Bible 101: What the Bible isn’t. Part One

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In an earlier post, I wrote about what the Bible actually is because many people are truly confused about the Bible. They think that it is a single coherent narrative with a consistent theological view point despite the fact that it is really a disparate collection of writings that show a great variety of views. You can find that post here, Bible 101: What is the Bible?

In this post, I will address a number of things that the Bible most definitely isn’t, using the various texts of the Bible as my guide, along with scientific and historical knowledge that I’ve learned as a student of history and permaculture. This post is necessary because of similar levels of confusion about the Bible and what is both is and isn’t. The Bible isn’t a lot of things, but for the purposes of this post, I will narrow it down to a few things. These things are include, but are not limited to the following: consistent theologically, scientifically accurate or more relevant than science, historically accurate, or portentous of events occurring in the 21st century. My aim is to provide a brief illustration of the above “isn’ts” to give readers a fuller understanding of the Bible and dispel some of the myths that have been circulating for far too long.

In my fundamentalist days, though I spent a good deal of time in church, and personally engaged in inconsistent Bible study for many years, I was woefully ignorant of the Bible as a whole. Sure, I could throw around some verses that have been proof-texted out of their context to make theological, or more likely proselytizing points to someone I felt was in need of saving from hellfire and damnation. Little did I understand then, that just because I know what some of the words are, doesn’t mean I actually understand them contextually. For example, I could if I chose, memorize passages of a chemistry or physics textbook, and even recite them, without having any idea what they mean. Because of my ignorance in those days, I believed the highly flawed, and intellectually bankrupt fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. That is to say that I once thought that the Bible was inerrant, literally true, and that everything therein pointed to a consistent narrative leading to Jesus being resurrected as the savior of all humanity. Boy was I wrong. Let’s first consider, albeit necessarily briefly, the subject of theological consistency within the Bible.

Recently, I began to read the book of Hebrews in David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament (DBH: N.T.) as part of my daily scriptural study practice. Because I had never read it completely through, I did some background reading in Mark Allan Powell’s Introducing the New Testament to get some rudimentary information about this anonymously written Biblical text. Powell notes that in Hebrews the subject of apostasy, the act of returning to a sinful life after previously having come to faith in Christ, is addressed with unusual intensity in comparison to other passages of scripture. In other words, the author of Hebrews had a far different theological take on apostasy than did the writers of the Gospels and the apostle Paul among others who authored what we now know as New Testament scripture. It is important to note that one simply cannot pick up on these theological differences by reading the Bible like a devotional text, by proof-texting, or by insisting that the Bible is the only book one need read, but I digress.

The author of Hebrews views apostasy as an especially egregious form of sinfulness. In Hebrews 6:4-6  the writer proclaims that anyone who becomes an apostate by falling away crucifies Jesus again and makes the Savior an object of contempt, thus making it impossible for the apostate to ever be restored to repentance. Later in the epistle in 10:26-31 the writer evinces a theology of a Janus faced God by attributing vengeance and wrath to God thereby eliminating the grace that apostates outrage by their return to sinfulness. My own personal understanding of grace is in stark contrast to the ideas of whomever wrote Hebrews. I am not alone in this. As Powell notes on page 441, the church has long struggled with these passages which are different from what Jesus taught in the Gospels (see Matthew 18Luke 15). We should also consider that Peter despite denying Jesus three times became the rock the Jesus built his church on. This point alone is a refutation of the arguments regarding apostasy that the anonymous author of Hebrews wrote. Peter didn’t just deny Jesus’ teachings, he denied knowing anything about him and yet Jesus pronounced “Shalom” rather than judgement upon his resurrection.

This theological inconsistency between the Gospels and Hebrews regarding apostasy is far from unique within the Biblical canon of scripture (regardless of which canon one is referring to). There are myriad places where the different texts put forth different theological teachings, whether these are social ideas about how to behave in society,  with whom to interact, etc, or whether they are christological (concerning the nature of Jesus), soteriological (regarding the nature of salvation), or eschatological (contemplation of humanity’s ultimate destiny).  For example, it would be reasonable to assume that incest was universally condemned within the Bible as socially taboo, yet early in the Biblical narrative we learn that Abram and Sarai were in fact not only related but siblings. Thus the two people whose marriage led to the birth of the Israelites were half brother and sister according to Genesis 20:10-12. In other places incest is unequivocally condemned (Leviticus 18:6-18) thus showing that theologically driven social norms did in fact evolve over time, despite protestations from people like Franklin Graham. We have need to continue this theological social change today in regards to fully including and loving LGBTQIA people as beloved children of the God who made them. (See: God loves diversity. Period.)

The subject of theological consistency within the Bible is a big one. I’ve provided only a couple of examples of the many that scholars have uncovered in the millennia since the various texts were written. These inconsistencies do not invalidate the Bible, but do completely undermine the notion that it is an inerrant dictated by God to give clear instructions to a recalcitrant human species that has a limited capacity to understand the world we inhabit, much less the divine. There is tremendous value in the Bible spiritually, theologically,  and contextually should we choose to go beyond a so-called “plain sense” reading. We have to let the texts speak for themselves rather than trying to impose upon them a rigid, doctrinal hermeneutic that the texts simply do not support, as I have shown above. As my New Testament professor and friend Dr. Greg Carey says when it comes to the Bible, we have to hold onto our interpretations loosely. It is after all, a living collection of texts.

In the next installment, I will look at how the Bible gets science wrong and how some Christians choose to discount science as a result.

dcruz@lancasterseminary.edu

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