The Bible as Ancient Literature

We often think of the Bible as a single book, but it’s really more like a library of books from the ancient world. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, the Bible is an anthology of ancient literature.

Norton AnthologyI don’t know what comes to mind for you when you think of “literature.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “writings in prose or verse; especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” That’s not a bad definition, both the generic side of it (“writings in prose or verse”) and the more specific (“writings…expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest”).

To say that the Bible is a collection of “literature” means, then, that what we have in the Bible is “writings in prose or verse.” More specifically, we have different kinds of writing in prose or verse, different literary genres—and these different genres are not unique to the Bible.

A few examples:

The opening chapters of Genesis are ancient origins stories, akin to origins stories from Egypt and Mesopotamia and elsewhere. The move from original chaos to order and abundance? Humans made from mixing dirt and divine essence? Sounds like Genesis, and it is, but these and other features are also found in other—and even earlier—ancient origins stories. Yes, the Genesis stories are distinctive—giving a strong monotheistic, “one true and living God” outlook, for instance—but as literature they’re in the same ballpark as these other stories.

The collections of laws of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are in the same vein as other ancient legal codes. Hammurabi’s law code from ancient Babylonia covers religious matters, slavery, military service, social conduct, and more—just like the Law of Moses. “Eye for an eye”? It’s in there, a few hundred years before Moses. The biblical laws flow in this stream of ancient legal codes, even as they present some distinctive perspectives on God and religion and society.

The stories of Jesus we know as the Gospels are ancient biographies, similar to those of Plutarch, Lucian, and the like. A focus on a particular individual, skimming their adolescence and jumping into their public life, presenting some of their important sayings and key life events, highlighting their death, all to commend them as worthy of admiration or imitation—these elements of other ancient biographies are evident in the Gospels. The claim that the subject of your biography is the promised king in David’s line bringing about Yahweh’s reign on earth, or that he rose from the dead? Not so much—but then that’s what Christians claim makes them “gospel,” or “good news.”

The book of Revelation is an example of ancient apocalyptic literature, one of a dozen or so such Jewish or Christian apocalypses from that era. Things like angelic guides and multi-headed beasts and repeated numbers might seem weird to us, but they’re the basic grammar of ancient apocalypses. They’re subversive literature, the literature of a minority feeling under siege, re-imagining their world in light of God’s coming kingdom—and John’s Revelation is no exception.

Gutenberg BibleLike all the scribes and sources and editing and collecting behind the Bible’s production (see my previous post), these kinds of historical and literary features are commonplace for biblical scholars. They are part of the scholar’s everyday work of understanding the biblical writings in their historical and cultural settings.

But these sorts of things can be scary for many Christians. And, as I suggested earlier, much of the reason for this fear is all those questionable assumptions we bring to what inspiration must involve. We have a view of inspiration—even just a view of the way God works in the world in general—that assumes that if God does something it must be clearly, discernibly divine, nothing human about it.

That’s strange, really, when you think about it. After all, one of the most fundamental convictions of Christianity is the claim that God has become human in Jesus—both fully divine and fully human, the eternal God revealed in the man Jesus.

If that’s true, why do we then insist inspired Scripture be somehow less than human?

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 2013.

The Bible as Inspired Scripture

“All Scripture is inspired by God…”

It may well be that no words in the Bible have had more read into them than these words.

These well-known words are from 2 Timothy 3:16.  For the moment let’s leave aside whether this is the best way to translate the Greek text. And let’s bracket off the question of whether this description of the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) should also be applied to the New Testament. Those are valid questions. But even if we move past those hurdles, there’s at least one significant thing 2 Timothy 3:16 doesn’t say: it doesn’t say how Scripture is “inspired” or “God-breathed.”

Rather, we have to import our own ideas about the how of inspiration into our reading of 2 Timothy 3:16. And very often our ideas of exactly how Scripture is inspired come from some very questionable assumptions.

We imagine, maybe, that the human authors of the Bible—Moses, David, Isaiah, Luke, John, Paul, to name a few—sat down at their writing desks, quill in hand, parchment laid out before them. Perhaps they reflected prayerfully on what God wanted to say through them, and then, as the Spirit moved in them, they began to write. Steadily, thoughtfully, carefully, always attuned to the Spirit’s inner promptings. When they finished, there before them was an inspired, inerrant manuscript—God’s very words in still-drying ink.

But wait a moment. Is that really how it worked? Consider this:

Paul used a scribe (Rom 16:22). Likely, even for a literate person such as himself, this was his normal practice. Perhaps, if the scribe was well-trusted, Paul might even have just dictated notes to the scribe, who would then flesh out those notes into a letter, getting Paul’s authorization—and maybe a brief handwritten note (Gal 6:11)—for the final product.

Luke used sources (Luke 1:1-4). He read previous writings about Jesus, he talked with people who knew Jesus, and then he carefully planned out his two-volume story of Jesus and the early church. In other words, he did the work of an ancient—not modern, mind you, but ancient—historian.

