This week we start to turn our full attention to what is written in the Bible. We won’t be looking at the specific passages often referred to as the “clobber” passages till next time. These are the ones frequently quoted to bolster the non-affirming, so-called “traditional” positions.
Instead, this time I want to look at the Bible that was a part of my experience, as I grew up. Part of the problem facing me was that for much of my life I was taught that the only acceptable way of understanding the Bible was to take it literally, and that the Bible was without error. Inerrancy was a big issue because if you didn’t accept that, you weren’t a proper Christian, or at least one that should be treated with cautious suspicion – in case you (if you were the one who dismissed inerrancy) led them away from the straight and narrow. For me, the Bible is crucial – I read it every day, and love it, but the real word of God is Jesus, not the Book, although we learn so much about him, from this library of books. So, over the years my attitude to inerrancy has become very much more nuanced.
I grew up believing that the Genesis creation account was scientifically sound, and that evolution could only be accepted within the species, not between species, and this literal way of reading the Bible permeated every element of my theology. Over the years, some of that thinking got challenged and gradually eroded, but the underlying unquestioning acceptance of Biblical teaching, and how I read the Bible wasn’t really touched, though I was a bit uncomfortable at times. However, from around 2013, I started reading the whole Bible, in a structured way, through that year, and I have continued to do so, every year since then.
The second and subsequent times I read through the Bible were real eye-openers as I was confronted with reading all those passages I had quietly side-stepped. As I started to read more theological books, like those of Peter Enns, Rachel Held Evans, Ian Paul, and others, I began to make more sense of the Scriptures I was reading. I had begun to see another perspective that was equally Bible-based, and for me, far more honest.
For example, I write in the essay about the fact that the Bible text can be unclear and sometimes even contradictory. One illustration of where the original meaning of a passage has been lost, is Judges 1: 18, where the passage reads: “Judah also took Gaza, Ashkelon and Ekron—each city with its territory.” In this instance the footnote tells us the Septuagint version says “Judah did not take …” – a completely opposing meaning! In the scheme of things for us, no problem at all, (who cares whether those towns were taken – or not? Okay, the inhabitants did!) unless you take the rigidly literal view of Scripture as being historically accurate. So, did Judah conquer the towns or not? If you regularly read your Bible footnotes, you’ll know this is a minor example of many, many passages just like this. Make sure you read footnotes whenever you can, they really help you understand the context better.
As I point out, the Bible was not written in English, but instead was written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, and then translated into English one and a half thousand years later. How many English words have changed their meanings since you were born? The older you get the more there will be, so how might the languages used by the Bible writers have changed since they put their quills to the scroll? I cite some examples, and quote from the introductory notes to Zondavan’s Todays New International Bible (Study Bible) 2002, where they write: “To achieve clarity the Translators have sometimes supplied words not in the original texts but required by the context. In a few instances, where some uncertainty about such material remained, it is enclosed in corner brackets”.
Most Translations will have similar comments, so this is not at all unusual or suspicious, but don’t for a minute imagine you are reading word for word an updated copy of the transcript of God’s words, written down at the time it was spoken. Be aware that any texts that exist, were written many years, and in some instances, hundreds of years after the events they refer to. For instance, the books making up the oldest versions of the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) currently in our possession, were among the Dead Sea Scrolls which were written between 200BC and 200AD – 1200+ years after the Israelites left Egypt!
In spite of the accuracy of the Jewish oral traditions, that is a huge amount of time for words and word definitions to change. Furthermore, can you write down a transcript of the last phone-call you made, or the last conversation you had with a friend? For most of us we can write down an account of the sense of what each party said, but not using the exact words. So, when the Bible is recording conversations, how accurate are they? From my previously-held standpoint, I would have argued that they were correct, because God’s Holy Spirit would have ensured the writers accuracy.
Now, given there are so many contradictions, numeric and factual, I would have to ask the question: if the Holy Spirit was ensuring accuracy at one level, why not in other areas? In my view, whilst authors might have been inspired by God, they were writing as wholly human writers, with their failings, not automatons, transcribing the exact words of God.
