Saturday, June 02, 2007

Summary Reflections on Bible Exploration

I've come to the end of my Bible Exploration series. I thought it would be useful (for me at least!) to summarize the key insights.

Many of my friends ask me why I even bothered to address the Bible. My response is that, although my thinking on things theological has evolved greatly in recent years, I still want to have a spiritual dimension to my life. For me, having grown up in the Christian tradition, I envision exploring that spiritual dimension with a Christian bias (although not with the fundamentalist perspectives I was indoctrinated with). As such, I need to be able to "fit in" the critical components of Christianity (i.e. God, Jesus, Bible, etc.) in a way that makes sense for me. So this is my attempt to explain how I see the Bible as being a potentially relevant source of thinking for that spritual dimension I seek.

Here are the key insights from this series of blog entries:

Bible Beliefs
  • The Bible is a human product, containing human words...not the very words of God.
  • It should not be read literally...but there are strong metaphorical messages that contain wisdom we can learn from.
  • Within the context of the previous two points, Christians should understand the Bible as it is the foundational document for Christians, since it captures the experiences of the ancient Israel community and the early Christian community and their responses to God and Jesus, which is important within the Christian religion.
  • For Christians, the Bible can be a mediator to God, as it discloses elements of God's character as interpreted through the Christian tradition.

How the Bible Became a Book

  • There are MANY examples of the Bible being is not the inerrant words of God.
  • The Biblical texts were initially communicated through oral tradition (for tens of years) before they were written down...wording and specifics would have clearly been altered during this process. In terms of the original texts, we don't have them or even copies of copies of copies of the original texts.
  • The texts themselves were copied by hand for hundreds of years...with mistakes and edits happening along the way.
  • The determination of what texts should be in the Bible was made by a variety of church leaders over time...with great debate.

A New Way of Reading/Seeing the Bible

  • When reading the Bible, we should take a "historical-metaphorical" approach, asking "What did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?" and "What does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical factuality?"

Revisiting the Creation Stories

  • The creation stories were written in the 500s BCE, during or shortly after the Jewish exile into Babylon. Some suggest that key elements of the stories were used to emphasize Jewish beliefs...importance of the sabbath to the Jews of the day (as opposed to creation stories starting the sabbath ritual); and an assertion that the God of Israel is the creator and lord of heaven and earth as compared with Babylon and its gods (with whom the Jews were obviously not very happy at that point in time!).
  • The historical understanding of the universe is important context...Ancient Israelites thought of the earth as the centre of the universe and above the earth was the "dome of the sky" with water being above the dome (hence the falling of rain and snow). Thus, the description of creation (e.g. separating the waters so that dry land is below the sky, etc.) reflects their understanding of the nature of the universe.
  • The figurative nature of the creation stories can be seen even through the names of Adam (which comes from the Hebrew word adham meaning "humankind" and coming from the Hebrew word adhamah meaning "ground" or "dust") and Eve (which means "mother of all living").
  • Key metaphorical messages that may make these stories useful or relevant for Christians today include the following propositions: (1) God is the source of everything that is; (2) humans are the climax of creation but at the same time we are small, finite, mortal.
  • Finally, these creation stories set up the rest of the Bible which is, to a large extent, the Christian tradition's story of humankind's state of affairs: the human predicament and the Christian solution.

Plowing through the Pentateuch

  • The Pentateuch captures the story of the "beginning of Israel" as a nation and a people. Its main components include stories about Abraham and his family; Moses and the Jewish exodus from Egypt; Sinai, the covenant and the laws; and the journey through the wilderness.
  • The overarching theme throughout the Pentateuch is "promise and fulfillment". God promises Abraham that he will make of him a great nation. The rest of the story of the Pentateuch is the story of fulfillment of this promise...from slavery to the exodus and to the promised land.
  • While the Jewish exodus likely happened in the 13th century BCE, the completed Pentateuch was not likely written until around the Jewish exile in Babylon in the 500s BCE. At the time of writing (i.e. during the exile), the promise of God that the Jews would be "a great nation" seemed profoundly threatened again, as did their very existence. In this setting, they remembered and celebrated the promise given to their ancestors, the stories of Israel's liberation from a previous imperial power, and the gift of a new land and a new life.
  • In addition, the Pentateuch is Israel's story of radical protest against and liberation from the way Egypt and Pharoah governed human society at the time which included economic exploitation, political oppression and religious legitimation. In that context, the laws in the Pentateuch were written to prevent the emergence of a permanently impoverished class within Israel (i.e. for use in their world several thousand years ago as opposed to for Christians today).
  • The metaphorical interpretation and usefulness of the Pentateuch for today's Christian would be an underlying message that in spite of life's threats and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, when birth and rebirth seem impossible, when powers of empires seem to rule the in a manner that mirrors God's nature will enable us to make it through - living fully, loving unconditionally, being all we can be.

