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Understanding the Bible

by Brian Incigneri

For a mature Christian faith, it is very important to understanding the nature of the Bible. Leaders have a special responsibility to know what the Bible is, and what it is not, if they are to help people know God and how he works in the world, as they use the Bible in their teaching and ministry. Too often, people misuse the Bible because they do not understand what it is, or where it came from. Texts are used without any reference to their context or to the matter really being addressed. Texts are used selectively, without any integration with the whole biblical text. The Bible is often used to prove what the speaker is saying. But you can prove anything you want by selecting small pieces of text from the Bible.

Many Christians rely on the Bible as their only religious authority. For some, the Bible is a book of God’s instructions: it was written by God, and our job is to simply read the instructions. This view shows no interest in the people who produced the text, nor in the process by which the Bible came to be. It is as if the Bible is ‘God’s book,’ that arrived from heaven somehow, and so every word must be equally true in all respects because God wrote it.

But what does it mean to say that the Bible is ‘the Word of God’? What do we mean when we say that God is the ‘author’ of the Bible, since it is clear that human beings wrote the texts? Is it a good view of the Bible to say, as one Christian teacher said recently on the creation accounts in Genesis, that God “was an eye-witness and He gives His account in the Bible”? Is the Bible God’s account of things?

Certainly, the books of the Bible are largely written as if the author knows everything, sees everything, and knows the inner mind and character of people, and therefore the text looks like the voice of God. Yet the Bible also looks like any human literary work, as it contains such things as historical accounts, prayers (Psalm 18:1: “I love you, Yahweh, my strength”), letters signed by a human author (Gal 6:11: “See what large letters I have used with my own hand”) and which refer to matters that might be found in any letter (2 Tim 4:13: “When you come, bring the cloak I left”).

How the Bible Was Written

We can understand the Bible better if we get in touch with how it came to be written. Consider for a moment: How would you write your story of how God had acted in your life to pass on your knowledge of God to others? Where would you begin? What would you include? What would you leave out? How would you order the account? What would you emphasise? Would your story change depending on the person who was to read it? What style of writing would you use (poetry?) What language would you use, and what words would you choose to explain your experience in order to evoke the desired response from your reader?

The Bible was written by human authors who had to make these decisions in composing their texts. It is made up of many books, written by many different authors in a number of languages over a period of more than 1,000 years. Some books were written by many authors, and were frequently edited, re-written, re-organised, and edited again in the light of later events. Most were written a very long time after the events described. There are many styles of writing: liturgical, legal, wisdom, proverbs, letters, creeds, formulas, legends, prayers, history, epic, saga, songs, poems, parables, apocalyptic writing, and many others.

The Bible often appears to be history, but it was never intended to be history as we understand it. It was written primarily to teach a later generation about God. All history is an interpretation of events, and the biblical writers had seen, through the eyes of faith, the hand of God at work in the events of their history. To them, God had revealed himself through his actions and his words through recognised prophets. In composing their texts, the detailed facts of their history were not as important as the teaching about God that they intended to convey. Although there is much that is historically true in their texts, historical accuracy was not the prime aim of the writers.

We can define the Bible in this way:

The Bible is a collection of writings by people who, over a long period of time, used different literary styles to express their understanding and experience of God acting in their lives.

First, then, the Bible is a collection of books that was written by human authors who were, in some way, moved by God to do so. However, when God moves us to do something, this does not mean that we do it perfectly. If we are inspired to write about God, our writings are not likely to be perfect descriptions of his ways and his nature. Nor should we expect the biblical writings to be perfect in every aspect.

A great truth about God is that he has always revealed himself by relying on human beings to act as intermediaries. This is a most wonderful aspect of God that is lost if we ignore the role of the human intermediaries behind the Bible. To appreciate their role is to appreciate the way in which God works in the world, and our own role in acting as God’s intermediaries for the benefit of others.

Our changed view of the Bible

We have not always seen Scripture in this way. In patristic times, because aspects of the Bible were difficult to understand, the text was read allegorically. For example, Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) said that “everyone knows” that the four horses pulling the chariots of the Egyptians in the Exodus account stand for the human passions that drive us towards sin. The text was assigned a symbolic meaning that had no relation to what the authors had intended.

There has been a big change in the way we view the Bible over the last century or so, due to:

  • Archaeological discoveries in the 19th and 20th centuries
  • New knowledge of ancient languages, cultures and history
  • Discovery of other ancient documents containing writings similar in style to those in the Bible
  • New knowledge about the age of the earth and its history
  • New scientific methods, including the study of languages
  • The discovery of many older manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments. Only recent translations take into account the discovery in the 1850s of our oldest and best manuscripts of the New Testament. The Dead Sea Scrolls (1947) gave us Old Testament texts 1,000 years older than our previous manuscripts. We discovered that there were many variants of the Old Testament texts even in Jesus’ time. Indeed, there are many variants among the various manuscripts of both the Old and New Testament texts, although none of them have any significant bearing on the essential truth of the Bible.

