Why and How Do We Read This “Good Book”?
I have sympathy for Marcion. He lived in the second century. Marcion thought the Old Testament, so-called, witnessed to a harsh and punitive God; apparently he never read the parts where the tenderness and faithfulness and love of God shine through. He put forth a radically edited scripture, and by so doing forced the church to decide which books to include. We owe Marcion a debt of gratitude, even though his views were judged unworthy. The church retained the Old Testament and Marcion’s excluded parts of the New Testament in the “canon,” the texts that measured up (“canon” means “ruler” in Greek).
Thomas Jefferson made a similar revision. Jefferson’s Bible omits the Old Testament and is a severely edited version of the New Testament that omits any reference to heaven or hell, angels or demons, or the divinity of Jesus.
In conversation while cycling a friend asks, “Why can’t we have an updated edition of the Bible?” His argument: suppose we unearth a text on engineering from two thousand years ago. We might find the information interesting or comical, but we would surely not follow it, since the principles have been long since refined. We would consult a contemporary engineering text for information.
Fair enough. Why do we adhere to a text two thousand plus years old, and what do we do with material we find outmoded or even inhumane by contemporary standards?
First, we accept the text because we church and synagogue people consider it in some way inspired by God; we believe it reveals timeless truth.
Second, because of this belief we accept the canon established by the early rabbis and theologians of Judaism and Christianity as regulatory. We come to terms with the whole Bible; we cannot simply make up our own short list. Neither Marcion nor Jefferson had that right as individuals.
Therefore, third, we make contemporary sense of the text through interpretation. Both Church and Synagogue have read the Bible historically and critically since the centuries when the canon was first established. Texts bound to a certain time have been set aside as irrelevant. This is our way of “updating.”
The legitimacy of certain books has been questioned. This is seen, in part, in the fluid manner books were accepted or rejected, depending on geographic region. The Book of Revelation was not accepted universally until the ninth century, doubtless because it lends itself to wild interpretation.
Fourth, the Bible most people knew, until the age of print, was whatever was read aloud in the church and, normally, interpreted through preaching. A collection of readings for Sundays and holy days called a “lectionary” was, and still is, heard in the church. A lectionary is used not to repress information but to stress what is centrally important: God’s quest for humanity out of love.
Today most people hear a judicious selection of texts chosen by the church or, in some cases, the pastor. This selection is the real, functional Bible for many people, and it always highlights certain chosen texts as important.
Lastly, Church and Synagogue are larger and more comprehensive than the Bible. They produced the Bible and they continue to interpret it. The life of faith includes the Bible but is not limited to it.
The Bible is not an engineering text. It is not a “how to” book; it is a record of benchmark historical encounters with God that continue to have relevance. For this reason we read and interpret its texts, and they are best understood within the context of the living community of faith that gave birth to them.
published 19 Nov 10