How the Bible Actually Works (Part 1)
Updated: Dec 18, 2022
I became a follower of Jesus during my sophomore year of college. But doubts I’d wrestled with before coming to faith frequently cropped up after I became a Christian. Some of these were existential – e.g. how do I know God is listening to me? – but many had to do with the Bible. I was pursuing a major in history and would be thrown whenever I encountered conflicting accounts in the biblical narratives. Since I had been taught that the Bible was “inerrant” and couldn’t contain any inconsistencies, I was caught flat-footed whenever I stumbled across one – and there were a lot of them.
Jesus wasn’t of much help. On the one hand, he sometimes began a teaching by saying, “It is written...” and then quoted an Old Testament passage as if it had ultimate authority. At other times he seemed to put daylight between a biblical reference and his own views. We see this tension within the most famous of Jesus’ sermons – the Sermon on the Mount. Near the beginning he says:
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:18-19).
So here Jesus seems to be saying that everything in the Bible – in this case, the Hebrew Scriptures – has equal and absolute authority. But then later in the same chapter Jesus appears to say something quite different. Several times he repeats the formula, “You have heard that it was said.... But now I say to you.” For example: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39). The “eye for eye” reference comes right out of the Hebrew Scriptures. So here Jesus seems to supplant an Old Testament instruction with his own instruction or command.
While there isn’t time to get into the weeds with these two passages, I’d like to highlight one particular characteristic of Jesus’ teaching style: he used hyperbole – a lot. Today we mistrust people who exaggerate. But in Jesus’ day it was a rhetorical device that people expected from their teachers. For example, when Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it from you,” no one took him literally. I’d even argue that one of the reasons Jesus used hyperbole was so that we wouldn’t turn his teachings into absolute, precise, hermetically-sealed rules. Jesus’ teachings are going to frustrate anyone who likes everything buttoned down.
Of course, all this is only a problem if you need the Bible to be something it was never intended to be – e.g. a history textbook, a science textbook, or a book of absolute rules for all time. The Bible doesn't fit any of those categories. The biblical authors wrote by different rules, in accordance with the literary approaches and rhetorical devices of their day. When I first became a Christian, I attempted to read the Bible through modern Western eyes. At the time, it’s all that I knew to do. But that approach kept me from seeing the Bible’s artistry and beauty. By focusing on what I thought the Bible was supposed to be teaching, I often missed what it was actually saying.
It’s important not to impose on the Bible a modern template of historical writing, of describing the natural world, or rule making that doesn’t fit with how the Bible actually works. Take for example the four biographies of Jesus we call the four Gospels. Their ordering of events in Jesus’ life and ministry often varies from one another. If the Bible needs to be historically inerrant, that’s a problem. And yet the church fathers who included these Gospels in the New Testament canon didn’t seem particularly bothered by these differences. For example, they didn’t seem to have a problem with Matthew, Luke and John describing the rooster crowing twice and Mark only once before Peter denied Jesus; nor with the fact that each gospel describes different occasions where Peter denied Jesus (some people count six in all), while agreeing that Peter only denied Jesus three times. Then there is the fact that John’s Gospel has Jesus driving moneychangers and animals out of the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than at the end, unlike the other three Gospels. Even the wording of what Jesus said during the Last Supper, the basis for the Christian Eucharist, differs among the gospel writers. This is a very small sample of the apparent historical inconsistencies contained in the Gospels.
None of this is a problem if we don’t impose on biblical writers a modern template of historical writing. The gospel writers weren’t just historians, but Spirit-inspired theologians and artists. Historical writing in the ancient world didn’t work the way historians write today. For example, if an author today wants to offer their personal perspective on an historical event, they almost always separate their commentary from their description of the event itself. But that’s not how historical and biographical writing worked in the ancient world. Ancient authors were actually expected to change or embellish the stories in order to bring out the meaning of an event or the character of an actor. The event and the commentary were supposed to be seamlessly integrated. So the author took historical liberties, like we find in the four Gospels, to bring out the meaning of the story and to emphasize certain themes. They weren’t trying to fool or mislead anyone. Like I said, ancient readers expected this kind of meaning-making within the storytelling, and were less concerned then we tend to be about absolute historical accuracy.
For example, in Mark’s accounting of the feeding of the 5000 we’re told that Jesus had compassion on the crowd “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” A few verses later he directs his disciples to have the people sit down in groups “on the green grass.” Now mentioning the green grass may be a historical detail that Mark is using to help the story come alive. Or it may be an embellishment that hyperlinks to Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures....” In this same passage Jesus also says to his disciples, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” In Psalm 23 we read, “He leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” Did Jesus actually use the word “quiet,” or is Mark giving us the gist of what Jesus said while specifically using the word “quiet” to make a connection with Psalm 23? It’s this kind of creative working with historical events that readers in the ancient world expected. Through these and other details, Mark is likely trying to tell us what kind of shepherd (i.e. king) Jesus is – someone who feeds his people rather than exploits them; who teaches them with parables rather than imposing a lot of laws; who wants to refresh them rather than repress them; who gathers an army of disciples rather than an army of soldiers. (This is likely why Mark specifically says 5000 men: the event happens in a "remote place," which would have made it an ideal time for Jesus to gather a military force, like others claiming to be the Messiah had tried to do. Jesus instead tells everyone to leave immediately after he fed them.)