John’s Gospel was edited by others (John 21:24). There’s a “beloved disciple”—possibly John, the son of Zebedee, but who knows for sure?—who “testified to” and “wrote down” certain things about Jesus. But then there’s a “we” who comes after, who collectively added their own testimony to this earlier disciple’s testimony.

The Psalms were collected over centuries (Pss 23:1; 90:1; 137:1). Even if we take the Psalms’ opening ascriptions at face value—another difficult question—we have to face the fact that we have a psalm that claims to go back to Moses, right alongside several that state they are David’s, mixed in with some that clearly come from Israel’s exile in Babylon.

Use of scribes, use of prior sources, later editing by an individual or even a community, collection 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.

These realities are also the bread and butter of biblical scholars. They are the basics of the business: comparing ancient manuscripts, discerning prior sources, tracing out later editing, sketching out how these writings have been received and read over the centuries.

But these realities are not easily accepted by many Christians—and much of the reason for this is all those questionable assumptions we import into 2 Timothy 3:16, bringing in some (quite frankly) untenable ideas about what “inspiration” must involve. For it turns out that our imagined biblical author—the individual person before God, perfectly in tune with God’s Spirit, producing inerrant truths in written propositions—is a projection of our own modern sensibilities. This image has nothing to do with the way the biblical writings actually came to be.

Are the biblical writings actually inspired by God? I believe so. As a church we confess this to be so. “All Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness,” our church denomination’s Confession of Faith says. But we stop short of insisting on a particular view of how God inspired these ancient human writings. Instead, we are wise simply to say, as our Confession of Faith goes on to say, that “God was at work through the centuries in the process by which the books of the Old and New Testaments were inspired and written.”

To say, then, that the Bible is inspired by God, is to say that God was at work in this complex and very human process, through authors and scribes and editors and compilers and communities—and that God can speak to us through this ancient, diverse collection of human writings.

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 2013.

“All Scripture is inspired by God” doesn’t mean “All Scripture is equally important”

I think most Christians assume that the Bible is a monolithic entity, like a seamless cloth or a fissure-free rock.

We may know that there are in fact 66 books, but we view these as essentially different chapters of the same, single book. We may know that there were different human authors in different time periods and cultural settings, but we view this as effectively irrelevant—every book has the same divine author behind them, and that’s what really matters. And since this divine author produced every jot and tittle in the book, every statement is important, even every word.

road-to-nowhere-1For most Christians, in other words, the Bible is a “flat” text: it’s all from God, so you can’t elevate any passages or books above any others, or ignore any passages or books either. It’s all inspired by God, so it’s all equally important—and we need this “whole counsel of God.”

In theory, that is. In practice no Christians actually do this. Every Christian prioritizes some biblical texts or themes above others, whether unknowingly or through some elaborate theological justification. But most won’t admit they do—no one wants to be accused of having a “canon within the canon.”

Well, I’m here to admit to my own “canon within the canon,” and to declare that this is actually okay. In fact, I think the Bible itself points us to this. Here are three reasons why I think “all Scripture is inspired by God” cannot mean that “all Scripture is equally important.”

First, the New Testament authors don’t use all Scripture equally.

Estimates of New Testament citations of the Old Testament vary—there are no quotation marks in the Greek text, so sometimes it can be hard enough to tell for certain that something is a direct quotation, let alone a more indirect allusion. One good estimate, though, is from the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament (4th edition): 343 direct quotations of some portion of the Old Testament, and 2,309 allusions and verbal parallels to Old Testament texts.

Here’s what’s interesting: there are some clear patterns in all these quotations and allusions, patterns that show that some Old Testament books and ideas were more significant to the New Testament authors than others.

The top five most-used books? By a pretty fair margin it’s the Psalms and Isaiah, followed by Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy. Some of these are, of course, longer books, so you’d expect more quotations from them. But other lengthy Old Testament books are further down the list, not cited nearly as often, including Leviticus and Numbers, Samuel and Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, Job and Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

But it’s not just that some Old Testament books are cited much more frequently. It’s the way in which they are cited, the particular passages that are used, and how these fit within the New Testament texts.

The “in the beginning” of creation, the creation of humanity “in God’s image,” the Abrahamic covenant, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, the “love your neighbour” command, the “love God” command, the Davidic and Royal Psalms, the “Servant” and “Good News” passages of Isaiah—these are some of the texts and stories and themes that show up over and over again in the New Testament, that shaped the theologies of the New Testament authors. These, in fact, are what provide the basic plot points of a larger narrative that underlies much early Christian theology.

Other Old Testament passages, including some that many Christians today really like—the “days” of Creation, the Flood story, most of the particular laws of Moses, the Conquest narrative, specific stories of Israel’s kings—these get hardly a mention in the New Testament.

In other words, the New Testament authors prioritized some books and passages over others in their own Scriptures, our Old Testament. They had a “canon within the canon”—a set of biblical texts and themes that stood out from the rest as more significant.

Second, the Gospels portray Jesus as reading Scripture in a selective way, a way that points to himself.

