Why Read the Bible Realistically?

In a comment today someone, who I know to have meant it in a friendly way, characterized the way I explain and interpret biblical passages as “a dose of Biblical criticism, history, and archeology that may get you uncomfortable.” The comment was made to someone who wrote in with questions, who is experiencing a very new and very rapid increase in Biblical learning. Having been challenged to read the entire Bible in 90 days, this person suddenly discovered that the attitude of the Bible toward commandments and customs was at odds with the understanding they had developed in church life. They found a positive way of life in ancient Israel and wondered how a modern Christian should apply this wonderful insight.

But what I want to comment on this morning is reading the Bible realistically (a term I prefer to “critically”). Quick note: the term “criticism” when applied to a certain approach in reading the Bible goes back to a previous era in which people were literary “critics,” evaluating and explaining the meaning of various writings. It is an unfortunate word for Biblical research since it can mean one of two things: (1) reading with a critical mind as in one that thinks and uses reason to try and understand or (2) one who finds the Bible deficient and criticizes it.

For the record, I do think (1) is important. Some will say, “We should not use reason at all to understand the Bible.” They fail to grasp that they already have used reason in making that very statement and that “understanding” by definition involves “reason.” You use human reason to comprehend the Bible even if you claim you do not.

But the person who said my explanations of biblical passages involve “Biblical criticism” was trying to prepare this new student of the whole Bible for a bracing reality check: if she read my material she might be in for a different way of looking at the Bible than she was used to in typical preaching and teaching in her religious experience. And that leads me to what I want to discuss: why read the Bible realistically?

Let me give three examples, and I hope these do not alarm you:

CASE #1: The Bible has parallels in pagan myth, a fact which religious people are tempted to deny.

CASE #2: The Bible allows some practices we deem as abhorrent and immoral, such as owning foreign slaves.

CASE #3: The biblical accounts have numerous discrepancies which cannot all be harmonized.

Many people will stop reading this article here. The assertions I just made make some people doubt they can believe the Bible at all. It is easier to deny the above statements, try not to look too deeply into these accusations against holy scripture, and go on pleasantly innocent to the realities of the scriptural tensions. If you find this too disturbing to your faith, please at least read the section below this one: “HOW REALISTIC READING SAVES FAITH IN OUR TIME.”

Case #1 is easy to demonstrate and the way to deny its reality is also a fairly easy maneuver, but I would claim a dishonest one. The creation and early history accounts in Genesis are filled with parallels to pagan myth. The pagans also believed the world began in chaos (Genesis says formless and void), that there were waters above and below, that the flat earth rested on pillars, that a race of giants related to the gods walked the earth in old days, that a deity put his bow in the sky, and that there was a flood with a hero who escaped in a sea vessel, and so on. This troubles many people who want to say the Bible is original and unique. It should not trouble us. The existence in myth of other versions of biblical ideas could be read as an affirmation that ancient humanity had knowledge of the reality represented by the biblical story. But some would defend the Bible by arguing that the biblical account came first and then pagans heard it and made their corrupted versions (which is a dishonest approach in my opinion).

Case #2 is clear:

“Such male and female slaves as you may have — it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other.”

(Leviticus 25:44-46 JPS)

See also Deuteronomy 20:10-14 and also laws about beating slaves (the owner cannot be executed for doing so as long as the slave lives 24 hours) in Exodus 21:20-21.

But fear not, the Torah may allow slavery, but it also deconstructs it and lays the seeds for its demise in multiple ways. Not least of these is the fact that the foundation of Israelite religion is redemption from slavery in the Exodus. And freedom is upheld as the desirable condition in an ideal society (one has to learn the difference between Torah’s accommodations and its ideals).

Finally, there are multiple ways I could demonstrate case #3. Let me use a New Testament example, since I haven’t yet:

“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit”

(Mark 5:1-2 RSV)

“And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way.”

(Matthew 8:28 RSV)

You can try to harmonize such things. It is easy to say things like, “There were two demoniacs, but Mark simplified the story.” Or you can say, “The Gerasa-Gadara discrepancy must be due to a copyist error.” But not only will you find it very difficult to be compelling in this particular example, but you’ll find you have hundreds of others to explain as well. And cumulatively it gets less and less believable that all the discrepancies can be harmonized.

