 46 books in the Old Testament, and Protestants have 39. Both groups accept 27 books for the New Testament. Hint: know there is nothing sinister or secret about the difference as some people want to believe.
And then there are the writings or “unofficial scriptures” or sacred text that was not incorporated in the Jewish and Christian Bibles. Remarkably some of these texts are referenced within the accepted version of our present day bibles. Although excluded from the Christian canon many of these writings were well known to the early Christian community - particularly in the form of art. Scenes and stories from these writings were portrayed throughout history and may also have been well known to many believers. According to distinguished Professor J.R. Porter, and author of ‘The Lost Bible – Forgotten Scriptures Revealed’ concludes “it is not really possible to draw a sharp distinction between the non-canonical works on the one hand and the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament on the other. From the little I have gleaned from these books there is little to cause us to view the present bible in a different light when read with proper discernment.
How we interpret the bible is very much influenced by the style or literary devices (figures of speech) used by its various known and unknown authors. The use of metaphors, similes, euphemisms, paradoxes’, symbolism's, etc., etc. are generously sprinkled throughout each book. A perfect example of how these devises can influence our interpretation can be found in the last book of the Bible – or the Book of Revelation Some will see the symbols as depicting the clash between good and evil. Others will interpret the events as described in Revelation as something that has already taken place. While still others, especially fundamentalist (literalists), read the book as a speculative prophecy, literally portraying the apocalyptic end of time in which the glorified Christ will come to earth and usher in Judgment Day.
Some people are surprised to learn that large parts of Scripture were not written down immediately. Stories about the meaning of life were passed on orally for centuries. Imagine sitting around an open fire with our forefathers explaining the origins of humankind. It is important to note that oral tradition did not end with the invention of the written word. The earliest Hebrew Scriptures such as the psalms, for example, were not officially recorded until some five hundred years BCE for a very good reason. Karen Armstrong in her book 'The Bible - A Biography' (2007), notes, from the very beginning; people feared that a written scripture encouraged inflexibility and unrealistic, strident certainty. The early Christians expecting Jesus to return during their lifetime saw no need to record their stories. Luckily for us the authors of the four gospels eventually recorded the story of Jesus albeit decades after the actual event.
An exclusive literal interpretation of the bible, according to experts such as Karen Armstrong, is a recent development. Until the nineteenth century, very few people imagined that the first chapter if Genesis was a factual account of the origins of life. For centuries, Jews and Christians relished highly allegorical and inventive exegesis, insisting that a wholly literal reading of the Bible was neither possible not desirable. Even so for some, the bible continues to be interpreted quite literally. For many others it is read contextually and interpretively. There are many contradictions in the bible, not the least of which caused people to believe that the earth was the centre of the universe. This problem was not rectified until the seventeenth century thanks to the efforts of Galileo. But not before he was condemned by the Roman Catholic authorities and forced to live in house arrest until his death. For those who want to approach the bible from a literalist point of view I suggest they read the anonymous and humorous Letter to Dr. Laura Schlesinger contained in my previous blog ‘On the Bible’. At the same time you might also benefit from the earlier blog ‘On Interpreting the Bible’.
Lastly, I want to share two secrets that will help anyone interested in learning the meaning behind its most difficult passages. Karen Armstrong tells us that serious biblical authorities have always insisted that charity must be the guiding principle – any interpretation that spread hatred or disdain was considered illegitimate. And most importantly– ask God to guide you with his gift of discernment – read it with the heart not the head.
UPDATE: Jan. 26/2011
Consider the following: It has been said that if the bible were the actual word of God there would be only one book with all the supreme truths as revealed by him to ALL people - illiminating all disagreement, argument, and religious wars. Yes, all scripture contains some truths, but the ultimate truth is contained in your heart – and nowhere else.