This follows much the same pattern as the rest of the New Testament noted above. In the Gospels Jesus’ ministry is cast primarily in the light of the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms of David. Other prophets—both storied prophets like Elisha and writing prophets like Daniel (especially Daniel’s “son of man”)—also get a strong nod. The Creation of humanity, the Abrahamic covenant, and Moses and the Exodus are important for shaping the life and teachings of Jesus, though these are mostly filtered through the lens of how Isaiah used these stories and themes.

tissot-sermon-of-the-beatitudesBut specific laws of Moses? By and large these are cited by Jesus only to qualify them in some way, or to offer a different interpretation of them than Jesus’ opponents, or even to overturn them entirely if they don’t fit within Jesus’ larger understanding of what God was doing in the world through him. The major exceptions to this? The commands to love God and neighbour.

All this means that when Luke says that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to the disciples the things about himself in all the Scriptures,” this can’t mean that Jesus is behind every rock or shadow in Scripture. Or that when Matthew says that Jesus has “not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” that “not one jot or tittle shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” this can’t mean that every command of Moses must be directly applicable to Jesus’ followers.

Third, the New Testament describes Jesus, not Scripture, as the ultimate revelation of God and God’s will for humanity.

The New Testament writings are remarkably unified on this, though they describe this in different ways.

There’s Matthew, picturing the resurrected Jesus as having “all authority in heaven and on earth” and so calling disciples to “obey everything he has commanded” in his teachings—indeed, his teachings are the “rock” upon which his followers are to build their lives. There’s John, calling Jesus the eternal “Word of God” made flesh, the one who has made the invisible God known to humanity, and decrying those who “diligently search the Scriptures” to find salvation without realizing that Jesus, the True and Living Way, stands among them.

There’s Paul, describing the gospel of Jesus the crucified Messiah and resurrected Lord as “of first importance” and the basis of salvation, and declaring Jesus to be “the image of the invisible God” who has supremacy above all things. There’s Hebrews, depicting Jesus as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his very being,” the one through whom God has authoritatively spoken in these last days, even in distinction from the Hebrew prophets of old. There’s Revelation, portraying Jesus as the one who speaks God’s word like a sword, bringing encouragement to God’s people and judgment on God’s beastly, death-dealing enemies.

All these New Testament depictions of Jesus point to the same conclusion: Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God and God’s will for humanity, not anything else, not even Scripture. This means, then, that as Christians we read Scripture in order to know Jesus, and then we strive to follow this Jesus whom Scripture has revealed. And this in turn means that there is a natural prioritization within the Bible: those texts that more clearly and directly speak of Jesus have greater priority for Christians than those that speak of Jesus less clearly and directly.

Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). We can potentially learn good things for a godly life from any passage in Scripture.

But in terms of fundamentally shaping our worldview, our theology, the essential framework of our faith? In terms of providing the basic lens through which we even read the rest of Scripture? The Bible itself points to a layered “canon within the canon”: first, the New Testament descriptions and interpretations of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and second, the Old Testament texts and stories and themes that shaped these New Testament understandings of Jesus.

That’s my “canon within the canon,” and I’m not afraid to admit it.

————————-

A few extra notes on this:

1) What I’ve described, of course, is a Christian way of reading the Christian Bible. However, most of the Christian Bible (our “Old Testament”) is also the Jewish Scriptures, the Tanakh, and Jews will naturally read their Scriptures differently than Christians. Although I think the “canon within the canon” approach I’ve described above makes the best sense as a Christian, I see great value in the approach that many Jews take to their Scriptures. A common Jewish approach is not to take the Scriptures as a “flat,” monolithic text either, but rather to see the various biblical texts as diverse voices, even sometimes conflicting voices, within a conversation that we as readers are invited to participate in and learn from.

2) Yes, the “all Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:16 is the Jewish Scriptures, essentially the Christian Old Testament. However, I think the basic idea applies to all the ancient human writings the historic Church has identified as “Scripture,” including our New Testament: they are all “inspired by God” or “God-breathed,” and therefore “useful” for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training” in the way of God. However, I also think the same basic prioritization I’ve described here also applies to the New Testament: the New Testament writings do not equally clearly or directly point to the life and teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus.

3) For a more scholarly sketch of my approach to these things from a different angle, see my book chapter called “Scripture and Tradition: Seeking a Middle Path.”

Second image: James Tissot, “Sermon of the Beatitudes”

“The Word Made Flesh”: On Doing Theology Afresh

A Jew, a Greek, and a Roman walk into a church. No joke.

Imagine it: a Jew, a Greek, and a Roman walk into a church, back in the first century. Let’s say it’s a gathering of believers in Ephesus. And imagine that they happen to do this on the day a brand-new opening to John’s Gospel is debuted. They hear, for the first time ever, these words:

In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

How would each one hear this?

Our first-century Jew might hear this as being about God’s creative command, the “word” God spoke at creation. They might hear this as being about God’s perfect wisdom, by which God created all things. They might hear this as being about God’s prophetic message, the essential “word” God has been communicating since the beginning of time.

Our Greek, however, would hear something different. They might hear this language of “word” or logos, and understand it as referring to the logical principle that under girds the whole universal order, the clear light of reason that holds everything together.

