Bible reading 101 and onwards… (Alpha week 5)

The title of the talk is “Why and how should I read the Bible”, mostly focussing on “why”. I have a host of answers for that, but none of them is that “It’s the Word of God” (quoting Matt. 4:4 “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God”) and is “God-breathed”, quoting 2 Tim. 3:16-17. Rendering vv. 15-17 (RSV), we see “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”.

First Matthew. Even Orthodox Judaism does not think that the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures “come from the mouth of God”, though they have a fairly high concept of inspiration.

Then the letter to Timothy. Assuming it to be genuinely written by Paul, it is talking of sacred writings which his hearers have been acquainted with from childhood, and therefore definitively the Hebrew Scriptures, not any part of the New Testament (of which Paul was the earliest writer). Christians in general do not use large swathes of the Hebrew Scriptures for reproof, correction or training in righteousness, not least the bulk of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

A defence is to quote Matthew 5:17. I’ll quote vv 17-19 here: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”The argument then goes that Jesus “fulfilled” them and that “all was accomplished” by dying and rising again.

Frankly, I don’t think that argument works. It frankly reads more naturally as all being accomplished BY heaven and earth passing away, and that Jesus’ “fulfilment” rested in his generally scandalous proposals that societal outcasts such as women, the disabled, heretics (Samaritans) and even Romans should be consorted with in table fellowship., and that the spirit of the law (in the two Great Commandments, Matt. 22:37-40) should override the letter.

Yes, I am not ignoring Paul’s ad-hoc theologising in Romans. Frankly, for gentiles I do not think it was in any way necessary – not being Jewish, I have no need to consider the laws of Moses. I agree with the Rabbinic chain of reasoning which results in the Noahide Commandments, though not personally feeling a need to follow the principle of “building a fence around the Torah”, I don’t necessary follow the full expansion. I don’t personally see that I need any relaxation or setting aside of those. I did share in a previous post that I have seriously contemplated whether, in order to imitate Jesus more closely, I should act as if I were Jewish (without obligation, of course), but have so far dismissed that. It seems clear to me that Paul was avoiding there being a “two tier” Christianity, with those of Jewish origin being unable to be in full fellowship with those of Gentile origin unless the Gentiles also followed Mosaic Law.

I grant that had the Jewish Christians taken fully to heart Jesus’ scrictures about the validity of the purity provisions, for instance (Matt. 15:11) they might have been able to get round this. Paul may not have had any knowledge of these sayings of Jesus, of course, as Matthew hadn’t yet been written (and so far as I can see, wouldn’t be for about another 40 years). But then, Paul doesn’t actually display very much knowledge at all of Jesus’ lifetime sayings.

Thank goodness we only had “The Message” translation quoted in the pre-meeting, as this renders “Scriptures” in 2 Tim 3:15 as “Word of God”. Even so, really the whole presentation was predicated on the whole Bible being “the Word of God”.

It is hugely clear to me that this is not a tenable position. No form of inerrancy can be sensibly defended against discrepancies (which abound), the fact that no original manuscripts exist, the textual evidence of several layers of rewriting (by different people) in most if not all of the New Testament, and the clear evidence of development in the various writer’s conceptions of very many things through the long history of assembly of the set of books which now comprise the Bible, both within the particular books (textual criticism) and of the whole (formation of the canon).

I hope that no-one reading my blog will, however, be inclined to say “If you don’t take the whole of it as inerrant, you pick and choose what bits you like” (an excluded middle argument with which I have no patience) or that I don’t take scripture seriously – very seriously. To my mind, I “pick and choose” less than do those who mine the text for a set of proof texts which support a position they’ve arrived at. I assess everything I read there critically and prayerfully, trying to see how the inspiration of the various writers was moulded by their language, their preconceptions, world-view and philosophy (and that of their audience) and arrive at what they were really trying to tell those reading them. Where I am in any doubt at all, I refer to experts, and I don’t limit myself to experts of one particular denomination of inclination, liberal or conservative. And I assess the contributions of the experts critically and prayerfully as well.

I am not wonderfully happy that some texts were included in the canon and that others were excluded, but accept that it is the tradition of some 1700 years that these are the scriptures, at least for the Western Churches (with a few additions for Catholics). However, I see no reason why I am precluded from reading the excluded ones and taking them in much the same way as I take the canonical texts (having regard, of course, to the reasons given for their not being included). So far as the others are concerned, there are still many passages which I have not studied in full depth as yet, and yes, I have problems with some of them. I am not, for instance, entirely happy that I want to regard injunctions to exterminate every last Amalekite as being “inspired”, as just one example (particularly the contents of 1 Sam. 28:18). At least, if they are inspired, I have to consider the possibility that the inspiration was very seriously warped by the characters of the (faillible) humans involved in and transmitting the story!

Which leads me neatly back to 2 Tim. 15-17, which I read primarily as Paul’s caution against taking what anyone, however much inspired (or “filled with the spirit”) they may be without comparing it with what those before have written from their own inspirations, and reproving or correcting accordingly. He is talking about the Hebrew Scriptures there, as well, so we really have to view the New Testament through the lens of the Old, which as Paul says, all the New Testament writers took as their authoritative scripture.

Needless to say, I only had the opportunity to hint at bits of these lines of reasoning in the discussion last night and in a number of individual conversations afterwards.

There is one point more, though, which I did not get to talk about, for shortness of time. Nicky Gumbel’s guide for starting Bible readers was promoted. I hate it, not least because, assuming a theological agenda, it picks and chooses those bits of scripture which support that agenda to the exclusion of others. I would still hate it, even if the theological agenda were one with which I did not disagree thoroughly.

If I am granted the strength, I will continue this tomorrow or Saturday…

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