I’d Like to Believe…But Can I Trust the Bible?
2 Timothy 3:16; James 2:8 August 11, 2019
Rev. David J. Clark
For many people, the Bible is an obstacle to faith. They say things like: I’d like to believe but…there are so many versions of the Bible, how do you trust any of it? I’d like to believe but…people have quoted the Bible to justify all sorts of horrible things. I’d like to believe but…the Bible has miracles, that don’t comport with a scientific worldview. We’ll unpack those questions today and see if you can find a way for the Bible to become a resource instead of an obstacle to your spiritual growth.
What is the Bible?
The word “Bible” simply means a collection of books—like a library. There are 66 books in the Bible. (Think route 66–or Phillips 66). These 66 books were written over a 1,400-year span. There are 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. One tricky thing is they are not arranged in chronological order but by category. When people tell me they read the Bible cover-to-cover I think. That must have been so confusing. The prophets, for example, are all jumbled up chronologically because it’s put together by length of the book, not when things happened. Isaiah is longest so it goes first, then Jeremiah. You skip around from one century to another depending on how long it is.
Why so many versions?
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek. The reason there are so many different Bibles out there is they are translating from those ancient languages and ancient ways of speaking. Some translations are trying to write to a very basic reading level so it can be more accessible to more people. Other translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version (that we use in church) aims for the most accurate word-for-word translation even if it is at a higher reading level. Some translations smooth out places where the original Greek or Hebrew meaning is vague and they try to make it more clear.
You may wonder whatever happened to the King James Version you grew up with. It was the one with all the Thees and Thous. The poetry was beautiful. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. But in other places, the language was confusing and difficult. That’s because it was translated in England in the early 1600s when people talked differently. If you’ve ever had to read Shakespeare you understand. Attempts have been made to modernize the language and to incorporate manuscripts that have been discovered in the last 500 years.
Bottom line? Any version you pick up is good for a general sense of the passage reading. If you want to get into a deep study of it, there are lots of online tools to help. My seminary advisor told me I’d have to learn ancient Greek and Hebrew to get the most out of the Bible.
The translations we use today are from ancient manuscripts that are several stages removed from the original documents. In fact, we do not have a single scrap from the original document for any part of scripture. All we have are copies of copies of copies of copies. And those copies of copies of copies all have variations between them. There are no two ancient manuscripts that are exactly the same from start to finish.
Copies of copies of copies by error-prone monks
Monks dedicated their lives to hand-producing copies, but it was tedious work. And whenever the copies were made errors occurred. Think about it, it’s a big book to hand copy. Sometimes a word or letter would be missed, other times a line or page got missed. Sometimes they copied smudged manuscripts and had to guess a word. Sometimes they said, “Hey, they didn’t use the best grammar, it sounds more correct if you say it this way.” So they changed the text.
The end result is that we rely on collections of all these manuscripts and they compare the dates and variations between them and they can discern where errors were made and even where there are different ways of reading a passage. They note these variations in the footnotes of study Bibles.
But what about the originals? How did they get written? They relied on a long oral storytelling tradition. It’s how people cultures fashioned identity. Once we were slaves in Egypt. But God, working through Moses, led us to freedom. We belong to this God and each other. We’re supposed to live a life that honors each other and not act like that nasty pharaoh in Egypt.
From oral tradition to biblical documents
These stories were memorized. We all know how fallible our memories are, but they are also amazing. Maybe you’ve read a bedtime story to a child and you wanted to hurry things along, so you skipped a page. They catch you. Even a delirious child can tell when a story is off.
So you have all these stories that develop over time and get handed down. About 700 years before Christ, some documents begin to emerge. Especially stuff about who was king and what wars there were and what disaster took place or how territory was added or lost to the kingdom. They weren’t necessarily religious documents. Some of the books in the Old Testament refer to those lost documents draw their information from those reports.
The biblical authors weren’t sitting down to write an impartial history. They were addressing situations in their communities and went back to the past to see how things had gotten off track and how they might get back on the right track again. Much of the literature of the Bible is really like a sermon, written with an intended message for their communities. The Bible wasn’t written by a crack team of neutral investigative reporters relaying only verifiable facts. They didn’t know they were writing stuff that would become “The Bible.” Rather, writers were trying to speak to the spiritual experience of their communities at a particular point in time so they could discern what was best for their people.
Genre types guide interpretation
I said the Old Testament is arranged by categories. Many forms of literature are built in. Authors used conventional forms and styles when they wrote their documents. They wrote down their prayers, their songs, their poems, children’s fables, parables, fables, love letters, bits of advice, epic hero stories, rags-to-riches perseverance stories, personal letters, inner musings–like diaries, there is even a weird flatulence joke. And all of those different forms of literature got collected and found its way into the Bible. One of the first questions when looking at a passage of scripture is to ask what kind of literature is this? You read passages according to what type of literature it fits into, its customs and conventions.
For example, a lot of people are thrown by the story of Jonah–the guy who got swallowed by a whale for three days. This has all the markings of how people at that time told children’s stories. Even our stories today feature animals doing human like things. In Jonah, not only do you have the whale, but you have cattle who repent of their sins. There is an amazing growing plant just like in Jack and the Beanstalk. The truth of the stories like this isn’t about whether they actually happened but in the message, they are trying to convey.