And our Roman? Well, they’d probably hear this along the lines of our Greek. But it’s possible they might hear this language of “word” or logos as the underlying rational law, the binding covenant among people, that keeps society from falling into disorder and chaos. Romans, after all, were big on law on order.

Three different people, hearing the exact same words, but hearing different things.

And all three would be right.

That’s the astonishing beauty of John’s opening prologue: the author has taken something so simple, the basic Greek word for “word,” logos, and used it in a way that makes sense in all those different ways, maybe more.

God’s creative command, God’s perfect wisdom, God’s prophetic message. The logical principle that holds together all reality. The rational law that keeps us from chaos. All these things are the Word, the Logos, that John is talking about.

And this is what makes the sudden turn at verse 14 so dramatic: This Logos, this Word, “became flesh and lived among us” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Mic drop. Stunned silence. Then a flurry of questions.

Really? This man Jesus—the one that was crucified as a lawbreaker—he embodies the law that keeps us from social chaos? This Jew from backwoods Galilee embodies the underlying logic of all reality? Jesus of Nazareth embodies God’s creative command, God’s perfect wisdom, God’s prophetic message? Really?

We’re so used to this passage we don’t even blink when we hear it. But trust me, to anyone hearing this at the end of the first century—Jew, Greek, or Roman—this would have been shocking, even scandalous. It was cutting edge theology, outside the box of any faith tradition passed on by mothers or fathers.

In a moment of creative inspiration, the author of John’s prologue has hit upon this idea of Jesus as the “Word,” the Logos. It’s such a simple thought—a common, everyday word for “word.” But it taps into the complexity of the author’s world—Jews, Greeks, Romans, and more all could hear different nuances of the word logos, and so glimpse something of the full significance of what God has done for us in Jesus.

The author of these words has used his God-given imagination to tap into ideas from the culture of his day and talk in fresh ways about God and creation, Jesus and our world—to do theology, in other words.

And it’s not just John. In fact, the Bible from cover to cover models exactly this kind of “creatively imagining God in fresh ways by tapping into the culture around us.” From Genesis to Revelation, the biblical authors all follow the same pattern.

The two creation stories that start off the Bible draw on language and ideas from other ancient creation stories—like those from Egypt or Mesopotamia—to describe what it means to say that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is the Creator of the world.

The Law of Moses draws on language and ideas from other ancient law codes—like the Babylonian Law of Hammurabi—to shape the distinctive terms of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel.

The Hebrew prophets draw on the patterns of poetry and prophecy from the world around them, in order to call the people of Israel back to Yahweh and point them to God’s future salvation in God’s coming kingdom.

The Gospels took a fairly recent genre of literature in the Roman world—the biography—and used it to create their own kind of story—a Gospel, a presentation of the good news of God’s kingdom drawing near in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus himself took a common technique of Jewish Rabbis—the parable story—along with the stuff of everyday life—farmers and seeds, kings and banquets—and used them to describe God and God’s kingdom.

God did not merely plant the exact words of the Bible into the minds of the biblical authors, and then they wrote them down. God worked through their creative imaginations as they drew on all kinds of things from the culture around them to make sense of what it meant for them at that moment to live in faithfulness to God.

Of course, we’re not prophets or apostles. We don’t claim any special inspiration by God. We’re not Jesus. We don’t claim to uniquely embody God.

But we are called to look to these inspired prophets and apostles in order to figure out how to faithfully follow Jesus—including how we think and speak about God and our world, how we do theology. The biblical authors and Jesus himself model for us how to do theology in our own day and age: using our imaginations to draw on all kinds of things from our culture to think and speak about God and creation, Jesus and our world—and then to live in faithfulness to the God whom we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths.

This, you could say, is how the Word is made flesh in every generation, incarnated in every culture around the globe—including right here among us in Morden, Manitoba.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on October 16, 2016, part of a series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?

What is the Bible? And, as Christians, how should we read it?

NRSVThese questions lurk in the background of every single hot-button, emotionally charged, divisive issue Christians wrestle with today, from homosexuality to human evolution.

The reasons for differences of opinion among Christians are complex. Personal experience, social and cultural realities, traditions that can in some cases stretch back centuries—all these play into why we believe what we believe about anything. But this is a crucial part of the mix: what we understand the Bible to be, and how we think it should be read.

These questions are also often on the minds of Christians as we navigate through the uncharted waters of a post-modern, religiously plural world. The very humanness of Scripture, its historical origins, can no longer be ignored—this has been mainstream scholarship for more than a century. And we are more aware now than ever of the sacred texts of other religions, as well as their similar and competing religious claims.

In light of these things, how should we as Christians view our sacred text, the Bible? How should we read it?

Over the past two-plus decades as a biblical theologian and pastor I have found it helpful to think of the Bible in four inter-related ways: as inspired Scripture, as ancient literature, as diverse anthology, and as witness to Jesus. And understanding the Bible in these ways has some very practical implications for how we read it.

The Bible as Inspired Scripture

“All Scripture is inspired by God…”

It may well be that no words in the Bible have had more read into them than these words.