In the essay I list well over a dozen areas that presented problems to me, and this wasn’t an exhaustive list. Here I will give just a couple of examples. Let’s start with the plagues of Egypt and note some of the factual problems with the narrative. Look at Exodus 7: 19, where Moses stretches out his staff and turns all the water to blood and this includes “even in vessels of wood and stone”. Then, a few verses further on Pharoah’s magicians did the same thing! How? Where did they get the clean water to be able to turn to blood? Why hadn’t that clean water already been changed to blood? Then in verse 24 we are told that “all the Egyptians dug along the Nile to get drinking water”. So clearly not all the water had changed to blood! That should have put a spanner in my previous literal way of thinking, but I hadn’t really “seen” that until I had become more “open” to reading the whole Bible.
A little further on in Plague 5 (Chapter 9) we are told that ALL the livestock of the Egyptians are killed. Get that? All! However, in plague 7, when the hail is set to devastate the land Moses says: “Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every person and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die”. Hang about, where did that livestock come from? They should already be dead.
Another area that bothered me was when the Israelites asked for a king. Samuel gets a bit hot and bothered because he saw it as wrong, and God tells him not to get upset personally, because they haven’t rejected him (Samuel), but they have rejected God. (1 Samuel 8, and 12: 16-18). It bothered me because Moses, in his farewell speech at the end of his life, gives instructions about the criteria to be applied to any future king they might want to appoint (see Deuteronomy 17). God seems to be saying it was fine to ask for a king, so long as they fulfilled specific requirements, including letting God choose. In Samuel’s case the people weren’t appealing to God, they were saying “you’re getting old and normally we’d expect your sons to take over, but they’re as much use as a chocolate altar, so give us a king instead”.
I also mention Ruth and David. Ruth was a Moabite woman and so neither she “or any of [her] descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation” (Deuteronomy 23: 3). So, the difficulties are: why was she married by an Israelite (Mahlon) in the first place? Why did Boaz later marry her (Mahlon had died early in the story, and she had travelled with Naomi as she returned to Bethlehem), if her descendants were barred from the assembly of the Lord? And how was David, her great grandson, allowed to be King of Israel, with a Moabite woman as a great grandmother? There are some straightforward answers, such as women not really counting in the culture, but if you take a literalistic view, there are some big problems. Also, that particular line of argument doesn’t stack up because God was always using women, and if you look at the genealogical line of Jesus from Matthew 1, there are some key women included (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba) and it includes prostitutes! Jesus didn’t come from a line of saints!
Then have a read of the story told in I Chronicles 21: 1-15 where David counts the nation’s fighting men. This story is a parallel telling of the story found in 2 Samuel 24: 1-17. Then go back and read I Chronicles 27 keeping in mind that this is only six chapters further on from the first passage, and the same scribe is writing this account, and the ink barely dry! See whether you spot the same issues I had problems with, and then read the comments in my essay (chapter 8) accompanying this blog.
The problems are not limited to the Old Testament but are also there in the New Testament. For example, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is reported in every Gospel, (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2), and you will see that Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us it happened immediately after Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. However, John gives the strong impression it happened earlier in Jesus’ ministry, just after He changed water to wine, when in fact it was near the end. Again, there is a straightforward explanation, but those who hold a literal stance need to jump through a few more hoops, because the text doesn’t provide an explanation.
Then there is the death of Judas, after he betrayed Jesus. To quote from my essay: In Matthew 27 (3-10) he is described as throwing the money back into the Temple, and hanging himself and, in Acts 1 (vv18-19) Luke records Judas as using the money he had received to betray Jesus, to buy a field, where “he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out”. So, both what happened with the money was different, and the respective methods of death were different. The stories can’t both be right. They are in direct opposition. Did he use the money to buy the field or throw it back into the Temple?
And what about the story about Jesus healing the demon-possessed man/men in Matthew 8: 28-34, Mark 5: 1-17 and Luke 8: 26-37. Was it two men, as reported by Matthew, or one, according to Mark and Luke? They are not different occasions.
