Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Multi-Layered Nature of the Bible

Some professing Christians want to minimize the significance of the Bible, because they don't like what the Bible teaches or because they don't like what it doesn't teach. We're often told that we shouldn't interpret the Bible as we would interpret other historical documents, but we're never given a reason that justifies a different method of interpretation. We might be told that allegorical interpretation was popular in the past, for example, but we're never told how popularity would prove truthfulness or how we would go about determining which allegorical interpretations are correct and which aren't. People who think there isn't much difficulty involved in understanding Josephus or Clement of Rome will spend years writing posts, articles, etc. arguing that the apostle Paul or the apostle John is so unclear and complicated that we need a later source to interpret him for us.

Another way in which some people attempt to minimize the Bible's significance is by referring to it as though it's just one book written by one author toward the end of the first century. If it's just one book written by one author, isn't it possible that we've misunderstood that one author's attempt to communicate with us? And if the Bible was written around the end of the first century, shouldn't we go to the people living just after that time, such as the people living in the second century, to find out what the author meant?

The Bible is one book today, but it's composed of many books. Those books were written over a span of more than a thousand years and by dozens of authors. The last book of the Bible was written late in the first century, but the fact that a second century source lived close to the time of the last book of the Bible doesn't prove that he lived close to the time of the writing of every other Biblical book. All one needs to do is read the Epistle of Barnabas' interpretation of the book of Genesis to realize that closeness to the time of the apostles doesn't prevent a source from being highly unreliable in its assessment of the Bible's meaning.

Think about the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. It's often suggested that the Bible (referring to it as though it's just one book by one author) might have used terms like "brother" and "sister" in a less natural sense, such as in the sense that a cousin could broadly be called a "brother". And since the concept of the perpetual virginity of Mary became popular among the church fathers, shouldn't we let those sources close to the time of the apostles interpret the one unclear source, the Bible, for us?

Notice how the argument is framed. The Bible is referred to as if it's just one source. The church fathers, on the other hand, are each treated as a separate source ("sources" collectively), and the fact that the perpetual virginity doctrine didn't become popular until the fourth century (with some dissenting voices along the way) is ignored. We're given this picture of one first century source having some ambiguous passages relevant to the perpetual virginity of Mary, followed by a wide variety of sources shortly afterward telling us that Mary was a perpetual virgin. But the reality of the situation is far removed from that framing of the argument.

In reality, each gospel in the Bible was written by a different author. And Paul, who also makes some comments relevant to the perpetual virginity doctrine, is a separate source. If one source referred to "brothers" of Jesus one time, we might conclude (dependent on other data) that it's likely that Mary wasn't a perpetual virgin. But when one author after another, decade after decade, uses terminology over and over again that suggests that Mary wasn't a perpetual virgin, it becomes increasingly implausible to suggest that all of these many passages written by multiple authors spanning multiple decades of time are all using this terminology in some less natural sense. It isn't just a matter of one phrase used by one author.

Much the same could be said about the practice of praying to the dead, for example. Maybe one Biblical author was so concerned with prayer to God that he decided to only mention that one type of prayer in his writings, even though he believed in praying to the dead as well. But how likely is it that another author decided to do the same thing? And another? And another? And many more? If dozens of authors wrote dozens of books that address prayer in many different contexts, spanning centuries of time and hundreds of pages, should we treat their collective testimony as if it's just one unclear passage in one source?

What about the doctrine of justification? How often are Evangelicals told that their view of justification is just their own unreliable interpretation of Paul? Well, how much does Paul discuss justification? Often, and in a variety of contexts. Are we to believe that I can't be confident of the basics of his view of justification after reading dozens of passages on the subject in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, etc.? What if I then go to Paul's companion, Luke, for further clarification? What if I notice that Luke seems to agree with my view of Paul, since Luke repeatedly portrays people as being justified as soon as they have faith (Luke 7:50, Acts 10:44-48, 15:7-11, 19:2)? And if reading Paul and Luke isn't enough, why don't we add John to the equation? After all, Paul referred to the unity he had with the other apostles in the gospel that he preached (1 Corinthians 15:11, Galatians 2:9-10), and Luke confirms that there was such unity (Acts 15). When we read John, we once again see eternal life referred to as a free gift (Revelation 21:6, 22:17) received through faith (John 6:29, 6:40, 20:31). Are we to believe that after reading hundreds of passages from a variety of authors, covering the subject of justification from multiple angles, I can't have confidence in my conclusions until I've gotten a post-apostolic source to interpret the Biblical documents for me? (And when you give examples of post-apostolic sources agreeing with your interpretation, you'll be told that that's just your interpretation of those post-apostolic sources, or those sources will be dismissed because they're a minority.)

We ought to keep in mind what's involved in any reference to "the Bible". What we're discussing is a collection of books containing a vast amount of historical information, with many layers of coverage of some of the issues it addresses. To treat it as if it's just one unclear source written at the end of the first century, to be interpreted for us by some later source that we supposedly can understand without having an interpreter for it, is a ridiculous framing of the argument and a double standard. It tells us more about the people who want to treat the Bible in such a way than it tells us about the Bible itself or our understanding of it.