Problems with the Bible

On Facebook, along with posting an article by Valarie Tarico on “Captive virgins, polygamy and sex slaves: What marriage would look like if we actually followed the Bible,” I wrote something like this:

The church has found ways to deal with the literal text so that it does not have to take these texts at face value. When it comes down to it, the “Rule of Faith” (the original baptismal formula, which developed in time into the Nicene Creed) becomes the lens and filter through which the church interprets all scripture. That allows for a development of understanding through time.

The stories behind the Torah were no longer taken at face value when they were read through the eyes of the prophets. In reality, the Torah, based on very old sources, was not even composed until the time of the Second Temple, alongside the compiling and editing of the prophetic writings. It was really composed by Temple scribes during the Persian period at the behest of the Persian ruler who demanded that all his subject people come up with their own constitution. By that time a lot of the older stories were already things of legend and receiving a mythological reading (the narrative was important, of course, but our idea of “history” was a late development), and a lot of contemporary things were read back into older writings, like laws that never functioned (for example, the Year of Jubilee), some that were nostalgic or wishful thinking, and some that were functioning for the first time (like the Festival of Succoth). At some point the writings became stable, but probably not until into the Hellenistic period.

The New Testament has a very different history. The Byzantine scribes did not have a go at it until the fourth century (giving us the Byzantine text-form, or “Majority Text”), when the New Testament canon was already stable from long usage in the churches (one of the last writings to be let go of was the Shepherd of Hermas, a favorite, and among the last to be canonized were 2 Peter and Jude). However, the documents that make up the New Testament never had the textual fluidity that the Hebrew scriptural texts had had. The New Testament interpreters of the Hebrew Scriptures took the traditional dating assigned to those books at face value (for example, Moses wrote the five Books of Moses), though the purpose of their dating was more to lend them authority, than to establish their history (for example, the Psalms of David). The New Testament interpreters, however, but almost always gave them a metaphorical interpretation: it turns out, one according to the “Rule of Faith.”

A friend of mine got concerned. She wrote: “Is the Scripture just a human creation? Where does faith fit into the equation? Can people read the scriptures and find God speaking to them, and if not, are we losing our faith if we no longer trust the Scripture as inspired by the Holy Spirit?”

Another friend chimed in: “____, the Lord speaks to me every day through the scriptures!!!!!!!!”

The first agreed: “Often to me too, ____!”

I wrote: “Of course the Scriptures are a human creation, just as Jesus was human and was born of a human mother and died a human death. But I believe the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, that collectively and as a canon they are the testimony of Jesus and embody the Word that he IS, and when properly interpreted are the authoritative word of God. The basis of the Christian Faith is this truth of the Incarnation: that Jesus is divine and human, not a hybrid of the two in which what is human becomes magical and the divine is compromised. Heresies about the Incarnation apply also to our understanding of the Scriptures. The proper interpretation of the Scriptures comes from the revelation of the Holy Spirit who reveals who Jesus really is. Apart from that, people only saw what the eyes of flesh can see. And so with the Scriptures. This revelation is what is meant and put into words by the ‘Rule of Faith.’”

My friend said, “I agree that the Scriptures are not primarily a human creation just as Jesus is God and man … I love the proclamation of the Nicene Creed!”

I continued: “Probably what is troubling is that we are used to narratives, which serve a vital purpose, but history itself—like our own lives—is very complicated. If I give a narrative, I not only tell it from only my own point of view but in my telling it I have already interpreted the events I am narrating. This is also the nature of the Biblical narrative. To equate it with objective history (which is never fully accessible to us) is to misunderstand it. For example, there are four different gospels, each told from a different point of view and giving a different interpretation. They are not the complete picture, but they are enough for the Holy Spirit’s purpose. They each and together reveal the truth (the reality of Jesus) when the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of our spirit. In them we encounter Jesus himself, alive, now, as the face of God in his eternal humanity. It is a living encounter, not a mere reflection on the past.

My friend was relieved: “I like that. My difficulty comes when sharing my faith and unbelievers bombard you with so much politics that I need to simplify my beliefs. It is hard sharing the truth. Sometimes the more you know or learn the harder it is to share the core reality that God is real and loves us and wants to connect with us and [for us to] have a relationship with him. We can get to know him deeper by reading the scriptures.”

I said, “I find it the opposite. Of course people have to get past the politics. Facebook aside (because this medium is awful), I get people to focus on the ethical questions and their own actual lives—what they have some control over. Even in counseling families, often the issue is realizing that you can only control your own reactions, not anyone else’s, and you never really even know what the other person is thinking. But that is still pre-evangelism.

“Actually the more we know the more we should be humbled by what we do not know and do not understand. We speculate like everyone else (of course we hope we are right and that the Holy Spirit is leading our thoughts, but everyone also hopes they are right). And I am not ashamed to let people know how little I actually know. But when I tell them the truth of what I know, it is very simple, because it is simple to me: I am a sinner and Jesus has captured me by his love. They may argue about my interpretation (maybe they think I am deluded) but they cannot argue about whether I feel this and whether it has taken over my life.

“We get into trouble when we try to explain too much. Then it becomes this mental debate. It is best to give it up at once when you see it happening (unless you and the other person are enjoying it in love) and move it back onto the ground of our common vulnerable humanity. In witnessing I may try to explain something, if the person wants to know, but I let them know that this is personal or what I have studied and they can take it or leave it. What I always come back to is what I really feel, what matters to me. I know my struggles are not unique and neither are theirs. Suffering and joy are common to us. But here is what I found [I tell them] and what works for me, and where I have found meaning and strength (or whatever). I keep it on that level. Then people want to talk more and more.

“I usually end up sharing how the Scriptures work in my life. Bible-study may not be far away, chronologically, from this point, but it is not until they see my own comfort with Scripture (and how meaningful the scriptures can be for me) and my comfort with my own ignorance, that they begin to realize that they too don’t have to leave it up to experts but can begin to take the plunge.

“But really, I think showing people the love of Jesus for sinners such as themselves is extremely simple. I love them with all their faults and failings, and I am here now because I am no different, not a milligram better, but I am overcome by the love of Jesus for me. If they want to think I’m deluded, I let them. I never try to prove anything.”

I complain, “These debates on Facebook are another story. They trap us and rarely is our banter heart to heart.”

My friend said, “Yes and no. If we are respectful and loving it is a great way to share ideas! I try to be sincere even if at times I may be sincerely wrong. I really do love people … Sometimes it is a way to share with people that live far away.”

I agreed. “Yes, Facebook too has its uses. We would not be having this conversation without it. And sometimes, the way I feel towards you, it can be heart to heart, but that is often hard to convey. Love you.”

She said, “Love you!”

I returned to an earlier point: “If we ask if Scripture made factual mistakes, the answer is Yes. Even if we compare the gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark we find things on which they disagree. Did Jesus use this word or that? Did Jesus heal Bartimaus on his way into Jericho or on his way out?
But this is similar to asking if Jesus ever made a mistake. When doing his arithmetic homework was he always divinely assisted and never got an answer wrong? Or when he “emptied” himself of the divine glory (he never stopped being divine) did he not have to grow up like the rest of us, struggling with all the limitations of being human? Jesus said he was without sin and this the Scriptures and the church affirm. In his limited humanity he never sinned, never had a sinful thought. But was he immune to making common mistakes? Under the anointing of the Holy Spirit (after his baptism) perhaps, but why before? Were any of his “mistakes,” just like “mistakes” in the Scriptures, ever outside of the providential will and design of God (who, in his Person, he was)? The answer is No. (The scribal errors in the transmission of the text—why there are different manuscript traditions—is another story.)

My friend said, “I agree and had a police detective share that the so called ‘errors’ of the disciples’ accounts or perspectives demonstrated a truer eyewitness account, because in his experience if witness testimony is exactly the same, it often is suspect of collaboration to deceive. True eyewitness accounts by human beings often slightly differ from each other, proving it to be more reliable according to the detective. I thought that scribes were meticulous with counting the letters and mathematical sums of letters to keep the reproduction of scripture accurate? With the Greek do we not have original documents or fragments dating back to about 70 years from the original writings?

I explained, “About the manuscripts, yes. They are far more accurate than most people imagine. Scribes in fact were often illiterate. Jewish scribes counted letters to the extent that you could put a pin through a book and if they knew what letter it went through on the first page, they could tell you what letter it pierced on every other page. But before the text reached that level of stability it was more fluid—hence why the scroll of Isaiah they found among the Dead Sea Scrolls differs considerably from the one at the time of Jesus, and why the Septuagint and the Syriac translations have a number of differences from the modern Hebrew.

“There are fragments of the Gospel of John that are probably only 25 years older than the gospel itself (if I remember correctly).

“In the New Testament, the scribal tradition was more informal, though eventually professional Byzantine scribes, starting in the fourth century, standardized the text (what we now call the Majority Text, the basis for the King James). The non-standardized text is mostly represented by the eclectic ‘Alexandrian’ text(s). The United Bible Societies use the Alexandrian text-form as being more accurate because it has so many more mistakes. For example, one person often dictated the text to another and the scribe(s) hears the word wrong and writes down a word that sounds alike but isn’t the same. Remember, there was no punctuation and words were often not even separated from each other with a space. That’s one kind of mistake. Another is when you visually copied a manuscript in front of you and your eyes drifted to an identical word on another line and you miss a line. There were a number of other kinds of mistakes. But by comparing hundreds of manuscripts with each other, most of these mistakes can be eliminated. We should be very grateful to the people who do this kind of work.”

My friend, “Yes that was [and is] a calling!”

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