There is a lot of criticism of the Bible in our culture today, and of those who believe in it. Some of those criticisms may be valid, although many are certainly not. There are Christians who have trouble responding to these critics, partly because even those believers do not understand what they are dealing with. And of course a novice student of the Bible, even with the best of intentions, may have difficulty understanding the Bible due the nature of it’s age and form. In order to understand scripture, there are some things that one must realize first.
1) The Bible will not answer all our questions. When we look at the Constitution, it is important to try and understand the framers’ intent. The same holds for the Bible. No Biblical author was attempting to provide an exhaustive list of every answer to every possible question that would arise. It’s not an encyclopedia of all knowledge; it is a message from God to man. We must read the message, not make demands on what it must be.
2) Most of the Bible was not written as a narrative. The Bible does not read like a Harry Potter novel. Even the narrative portions are not always chronological. These were not issues for the Biblical authors, nor for the people it was being written to in its day. As I mentioned in my latest Bible Survey post, the Bible did not have to stand up to modern literary criticism. To argue “Well it does now,” would be foolish. It is an ancient text; to fully understand it may require developing an understanding of ancient literature.
3) Sometimes the math is wrong. It’s not fair to say “wrong,” but more like the math does not always work the way we do math. This leads to some of the apparent contradictions that critics point out. Hebrew is an ancient language. The original written Hebrew had no characters for vowels. They also had a finite numbering system. Daniel 7:10 is just one example. For a host too great to number, the Bible uses terms like thousands of thousands, or ten thousand times ten thousands. This was simply the author’s way of saying there were more than their language could express.
4) Some statements are hyperbole. Like the numbers thing, this leads many to claim Biblical errors exist where there are none. The Bible says that God loved Jacob but hated Esau. I’ve been told this proves Predestination; God hated Esau, says so right there. Does God hate people? Isn’t God love? Think about Jesus and his disciples. He said that “unless one hates father and mother” that person could not follow him. The Law commands that we honor our father and mother. Is Jesus off his rocker? No, this is an example of hyperbole, which the first century Jewish audience would have understood well. It’s just like someone today saying “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Really? No, not really. We exaggerate to illustrate how strongly we feel about something. Jesus means that the love for him must be so great that the love we have for our parents looks like hate. Just like “if we were going any slower, we’d be backing up.” Our sins are removed “as far as east is from west.” Literally? There is no way to measure that distance; it’s a figure of speech to mean infinite.
5) When reading the Old Testament, it helps to understand Hebrew poetry. There was no meter and the words didn’t rhyme. Everything was couplets that either repeated the same information or stated exactly the opposite thought. It is also impossible to read the Old Testament and not learn some Jewish history. Studying that history outside of the Bible will help to understand the message of the Bible.
6) Likewise, fully grasping the New Testament is easier with knowledge of first century culture. It’s not just the 2,000 years that have gone by; the accounts of the New Testament took place in the Middle East, during a time that the Roman Empire ruled much of the known world. To really get what the scriptures are saying, we must be able to see through their eyes. This was a world of Greko-Roman culture, slavery, and of women in subjection. Many things foreign to us would have been normal to them; homeless beggars, prostitutes openly advertising their trade, public execution; and that’s just Israel. Paul traveled throughout Greek provinces where homosexuality and public nudity would have been typical.
To understand what the Bible says, one must know who the Bible was talking to, and understand the language it is written in. When God choose to reveal himself to mankind, he gave us a book. When we needed salvation, he sent us a savior. We must recognize God’s wisdom in these things. If he thought we needed a science book, an encyclopedia or a question answering 8-ball, he would have provided those instead.