RICHMOND, Va. — Some weeks ago, I floated a list to online readers of five things that I think everyone should know about the Bible. The items seemed to me at the time to be quite innocuous — important but not earth-shattering or even particularly challenging.
As a matter of fact, while I promised that they would change the way readers look at the Good Book, I apologized for their banality — likening them to clunky corrective eyewear rather than sexy kitten glasses.
Yet within a few days, more than 4,000 people had commented on the post. The spirited response reminded me that as much as I treasure them, paradox and mystery — the stuff of Easter after all — can be off-putting and even threatening. Back to that in a minute. Here's my list for everyone, no matter what a person believes and no matter what their personal history with the Bible is. See what you think:
1. Every Bible is actually a collection of books. The word itself means something like "little library." Many of the Bible's books developed over a long period of time and include the input of a lot of people (ancient Israelites, Babylonian Jews and Greek pastors, to name a few), reflecting particular places (urban Jerusalem, the northern Galilee, rural Judah, and ancient Persia, for example) and times (spanning as much as a thousand years for the Old Testament and a couple of centuries for the New Testament). Plus, the collection as a whole developed over centuries. This helps to explain the tremendous variety of theological perspectives, literary styles and sometimes perplexing preoccupations (which animal parts go to which parties in which categories of sacrifices, for example) as well as why some texts disagree with others.
2. Not everyone who believes in it has the same Bible. There are actually different bibles, though they all started with Jews (but before Judaism, per se). The Christian bible includes and depends upon the Jewish bible — the Protestant Christian Old Testament is composed of the same books as the Jewish Hebrew Bible, arranged in a different order; and non-Protestant Christians include a few more books and parts of books (which also originated in Jewish circles) in their Old Testaments. The books of the Christian New Testament reflect the process of Jesus' followers gradually distinguishing themselves from his religion, Judaism.
3. The Bible came after the literature it comprises. In other words, the material that became biblical wasn't written in order to be part of a Bible. This helps to explain the existence of a book of erotic love poetry (Song of Songs), one that doesn't mention God (Esther), another of intimate personal correspondence (Paul's letter to Philemon), and maybe why none of it was written by Jesus. The biblical texts are not disinterested reporting of objective facts but come from people of faith informed by particular beliefs.
4. If you're reading the Bible in English, you're reading a translation. With the exception of a small minority of Aramaic texts, the books of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible were all written in Hebrew. The books of the New Testament were written in Greek. Every translation is by nature interpretation. If you've ever studied a foreign language, you know that it's impossible to convert exactly and for all time the literature or speech of any given language into another. A translator has to make choices. There are often several ways to render the original text, and changes in English affect the meaning we read as well.
5. Finally, this information about the Bible is compatible with belief in it. A person can simultaneously accept these truths about the Bible and the Bible as the Word of God. Doing so may require recalibrating assumptions, though, to allow for the possibility that God patiently works through people and time, enjoys a good debate, and prefers inviting conversation over issuing absolutes. (Even the Ten Commandments, which would seem to be as absolute as anything, show up in two places in the Bible, and with some differences.)
And that's it. Turns out, as pedantic as these points seemed to be to me at the time, they poke at a sore place in our collective psyche — the place where powerful truths felt and deeply known through the media of beauty, of story, and poetry abrade our sense of what is factual, authoritative and indisputable. While I'm delighted that most people found the list helpful, I was especially intrigued by what got people riled up about it. Some people were angry that I would include No. 5 in what they otherwise (happily) understood to be a list undermining the Bible's authority for believers. Other people couldn't abide the notion that God's Word might have such an earth-bound history and were quick to defend its radical uniqueness. Still others thought it just went to show that human effort is inappropriate — only the Holy Spirit can make sense of it for you.
Paradox and mystery disturb. There's something in us that desires straightforward and immutable answers, and that cuts both ways for people vis-a-vis the Bible. Some non-believers see the Bible's dislocations and disjunctions, its disagreements between texts and even about God as illustration of the Bible's unworthiness — that it is undeserving of the authority that religious communities afford it. Meanwhile, some believers endure torturous literary and theological gymnastics to get the texts to conform to a single message that they can then apply directly to their lives. Neither appreciates a third option.
Maybe what is sacred and authoritative speaks in the spaces of our disagreements and in the honest questions that come from wrestling with what's really there — the hard, ugly and troubling texts as well as the beautiful and comforting ones. Maybe the Bible's earth-bounded-ness as a product of real human beings wrestling with ideas about God, purpose and place in the nitty-gritty experiences of their lives is the very thing that makes it holy.
I concluded the original essay with this: "The Bible's endurance is astonishing. Knowing the few bits of information provided here, as plain as they may seem, makes it possible to make sense of the Bible — its uses and abuses — for yourself. But this information is more than a starting point. It's also a companion along the way, enabling new insights, providing correctives, and allowing space for the dynamism of your own ideas and learning." Maybe a particular value of this collection of ancient texts is how it demands that we think for ourselves rather than treat each text, no matter its historical background or literary context, as some edict from on high.
There are four — count them, four — different biographies of Jesus, and they do not even entirely agree about Easter. The earliest gospel, composed nearly 40 years after Jesus' death, originally ended with the sole witnesses of the resurrection telling no one because they were afraid. Yet — paradox and mystery — what a powerful story it's become.
Kristin Swenson (kswensonvcu.edu) is the author of "Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time." She is a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. She wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.