What is the Bible?

My last post of this nature – What is a Christian? – was so fun and lively that I thought it needed a reprise.  Plus, several comments were made in that thread that make this a very germane question in my mind… 

What is the Bible?

As with the last question, I will withhold my opinion / beliefs until a little later in the discussion.  In the meantime, what’s your take?

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About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Jesus, the long awaited King. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long, difficult, joyful adventure, learning to swim with the current of God's sovereign love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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6 Responses to What is the Bible?

  1. Neva says:

    I suspect my view is going to be pretty unpopular, and possibly even offensive, to some people here, but I’ll go ahead and share it for the purposes of discussion.

    As a Christian, I believe that the Bible is a set of guidelines on how to live a Christian life through Jesus’ instructions and the examples of His followers and God’s people in earlier times.
    As someone who has studied some Biblical history and done comparative analysis of different religious texts, I see it as a written collection of Christian (and earlier) tradition and teaching, much of the earlier sections being a collection of oral tradition from an earlier culture.
    Oral tradition is always malleable, to a degree, and contains a culture’s best attempts to explain the world around them with whatever understanding they have of how things work, limited though that may be. Oral tradition also borrows heavily from the traditions of neighboring cultures as groups trade and intermix. So I consider much of the early old testament, especially, to be a snapshot of the state of an oral tradition in the form it was in when it was recorded.
    The new testament, having been written closer to when the events happened, I accept as more likely to have the general facts right. But I also believe that it has been shaped to a purpose as and since it was written. John, for example, heavily paraphrased some Greek philosophical texts in order to present his message in a manner that would be familiar and acceptable to the Greeks, who he believed were a large part of the audience he wanted to convert. Decisions were made as to which gospels and other writings were placed in the official Bible, and multiple translations have occurred over the centuries. I am sure that the translators did their best, but even the most faithful translation can alter meaning a great deal simply because of contextual nuances of the original language that aren’t carried in the literal words.

    I suppose what all of this comes down to is that I believe the Bible, overall, to be a set of guidelines to live by, but I do not believe that it is entirely the direct Word of God. It has been through too many human hands over the many years for me to believe that the exact wording of any given English version is exactly and specifically directly from God.


  2. Brad Bull says:

    I also view the gospels differently from the rest of the bible. I have not studied the bible as deeply as Neva, but my current viewpoint is that the old testament are oral stories (predominantly allegorical) that were written down at some point. The gospels were human viewpoints of experiencing Jesus, trying to record what they could of the experience they shared with him. The letters are the disciples reflections and interpretations on continuing Jesus’s teachings.

    All of these stories have been handpicked from the many, many stories around at the time of canonization. I currently have no reason to doubt that those who canonized the bible strove for the most authentic and accurate texts, but I do not believe they were infalliable.


  3. Jeff Block says:

    So both of you essentially feel that the Bible is a collection of “stories” that may or may not be true, offer wisdom that applies to your life, reflect who God really is, etc – depending on the story. Is that an accurate paraphrase for both of you?

    Here’s my concern with that argument… Doesn’t it explicitly put you in a position to pick and choose which parts of scripture you’ll adhere to? So, if you like the first and fourth verses, then they’re true, but we can throw out the middle two because they don’t match up with your pre-existing philosophy?

    It seems to me that this view (which is very common) makes it utterly impossible for the Bible to serve as any kind of moral authority. It puts it on exactly the same playing field as Dr. Suess or Tom Clancy or Shakespeare. But essentially, your predetermined philosophy (wherever you get that) becomes your moral compass, and the Bible gets interpreted through it.

    So, example, let’s take the abortion issue… In this mode, if you believe that the woman’s right to choose is the most important principle at stake, then believing the Bible is “a set of guidelines and oral traditions” allows you to just reject out of hand all the parts of the Bible that disagree with your pre-existing philosophy that abortion should be a fundamental right for women. You don’t have to be bound by principles about the sanctity of life clearly laid out in Scripture.

    What are the flaws in my argument? I’m not being facetious, I really don’t understand how this view can be logically consistent. Seems like, to hold this view, that you’d have to admit that TV or your parents or your own wisdom are your sources for your moral authority and that you read the Bible like you would a novel. Is that what you both are saying?


  4. Brad Bull says:

    You still haven’t stated what you believe the bible to be.

    Without repeating myself too much, you are taking what I stated about the old testament and appliying it carte blanche to the whole book. you have given the impression that you try to follow both old and new testament. Is this correct? And of course you caught me, I consider the bible and Dr. Seuss equals. To be a little less condecending in my response I do put more value in the bible, but I take it seriously not literally.

    As we have discussed before, we both have a different view on when life begins, therefore my views on abortion do not conflict with the scripture in my view. You appear worried about every possible life getting here no matter what, but once they are here f&%k ’em they are on their own. I don’t know how you can hold this attitude and not conflict with the gospels.

    If you are that adamantly pro-life, be pro-life prenataly and postnatally. Do you support capital punishment? Many “Christians” do. I don’t doubt their faith, but don’t understand how they reconcile this with their belief.


  5. Neva says:

    I would not say that I believe the Bible to be a collection of stories, precisely. More a collection of Christian tradition and history. I do not consider that it must all be literally true in order to hold value and provide insight into God’s workings in the world. Of course this does not put it on the same level as Dr Seuss and Tom Clancy, given that they are writing with the purpose of educating and/or entertaining their audience rather than enlightening them and make no claims that their writings are intended as truth, literal or metaphorical.

    As for picking and choosing which bits of the Bible one strictly adheres to, I would say that this is a very old part of the Christian tradition and certainly nothing new. I’ll provide a few examples to show where I’m coming from.

    How many modern Christians follow all the rules laid out in Leviticus for animal sacrifice as atonement for sin, conscious or unintentional? I’m betting most people I know have squished a spider or mosquito, but I haven’t seen any of them bringing lambs to sacrifice in church as atonement for touching dead animals/insects not intended as food, as required in Leviticus 5. I’d say that this means all Christians are guilty of “picking and choosing” which parts of scripture they adhere to or ignore.

    To go beyond that, let’s look at the history of the Bible as a document. To begin with, the Bible in its current form is amazyingly recent. The books included in the New Testament weren’t agreed upon and canoninzed until the Council of Trent around 1546, largely as a result of the Protestant Reformation. Even more recently, around 1870, several verses were added to the canonical gospels that appeared in no ancient texts, including the end of Mark (everything after 16:8 where the angel tells the women Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee and they flee the tomb). In other words, Jesus’ last command to his disciples (“Go ye into all the world and preach my gospel”) wasn’t found in any of the early texts and didn’t appear in the Bible until around 1870.

    Now let’s talk about how the books got chosen for canonization. Sensibly, the clergy at the Council of Trent selected the books that were most commonly in use at the time. There are over 30 ancient “gospels” known to exist, so why do we have the four we do? One definite criterion is that they were easy to understand and thus used a lot by early congregations. They include a lot of stories and parables and not too much mysticism. Another criterion is that the early congregations used what “match[ed] up with [their] pre-existing philosophy”. In the first several centuries of Christianity, there was no single orthodoxy; instead there were many competing views of how to interpret Jesus’ teachings. Some people came out of gnostic or Greek philosophical traditions and believed that the God who had sent Jesus was distinct from YHWH worshipped by the Jews (who they considered flawed and misguided) and that Jesus had come to show humanity the error of their ways and bring them the higher truths of His true God. Other early Christians came from a Jewish tradition and thus saw Jesus as their promised Messiah and wanted to interpret his teachings as a continuation of Jewish tradition. There was, obviously, bitter rivalry between these groups, and ultimately the Jewish traditions won out, resulting in the Christian Bible including Jewish religious writings as an Old Testament.

    In summary, the Bible was formed as a result of centuries of Christians selecting the sections of it that made sense to them and agreed with how they wanted to see the world. While I deeply respect it as tradition and a way of understanding God and gaining insight into faith and spirituality, I do not feel bound to treat its every word as a moral authority having come directly from God. This is what I meant by it having been through too many human hands over the years.

    I haven’t even addressed the translation issue here, so let me just add a brief note on that topic. In the first centuries of Christianity, there were both Greek and Latin forms of various books circulating. When they were gathered for copying and binding, they were often found to be so different from one another that the scribes could not combine them into a single document but instead printed both versions on facing pages so that people could read them both and, presumably, choose for themselves which version to believe. Again, this gives me problems believing that a moral authority should be assigned to every single word of the text that we have ended up with after centuries of human re-interpretation.


  6. Neva says:

    One textual correction/clarification to my previous post. I stated that the commandment to go into the world and make disciples did not appear in the Bible until 1870. This was a poor simplification on my part. It did not appear in Mark16 until 1870, but a version of it was prevent in Matthew 28 prior to that time. Apologies for any confusion.


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