Monday, April 12, 2021

The Books within History 4

... continued from here


6. So if we can speak of the overarching story within the Bible, we can also speak of the history of the books of the Bible. In my twenties, as I began to study the Bible more intensely, there was a shift in my understanding. We call these sorts of shifts, "paradigm shifts." You looked at a particular topic one way. Then you have this "aha moment," this moment where your perspective flips or shifts to another way of seeing the topic. And you may wonder how you didn't see it that way before. Sometimes these shifts seem so obvious in hindsight.

We have already hinted at one such paradigm shift. If you grew up thinking of the Bible as one book written by God to you, it is a paradigm shift to realize that the Bible is a library of books that were not originally bound together and that they were written at different times and places. It is a paradigm shift to think of these books as written first to other people. This is, after all, what the Bible actually says. It says it was written to ancient Israelites, ancient Romans, ancient Corinthians, and so forth.

Our initial reaction is often, "But it was written to all people in all times and places, including them," and "God was just speaking through ancient authors--they weren't significant in the thinking of what they wrote." Hold onto those thoughts. No one is pushing you to change your thinking on these things, but I think you will experience paradigm shifts on them as we read the Bible and listen to it. It will become obvious.

In the meantime, it is clear that the books of the Bible were written at different times and places. The New Testament authors mention the Old Testament books as they write, so clearly the Old Testament books were written before the New Testament books. It is a different way of thinking to realize that these books were written at particular times and places in history. For example, there is a tendency to confuse the time a book talks about with the time when that book was written, but these are two different things.

For example, the book of Joshua is about Joshua. The book of Jonah is about Jonah. For some reason, it is not uncommon for some to think that Joshua wrote Joshua or that Jonah wrote Jonah. And it is common to assume these books were written at the time of Joshua or at the time of Jonah. But these assumptions are not at all obvious. After all, I could write a book about Joshua or Jonah too, thousands of years later. 

Indeed, these books tell us about Joshua and Jonah. They are written in what is called "the third person." "Joshua did this." "Jonah did that." They are not written to say, "I, Joshua, will tell you about my adventures at Jericho. First we crossed the Jordan..." If we were talking about any other book, no one would think for a second that Joshua and Jonah wrote these books. We are just often programmed to read the Bible differently. 

So even if Job lived around the time of Abraham, this fact would not mean that the book of Job was written at the time of Abraham and Job. After all, I could write a book about Abraham and Job almost four thousand years later. And we certainly should not assume that Job wrote the book just because it is about Job. 

These things would be obvious if we were talking about any book but the Bible. We just tend to think differently about Scripture than we do other books. That fact is not bad, but we are trying to deepen our reading of the Bible, so hopefully our eyes will be opened to these sorts of unexamined assumptions as we read. You do not have to believe me now. It will become obvious as we keep reading. Just listen and see what you think.

7. Another unexamined assumption is a tendency to read the stories of the Bible as if we are watching a video or reading a transcript of these events. There are a couple unexamined assumptions here. One is our self-deception in thinking that we are not coming to the text with assumptions and perspectives that color the way that we are reading the text. It is easy to think that the problem with Christians who disagree with my interpretations are their problem. Almost certainly they are, in part.

But they are also my problem. I do not see the Bible any more objectively than I see anything else in the world. Otherwise, I would have to conclude that I'm the only Christian listening to the Holy Spirit. And how likely is it that the problem is that all those other Christians just aren't as spiritual as I am?

There is yet another unexamined assumption though. We are going to realize quickly that the books of the Bible also bring particular perspectives to the events about which they tell us. Consider the four books in the New Testament about the earthly ministry of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We call these four books "Gospels" because they tell us about the good news Jesus brought. While they often tell us about the same events, they do so with different emphases and flavors.

Consider the Gospel of Mark, which you are reading this week alongside this chapter. It was written at a particular time and place, and this fact had an impact on how it was written. Take Mark 7:3: "All the Jews, unless they wash their hands to the fist, do not eat." [2] This comment is meant to give some background to the story to the people listening to Mark being read aloud to them. 

Notice that the comment explains what Jews do. What can we infer from this comment? Since the Gospel explains what "all the Jews" do, we can fairly conclude that the audience was not primarily made up of Jews. Otherwise, the Gospel would not have to explain what Jews do to them.

The more we know about the context in which a book like Mark was written, the more we will likely have insight into why the story was told in the way it was. We will see this aspect of the Bible more and more as we read through it. Don't worry about fully getting what I'm saying now.

8. It is a different way to read the Bible when you see each of its books as moments in history. There is the story within the Bible, that we have already discussed. This is the story that takes events from here and there within the books of the Bible and glues them together from some Christian perspective from outside the Bible looking on. We see a whole story from the Christian glasses we are wearing, a Christian "metanarrative."

Then there is the history of the books of the Bible themselves, the books of the Bible within history. One paradigm shift is to realize that the books were not necessarily written in the order in which they appear. For example, all of Paul's letters were written before any of the Gospels were written about Jesus. Paul's letters are arranged by how long they are--longest to shortest--not in the order in which they were written.

So in the story within the Bible, Jesus comes before Paul. But in the history of the Bible, Paul's writings were written before the Gospels about Jesus were written. You do not need to fully see what we are talking about here now. It will become clearer and clearer as we proceed through the Bible. The goal is not necessarily to take away the way you read the Bible now, but to add to that reading the ability to hear the books somewhat as God first inspired them. The goal is to add an understanding of their first meanings, what they actually meant when God spoke through them to their actual first audiences...

[2] All translations of the Bible in this book are mine.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for another installment.