If we read these stories as straight historical writing, we may end up missing a good part of what the authors were trying to communicate. Again, biblical authors weren’t just historians, but Spirit-inspired artists, preachers and theologians. What’s “inspired” isn’t so much an accurate recording of events (who needs inspiration for that?) but the artistic working with a story that brings out its spiritual and theological meaning.
So the fact that the four New Testament biographies arrange Jesus’ teachings and miracles in different ways, and sometimes record slightly (or significantly) different versions, should make us all the more interested in what each author, guided by the Holy Spirit, is trying to teach us about the living Christ. It’s often in these differences that we find the theological juice.
The Bible doesn’t work like a science textbook either. The Bible talks about nature in ways that would have made sense to an ancient audience, but not necessarily to a modern one. In the Bible, nature is normally talked about theologically and metaphorically rather than scientifically. The Bible is less concerned with the how of nature than the why of nature, and the Who that is ultimately behind it.
Take Isaiah 35:1-2 from the Old Testament as an example:
The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
When Isaiah talks about the wilderness shouting and rejoicing, he’s clearly not offering a scientific description of wilderness behavior. Nor is he simply using the desert as a metaphor; he really does envision God’s creation benefiting from God’s saving work. Rather, Isaiah is using a rhetorical device (nature shouting) to remind us that all creation exists for the glory of God, and that God loves this world in its entirety and wants to restore it.
So when Jesus, in one of his parables, referred to a mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds, he wasn’t making a scientific statement. (It’s actually not the smallest.) He was speaking rhetorically, not scientifically. He was comparing the small size of a mustard seed to the large size of a mustard tree, and using this as a metaphor for the gradual growth and influence of God’s kingdom. Getting stuck on the relative size of a mustard seed is to entirely miss the point of the parable. Jesus wasn’t giving a science lesson. He was using hyperbole to communicate a concise and punchy statement about the kingdom of God. (I guarantee you Jesus’ listeners weren’t fact-checking the scientific accuracy of his parable on their smart phones. They didn’t have to – many of them were farmers.)
In my first post in this series I mentioned that Abraham Lincoln thought he had to disagree with the biblical creation account because of current scientific theories about evolution. It’s unfortunate that the fundamentalists of his day steered him in that direction. When examined closely, especially within the Hebrew text, Genesis 1 doesn’t even pretend to be a scientific description of how the universe was created. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: that’s not how Genesis 1 works.
As poetic literature, Genesis 1 is an architectural wonder. The number seven, for example, is a number signifying perfection or completion and a number often associated with temple-building. Genesis 1:1 contains seven words. Genesis 1:2 has fourteen words, or seven times two. Significant words in the creation account occur in multiples of seven: God (35 times, i.e. seven times five), earth (21 times, i.e. seven times three), heavens/firmament (21 times), “and it was so” (7 times), and “God saw that it was good” (7 times – though not corresponding with the seven days). And that’s just a start. There are so many artistic and poetic elements in this creation account that attempting to read it as a scientific description of how the universe began does an injustice to the text and its author. The text isn’t trying to tell us how the universe was made, but why it was made and who made it. It’s a theological accounting of creation, not a scientific one. (A scientific description would’ve made no sense to the original reader, and was certainly beyond the scope of a short theological poem.)
Actually, most people in the ancient would have understood that what is being described in Genesis 1 is the building of a temple. (The modern reader might be excused for missing this.) Since only kings and priests were viewed in the ancient Near East as being made in the image of a god (with everyone else created to be a slave), it’s remarkable that in Genesis 1 all human beings are created to rule over creation and care for it as royal priests. Later God will refer to Israel as a “royal priesthood” or “kingdom of priests.” In other words, he’s planning on retraining them to fulfill their original vocation as humans made in God’s image to reign and care for creation, God’s temple, and to unfold its creative potential.
So when the creation story ends with God “resting” on the seventh day, it’s not saying that God was tired after six hard days of work. In the ancient Near East, the word “rested” described what a god in the ancient world would do after his human slaves built his temple. He would rest or settle in his new temple. In other words, he would take residence there. An idol or image of the god would be placed in the temple to represent the god’s presence.
One of the reasons the Israelites were told not to represent God with any kind of carved or crafted image was because human beings were God’s image (Genesis 1:26). The theological message of the biblical creation account is that the entire universe is God’s temple, and that instead of being a local deity, Yahweh is the God of all creation.
