The Bible as Diverse Anthology

A key idea I’ve emphasized here and here is that whatever we mean by Scripture’s divine inspiration, it cannot mean that the biblical writings are somehow not genuinely human writings. To expand on something I said earlier:

Written in ordinary human languages and idioms, making use of conventional genres, employing scribes, relying on prior sources, edited by individuals and communities, collected by different peoples over many centuries—the fact is, these realities are the norm for the writings we have in the anthology of ancient literature we call the Bible.

This really shouldn’t bother us. If anything, we who believe that God has been revealed most clearly and fully in a human being, the man Jesus, should expect that God’s voice in Scripture is to be heard only through the utterly human voices of the biblical authors.

And it truly is a diversity of voices in Scripture. The Bible is not really a single “book.” It is, as I’ve just described it, an “anthology”—a collection of different writings by different human authors.

Consider some examples:

We have two different creation stories side by side in Genesis. The first (Gen 1:1-2:3) describes God as Elohim, the Mightiest One, who stands beyond the earth and speaks creation into existence, crafting a well-ordered and richly filled palace-temple for himself, with humans as his priest-kings and priestess-queens. The second (Gen 2:4-25) describes God as YHWH Elohim, God in covenant with Israel, who comes to earth and gets his hands dirty in shaping the Human to care for his flourishing garden.

We have two different histories of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. The first (Samuel-Kings) tells the story through the lens of Deuteronomy: good kings uphold the covenant of Moses, bad kings do not, and in the end it all goes bad because the people of Israel and Judah abandon Moses’ Law. The second (Chronicles) tells the story through the lens of David: the worship established by David in the Temple built by David’s past son must continue, and the kingdom promised to David will be restored to David’s future son.

We have 150 Psalms giving a dozen different portraits of worship. The rugged individualist hanging out with God in nature? The Temple liturgist composing for antiphonal choir amidst all the smells and bells? The bibliophile scribe caught up in the wonders of the Torah? The exiled poet leading others by a foreign river, pining for a temple, doing the best they can with what they’ve got? Glorious tapestries of song, rich in theological expression? The “God, give me what I want and I’ll praise you” kind of worship? It’s all there.

We have four different biographies of Jesus in the New Testament. There’s Mark’s sparse, orally crafted story exploring what it means to claim that this crucified Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God.” There’s Matthew’s didactic adaptation of Mark, highlighting the Moses-like teachings of Jesus for a Jewish Christian audience. There’s Luke’s well-crafted, liturgically rich alternative to Matthew’s story, presenting Jesus to a wider audience: not just Jews but Gentiles, not just men but women, not just rich but poor. And then there’s John’s alternative to all the rest, giving the “beloved disciple’s” expanded re-presentations of Jesus’ life and teachings as the Word made flesh, come to bring life to the world.

This diversity can be problematic for Christians. For some, it’s terribly uncomfortable. We want God to speak clearly and consistently, a single voice on every issue. Some even go to great lengths to harmonize all these differences, to reassure ourselves and our communities that there is one clear biblical teaching on x and y and z. So when we begin to recognize the Bible’s diversity, especially on some central matters of Christian belief and practice, we get antsy.

This diversity can be problematic beyond just the discomfort we feel about it. For the history of biblical interpretation makes one thing abundantly clear: we can justify almost anything by appeal to the Bible, even things that are contradictory.

War, even genocide? Yes. Pacifism? Yes.

Slavery? Check. Abolition of slavery? Check.

Patriarchy? Yep. Full equality of women? Yep.

Death penalty? You bet. No death penalty? You bet.

All of these things are “biblical.” All of these things are “clear from Scripture.”

The problem, again, is one of wrong expectations based on false assumptions. We assume the Bible’s divine inspiration ensures a uniformity of teaching on all things, but the biblical writings never actually claim such a thing. There are plenty of claims in Scripture about Scripture—claims of biblical writings being God’s “word” or “message,” of God “revealing” himself or his will in or through them, of Scripture being “useful for teaching” for faith and life, or of Scripture reliably “testifying” to Jesus, of Scripture being “true.” But it’s only our assumptions that make us think these claims must mean Scripture presents a clear, uniform perspective on any particular question or issue we might face.

But there is something that unites these diverse writings. An “anthology” is not just a random collection of writings, and the Bible is no exception. There is something that unites this anthology, that makes it make sense as a collection. And, I would suggest, we are indeed right to see in that “something” the Voice of God that we are searching for.

So how do we get there? How do we find that “something” that unites this inspired Scripture, this diverse anthology of ancient literature? To answer that question, let me start with a few general observations.

The unity of Scripture is not uniformity, but unity in diversity. It’s not a monochrome picture, but a whole spectrum of colours. It’s not univocal, a single voice, but polyvocal, many voices. It’s not a monotone, but a whole array of tones: sometimes discordant, sometimes harmonious, often haunting, profound, encouraging, challenging.

The unity of Scripture is not static, but dynamic. There is change in thought from earlier to later biblical books, sometimes even intentional, direct change. This change is good, we say by faith: it’s a progression, not a moving backward, or sideways. This change is even sometimes that of a trajectory that aims beyond Scripture, giving an unfinished arc that invites us to step in and complete it.

And the unity of Scripture has a significance greater than the sum of its parts. The “something” that unites Scripture is in fact a Someone. The many voices of Scripture are like echoes of his Voice in a dark tunnel, which we hear, dimly. Or they’re like the many voices of a choir that together make a single choral Voice—which is the whole point of these many voices, their very raison d’être.

In other words, the progressive unity in diversity of Scripture, the Voice through the Bible’s many voices, is rather like this:

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published as a separate post in 2014.

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