The Scripture’s Sources, Scope, Sum & Substance
In the 400th Anniversary Year of the launching of The King James Version of the Bible
The 2004 Winter Bible Study Series at The City Church, New York
The last supernova was seen from Earth exactly 400 years ago – in 1604. That spectacular astral explosion of light and energy was visible through both darkness and daylight. Its bright shining can symbolize the flame of another powerful light – the power and light of the written word of God, lit for new life in that stellar year. The King James translation of the Bible was launched – 400 years ago this month.
That literary launching was at the palace at Hampton Court in the countryside south of London. The decision to produce this new translation of the Bible marked a significant turning point in the history of the knowledge of God’s Word. Though it was not the first vernacular version of the Bible – even in English – it would turn out to be the literature that would shape, not only Christian understanding, but even the broadest culture of the English-speaking world for centuries.
James, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, had ascended to the English throne on the death of the popular “Good Queen Bess” – Elizabeth I. He’d already been King James VI of Scotland.
James found himself up against many odds. For one thing, he was faced with a political crisis in the church controversies between the Anglican establishment and the Puritans. In an effort to try to address these problems, he invited both sides to his country residence at Hampton Court, where he was holed up to escape the plague infesting the filthy city of London.
During delicate deliberations there, and almost as an aside, Puritan John Rainolds suggested that what the nation really needed was a new English translation of the Bible. The bishop of London promptly disagreed, insisting that the Anglican establishment’s Bishops’ Bible was the only Bible England needed. But the king seized upon Rainolds’ suggestion. He saw it as an opportunity to make a concession to the Puritans after having made a number of decisions in favor of the Anglican hierarchy. Besides, James had an aversion to the Puritans’ Geneva Bible, a popular translation by English dissenters, that was beginning to pose a threat to the dominance of the Bishops’ Bible. James saw that a new translation might weaken the influence of the Geneva Bible. Why didn’t he like the Geneva Bible? He didn’t like its rendering of the term “kings” as “tyrants.”
So James directed that a new translation be undertaken. But he stipulated that it should alter the wording of the Bishops’ Bible only so far as was justified by the original Hebrew and Greek. The translators were to be chosen from among the best biblical scholars at the country’s two universities – Oxford and Cambridge – as well as from the biblical scholars at Westminster Abbey. Six companies of scholars were set up, with two companies meeting at each of the three sites: Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge. Each group had its assigned books of the Bible to translate. This was the first effort at Bible translation by committee. The scholars worked in various combinations and collaborations, double-checking each others’ work, over the next seven years to produce this royally Authorized Version that would come to be known popularly by the name of the king who commissioned it. The first edition was published in 1611.
Over the next four weeks, we’ll be looking into what the Bible is and is not. We’ll consider the question: “How Big is the Bible?” What’s there and what’s not, the Bible’s breadth and depth. We’ll look at how we got the Bible. That is, who wrote it, how was it handed down, how was it collected together? On the weekend of the actual date of the launching of the King James Version, we’ll discuss the question: “How Big is Your Bible?” That is, how do we tend to pick and choose Bible content to suit ourselves, reducing the Bible to less than what it is. That weekend also marks the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s slicing up the Bible to suit himself – not the last to pull that stunt. To wrap up our series, we’ll look into questions of interpretation, the principles we must keep in mind in order to best understand what the Bible is and is not saying.
FIRST STUDY: “How Big is the Bible?”
If you dare to bring up the topic of the Bible with most urbane New Yorkers, you’ll find that there’s a huge shortage on factual knowledge but no shortage of opinions – usually sour. That’s part and parcel of our society’s biblical illiteracy and over-confidence in subjectivity and consequent vulnerability to misinformation. Sadly, the situation is no better among many churchgoers. This illiteracy and subjectivism, along with consequential ignorance and naivete, results in gullibility when even the most ridiculous rumors and counter-factual conspiracy theories are spread by the Christophobic media. Books such as The Da Vinci Code and the so-called Lost Christianities and Lost Scriptures are only the latest in a line of nonsense that otherwise well-educated and usually savvy New Yorkers don’t know enough but to swallow.
Here’s a conversation recently reported in a Christianity Today essay by a Princeton Seminary doctoral student, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson. She was chatting with a stranger to whom she mentioned her field of study – theology. He said immediately: “What I’d really like is to get my hands on those scrolls.”
” ‘Scrolls? You mean the Dead Sea Scrolls?’
‘Naw, those were discovered in 1947. I’m talking about the scrolls that were discovered in 1991.’
‘Scrolls discovered in 1991?’ I said, confused.
‘Yeah, these scrolls were written by Christ himself! You know, the Roman Catholic Church is trying to cover them up and say they’re heresy. But I’d sure like to see them for myself. They say there’s totally different things in there!’
I was a little suspicious. ‘How did you find out about these scrolls?’ I inquired as casually as possible.
‘Well, I read about them on a Christian website. They say the forensic evidence dates them back to the time of Christ and to the very town he lived in before he died. Also,’ he added, ‘they’re written in Christ’s own handwriting.’
I narrowed my eyes a bit. ‘How can they tell it’s Christ’s own handwriting?’
‘Well,’ he said lightly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, ‘they cross-referenced it.’”
She then comments with insight: “This poor man got tripped up by the lust for gnosis, the spawning ground for heresies old and new. Gnosis, the secret knowledge hidden from the ordinary folk, sets the bearer apart and above. … Gnosis flatters human vanity.” But, as she goes on to explain, “the Christian faith does not deal in secrets. … it’s quite the opposite: Jesus said to his Father, ‘You have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’ (Matt 11:25, NASB).” She asserts: “The tomb is empty and the Scripture is in print: all are welcome to behold and adore.”
Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State, comments on this sort of lust for “lost” books or “censored” books that “should” be in the Bible. He says there’s “the belief that somewhere out there, possibly in the Egyptian desert, one would find a new gospel that would infallibly prove whatever the person in question wanted it to prove. … You want a feminist Jesus, or a Buddhist, or an advocate of reincarnation or vegetarianism? Then somewhere, a text is awaiting you.” Further, he notes: “In the absence of such a discovery, people have simply acted as if such documents had been found, ancient manuscripts that ‘disproved Christianity,’ that got back to ‘the real Jesus.’”
Now of course, the ironic thing is that these disgruntled and gullible folk often don’t have much of a clue about the Bible they wish to replace or augment. They may have a bit of a notion about what it is – derived from a distasteful church experience or, perhaps, from nothing much more than what they’ve picked up from friends or TV – but they have more than a bit of a notion about what they think they’d like instead.
If you went to Barnes and Noble to get a Bible, you wouldn’t expect to have to buy over sixty books to get your Bible. You’d have intended to buy a book – a big book, but nonetheless, one book. But in an important sense, the Bible is not one book. The Bible is really not so much a book as it is a vast library of books. And while there is a unifying theme to the sweep of the biblical literature, making the Bible more than the sum of its parts, we must not overlook the significance of all these parts.
The first instance we have of the term from which we get our English word, “Bible,” is biblia, “the books.” They’re mentioned by an early Christian leader named Clement in AD 150. He writes: “The books and the apostles declare that the church existed from the beginning.” (II Clement 14:2). These “books,” the Hebrew Bible that Jesus had in mind when he referred to “the Scriptures,” (Matt 21:42) are linked to New Testament texts in this statement from Clement in the mid 2nd century.
The Bible’s collection of writings are by men (and maybe even one woman or two) who are, for the most part, anonymous. They wrote over a span of some fifteen centuries – from the time of the writing of the Torah or the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) up through the middle and late first century of the Christian era. According to even a liberal scholar, John A. T. Robinson, most probably they were all written by the time of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Other scholars, however, think that a few were not written until the 90s – John’s gospel, his letters, the Revelation, for example. The very earliest New Testament document is a letter of Paul to Christian Thessalonians in AD 50 – only 17 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
The books of what we, today, call the Old Testament were written in Hebrew (with a bit of Aramaic). These were translated into Greek between 250 and 150 BC. The Greek translation is known as the Septuagint (LXX) because it was alleged that it was the work of 70 translators. The New Testament books were written in Greek – the everyday, commercial Greek of the streets, not the classical Greek of Homer and Plato. This street Greek, called koine, made these gospels and letters readily accessible to all literate folk.
The biblical library holds a wide range of literature. The holdings include books of history, genealogy, liturgy, law, poetry, prophecy, wisdom, epistle, and apocalyptic as well as a uniquely biblical genre known as “gospel” or “good news” – the euongelion or “evangel.” Given these many different kinds of literature within the Bible, it’s absolutely important that we note the nature of the text, its genre, in order to rightly understand it. That’s what we’ll look at when we deal with what’s called hermeneutics or literary interpretation and exegesis or explication.
Today, most Bibles we’re likely to read contain 66 separate books – 39 are in the Old Testament and 27 are in the New Testament. I say, most Bibles we’re likely to read contain 66 books because some Bibles also contain the books known as the Apocrypha. The term, “Apocrypha,” is a technical term and it means “hidden”. The Apocrypha is a collection of Jewish literature preserved in Greek translation. As was true of the Bible of the Jews in Jesus’ day, the Apocrypha consists of additions to the standard books, called the canonical books. These standard or canonical books (the word “canon” simply means “a measuring rod”) include those books of the Bible with which you’re most familiar: e.g., the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the Acts, and Paul’s several letters.
Among the Apocryphal books are works with which you’re probably not so familiar: e.g., I and II Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, additions to canonical Daniel and Esther, The Prayer of Manasses, The Letter of Jeremiah, The Book of Baruch, The Wisdom of Solomon, I and II Maccabees, Psalm 151, and Sirach, otherwise known as Ecclesiasticus.
