In the process of deconstructing a faith that conflicted in far too many ways with a 21st century scientific worldview, and coming back to a new Christian faith that didn’t force me to put my brain on the shelf, one question that continued to dog me had to do with how my view of the Bible would (should) change. After a couple years of asking some pretty hard questions, I’ve come to the view that I can still see it as divinely-inspired, and set apart from all other religious texts, even if whole passages clearly look like they were written by humans (this is where I left off in my previous blog-post). That I can still say I have “a high view of Scripture.”
Maybe you’ve asked the same kind of questions about the Bible that I did: If this book was intended for all people throughout all time, why would God work through a language that hardly anybody at that time spoke, not even for several millennia afterwards, and which very few people speak today? And crystallize that message within texts that most of the world would not see for well over a thousand years because they were superintended only by a select few people (Jewish priesthood) in a single location (the Temple), until the invention of the printing press made it even possible to distribute the message more diffusely (although even then those texts remained out of reach for most). How many people from how many civilizations around the globe would not receive that message, if God was only distributing it through the Hebrew publishing media? Why not use the universal language of that era as seems to have occurred when the New Testament texts were written in Greek and/or Latin, the lingua franca of the world for quite a while, and certainly the language spoken by the leaders and thinkers of society at that time (and to some extent still understood by learned members of society today)? Or give that message to different civilizations around the globe who would distribute it in their own language?
In looking for an answer to those questions, I resisted the approach usually taken by Christians: looking backwards and pointing to church tradition, or quoting the teachings of certain church fathers (no need for political correct speech here), or more often to the Apostle Paul himself (“All scripture is God-breathed …”). That’s circular logic: I’m not going to say “I know the Bible is God’s word because it tells me so.” Taking that approach, one will only inevitably end up following the same pattern of thinking, like falling into the ruts of a well-worn path.
Instead, I approached the question from the other direction: I went back to a time before those texts were written — to a time when we humans were just beginning to flex our theological muscles — and looked forward to see how we got to where we find ourselves now.
We’ve collected a lot of information that none of the original writers of any of the world’s religions — including the Apostle Paul and all the fathers of the Christian church — had access to. Mountains of data collected from very different sources and using a variety of different tools (bones and fossils; genes; stone tools and pottery; radiometric dating; archaeology), all of them telling a very cohesive story … and one that is very different than the ones written down by people groups all over the globe who had never seen a Neanderthal skeleton, or compared their own gene sequence to that of other animals. We have to pay attention to that new part of our history simply because it’s built on a mountain of well-documented facts.
So let’s go back to a time when Homo sapiens were just leaving Africa and pouring into Europe and Central Asia before taking the detour to the left (the Americas) or the one to the right (the Far East and Australia), where they would encounter their cousins, Neanderthals, Denisovans, and possibly other hominids that we don’t yet know about.
We’ve found ritual burials dating back a hundred thousand years ago, in which the bodies were carefully laid out and facing the east (toward the dawn? anticipating a new day?), and buried with tools, weapons, jewelry, and food (to equip them for the journey?). Clearly we had some kind of idea beginning to form in our heads about an afterlife.
We’ve found statues of gods, some of them dated sixty thousand years ago in places as far flung as Siberia. Clearly we were beginning to think about the Divine, and had started inventing all kinds of religions. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have any idea of what those religions looked like: religions require a lot of words to be articulated, and the skill of writing had not yet been invented.
We’ve found the ruins of temples and other structures all over the world — some of them dating ten or fifteen thousand years ago — that were clearly connected to some kind of religion. Temples scattered all over the Near East (Egypt; Turkey), the Far East (India; Thailand), Northern Europe (Stonehenge), and South America (Mayans and Aztecs). Along with those we start to find all kinds of texts describing the origins of that particular people group, as well as their perspective of what the Divine “looked like” and how to interact with the Divine.
The very oldest of those texts come from the Babylonians, Egyptians, Sumerians and Akkadians, and tell of an elaborate world of many gods. It’s only long after those religions came on the scene that we suddenly see a new kind of story: Hebrew texts describing a very different perspective — even if it clearly looks like some of the Hebrew authors borrowed heavily from the Babylonian and Egyptian ones — of a world created and ruled by a single God. And as the centuries continue, more and more people groups add their own books to the pile telling their understanding of who we are, how we got here, who the god(s) are and what they want from us.