There was a time when religious leaders, who often had theological training and were exposed to the difficulties of scripture, could keep their flocks in the dark. They could read the critics and scoffers in seminary and in their public teaching never refer to any of these issues.

What brought the time of clergy-dishonesty to an end? The Internet.

Now, every member of the flock has at their fingertips access to articles discussing the difficulties of the Bible.

In the past, when clergy presented people with a false choice, they got away with it. The false choice offered to many people has been: the Bible is pure, original, unique, without discrepancies, and only allows the highest standards to be practiced OR you cannot believe it at all!!

So guess what? When many people find the Bible is not strictly “pure, original, unique, without discrepancies, and only allows the highest standards to be practiced,” they DISBELIEVE in its message.

This kind of clergy-dishonesty continues to be prevalent. And guess what: places of worship are GETTING EMPTY.

But there is an alternative, and I see it operating all over the place, gaining strength: leaders can read and interpret the Bible for what it is and not present a naive image of it and yet believe its authority and inspiration and show others the same.

It is my hope that this kind of discussion helps people grow in faith, but facing unpleasant realities, things which challenge pre-formed opinions and theology, is not easy to do. Doubt and faithlessness looms near us at all times. It is my hope that reading the Bible realistically will increase our faith, not decrease it. At least that is what has happened to my faith. I did go through a crisis period as my paradigm was changing. But the crisis was worth it and I did not — as one of my professors at Emory University predicted — become a skeptic. Faith is every bit as real to me as the day I first realized Yeshua is who the New Testament affirms him to be. Only now my faith is better informed.

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17 Responses to Why Read the Bible Realistically?

  1. James says:

    Yes, I remember going through a sort of “crisis of faith” this past year related to my rather simple understanding of the Bible. Thanks to writers like Hurtado, Casey, Ehrman, Rubenstein, and others, I hit a conceptual brick wall at 190 mph, crashed and burned, then fortunately, rose from my own ashes with the ability to look at the Bible from a different perspective.

    My opinion (this is simplified and perhaps not entirely fair) is that there are two types of Christians in the world: the Christian who wants to be challenged in their faith and will take the risk of questioning assumptions about everything they’ve been taught, and the Christian who wants it all settled and done so they don’t have to do anything except sit in the station, listen to some nice, safe sermons, and wait for the train to Heaven.

    As painful as some of my realizations have been (and I’ll probably encounter more as time goes by), they have also been very rewarding. While I like my nice, cozy, “comfort zone” (especially with a cup of coffee and a good book to read on cold mornings like this one), the real “work” of being a believer happens in “discomfort” and “challenge”. You’re more likely to meet God in the trenches, coal mines, and mine fields than in your living room, sitting in your recliner with a blanket over your lap, reading your favorite novel.

  2. It’s good for Messianics in particular to understand the difficulties in the Scriptures. In my 7 some years of Messianic blogging, I’ve found a lot of Jewish anti-missionaries use this argument: “The New Testament has two versions of Story A. They are inconsistent. And since we know at least one of them can’t be true, the so-called New Testament can’t be trusted.”

    A persuasive response to this is highlighting the same kind of inconsistencies in the Tenakh. (As you say, the internet has made these inconsistencies very easy for laypeople to find.)

    However, I differ from you, Derek, in that I believe many of the inconsistencies can be harmonized. That many of them need to be harmonized does not mean they cannot be harmonized. The Gerasene/Gadarene difference, for example, has been explained by some scholars: the city of Gadara, east of Jerusalem, was located in the larger region of Garasa. If this is indeed the case, describing the demoniacs as either Garasenes or Gadarenes would be accurate.

    • Andrew T. says:

      It’s true: anti-missionaries apply a level of criticism to the New Testament and Messianic claims about Jesus that they’d never dare apply to Moses or the Tanakh. But that’s to be expected, as their main goal is not truth and fairness.

      Many things can be harmonized if you try, but some just can’t. Discrepancies between the synoptic gospels don’t bother me that much, but why is John’s presentation of Yeshua’s life so radically different, at every point, from that of the synoptics? Not once in John’s gospel does Yeshua even tell a kingdom parable.