Since the Hebrew Bible of the Palestinian Jews always carried greater weight than the Greek version of the Alexandrian Jews – and the Hebrew collection did not contain the Apocrypha – the Apocrypha was rejected as sub-standard by the Jewish Council that met at Jamnia in AD 100. There and then, for the first time, Judaism gave official recognition to a canon of scripture. That meeting was called to counter the growing canon of New Testament books within what the non-Christian Jews called the “Christian heresy.” As with the later Christian councils, however, all that was done at Jamnia, in terms of the canon, was to rubber-stamp, as it were, the books already seen to be authoritative.
William Barclay relates some of this history so far as Christians were concerned. He says: “The [church] fathers who were scholars and who knew Hebrew … generally rejected the Apocrypha as Scripture and adhered to the Hebrew Bible, while the fathers who knew no Hebrew and who knew only Greek or Latin tended to accept the Apocrypha. … Thus Jerome and Origen, who were among the worlds’ great scholars … were clear that the Apocrypha were not part of Scripture, while fathers like Tertullian and Augustine, who knew no Hebrew, accepted the Apocrypha as part of Scripture.” Nonetheless, when it came to the official Bible of the Roman church, Jerome’s politics got the better of his scholarship and he went along with the Hellenized hierarchy and included the Apocrypha in the Latin Vulgate – still the basis of Roman Catholic Bibles today.
Bibles now printed by Roman Catholic as well as by Eastern Orthodox and Anglican publishers still contain books from the Apocrypha. Even the 20th century’s Revised English Bible, a joint project of Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and Salvation Army folk under the leadership of evangelical Anglican Donald Coggan, appended the Apocrypha. Older Bibles favored by Protestants, including Luther’s translation into German and Wycliffe’s translation into English, as well as the King James Version, all contained the Apocrypha. That changed in 1827 when the British and Foreign Bible Society decided that it would no longer print the Apocrypha – largely for political and economic considerations as well as for the fact of the general inferiority of the Apocrypha. For similar reasons, the American Bible Society followed that lead, as did many other publishers.
Since the mid-16th-century Council of Trent – the Roman Catholics’ governmental reaction to the Reformation – most of the books of the Apocrypha have been viewed as valuable for public use in Roman Catholic churches. Among Protestants generally, they have been seen to be variably suitable only for private study.
So how big the Bible is depends, in part, on the publisher’s allegiance and budget. But all Bibles contain the 66 core books that are identical to the standard Protestant Bible.
Of course, back when Jesus referred to the “Scriptures,” he was not referring to the Bible we have today, for none of the New Testament was written in his day.
Paul (of Tarsus!) seems, understandably, to have used the inclusive Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, containing the Apocrypha, rather than the Palestinian version without it. Paul’s telling Timothy that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable” no doubt refers to the Greek Old Testament and so he may have meant the Apocrypha, too. He alludes specifically to the Apocrypha when he writes to the Romans (1:18-32). The Wisdom of Solomon (13:1-9) underlies that passage to the Romans. The author of Hebrews makes use of the Apocrypha and the letter by Jesus’ brothers James and Jude contain several allusions to the Apocrypha. In fact, it is now recognized that the very survival of the Apocrypha was perhaps “due entirely to the Christians” of the first centuries. (Charles T. Fritsch) Still, as a British scholar observes: “It is surprising that the New Testament writers allude so rarely to the vast mass of extra-canonical material which was circulating in the first century.” (Michael Green)
During the first two centuries at least, the Apocryphal books came along with the church’s use of the Greek translation of the Old Testament. At the end of the first century, the Wisdom of Solomon was listed as a New Testament book in what is the very earliest known list of New Testament books, the Muratorian Fragment.
Throughout the second-century, the Gospels and Paul’s letters were used as scripture in the churches.
As the canonical Gospels themselves indicate and as Princeton’s Bruce Metzger states: “Jesus had claimed to speak with an authority in no way inferior to that of the ancient Law, and had placed his utterances side by side with its precepts by way of fulfilling or even correcting and repealing them.” Outside the books of the New Testament, quite early evidence for identifying the words of Jesus as scripture comes from the second century sermon known as II Clement (2:4). It reads: “Another scripture also says, ‘I come not to call the righteous but sinners.’” This saying of Jesus (cf. Mark 2:17; Matthew 9:13; Luke 5:32) is given equal standing with the Law and Prophets. Of course, Paul was citing Jesus’ sayings with Old Testament texts in the mid-first century. (e.g., I Tim 5:18)
When it comes to the books of the Old Testament, the canon was fairly – if not officially – set by Jesus’ day. According to Bible scholar Darrell Bock: “The [Old Testament] books we now possess were consistently named as Scripture with only a few books being disputed now and then as to whether they should be included (Esther, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel).” Bock notes: “The rule seems to have been – if a book is really in doubt, leave it out.”
When it comes to the earliest approach to the books of the New Testament, Bock states: “Among the New Testament books that were disputed were: 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, and Revelation. Shepherd, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Didache … , the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and 1 and 2 Clement sometimes appeared in early groupings. The Gospel of Thomas, often discussed by some today as a fifth gospel, never shows up in these lists.” Sadly, this so-called Gospel of Thomas, a later Gnostic tract of alleged sayings of Jesus – distorted and derivative of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) – is a favorite of today’s would-be revisionists of Christianity. They push what they spin as its alleged feminism but they neglect to mention its notoriously anti-feminist passages – such as a female’s having to become a male in order to come into the kingdom of God. If you really want a feminist Jesus, you can’t do better than the conventional customs-crashing Jesus presented by Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.
Jewish writings known as the Pseudepigrapha or “false writings” – mostly produced during the intertestamental period – include the moralistic legend of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the legalistic Book of Jubilees, and the quasi-Christian Book of the Life of Adam and Eve. The Pseudepigrapha were never considered sacred or canonical by either Jews or Christians – though some are cited in some canonical material. The use of the pseudepigraphic Enoch in the argument of Jude’s Letter, for example, was a strike against Jude’s quicker acceptance in the churches.
But then, it is clear that there are numerous extra-biblical Jewish and even pagan sources sited in Scripture – without presenting any problem. In Galatians 3:19, for example, Paul refers to angels who had a mediating role in the giving of the Mosaic Law. In I Corinthians 10:4 he speaks of a moving rock in the wilderness, apparently based in old rabbinic midrash. Paul quotes pagans (e.g. Menander at I Corinthians 15:33 and Epimenides at Titus 1:12, cf. Acts 17:28). When Paul illustrates his argument at Athens by quoting from Aratus’ Phainomena, it is to the Greek’s god Zeus that Aratus refers when he says “for we are his offspring.” Paul applies the phrase to the God and Father of Jesus. As even a very conservative New Testament scholar grants: “Thoughts which in their pagan contexts were quite un-Christian and anti-Christian, could be acknowledged as up to a point involving an actual apprehension of revealed truth.” (Ned B. Stonehouse)
Between AD 367 and about AD 400, a recognition of the scriptures commonly received by Western Christians was formalized in a canonization of all 27 New Testament books.
Some Bible texts were not in their contexts originally. For example, I Corinthians 14:34f was probably not written by Paul but by someone in the late first or second century. Because of both transcriptional and intrinsic improbability, evangelical Bible scholar Gordon Fee concludes: there are “more than sufficient reasons for considering these verses inauthentic … it seems best to view them as an interpolation. … the exegesis of the text itself leads to the conclusion that it is not authentic.” Fee is joined in his assessment by other evangelical scholars, including Bruce.
Are you curious about just what this interpolated text is? You’ve no doubt heard of fundamentalists using it against women and feminists using it against poor Paul. Here it is – this decidedly non-Pauline advice. “When God’s people meet in church, the women must not be allowed to speak. They must keep quiet and listen, as the Law of Moses teaches. If there is something they want to know, they can ask their husbands when they get home. It is disgraceful for women to speak in church.” Paul never wrote that! But try to explain that to fundamentalists and feminists.
And what about the material that used to be the ending of the Gospel according to Mark? According to Durham’s N. T. Wright and other evangelical biblical scholars, it’s been lost. Says one: “Mark did write an ending to his Gospel but … it was lost in the early transmission of the text. The endings we now possess represent attempts by the church to supply what was obviously lacking.” (Walter Wessel) Says another: “the form, language and style of these verses [that is, verses 9-20 added to Mark 16] militate against Marcan authorship.” (William L. Lane)
In 1548, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent attested full canonicity to all the books of the Apocrypha except the Prayer of Manassess and I and II Esdras. In 1672, the Eastern church retained only Tobit, Judith, Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon from the Apocrypha. In the late 20th century, some people urged that Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” be added to the Bible – but to no avail.
So how big a Bible do Christians have? What’s in? What’s out? How big a Bible we have depends on the time and place in which God calls us as Christians.
But as we’ll explicate at length next week, the size of the basic Christian Bible is really a matter of the very earliest perceptual consensus and common usage of sacred texts among ancient Palestinian Jews and the earliest of Jewish Christians and Hebrew-conversant Gentile believers in Christ. The canon was not conceived behind closed doors in the back rooms of the Vatican, as ignorant Christophobes try to propagandize these days. The basic canon was the clear conclusion of the earliest churches in recognition of those texts that had already survived the rigors of constant use and usefulness in the early, formative years of the Christian era.
SECOND STUDY: “How Did We Get the Bible?”