New Perspectives on the Prophets

  • Historical context is crucial if one is to understand these books. These books narrate the history of Israel from the time of occupation of the promised land until the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. During that time, Israel lived as a "tribal confederacy" with no centralized government. Then, around 1000 BCE, a monarchy was put in place with kings like Saul, David and Solomon. When Solomon died in 922 BCE, the united kingdom split into 2 parts: Israel and Judah. Israel lasted until 722 BCE when it was conquered and destroyed by the Assyrian kingdom. Judah lasted until 586 BCE when it was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian empire. Some of Judah's survivors were exiled to Babylon for about 50 years, at which time they were allowed to return to Judah to begin rebuilding their ruined country. So the prophets are writing some 500 years after the exodus, during the time of the split of the kingdom, destruction of the kingdoms, exile and return. It is also important to recognize that during this time period, Israel and Judah had essentially become miniature versions of the ancient domination system that had enslaved their ancestors in Egypt. The victims (the majority of the population) were Israelites, of course, but now the elites at the top were also Israelites...Egypt had been established in Israel.
  • In that context, criticism of the reality of Israel's and Judah's social situation is the core of what the prophets were addressing in these they believed that this could not be the will of God who had liberated Israel from similar bondage in Egypt. In essence, they expressed a passion for social justice and had an anti-establishment message...and added warnings of consequences if the societies didn't take peace and justice seriously.
  • In that context, it also becomes clear that the prophets weren't foretelling Jesus' story as is commonly thought (instead, because the New Testament authors were Jewish and knew the Hebrew Bible well, they echoed the words of the Hebrew Bible in telling Jesus' story, in order to show continuity between Jesus and the tradition out of which they came, making it seem as though the prophets were foretelling Jesus' story).
  • For Christians today, the message of many of the prophets words can still have metaphorical meaning - it can be relevant to the victims and exiles of the domination systems of our time, proclaiming that our identify, value and worth are not grounded in the culture of the day, but in God's regard. The message of the prophets can affirm that God's character, will and justice are different from the justice of oppressive social orders and the solution for exiles of today's world is also a journey of return...a way or path through the wilderness...with the destination being a return to life mirroring God's will.

Gaining Wisdom from the Wisdom Books

  • These books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job) were believed to have been written in the post-exile timeframe...between 500BCE to 300 BCE timeframe.
  • Proverbs generally affirms "Follow this way, and your life will go well."...essentially a book of conventional wisdom (i.e. cultural wisdom, community wisdom, folk wisdom, "what everybody knows", etc.).
  • Ecclesiastes questions conventional wisdom by claiming that the things of life (e.g. wisdom, power, fame, wealth, etc.) do not satisfy and then goes on to establish that bad things happen to good people through no fault of their own. It also emphasizes death...its utter inevitability and randomness...and the fact that there is nothing we can do about it, so we should "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die".
  • In Job, we encounter a story about a righteous man who endures much suffering. His friends try to share conventional wisdom to him to explain his suffering, but Job dismisses that wisdom as worthless. In the end, Job has a discussion with God which also provided him with no answers or explanations for his suffering. The experience, though, did convince him that God is real in spite of our ability to see fairness in the world. Some think that Job wasn't written to address the question "Why do the righteous suffer?" but instead to illustrate a point that God should be seen not as a means but as the ultimate end (that is, religion unmotivated by self-interest).
  • For today's Christian, the wisdom books provide an interesting contrast between secondhand religion (i.e. religion learned from others...Proverbs) and firsthand religion (i.e. religion that flows from the firsthand experience of God...Ecclesiastes and Job). The books also provide a contrast between conventional wisdom and wisdom that is based more on randomness, chance and inevitability.

