When we think about what we believe, we have to decide what our belief is based on. Once upon a time I believed in the tooth fairy and Father Christmas, I’m pleased I did but now I do not. I believed in these things because my parents told me they were real. To add to childhood fun my parents (along with millions of others for their own children) hid toys and gifts in a stocking for me to discover on Christmas morning. When a tooth came out somehow if I placed it under my pillow it disappeared and was replaced by a coin. I don’t remember when I stopped believing in these things, but at some point, it happened. I repeat the fun for my own children and no doubt there will be a moment or a period of time when doubt sets in and the magic fades.
I grew up attending church, being told stories from the Bible and was encouraged over the years to study the Bible, to read what it says and to consider how it applies to my life even though it is thousands of years old. I was always taught to trust the Bible but at some point, just like my doubts about Santa and the Tooth Fairy, I needed to question the Bible. I have questioned the Bible a lot since those childhood days, I have certainly questioned the way it has been used by people to argue their point of view, and how it has been used to control and abuse people. Today, the Bible continues to be used as a weapon and yet it is a book, or more accurately a series of writings bound together (more of a library), which I love.
If we are to believe (or even disbelieve) in the God described by the Bible first of all we need to understand what we believe about the Bible. There is much to consider, there are a multitude of books to read and courses to study for those who might be so inclined but as a starter there are two aspects of the Bible I think it’s important to consider …
- Who wrote the Bible?
- Can we trust what is written?
Well, I don’t believe God wrote the Bible. For some ardent critics this might seem an unimaginable comment, but there is nowhere that suggests this might be the case. Quoting the Bible itself, 2 Timothy 3:16 does say that ‘all scripture is God-breathed’ (well it appears to say this, but we’ll come on to that later) and therefore some people take this to mean that God wrote the Bible. The problem with this argument is the Bible itself explains different people wrote different parts, for example 2 Timothy begins saying it was written by ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus…’ Then we have the issue that when Paul wrote this he would have been referring to the Hebrew scriptures and not what we know today as the New Testament, which his own letter is now included in.
Muslim’s believe that their scriptures, the Qur’an, was revealed by God to the prophet Muhammad, with Muhammad writing down the words into what is now the Qur’an. Due to this, Muslim’s believe that the Qur’an should not be translated away from the original Arabic text. In contrast, Christian’s are typically content for the words of the Bible to be translated into local languages to make sure as many people can access the text as possible. As the words were written by humans they can be translated by humans. I believe, and hope that God has inspired the words that I read in scripture but I don’t believe they were written by God or dictated in anyway. I hold to the importance and authority of the Bible, but I accept that it is not written by God, rather it is the story of God, written by the people of God.
The Bible was written by different people, at different times and it was only agreed in its current format combining the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament in 382 AD… that’s a good few years and generations after Jesus lived, died and rose again. The parts of scripture attributed to being written by Moses (or on behalf of Moses) are contested as to who actually wrote them and when, with evidence to suggest they may have been written down, or at least extended, when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon (a gap of some 1000 years) after Moses lived.
The Bible also contains different types of writing – from stories of history (not necessarily historically, though some are, accurate but telling the story as they were remembered and passed down from one generation to another verbally), poetry, wisdom, letters and stories (such as Jesus’ parables). The challenge then is to identify which parts should be read and understood according to their type. Some parts are easier to work out than others, the Psalms are poems and songs (many of them start telling who wrote them and who they were written for) and similarly some New Testament letters are clearly labelled. Books like Genesis and Exodus potentially offer a combination of styles and therefore history and story blend together. This does not detract from the significance or importance of scripture, but it does help us to know when we say we believe in the Bible whether we are believing in an historic or scientifically quantifiable activity or event, or whether we are believing the moral and spiritual truths about God and God’s interactions with humankind.
This may not seem important, but what we believe about the Bible shapes what we believe and understand from what it says. Someone who believes Genesis 1 provides an exact explanation of the creation of the world need to explain why Genesis 2 is different, however if the stories of creation enable us to understand that God is a creative God who created us then the different renderings of the two chapters is less problematic. The Bible for me is the authority on understanding God, and yet I am happy to say it is neither written by God nor without fault, and yet it is inspired by God, and as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 goes on to say ‘is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’.
This leads me to a second set of questions,
- Who translated the Bible?
- Can we trust the translation?
The Bible wasn’t written in English. The Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) were written in ancient Hebrew whilst the New Testament was written in the Greek of the time (just like English has changed since the times of Shakespeare so Greek has also altered over the centuries). At different times in history the Bible has been translated into different languages (again there are plenty of books to read and courses to study if you want to know more). Yet, translation is not an exact science – not every word in one language has an equivalent word in another language. For example, the word ‘love’ in English has four different words in the Greek used in the New Testament, so when we read the word ‘love’ it could be one of four possible meanings and without knowledge of the original language we make our own assumptions.
For a further example, taking the verse we have already looked at, 2 Timothy 3:16 is translated by different people in various ways into English, such as…
- ‘All scripture is God-breathed…’ (New International Version – NIV)
- ‘All scripture is inspired by God…’ (New Revised Standard Version – NRSV)
- ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God…’ (King James Version – KJV)
- ‘Every part of scripture is God-breathed…’ (The Message – MSG)
So, as we can see, one part of one verse can alter between translations from Greek into English. It becomes more confusing as some translations are not based on Greek, but on translating an existing translation, from one English version into another English version (a bit like an extreme game of Chinese whispers). The translator will have their own motivations and understandings that they use, which could differ from the original intentions of the first author and so their own meanings get subtly added to text altering the original message.
And, none of this even touches on the fact that the Greek Orthodox Bible contains 79 books, the Catholic Bible contains 73 books, and the Protestant Bible contains 66 books. I haven’t mentioned that the numbers for chapters and verses or the additional headers were not in the original texts but added as place finders to help readers. There are some passages in the Bible that not were in the original text and have been added at some point which are disputed to this day (such as John 7:53-8:11 which is usually marked as not being included in some Bibles or located in Luke in others).
So, what does this all say about what we should believe about the Bible?
Well, many people have a favourite translation. Perhaps because they think it is more accurate, they find it easier to read, they like a style of writing, because it is the version they have grown up with and are accustomed to, or because they like the way a particular Bible feels when they hold it (it’s the right size and weight for their hands).
In a 1500 word reflection on the Bible it is not possible to give the answers as to what to believe about scripture, but when we read it we must do so knowing what it is we are reading, the potential for differences between understandings, the variety of translations, and allow for human error in transmitting that which God inspires. The Bible is a collection of books to be wrestled with, studied, explored, enjoyed and loved. The Bible provides stories that help us to understand God and recognise ourselves, to see God at work even in the times when it feels like God is absent. I put my faith in God and I believe the Bible is the written authority on the nature of God. It is on this basis that I seek to understand what the Bible teaches about God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and humanity, about good, evil, creation, salvation, the Church, hope, faith and how I might live my life.
The Bible must never be used to coerce, intimidate, or entrap (when it is used in this way I believe it becomes a weapon against God and to abuse God’s creation – including humanity) but rather the Bible offers life and freedom.
I once had a tutor who talked about having certain books as friends; the Bible is my companion and my friend.