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?
WHAT DO I MEAN BY 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.
HOW REALISTIC READING SAVES FAITH IN OUR TIME
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.