Questioning the Bible
Editor’s Note: It may seem odd that an investigative news organization like ours would publish a number of articles about ancient religious texts, but the sad reality is that many of today’s conflicts can be traced to how people of different religions interpret these old documents.
Baptist Minister Howard Bess, who has written a number of our articles about Christian lore and mythologies, also believes that the Bible, with all its internal contradictions, must be read as a historical debate, not simply as the unchallengeable word of God:
I have always been a religious person, but not just religious. I was a Christian with a life commitment to Jesus. I have never considered any other life path.
My life’s goal has been, in the words of the song, “to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day.” The Bible has always been my primary tool in defining my relationship to my Lord Christ.
At Wheaton College, Bible was my major and Greek was my minor. My work at Wheaton was rigorous and helpful, but I had little introduction to serious critical study of the Bible until my seminary training at Garrett Theological Seminary, a Methodist seminary on the campus of Northwestern University.
It was at Garrett that I found a whole new perspective in my understanding of the Bible.
I discovered a Bible with material collected and written over more than a thousand years. Each piece of the collection was written by someone, written at a particular time, written for a particular audience, written for a particular purpose, and written in a variety of literary forms.
The particular writings that were finally included in the book that we now call Holy, found their way into the collection through bitter battles between dissenting factions, not through careful deliberations of praying giants of the Faith. Ruling priests, bishops, emperors and kings held the final authority.
The 39 literary units that make up the Old Testament and the 27 literary units that were selected for the New Testament contain not one point of view, but sharply divided opinions. The four reports of the life of Jesus are in significant conflict. There is no way through careful study that the four can be reconciled.
There are significant differences between the writings of Paul and the teachings of Jesus. Religious apologists have strived in vain to bring reconciliation, but the differing opinions are too apparent to ignore.
It is quite easy to justify war, wanton killing, slavery and a disgusting patriarchy by quoting passages found in the collected Bible writings. On the other hand, the Bible reader can find sublime passages advocating peace, love of neighbor, freedom for all, and equality and dignity for women.
A vicious, vengeful God can be found alongside a kind, loving Heavenly Father God.
Added to the equations found in serious Bible study are all the problems of transmitting and translating of the texts over many centuries. Transmitting and translating always involves interpretation.
As a Baptist, I found a marvelous haven for argument at Garrett. Joyfully I discovered faculty members who were carrying on active arguments among themselves. I joined in the exercise.
I argued with professors; I argued with fellow students; I argued within myself; I joined in an argument with the Bible. The arguments were not contentious. They were respectful and required listening as well as talking.
In the process, I lost none of my allegiance either to my Lord Jesus or to the collection of Bible writings that I now know carry conflicted messages. I was greatly helped by my Baptist heritage that gives every believer the right, the privilege and the responsibility to read and interpret the Bible.
My Baptist tradition bows to no creed or hierarchical pronouncement. My ordination as an American Baptist clergyman did not call for me to embrace anyone’s orthodoxy.
It has now been 52 years since I graduated from Garrett. My greatest debt to Garrett is for the freedom that I found to argue with and about the Bible and about the issues that newly appear every day in the living of life.
I cherish my friends, who have joined me in thoughtful and meaningful argument. My greatest frustration is those who, for whatever reason, decide not to join in life giving exchanges.
In the process of my life journey, I have come to a basic insight about the book of writings that is so dear to me: THE BIBLE ITSELF IS AN ARGUMENT.
It carries an abundance of differing opinions. The arguments are not always easy to understand because they took place in ancient settings that will never again be duplicated.
The Bible as argument is difficult to accept. Understanding the various arguments and their contexts is a demanding discipline. The reader is challenged to be a careful listener to the conflicting points of view. Joining the argument as a full participant is unsettling.
Every parable that Jesus told should be read rightly as an argument about some aspect of life that faced his listeners. Often the teachings were arguments against cherished religious beliefs. Every saying that he spoke to his followers demanded of them life-changing decisions.
Jesus never sidestepped the arguments about the particulars of the blessed life. Neither should we, even if it means arguing with the Bible itself.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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