For most of us, the Bible is a book, a singular thing that we think of as unified and complete—like any other book we know. But when we actually read the Bible, we discover that it doesn’t have the unity and completeness that we might imagine. I’ve even been told by some people that reading the Bible all the way through has caused them to experience a crisis of faith.
It’s unfortunate that many of us were never told that the Bible is a library of books. It was written by many different authors over thousands of years, from different perspectives, in different circumstances, and with different understandings of God, humanity, and the world. There are many different genres of literature in the Bible and there are many different ways of readings it. Recognising these truths can make all the difference to how we experience Scripture and how it impacts our lives.
In this episode of the EvoFaith Podcast, we explore what it means that the Bible is a library, rather than a single book. And we investigate how treating the Bible as the library it is can be an integral part of an evolutionary approach to the Scriptures.
One of the things we have to deal with when we read the Bible is the world of the Bible and we have to try as best we can to discern its original meaning, what it meant for those who wrote it and what it meant for those who read it in different ways, of course, all along its journey into its final form. We have a word for that, it’s called Exegesis. But exegesis is never a certain thing, it’s a constantly growing understanding, and of course, Biblical scholarship is constantly giving us new insights into the background of the text and into what it may have meant for its original writers and readers. I’m reminded of the first verse in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament which says this: “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.”
God spoke many times and in many ways.Of course the writers of Scripture understood that what they were writing was a sense of what they were hearing God say to them, God was speaking and they were trying to write that down. Although I’m not sure they would’ve made the leap to call the Bible God’s word in the way that we sometimes do. But what they wrote was written at many times through a long period of history, and it was written in many ways. And we are going to look at some of those ways today.
We need, as best we can, to get into the understanding of these first writers and readers, and there are a few things we can say with quite a bit of confidence. First of all, the original writers and readers of Scripture lived in what we now call a ‘Three-Tier World’ or a ‘Three-Tier Universe’. And for them the world was the universe, they had little grasp of the universe beyond earth. And they saw the universe as being built in three tiers: the top tier was heaven, that’s where God and the angels were, that’s where God’s throne room was the sky and there were different levels within heaven, but that was the top tier. Then there was earth, where we are. And then beneath the earth was the place of the dead, and in some later versions things like Sheol, hell came about, although the Bible doesn’t ever really speak of hell in the way we often think about it—that came much later through the writings of Dante. But this Three-Tier universe—heaven, earth and under the earth—that was the world they lived in. And it was seen vertically like that, they had no idea of round planets, they had no idea of circling the sun they had no idea of the universe as we know it. They had little grasp of any universe beyond earth.
The world that these original writers and readings lived in was a magical world—it was a world where spirit and matter were one, and where all events and circumstances were determined by “the gods”. If you did good things, the gods might reward you, if you did bad things, the gods might punish you. And any good things that happened to you were perceived to be the gods’ rewards, even if you weren’t quite sure what you had done to deserve those rewards, and any bad things that happened were perceived to be the gods’ punishments, even if you didn’t know what you had done to deserve the punishment. And what we see in Scripture is that even though there is this magical three-tier universe, there is nevertheless a growing understanding in the writers as we move through history—from very primitive views to more developed views. There’s an idea of the world that grows and develops through the reading of Scripture, of human affairs, of how humans work, of relationships, of what is life-giving and what is destructive. And there’s a growing understanding of God that comes through in Scripture. In the very early passages in Scripture—the ones that were written earliest in the Bible’s history—it’s common to have this view of many gods and all gods are equal, and Jahweh—the God of Israel—then becomes a dominant God, one of many but dominant over all. And of course in that era one of the big things that happened was that nations would fight against each other and see that as a competition between their gods, and the nation that won, well their god definitely was therefore stronger than the nation that lost. And so there was constantly this idea of these gods competing in heaven and that competition being played out on earth. But over time, and fairly late in the Old Testament, we begin to get the first glimpses of monotheism—the belief that there is only one God as we would know it now. And so we need to be very aware of this development in understanding when we’re reading Scripture, and be aware of what the understanding is that we’re dealing with in any particular passage we’re reading.
Of course another set of questions we have to ask when we’re reading this library of books is: When was this passage written? Why was it written? Who wrote it and to whom was it written? And what is it about, what is it talking about in terms of its history, its content, and the events of the time in which it was being written, and the events of the time it was writing about? Because obviously events happened and then got written about, not necessarily at the same time—sometimes you have more than one timeline you have to keep in mind when asking these questions.
There’s also the idea of context in the sense of the Bible: what verse is this, what chapter is this—remembering that verse and chapter numbers were only added much later—but what book is this, what Testament are we dealing with, where does this particular passage or verse that I’m reading fit into the bigger picture of the Bible, the book it’s in, the passage it’s in, the context of the verses around it. Because obviously things were written as a flow and things were put together in the way they were for a reasons and we need to try and discern that because that helps us to understand any individual verse.