  3. Andrew T. says:

    Atheists Penn and Teller , whose show is named after an expletive, said they encourage reading the Bible, because nothing will get you to atheism quicker. Unfortunately, that is all too true for most people today. Naive believers, which used to include me, expect medieval-esque perfection from their religion. What the Bible is actually like compared to the what the ignorant think it is like can be a hard pill to swallow. Making heads or tales of the Bible is not the easiest thing in the world to do for the uninitiated. And how much respect can the believer retain for his/her religious leaders when it is discovered that conventional doctrine such as the Trinity, the Rapture, and an eternal Hell cannot be cogently defended from the New Testament?

    So it’s important not only to learn to read realistically (I like that word) but, within reason, to defer to traditional authority. That means good rabbis, Christian clergy, and academics. Always avoid the fringe (e.g.: Christmas is not pagan; the ancient Israelites often backslid to idolatry, but the core of their worldview was still de-facto monotheist; Yeshua was certainly a real, living, breathing Jew, not a myth).

  4. James says:

    Atheists Penn and Teller , whose show is named after an expletive, said they encourage reading the Bible, because nothing will get you to atheism quicker. Unfortunately, that is all too true for most people today.

    Sadly, if you give an atheist a Bible, tell them to read it, some of the content will sound at least far fetched if not plain ridiculous. I read bits and pieces of the Bible as a kid and young adult, but that’s not what brought me to faith. I hate to sound “mystical”, but it takes a supernatural act to reveal God to a human being. Sometimes that happens when a person reads the Bible, but as in my case, other “stuff” has to happen first before the Bible can be seen as God’s Word. Even then (again, as in my case), a believer can go for years looking at the Word in a very simple way, then one day *BAM!* God decides it’s time to get serious and remove some of the blinders.

    • “I hate to sound “mystical”, but it takes a supernatural act to reveal God to a human being. ”

      That’s exactly what happened to me. One day I just realized that G-d existed and was real and interested in me, and I have never looked at myself or the world. The realization of G-d’s reality came to me as I was reading a COLLEGE TEXTBOOK ON BIOLOGY and in particular the structure of a living cell. Only after that super strong realization could I even begin to be open to what the Bible had to say about him. Being armed with a strong belief in the Creator of the Universe, at least for me, counteracts any doubts brought on by ever changing ideas, doubtful texts, contradictions or popular beliefs. If G-d could create that cell, He could certainly sort out the mess people made.

  5. Dan Benzvi says:

    Growing up in Israel, in a secular community, which is the majority in The Land, the awareness of God was always there. At school, Bible studies starts in the 6th grade. Everyone knows about God, and everyone lives with the awareness of God. But the fear of God is absent. The lure of the world is greater than the fear of God. Why should I go to the Synagogue on Shabbat when at the same time I can go and watch my favorite soccer team playing. For us, living in Israel was living surrounded by history and accepting it as a way of life, but there was no faith, why? Because our teachers in school were secular themself, they taught the Tanach as the history book of the Jewish people, they themselves did not have faith or any knowledge of God. So Bible study became a burden and the Orthodox became a joke.

    • Andrew T. says:

      Sadly Israel is mostly secular and very apathetic. When Messiah returns, I have a hard time imagining the people will believe it or care. On the other hand, the Charedim have hijacked Orthodoxy, and if the demographic trends continue, could hijack the country.

      • Andrew T. , you really need to reexamine your attitude toward the Orthodox Jewry (the most visible representatives of the Jewish people). After all, you don’t know any personally (as you mentioned before) and ALL that you know about them comes from secular media that is especially fond of putting them in the worst light possible.

        “Charedim have hijacked Orthodoxy”

        Orthodox Jewry for the most part have always been “Charedi” – even Chabad is considered “Charedi” (Ultra-Orthodox). Modern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, appeared relatively recently on the scene.

        • Dan Benzvi says:


          Check my blog, I wrote about the modern Sicarii.