These well-known words are from 2 Timothy 3:16.  For the moment let’s leave aside whether this is the best way to translate the Greek text. And let’s bracket off the question of whether this description of the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) should also be applied to the New Testament. Those are valid questions. But even if we move past those hurdles, there’s at least one significant thing 2 Timothy 3:16 doesn’t say: it doesn’t say how Scripture is “inspired” or “God-breathed.”

Rather, we have to import our own ideas about the how of inspiration into our reading of 2 Timothy 3:16. And very often our ideas of exactly how Scripture is inspired come from some very questionable assumptions.

We imagine, maybe, that the human authors of the Bible—Moses, David, Isaiah, Luke, John, Paul, to name a few—sat down at their writing desks, quill in hand, parchment laid out before them. Perhaps they reflected prayerfully on what God wanted to say through them, and then, as the Spirit moved in them, they began to write. Steadily, thoughtfully, carefully, always attuned to the Spirit’s inner promptings. When they finished, there before them was an inspired, inerrant manuscript—God’s very words in still-drying ink.

But wait a moment. Is that really how it worked? Consider this:

Paul used a scribe (Rom 16:22). Likely, even for a literate person such as himself, this was his normal practice. Perhaps, if the scribe was well-trusted, Paul might even have just dictated notes to the scribe, who would then flesh out those notes into a letter, getting Paul’s authorization—and maybe a brief handwritten note (Gal 6:11)—for the final product.

Luke used sources (Luke 1:1-4). He read previous writings about Jesus, he talked with people who knew Jesus, and then he carefully planned out his two-volume story of Jesus and the early church. In other words, he did the work of an ancient—not modern, mind you, but ancient—historian.

John’s Gospel was edited by others (John 21:24). There’s a “beloved disciple”—possibly John, the son of Zebedee, but who knows for sure?—who “testified to” and “wrote down” certain things about Jesus. But then there’s a “we” who comes after, who collectively added their own testimony to this earlier disciple’s testimony.

The Psalms were collected over centuries (Pss 23:1; 90:1; 137:1). Even if we take the Psalms’ opening ascriptions at face value—another difficult question—we have to face the fact that we have a psalm that claims to go back to Moses, right alongside several that state they are David’s, mixed in with some that clearly come from Israel’s exile in Babylon.

Use of scribes, use of prior sources, later editing by an individual or even a community, collection 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.

These realities are also the bread and butter of biblical scholars. They are the basics of the business: comparing ancient manuscripts, discerning prior sources, tracing out later editing, sketching out how these writings have been received and read over the centuries.

But these realities are not easily accepted by many Christians—and much of the reason for this is all those questionable assumptions we import into 2 Timothy 3:16, bringing in some (quite frankly) untenable ideas about what “inspiration” must involve. For it turns out that our imagined biblical author—the individual person before God, perfectly in tune with God’s Spirit, producing inerrant truths in written propositions—is a projection of our own modern sensibilities. This image has nothing to do with the way the biblical writings actually came to be.

Are the biblical writings actually inspired by God? I believe so. As a church we confess this to be so. “All Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness,” our church denomination’s Confession of Faith says. But we stop short of insisting on a particular view of how God inspired these ancient human writings. Instead, we are wise simply to say, as our Confession of Faith goes on to say, that “God was at work through the centuries in the process by which the books of the Old and New Testaments were inspired and written.”

To say, then, that the Bible is inspired by God, is to say that God was at work in this complex and very human process, through authors and scribes and editors and compilers and communities—and that God can speak to us through this ancient, diverse collection of human writings.

The Bible as Ancient Literature

Because that’s what we have in our Christian Scriptures: the Bible is an anthology of ancient literature.

Norton AnthologyI don’t know what comes to mind for you when you think of “literature.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “writings in prose or verse; especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” That’s not a bad definition, both the generic side of it (“writings in prose or verse”) and the more specific (“writings…expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest”).

To say that the Bible is a collection of “literature” means, then, that what we have in the Bible is “writings in prose or verse.” More specifically, we have different kinds of writing in prose or verse, different literary genres—and these different genres are not unique to the Bible.

A few examples:

The opening chapters of Genesis are ancient origins stories, akin to origins stories from Egypt and Mesopotamia and elsewhere. The move from original chaos to order and abundance? Humans made from mixing dirt and divine essence? Sounds like Genesis, and it is, but these and other features are also found in other—and even earlier—ancient origins stories. Yes, the Genesis stories are distinctive—giving a strong monotheistic, “one true and living God” outlook, for instance—but as literature they’re in the same ballpark as these other stories.

The collections of laws of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are in the same vein as other ancient legal codes. Hammurabi’s law code from ancient Babylonia covers religious matters, slavery, military service, social conduct, and more—just like the Law of Moses. “Eye for an eye”? It’s in there, a few hundred years before Moses. The biblical laws flow in this stream of ancient legal codes, even as they present some distinctive perspectives on God and religion and society.