Over the years I used to collect examples of the use of the term, “Revelations” for the New Testament book of Revelation. I stopped collecting because there were simply too many instances of this common mistake – not only in the popular media but also in the more supposedly sophisticated set. I once noticed that a columnist for The New York Review of Books, in a snide Christophobic piece, referred to “The Saint James Version of the Bible” – in apparently utter oblivion. And more recently, Howard Dean tells us that his favorite New Testament book is Job! Examples of biblical illiteracy are cropping up more than once in a while these days, and conservative Christians aren’t the only ones who are taking note.
Writing several years ago in The New York Times Book Review, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon stated: “Literate people no longer have a daily intimacy with the Bible.” Today that’s only truer. Literary critic George Steiner, writing in The New Yorker, said: “One is, indeed, tempted to define modernism in Western culture in terms of the recession of the Old and the New Testaments from the common currency of recognition. Such recognition,” he says, “was the sinew of literacy, the shared matter of intellect and sentiment from the late sixteenth century onward. … not only in the spheres of personal and public piety but in those of politics, social institutions, and the life of the literary and aesthetic imagination.” No more! The ACLU, the secular power establishment in the universities, and the other agents of Christophobia have seen to that.
This biblical illiteracy is a consequence of a contemporary aversion to organized religion in general and Christianity and the Bible – especially the New Testament – in particular. On Wednesday, Nicholas D. Kristof continued his running assault on what he keeps warning his New York Times readers is “a new Great Awakening [that] is sweeping the country.” He begins this particular column by making a statement of cynically historical inaccuracy. He writes that “it’s hard to think of anything that … has been more linked to violence and malice around the world” than religion. He should think a little harder. Has he never heard of the atheistic Nazis, atheistic Stalinists, atheistic Maoists – not to mention the horrible drug cartels – who, in one century, committed more violence against more people than all of religion ever did in the whole history of the world? Kristof then attacks Vice-President Cheney’s Christmas card as an example of “all that troubles me about the way politicians treat faith – not as a source of spiritual improvement [read: “Keep it to yourself, buddy!”] but as a pedestal to strut upon.” Now there’s no question that people can and do misuse religion, as people misuse anything. But Kristof faults Cheney’s intent by way of a contorted reach of cynicism. The card featured a quote from Ben Franklin that alluded to a New Testament passage. Said Franklin: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” This statement was, for Franklin, at the beginning of our republic (and as Kristof rightly notes) no “bragging that God is behind him.” But why, then, does Kristof miss what we may infer was Cheney’s similar intent – a caution that we, as a nation, not presume to proceed without God’s aid? Kristof chooses to read that “bragging” into Cheney’s motive.
Even when the Bible passes the approval of the secular censors, so long as it is taught only “as literature,” there’s still much mischief afoot. For example, in Donald Davie’s New Republic review of one of the “Bible as literature” books, he argues that to view the Bible as only a literary masterwork is to reduce it to what essentially it is not. He says that “to be blunt about it,” the author of this new literary look at the Bible “writes as an unbeliever, to convert us to his unbelief.” Back in 1961, C. S. Lewis charged that “Those who talk of reading the Bible ‘as literature’ sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about.” Earlier, Lewis had said that Scripture “does not invite, it excludes or repels, the merely aesthetic approach. You can read it as literature only by a tour de force. You are cutting the wood against the grain … it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different.” Said T. S. Eliot: “The persons who enjoy these [biblical] writings solely because of their literary merit are essentially parasites; and we know that parasites, when they become too numerous, are pests. I could easily fulminate for a whole hour against the men of letters who have gone into ecstasies over ‘the Bible as literature.’”
Well, whether regarded as the true Word of God or as mere literature, George Gallup has found: we’re “really a nation of biblical illiterates.”
One of the tragic consequences of this biblical (and historical) illiteracy is the fact that people who think of themselves as well-educated – and in some ways, of course, they are – are, nonetheless, easy prey for all sorts of erroneous propaganda about the Bible. And these false notions often are packaged and peddled by best-selling authors and well-known publishers and mainstream media – thus lulling readers and viewers into deceptions that are, then, quite difficult to detect. Whether the views expressed are those of Rightwing fundamentalists with their notions of dictation, liberal religionists with their humanistic reductionism, postmodern relativists with their subjectivist spiritualities, Christophobic secularists with their hatred of anything seriously Christian – you name it, there’s a perversity or two being purveyed about the Bible. And one of these concerns the question of how we got the Bible in the first place.
Naïve skeptics think of ancient “smoke-filled rooms” in which dastardly deals were done behind closed doors, good books burned and bad books dressed up by bureaucratic censors carrying out the orders of the rich and powerful dogmatists. But it did not happen that way. In fact, it was precisely a second-century attempt to do it that way that utterly failed. That was the effort of a man named Marcion. He pushed for the rejection of all the canonical material that he considered too-Jewish. He ended up with a reductionist Luke and Paul. But the early church respected the received tradition from the full range of Apostolic leadership too much to fall for the censorship of a Marcion.
Well, if it didn’t happen the way so many skeptics today would like you to believe it happened, how did it happen? How did we wind up with the Bible we have today? Just how did the church produce the Bible? Or, did it? Can it not just as well be asked how the Bible produced the church? Yes it can. A Princeton biblical scholar puts the question like this: Is the Bible “a collection of authoritative books or an authoritative collection of books?” As with all such “chicken or egg” puzzles, it can be said: the Bible produced the church and the church produced the Bible.
The evidence suggests that it was the habituated use of the Hebrew Bible and the habitual use of certain more recent writings by the earliest Christians that determined the standard, the canon, of authoritative Christian books. From the start, the Bible was a collection of used books, if you will. This collection of used books, attested to validity that no ruling in arbitrary collusion, no matter how official, could do.
As the first generation of believers, attached to the original apostles, began to die off, either by martyrdom or old age, there was a need to get into writing, or to preserve what was already in writing, that which witnessed to the faith the Christians were already living. It was their actual experience of events, especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ – whom they called Kurios, “Lord”, (as they’d applied that term to God) – that the early followers of Jesus began to recognize divine fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture in what they witnessed in him.
They then had to confront even violent opposition from fellow Jews who refused to see that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and the Savior of the world. Thus, the sayings of Jesus and written accounts based on eyewitness reports by Peter and others as well as letters of Paul and others were lovingly preserved.
Both the individual letters of Paul and the later individual Gospels circulated for a time by themselves and from assembly to assembly before being collected together as The Epistles and The Gospels.
A saying of Jesus, quoted in Luke’s Gospel, is cited as Scripture along with a passage from the Torah within three decades of his crucifixion and resurrection (I Timothy 5:18).
Paul’s letters, written in the 50s and early 60s, were collected and published in Ephesus about AD 90. The book called II Peter (3:16) regards the letters of Paul as “Scripture” perhaps sometime before AD 70. According to Justin Martyr, in the first half of the second century, the believers read “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets” in their Sunday assemblies. Thus, as the Hamburg theologian, Helmut Thielicke, writes: “the real reason [for canon inclusion] was that the transmitted texts were used as a basis for liturgical proclamation and were the objects of spiritual experiences, i.e., there was experience of their evidence as truth.” He continues: “The formation of the canon is thus the church’s seal to the spiritual experience of the texts.”
This symbiosis between the early church and its literature is expressed by a Cambridge scholar. He writes that “the living community was indeed constantly subject to check and correction by the authentic evidence – by the basic witness, first of accredited eyewitness apostles and later of the written deposit of that witness; yet also the documents which soon began to circulate in considerable numbers were themselves in some measure subject to check and correction, whatever their origin, by the living community.” (C. F. D. Moule)
According to another biblical scholar – a Scottish liberal under whom I studied at the University of Southern California: “By AD 200 there was little doubt about most of the books that were eventually included in the New Testament. Later synods and councils of the Christian Church, in setting forth lists of canonical books, did not do much more than put their seal to what had been already established in practice.” (Geddes MacGregor)
Thielicke goes into more theological detail when he writes that “the canon was not produced by the church, or by men at all but … it came from outside to the church, was disclosed and made audible to it by the Spirit, and was received by it, so that the church did not constitute the canonicity of Scripture but could only confirm it as the received Word of God.” He remarks that “It will always be astonishing with what sure instinct Christians at the beginning of the thrid century perceived and retained the original material. There is nothing to show that other material was then present which the church abandoned and rejected for dogmatic reasons. It did not set aside but accepted and acknowledged even Galatians, which Marcion had perhaps rediscovered and put at the head of his collection of Pauline letters, and whose contents were highly discomfiting.” This last point of Thielicke’s is a most instructive one, for as anyone familiar with the canonical books knows, the point of view is not the most readily received by religious leaders and the depiction of the early church and its leaders is not the most flattering – to put it mildly. They’re portrayed, even sarcastically, as seriously unfaithful. And yet they were not tossed out.
The euongelion or “Good News” of Jesus, the Christ, that the first Christians received from eyewitnesses, became what Paul, already by the beginning of the 50s, was calling “the tradition” in I Thessalonians (2:13ff) – the earliest New Testament book, written in AD 50 – II Thessalonians (2:15; 3:6), I Corinthians (11:2), Galatians (1:8ff) and Romans (6:17). The collection of the faith was thus the fruit of its own flowering.
