The Bible is unique among religious books. We will start to learn why, with this post.
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UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE #1
Someone recently liked this blog, and as I often do, I went over to his blog, to check out what he was writing about. I noticed a post with an eye-catching title, and I read it. What I found is similar to many blogs and Facebook posts that I have seen over the past few years. The basic argument went something like this:
- Many Christians claim that, according to the bible, [enter something here that the bible says, which you don’t like].
- But the bible also says lots of goofy things, like:
- Rapists can pay their victims’ parents 50 shekels, and get off the hook (the writer mis-quoted Deuteronomy 21, but I think he was referring to chapter 22).
- It’s OK to sell daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7)
- It’s OK to marry multiple wives (21:10)
- Since we don’t agree with these goofy things in the bible, we shouldn’t pay attention to what the bible says about sex before marriage.
I’ve seen this sort of argument before. Most commonly, it is made in order to justify sinning in whatever way you prefer to sin. But logically, if that argument was valid (it isn’t) there would be no reason to pay attention to any part of the bible at all. If that blogger is right, we ought to just ignore it altogether as irrelevant. If he’s right, we shouldn’t pay attention to what the bible says about Jesus, or forgiveness, or love, either. To be fair, he wasn’t saying that in his blog, but it is the logical conclusion.
Here’s what I wonder: do you know why the blogger’s argument is invalid? Do you understand how to answer the questions of someone who has this attitude? Do you have a firm grasp on what the Bible is, how we got it, and how to understand it?
If you answered “no” to any of those questions, I think you’ll find this sermon series helpful, and even enjoy it. By the way, I have two helpful and reasonable answers to the guy who posted the blog entry I mentioned above. I could explain it in about five minutes. But rather than do that, what I want to do is help you learn enough about the Bible, and how to understand it, so that you can answer questions like that yourselves. You’ve heard the old proverb: “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he’ll spend all his nights and weekends in the boat, and his family will never see him anymore.”
Actually, I think the second part is “teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.”
I want to teach you to “fish.” I could give you the answers the questions posed by the blog entry I mentioned above. But then, when you encounter new questions, you’ll be dependent upon me, or someone like me, to give you answers again. I’d rather help you understand enough so that you can do some digging, and find the answers for yourselves.
It might take a little while. I’ve been studying the bible seriously for more than twenty-five years. It won’t take you that long to get started and to begin finding answers yourself, but I do hope you look on the bible as a source that you can and should continue to study for the rest of your life. I think that over the course of the next few weeks, you can learn enough about the Bible to begin.
The best place to start, as is often the case, is at the beginning. What is the Bible? Where did it come from? Who wrote it, and what is its purpose?
The bible is not actually one book. It is a collection of books. That is one reason why I never recommend starting in Genesis (the first book), and trying to read it straight through all the way to Revelation (the last book). It won’t make sense that way, because it isn’t that kind of book.
The very earliest parts of the bible were handed down as oral traditions, and later were written down. Even today Hebrew scholars of very moderate learning can see linguistic evidence that much of the first five books of the Bible were originally memorized orally. We’ll talk about what that means, next time. The oral traditions, and some new material were first written down, probably by one man named Moses, sometime around 1400 B.C.
By the way, many scholars now prefer to note dates as “BCE” and “CE” (“Before Common Era,” and “Common Era,” respectively). However, BCE is exactly the same as “BC” and “Common Era” means the same thing as AD. It is downright silly to pretend that “common era” is defined by anything other than historical life of Jesus Christ. Whether or not you believe in him as anything other than a man, whether or not you like it, the world numbers history by the life of Jesus Christ.
Back to the Bible. More history and more oral tradition were recorded by another man, probably the prophet Samuel, sometime around 1000 B.C. Samuel also recorded many of the current events of his time. As the monarchy in Israel took shape, court historians kept records of happenings, and further unknown writers recorded more of we know call the Bible. Prophets spoke, and scribes wrote down what they said. Later, the New Testament was formed from letters and writings of those associated with Jesus Christ.
All in all, the Bible was written by several dozen different people. It was written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). The people who wrote it were from all different walks of life: Farmers, shepherds, kings, court officials, prophets, fisherman, doctors, prisoners, church leaders and more. Some of them were rich, some were poor, some were in between. The writers came from different cultures, different countries and different continents. There is no sense in which one can say that the Bible was just made up by one person, or even one small group of people at one time. It does not claim that it was dictated in secret by angels.
These facts about the formation of the Bible have never been secret. Scholars have known these things for many centuries. Archeology has consistently confirmed all this. Manuscript study and comparisons also confirm it. These facts are not hidden away somewhere; they are not closely guarded secrets. They are well established.