And then when we’re reading Scripture we need to be aware that there are a number of journeys in Scripture, a number of narratives if you like, or a number of timelines that we have to be aware of. The one timeline is that there’s this Progressive Revelation of God, there’s this growing understanding of who God is or how God operates. God becomes less and less made in the image of humanity and God begins to be seen in more nuanced and complex aways as we move through Scripture. It’s not always as clear a progression as that, as Richard Rohr says “two steps forward and three steps back” so sometimes people fall back into old ways of seeing God and then there’s new understanding that comes, but there’s this idea of this progressive revelation of God.
Then there’s the actual Biblical narrative, and there’s that timeline and that narrative that we need to be aware of. And that moves from creation to people populating the earth to a family being chosen and they become a people who are then taking into captivity, who are then set free from captivity, who find their own land or conquer their own land, who then become a strong nation, develop their political and social order, kings rule them, but some kings are bad, some kings are good, they’re sometimes winning wars, sometimes losing wars, often at war, sometimes at peace, eventually getting conquered the people are taken into exile, then they come back from exile. And then there’s a gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and when we come back into the narrative in the New Testament we find Rome has now occupied Israel, and this preacher Jesus of Nazareth comes on the scene, and preaches a message that captured people’s hearts, he’s then seen as a threat by the powers-that-be, he’s crucified, his followers grieve him, but then experience his life again after he has died, they get captivated by the power of his message and his life, and they go out into the world and they share that message, spread it across the world as they know it then, and it changes their world and ultimately continues to change the world for centuries afterwards. So that’s kind of the overarching Biblical narrative and we need to be aware of when we’re reading Scripture, of where it fits into that narrative.
There’s also the timeline of the order of the books, and that’s not a linear timeline, because the books aren’t placed in chronological order. And so you’ll often find yourself going back in time—you might read for example 1 Kings, 2 Kings and read some events, then go to 1 and 2 Chronicles and read those same events from a different perspective, then you’ll encounter some of those same events in some of the Prophetic books from another perspective. And so we’re constantly jumping around timelines and we need to be aware of that when we’re reading the books. It’s not like reading a novel where there’s a clear narrative thread int he order of the books and their chapters.
Then of course there’s the order of the actual events that happened in this Biblical timeline and we need to be aware of how those events happened and the timeline—the actual timeframes—for those events.
And then there’s the time of when those events were written about and compiled and put into their final form. So we’re dealing with a bunch of different timelines all at once. It’s not like you can just pick up the Bible and there’s one timeline, there’s one story, and you can just dive in and it makes sense. There’s a lot going on and we need to be aware of all of these different pieces of the puzzle when we’re reading.
We also need to be aware of the nature of the way the Bible was written. First of all, it was written in community, the Bible wasn’t written for individuals. Yes, there were some letters that are addressed to individuals, but those letters, even though they would concern a particular individual, would often have been read in community. And the Bible is a communal book, every part of it was meant to be read and discussed and worked out in community together. Not so much as we do now where we each have our own individual Bible and we all work out what it means for me personally. That’s a very new development in the reading of Scripture.
The other thing about Scripture is to recognise that it is focussed on truth, but not facts. And truth and facts are not the same thing. I’ve spoke about this before, I can know all the facts about love, about what happens to my heart-rate, and my breathing, and my skin temperatures and the emotional chemicals that are moving in my brain—I can learn all the facts love, but I don’t really understand love if I’ve never actually been in love. I don’t know the truth of love even if I’ve got all the facts. But if i’ve fallen in love, I may not know any of the facts about what’s going on, but I know the truth of what love is. And that’s what the Bible is concerned about, not so much the facts as the truth. And it’s written with a spiritual agenda—it’s not so much history as salvation history. It’s telling the story of God’s salvation. And so it is shaped by the worldview, the theology, the experience, the culture, the issues and the time of those who wrote it and those that read it.
So you can see there’s a complexity to the Scriptures. And that leads us then of course, like any library, there are different genres of writing in Scripture: there’s poetry, there’s prophecy, there’s narrative, there’s history—or what we might actually prefer to call historiography, it’s not history as we know it today, it’s history written with a purpose, often about specific people that needed to be remembered—there’s parable, there’s wisdom literature, there’s myth. All of that is contained in Scripture. And there’s also this one particular kind of writing, I just want to give a special word about this, it’s knows as ‘apocalyptic’. Now the word apocalyptic doesn’t actually mean hellfire and brimstone and damnation and death and destruction. The word apocalypse in Greek just means to make something known, to reveal something. An apocalyptic writing, apocalyptic literature, is literature that reveals things that we can’t know in other ways—the prophets used it, Jesus used apocalyptic writing. The example we’re probably most familiar with as Christians is the book of Revelation, that’s apocalyptic writing. And so it’s meant to reveal something, the truth of reality, and so the authors would be trying to describe things that are indescribable, to explain things that are unexplainable. They would look at history and they would see what was happening on the surface, and then they would reflect on that from a divine perspective—where is God involved? What is God doing?—and use this apocalyptic language to try and express, explain what they felt God was doing, what God was saying in these events. And so we need to be very careful when we deal with apocalyptic literate, it’s not meant to be interpreted literally, it’s not meant to be read in the way any other kind of literature is.
