Commentary: 5 things everyone should know about the Bible

By Kristin Swenson

The Free Lance-Star

Published: Friday, May 13 2011 5:53 p.m. MDT

Elder Florence Lawrence follows along in the reading of a Bible passage during a Seventh-day Adventist meeting in Salt Lake City.

Chuck Wing, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

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.)

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