The Evolving Stories of the Gospels

  • The earliest is almost certainly Mark and the latest is John. The gospels are the product of a developing Christian tradition during the decades following Jesus' death...containing history remembered and history metaphorized.
  • Mark was a wartime gospel, and, as such, Mark emphasizes things like Jesus' suffering, warnings that followers of Jesus would suffer, and the promise of rewards to those who endured without losing their faith. Mark's theme seems to be focused around the "way"...that is, a way of return from exile (where the community found itself at wartime) which focused on dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being.
  • Matthew was written about 10-20 years after Mark. Matthew uses 90% of Mark and adds some material from Q as well as some "original" material to evolve the story of Jesus. Matthew was written at a time when Christian Jews were in conflict with other Jews, so Matthew tries to assert that Christian Jews are faithful to the traditions of Israel...he does this by quoting the Hebrew Bible, drawing parallels to the Hebrew Bible and quoting Hebrew scripture.
  • Luke was also written about 10-20 years after Mark and uses a lot of Mark and Q. But to evolve the story, he also adds a lot of "original" content as well. When Luke was written, Christianity had become a much more Gentile movement so he wanted to show Christianity projected to the whole world - both Jew and Gentile. Luke also has a repeated emphasis on the Spirit of God.
  • John was written about 60-70 years after Jesus's death. John is the most symbolic of the gospels and if you don't try to force yourself to read John literally, you'll find that it is a remarkable book that summarizes how the Christian movement came to understand Jesus...that is, through Jesus you can know what God is like.
  • The gospel stories clearly evolve from the first gospel (Mark) to the remaining gospels (e.g. virgin birth idea, resurrection stories, etc.). Matthew and Luke took Mark's writings and morphed them to meet their needs (i.e. Matthew's need to justify his belief in Jesus as being in line with Judaism; Luke's desire to move Christianity to a movement for Gentile and Jew and to emphasize the spirit). John takes the gospels to their next evolution... a more direct link between Jesus and God.
  • For Christians today, the gospels tell the story of Jesus, through whom we can see what a life full of God looks fully, loving wastefully, and having the courage to be all that you can possibly be.

A Primer on Paul's Writings

  • Paul's letters were the way he kept in touch with the Christian communities he had helped start once he had moved on. Often, Paul's letters are responses to letters he would have received from a community. Thus, it is important to recognize that the letters were not intended to be a summary of his message, but more specifically dealing with issues arising in his communities. In fact, the agenda for Paul's letters was set more by the communities than by Paul...he deals with specific issues raised by them.
  • For today's Christians, Paul's themes included: (1) Jesus is Lord (i.e. he showed what a life full of God looks like and, as such, is Lord...and Caesar is not); (2) Being "In Christ" (i.e. characterized by things like freedom, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control); (3) Justification by Grace (i.e. you don't have to be Jew or live a certain way...justification by grace is the basis for anyone's relationship to is a gift of God, not a human accomplishment); and (4) Christ Crucified (i.e. this represents various messages including Christ was physically crucified; an indictment of the rulers of the age who crucified Christ; a revelation of God's love for us; and a symbol of the path of transformation).

Revelations from Revelation

  • Revelation was written for specific Christian communities in Asia Minor (about the events that the author thinks will happen in his own time) as opposed to being a message for people thousands of years later. In this context, key messages were: (1) Despite appearances to the contrary, Christ is Lord and Caesar and the beast are not; (2) God will soon act to overthrow the rule of the beast and its incarnation in Caesar; and (3) Therefore, persevere, endure, be confident, take hear, have faith.
  • For today's Christians, there are various themes that can be seen in Revelation: (1) Tale of Two Lordships (i.e. the honor and praise demanded by Caesar is offered to God and Jesus instead); (2) Ancient Cosmic Combat Myth (i.e. story of cosmic conflict between good and evil that has been used in many cultures throughout human history); (3) Revelation and Empire (i.e. Rome won't bring peace as it claims...instead Jesus is the light of the world who can bring peace on Earth); (4) Indictment of the Roman Empire (i.e. Revelation personifies Rome as "the great whore" and a ferocious beast, and claims the fact that the economic exploitation will end); (5) Tale of Two Cities (i.e. city of Rome will fall to the kingdom of God...the "New Jerusalem").

Revelations from Revelation

Revelation is the last book in the Bible...although it wasn't the last book to be written, nor did the author know it would be positioned as the "conclusion" to the Christian Bible. It was placed at the end due to its subject matter...that is, "the end". It is interesting to note that Revelation almost failed to "make it into" the was reluctantly accepted in the Greek speaking Eastern church, listed by Eusebius as a disputed book, omitted from canonical book lists made by early church fathers, given secondary stature by Luther, and largely ignored by Calvin.

