|Faith in Search of
1. The Bible
by Anthony Freeman
The subject here is the Bible. The one I
use is a book. It is written in English - the New Revised Standard
Version (Anglicized Edition). All this is crucial to what the Bible is.
Whatever more it may be, it is never less than this: part
of our world, a human product situated in a particular place, at a
particular time, and in a particular culture.
And part of our culture is to give the Bible a special place, and to
use it in a way different from any other book, because it is believed to
be far more than just a human product. It is used to take the oath in a
court of law. It is often carried by brides at their weddings. And in
the British Coronation service it is solemnly delivered to the sovereign
with words that express a belief about the Bible and that help explain
its unique significance:
We present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this
world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the
lively Oracles of God.
I want to explore here the complex character of the Bible in a way
that helps to explain how it developed and also points the way to how we
can best understand and use it today.
I speak from the standpoint of a minister in the Church of England,
but I hope that what I say will be helpful to those of other religious
traditions, or who are interested from outside any religious commitment.
Behind the traditional Christian understanding of the Bible lies the
belief that at certain times in the past God has made known truths that
are essential to the proper fulfilment of our human destiny. These
truths were made known by divine revelation and would have been
incapable of being discovered by merely human scientific investigation
or philosophical thinking.
In the next lecture I shall look at ways of thinking about God, and
some problems with the concept of divine revelation. For now I want just
to accept - as a matter of historical record - that this is how the
Bible has been understood by our ancestors, because otherwise we shall
never be able to appreciate the position the Bible now holds in the
Christian Church and beyond.
The concept of a divinely revealed scripture was inherited by
Christianity from Judaism.
Several hundred years before the birth of Christ the Israelite nation
was destroyed and its leading families exiled in Babylon. Although some
of them returned a generation or so later to re-found a Jewish state in
Palestine, the majority of Jews became dispersed in groups all around
the Mediterranean, far from their Holy land and Holy Temple, with its
priesthood and sacrifices.
In these circumstances of "The Dispersion" the religious and national
identity of the Jews was saved by one thing - the five books of the Law,
whose origin was ascribed to Moses, and whose teaching was proclaimed
and interpreted by official teachers (the rabbis or scribes) at the
weekly gathering known as the synagogue.
In the absence of any other religious authority, the Law became
all-important. No longer were there prophets, priests or kings, through
whom God could speak to his people; the written Law - "the Scripture" -
was now the complete and definitive communication from God and it had to
be the source of all contemporary religious and moral instruction.
It is hard to over-estimate the importance of this change of role for
the written Law. It had become the only source of God's will and
intentions. There were no longer directly inspired prophets like
Jeremiah, through whom God could declare "... I will make a new
covenant with the house of Israel" (Jeremiah 31.31).
There would and could be nothing entirely new ever again. Everything
God might ever want to say must already be contained in the Law, and if
this were truly the case - and if the Law was to be of any practical use
- then three facts necessarily followed.
It must contain everything that humankind needs to know from
God, and therefore must be relevant to all times and places and
contain (at least implicitly) the answer to every question and crisis.
It must be totally and equally valid in all its parts and
details, since there is no authority higher than the Law to adjudicate
that one part is less important than another.
References to the Holy Land, the Temple, and so on, sometimes
need to be interpreted symbolically in order to be applied to changed
These three convictions were not themselves part of the revealed
Scripture. They were entailments that grew out of the practical
necessity of being totally dependent on the written Law for all
information about God's will.
This brief account is oversimplified. It makes no reference, for
instance, to the debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees as to
the status of other writings such as the prophecies and psalms that now
form part of our Old Testament.
But it shows how the basic concept of a uniquely authoritative
scripture - which claims not only to be a record of God's past dealings
with his people, but actually to contain his still-relevant direct words
and commandments - was already there in first-century Judaism for the
Christian Church to take up and develop.
One change that took place when the Church took over the concept of
scripture from the synagogue can be understood if we consider that
Judaism is primarily a code of behaviour whereas Christianity is
primarily a code of belief.