That’s a unique characteristic of humans: to sense that there’s something bigger out there, and to want to interact with it. You might argue that that personality quirk is somehow encoded in our DNA; but that wouldn’t explain something I found to be unique about the Hebrew literature. More on that later.
Instead, I can see that urge as Divinely-inspired. God noticed this new life form that evolved on Earth, recognized something special in us — a hint of his “image” — and gently prodded us along. Began to stretch our minds with thoughts of immortality and morality. Philosophies and theologies that began to exercise our thinking about the bigger things in life … the existence and expectations of our Maker, right, wrong, justice, and, yes, the mundane task of day-to-day living. He got all kinds of people groups scattered all over the world asking questions and looking for answers.
We began to write down those thoughts, and compare notes …talking about these ideas as we sat around our metaphorical camp-fires. Those thoughts, conversations, and texts are divinely-inspired: motivated by a deep inner urge to find the Divine, nudged along by the Divine spirit, and include Divinely-given glimpses and sparks of insight. As the author of Ecclesiastes wrote: “He’s put eternity into the human heart.”
They also contained a lot of human ideas which distorted the emerging story, some worse so than others (this is essentially where I left off in my previous blog post). Christians are often quick to point out how other religions have gotten it all so wrong and should therefore flunk the class, but fail to remember the many mistakes … misinterpretations and misapplications … that we’ve made in our own journey.
Given that I see this huge pile of writings — growing higher and higher as the millennia go by, and coming from a collaboration between humans and the Divine — why do I give a special place to the Hebrew texts?
I see them describing the unique interactions that God had with a certain specific people group. Many centuries before there was a person named Jesus, those texts explicitly describe God telling Abraham that he was going to send someone who would make a tremendous impact on all people and all nations (read it for yourself if you don’t believe me … Genesis 12:1–3). This is an important point and deserves repeating: that promise was written down in the text long before the first century (and the oral tradition goes back millennia before that).
And so I envision a spot-light pointing a beam of light down the line of Abraham.
Then centuries later, but still centuries before there was any Jesus, God tells someone else — David — that this special person would be one of David’s descendants. So another spot-light gets flicked on, and intersects with that first one.
Yet other people describe Divine experiences which put spot-lights on Jerusalem, and on Bethlehem, and on a specific form of execution, and a variety of other details which pertain to a specific and remarkable event.
All these spotlights, coming from all different directions, but all converging at one place on earth, anticipate the arrival of someone different from all the rest … centuries before the Current Era.
This is unique from all the other religions and religious texts! Tell me if you think I’m wrong.
And then there’s a hush, as a few centuries go by without any distinct Divine revelations, the period of time between Malachi and Matthew. The Jewish audience is looking at the brightly lit spot at center stage, shifting their focus from this corner to that corner, thinking they’re seeing something happening. They start whispering to each other their strange thoughts and guesses about what they think is coming, much like the hype and buzz preceding the Oscars, giving us the Apocryphal books that were written during the time between the Old and New Testaments. They can see actors coming into view, but then exiting without seeming to do anything. Props being placed within the convergence of the spotlights, and then sometimes being removed again. The snare drums start rattling, building the tension.
Then, off in one corner, an actor makes an inconspicuous entry and suddenly steals center stage: he acts out a scene that completely revolutionizes religious thinking for literally thousands of years afterwards. That person made a lot of remarkable claims, one of which was that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), and gathered twelve other actors around him whom he also sent out “only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10: 5–20), before later recommissioning them to “go out into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).
This is where the Jewish texts separate themselves from all the other texts. Yes, they were written for Jews and by Jews … but they began with a promise to Abraham that the final chapter would be written for the whole world: “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” and then go on to try to puzzle together what the last chapter will look like. You just don’t find this kind of stuff in any of the other books of other religions from other people groups.
Sure, those texts … and the Christian ones that come out from them … are full of human errors. Strange ideas like how important it is that a woman’s hair not be too short, or a man’s too long. And a long list of other human silliness which I won’t get into here and now … this blog is already over my usual limit.
But they certainly also contain something distinctly Divine. And it’s our job to sift through those texts and ideas looking for the gold nuggets.
Tell me what you think …
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