The Bible is a peculiar book, and it's hard to get straight information about it. If you're one of those people with a nagging feeling that you should know more about the Bible than you do -- or even if you can recite chapter and verse (but don't know that those chapters and verses come from a 13th century archbishop of Canterbury and a 16th century Parisian, respectively) -- then these five basic things will catapult you to a new level of biblical literacy. Though I might be handing you clunky corrective eyewear instead of sexy kitten glasses, I promise that they will change the way you look at the Good Book, clarifying and focusing your understanding.
1. Every Bible is actually a collection of books. The word itself means something like "little library." Many of the Bible's books developed over a long period of time and include the input of a lot of people (ancient Israelites, Babylonian Jews and Greek pastors, to name a few), reflecting particular places (urban Jerusalem, the northern Galilee, rural Judah and ancient Persia, for example) and times (spanning as much as 1,000 years for the Old Testament and a couple of centuries for the New Testament). Plus, the collection as a whole developed over centuries. This helps to explain the tremendous variety of theological perspectives, literary style, and sometimes perplexing preoccupations (which animal parts go to which parties in which categories of sacrifices, e.g.), as well as why some texts disagree with others.
2. Not everyone who believes in it has the same Bible. There are actually different bibles, though they all started with Jews (but before Judaism, per se). The Christian bible includes and depends upon the Jewish bible -- the Protestant Christian Old Testament is composed of the same books as the Jewish Hebrew Bible, arranged in a different order; and non-Protestant Christians include a few more books and parts of books (which also originated in Jewish circles) in their Old Testaments. The books of the Christian New Testament reflect the process of Jesus' followers gradually distinguishing themselves from his religion, Judaism.
3. The Bible came after the literature it comprises. In other words, the material that became biblical wasn't written in order to be part of a Bible. This helps to explain the existence of a book of erotic love poetry (Song of Songs), one that doesn't mention God (Esther), another of intimate personal correspondence (Paul's letter to Philemon) and maybe why none of it was written by Jesus. The biblical texts are not disinterested reporting of objective facts but come from people of faith informed by particular beliefs.
4. If you're reading the Bible in English, you're reading a translation. With the exception of a small minority of Aramaic texts, the books of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible were all written in Hebrew. The books of the New Testament were written in Greek. Every translation is by nature interpretation. If you've ever studied a foreign language, you know that it's impossible to convert exactly and for all time the literature or speech of any given language into another. A translator has to make choices. There are often several ways to render the original text, and changes in English affect the meaning we read as well.
5. Finally, this information about the Bible is compatible with belief in it. A person can simultaneously accept these truths about the Bible and the Bible as the Word of God. Doing so may require recalibrating assumptions, though, to allow for the possibility that God patiently works through people and time, enjoys a good debate and prefers inviting conversation over issuing absolutes. (Even the Ten Commandments, which would seem to be as absolute as anything, show up in two places in the Bible -- and with some differences.)
The Bible's endurance is astonishing. It continues to instruct and to inspire (in all sorts of interpretations and ways) the millions of people for whom it is their sacred and authoritative text. And it continues to ignite the imagination and enrich the speech, literature and art of people outside of the biblical faiths, too. Knowing the few bits of information provided here, as plain and pedantic as they may seem, makes it possible to make sense of the Bible -- its uses and abuses -- for yourself. It's like having the kind of friend who you know will keep you straight, surprise and delight you and encourage you to keep becoming exactly you. This information is more than a starting point. It's also a companion along the way, enabling new insights, providing correctives, and allowing space for the dynamism of your own ideas and learning.
Kristin Swenson is the author of Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (Harper, 2010; Harper Perennial, 2011) now available in paperback! She is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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