Note To The Reader: This is the third post in a series on being honest about the Bible, especially as a pastor. To keep things simple, each post will have thoughts about only one aspect of the Bible and its use in our congregations. The first two posts are here and here.
These posts are reflections from my years of teaching the Bible to undergrad students. For most of my students, engaging with the Bible from an academic perspective is a new experience. And most common to this new experience is the process of un-learning. There’s a certain amount of deconstruction that happens in the classroom as students look more closely at the Biblical text. Students are encouraged to probe, ask questions, and to be skeptical of their previous understandings of certain texts and teachings. It’s fun. And sometimes unsettling.
One thing we explore are the intended audiences of the Bible. It’s not a shocking revelation to students, but it is one that requires some readjustment in their reading practices.
No. 3 – The Bible Was Written For Us, But Not To Us
My party line in class is, “Much of the New Testament is someone’s mail.” I recognize that it’s more complicated than that, but at its core it’s true: so much of what we’re reading in the New Testament is correspondence between people from the past. (It is remarkable to think that we even have these letters in the first place. We have no idea whether someone like Paul even imagined that his writings would survive beyond their intended destinations, much less be copied, stored, and even passed around. And though obvious, it is still somewhat unsettling for my students to learn that twenty-first Americans were not in Paul’s mind when he wrote his letters.)
John Walton was the first person I heard use the phrase, “The Bible was written for us, but not to us.” It is a simple reminder of an important truth: we are not the original recipients of these ancient writings. We are all peering through ancient windows into the other peoples’ worlds. And those worlds were dynamic and situational, each with its particular cultures, languages, world views, social structures, and belief systems. The more my students learn about those worlds, the more foreign and removed (and even barbaric) those worlds seem. When we read the Bible in an honest way, we are not permitted to transfer its words immediately in our world or even to find its relevancy to our experiences too quickly. We are instead asked to consider the very realtime situations in which its words and stories were written and then do the work of application. (Important here is the admission that some things we read are not applicable to our world or personal experiences because they were originally written to address very particular circumstances in a world that no longer functions in the same ways.)
Whether or not the Biblical writers envisioned future generations of people thousands of years removed even having these writings is unknown. There seems to be some indication that the stories themselves would be told and retold for years to come, but remember that something like a fully formed and contained Bible was hundreds years away from the days of Jesus. And when we look closely at the historical process of collecting all these writings, it almost feels like a miracle that we even have them in the first place.
- We can be more upfront about the worlds in which these writings came to be, pointing out the cultural stories behind the texts. Tell people that Paul wrote during a time when women were seen as property and when slavery was a given. Show people how the Noah story is similar to other ancient flood stories (frighteningly so with the Gilgamesh Epic!) and how we might read and understand it in light of those truths. This helps people better place Biblical passages in their own context, which ends up helping them with a healthier experience of personal application.
- While I recognize that “Study Bibles” are not always encouraged in academic settings, we can provide recommended versions for our people, especially ones that provide good historical and theological information on the books and stories of the Bible.
While the Bible is truly one of a kind—largely because it is God’s kind—it bears clear marks of humankind. Divine truth is inextricably interwoven within human culture, which means the categories of thinking, the expressions, the imagery, the motifs are drawn from the cultures in which God’s truth became incarnate. It couldn’t be any other way: it was necessary for God to speak in ways humans could understand, and he specifically chose the Greco-Roman-Jewish world of the first century for revealing the New Testament.
– John H. Walton –