|Why bother to read the Bible?
There's some pretty odd stuff in the Bible! In
fact, some of it is so odd that you wonder how it got in there in the
first place. Part of the reason why it seems so strange is that it was
written at a time when people thought very differently from the way we
Their understanding of the world was different, and their cultural
practices were far removed from anything we would recognise. In
acknowledging these differences, a wise person once said that no one
should ever read the Bible. You should either study it or leave it alone.
The Bible is a collection of writings, mostly by unknown authors, with
the earliest ones being written over 1000 years before the later ones.
People often have a very black or white attitude to the Bible and seem to
think that the only choice is between accepting it all in a literal sense
or rejecting it all. Given that some of the stories are clearly impossible
(such as Jonah living in the whale for three days), they reject the whole
But they don't have to. There's so much good stuff in the Bible, that
we need to reclaim the initiative from those whose approach to it is both
unintelligent and unimaginative.
There's no getting away from the fact that the Bible is a very human
book. It was not written by God, it was not edited by God, it was not
translated by God. In the beginning it wasn't written down at all. Most
parts of the Bible started life as sayings or stories that were handed
down from generation to generation as part of an oral tradition and
doubtless became embellished in the process.
Eventually they got written down, which tended to fix them a bit more,
but before the invention of printing they were handed on by being copied
out, and inevitably mistakes were made. And when they were translated from
the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, they suffered still further
alteration because translation can never be exact.
The Bible is often referred to as containing or being the "Word of
God", but it's not clear what such an expression actually means. Do
Christians claim that God dictated the words that unknown Bronze Age
inhabitants of the Middle East then spoke and that eventually became parts
of the Bible? Or is it that God somehow thought the words into the heads
of people who then spoke or wrote them? Or what?
The whole idea makes little sense to many people, but the Bible is so
central to the development of Christianity that we need some way to mark
it off as being special. Perhaps we can continue to call it the "Word of
God", so long as we are clear that such a phrase is being used
metaphorically rather than in a woodenly literal sense.
Sir Alec Issigonis - the designer of Britain's beloved little motor
car, the Mini - once famously commented that a camel is a horse designed
by a committee. The Bible is a bit like that. It's a book (in fact, a
whole series of books) edited over the centuries by a committee (in fact,
a whole series of committees, from Hebrew scholars three hundred years
before Jesus to leaders of the Christian Church in the fifth century of
the present era) who decided which of the enormous numbers of religious
writings in circulation were to be included.
Just as the camel is a curious beast, so the Bible is a curious
production. Some books (such as Revelation) might have been better left
out, while other books might usefully have been included. It's all a
matter of judgement - human judgement. We're the ones who decide which
authorities we follow. To say that a particular text is "inspired by God"
is simply to say that we happen to regard it as uniquely authoritative.
Many people find the miracle stories a major problem, in rather the
same sort of way that people find the creation story a problem. This is
because they strike at the heart of our scientific understanding of the
world. Miracles seem to involve a suspension of the laws of nature, while
creation seems to deny the theory of evolution. Of course scientists get
things wrong (if they didn't, science could never progress), but there's
something a bit desperate about fundamentalist Christians trying to hang
onto the literal view of the creation story in the face of all the
evidence to the contrary.
Many thinking people find this anti-intellectualism the strongest
possible reason to have nothing to do with Christianity, which is why
those of us who are perfectly happy to go along with the scientific view
of the world need to make it clear that it is possible to take both the
Bible and the modern world seriously.
The Bible is a magnificent book with a huge list of characters, a
strong central plot, and plenty of intrigue, betrayal, love and hate.
Drama and poetry and bits of history are all mixed in, some uplifting
stuff and some very peculiar stuff. But provided we use our intelligence
and don't try to read it all in the same way, the Bible contains enough
inspiration and challenge to last anyone an entire lifetime.