Were any deliberated standards applied? Precise information on this is hard to come by. Bruce Metzger of Princeton observes: “Nothing is more amazing in the annals of the Christian Church than the absence of detailed accounts of so significant a process.” It’s as though the eyewitness traadition was so firmly believed and incorporated in all proclamation from the first that the collecting of the tradition in writing was simply confirmation of what had been accepted by word of mouth and common practice. In the words of C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge: “no genuine apostolic Gospel could contain an interpretation of Jesus contrary to what the communis sensus fidelium had come to recognize as authentic.” He says that “while the earliest Church was shaped and controlled by the evidence of all the eye-witnesses, and especially the authenticated Twelve, there came a brief period when this evidence had become so entirely a part of the life and thinking of the leaders of the Church that they automatically refused to assimilate into their system what was contrary in doctrinal tendency to the now indigenous standards.”
You see, now, how ludicrous it is for amateurs like Dan Brown, the conspiracy-obsessed novelist of The Da Vinci Code, to try to push the notion that all this high Christology was a fraudulent concoction of ecclesiastical power-brokers in the fourth century! The closest connection between Jesus and God was recognized from the very earliest days following the resurrection. Indeed, as I’ve said many times, had it not been for the fact of Jesus’ resurrection – which the revisionists deny – the revisionists would never have heard of Jesus. And there would not be any Christianity to revise. And there would be no book called The Da Vince Code. That book is its own rebuttal.
The very highest Christology imaginable is right there in the Gospel of John, written by the only one of Jesus’ disciples who did not meet a martyr’s death. John’s opening lines about Jesus could not be more strange for a monotheistic Jew of first-century Palestine. He writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and what God was the Word was. He was with God in the beginning. Through him [i.e. the Word] all things were made. Without him nothing was made that was made. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The earliest biblical fragment we can get our hands on is a scrap of this Gospel of John and it dates from as early as AD 117. It’s known as the John Rylands Fragment and it’s at the University of Manchester in England. So though we have no original autographs of the books of the Bible, this earliest piece of manuscript of John is material evidence for what we know otherwise to have been the case: from the first weeks and months following Jesus’ resurrection, monotheistic Jews were willing to die – and did die – for their testimony of highest Christology. Contrary to the rubbish of The Da Vinci Code, it didn’t take a fourth-century smoke-filled room to hatch the idea that Jesus was God in the flesh.
Moving farther back in time, let’s now look at the question of authorship: Who really did write the Bible?
At the Minskoff Theater, some years ago, Lily Tomlin stepped onto the stage to announce the Tony winner for Best Play. Before reciting the nominees, she said: “The Bible says: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ Just think,” she said, “someone wrote that!” In the case of her quotation, that “someone” was John, “the beloved disciple.” He was one of some forty authors of the Bible.
Christians, of course, have always believed that the Scriptures are more than the words of these authors – that they are, as it’s put, the word of God. But we must observe that Christians have always believed, as well, that the Scriptures are most definitely the words of these authors themselves. Unlike in Islam, where the holy book, the Koran, is believed to be the very words of Allah, dictated in Arabic to Mohammad, with absolutely no input at all from the prophet himself, the Bible has always been understood within Christianity to be both God’s word and the words of human authors.
“God’s revelation must not be seen as a timeless and suprahistorical event but as a manifestation in history,” according to Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer. As put by another Dutch scholar: “However much aglow with the Holy Spirit, [the words of Scripture] remain bound to the limitations of our language, disturbed as it is by anomalies.” (Abraham Kuyper) Says another Dutch scholar: “Inspiration is always organic, that is, always congenial in its operation to the divine Revealer and to the human receiver of the revelation. It is always effected by the Logos in a human logos existing in the image of its archetype.” (Harry R. Boer) Says Presbyterian theologian Donald Bloesch: “The Bible contains a fallible element in the sense that it reflects the cultural limitations of the writers.” Says Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock: “The writers of the Bible were not mere copyists or secretaries, but flesh-and-blood people like ourselves, giving us the fruit of their efforts to hear God speak to them in the context of their special places in history.” Note that none of these comments was made by a postmodernist or liberal. Each is the sober analysis of a conservative scholar reflecting the traditional Christian viewpoint.
Among the Bible’s roughly forty human authors, living within a span of some fifteen centuries, we have quite a diverse lot. The Bible was written by murderers and adulterers and at least one man who kept a thousand women on hand for his sexual pleasure. There were shepherds, priests, prophets, poets, story tellers, and kings as well as a rabbi and a doctor. Virtually all were Jews – except the doctor, and perhaps two or three of the Wisdom authors.
Virtually all of the biblical material was evidently written by men. But with reference to the Old Testament, there is good reason to attribute the composition of at least one verse, the “Song of the Sea,” to the ecstatic prophetess Miriam, Moses’ sister (Exodus 15:1a-18 and/or 15:21). At least one literary scholar, Harold Bloom, thinks there’s a case to be made for a woman’s having had a hand in the writing of Job. With reference to the New Testament, it’s been suggested that Priscilla, Paul’s co-worker at both Corinth and Ephesus and Apollos’ theology teacher, may have written the Letter to the Hebrews.
The writers of much in the Bible do remain unknown to us. Many books have no author identified within the text. Even when an author is named within the text, we must appreciate the custom of attributing a work to a representative author, e.g. Law by Moses, Wisdom by Solomon, Psalms by David. But, of course, even if we’re fairly certain that a particular book of the Bible was written by a particular person, if there isn’t much known about that person, what does it really help to know a name?
In the end, as it’s put in the book of Hebrews, it was – in good King James English – at “sundry times and in divers manners” that God spoke to us through men and at last through His Son.
THIRD STUDY: “How Big is Your Bible?”
In this morning’s New York Times, columnist Frank Rich continues his obsessive attack against Mel Gibson’s yet-to-be-released film, “The Passion of Christ.” The fact that Rich has not seen the film does not deter him from asserting that “what can be said without qualification is that the marketing of this film remains a masterpiece of ugliness.” Curiously, he decries the film and its promotion as a “pandering to church-going Americans.”
But since, according to biblical scholars who have seen the film, “The Passion of Christ” is firmly based in the Bible – and Rich seems to assume as much – his real argument is with the Bible. His warnings that the film could be “anti-Semitic” because he disdains the frank acknowledgement of the Jewish establishment’s hand in the crucifixion of Jesus is disdain for the New Testament’s historical accounts. What he’s up against is the Jewish record of the intra-Jewish rivalry between Jesus, a Jew, and the Jewish establishment in 1st-century Jerusalem. He wishes to deny that the Temple rulers plotted against Jesus, that they were complicit in Pilate’s ordering Jesus’ crucifixion. But the facts are otherwise. And in the simple, five-word sentence of Pope John Paul II, after he saw the film: “It is as it was.” Yet Rich ridicules the pope’s assessment as “what is surely the most bizarre commercial endorsement since Eleanor Roosevelt did an ad for Good Luck Margarine.” This comparison is what’s “bizarre!”
Now does the historical fact that the Temple establishment plotted against Jesus and had a hand in his crucifixion make all Jews guilty of “deicide?” No. It never did. Jesus himself made it quite clear that no one takes his life from him, he lays it down willingly of his own accord (John 10:17f) so even those who took part in the execution were operating within a bigger purpose than they had in mind. Besides, didn’t Jesus, on the cross, pray: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they’re doing?” So where’s the basis for the so-called “anti-Semitism?” Not in the Bible. Not for any Bible-believer.
Still, Rich and his secularist, Christophobic cohorts want the Bible censored to suit themselves. And, of course, they’re not the only ones.
Over the years, there have been many people who haven’t liked what they’ve read – or read into – the Bible. So some of these people have simply ignored whatever they didn’t like. Others have tried to rationalize away whatever they didn’t like. Still others have taken more drastic action to censor what they didn’t like. Perhaps none did so more dramatically than President Thomas Jefferson. He didn’t like a lot of what he read in the New Testament. So he literally cut out everything he didn’t like. When he got through, all the biblical testimony that, to his mind, contravened what he pretended were “the laws of nature,” all the inconveniently supernatural, was left on his cutting-room floor.
It was exactly 200 years ago this week that Jefferson took a razor and cut out everything in the New Testament that he didn’t like – everything about the incarnation of God, everything about Jesus’ healing the blind and the lame, everything about his claims for himself in relation to his Father, and everything about his resurrection and ascension. He then pasted up what was left – about 1 in 10 verses – and called it “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Ironically, in recalling this incident, the secular media is respectful of Jefferson’s “rationalism” in reducing Jesus to the role of a mere “philosopher.” Yet they chortled and disdained George W. Bush’s reference to Jesus as the “philosopher” he most admired. Of course the secularists are up for the mere “philosopher” Jefferson had in mind but they’re not up for the more than “philosopher” Bush had in mind.
Jefferson revised his first effort at censorship. He called his second production “The Jefferson Bible” – a sort of latter-day gospel of Thomas! Jefferson’s second version reduced some 700 columns of the King James Version down to only 82 – an inadvertent testimony to the New Testament’s high Christology! Demanding that Jesus be merely a mortal moral teacher, Jefferson simply tossed out all evidence to the contrary. And, of course, there was much to the contrary, for Jesus was clearly no mere mortal. The only record we have refutes such a reading.
Well what gave Jefferson the notion that he was at all qualified to discard the overwhelming eyewitness testimony on Jesus so that, in his words, he could save only the “diamonds in a dung heap?” What gave him the notion? He, himself gave him the notion. And, not surprisingly, after all his cutting and pasting, he ended up with the “Jesus” he had when he started to snip. Jefferson’s is the story of a self-serving summary of Jesus as but a mere mortal, circling back on itself, to a self-serving assumption that Jesus was but a mere mortal.