If the Bible was dictated by God, or if God was controlling the pens of the writers, these problems wouldn’t be there, but they are entirely consistent with very human writers telling their stories about their own personal experience, and their very real understanding of the God they knew or had seen.
At the time Jesus was alive, His Bible was the Old Testament, the books of which had not long before, been accepted as canonical. However, they did not appear in the order we have in our Bibles. The Jewish Bible is referred to as the Tanakh, and there is a superb video and transcript explanation of how the Tanakh is constructed, which you can learn about here: https://overviewbible.com/tanakh/. By the end of the video, I was wishing that our Christian Bibles, in whatever versions we use, were laid out in the same way!
In the chapter, I spend some time talking about other translation problems quoting from Ian Paul’s Psephizo blog where he writes:
“Human language can never unambiguously convey human meaning; even in conversation with people we know, we often think ‘Now, what did she mean by that?’ This is especially true of writing which, like the Bible, originates in particular times, places and cultures, and these are now at a distance from us. Language functions at a number of different levels. Words have ranges of meanings (often called the ‘semantic range’), but the range of meaning of a word in one language will never exactly match the range of meaning of an equivalent word in another. The English ‘have’ can mean ‘to possess,’ but it can also mean ‘obliged to’ (as in ‘I have to leave now’). The French ‘avoir’ has some overlap with this, but is also used in descriptions of age (‘J’ai trente ans’) which do not carry over into English. It is an act of interpretation to decide which part of the semantic range a word means before we can even translate into another language. https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/how-to-interpret-the-bible/
Please take a few minutes and have a look at his pages, because I found them very helpful, and I enjoy coming back to his site from time to time. His booklet “How to Interpret the Bible: Four Essential Questions” has proved very helpful and I encourage you to read it. Alternatively, read the articles that were the foundation for it, and if you want to get a fuller review of the booklets you ought to read Mark Woods review on: https://www.christiantoday.com/article/how.to.explain.the.bible.without.explaining.it.away/127638.htm.
As I say in the latest chapter released with this blog, don’t think there is just one acceptable view of reading Scripture. I realise you may be unhappy with that, but we can’t speak to Moses or to Paul and say, “Is this what you were trying to say, or were you saying something else?” I am also saying we must be committed to taking the Bible seriously, and may not simply dismiss it because of the perceived inconsistencies. If you take my criticism of the way it is written as debunking the Bible and saying it can’t be trusted, you misunderstand me. I want you to read it and love it, but be aware you are not reading a forensically accurate court report. Instead, it is the writings of men God had inspired. I believe we need to read the Bible:
- with greater curiosity,
- with a fearless investigation of what the words really mean,
- with an understanding of the culture and customs of the period it was written,
- and set aside reliance on tradition, in places where tradition runs counter to, or inhibits the moving of, God’s Spirit. (Just because we always thought Jesus was a carpenter, doesn’t make it correct.) When new evidence surfaces that contradicts your understanding, embrace it as an opportunity to explore your faith further and find a better understanding.
Do not trust the person who remarks, “The Bible clearly says…” as a pre-amble to an assertion. They are attempting to close debate and batter you to accept their view – which is, in all likelihood, mistaken. We must do away with the ignorant (possibly Satanic) notion of: “It doesn’t have to make sense to us, we just have to believe it”. I mention Satan there because he is only too keen to stunt our spiritual growth. For other strategies he uses, read C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters”.
I mentioned about the fact that the Old Testament canon having been more or less settled before Jesus was born, but what about the New Testament? How was that decided? There is a helpful article about who decided what was included in the New Testament here: https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/who-decided-what-went-into-the-bible.html
Obviously, I’m one of those people who wanted to know why certain manuscripts made the cut and others didn’t. For example, not all of Paul’s letters are in the New Testament – weren’t Paul’s letters that were not included, good enough?! After all, Peter regarded all of Pauls writing, as Scripture: 2 Peter 3: 16 – note his use of the phrase “other Scriptures”. Yes, I’m being a bit mischievous there, because it may have been that these other letters were repeating ideas and themes he had already outlined elsewhere. It might also have been those letters had been lost early on, although many of his letters were kept and passed around the newly formed churches, not initially as Scriptures but as helpful and informative documents about how to live as a Christian, and why it wasn’t necessary to follow the Jewish Laws of Moses.