Put another way, the starting point for Jews is "Thou shalt love the
Lord thy God". The starting point for Christians is "I believe in God".
The sharpness of the distinction is blurred in practice by the fact
that belief leads to certain kinds of behaviour, and rules of conduct
lead to questions about the one who imposes them. But the distinction is
important because it meant a shift from the use of scripture to
authorise conduct to be followed to the use of scripture to
authorise facts to be believed.
Another important change in attitude resulted from the Christian
conviction that in the life and ministry of Jesus, God had again spoken
directly to his people and ushered in a new prophetic period of directly
inspired divine communication. This gave the first Christians a boldness
to proclaim new truths about the person and work of Jesus, which were
not merely deduced from the old scriptures in the rabbinic manner, but
came as fresh new teaching.
Thus we have Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, portraying Jesus
as teaching with the formula, "You have heard that it was said to those
of ancient times ... But I say to you ..." (Matthew 5.21). At the end of the
sermon the evangelist comments, "... the crowds were astounded at his
teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their
scribes" (Matthew 7.28). Similarly the writer of the Epistle to the
Hebrews opens his book with the following contrast: "Long ago God
spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways, but in these last
days he has spoken to us by his Son" (Hebrews 1.1).
In order to justify this novelty, these early Christians endeavoured
to show that this situation was in fact foretold in the Jewish tradition
itself - the Epistle to the Hebrews for instance is a sustained exercise
in this kind of argument. Over the course of two or three generations
the Christian Church not only appropriated to itself the Jewish
scriptures, but also created out of the writings of the earliest
Christians a complementary set of scriptures of their own.
Thus the Christian Bible was born, with the near-contemporary early
Christian writings being treated with the same reverence as the Jews had
treated the Law of Moses. Here was the unique, definitive
self-revelation of God to humankind.
What the Law, and to a lesser extent the prophets and psalms, had
been to the Jews, the Gospels and Epistles were to Christians. The
Jewish scriptures, interpreted as foretelling the coming of Christ and
the founding of the church, were now used to give antiquity and
respectability to what might otherwise have been written off as a
newfangled and upstart religion.
The Contents of the Bible
Once the Bible became regarded as a unique source of authority, it
became important to know which particular writings were to be included
in the Canon (the official list of contents).
This was by no means a straightforward business. We are familiar
with a standard Old Testament of 39 books and a New Testament of 27
books. But this represents the end of a long process, these 66
originally independent books having been written and revised over a
period of some 1000 years, and representing many different kinds of
literature - history, poetry, law, liturgical texts, public and private
The core texts of the Hebrew Bible were inherited by the Church from
Judaism. This list was traditionally said to have been completed and
formalised by the priest Ezra at the end of the Babylonian exile (around
500 BCE). Modern scholars think it was not until
the end of the first Christian century that the Hebrew canon was
There was also a problem with a number of later Jewish books,
written originally in Greek rather than Hebrew. They were accepted as
inspired by the Greek-speaking Jews of the dispersion, but treated with
suspicion by the authorities in Jerusalem.
These are for the most part the books known to Protestant Christians
(who do not accept them as biblical) as the Apocrypha, and to
Roman Catholics (who do accept them as biblical) as the
The Church of England - trying as usual both to have its cake and
eat it - lists them in the 39 Articles immediately after the contents of
the Old Testament. But the following caveat is added, for which
it claims the authority of the fourth-century St Jerome, translator of
the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible: These books, says Article Six,
"... the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of
manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine".
So far as the New Testament is concerned, the core books - the four
gospels and the 13 epistles of Paul - were generally accepted by the
middle of the second century, but it was the end of the fourth century
before the current Canon became firmly established. Up to that time,
books that are now excluded, such as the Epistle of Barnabas and
Shepherd of Hermas, are sometimes listed as belonging, while doubts
still persisted about certain other writings - especially Hebrews,
Revelation, and a number of the very short epistles - which eventually
made it into the official Canon (in the early 5th century).