The Biblical Vision of Equality
So it’s too bad that Lincoln thought he had to disagree with the Bible’s creation account when he read Darwin. Given his appreciation for Shakespeare and the theater, it’s unfortunate he allowed the fundamentalists of his day to keep him from applying his artistic instincts to the biblical creation account. A less literal, more theological reading of Genesis 1 would have actually challenged his belief that white Americans were superior to black Americans. Let’s look at the end of the creation account:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Notice that the text doesn’t say that God made only Jews in his image, which is what one would have expected from a Jewish author. And of course, there's nothing said here about only white people being made in God’s image, which would have been an entirely foreign concept.
The biblical creation’s view of humanity couldn’t be more radically different from other creation accounts. Like I said earlier, in these other accounts only kings and priests were made in God's image. Everyone else was a slave created to provide animal and grain offerings to feed the kings and the gods. Instead of most of the human race being a slave race, the biblical account states that all people are made in God’s image, and that every human being has been made to rule or reign: “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule....” This ruling/priestly race, by the way, included both men and women:
So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
All human beings were made to be the earth’s rulers and priests. So much for patriarchy (something that comes after the fall). So much for slavery. Everyone a ruler. Everyone a priest. Genesis 1, rather than being a scientific description of creation, is one of the most revolutionary social documents ever written. Think about how it provides a theological and philosophical foundation for our own political system – a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Later, when God establishes a covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, there is remarkably no mention of a king. (Subordinate kings were always the ones addressed in such covenants; the people never.) God speaks to the people directly. They are the royalty of the land. All of them are God’s priests. They are the “royal priesthood” appointed to relate to God directly and to represent him in a world where everyone was originally designed to be rulers and priests.
At Sinai God tells his people that choosing a king is optional, and that if they did so choose, the king’s role would be significantly limited. The covenant’s laws or instructions, if followed, would keep the rich from becoming too rich, and the poor from remaining poor. Everyone was to have their own property – and no provision of land is made for either kings or priests, the ones who owned most of the land in other nations. (In fact, the covenant prohibits priests from owning property, which is in stark contrast from other nations where priests were often the bankers.) If a farmer went into debt, those who were better off were to loan that farmer money or grain without interest. (The going rate in other nations was 20% for money loans and 33% for grain loans.) There was also to be an economic reset every seven years, with a major reset every 50 years during the Year of Jubilee.
When Jesus said that he came to fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures, it was this vision of humanity he came to fulfill. When asked to read the Hebrew Scriptures in his hometown, he chose to read from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)
Jesus the Son of God and God the Son, King of kings and Lord of lords, said he “came not to be served but to serve.“ That’s the biblical paradigm for reigning. Instead of being slaves of a human king, each of us is made and called to be a servant ruler like Jesus – like God himself. Rather than retaliating against his enemies (i.e. an eye for an eye), Jesus allowed himself to be cruelly executed for their salvation: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”
In spite of Christ’s sacrifice and investment in this restoration project, he refuses to impose his rule on us. Unlike some of those in power today, he insists on using humble persuasion rather than militant coercion. (So much for Christian nationalism.) He said his kingdom would evolve like a small mustard seed growing into a tree where all the nations would perch and rest in its shade. Revelation, the final book of the Bible, uses apocalyptic imagery (another literary device) to point to Christ’s return, when Christ will complete the work he and his followers have begun, and humankind (including the nations) will be restored to its original glory and reign with Christ forever (22:5). This description of our reigning with Christ is an amazing ending, but not a surprise ending. This has been God’s mission all along, and he’s been determined to succeed in the face of whatever obstacles human rulers and nations have thrown in his path.
There are of course crosscurrents God has had to navigate – patriarchy, slavery, sexism, tyranny, militarism, economic oppression and environmental exploitation. Instead of sanctioning the status quo, he works with it and within it, while gradually moving the Story toward increasing equality, freedom, and justice. In other words, God works with what he’s given – which is his only option if he’s not going to impose his will on us. He’ll always work with us, but never without us. He never works faster than we can grasp or can realistically move. (I recently read that the downside of living in a democracy is that change is inevitably going to be slow.) We learn from the cross just how much suffering God has had to endure because of our slow learning and poor reigning – especially as he witnesses the suffering we inflict on one another. As Jesus said, “Whatever you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.”
So the Bible is a great story with lots of history – but it’s not written like a history textbook. Nor does it make scientific claims that would have been incomprehensible to its original readers. Finally – and this will surprise many of you – neither is the Bible a rule book, at least not in the way most of us understand rules and laws. Rules actually make up a very small part of the Bible, and many of them are adapted and even set aside during the course of the biblical story itself. Understanding how rules actually work within the Bible is going to be important when we look specifically at what the Bible has to say about same gender marriage. So I’ll be devoting my entire next post to examining how rules work within Scripture.