The stories of Jesus we know as the Gospels are ancient biographies, similar to those of Plutarch, Lucian, and the like. A focus on a particular individual, skimming their adolescence and jumping into their public life, presenting some of their important sayings and key life events, highlighting their death, all to commend them as worthy of admiration or imitation—these elements of other ancient biographies are evident in the Gospels. The claim that the subject of your biography is the promised king in David’s line bringing about Yahweh’s reign on earth, or that he rose from the dead? Not so much—but then that’s what Christians claim makes them “gospel,” or “good news.”

The book of Revelation is an example of ancient apocalyptic literature, one of a dozen or so such Jewish or Christian apocalypses from that era. Things like angelic guides and multi-headed beasts and repeated numbers might seem weird to us, but they’re the basic grammar of ancient apocalypses. They’re subversive literature, the literature of a minority feeling under siege, re-imagining their world in light of God’s coming kingdom—and John’s Revelation is no exception.

Gutenberg BibleLike all the scribes and sources and editing and collecting behind the Bible’s production (see above), these kinds of historical and literary features are commonplace for biblical scholars. They are part of the scholar’s everyday work of understanding the biblical writings in their historical and cultural settings.

But these sorts of things can be scary for many Christians. And, as I suggested earlier, much of the reason for this fear is all those questionable assumptions we bring to what inspiration must involve. We have a view of inspiration—even just a view of the way God works in the world in general—that assumes that if God does something it must be clearly, discernibly divine, nothing human about it.

That’s strange, really, when you think about it. After all, one of the most fundamental convictions of Christianity is the claim that God has become human in Jesus—both fully divine and fully human, the eternal God revealed in the man Jesus.

If that’s true, why do we then insist inspired Scripture be somehow less than human?

But even if we can move past those wrong assumptions and accept the divine-voice-through-human-words of Scripture, even if we can confess that this anthology of ancient literature is in fact inspired by God, a crucial question remains: How do we hear God’s voice in Scripture?

We’ll get to that in a bit. But first, there’s still more we need to explore about what Scripture is.

The Bible as Diverse Anthology

A key idea I’ve emphasized here is that whatever we mean by Scripture’s divine inspiration, it cannot mean that the biblical writings are somehow not genuinely human writings. As 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 Yahweh Elohim, God in covenant with Israel, who comes to earth and gets their hands dirty in shaping the Human to care for their 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” God’s self or God’s 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 their 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:

Okay, so the Bible is inspired by God, but this doesn’t deny its humanness. It is a diverse anthology of ancient literature. But its inspiration by God does mean that God speaks through Scripture, somehow. The Voice of God can be heard through Scripture, if we have ears to hear. But how does that work? How does God speak through this ancient collection of diverse human writings?

By pointing us to Jesus.

The Bible as Witness to Jesus

Imagine that you’re reading a really good story. It’s the kind of story you hate to put down and you can’t wait to get back to. It’s got an interesting premise, a believable world, compelling characters, and a riveting plot. It’s enlightening and challenging and entertaining and disturbing and refreshing.

Now imagine that you’re reading along in this story, you finish a chapter, you turn the page—and it’s blank. The story just ends, abruptly. “Wait a minute,” you think, “that can’t be it. There must be more!”

So you talk with others who have read the same book, and you find they feel the same way. There are too many expectations unfulfilled, too many questions unanswered, too many tensions left unresolved, too many characters undeveloped, too many loose ends. The story is terrific—it’s just incomplete. It needs a sequel.

van Gogh - BibleAs you talk with other fans of the story, though, you realize everyone has different views on how the story should end. You argue back and forth, and different camps emerge: some say the story would best be completed in one way, others say, “No, it has to finish this way!” and still others think they alone have the best ending to the story.

This was the way it was for the people of Israel after the time of the Old Testament, after the ancient kingdoms had fallen, after the exiles to Assyria and Babylon and beyond, after some had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild a city, a temple, and a way of life. In those centuries, the Jewish people read their Bible just like this story: it’s compelling, it’s enlightening, it’s challenging—but it’s incomplete. There was something more to come. There just had to be.

The Jewish Scriptures presented a story in search of an ending. But Jews of that day disagreed about how the biblical story should end, and different views emerged.

Some expected God to come in a mighty supernatural act to overthrow God’s enemies and establish God’s kingdom on earth. Others longed for that same result, but thought God would only act if everyone followed the Law of Moses the way they were supposed to. Still others thought God would not act supernaturally, but God would only act through God’s people, so the Jews needed to be prepared to fight God’s enemies when God came. Some thought they needed to begin the fight right now. And still others thought all this was nonsense: God comes among us now when we worship in the Temple, they said, or when we study the Law of Moses.

Today we know of these different groups as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots—and there were others, and factions within them. Each of these groups saw Scripture as a story in search of an ending, and they each offered a different ending to the story.

