Welcome to Bible History in 12 minutes. Now, I offer this introduction for as we launch a series drawn from Judeo-Christian texts, it’s good to explore what Judeo-Christian texts actually are.
The Bible is a collection of history, prophesy, poetry, prayer, resistance literature, rudimentary science, song lyrics, code language, teaching allegory. It includes ruminations on origin, explorations of meaning, visions for society, lamentations on loss, strategies for tribal preservation, affirmations for better living, tactics for food handling and so much more.
It might be described as a compilation of short writings written over some 1,000 years by different peoples from different situations with different agendas for different audiences. These short writings were not always written by those for whom they were named. Nor were they always written by those to whom they are credited. Paul did not write all letters credited to Paul. Moses did not write all books credited to Moses. David did not write Psalms and Solomon did not write Proverbs.
At least, not necessarily. To write in another’s name as honor was common. And to write in another’s name as correction was common.
And so it is that in any serious study of these books, I cannot overstate the importance of seeking to understand their context in seeking to extract their meaning. In fact, I would suggest that until we seek to understand their context, we’re not seeking to extract their meaning. We’re really just seeking to impose our own.
Until we seek to understand what it might have meant for their writers to be enslaved, to be exiled, to be disenfranchised, to be subjugated, to be murdered, to be homeless, to be angry, to be frightened, to be desperate; and what it might have meant their writers to be emancipated, to be hopeful, to be faithful, to be expectant, to be courageous, to be tenacious, to be determined, to be inspired, to be redeemed – until we seek to understand that, we’re not really seeking at all.
Biblical-era peoples would have understood these as an assortment of short writings in papyrus or parchment scrolls, hence the word scriptures (with an s). Even the etymology of the word ‘Bible’ would reveal a Greek root meaning ‘books’ (with an s), or even ‘library’. It was only since the advent of the printing press, and only since this compilation of short writings could be bound within a single cover and distributed in mass that the notion of a God who writes leather-bound books with gilded edges and golden titles took hold.
So, you see, while God as creator and God as warrior and God as conqueror and God as destroyer, while God as man and God as woman and God as nature and God as love and light and life have been around for millennia, God as author is pretty much a modern notion. Biblical-era peoples would not have related to the idea of a single authorship at all.
The Bible is considered a sacred text by the Abrahamic cousins, if you will - Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Hebrew scriptures (written over some 800 years) were canonized (meaning, deemed sacred) around 100BCE. The Christian scriptures (written over some 100 years) were canonized by the mid-300’s. It’s worthy to note that this canonization was a process facilitated within patriarchal contexts in which politic, power and piety were infused, one with the other. That your Bible, such as you know it, reflects a convergence of politic, power and piety goes without saying. And that the political, powerful and pious would be one in the same can create some very real problems in the church, you see. When humans have to prioritize their politics, power and piety… Well, you see where I’m going.
Needless to say, many books didn’t make the final cut. Check out the non-canonical book of Thomas in the compilation of texts known as The Nag Hammadi Library. And wouldn’t you be curious to know what Mary Magdalene had to say about life? It’s in there, too.
And that the many translations of your Bible reflect that convergence of politic, power and piety goes without saying.
That a God of awe would become a God of fear should raise an eyebrow of curiosity.
That a story of cruelty would become a story of homosexuality should raise an eyebrow of curiosity.
That the image of a burning trash heap outside Jerusalem would become the threat of a fiery eternity beneath earth should raise an eyebrow of curiosity.
I recommend you read Dr. Rocco Errico to learn more about translations.
Now, some of these writings are specific to a place and time current to the writer. An historical recounting might be considered such a writing. That biblical-era peoples sacrificed animals in ritual is one example. Its battle cry might be something akin to, “This happened then.”
And still others of these writings are specific to a place and time future to the writer, but past to you and me. An immediate prophecy might be considered such a writing. The entire book of Revelation is one example. And yes, I’m suggesting that the book of Revelation is about an era already past. It’s not about you and me. And its battle cry to the people of the time in which it was written might be something akin to, “This will happen soon.”
And still others of these writings have nothing to do with place and time. An allegorical teaching might be considered such a writing. A tree gathering other trees for a tree coronation is one example. Its battle cry might be something akin to, “This happens always.”
And yet human beings want the comfort of a tidy Bible that’s all factual or all fictional, all divine or all human, all relevant or all immaterial, all universal or all circumstantial And this is a problem because writings offered as teaching metaphor get lumped with history which leaves people like you and me shaking our heads at the notion that whales might eat men and that women might become salt; and writings that were intended as history get lumped with teaching metaphor which leaves people like you and me holding our hearts at the notion that parents should abandon kids and that human should kill human.
Human beings want the comfort of a tidy Bible that’s black or white and the Bible quite simply refuses to accommodate that desire.
“No thank you,” it seems to say. “You seem to have mistaken my interest in your growth for an interest in your comfort,” it seems to say.
And some of the best writings have many layers of meaning simultaneously. So understood is this that our Jewish brothers and sisters even have names for these various layers of meaning. This is why you can get one message from a passage in one year and an entirely different message from the same passage in another year: not because scripture is unclear, but because you are growing!