Stangely, Jefferson insisted that the writers of the four gospels were merely “unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.” Well Luke, the Greek physician who wrote as an Hellenistic historian, can hardly be called “unlettered” and eyewitnesses such as Matthew and John and Mark’s source in Peter can hardly be called “ignorant” of the events they describe. The ignorance of these events resides with Jefferson, however “lettered” he may have been in his own 18th century. And while he casts doubts on the full reliability of their memory of Jesus when they wrote, he himself had absolutely no memory of Jesus when he wrote. And however long after Jesus it was when the gospel writers wrote what they did write, none wrote as “long after the transactions had passed” as Jefferson! Biblical scholarship dates the writing of the four gospels in this order: Mark in the early 50s, Matthew and Luke in the late 50s, and John anywhere from the 60s to around 85 or 90. These dates are from some twenty to thirty to fifty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in AD 33. Jefferson wrote eighteen centuries after that. Moreover, that the evangelists, unlike the followers of other teachers who’d been killed, were still adhering to the testimony of Jesus’ resurrection – and risking torture and death in doing so – underscores the believability of the resurrection. That supernatural significant intervening variable is precisely why they were still preaching twenty to thirty to fifty years later and, by the way, why, eighteen centuries later, Jefferson had any information at all on Jesus. And as undependable as he tries to claim they were, he is nonetheless utterly dependent upon their accounts for all that he writes down. He relies on whatever they said, so long as it contains nothing supernatural, while he tosses out whatever they said that contains anything supernatural. There’s nothing in text of The Jefferson Bible that they did not supply. It’s just that, in order to please his prejudice, he edited out most of what they wrote. Well, Jefferson had a country to run – not to mention a plantation – so, we mustn’t expect too much from him as a biblical scholar! But what’s the excuse of others who do the same sort of thing these days?
By the way, a letter in this morning’s New York Times, from the religious studies author of American Jesus, faulted the Times review of his book. The review, he objects, implied that he shared Jefferson’s view of Jesus. He writes: “I personally find it difficult to be anything other than snide when it comes to Jefferson’s absurdly ahistorical Jesus.” (Stephen Prothero)
As intellectually naïve as Jefferson was in his cut-and-paste approach, much the same thing is still being done today. The gullibility with which millions of historically ill-informed and biblically illiterate malcontents have swarmed around and swallowed the nonsense of novelist Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code is only the most recent and celebrated of these efforts to bury whatever in the Bible we don’t like. And Brown and his other revisionist cronies claim a “cover-up?”
Ironically, if it were not for the fact of the supernatural resurrection of Jesus Christ, there would have been no Jefferson Bible, no DaVinci Code. There would have been no Christianity! The only reason that Thomas Jefferson or Dan Brown or any of their ready readers ever heard of Jesus Christ, the only reason the Library of Congress has twice as many books on Jesus as it has on the next most noted person (Shakespeare) is the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Had he not been encountered as very much alive after his public execution and burial, encountered on numerous occasions and by hundreds of people, he would have been just another dead Jew, a misguided or misguiding guru who, in the end, defeated by the Romans, had no followers left. There were many of these defeated “messiahs” and nobody gives them a second thought today. Jesus’ disappointed disciples, as dense as ever, would have dispersed in defeat and been forgotten, as so many other disillusioned followers of other “messiahs” dispersed after their leader’s death. Had Jesus’ disciples not seen him and spoken to him, had they not eaten with him and been taught by him after they’d seen him suffer and die on the cross, they would not have gone on to suffer and die in his name on crosses of their own. There is no psychological explanation for their turnaround from disillusionment and disintegration to full discipleship unto death but for their having seen the experienced the evidence of his resurrection. It escaped Jefferson and it escapes Brown, but their own propaganda is unintended evidence against their opinions.
Ordinary, everyday people – even churchgoers – don’t have to write and publish their very own private versions of the New Testament to fall into the trap with Jefferson and Brown. They do so whenever they put their confidence in their own self-talk rather than in the eyewitness testimony of the New Testament witnesses who willingly suffered the loss of their property, suffered torture and went to their own executions rather than recant their witness. Indeed, we get the term “martyr” from the Greek word for “witness.” What self-sacrificing do the nay-sayers suffer in this secular age?
Now it’s one thing to throw away parts of the Bible simply because they don’t conform to one’s own pet prejudices. That’s not a legitimate handling of the text. But it’s quite another thing – and quite legitimate, indeed – to understand that, as is noted by a conservative Bible scholar, “not all of the Bible applies to us or speaks to us in the same way.” (Vern Poythress) After all, the Bible comes to us from ancient cultures and different centuries. So we must recognize that different approaches were taken, different levels were reached, different purposes pursued, different genres used, and different insights shared.
The evidence is such that we may conclude that God’s revelation to His people was progressive. There was advancement as well as repeal of what was revealed. There was even what has been perceived to be contradictory but for the perspective of the interpretive clarity gained over the long haul. So when it comes to our understanding today, not every part of the Bible should be given the same weight. This is not a matter of arbitrary picking-and-choosing but a matter of historical, interpretive perspective that best understands the parts in terms of the whole. This progressive nature of revelation is evident both within the two Testaments and between them. Just as a recognition of this progressive nature of revelation was important for the understanding of the people of God within biblical times, it is important for the understanding of biblical relevance for the continuing life of the people of God.
But some readers find some parts of the Bible more to their liking than other parts and so they read these parts rather than the other parts. This, of course, is not always the wisest way to proceed. Sometimes it’s just those parts we find disagreeable that we most need to read and digest. Thomas Jefferson literally tore into the Bible with a razor in hand in order to keep only what he called the “diamonds in a dunghill.” When he did this, he was clipping away in the time-worn way of both Christians and non-Christians. Everyone does the same thing Jefferson did, even when, as he did, its rationalized by a nod to practicality or piety. If we don’t much care for something in Scripture we tend to ignore it. We read very selectively. Liturgical use of a lectionary in public worship has some drawbacks but one advantage is the covering of a wider array of Scripture than is otherwise done. And a private program that facilitates the reading through of the Bible in a single year of study likewise gives exposure to a wider range of Scripture than is often afforded by our turning again and again to our favorite passages. There’s nothing quite like “the whole counsel of God” to keep us on our toes.
Many great Christians have been tempted to neglect some parts of the Bible and over-emphasize others. Luther snubbed the book of James because he thought that it didn’t fit with his own Pauline theology. He didn’t like Esther either – a book that doesn’t even mention God. Zwingli had no time for the book of Revelation. Alexander Campbell and his frontier revivalists ignored the Old Testament and his disciples still do. John Wesley urged his Methodists to overlook Psalm 137:9 as it was, he concluded, “highly improper for the mouths of a Christian congregation.” What does Psalm 137:9 say? “Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Here, the Babylonian atrocities against the Jews are bitterly remembered. Is this Jewish revenge or is it to Yahweh that the psalmist looks for vengeance? And, indeed, Bible scholar properly cautions: “The Christian faith teaches a new way, the pursuit of forgiveness and a call to love.” (Leslie C. Allen)
Many liberal churches pay hardly any attention to the Bible, except as it provides proof texts for a liberal political agenda. Liberal mainline churches have tended to emphasize the Bible’s teachings on social justice at the expense of the Bible’s teachings on the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. More conservative churches have tended to emphasize the Bible’s teachings on the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ at the expense of the Bible’s teachings on social justice. Because of rigidly compartmentalized Dispensational theology, Fundamentalists largely neglect the application of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. With reference to I Corinthians 6, Fundamentalists tend to ignore Paul’s condemnation of lawsuits against fellow believers while they’re quick to use one of the terms in his discourse – a term that’s otherwise unknown – to condemn gay people who are not the subject of Paul’s argument. And then they blithely go ahead and sue each other right and left. Fundamentalists forbid speaking in tongues in public worship – a practice that Paul allows in I Corinthians 14:26. Texts about debts, foods, clothing, social justice and other matters are regularly ignored by “Bible-believers” who otherwise insist on a wooden literalism that better suits their prejudiced purposes. Of course, much of this has to do with principles of interpretation, and we’ll be getting into that in our next lecture.
When anyone engages in biblical selectivity, he or she is forming, in effect, what theologians call “a canon within the canon.” This part is taken to be more important than that part; this part is taken to be more important sometimes than the whole. Preachers preach canons within canons. Congregations sing canons within canons. Denominations were founded and are sustained around canons within the canon. Dogmas are organized around canons within the canon. Programs are promoted by the use of canons within the canon. We can all revolve rather dizzily around canons within the canon.
Now, as we’ve already intimated, due to the diversity within the Bible, a “canon within the canon” is not necessarily a bad thing.
Even biblical writers themselves had their own canons within the canon. New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn of Durham sees such in books throughout the New Testament and identifies it as witness to “the historical actuality of Jesus who himself constitutes the unifying center of Christianity.” Marcus Barth interprets the writer of Hebrews as having the following canon within canon: “The promise and the fulfillment of the promise of the Lord’s coming into the world.”
Herman Bavinck’s statement that by no means everything “that is included in Scripture has normative authority for our faith and life” is, in effect, an important caution against the reductionism advocated in at least the rhetoric, if not the practice, of Fundamentalists.
While Thielicke states that “The principle of ‘Scripture alone’ makes all Holy Scripture the norm of saving truth to which faith looks and which is set for every theological doctrine,” he goes on to explain that “the adjective ‘all’ cannot mean that this normative rank applies to each portion of Scripture [for] … the part has to be seen in the context of the whole and can be criticized by it.”
Both Jesus and Paul had a canon within the canon. Even though Jesus said that “not a jot or tittle” – the very tiniest marks in Hebrew – would disappear from the Torah until all was fulfilled, he (and Paul) summed the whole Law and Prophets in this: love God with your all and love your neighbors as you love yourself.
