What the Bible means (to me) – part 3

In the last post, I looked at certain things I believe the Bible is not. Some of it was probably uncontroversial, other parts possibly less so. In this post I shall continue this via negativa by looking at a couple more things I believe the Bible is not.

The Bible is not meant to be taken literally

…or at least, not all of it. Much of it certainly is intended to be taken literally, but determining which bits those are is not always as straightforward as is assumed by some. Here we come to issues of genre and rhetorical style, and for most of us, issues of translation too.

Firstly, the Bible contains writing in a wide variety of genres. Some of us will be familiar with this, but awareness is not as widespread as it should be. We have writing that is certainly poetry, other parts that are historical (though we need to be careful about imposing our 21st century Western notions about history on these). There are letters, some personal, some for community consumption. There are codes that we might recognise as law, there are proverbs, there is prophecy, there are collections of wisdom and advice. Some of these may be intended to be taken “literally”. But others certainly aren’t. The whole point of poetry, for example, is to use language in a non-literal way – not just simile but metaphor too. We don’t expect a literal description of the world – what is being conveyed is the author’s reaction to, and feeling about, the world, relationships, God etc. So trying to base a cosmology on the Psalms, for instance, should not be attempted.

Similarly, we have parables. Jesus tells a lot of these, though there are other parts of the Bible, even in the Hebrew scriptures, that have them. When we read or hear Jesus parables, we do not imagine that there was literally a specific Samaritan who rescued a half-dead man on the Jericho road; or a specific king who went on a journey giving his stewards large sums of money to invest until his return; or a specific landowner whose crops were vandalised by a specific enemy who sowed weeds. We know that these stories are made to convey certain points in Jesus teaching. Whether or not they represent a literal, physical reality is beside the point and nothing detracts from the point if the stories are fictional in the literal sense.

Incidentally, we should also note that, if this is the case, then we should be wary of trying to make these stories tell us things they are not meant to. For example, is the story about the rich man and Lazarus really designed to give us a topography of the after-life? Or is it more about how we should take particular notice of the things and people around us we would rather ignore?

These questions follow us back into the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. Though far fewer in number, there are parables here also. Nathan the prophet takes a huge risk by telling a (fictional) story about a rich man who steals a lamb from a poor man to provide for his guest. the story, of course, catches out King David, who is thereby forced to confront the fact that he has behaved as unjustly and sinfully as the fictional rich man. This is one obvious example of an OT parable.

But are there not other writings that might equally well be considered to be parables – stories told to illustrate theological or moral truth while not necessarily being literally true? How about Job? Here we have a story set in a distant time and a distant place. In our own culture it might well begin, “Once upon a time…” We find a man to whom multiple extreme disasters happen, a glimpse of the “heavenly court” where God and Satan confront one another, comforters who represent a variety of (worryingly familiar) theological responses to Job’s suffering, and finally a kind of “happy ending” that seems rather at odds with what precedes it. And the purpose of the narrative is to expose these positions for the facile shams they really are, to declare that ultimately we humans cannot now have a fully satisfactory understanding of the place of suffering in the purposes of God in our universe.

And the early chapters of Genesis? There is no genre within the Bible of “scientific text”. So, to me, these texts are not trying to give the definitive account of how creation happened, but they are trying to teach us something about why we are here, about our human nature and about the nature of the God who creates and sustains not just us but the entire universe.

So it is important to recognise the genre of the particular writing we read. But we need also to take account of the rhetorical intentions of the speaker/author. There are a number of places in the Gospels especially where very few Christians take the words of Jesus at face value. take, for example, Jesus instruction that “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” and “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:29,30 NRSV). Most commentators will agree that Jesus did not intend these words to be taken literally, but that he was using the rhetorical device known as hyperbole – using exaggerated language to stress a point. I have yet to visit a church where the congregation consists largely of partially sighted amputees.

Finally on this section, most of us primarily read the Bible in translation, even those who also read Greek and/or Hebrew. This means we are reliant on the decisions others make about how thoughts and stories expressed in one language are rendered in a language which uses different ways to express these things (if indeed they can be directly expressed). This is particularly difficult to do with Hebrew, which effectively uses just two tenses to express actions, and whose words tend to express a field of meaning which is rather less precise than English or most other modern European languages. And this is without considering issues like idiom and figures of speech.

The Bible is not a book of moral philosophy

Over the past few years I have had a kind of love-hate relationship with Giles Fraser’s writing for the Church Times and his Thought for the Day pieces on Radio 4. At times I agree wholeheartedly with something he says; at other times I just want to shout, “No!!!” Recently, he responded to the publication of The Good Book by the humanist philosopher A. C. Grayling on Radio 4’s Today programme and this definitely falls into the former category. “I think the Bible’s not about being good…for the Christian, it’s about being saved, which is a different category…It’s not a work of morality, it’s actually a work of something deeper.” (from about 4:55 onwards in the clip).

While we can derive morals and ethics from the Bible’s pages that is not its primary purpose, and this is something else we must come back to in a later post.

After another brief excursus, we shall begin to look more positively at what the Bible is, and how we can interpret it to be relevant to our life today.