The book is an apocalypse. Apocalyptic writings flourished in Judaism from about 200 BCE to 100 CE. It was written in the last first century by a man named John. As many as 65% of the verses in Revelation echo or allude to passages from the Hebrew Bible. The book starts with a vision...and this continues throughout ("I saw" is used about 55 times)...using imagery, allusions to the Hebrew Bible, symbolic numbers, etc.

There are 2 ways of reading Revelation:
  • The Futurist Interpretation - the central claim of this way of reading Revelation is simple: it tells us about what will happen some time in the future. This is how most Christians read Revelation.
  • The Past-Historical Interpretation - this approach is based on a belief that we understand the message of Revelation only by setting the test in the historical context within which it was written - that is, emphasizing what Revelation would have meant in the past. This approach sees Revelation as a message to the specific Christian communities in Asia Minor (as referred to at the beginning of Revelation) as opposed to a message for people thousands of years later. The author seems to think the events will happen in his own time as well (he uses phrases like "what must soon take place", "for the time is near", "soon")...and while modern Christians try to overlay "God's time perspective" on these statements, the original hearers of Revelation would not have had that thought. There is also compelling evidence that the author was writing about realities of his own day (e.g. clear allusions to the Roman empire). In this context, key messages were: (1) Despite appearances to the contrary, Christ is Lord and Caesar and the beast are not; (2) God will soon act to overthrow the rule of the beast and its incarnation in Caesar; and (3) Therefore, persevere, endure, be confident, take hear, have faith. Taking this approach recognizes that the Roman Empire did not fall for another 300 years and Jesus did not return accepts that the Bible is a human product, not a divine product without error.

But Revelation is more than mistaken prediction...its larger themes are of interest:

  • Tale of Two Lordships - Roman emperors were given divine titles (e.g. son of God, lord, god, etc.) and there was religious legitimation to the rule of the empire and Caesar. Against this context, John in Revelation proclaims exclusive lordship of God and God as known in Jesus. The honor and praise demanded by Caesar is offered to God and Jesus instead. In summary, Jesus is Lord; Caesar is not.

  • The Ancient Cosmic Combat Myth - this plot is a story of cosmic conflict between good and evil, and has been used in many cultures throughout human history (e.g. in ancient writings, conflicts between the god of light and evil power of darkness, witht he evil power often imaged as a dragon or sea monster; in ancient Near East, stories of god killing the evil seven-headed monster; in postbiblical time, archangel Michael warring with the dragon; and we could keep going up to things like Star Wars with its depiction of good versus evil). John uses similar references in his story.

  • Revelation and Empire - there are remarkable similarities between Revelation and the story of Apollo's birth (from Greco-Roman culture)...when Apollos was born, the ancient monster looked to devour the infant, but Apollo was kept safe and went on to kill the monster. John seems to use that story. By identifying the dragon, he refers to the Roman Empire. Instead of Caesar and the Roman Empire being Apollo, Jesus takes that role and they become the dragon, the beast, the ancient serpant. Rome won't bring peace as it claims...instead Jesus is the light of the world who can bring peace on Earth.

  • Indictment of the Roman Empire - the ancient domination system included political oppression, economic exploitation and religious legitimation...elites of power and wealth controlled societies in their own interests and declared the order they imposed to be the will of God. In Revelation, John refers to all of these features. John personifies Rome as "the great whore" and ferocious beast...seducing, bewitching, claiming religious legitimation, and then ruling through intimidation and violence. In describing "the great whore", John describes the luxury of the empire (e.g. fine linen, gold, jewels, pearls, etc.), including slaves and human lives...and the fact that the economic exploitation will end.

  • Tale of Two Cities - the city of Rome will fall to the kingdom of God...the "New Jerusalem".

So in Revelation, we see an affirmation of the sovereignty and justice of God, and radical criticism of an oppressive domination system pretending to be the will of God. John's vision of the "New Jerusalem" may be the primary reason this book made it into the Bible. It speaks of the reunion of God with humankind, thereby overcoming the exile that began in Eden...there we will see God. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful ending to the Bible.

Note: the bulk of the above has been extracted from Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.