According to Dunn, in view of their use of Scripture, “we cannot treat the Old Testament as though what Jesus and Paul did and said was irrelevant to the question of how we understand and use the Old Testament.” He continues: “The Old Testament does not stand for us as word of God independent of the New Testament and Jesus.” He says that “As Christians the Old Testament continues to exercise normative authority for us only when we read it in the light of the revelation of Christ.” This is what Bloesch is saying: “The Law of God is both fulfilled in and transcended by the Gospel, and this means that it is properly understood only in the light of the Gospel.” With reference to the books of the Old Testament, Dunn goes on to say: “They were the word of God to millions of Israelites down through many centuries. But they no longer are for us – certainly not in their obvious and intended sense. We honour these passages as God’s word in a historical sense, invaluable as ways of understanding how God dealt with his people in times past. We do not honour them by calling them God’s word in the same sense today.”
And what about the New Testament? Do we have a canon within the canon of the New Testament? According to theologian Emil Brunner: “Not all that is Biblical, not even all that is in the New Testament, is in like manner and to the same degree a bearer of God’s Word.” Dunn reasons: “”The obvious corollary [to Jesus’ and Paul’s use of the Old Testament] is that it must be entirely possible that certain New Testament requirements, good words of God in their time, in the same way become restrictive and corruptive of the grace of God today.” He well cites the example of slavery. “If we define the canon within the canon not just as the New Testament as a whole but the revelation of Christ to which the New Testament bears normative and definitive witness, we must allow that canon to exercise a similar sifting and evaluating function of our faith and lives, our proclamation of the gospel and our ordering of our common lives today.”
Dunn is here, too, saying only what all (even conservative) Christians do in practice, albeit with their own peculiar selectivity. It is, for example, put succinctly in the First Article of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be judged is Jesus Christ.” At the beginning of Protestantism, it was put in similarly brief terms by Luther himself: “What promotes Christ!”
A word of caution, though. We must be careful with such an overly-reduced formula. As Thielicke warns, one may not know what “Jesus Christ” among many “Jesus Christs” one may be meaning. In Thielicke’s words: “May not the Christological criterion become a bolt rather than a key if we have in mind a Christ who is the teacher of the new law or a cult-god or an ethical example, while the friend of sinners and the victim of crucifixion fade into an invisible background?” Such a word of warning should certainly be our watchword these days, when there’s this presumption that everyone gets to come up with his or her own little “Jesus,” no matter what the historical, biblical records show.
FOURTH STUDY: “How Should We Read the Bible?”
“It is possible to hide from God behind the words ‘the Bible says.’” That’s a good point. It’s made by a Bible scholar in his commentary on the book of Jeremiah. (Robert Davidson) Over the years, that introductory phrase, “the Bible says,” has unbiblically rationalized everything from the silliest trivialities to crusades of oppression and violence.
Following the Bible’s misuse to support slavery and oppose the abolition movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, the devout Christian feminist and educator, Frances Willard, wisely observed: “The old texts stand there, just as before, but we interpret them less narrowly. Universal liberty of person and opinion are now conceded to be Bible-precept principles; Onesimus and Canaan are no longer quoted as the slave-holder’s main-stay.” Willard recommends that, to counter such self-serving tricks in the future, “a pinch of common-sense forms an excellent ingredient in the complicated dish called Biblical interpretation!”
That’s what we’re going to try to do today. We’re going to try to use some common sense, along with lots more critical thinking, sensitivity to language, historical insight, scientific knowledge and daily experience as we look into principles of sound biblical interpretation. We can’t settle any issue by a merely simplistic appeal to a Bible verse yanked from its fullest context.
First of all, let’s be reminded that, the work of Bible interpretation is a most worthwhile endeavor because the material to be interpreted is most worthwhile. After all, it’s the word of God put into our words. And, as the word of God, it’s trustworthy – but must be handled with care.
An awareness of the Bible’s trustworthiness will allow us to go ahead and put the effort into deciphering the meaning of the Scripture without worrying about whether or not the material is worth deciphering to begin with.
Liberal biblical scholar John A. T. Robinson once wrote a book called Can We Trust the New Testament? To the surprise of the liberal critics, his answer to his question was a resounding yes. He said: “On purely critical grounds I am far more convinced of the trustworthiness of the historical tradition. This is simply the way the evidence seems to me to point.” But, as he remarked at the very beginning of his Introduction, the question of trustworthiness is, itself, rather “odd.” He wrote: “It’s not a question that a Hindu would ask of the Bhagavad-Gita or a Muslim of the Koran or even a Jew of the Old Testament. Or,” he added, “if they did they would mean, Can you trust it as a guide to life, as the way to walk in?” Quoting John the apostle, Robinson noted that Christians, too, want to be sure that they can trust the Bible as a guide to life. John says that the Gospels were written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) Robinson then notes: “But of this ‘word of life’ the same man says, ‘We have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hands’ (I John 1:1). And there,” says Robinson, “lies the difference. For ‘the way, the truth and the life’ for the writers of the New Testament is not a timeless prescription for good living but a person born at a moment of history. And trusting the New Testament is trusting it for a portrait of that person.”
These days, with all the pseudo-sophisticated pop culture books casting doubts on the reliability of the biblical accounts, it’s important to appreciate how thoroughly researched and settled is this basic question on the trustworthiness of the records.
The man who wrote The Passover Plot, the grand-daddy of all the current notions about Jesus’ not dying during his crucifixion, also wrote a book called The Bible Was Right. In it, Hugh J. Schonfield argued for the historical accuracy of the New Testament based on classical literature and archaeology. Clearly, the Bible is the most scrupulously tested and verified collection of literature from the ancient world.
You’ve heard it said that the devil can quote Scripture. Well, the devil not only can quote Scripture, he did – most famously in the 1st century. Do you know what passage of Scripture the devil quoted? He quoted words of comforting promise from the Psalms: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:11-12) We read of this in Matthew’s account of the temptations posed to Jesus by the devil. (Matt 4:6) So it’s certainly possible to recite a Bible verse for evil purposes. People have joined up with the devil in doing just that for centuries. And if our motives are honorable, yet our knowledge is lacking, we can quote the Bible in ways that are just as wrong as the devil’s and the scoundrel’s.
If we would read, interpret and apply the Bible rightly, we must learn to take the Bible seriously. When it comes to reading, understanding and applying its texts to our lives and to the lives of others, we must know what it says – not what it seems at first glance to say. We must know what it says – not what it seems, even after having long held assumptions of what we think it should by saying. We must know what it says. And this brings us to what’s called biblical hermeneutics or the principles of sound interpretation.
As we try to take the Bible seriously, we might ask: Should we take the Bible literally? Yes, we should. We should take the Bible literally. When the Bible is literally poetry, we should take it literally as poetry. When the Bible is literally parable, we should take it literally as parable. When the Bible is literally history, we should take it literally as history. When the Bible is literally apocalypse, we should take it literally as apocalypse. In other words, to properly understand the Bible, we must pay attention to the genre with which we’re dealing in any particular passage. That’s one of the basic rules of interpretation of any literature, including the Bible – the rule of literary form.
Long before the age of science, long before the notorious Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, it was understood by both Jews and Christians that the “days” of Genesis 1 were not to be taken as 24-hour days. Among the earliest Church Fathers – Irenaeus, Origen, Basil, Augustine – we have biblical expositors who took pains to point this out. And yet, in the 20th century, Fundamentalists fighting anti-Christian scientism insisted that a faithful reading of the Bible demanded an adherence to six 24-hour days of creation. They seem not to have taken seriously that the 24-hour markers of sun and moon were not created until the fourth day or that the seventh day did not come to a close after 24 hours but remained – as we might say today, “24-7.”
Disputes over the days of creation may run their course without really hurting anyone. But misinterpretations of other passages of Scripture, for example, about women or blacks or homosexuals, have been devastating – even deadly – to untold millions of people.
Much of the Bible is quite straightforward. Much of the Bible shares with us the common human concerns for relationships with God and others, and the human experiences of fear, frustration, grief and anger as well as joy and excitement, humor and affection. So, much of what’s in the Bible is not really difficult to grasp. But much of it can be more difficult than we might realize or be prepared to wrestle through.
After all, the Bible comes to us from cultures where assumptions, values and experienced circumstances were far different from scenes and experiences familiar to us. Just try to think of how different experience would be in a world where it was taken for granted that large numbers of the population would rightly be in slavery. In New Testament days, over a third of the people were slaves. Just try to think of how different experience would be in a world where it would take all day to go the distance we travel in a few moments. Just try to think of how different experience would be in a world where sending and receiving one exchange of letters could take many months. And we get frustrated with a busy signal! Think of a world where romantic love as we know it was unknown. Think of a world where marriages were arranged by parents and girls were married off at around 13 or 14 years of age. Think of a world where all cooking was “home-cooking” – not because it tasted better but because the only alternative was not eating. Just try to think of how different experience would be in a world where life expectancy was in the 30s and where there wasn’t much that could be done for people who became seriously ill.
So the best biblical interpretation takes all of this into consideration and tries to bridge the two or three millennia between our lives and those of the Bible. And yet the constant tendency is to project our own experience, concerns, questions, values and the contemporary Zeitgeist onto the Bible. It should be obvious that that won’t do.