For the first followers of Jesus, the earliest Christians, nearly all of them Jews, Jesus was the proper end to the biblical story. To use the Apostle Paul’s words, Jesus is the “end” of the Law of Moses—he is its telos, its “completion,” its purpose and goal, its fitting conclusion (Rom 10:4). To use language especially loved by Matthew, Jesus “fulfills” the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 5:17-18). All those biblical expectations of God coming to God’s people, of God acting on behalf of God’s people, of God bringing in God’s kingdom on earth—Jesus fulfills these expectations. All throughout the New Testament, this same idea comes through in different ways (e.g. Luke 24:13-27; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 2 Tim 3:15-171 Pet 1:10-11).

The Jewish Scriptures—the Christian Old Testament—present a story in search of an ending. And, for Christians, Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story.

To say that is an act of faith, of course. Not everyone in Jesus’ day agreed with this, and not everyone agrees with it today. But one of the earliest and most basic confessions of Christian faith is “Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah,” and to confess that is to say exactly this: we believe Jesus is the promised king in the line of David, the one who will bring in God’s kingdom on earth and fulfill God’s purposes for Israel and all humanity. In other words, Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story.

We also, of course, need to be careful how we say this. We must not devalue the Old Testament in its own right. These are the sacred Scriptures of Judaism, the Tanakh, and they are challenging and entertaining and disturbing and refreshing and enlightening—through the many voices of these Scriptures one can still hear the voice of God. But even Jews today acknowledge in some sense the “incompleteness” of these Scriptures centred on the Torah, the Law of Moses, and so they look to a long line of interpretive traditions, most significantly the Talmud, to complete them through explanation or expansion. Many Jews await a completion still to come.

So the Old Testament is a story in search of an ending. And by faith we as Christians say that Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story. But what difference does this make for how we should read the Old Testament? Let’s go back to that picture we started with: reading the story that ends abruptly.

Let’s say that in talking with others about this unfinished story, someone shares an ending to the story that is so compelling you can’t help but wonder if they are reading the author’s mind. All those unfinished plot threads are woven together. Characters are developed in believable ways. The questions are answered, the problems are resolved, the expectations are fulfilled. It’s a fitting ending to the story.

But let’s say this ending is surprising. We’ve all read books or watched movies that have a surprise ending. It’s still a fitting ending to the story, it makes sense of the story and brings everything to a satisfactory conclusion, but it’s different than anyone could have guessed.

What do you do with that book or movie? Well, the next time you read that book or watch that movie you’ll read or watch it differently, won’t you? The story is the same as it has always been, and much of it won’t seem any different. But you’ll see hints of that surprise ending that you never noticed before. Some of those things that seemed odd now make sense. Whole sections of the story take on new significance. You might even reconsider what the story’s really all about, now that you know how it ends.

That’s what it’s like for us reading the Old Testament, confessing that Jesus is its fitting ending. Because Jesus certainly is, in many ways, a surprise ending to the story.

Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected a Messiah, but no one expected a Messiah like Jesus: a Messiah who fed the poor and healed the sick and touched the lepers and ate with outcasts and forgave sinners.

Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected God to bring in God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom of peace and justice, but no one expected the kingdom to come about like Jesus did it: not with an army but with a dozen straggling followers, not with swords but with words of truth and deeds of love, not with power and might but in weakness and self-sacrifice.

Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected God to act on behalf of Israel, but no one expected God to act like Jesus did: born into poverty, living in utter humility, utter humanity, suffering and dying in shame and disgrace.

Jesus is a fitting ending to the biblical story, but he is also a surprise ending to the story.

So what do we do with that surprise ending? We re-read the story in light of it.

Rembrandt EmmausThis is just what the Apostles and the earliest Christians did, and we follow in their footsteps left for us in our New Testament. They proclaimed Jesus, they explained Jesus, and they did this in large part by re-reading their Scriptures in light of Jesus, the completion to the story.

This doesn’t mean we try to find Jesus explicitly on every page of the Old Testament. No, the plural “Let us make” in Genesis 1 is not a reference to the Trinity. No, the “angel of God” that appears to Abraham is not a pre-incarnate Jesus. No, there is no secret Bible code in the patterns of Hebrew words that spells out “Jesus” (not even ישוע). We still need to read the Old Testament in light of its genres, its different kinds of writing. We still need to hear the different voices of the various Old Testament writings.

Rather, it’s more that Jesus answers questions that are raised in the Old Testament. Jesus solves problems that are posed in the Old Testament. Jesus resolves tensions that are presented in the Old Testament. Jesus fulfills expectations that are prompted in the Old Testament. Jesus lives out values and virtues that are affirmed in the Old Testament. Jesus brings together important ideas that are highlighted in the Old Testament.

So, for example, we see in Jesus an emphasis on love, that God loves us deeply, that the most important thing we can do is love God and love other people—and so we read the Old Testament as Jesus did and find running through it streams of hesed and tsadiq, loyal love and covenant faithfulness.

We see in Jesus a rejection of physical violence, a refusal to repeat the cycle of violence, a willingness to absorb violence himself in order to spare others that fate—and so we see in the violence of the Old Testament something less than God’s ideal, and we highlight the Old Testament calls for forgiveness and mercy and enemy love.

We see in Jesus God bringing about healing for broken people, even a broken creation—and so we find in the Old Testament a recurring pattern of God creating something good, then humans distorting that good thing through sin, and God never giving up, always responding with forgiveness and restoration.