        • Andrew T. says:

          Gene, the idea that only the Charedim have preserved the mesorah is the myth that needs to be discredited. I would say that there is no unbroken tradition that anyone has preserved flawlessly, and the ultra-Orthodox have preserved it no better than the merely Orthodox. Examples: the Vilna Gaon and the Chazon Ish both embraced secular studies and considered such learning conductive to their Torah life. And the way they dressed in their day would be roughly analogous to wearing a nice suit and tie today. They did not consider their style of dress to be a holy regalia or go back to the Tribes. The now-ubiquitous Lithuanian Brisker method (which Vilna Gaon preceded and which the Chazon Ish rejected) was actually a big departure from the wholistic method by which Talmud was studied before, leading to so much extremism and obsession with ritual minutae in today’s Charedi world.

          FYI, secular media has actually been a minor source of my knowledge about Charedim. More of what I’ve learned has come from Wikipedia (mostly edited by Orthodox Jews) and websites and blogs run by Chareidi Jews themselves. I’ve also read quite a lot of the FailedMessiah, and find it hard not to agree with Shmarya. His experience with Orthodox Judaism (especially Chabad) is extensive. And he is strongly of the opinion that Chareidism is no more closer to pre-Haskala Yiddiskeit than Modern Orthodoxy, the UTJ, or the right wing of Conservative Judaism. In some ways, it is a greater departure.

          Today’s mainstream Orthodox leaders are getting more and more like Charedim in all but Zionism and dress code. Increasingly, more are becoming identical in dress code, too. How many prominent Israeli Zionist Rabbis today even wear blue shirts? And few in Orthodoxy want to run afoul those on the far right of the spectrum. Even “moderate” Charedim like R. Ovadya Yosef and Shlomo Amar run afoul of more extreme Charedim over minor issues like IDF conversions.

          Now do you see what I mean by hijacked?

          • Andrew T. says:

            And don’t get me started on what is wrong with Da’as Torah.

          • “I’ve also read quite a lot of the FailedMessiah, and find it hard not to agree with Shmarya. His experience with Orthodox Judaism (especially Chabad) is extensive. ”

            OK, say no more, Andrew – I see where you get your negative views toward religious Jews – from an online tabloid and gossiper, a secular liberal who only very briefly joined Chabad as ba’al teshuvah and then viciously turned on the very people who welcomed him!

            Again, all you know of Orthodox Jewry is not through relationships, however remote, with actual people, but solely through seeking out articles online that happen to support your bias.

  6. Drake says:

    During the most withering periods of doubt in my life, I simply told myself “I might have a flagging belief, but regardless, I will still DO as thought my faith were 100% regardless.” I felt that if I laid the track, G-d would send the Express. That if I would do, G-d would catch me.

    Because faith is, after all, not knowing for sure, and choosing to believe despite direct evidence. Otherwise, it would just be common fact. I felt if I held the faith-in-practice, G-d would grant me the actual faith. That if I did while I had no reason to, He would be moved to return the favor.

    And He did.

  7. Drake says:

    My faith is thus:

    Atheist: Do you believe G-d created the earth in 6 days?
    Drake: Yep.
    Atheist: How can you believe that outlandish tale in light of biology and physics? Don’t you think the Earth might be a gradual occurrence?
    Drake: It probably was.
    Atheist: But you say you believe the world was created in 6 days…?
    Drake: Yep.
    Atheist: …
    Drake: *winsome smile*
    Atheist: How do you gel the two?
    Drake: What two?
    Atheist: Both accounts of existence?
    Drake: I don’t.
    Atheist: Waiter! Check please.

  8. Andrew T. says:


    Ok, so Shmarya got burned by the Rebbe, and is exceedingly bitter about Chabad and Orthodoxy. Still, he reveals a lot of information that is factually true and immoral to conceal. Should things like child molestation, corruption,and gedolim who ban a book they’ve never read be ignored? It’s not a tabloid. He spends much time and effort on fact-checking, and at financial difficulty. He still believes in God and keeps halakha. What he doesn’t believe in is blindly following leaders. His politics? I have no idea.

    Remember that our Master got accused of being the equivalent of a secular and a liberal in his day for telling the generation what they didn’t want to hear and confronting hypocrisy.

    Personally, I believe Chabad does a huge amount of good for world Jewry, and I find Chabad.org to be a wonderful resource. And I love to read Shmuley Boteach’s columns (yes, I know he’s not really representative). His midrash on Adam and Eve today was beautiful.

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