Now, let’s look at the bible in comparison to some other ancient writings. This is not to “slam” anybody, but rather for the sake of knowledge, let’s compare the Bible to two other well-known Holy Books: The Koran, and the Book of Mormon. Hinduism and Buddhism do not have authoritative scriptures that they hold in the same way as do Christians, Jews, Muslims and Mormons. Therefore the Koran and the Book of Mormon are really the only other major books that claim the same sort of authority as the Bible.
The Koran was formed in this way: During the early 600s (AD), a man named Mohammed, a former resident of the city of Mecca in Arabia, went into a cave. He came out with the Koran, claiming that an angel had dictated it to him. Much of the Koran appears to be a copy of parts of the Old and New Testaments, although often distorted. Other parts of the Koran are quite different. It is not a very large book. Muslims also receive a lot of direction from the sayings of Mohammed (Hadith) and the biographies of Mohammed. As with the Koran, these all depend upon the words of a single man.
The Book of Mormon was “given” to Joseph Smith on golden tablets in 1823. Again, Mormonism uses Christianity as a jumping off point, but contains many things which contradict the Christian/Jewish bible.
No Muslim denies that the Koran came through just one man at one particular time in history. They do not deny that it was written in only one language, in one place and arose from one culture. The Book of Mormon is similar: by the admission of Mormons it was revealed to just one man in one time and in one place.
Now, you might ask, what difference does it make whether one person wrote the bible, or dozens did? Why does it matter if the bible was written over the course of 1500 years, or just in one lifetime? What is the significance of what we’ve just learned? Why does it matter?
Alexander McCall Smith is the author of many fiction novels set in Africa. In one of his novels, the main character has these reflections on morality (from Morality for Beautiful Girls page 77-78)
Most morality, thought Mma Ramotswe, was about doing the right thing because it had been identified as such by a long process of acceptance and observance. You simply could not create your own morality because your experience would never be enough to do so. What gives you the right to say that you know better than your ancestors? Morality is for everybody, and this means that the views of more than one person are needed to create it. That was what made the modern morality, with its emphasis on individuals, and the working out of an individual position, so weak.
If you gave people the chance to work out their morality, then they would work out the version which was easiest for them and which allowed them to do what suited them for as much of the time as possible. That, in Mma Ramotswe’s view was simple selfishness, whatever grand name one gave to it.
Mr. Smith gives us a tremendous and profound insight here. Moral authority cannot come from one person. No single human being, by himself or herself, has the breadth of experience, nor the wisdom, nor the character, to create morality. Yet in Islam, all moral and spiritual authority comes from one man. Likewise with Mormonism. The same thing is true of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.
If you are agnostic or atheistic, in a very real way you are saying that you know better than everybody else. You, in your few years of life upon this earth, are claiming to have wisdom, experience and authority greater than that of the collective wisdom and experience of entire cultures of people whose lives spanned more than a millennium and a half, whose morality and wisdom still profoundly shape the world we live in.
When I was in high school, the teachers said to us kids that we needed to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. We were told to create our own morality. The very thought of such a thing is nothing less than overwhelming, towering, ugly, arrogant pride. “Hubris” is another word for it. What, in all the universe, makes us think that we, in 16 years, could match the wisdom and experience that spanned 16 centuries and survived thousands of years? What makes us think even a 90 year old person could match all that? Only ugly pride.
Remember, just for today we are trying to evaluate this from a secular position, rather than a spiritual one. Does it seem rational to suppose that one person, in one lifetime, however varied her experience, however deep her wisdom, could match the wisdom and morality and experience contained in the Bible? Of course not. It’s simple logic. And in this same respect, the Bible is logically superior to those other “holy books” which were brought into the world by single individuals.
Now some folks may say, “well, I look at what’s in the Bible, and make use of all that experience, but I still decide what is right for me.” On the one hand, of course everybody does have to decide whether or not they will accept what is written in the Bible. But nonetheless, it seems awfully arrogant to say, “I know what the Bible says, but I still think I am wiser than Moses, Isaiah, Paul, Samuel, David, Peter, John, and Jesus (plus about two dozen more) all put together.”
You see, even from a secular standpoint, the Bible is unique in history. There is no other ancient document so well preserved, so thoroughly verified as genuine by legitimate scholarly work (more on that in in the near future). There is no other source of moral and spiritual authority that has so much objective logic to back up its claim. Here is a quote from it, which seems rather fitting:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts
than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
This book, this Bible, goes far beyond the thoughts or ways of any one human being. Next week we’ll begin to see how it goes beyond even collective human morality.
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