To begin with, the best biblical interpretation takes the text seriously. And it insists that the interpretation be grounded in the best text. For the best text, we must go back to the best of the ancient manuscripts. Thankfully, the biblical textual and manuscript evidence is far better (earlier and more numerous) than that for any other ancient literature. As I’ve indicated, we have fragments of some biblical literature dating from within a generation of the autographs. For ancient secular sources we’re dependent on fragments that post-date the autographs by many centuries. And yet nobody really questions the general reliability of late witnesses when it comes to the secular material. Of course, it’s true that the stakes are much higher when it comes to the biblical material than when it comes to, e.g., Caesar’s Wars.
The best biblical interpretation pays attention to the specific words that are used in the best text. Adequate word studies, then, are absolutely crucial. We must know the meaning of the vocabulary used in the original Hebrew and Greek – not just the English word in translation. We cannot simply go to Webster’s dictionary to find out what the word in a biblical sentence really means. Knowing the nuance of a particular Greek word can mean the difference between understanding and not understanding a Bible passage. Now you don’t need to know Greek yourself to do this. There are very good Bible commentaries for all levels of Bible readers – for those who do know the original languages and for those who don’t, for biblical scholars and ministers as well as for serious lay people. And, unfortunately, there are also bad commentaries at all these levels.
In this 400th year of the launching of the King James Bible, we’re reminded that a good translation is indispensable for comprehending what the Bible says. After all, most people today don’t manage very well in the original Hebrew and Greek. Americans know what the Bible says only from translation into English or Spanish or another of our everyday “living” languages, so it’s important that a sound translation is in hand. The New International Version is a good, basic, committee-based translation for daily reading and study.
The best biblical interpretation consults a clearer passage of the Bible when dealing with a more difficult passage. Thus, the Bible gets to comment on the Bible – to the benefit of all who might otherwise be left in confusion.
The best biblical interpretation takes the millennia-long Christian tradition as well as reason and everyday human experience very seriously. That’s what John Wesley meant by his famous quadrilateral. The Reformers, too, who so strongly emphasized the principle of sola Scriptura, “the Bible alone,” did not confine themselves to their own searching of Scriptures. Luther and Calvin themselves went right back to the early Church Fathers in their quest for biblical understanding. As one historian asks: “Does this Reformation principle mean that the Bible yields up obvious answers to all our questions? That we need not turn to any interpretation of Scripture other than the conclusions each of us draws from our own common-sense interaction with Scripture?” (Chris Armstrong) His intended answer is clearly no. We simply cannot well understand the Bible if our understanding is separated from a knowledge of history and the insights of other Christians, and from reasoned extrapolation as well as that plain “pinch of common sense” which Frances Willard recommended. And, of course, we cannot well understand the Bible apart from a proper consideration of what we learn from the breadth of God’s wide creation – through the natural sciences, the social sciences, and all the rest of our human experience.
The best biblical interpretation takes seriously the advice of that wise old Puritan pastor, John Robinson. As he bid good-bye to the Pilgrim Fathers embarking from the Netherlands for the New World, he reminded them that “the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” That’s to say: the revelation of God is progressive. God’s revelation of Himself and His will to His people was a gradual revelation. And Jesus promised that it would be so. Therefore, we must not only look back but look expectantly forward, always on watch to see what “more light” we might yet receive.
This past week, one of the members of our class alerted me to a Web site that warns of “Satan’s counterfeits” when it comes to translations of the Bible. The Web site gave many examples of what it called “the fraud and corruption” that has crept into our Bibles by nefarious translation. I’ll share with you a few of these so-called “counterfeits” – not only to illustrate the importance of a good translation but to show you some of the silly lengths to which evidently sincere but illiterate folk can go to make a big deal out of nothing. Some of their “big deals” are of little consequence in people’s everyday lives. But some of their other “big deals” can cause tremendous pain and oppression.
Here’s an example of their much ado about nothing. With reference to Jesus’ words at the last supper in Matthew 26:28, this alarmist Web site warns: “Many counterfeits replace the phrase ‘new testament’ with the generic phrase ‘new agreement’ or ‘new covenant.’ This is an obvious attack on the written Word of God. It’s interesting, even though the counterfeits remove the phrase ‘new testament,’ they do not title their New Testaments as ‘New Agreement’ or ‘New Covenant.” Why? The counterfeits know they could not sell their counterfeit bearing the title ‘New Agreement’ or ‘New Covenant’ on the cover, so like any good counterfeiter, they disguise it.”
Well there’s no counterfeiting conspiracy here at all. There isn’t because the translation is right on target. The meaning of the Greek term, diathakas, is “covenant” or “treaty” or “testamentary disposition” as in a “will,” but since Jesus is here echoing Jeremiah and his prophesy (31:31-34) of a “new Covenant” to come in the Messiah, the so-called “counterfeit” translation is correct. It’s the word “new” that’s the textual problem and the Web site doesn’t take note of this at all. Though the term “new” is present in some ancient manuscripts, it’s missing in others and it “seems likely,” as one Bible scholar explains, that it’s not an original part of Matthew’s text. (R. T. France)
Here’s a second example of so-called “counterfeit” translations. It has to do with the story, in Luke 16, of a now dead rich man who, before he died, offered no help to a poor man. Says the Web site: “Many counterfeits refuse to translate the Greek word ‘haides.’ Rather than translate ‘haides’ to the word ‘hell,’ the counterfeit will transliterate the Greek word ‘haides’ into the English ‘hades.’ By this trick the counterfeit attempts to extinguish the flames of hell. Hades is not ‘hell.’ Hell is flames, torments, weeping and wailing, complete darkness – forever. Hades is a new age place of purification, or a fantasy place in Greek mythology.”
Well the Web site is right about one thing: “Hades is not ‘hell.’” And that is the reason the translation to which the Web site objects does, indeed, render the Greek term, hades, as hades. “Hades in the [Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible] represents the Sheol of the Hebrew text. Sheol was the sphere of the lingering and shadowy continuation of existence of those who had died. It is a place of deprivation and of oblivion, but,” as Bible scholars points out, it is “not specifically of judgment.” (John Noland) Thus, hades is not hell. “Hell” is the English translation of the Greek word, gehenna. That word comes from the name of the city dump in a valley just outside Jerusalem. This smoldering dump was used to burn up the garbage. Of course, the purpose of gehenna was to destroy the garbage, not torment it.
This particular Lukan text, however, does not contain the term, gehenna. It simply refers to the rich man’s being in the place of the dead, hades. Bent on pushing its own vision of hell, the Web site folk miss the point of the passage: the posthumous reversal of circumstances for a poor man and a rich man who had refused to help him. Perhaps it is easier to rant on about “the fires of hell” than to ask ourselves if we’re caring enough for the poor and marginalized around us.
Well, even with these two examples, you get the point that what may at first look like an open-and-shut case of biblical interpretation is more complicated.
Here’s just one more of this Web site’s examples of “counterfeits.” It has to do with the malakoi in Paul’s argument against Christians suing other Christians in the secular courts. He says these believers are worse than the malakoi. But who were the malakoi? The term itself means “soft.” The soft people? It can mean the morally weak, the spineless, those who won’t stand up for what is right when the going gets tough. Some translations have used the term, “effeminate.” Our Web site conspiracy mongers say that “effeminate” is, indeed, the right translation choice. They object to what the “counterfeit” Bibles use: the term “male prostitutes” or “homosexual.” But actuality, the terms “male prostitutes” and “homosexual” render a different word in Paul’s sentence. Evidently unaware of this, the Web site states: “The counterfeits change the word ‘effeminate’ to ‘homosexual’ or ‘male prostitutes.’” Now note closely. The Web site complains that “this dilutes the serious warning of just the appearance or mannerism (effeminate) to the sexual act of homosexuals.” To be merely against “homosexuals” is too soft-hearted to suit this Web site; we must be against the very slightest appearance of effeminacy!
This third example of “counterfeiting” brings up a controversy that, according to the Religious Newswriters Association, is at the center of the #1 and #3 top religion news stories of 2003 as well as The Religion Newsmaker of the Year. In their end-of-year wrap up, these journalists named the first openly gay Episcopal bishop (V. Gene Robinson) as The Religion Newsmaker of the Year. They ranked his consecration and the ensuing threats of schism as the #1 religion news story of the year. They ranked, as #3 news story, the U. S. Supreme Court’s striking down a law against same-sex behavior and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that same-sex couples have a right to civil marriage. (The second-rated story was about religious support for and opposition to the war in Iraq.)
Now unless you’ve spent the past year in isolation at the South Pole, you’re not surprised at these rankings. And, of course, this controversy spins around biblical interpretation, just as most church controversies do. So let’s take this current hot-button issue as a case in point and apply principles of sound Bible interpretation as we’ve presented them.
These days, six brief Bible passages are quoted against gay people in as careless a way as other brief passages were quoted against the earth’s revolving around the sun, the emancipation of slaves, racial integration and the ordination of women to church leadership.
According to Genesis 1:27, it was in His own image that God created humanity, both male and female. This text celebrates God’s deliberate and equal creation of males and females. This note of equality, so extraordinary for the ancient world, is no basis for the snide remark: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Those who misuse this passage to clobber gay people should take note of Paul’s comment on the passage – Scripture commenting on Scripture, always an aid in hermeneutics. In Galatians 3:28, he’s emphatic that there is now, in Christ, no theological significance to the heterosexual pair – “in Christ,” Paul declares, “there is no male and female.” Note that the Greek is usually mistranslated into the English as “neither male nor female.” Paul didn’t say that. What Paul said was this: “no male and female” – using the very words of Genesis 1:27. Pauline scholar F. F. Bruce observes: “Paul states the basic principle here; if restrictions on it are found elsewhere … they are to be understood in relation to Galatians 3:28, and not vice versa.” Again, the hermeneutical rule is that clear Scripture clears up less clear Scripture. Another principle operating here is that of the progressive nature of revelation – not everything is evident “in the beginning.”