In the light of these discoveries, scholars, working within the Church, began to look more closely at Scripture. It became apparent that

  • The Old Testament texts evolved over a long period of time, and were frequently re-written
  • The New Testament texts also developed, and were written in the light of the issues being faced by the early Christian communities.

This changed the way in which we had to read the texts. In what sense is God the author if the texts have been re-written many times over many generations? How do we account for the variations within manuscripts? What criteria do we use to determine an accurate ‘original’ text?

We have discovered that there is no ‘original’ text of the Bible; it has been re-worked many times, and the published texts today are the result of a scholarly determination of the most likely final copy of the edited texts.

Catholic scholarship was only first encouraged to take these discoveries into account by Pope Pius XII (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943). The Second Vatican Council re-defined our understanding of Scripture with Dei Verbum (1965). Also of great importance are the documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: An Instruction about the Historical Truth of the Gospels (1964), and The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993). This change of view, therefore, is quite recent, but quite profound. Our appreciation of the biblical texts has grown through these changes.

The thrust of Dei Verbum is that “God chose to reveal himself” (#2), and that his revelation to human beings was “handed on” first orally, then, through inspired writings, to later preachers and teachers. So “the Church hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (#8). The Bible is thus a product of the beliefs and traditions of Israel and the early Church. But the Bible did not bring about the Church. The Church wrote the New Testament, and the Church decided which books went in the Bible, and those that were to be rejected (there were many such books) as they were inconsistent with what God had revealed to the people of the tradition.

A Growing Understanding

Dei Verbum spoke throughout of the growth in understanding of God’s revelation within Israel and the early Church: “With the help of the Holy Spirit, there is a growth in understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down” (#8).

The Catholic Church recognises that our faith does not rest on Scripture alone. “Sacred tradition, sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church … are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others” (Dei Verbum #10). Catholics are not ‘people of a book,’ but are people of a living tradition. The Bible helps us to define what is normative in our faith, but it does not include everything relevant to our faith, nor does it answer every question, and was never intended to do so.

The skills of the human authors

In expressing their understanding of God, the human authors of the Bible “made use of their own powers and abilities” (Dei Verbum #11), and acted as true authors. To interpret the text, we need to understand their language (Greek or Hebrew), their style of writing, the context, and background. We should attempt to determine what the authors intended to say, because it is this intended meaning that reflects the faith experience of God, and therefore what God intended to reveal to us.

Are there errors in the Bible then? Dei Verbum taught that “the Books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put in sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (#11). Those words in italics are often omitted by those who claim that the Bible is without error of any kind. The Church does not teach this; there can be errors of different types in the Bible as long as the matter concerned is not essential for our salvation.

The Old Testament can be misleading

Indeed, the Old Testament reflects an early and only partial understanding of God, and this can be quite misleading for casual readers of the Bible. Many people have concluded that they cannot believe in God because of what they find in the Old Testament.

The Second Vatican Council declared that, “These books … contain some things which are incomplete and temporary” (Dei Verbum #15). If we compare the earliest writings with later writings, we can see how Israel grew in its understanding of God, moving from a belief in a God who was one of many gods, a warrior like the gods of the neighbouring nations, to the realisation after the Exile (587–538 BC) that Yahweh was the only God, was the creator of all things, and loved unconditionally. This realisation is only reflected in Israel’s later writings, such as Genesis 1–12, especially the Flood Story. For more on this development of Israel’s understanding, see the articles, Israel Discovers Unconditional Love and Israel Comes to Terms With God and With Itself in the series of Scripture Articles on this site.

Accordingly, much of the Old Testament contains these early images of a vengeful, warrior God and it is this image that often distorts people’s image of God. But this image is not true in comparison with the image we find in Jesus, who came as a baby and would not cast the first stone at a sinner (John 8:1–11). We should be careful of anyone who only refers to the Old Testament and who has predominantly an Old Testament image of this type. Everything must be read in the light of the person of Jesus who fully reveals God’s nature.

In the Old Testament, however, we find people grappling with questions like: Is there only one God? Is He both good and evil? How can there be evil if God is in charge? Does God only love some people? Is God a terrible judge, or is He merciful? The Old Testament asks many questions that every person must deal with in their search for God. There are many true and beautiful images of God in the Old Testament, but we must discern them in the light of Jesus.

