What is the Bible?
Recently I spoke for our local campus ministry, Longhorns for Christ, on the campus of the University of Texas. They were doing a series entitled Believable Lies, addressing one a week.
A Believable Lie: “The Bible Isn’t Very Important”
One of the ideas we sometimes hear, or think ourselves, is that the Bible just isn’t very important, or worth following closely. It was written a long time ago, when societies were very different. It’s a strange book, written over more than a thousand years, by many different authors, with a bunch of different kinds of stuff in it. The stuff in it is strange – when we look for instructions, sometimes we get poems. When we look for heroes, we get dubious moral choices.
Then add to that, it was preserved over many years, sometimes by unknown persons or groups, and we have many, many manuscripts, all of which have some differences from the other manuscripts.
So if someone says, “How can you follow some ancient book, with a bunch of killing in it, and a bunch of contradictions, and think that it’s right?” – that can start to feel very uncertain. I think the objections might be classified into the Bible is either:
a) irrelevant – too old, too violent, too weird – or,
b) unreliable – error-ridden or corrupted.
If the Bible were irrelevant or unreliable or both of those things, we wouldn’t pay attention to it!
The Struggle is Real
First, I want to say, let’s not gloss over any of the reality of the Bible.
There is really hard stuff in it. There is killing that seems bloodthirsty. Women don’t get equality a lot, especially in the most ancient stories of the Bible. It sometimes seems to emphasize divisions between people groups. There are stories that we guess we’re supposed to take a moral lesson from, but then the presumed hero of the story does something terrible! And sometimes no one even says who was right and who was wrong. The Bible does not shy away from any of this, so we won’t pretend it isn’t there.
Also, the text of the Bible has real challenges. There are a LOT of manuscripts. There are conflicts between ancient manuscripts that we don’t always know how to resolve. It’s written in ancient languages and that’s hard. There are words we don’t quite know how to translate. There is one spot where ALL the oldest manuscripts have a lacuna, a hole eaten through it by a worm, and we don’t know what number is supposed to go in the spot where the hole is (1 Sam 13:1)!
When I was growing up, I was presented with the idea that the Bible was “perfect”. In Matthew, Jesus is teaching and says not a “jot or a tittle shall pass from the Law” which is the King James, and would mean like the dot of an i or the cross of a t. Here’s how it’s translated in a modern translation:
18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Matthew 5:18 NASB
And I thought (I think I was told this by well-meaning teachers) that meant that the manuscripts we have are all the oldest, original-ish manuscripts, and they match down to the dot of an i. Didn’t Jesus say they would?
So then when I found out that’s not the case, that ancient manuscripts vary, that there could be a worm hole keeping us from knowing a word (!!) I was bothered by it.
So: what if the Bible isn’t “perfect” in the way I thought it was?Well, what do we mean by “perfect”?And, even more foundationally, what do we think the Bible is?
What is the Bible?
There are a lot of answers to the question, “What is the Bible?”
- We know it’s a book…
- More than that, is actually a collection of books.
- It’s God’s word, but what does that mean?
- One thing it means is that Scripture is inspired, somehow a product of the breath, the animating and inspiring force, of the Spirit of God.
- But we also know that the Bible is a product of human beings.
If we were making up a way to provide a holy text to a people, we might choose to have a complete, intact work descend from the sky. We could embed miraculous fidelity into these Scriptures from on high so there would never be any textual variants. We want that, right?This is why all the work on Blockchain!Can’t be altered, provides certainty!
But God chose to commission and inspire a collection of prophet writers. He chose to have editors come along later to take existing stories and weave them together. He chose to have pieces compiled and placed alongside each other. So that after over a thousand years of writings being produced, those pieces would become what we call the Bible.
If we were making up the content of a holy text, we might include rules on right and wrong, exhortation to follow them, and some worship stuff. And that material is in there, but it’s not the majority. When God produced our Scriptures, they are full of stories!It’s the most common genre in the Bible (43%). And there’s tons of poetry!Which is sometimes raw and violent. And the stories are sometimes morally ambiguous. God chose the stories and emotions of human history to communicate with us.
Scripture is God’s progressive, incarnational revelation of God’s self and God’s purposes for and with human beings
I submit that the Bible is God’s revelation of himself.
More than that, I’ll propose three elements for us to understand about what Scripture is:It is God’s 1) progressive, 2) incarnational, 3) revelation of God’s self and God’s purposes with and for human beings.
So let’s take that piece by piece:
First, Scripture is Progressive. God produced the Bible to reveal himself to humans, and to reveal the story of reality. Reality isn’t a static situation, but a something that goes from beginning to end.
It begins with Creation. In Genesis we see humanity in its infancy, made to represent God on Earth, but failing to do so. We see the effects of humans tearing away from God and the corruption that causes in the world. We see God answer the pervasive destruction of sin by choosing a person, Abraham, and entering his story more closely, in order to use that person and his descendants to draw the entire world back to himself. The covenant blessing of Abraham ends with “and all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3b, NIV).
As the story continues, we learn God’s own name, the name of YHWH, the “I AM WHAT I AM,” which God reveals for the first time to Moses.
At the time of this revelation, Abraham’s people have become the nation of Israel, but as they are coming into nationhood, they are already enslaved, needing rescue from slavery and death. In that rescue, God dwells with them, personally. He leads them and gives them good laws to live by that shape them into God’s own people. He gives them a land as inheritance and provides for egalitarian distribution, protection for the weak, and righteous rule – in perpetuity, if they’ll follow his laws. But of course they do not.
The whole history of Israel in Scripture focuses on the covenant relationship with God – it’s a story of who God is and how he interacts with his people. They abandon God again and again. God doesn’t leave injustice unpunished, but he also maintains his love for straying people, generation after generation. God speaks to His people, intercedes in history for them, rescues them over and over.
And in every rescue, there is a promise of a better rule to come. A way for God to dwell with humans more personally. A way for God to shape us into his good representatives. A way for us to finally image God truly and wisely, as we were created to do. This is the thing the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures were pointing at.
THEN we see God do something new, something everything before pointed to, but we never could have imagined:God takes on humanity and comes in person to dwell among his people. Jesus. The promised Christ / Messiah / Anointed King.
God chooses to take on humanity and walk among us, to live and die and live again, and after Jesus, the whole of humanity is changed. It is THE rescue – the one that all the other rescues pointed to! Human history is altered, the cosmology of our reality is altered, because God the Son, Divine and Human, is exalted to the right hand of God the Father through his suffering and sacrifice.
And THEN we have the coming of the Holy Spirit – so that each individual Christian is now what the Jerusalem Temple used to be – the place where God dwells, the place where Jesus rules, the place where heaven meets Earth. So God is finally revealed in his Triune nature – Father, Son, and Spirit – a community of love the we are invited to join.
And it all points to a future return of the king when all earth will be recreated. When there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth, and God will dwell in it fully so that injustice and sorrow will be gone. And Jesus will rule completely so that we will all know how to love as Jesus loves.
That’s the progressive story of scripture. God’s nature and character never change, but God has chosen to interact with changing humans, to interact with the history of his creation, so there is a direction to creation. It has a beginning point, and the key thing is that it has an end purpose!The Bible is telling us that there IS a point to it all. Creation is going somewhere, God has a purpose for all things, and he’s revealing it through the story of Scripture.
We said that Scripture is God’s progressive revelation, but I also said that it’s “incarnational,” which is a strange word to use about the Bible. It means “enfleshed,” to take on a physical body, which is what Jesus did in taking on humanity and being born as a man.
But Scripture is writing. It isn’t a human but words on pages. The written word is God’s chosen vehicle to tell this history-spanning, mind-blowing story of what God is doing with the world. And when God wants all that in written form, he doesn’t drop it down from heaven on incorruptible heaven-paper. Instead, he does it incarnationally – in the people and stuff of physical creation.
God has his Holy Word written on the writing stuff of its times. It’s on papyrus and parchment. And it’s faulty stuff. It tears, it rots. Worms eat holes in it. When the text is unfavorable to the king, sometimes it gets burned (that seems to be what happened to the first edition of Jeremiah in Jeremiah 36). It has to be copied by hand and little discrepancies get introduced. It’s frail, because God is doing it all through the stuff of this world.
Why would God do that?Because that is who God is. He is our God who is willing to use the faulty, the vulnerable, the frail to accomplish his purposes.
And frailest of all, God creates all of Scripture through having people create it. People! Even though we’re such a mess!
People in the category of “prophet” are the main human authors of the Bible. God had been having people write down his instructions and the stories of his rescues for many generations. God had Moses write stuff down. David wrote Psalms. We know that Israel and Judah, even in the years when they were split into two nations, wrote down the annals or chronicles of their kings and the kings’ reigns. The Bible refers to records of genealogies (like of Noah, of Aaron and Moses, etc. ), of ancient records of Moab, and records of Seers (like Samuel, Nathan, and Gad. The Bible references all of these writings and records as sources – so just like when you write something and you cite your sources, the ancients also referred to their source materials.
We’re used to thinking of inspired authors of Scripture. And then when someone says this section was based on sources and compiled and edited, that at first sounds like something that challenges the inspired nature of scripture. But the way the Bible talks about itself tells a different story of what inspiration is. The Bible says it’s from God. It also refers to its sources, it makes reference to previous and subsequent material (in the Bible), and contains literary linkages between the beginnings and endings of scrolls according to its final ordering. Which shouldn’t surprise us, because this is how people write and produce books, and God has chosen to use people.
In using people, God works through our personalities. There’s no evidence in the Bible of people becoming automatons to the Spirit of inspiration. You can hear their personalities come through in the words. David sounds different than Paul. Each of the gospels has a distinctly different voice, right?God made personalities and talents and skills. He works through who people are. Our en-fleshed-ness. The fact that all these people are faulty does not stop God from using them, or cause God to “take over” and “do it himself” when we introduce our messiness to his work.
What that is really telling us is that the way God works in inspiration is so much bigger and more beautiful than we realized!God works through authors, yes. God also works through middle men and compilers and editors. He works through the added lines and repeated phrases. He works through the vulnerable papyri and the copying. He works through the people and the stuff of this world – that’s what I mean by incarnational – done in meat and skin pieces of the created world.
Let’s look again at what Jesus teaches about the Scripture, back to Matthew 5:14-19 (NASB):
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
Look here at who is the light of the world – we know that Jesus is the Light of the World, but here, it’s people! Believers, in following Jesus, are going to shine to bring glory to God – God is working here through people.
17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets;
(The “Law and the Prophets” is a way to refer to the Hebrew Scriptures)
I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
Fulfill, because the plan of God has a direction, toward the end of the present age and the time of the age to come, when everything that the Scriptures have pointed to will be accomplished.
19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
We see that Jesus is teaching his followers, us, about being a light, teaching righteousness, all pointing to fulfillment in the “kingdom of heaven. ” No, nothing in the Scriptures will fail, because the end purposes God reveals through them are to be accomplished, through us. It’s not about textual variants – it’s about the great work of God in reconciling all creation to himself through Jesus Christ and we who follow him.
We actually have excellent manuscript evidence for the content of Scripture. We have many copies – many, many more than other documents similar ages. And we have fundamental agreement in meaning across the board. The small differences that scholars call “textual variants” are real, but they are minor. The manuscripts of Scripture are very impressive, very well attested. We have very good texts!What we don’t have is simplicity or complete “magical” duplication.
The complicated manuscript history of Scripture tells us that God was willing to work generation by generation, through faulty, frail people – and who but God could do that to produce a revelation of himself that tells a unified story, from Creation to Recreation about who God is, how we too can be in God’s presence, and how we too, through Jesus Christ and his indwelling Spirit, can be a part of God’s purposes for the world!
This is the Good News of Scripture
1) The good news is that Scripture is not irrelevant, because it connects us to God. Yes, it’s got weird stuff – but that’s because we have a God who steps into our stories (and we’re weird, aren’t we?). He’s a God that shapes us while our morality is still questionable. He’s a God who works in the jealous rivalries, the times we flee in fear, the bloody battles, the times we collapse in doubt and despair, or say “I’m the only one following you” (Elijah) or “we despaired even of life” (Paul). Our stories are sometimes violent, divisive, or morally faulty, but God is with us in them.
Scripture is not irrelevant because it opens to us God’s purposes to draw all of creation back to himself. What could be MORE relevant than the plan for all creation?
2) And the good news is that Scripture is not unreliable. Those many manuscripts are in support of scripture, and their discrepancies tell the story of the God who works by coming to us where we are, and by working through us.
The Good News of Scripture is that God shaped Scripture over time and through people because that’s who God is. We can know that our God also wants me, and wants you, to participate in his mission of drawing all things back to God’s self. Because God loves me and loves you enough to elevate us into participating in God’s own purposes.
Image: Desert flowers with caves in the background at Qumran, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Photo copyright Deanna Munger.