An appeal to the story of Sodom, in Genesis 19, is a popular polemic against gay people. But unless we are to believe the statistically preposterous proposition that all of the men of Sodom were homosexuals, we have to admit that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality, even if the sin was done homosexually. According to an evangelical Bible scholar, William Brownlee: “’sodomy’ (so called) in Genesis is basically oppression of the weak and helpless; and the oppression of the stranger is the basic element.” (Italics mine.) And, here again, we have available to us, Scripture commenting on Scripture. The prophet Ezekiel (16:48f) explains the Lord’s version of the sin of Sodom: “As I live, says the Lord God, … this was the sin of your sister city of Sodom: she and here neighboring towns had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not help or encourage the poor and needy. They were arrogant and this was abominable in my eyes.” The men of Sodom tried to dominate the aliens at Lot’s house by subjecting them to the humiliation of sexual abuse, treating them as though they were female scum, an age-old demonstration of power.
Another verse used to build a Bible case against homosexuality today is Leviticus 18:22. This section of Scripture carries the Holiness Code with its proscription: “You shall not lie with men as with women, it is abomination.” “Abomination” (to’ebah) is a technical cultic term in Hebrew. It designates something ritually unclean, such as mixed cloth, pork, and intercourse with menstruating women. It’s not a moral issue; it’s an issue of cultic contamination. This Holiness Code of the priests of ancient Israel proscribes men “lying the lyings of women.” Such mixing up of the sex roles was thought to be polluting and therefore it was ritually proscribed. Moreover, to use one’s “equal” (another man) as one would use an “inferior” (a woman), emasculating a fellow Israelite, was the ultimate insult. This verse is simply incomprehensible apart from an understanding of Israel’s priestly purity code and the inferior status of women in the ancient Middle East.
Both Jesus and Paul (again, Scripture commenting on Scripture) rejected all such ritual distinctions (cf. Mark 7:17-23; Romans 14:14, 20). Even the anti-gay Fundamentalist Journal admits that this Code condemns “idolatrous practices” and “ceremonial uncleanness” and concludes: “We are not bound by these commands today.”
Deuteronomy 23:17f states: “There shall be no female cult prostitute of the daughters of Israel nor a male cult prostitute of the sons of Israel.” The Hebrew terms here, kedesha and kadesh, literally mean “holy” or “sacred” but a convention of the Elizabethan era led the King James translators to render the terms, erroneously, as “sodomites.” No derivative of the word for Sodom appears in the original Hebrew text. The words are references to the “sacred” female and eunuch priest-prostitutes of the Canaanite fertility cults, of which Israel was to have no part.
Thus, as you can see, “there’s nothing in the Old Testament that corresponds to homosexuality as we understand it today.” That phrasing, by the way, is Marten Woudstra’s. He once served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society and chaired the Old Testament division of the conservative New International Version of the Bible. Until his retirement after many years of teaching, he served as the most conservative professor at Calvin Seminary, one of the nation’s most conservative theological seminaries. So we’re not here citing the conclusion of some “crazy Left-winger!”
Turning now to the two New Testament texts used against gay people today, we come first to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here, he observes that pagan “women exchange natural use for unnatural and also the [pagan] men, leaving the natural use of women, lust in their desire for each other, males working shame with males, and receiving within themselves the penalty of their error.” Paul is ridiculing pagan religious rebellion in Romans 1. He says that the pagans knew God but worshipped idols instead of God. To build his case – which he turns against his fellow Jews in Romans 2 – he refers to typical practices of the fertility cults involving sex among priestesses and between men and eunuch prostitutes such as served Aphrodite at Corinth, from where he was writing. Their self-castration rites resulted in a bodily “penalty,” as he puts it. As Bible scholar Catherine Kroeger comments in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society: “Men masqueraded as women and … [women dressed] in satyr pants equipped with the male organ.” They danced before Dionysos, a god who had been raised as a girl and was called a “sham man.” Kroeger continues: “The sex exchange that characterized the cults of such great goddesses as Cybele [Aphrodite, Ishtar, etc.] the Syrian goddess, and Artemis of Ephesus was more grisly” She then goes on to describe the castration rituals. Bible scholar Robin Scroggs says: “The illustrations are secondary to [Paul’s] basic theological structure” (cf.3:22b-23, Paul’s own summary), and another New Testament scholar, Victor Paul Furnish, adds: “homosexual practice as such is not the topic under discussion.”
We have a further example of the tail wagging the dog when we turn to the remaining New Testament passage that is abused to abuse gay people. That’s I Corinthians 6:9. Here, in a list – which makes it even more difficult to determine meanings since a list lacks sentence context, there are two Greek terms: arsenokoitai and the previously mentioned malakoi. The first word is totally obscure (Paul seems to have coined it on the spot) and the other must be essentially metaphorical and idiomatic since, as we said, it literally means simply “soft.” Nonetheless, they’re taken out of context these days and applied to the assault against gay people. Even antigay evangelical Bible scholar Gordon D. Fee admits that these two terms are “difficult.” Even The Fundamentalist Journal admits: “These words are difficult to translate.” Of arsenokoitai, Fee grants: “This is its first appearance in preserved literature, and subsequent authors are reluctant to use it, especially when describing homosexual activity.” After Paul, the earliest use of the term is in lists of violent crimes of coercion. (Barclay M. Newman) Another scholar explains that “Paul is thinking only about pederasty, … There was no other form of male homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world which could come to mind.” (Robin Scroggs)
Ironically, whatever the arsenokoitai and malakoi were in Paul’s day, they’re but illustrative of his main point which is: he’s horrified that Christians are suing other Christians in the secular law courts and he urges them to suffer being cheated by their brothers rather than sue in retaliation. In the meantime, the antigay Bible-thumpers who turn to this passage to make life more difficult for gay people don’t think twice about suing other Bible-thumpers these days.
So there they are – all the Bible verses used these days to attack gay people. None of these Bible verses contains anything that comes even close to homosexuality as we understand it today to be a psychosexual orientation just as unasked-for and just as unchangeable in a minority of men and women as a heterosexual orientation is in the majority. And yet the Bible seems to be the basis of so much of the antigay crusades these days. An ill-informed assumption of “biblical” abomination lurks behind the current rhetoric and a truer reading of the relevant passages is required to overcome this uncritical assumption that brings down so much distress on both gay people and their families.
It’s a matter of the Bible’s being misused through anachronistic misreading and lifting out of context of passages apart from the context of the entire sweep of Scripture and the overarching emphases of Scripture. Whether the issue is cosmology, slavery, women’s ordination or homosexuality, is our best guidance given in a few isolated and misread verses or in the clearest statements of Scripture’s overarching themes?
Matthew concludes Jesus’ teaching ministry with words that echo the closing of Moses’ ministry and, in Jesus’ case, his final teaching has to do with the judgment of all humanity at the time of the coming of The Son of Man, Jesus’ main self-designation. Matthew presents Jesus as saying that, in the end, Jesus will judge all people according to what they’ve done or left undone with regard to the welfare of others – both the very least of his followers and, by extension, anyone else. Here’s Scripture at its clearest.
In situations of need, basic human need of every kind, how did the person to be judged look after the welfare of his or her neighbor in need? The ancient Jews were used to the proverb that assured them that whoever is kind to the poor and oppressed lends to the Lord God Himself, and the Lord God will repay in full all that was spent on the needy person. (cf. Prov 19:17) Jesus applies this ancient reference to the Lord God to himself. He says that in the final judgment of all the world, he himself will explain to those he welcomes that all the good they did for others, they did for him. And he will explain to those he rejects, that all the good they left undone for others, the left undone for him. (Matthew 25:32ff)
The big questions, so far as Scripture is concerned, do not have to do with what seems so often to preoccupy religionists. The big questions, so far as Jesus is concerned, have to do with how we treat or mistreat each other – for in treating or mistreating each other, we’re treating or mistreating Jesus. And Paul stressed the very same point: we’re to do good to all people, especially to those of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:7ff; II Corinthians 5:10)
Familiarity with the sweep of Scripture brings a sense of continuity to our reading. This is because there really is a unifying theme throughout the Bible. This unifying theme is the history of salvation. Keeping this unifying theme in mind as we try to interpret the Bible, we’ll not tend to get sidetracked into peripheral issues. And if we are, we’ll have a touchstone to bring us back.
Speaking of the salvation history that is the Bible’s central theme, F. F. Bruce writes: “The Bible’s central message is the story of salvation, and throughout both Testaments three strands in this unfolding story can be distinguished: the bringer of salvation, the way of salvation and the heirs of salvation.” He goes on to explain that “the continuity of the covenant people from the OT to the NT is obscured for the reader of the common English Bible because ‘church’ is an exclusively NT word. … But the reader of the Greek Bible was confronted by no new word when he found ekklesia [the word for the assembly of believers] in the NT; he had already met it in the LXX [Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible] as one of the words used to denote Israel as the ‘assembly’ of Yahweh.” (F. F. Bruce)
The Old Testament begins the story of God’s saving his people and the New Testament brings that salvation to completion in Christ Jesus, in whom “God was,” as Paul puts it, “reconciling the world to Himself.” (II Corinthians 5:19) The Greatest Story Ever Told is the promise and fulfillment of God’s lovingly saving a people for Life and Love in Him. That’s what we learn from the Bible.
© 2004 by Dr. Ralph Blair