People have greatly varying levels of familiarity with the Bible. Some know nothing, some know a lot, some think they know things that are not biblical at all and others attribute biblical quotes, stories, and ideas to other erroneous sources.
If there was one piece of biblical understanding that you could share with the world, what would it be?
The Bible is the word of God. The Bible is the words of human beings. And the two statements are not contradictory.
I teach in the Boston College Honors Program, in which we read primary texts from the ancient world, from Gilgamesh to Homer, from Plato to Saint Paul. We critically analyze texts; ask questions about where they came from, what their authors were thinking and hoping to accomplish, and how they have shaped cultures. In this respect, Biblical texts are no different from any other ancient texts: they were written by people who had certain objectives in mind. They are entirely human: the product of human imagination, human thinking, human reflection on human activities. They can be beautiful or repulsive; they can give insight into human aspirations and human depravity. Some elements of the texts we rightly regard with great awe; other elements (genocide, to take one example) we regard with repugnance and shame.
And yet these texts are the word of God, in ways that do not apply to other ancient texts. This is not to say that the texts are always theologically precise; often Biblical texts have some pretty shoddy theology. Rather, it is to say that these texts reveal God in ways that emerge not unlike God's revelation to Moses on Sinai: that is, in hindsight. Our reading of the Biblical texts has a lot to do with the words on the page, but also with the communities within which we read them (synagogue or church or class); the attitudes we bring to the reading (prayerful or critical, with hermeneutics of reverence or suspicion); the effects they leave upon us. When I read Biblical texts in class, I am hoping that my students will understand as much as good scholarship allows us to know-- for example, that Genesis or Isaiah was redacted at different periods of Jewish history, or that Luke's gospel was written primarily for gentiles. When I read the same texts in prayer, though, I go a step further and ask questions, like how Israel's story helps me understand the ways God has entered into human history in unique ways, and what that means for who God is creating me to be; who Jesus was, and how the evangelists' stories of Jesus reaffirm my own attempts to live as his disciple.
As a writer, I wonder sometimes how I might best communicate my understanding of God to others. I try my best using the tools of language. I want people to understand that the Biblical writers were doing the same thing.
The Bible is a religious and therefore ideological narrative, not a historical one. It refers loosely to historical facts but it is not based on them in the same way a historical document today, such as a biography or a newspaper report on the Iraq war, is. The purpose of the biblical narrative is not to inform but to influence the readers morally and/or religiously and to persuade them to adopt the author’s point of view. This is so both in the Hebrew and the Christian Testaments.
For example the conquest of Canaan by Israel did not really happen the way it is described in the book of Joshua. The conquest narrative is an ideological construct written with the purpose of explaining and legitimizing Israel’s possession of the land. By the same token, the book of Acts does not paint an accurate picture of the primitive church but an ideological and utopian one. The purpose is to create in the reader the impression that there once existed a primitive community which had all things in common and shared a same theology. We now know that this was not the case at all, as dissent and diversity of Christological viewpoints were the most common traits of those early, pre Constantine days.
Contemporary readers need to know that in order to understand why the Bible was written, which should be the first step in grasping its meaning, they have to connect with the spirit in which it was produced. Many, if not most, of the books of the Bible were addressed to oppressed communities struggling with the empires of the day - Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome- in order to encourage them to remain faithful to the God of Israel or to Jesus Christ. The primary objective of these documents, then, is to instill faith and trust in the God who is in control of history despite opinions to the contrary. Even though that message is still relevant today, it is not easily transferable from the text to the present situation. A careful work of interpretation has to take place where the reader is allowed to ask questions such as: who says what, to whom, and for whose benefit. As we know, even the loftiest religious ideas are conditioned by culture, social status and gender, to mention just a few variables. Being aware of the cultural and social conditionings of the text will make us more prudent and considerate readers and will prevent us from making dogmatic and absolute affirmations that could potentially impede the necessary inter-religious dialogue that has to take place if we even dream of a future for our human race.
The Bible is not a magic answer book to life's problems or questions (Who should I marry? Where should I go to school?), it is not a collection of commands to obey (most biblical commands were not meant for you) nor even a list or promises to claim (most biblical promises were given to others, not to you). It is rather a divinely-inspired record of who God is, who we are as human beings, and what God's purpose is for his Creation. From it we learn how to live in relationship with him and with others, and to fulfill God's purpose for our lives.
People need to know that they aren’t going to break the Bible. This isn’t a fragile relic that needs to be protected as one would protect a valuable piece of porcelain or crystal. Rough it up a bit—ask questions, push back, complain, be critical, even disagree when necessary. You won’t hurt its—or God’s—feelings when you do so. At the same time, listen to it, take its claims seriously, don’t pretend its strange parts aren’t there, wrestle with it until it imparts some kind of blessing. All this is part of what it means to be in conversation with the scriptures as sources of our understanding of who God is and how we encounter God. Authentic conversation always involves a good amount of push and pull. If people aren’t committed to that as Bible readers, they can easily end up either misunderstanding what the Bible is or—even worse—becoming afraid or dismissive of the Bible.
The one thing I would want everyone to be aware of as they approach the Bible is how it was composed by many different voices. As one of my Jesuit professors used to say, the dialogue among differing theological positions that he found in the Scriptures was what he found most significant. It is also humbling and enlightening for me to think of my biblical tradition (Jewish) as being so varied, and it continues to be varied.
The evangelists were not eye-witnesses
The evangelists were more interested in theological truths than what really happened.
[Note: "evangelists" here refers to the Gospel writers]
I would want people to know that we do not have any autographs (that is, original manuscripts) of the biblical books. Instead, in the case of the New Testament, for instance, we have some 5000 Greek manuscripts that have varied levels of agreement with one another (the number comes from Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed., p. 10). We are always making educated guesses about what the original texts said and what happened throughout the centuries as they were transmitted. None of this is to say that the Scriptures are not inspired by the Holy Spirit. Christians confess that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit. To have so much “give” in the line of transmission, however, means that the Spirit is comfortable with humanity having a lot less certainty about “the original text” than we might think. Perhaps this is because the Spirit is equally competent at inspiring the reading of Scripture as well as its writing.
Jesus, the Son of God, was sent into the world to die for you and every other person so that by trusting him as your own, personal savior you will have life now and forever.
When the Apostle Paul said that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels" (II Cor. 4:7), he meant by his homely metaphor that we humans--clay in God's hands--yet carry to others the treasure of God's words of life.
The same is true of the Bible. As a book written by human beings--humans inspired by God, to be sure, but still human beings--the Bible is an "earthen vessel" which yet brings to us the treasure of God's life-giving Word.