It’s a bit like when you try to describe something that you’ve experienced and you run out of words because you just can’t express it to somebody else. That’s what apocalyptic literature is like, it’s running out of words to describe what you’re experiencing or what you’re seeing.
And you’ll often find in apocalyptic literature, thunder and lightning and trumpets to describe the greatness and the power of God. And you’ll see beasts and angels and eyes everywhere, speaking of God’s omniscience and omnipresence. This language is all metaphorical, not to be taken literally. It’s not foretelling the future but speaking into the present of the writers. And it’snot to be seen as a blueprint for anything, but as a way to speak about what is unspeakable, to express what is inexpressible. So keep that in mind when you’re reading apocalyptic literature.
So that’s something of the world of the Bible, but when we’re reading the Bible we also need to be aware of our world—we, the readers—and what it means for us. The theological word for that is a hermeneutic, we need to interpret the Bible and apply it in our growing understanding of the world. And so we need a hermeneutic, we need a way to do this. And that means as we’re reading Scripture we need to be aware of our generation, our gender, our race, our culture, economic status, our education. We need to be aware of our religious background and our tradition. And we need to bring all of these things into conversation with the culture, and race, and gender, and economic status, and traditions of the writers and first readers. And in conversations with others who read from different perspectives, because they have a different background and a different approach to Scriptures and so they read the Bible differently. This is why Scripture is best read in community, because we bring all of this richness of understanding and experience, this diversity of interpretation and of working with Scripture.
So that’s what I mean—can you take a deep breath, because that was a lot—that’s what I mean when I speak about the Bible as a library. A bunch of different genres, a bunch of different stories, a bunch of different timelines that come to us in this book.
So now think about a library. Think of how a library connects with the different places we find ourselves in at different times, both literally, geographically and metaphorically, figuratively. Sometimes we go to a library because we want philosophy, we want to learn how to live well, or we want to learn how to understand certain things. Sometimes we want poetry because we want to speak to our heart, we want to have something that will move us more deeply than just ideas and logic, and we want something that will help us in our relationships with others, with the world, with God. Sometimes we want something that’s a bit more logical, and that’s a teaching, that can give us some guidelines about what to do and how to do it. Sometimes we just want a great story that embodies ideals we can strive for. The Bible gives us all of this and more.
And so when we come to it, we need to be aware of what genre we’re reading and we need to connect with that genre on its terms, not trying to impose a different genre on it or impose our own perspective on that. You don’t read a science text book the way you read poetry. And so we shouldn’t read the different genres in Scripture as if they were something other than what they are. And again, be especially careful with apocalyptic writing. But as we read all this richness of different genre and different ways of writing, ways of telling stories, we can use those genres to speak to the different seasons of our souls. We don’t have to read the Bible from beginning to end—if you want to do that, wonderful! I’m so glad if that’s helpful for you—but that’s not really what the bible was intended for. The Bible is for us to dip into, relative to where we are in our lives, what’s going on in our world, what we need to hear at any point in time, and to connect different parts of the Bible together so that we can get these different perspectives on whatever it is we’re trying to understand, and then develop our interpretation out of that.
But always avoid any interpretation that reads the Bible completely literally, or that claims that there’s only one perfect interpretation or that the Bible has a simple meaning that isn’t ever uninterpreted, that the Bible is just plain uninterpreted meaning—that’s just a fallacy, the Bible is always interpreted. Avoid any interpretation that claims that the whole Bible is absolutely clear on pretty much anything. The Bible isn’t really clear in the sense that you can make the Bible say pretty much anything you want, about anything, if you pick and choose what you read. Even if you read the whole thing, people read it in different ways, and so there’s always a bit of humility needed when we’re speaking about what the Bible says.
We need to allow the Bible to speak mythically, that it’s primarily about meaning making, it’s about truth not facts, and it’s about seeking wisdom not science, or history, or a set of incontrovertible laws. When we come to the Bible in this ways and with the humility to allow the Bible to be what it is, it is so much richer and it gives us such a deep wisdom if we’re open to receive it.
The Bible is a complex and varied library of books, and I suspect you’ve probably got a sense of that complexity as I’ve been talking to you today, I hope I haven’t put you to sleep or bored you to tears. But it offers us so many different perspectives on life, on the world, on God, on humanity. It contains so many different kinds of writing. And because of this, it can speak into our lives in so many ways, it can reveal so many different ways of being, understanding and relating. And that makes it a wonderful tool for exploring the possibilities in our humanity and in our spirituality.
Next week we’re going to examine a little more of the narrative arc of the Bible as a whole and how the various smaller arcs contribute to the whole. And we’ll explore what the meaning and purpose behind the Christian reading of both the Jewish and the Christian Testaments is and how that Christian reading can speak to us today.
But for now, that’s all I have. Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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