And this is a core problem in the traditional church. For scripture to come alive isn’t for some man (usually a man) to give you his meaning for a passage and for you to accept his meaning. For scripture to come alive is for you to read a passage for yourself and for you to open yourself to the value that it would impart to you, right here and right now.
From those layers of meaning, personally, I tend to hold the Bible centrally as archetypal. Meaning, I tend to bring the Bible closer than most, as an early exploration of universal patterns and dynamics and narratives (if you will) both within and among people. The Bible is our story, I tend to say. I recommend that you read books by Joseph Campbell to learn more.
Unity tends to hold the Bible centrally as metaphysical. Meaning, Unity tends to bring the Bible even closer, interpreting each of its characters and events as occurring within every human soul. The Bible is your story, Unity tends to say. I encourage you to read books by Elizabeth Sand Turner to learn more.
The Bible’s original written languages include Hebrew and Greek and the spoken language of the people in the Gospels was Aramaic. It’s the bestselling book in the world and the most stolen book in the world (imagine that awkward moment when one stumbles upon the so-called 10 commandments in his stolen Bible - awkward). Famous versions include the 1631 Sinner’s Bible in which “thou shall not commit adultery” was mistakenly printed as, “thou shall commit adultery,” and the 1611 She Bible in which “he went into the city” was mistakenly printed as, “she went into the city.” The verse was referring to God so it was kind of a big deal at the time.
Jesus was an observant Jew teaching from the only Bible he knew. Some call it the Old Testament. I call it Hebrew Scriptures or the Jewish Bible. When cornered, he highlighted his Bible’s dictate to love God, neighbor and self as the foundational stuff.
To my knowledge, Christianity boasts the only scriptures on the planet dominated by responsive letters, those being from the Christian-persecutor-turned-missionary Paul to his early churches. It could be said that Christian scripture is unique in that much of it is drawn from listening to one side of a telephone conversation. Earliest references to Jesus’ teaching were Paul’s, though he never met Jesus in the flesh. The four gospels were written between 30- and 70-years following Jesus’ execution by the Roman empire. Without question, there was some borrowing and editing and expanding and refocusing as the stories passed from decade to decade.
Jesus was a flesh-and-blood itinerant teacher, healer, noted miracle-worker and social change agent whose ministry lasted a few years at best. There are some non-biblical references to Jesus as well. And it is this flesh-and-blood Jesus with whom I relate the best.
He would eventually come to be called “Lord,” a term used to refer to any number of people from teachers to masters to political leaders to heads of state. And while our childhoods leave far too many of us with mental images including flowing blonde locks and light blue eyes, the Bible reveals nothing about Jesus’ looks. We don’t know if he would have favored Denzel Washington or Itzhak Perlman. We do know he would not have favored Brad Pitt.
His language didn’t have the phonetic capacity for the word Jesus. He would have answered to Yeshua (a name that would come to be related as Joshua).
And it’s with this short introduction to its history that we begin a series entitled Opening the Bible. And, of course, the word opening means a lot more than opening. It’s easy to open the Bible. But it’s not easy to open the Bible. To open the Bible is to question our mythologies, to challenge our assumptions, to expand our answers, to integrate our sciences, to consider our values, even to heal our abuses. To open the Bible is to become a people capable of housing complexity and contradiction. To open the Bible is to become a people capable of discerning facts from truths. To open the Bible is to seek its universal offerings by navigating its circumstantial limitations. To open the Bible is to courageously redefine both what it is, and what it is not.
It was Rabbi Rami Shapiro who said it this way when he was asked, “Aren't all religions equally true?” by answering, “No. All religions are equally false.” And he went on to explain, “The relationship of religion to truth is like that of a menu to a meal. The menu describes the meal as best it can. It points to something beyond itself. [And] as long as we use the menu as a guide we do it honor. [But] When we mistake the menu for the meal, we do it, and ourselves a grave injustice.”
To open the Bible is to open a menu. To open the Bible is to open a guide that points to something beyond itself. To open the Bible is to open one of the planet’s sacred texts, ultimately offering pointers toward the unfoldment of our highest selves. This is the journey I invite you to take with me for the next few weeks.
Before next Sunday, consider reading about Adam and Eve and that proverbial garden. You’ll find it in Genesis. As spiritual practice, maybe read it every day. I would invite you to consider two guides for our series. Instead of getting mired in factuality,
1. Embrace the significance of how biblical tales were recorded.
Early Hebrews taught important ideas through story, and the breadth of the stories is as significant to us as the factuality of the events. Where we find pillars of salt and towers of babel and angels from heaven and gardens of delight, we find important ideas.
2. Learn to say, “God is imagined as having said/done…”
It’s so important to grasp that the Bible is the compilation of how two early faith communities imagined God to be. It’s a book that pursues God. It’s not a book that defines God.
In closing with words from the late theologian Rachel Held-Evans:
They said that if I questioned a 6,000-year-old earth, I would question whether other parts of Scripture should be read scientifically and historically. They were right. I did.
They said that if I entertained the hope that those without access to the gospel might still be loved by God, I would fall prey to the dangerous idea that God loves everyone. They were right. I have.
They said that if I listened to my gay and lesbian neighbors, if I made room for them in my church and in my life, I could let grace get out of hand. They were right. It has.