The New Testament as a product of the early Church

Similarly, we find a progressive understanding in the writings of the early churches. The New Testament was written well after the event (49–95 AD). Dei Verbum teaches that the authors ‘selected some things from the many that had been handed on … reduced them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situations of the churches, but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus” (#19). Each Gospel presents us with a different picture of Christ, just as four painters would produce quite different portraits.

The words of Jesus written in these texts, while accurately reflecting the mind of Jesus, were not taken down by stenographers, but were composed, as any ancient writer would, to address the needs of the intended readers. No doubt, they include remembered teachings of Jesus, but they were re-worded and added to in order to teach what Jesus taught in the way that would be most effective for the particular readers in the situation being addressed. The words of Jesus, then, are not so much the recorded words of the historical Jesus, as the words of the Risen Jesus who continued to speak to, and teach, his Church, as he does today. In this respect, the text is more like prophecy as we experience it in prayer meetings today: the word of God spoken through a human being to address a particular situation.

Problems with a literalist approach

A literalist (fundamentalist) view of the biblical texts

  1. Denies the source of the texts (it is a book written by a God who commands)
  2. Denies the cooperation in the process of revelation between God and the human authors (grace cooperates with nature)
  3. Denies the nature of the text and ignores normal ways of reading texts, including the need to read a text in context
  4. Rejects all questioning of the text

If the Bible is not seen for what it really is, the view of God that results from this approach is often of an angry “Old Testament” God who only commands and demands obedience (since all parts of the text are equally true), who forces people to act and to write, who destroys sinners (did Jesus?), and often results in a view of the world as an evil place (but see John 3:16). The emphasis is on trusting the book in an individualistic faith that places no trust in other people to be mediators of God’s grace.

Moreover, such a view has God acting in biblical times in quite extraordinary ways but not acting in that way any longer. This is not to deny the reality of miracles, but a literalist understanding of the biblical texts has God moving the sun backwards, creating enough water temporarily to cover the whole earth, and so on. In contrast, a non-literalist view is that God worked in the world and in people in the same way then that he does now.

How to read the Bible

How should we go about reading the biblical text, then? It is important that we distinguish between interpretation and other quite valid uses of the Bible. Interpreting the Bible is when we strive to understand the intended meaning of the author(s) who produced the text, recognising that it is their understanding of God (and that of the community of believers behind them) that is important. This way of reading recognises the need to read a text in the context of the surrounding text and, indeed, the rest of the Bible. This is exercising discernment: in carrying out this task, we compare any interpretation with the understanding of others (the Church).

However, it is also quite valid to use the Bible in a number of ways that help with prayer, liturgy and devotion. Such a use is not interpretation; it is designed to allow God to speak to one individual person. The meaning derived is not, therefore, aplied to all people. There is no attempt to determine its original meaning. In this mode, the Bible is used as a spiritual aid, not a means of determining universal truth. This is as valid a way of dealing with the Bible as interpretation, but care should be taken over any individual direction that is read from it. Such direction must be properly discerned.

In interpreting the biblical text, we need to take into account that the biblical writers were highly skilled writers. It should be read as any literary work would be, taking account of context, taking note of Old Testament images found in the New Testament texts, paying attention to such quotations or allusions and considering the intended affect of those references. We should look for such rhetorical tools as the use of irony, and pay attention to the way the story is told, attempting to be aware of the concerns of the intended reader that were being addressed by the writer. Above all, we should read very carefully and slowly, reading more than one translation, and taking as much note of what is not said as what is said.

Read correctly, the Bible reveals the nature of God, but we must take it in its entirety. Beware those whose theology relies on a very few verses or books. The Bible is a composite of different views, but is richer in meaning for that, as it shows us that God has always spoken to us through other (imperfect) people.

Through the Bible, God has spoken to mankind through ordinary people who had the courage to listen, to believe, and to pass on their faith experience to other people.

See also the many short articles on Scripture on this site.

Recommended Reading:

Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period. 2 vols. (SCM Press, 1994).
Bernhard W. Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament (4th Edition: Longman, 1988).
Raymond Brown, Biblical Exegesis and Church Doctrine (Paulist, 1985).
Raymond Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (Paulist, 1984).
Raymond Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible (Paulist, 1981).
Etienne Charpentier, How to Read the Old Testament (SCM Press Ltd, 1982).
Etienne Charpentier, How to Read the New Testament (SCM Press Ltd, 1982).
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, A Christological Catechism — New Testament Answers (Paulist, 1982). This contains the 1964 ‘Instruction’ of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
Pontifical Biblical Commission, An Instruction about the Historical Truth of the Gospels, 1964.
Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 1993.
Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, 1965.

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