So as Christians we read the Old Testament as if Jesus is the fitting ending, yet the surprise ending, to the Old Testament story. We read the Old Testament in light of Jesus, and we see in the Old Testament all those threads that are woven together in Jesus—threads of peace and justice, repentance and forgiveness, liberation and healing, suffering and joy, love and life, death and resurrection in the kingdom of God.

But there’s still more to the story. And this “more” is the most surprising thing of all.

Let’s go back once more to that image: reading that story that ends so abruptly, the unfinished story. Let’s say you hear that ending to the story that you find compelling, that surprise ending that still completes the story in a satisfying way.

But let’s say a big part of the surprise at the end is this: the author has written themselves into the story.

Because that’s what you find in Jesus. The New Testament claims that the Author of it all, the God who has shaped humans out of the stuff of earth and breathed life into them, the God who has taken up the writings of Scripture and “breathed” life-giving power into them—this God has entered the human story in Jesus.

Take a look at the opening words of Hebrews, for example: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” Jesus is this “Son” who is the very voice of God in “these last days,” this time in which God is bringing to completion God’s purposes for human history. The passage goes on to say this about God’s Son, Jesus: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:1-3).

Rouault Christ DisciplesIt’s quite the statement. Jesus has come, and everything has changed. God still speaks to us in many different ways—through creation, through each other, through many surprising ways, and yes, through Scripture, written by many different prophets and apostles in the past. But Scripture is no longer the best voice of God we have. We now have a better Voice of God, an exact imprint of God: Jesus.

This idea is expressed in a variety of ways throughout the New Testament. Colossians describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God,” the one in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” and thus the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 1:15-18; 2:3, 9). Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus saying this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”—in other words, the authority of God (Matt 28:18-20). Revelation describes Jesus as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”—that is, the one who brings together the whole of human history (Rev 22:13).

But there’s one passage that highlights this truth in an especially profound way: the opening to John’s Gospel. Take a fresh look at some of those most familiar statements.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus is the eternal, divine “Word”; Jesus is God’s eternal message, the message God has been speaking from eternity past.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14-17). The eternal, divine “Word,” God’s eternal message, the message God has been speaking from eternity past, has become human and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth. This Living Word, this living message of God, is connected to the messages God has given before, like the Law of Moses, but it’s also different: it is the embodied message of God’s grace and truth, the enfleshed glory of God.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). Jesus of Nazareth, God’s unique Son, the eternal, living message of God, has made the invisible God visible to us.

Again, it’s quite the statement. Jesus has come, and everything has changed. God still speaks to us in many different ways, including Scriptures like the Law of Moses. But these other “words” of God, including Scripture, are at best echoes of the eternal “Word” of God. We now have a better Voice of God, the eternal message of God come in the flesh, showing the world the fully embodied grace and truth of God: Jesus.

Jesus is the Voice of God we have been searching for. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, not Scripture, whether Old Testament or New. Jesus is the fullest and clearest picture of God we have.

So if we want to hear God’s Voice most clearly, most fully, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—through the Bible’s many voices, through the Bible’s mixed messages, through the Bible’s diverse genres in different eras, to the Jesus who lived and taught and healed and died and rose again, who lives among us still by his Spirit.

If we want to know who God is, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find an eternal Creator who comes near to us, who becomes one of us, who lives among us, who loves us deeply and wants us to experience full and flourishing life.

If we want to know the way God works in the world, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find God doing surprising things, working through the humble and lowly, through suffering and weakness, always to bring about good for humanity and all creation.

If we want to know what God values, the things God thinks are important, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we see that God values people, and the earth, and self-giving love and loyal faith, and repentant sinners and joyful parties and little children and telling stories.

If we want to know what God requires of us and desires for creation, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find that God wants us to love, to care for each other even when it hurts, to show compassion even to an enemy, to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

If we want to know God and do God’s will, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus. In other words, we need to read the Bible to follow Jesus.

And that’s the final surprise in all this: Jesus invites us to continue the story. Jesus calls us to take his yoke upon us and learn from him. Jesus calls us to take up our own cross and follow him. Jesus calls us to come out of our tombs, and live. Jesus calls us to continue the story, our story set within his story, his story set within the story of Israel, the universal human story, the story of God.

This doesn’t mean we learn the words of the story and repeat them by rote. It doesn’t mean we learn the precise movements of its characters and act them out over and over. In other words, it doesn’t mean we treat the Bible—Old Testament or New—like an owner’s manual or a rule book, prescribing once and for all our every move for every time and place.

It means entering Jesus’ story ourselves, soaking Jesus’ story into ourselves, his teachings and actions, his attitudes and values, his character and virtues—living in the Spirit of Jesus. And then it means stepping out in faith and hope and love, improvising our parts together within the drama of life as we respond to the always-fresh, always-surprising movement of the Spirit of Jesus among us.

Kierkegaard Scripture Christ

The sections of this post are modified from separate posts that first appeared from August 2013 to July 2014 at http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl