Occasionally I like to post recent papers I've written so people have an idea of what I've taken away from seminary and the rest of my theological education. This essay was written for "Issues in the Theology of Scripture," and our assignment was to write a 1500-word essay answering these two questions: "What do we mean when we say 'the Bible is true,' and what methods of interpretation help us reveal its truthfulness?" It is an initial essay that we will be revising into a 2000-word essay at the end of our January intensive in a couple weeks, so the goal of the assignment is just to get our cards on the table so that we can see where we have confidence on what we know and what is fuzzy. So here is my initial essay. Feel free to comment if you'd like. I'll post my 2000-word essay at the end of the semester as well so you can see where my thoughts have progressed. I've entitled my paper: "Reading the Bible Faithfully"
*Side note: my footnotes could not be imported, so if it seems like something is unsupported, it's most likely because the footnote didn't make it.*
When the Church says the Bible is true, it means that the sacred texts of the Christian community are a trustworthy source of guidance concerning God’s relationship with humanity and what that relationship requires of those who follow God. To interpret the Bible faithfully, one must read it in a way that takes into account the whole story of the Bible, which can include but does not fully necessitate an understanding of the historical and cultural context in which the Bible was written.
We must first ask what the Bible is. This is a complex task at the outset because there are two different accepted Bibles in the Church: the uniformly accepted collection of 66 books from the Old and New Testaments and the collection which includes the Old Testament apocryphal books accepted as deutero-canonical by the Roman Catholic Church. This raises the question of why certain books were included in the canon while others were not. Furthermore, scholars believe there were at least 80 gospels written during the early centuries after Jesus’ life with about 30 of them being preserved at least in part. Of the 30 we have, four are contained in the Gospel. Further, some of the oldest manuscripts and lists of the canonical books show that the sacred texts of the Church changed throughout the first three centuries of the Church’s existence. Texts such as the Letter of Hermes and the Didache were eventually cut from the canon, while others such as 2 Peter and Jude were later additions. Questions about the Bible’s compilation – particularly about which books were included and which were not – are valid and serious questions.
Two historical reasons come to mind as to why the texts we have in the Bible were chosen. One reason why books were selected by Christian communities is because they were written either by the Apostles or close followers of Jesus. From that perspective, the early church found it important to include books that accurately told Jesus’ story or spoke of his life in a way that was theologically sound. Scholars have suggested that the early church was influenced by other motives, suggesting that the church fabricated stories about Jesus in order to boost his image and make him God-like. However, these arguments import modern notions about reality (particularly naturalistic and materialistic perspectives informed by modern science) into the first century world. Some scholars reject the possibility of miracles and other “supernatural” phenomena and assume that the audience of the first century would do the same. While naturalism and materialism could be argued to be flawed foundations, to import them into a first century perspective that was aware of sciences like biology and psychology is inappropriate. Other scholars have suggested that the early church was politically motivated to change Jesus’ image during Constantine’s time. However, historical evidence suggests that the canon was mostly established by the fourth century. Further, most of the Bible’s manuscripts were written before Constantine came to power, making this argument somewhat sketchy. There is enough reasonable evidence to believe that the early church was motivated out of a genuine desire to transmit the story of Jesus’ life faithfully rather than to create an image they knew not to be true.
The second historical reason for books being included in the canon is that only books in their original language should be included. This reason, generated from the Reformation, was used precisely to exclude the Old Testament Apocrypha from Protestant use. The emphasis on original languages is valid since we now know that the Septuagint (the source of the Old Testament Apocrypha in the Bible) had later additions not found in the Hebrew canon. But does that completely invalidate the Apocrypha and mean we should not consult it at all? This leads us to a discussion of what we mean when we say the Bible is true and how we interpret the Bible.
When we say the Bible is true, the Church does not necessarily mean that every detail of the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate. Some Christians do argue for the complete inerrancy of the Bible, but this argument is faulty. It assumes that the writers and audience of the Bible had the same tools for doing scientific and historical research and had the same attitude and approach toward science and history as modern society. Further, the Bible is not always correct when addressing science or history. The Bible’s cosmology is one where the earth is flat, surrounded by water around, above (being held up by the sky, which is a large dome), and below. Concerning the Bible’s reports of history, particularly pertaining to numbers and dates, the history is skewed if not completely unsupportable by historical facts. This is usually the case because numbers hold a symbolic meaning in the text rather than a literal one. Numbers like 3, 7, and 12 are incredibly important because of their significance to the Israelite community.
While historical and scientific perspectives of the Bible are not always correct, does this mean the Bible is not true? No, because the Bible is not meant to be a history or science book. We want to affirm the historical nature of the Bible; these are not simply stories made up by the early church or metaphors (and some scholars suggest) that have significant meaning. Paul says on a few different occasions – particularly I Corinthians – that if the death and resurrection of Christ did not literally happen, then Christianity is a waste of time. Furthermore, the Church needs to affirm the historical accuracy of the Bible to a certain extent. But when the Church says the Bible is true, it means that the Bible is trustworthy for learning about God’s relationship with humanity and what that relationship requires of humanity. This does not mean that nothing reported in the Bible literally happened, nor does it mean the opposite. What matters is that when the Bible speaks about God’s relationship and love for humanity and what that relationship looks like and requires, the Bible is valid and trustworthy. Apocryphal books are useful in that they give greater historical and cultural context to the Bible, but they are not true in the sense that they reveal God’s relationship to humanity or what humanity’s response to God should be.
What does a correct interpretation of the Bible look like? Part of the answer lies in translation. One option is for every Christian to learn Greek and Hebrew and read the Bible in its original languages. Aside from being impractical, this is unnecessary. One message of the Pentecost story is that the Gospel can be translated into any language without losing the core of the message. The Bible can be translated into any languages, but what does a good translation look like? We must look at how the Bible is best interpreted before this question can be fully answered.
There are two layers of interpretation when reading Bible in the best way. The first layer is to take into account the historical, cultural, and literary frameworks of the Bible. These are the tools that modern Biblical scholarship has used to help the Church better understand the texts. By using these tools, we can better understand what the Bible meant to its original hearers in the first century and earlier so that the Church can better understand what the Gospel means for us today. These are the tools we use to construct good translations of the Bible. A good translation of the Bible into any language is one which best tries to capture the meaning of the Bible as its original audience would have heard it – using the best tools and best available manuscripts – into the language of the new audience. This is why the NRSV, NIV, NASB and even the Message Bible would constitute good translations or paraphrases, while the KJV or NKJV would not.
The second layer of interpretation is a critical reading of the Bible as it is presented in good translations. While the contributions of Biblical scholarship are vital, they should not be considered the only valid way to read the Bible. Further, if Biblical scholarship has provided lay readers with the best translations (which most good English translations have), the cultural and historical context will come through in the translation, at least in part. A layperson’s reading of the Bible can be a valid interpretation if that layperson is reading a good translation and reading the Bible with an approach that seeks to understand texts within their literary contexts and the greater context of the canon. If the Bible is for and can be read by everyone, then interpretations from laity should be valid to garner truth from the Bible. The historical and cultural contexts can help lay readers better understand the Bible, but if they are reading a good translation with a critical eye, these tools should not be necessities to interpreting the Bible well.
Thus, the Bible is true in that it reveals to the Church what God has done for the world and what is required of humanity in response to God’s action in the world. A valid interpretation requires that one looks critically at the Bible with the tools available to the person reading it, including reading the Bible in community with the church as a whole.