Saturday, 5 November 2011

Reading the Bible

Great post from Derek Leman here on 'Reading the Bible Realistically'. It pretty well sums up my own approach. I encountered the Bible - or rather, selected bits thereof, well predigested - at Sunday School, and soon decided that as prople don't really walk on water and stuff like that, I wasn't going to believe any of it. I got bullied, which didn't help, and it wasn't very exciting either, but I've a very clear memory of rejecting the stories.

I got involved in the church again in my late twenties, and soon, like a lot of people, came across fundamentalism. We'd looked at the Synoptic Problem briefly in RE lessons when I was 11, so I was well aware that different Gospels have different versions of the stories. So I wasn't very happy when I found that they read Matthew's version of one of the Beatitudes - 'Blessed are the poor in heart' - and I got jumped on when I quoted Luke's version, 'Blessed are the poor'. This is one of the problems with the way we read the Bible; we read one version of the story, and ignore another. Leman cites the story of the Gadarene demoniac; in Mark, the oldest version, the story takes place near Gerasa, not Gadara. Luke follows Mark; Matthew changed the city, and adds a second demoniac. So how is it we insist the story takes place near Gadara, and only mention one demoniac? We're not looking seriously at any of the three versions of the story.

This brings up another problem; harmonisation. The Christmas story is the classic example; we have two very different, irreconcilable, versions in Matthew and Luke. We take a bit from one, a bit from the other, patch them together with the odd bit from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas - there are no animals in Luke's stable - and by the time we've finished, we have a nice cosy tale which completely fails to take the text of either with the slightest seriousness. It's an old tradition, going back to the days before printing. A complete Bible was about seven years' work, give or take, for highly skilled craftsmen. Books were so expensive that even kings didn't have a complete set of Gospels. People used harmonies, which retold the story using bits from here, there and everywhere, sometimes from apocryphal material, and doubtless a good deal of interpretation thrown in.

And there we have yet another problem. We read the bits of the text with fit - or can be made to fit - our expectations; the nice bits about blessings, not the bits about curses (ever looked at the lectionary readings which miss out chunks of text?); the bits which can be made to affirm doctrines, not the bits which don't. We like the prologue to John's Gospel, for instance, which sounds a bit like trinitarian doctrine (it isn't), and we ignore Mark 13:32, which makes Jesus sound rather too human. The result of our highly selective approach is that we use the Bible to 'prove' docrinal positions which weren't invented until long after it was written, and at the same time, all too often, fail to see what's actually there.

I wiped the dust of conservative Christianity from my feet, and went looking for a healthier way to use the Bible. I've always felt that if we want to call it a holy book, we have to take what it says with the utmost seriousness; if one text disagrees with another, we have to be honest about it. If it contradicts our most precious doctrines, we have to be honest about that too. If it ends up looking like a very human collection of books, rather than something dictated by the Holy Spirit, then that's where we need to be. It doesn't stop God speaking through it, so what's the problem?

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