Is the story of the tortoise and the hare a true story? No. And yes. The truth is that slow and steady wins the race. Persistence pays off. To reject the moral of the story just because there was never an actual race between a talking tortoise and talking hare means you don’t get what a fable is. Much of the Bible is written like that.
For ancient writers, a story’s truth lies in its message not in what a video camera would have recorded in real-time. Have you ever had a spiritual experience? Once you try to describe it or write it down and use metaphors it’s going to sound more literal than it was.
In scripture, we often have accounts that differ from one another and are put right next to each other. In the first 5 books, it looks like 5 different authors wrote material that got stitched together by a later editor so the story goes back and forth. You will hear a whole different perspective about an event that was already covered.
We have four gospels. They have variations between them about when and how things happened, exactly what was said. It wasn’t a problem for anyone. This was born out of a culture that valued different perspectives–sometimes the truth is found in the interplay between different witnesses, testimonies.
So you have all these stories, all these ways people try to look back and say this is how God was moving in our history, our lives. They are talking about their experience, trying to encourage each other. And it’s a powerful witness.
You don’t have to read the Bible literally to take it seriously.
If the miracles are what keeps you from believing, fine. In almost every case the point of the miracle stories was not that the laws of physics ceased to exist for a moment. They point rather to a belief in something beyond themselves that is moving toward goodness and wholeness.
I don’t know. There is a lot in this universe we cannot explain. The placebo effect is scientifically documented. People get better on sugar pills because they have hope. Is it so hard to believe that something happened within people when they encountered Jesus?
Jesus’s miracles weren’t parlor tricks, but they are more like children’s object lessons. If Susie had done a magic trick for the kids this morning, like ripping up a broken heart and putting it back together, the point isn’t the trick, the point is the lesson about God healing us. The point of water into wine and feeding the masses wasn’t on the transformation of substances but the transformation of the human heart, to believe that the universe has enough for everyone—enough resources if we share, enough blessing to help us when we are afraid.
You can’t believe in a literal resurrection? How about new life after life knocks you on your behind? How about how your legacy, the values you shared, the influence you have that lives beyond whether you are alive or dead? Is MLK’s dream dead?
Creation–take time in nature and just be filled with a sense of connection?
The colander of love
Sometimes the Bible is an obstacle because it gets used as a tool for judgment. You see the lists of rules. There are a lot of those in the Old Testament. But the whole point of much of the New Testament is that what really matters is faith. We experience God through grace, not our works. What matters is the law of love. Love God and Neighbor.
Horrible stuff, esp. in OT. Need to realize the human understanding of God grew. Read it through the law of love. Like a colander of love. Don’t spend time worrying about the stuff that doesn’t hold in the test of love.
When you interpret scripture to look for the historical context, the literary form, parallels to other parts of scripture. Use your reason. You need to use wisdom. One Proverb talks about a soft answer turning away wrath, another talks about how a sharp rebuke is necessary. Which is it? You have to have the wisdom to discern what is right for your situation. The Bible offers insight and wisdom not a Magic 8-Ball-type solution to everything you face.
There is so much to love about the Bible. It’s so honest about the human condition, our deepest longings, our aches, our capacity to screw things up. It’s just remarkable. It shows the heroes of the Bible, like Moses and King David at their best and worst—shows them as murderers. Who else’s scripture does that? It tells history not from the perspective of a conquering people, but about people who are always threatened by empires and powers that seek to dominate and crush them. It hopes for a better world of justice. It insists that the little ones and the most vulnerable be looked after. It tells truths that we can turn to again and again.
I am with the writer of 2 Timothy. Scripture is valuable for reflection and action and teaching and shaping our faith journey (see blog post Why Should I Read the Bible?). It is inspired by God. It’s a great tool. But the Christian faith has never hinged on an absolute belief about everything in the Bible being exactly the way it happened in real life—or how it looks in the Hollywood versions of the Bible movies, or that it is without any errors or that it all literally happened. It’s fine if you believe that. It’s okay if you don’t.
For nearly the first 400 years of the church after Jesus, there was no Bible. It didn’t exist yet.
Churches were gathering copies of gospels and letters but there was no printing press. No one had a family Bible, one in their home. And yet it was a time of explosive growth of the faith. It went from a handful of people on the day of Pentecost to the official religion of the Roman empire in short order. It wasn’t because of what they believed about the Bible but because of what they experienced through living a life of faith.
Those first Christians were called people of the Way, not people of the book. The teachings and example of Jesus were the way. Jesus started this way, this movement actions to take.
What it’s all about
Still think its all ridiculous? I challenge you to try the scientific method. Follow this way of Jesus for a good couple of years. Immerse yourself in it and see if it doesn’t enhance your life and help you become the kind of person you have the potential to be.
- Engage in a community of trust and accountability and mutual support
- Be generous and kind and forgiving
- Take time for prayer and express appreciation for all the goodness in your life
- Connect to nature and nurture the goodness that is planted inside of you
- Take responsibility for your mistakes and learn from them, grow from them
- Don’t live just for your own selfish desires, show restraint, live modestly, do things are sacrificial, that make a difference. Contribute to the greater good.
- Instead of discounting the poor and hurting connect to them and stand up for the vulnerable and lost and rejected.
And love. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself—even if they aren’t acting very lovable. These are the great commandments and the way to experience all the blessings God has in store for your life because that’s what the Bible’s all about. Amen.
This sermon is part of I’d Like to Believe, But… sermon series.