Deciding which books to include is only the first task when drawing
up an authoritative Bible. The next question is which versions of these
books - that is to say which translations - are to count as the Word of
Muslims take the simple if drastic route: only in the original
Arabic (God's own language) is the Koran sacred. Many Jews would say
similarly that only the Hebrew original of the Law (Torah) is
authoritative, although it was held at the time of Jesus that the Greek
version of the Jewish scriptures known as the Septuagint was divinely
inspired. It got both its name and its high reputation from the belief
that it was translated simultaneously and independently by 70 scholars
who had all come up with the identical translation. And I believe that
the Roman Catholic Church still officially recognizes Jerome's Latin
version (the Vulgate) as inspired, even where it deviates from
the generally accepted original Greek text.
In practice, most Christians accept as authoritative the particular
version they themselves are familiar with, which is one reason why the
choice of translation for public worship remains a contentious issue.
Going one stage further back, whether we are using the original Greek
or Hebrew, or an English translation, a reliable original text is
needed. No original autograph copy of any Biblical book exists. All we
have are copies of copies of copies, all of them without exception
containing mistakes - some obvious, others where it is impossible to
tell for certain which of two or more existing variants is what the
author actually wrote.
And of course the originals themselves may not have been perfect.
When Paul was dictating his letters in prison, it is as likely as not
that his amanuensis, in far from ideal conditions, did make mistakes.
After all, he did not realize that he was writing the Bible.
The field of scholarship that seeks to establish the nearest
approximation to the original wording is called textual criticism. It
studies all available manuscripts (hand-written copies) in the original
language, plus the earliest translations They sometimes give evidence of
variant readings no longer extant in copies of the original.
In the case of the Old Testament, the task is made harder by the
fact that the ancient Hebrew alphabet contained no vowels, so the text
consists of a sting of consonants only, like modern speed-writing or
text-messaging. Sometimes two or more sensible meanings can be extracted
by supplying different vowels to the same consonants.
New Testament Greek manuscripts do not have this problem, but they
do contain quite a lot of abbreviations of common words like God and
Jesus, and the oldest and best of them are written in all capital
letters with no spaces between the words (for example, the Codex
Sinaiticus, 4th century, containing part of Luke 24).
This is less confusing in practice than it might sound, but it obviously
provides a further complication.
The Meaning of the Bible
Assuming that agreement could be reached on which books are part of
the Bible, which versions are authoritative, and on the wording of the
original text, the most difficult task still lies ahead: What does it
all mean? What is the message that God is trying to convey?
Even the most simple and direct commands can be ambiguous. The sixth
commandment, for instance, is "Thou shalt not kill" in the Authorized
Version (Exodus 20.13). This could be taken as an absolute prohibition
on taking human life (as pacifists argue) or indeed on killing any
creature (as vegetarians might claim). But in practice both Jews and
Christians have generally made exceptions to the absolute rule. Thus we
find that in the Prayer Book Communion service the sixth commandment is
translated in the more restricted sense "Thou shalt do no murder".
So much for the easy texts. What about the hard ones?
You will recall that one of the consequences of accepting scripture
as God's word is that it must be totally and equally valid in all its
parts and details, since there is no higher authority - certainly not
human opinion - to adjudicate that one part is less important than
another. So what are we to make of passages that appear to conflict with
each other, or that look immoral, or that contain apparently pointless
For centuries, Christian interpreters followed the example of the
Jewish rabbis and applied allegorical meanings to hard texts. We see it
in the New Testament itself, where Paul explains the story in Genesis
that says God-fearing Abraham not only had two wives (wrong in itself by
later standards) but then abandoned one of them with her child (wrong
even by the standards of Abraham's own day).
It is simple, says Paul: Abraham's relation with his two wives and
their children is a symbol of God's relation with the Jewish and
Christian communities. Well, those of us who today have to interpret not
only Genesis but Paul himself, do not generally feel that this sort of
explanation makes our task any easier.