I understand that when it came to collating the books that became the New Testament, the test of authenticity that each New Testament manuscript had to pass was:
- Was the book written by an Apostle or someone very close to one? (Luke travelled extensively with Paul. Mark wrote under Peter’s guidance, etc)
- Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?
- Does the message tell the truth about God with no falsehood? Is the doctrine Orthodox
- Did it come with the power of God to transform people?
- Was the document universally accepted as Scripture by the people who were first to receive it?
If you want to look further at that, you will find these helpful:
Towards the end of this week’s chapter, I spend some time looking at how the Bible came to us in the UK and I give a generalised overview. I go on to make the point that when Paul was writing, he thought the end of time was very near, possibly even in his own lifetime. When Paul was writing, I’m sure he never imagined he was writing Scripture, and that his letters would still be studied two millennia later, mainly in many languages not yet invented. Most of us, when talking to people new to our country, use words we know our hearers will understand, and even then, we might have to simplify it further, when they look back blankly! I would therefore make the point that because Paul was using some very specialist words at times, he had no idea how far his writings would travel. I believe he would have written differently if he had, because he stated he wanted to have something in common with as many people as possible, so that the Gospel would spread as widely as possible (1 Corinthians 9:22).
I am not a Greek/Aramaic/Hebrew scholar, so I must trust what others write about the original text. So, for me the question in the following chapters must be: the translator has used the word homosexual here. Are they describing what we understand “homosexual” to mean today: that of two consenting adults in a committed and loving relationship? If not, what is he describing, and is there a better word or phrase?
By way of background, and to partially answer that question: when the Yale University translators were using that word, it looks like they were referring to what we consider to be abusive homosexual behaviour. The post-war1940’s/50’s period in America was when McCarthyism was rife, and people were scared about “totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive” influences, and possible infiltration into America. America was already deeply suspicious of people from several nationalities. They had imprisoned virtually all Japanese Americans from the west coast in 1942, based on groundless fears and suspicions – probably following the Pearl Harbour attack. The 110,000 prisoners were kept in “Relocation Centres” but what the inmates regarded as concentration camps, having had their property confiscated.
This was not an open society, but one holding deep suspicions of those they didn’t know. Gay men got caught up in the societal panic of the day and people were scared of them. In a sense they became society’s Bogy-Man. Gay men were secretive for fear of their lives and careers, and this concealment fed society’s fears, because they saw them as secretive sex‑perverts, paedophiles and child molesters and as a result they were thought to be possible communists, or at least ripe targets for blackmail. Today, there’s not much difference to conspiracy theorists alleging the royal family drink the blood of babies. Hence when the translators were looking for a word to use, a word that described the awfulness of the word Paul used, they settled on the word “homosexual”. It was a choice fed by ignorance, not spitefulness. For more about the era please watch the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziCOOdUW8OA. Why am I interested in post-war American culture? Essentially because It was the American publishing houses that had the money to fund any new translation of the Bible, and this was the culture the translators were working in.
Looking at that anti-communist poster from 1950, I feel nothing has changed. How many emails have I seen written with the same attempt to encourage fear, and sometimes the same style (overusing CAPITALS!), and phrasing, in the last 20 years?
That will do for this episode. In a fortnight we will pick up the theme of what does the Old Testament, specifically Leviticus, say about homosexuality? I’ll aim to make that blog a fair bit shorter — apologies for this one! And as a postscript, the end of chapter 8 finishes at the bottom of a page, so you haven’t missed anything!
In the meantime, you can download the latest chapter here, or here, or from the Download page.