Why Read the Bible?
To understand the central role that the Bible plays in the lives of Christians, it is instructive to compare it with the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an.
The Qur’an is believed by Muslims to contain the very words of God spoken to the prophet Muhammed by the angel Gabriel. This is why no translation from the Arabic is ever be regarded by Muslims as truly authoritative, and why they can take so much trouble to learn the text by heart in its original language. It also explains why there is a generally much lower level of critical historical analysis of the text by scholars than that to which we have become accustomed in relation to the Bible. The Qur’an is for Muslims quite literally ‘the Word [of God] made book’.
Now the focus of revelation is for Christians not a book but a person. They look upon Jesus as the key to understanding God’s nature and purpose, and they speak, not of ‘the Word made book’, but of ‘the Word made flesh’ (John Ch.1, verse 14). Although they often refer to the text of the Bible as ‘the Word of God’ (and some within more conservative traditions view it as having come almost direct from heaven in a way not dissimilar to the Muslim Qur’an), strictly speaking it is only the primary witness to the Word of God, who became ‘incarnate’ amongst us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Bible is essential if we want to understanding Jesus and to follow him. The first part, which Christians call the Old Testament (literally ‘the old covenant’ or agreement), prepares the way for the coming of Jesus, and the second part, the New Testament, bears witness to the Christ-event and its immediate aftermath.
The writing within the Bible takes many forms and it is important to recognise this when reading it. It is not all straightforward factual history, and even the history was written in a different way then from how it is now. There is law; there are collections of wise sayings (eg in Proverbs), poetry (eg in the Psalms), myths, parables, gospels a9which literally mean ‘good news’) and even love songs.
Richard Dawkins and other contemporary critics of Christianity love to highlight passages from the Old Testament, in which God appears vengeful and full of wrath. The God described in these passages is for them morally dubious and unworthy of worship.
How do Christians respond to such criticisms? It is interesting to note that there were Christian leaders within the Early Church who felt equally challenged and disturbed by such passages. A man called Marcion, for example, thought that the God of love and mercy revealed by Jesus was so radically different from the deity described in the pages of the Old Testament, that they were effectively two different gods, and that the god of the Old Testament should therefore be discarded. The Church, however, rejected this suggestion. It would be like ‘throwing the baby out with the bath-water’. All the key concepts and ideas which Jesus used to define his identity (‘Son’ of God, suffering servant-king etc), and to explain his mission (ushering in the ‘Kingdom of God’) were derived from the Old Testament. He was a Jew and the Old Testament was for him and his contemporaries their ‘Bible’, the Hebrew Scriptures. He frequently quoted from it. His commands to ‘love the Lord your God’ and to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, for example, were both taken from the Old Testament, the first from the book of Deuteronomy and the second from the book of Leviticus. If we abandoned the Old Testament, we would find it very difficult properly to understand Jesus and his significance for us.
Regarding the ‘hard sayings’ and difficult passages highlighted by the likes of Dawkins, Christians in their approach to the Bible tend to fall into two main camps. Some treat it like an instruction manual (a little like the Muslims’ Qur’an) in which every book, chapter and verse is given equal weight and taken in almost every instance quite literally and at face value. A description of God in the Book of Joshua or a law in the Book of Leviticus will be regarded on this basis, for example, as being just as authoritative and insightful as an equivalent description or saying of Jesus in the gospels.
Others however interpret the Bible as basically the story of a growing relationship with God and a deepening understanding of his nature and purpose for the world. Within this ‘story’ Jesus is for Christians the fullest and clearest disclosure of God, and he is also therefore the key to interpreting it and the relative significance of earlier laws, sayings, events and descriptions of God’s nature. Many of the ‘hard’ sayings and ‘events’ found in parts of the Old Testament and elsewhere, will often be explained by those who adopt this approach as reflecting an earlier and less developed relationship and understanding. It is interesting to note that in the great 19th century debate over slavery, defenders of the slave trade (including some church leaders) tended to quote Old Testament laws about slavery and point to the fact that some of the patriarchs had slaves. Christian reformers like Wilberforce would point to Scripture as the story of ongoing revelations and deepening understanding, and argue for the way in which the story was clearly moving in the teaching of Jesus and St. Paul towards the emancipation of slaves and equality for all. In Galatians Ch.3:26-28 Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”; and in his letter to Philemon he urges the latter to take back an escaped slave called Onesimus, not as a slave but as a ‘brother’.
In the synagogues where Jesus worshiped, the ‘Law’ (the first five books of the Bible) and ‘the prophets’ (basically the rest of the Old Testament) used to be read during services and psalms were sung. In churches today readings from the Bible continue to constitute a central part of worship, and many Christians also find it helpful to read small portions of the Bible at home every day as part of a ‘Quiet Time’ for prayer and reflection. Commentaries on different books of the Bible and Bible Reading Notes of various kinds are available from Christian bookshops to assist with this.
Hugh P C Broadbent
12th December 2013