Let me give you one more example of this kind of interpretation,
because it relates closely to our theme. The little boy in John's
Gospel, who gave Jesus his picnic to feed the 5,000, had five barley
loaves. Why the detail about the grain used?
Well, according to Augustine's commentary, barley bread is
nutritious but has a notoriously hard crust. Since there are five loaves
they represent the five books of the Jewish Law, which do contain the
nutrition of God�s word, but which are hard to understand until their
true meaning is made clear in the light of the Christian gospel.
At its height, in the middle ages, this kind of biblical
interpretation would discern up to four layers of meaning in a single
verse - literal, moral, doctrinal and mystical.
But with the dawn of the modern age there was a move to study the
Bible in the same way as other ancient texts such as the poems of Homer
and Virgil or the histories of Thucydides and Tacitus.
Don't start off by making the Bible special, it was said. Treat it
like any other collection of ancient writings. Then if it really is
unique, its special character will become apparent in the light of
patient historical and literary research.
That remains the mainstream academic view, although the rise of
so-called postmodernism has muddied the waters somewhat. However, among
preachers and congregations - and also at the official level of many
churches - there has been a great reluctance to abandon an essentially
ancient or mediaeval attitude to the Bible and its authority.
Using the Bible Today
So how should we, especially those who are trying to be faithful
Christians in the modern world, use the Bible?
It is one of our greatest religious resources. Yet all too often it
becomes an impediment and an embarrassment instead of a strength and
stay. In a recent sermon at Holy Cross I introduced a metaphor for two
ways of using the Bible, and I think it is worth a second outing.
Some people - those with a traditional approach - treat the Bible as
a lens or a telescope. I want to suggest that it is more like a mirror.
With a telescope we are presented with a close-up picture of a distant
scene, and to use the Bible in this way is to imagine that it gives us
access in accurate detail to events that happened long ago and far
Just as the light travels directly through the lens and into our
eye, so we think of the Bible as delivering to us information direct
from God and the heavenly realm.
But for reasons that we have touched on already in this talk, the
Bible cannot deliver that kind of clear precise information - not about
heaven, not even about the past here on earth.
The process is more like a mirror, where the image we see is not
direct but reflected - and to some extent reduced and distorted - by the
reflecting surface. So what we read in the Bible is a range of human
responses to God, not the word of God direct.
To see how this approach need not imply a diminishing of the value of
the Bible, but can enhance it and result in our appreciating it more
richly, I applied the idea to Luke's account of the first Easter
evening, which had been the Gospel reading at the service (Luke
At first sight it is a straightforward account of a walk by two
friends from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, their discussion with a
stranger, and a meal at which the stranger is made known as the risen
It does make sense like that, as a direct transmission of
information about a wonderful event. But it is a past event. The Bible
has acted as a telescope, bringing a distant scene close to us, but we
remain outsiders looking in. It is their story not ours.
Now look again. Forget telescopes and think mirrors. Think reflected
experience. Think how this story might be reflecting something of Luke's
own church community and its own experience of the risen Lord, not on
the first Easter Day but year after year, and week by week at the
Now what do you see?
The Emmaus story is suddenly more than a single past event. It lays
down a pattern, repeated and reflected from Luke's day to our own - the
Christian journey, the opening of the scriptures, Moses and the prophets
made relevant to Jesus, the Lord made known in the blessing and breaking
of bread, the joyful sharing of the Good News.
No longer is it a single past event seen through a lens, not even a
single past event reflected in a mirror, but a rich pattern of images.
The Bible and its story of Emmaus have become a veritable Hall of
Mirrors, in which the Christian experience of the risen Lord is
reflected and made new in every century at every Eucharist.
I believe that the Bible can best be used today in some such way as
this, which is faithful to the view that sees it as a unique channel of
God's grace, which engages with the text as part of a living spiritual
reality. But it does not require anyone to deny the obvious fact that
the Bible we buy is just the latest in a long line of humanly-produced
books with all the flaws and ambiguities which that entails.