If you don’t believe the Bible literally, does that mean you must conclude that Christianity is based on biblical myth – literally fiction and stories passed down, generation to generation, from our ancient ancestors? That the only way to read the Bible is to read it metaphorically or metaphysically?
Absolutely not. There’s great history recounted in the Bible. But the Bible is more than just history. It is a book of faith written by people who had undergone a transforming spiritual experience or who believed they had “seen” their God at work in their history. By “transforming” I mean an inward turning-around: things/ideas/values that were not important to you now are; those that were of great significance now aren’t.
Biblical people tried, as best they could, to put that experience into words, just as I tried to tell the story of my own spiritual transformation in my book, How the Bible became the Bible (Chapter 9). Trying to tell that story, I learned that it is very difficult to verbalize or communicate deeply personal spiritual transformations. Regardless how I crafted, reshaped, and eventually reworked my verbiage, my soul still felt as if I had missed the mark.
At the same time I also know if I tell my wife: “Honey, I’ll love you ‘til the moon turns blue,” it doesn’t mean that I think the moon has turned blue before or will turn blue sometime in the future. It means I’ll love her forever. If someone were to find this note of mine four or five centuries from now, they would need to understand a little bit about the 21st century, a little bit about American culture and its many greeting card “festivals,” and a little bit about being a middle class professional in that culture in order to comprehend what I was trying to say to my wife. If they didn’t understand any of that, they could very well conclude I believed the moon had (or could) turn blue. So, why is it when we read statements like this in the Bible, we think we have to believe them literally? We understand poetry and song lyrics. These kinds of words evoke imagery – “… ‘til the moon turns blue.” It is the same with the Psalms, for example. Verses in the Book of Psalms were written as praises or songs to be recited, chanted, or sung at temple festivals. Why do we think their references (e.g., to angels) are more literally true than lyrics to one of our songs or poetic verses in a Hallmark greeting card?
So, what can be established as being literally true in the Bible? Speaking in the broadest of brushstrokes, I think we could conclude the following to be pretty accurate:
• The overall history and culture of the Patriarchs, most of which was recorded from Chapter Twelve to the end of the Book of Genesis. This is the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their culture, which is very similar to and very influenced by the Code of the Babylonian king, Hammurabi.
• A great deal of I-II Samuel and I Kings – stories about Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon – most of which was recorded by the Court Historian;
• Historical references, overall events, and cultural undertones in the Old Testament during the Schism between Israel and Judah and their independent exiles – Israel to Assyria and Judah to Babylon;
• Stories of Jesus’ teaching during his two-year ministry – especially his cynic-like one-liners and his many parables of the new, inner Kingdom of Heaven;
• Jesus execution in Jerusalem just prior to Passover;
• The general history of the times reflected in Paul’s original eight letters – I-II Thessalonians; Galatians, I-II Corinthians; Romans; Philemon, and Philippians.
“Okay,” you say. “I’ll buy that. But what about heaven and hell? What about the final destruction of the earth? What about the Virgin Birth? What about …?”
Good questions. Let’s take these major concerns one-by-one.
Heaven and Hell: Heaven and hell are here on earth, not just in the hereafter. If you have a loving relationship with God, as you understand God, while you’re physically alive – that relationship will continue after your physical death. That’s the message of Easter. If you don’t have a transforming relationship with a Higher Power while you’re alive, you won’t get it after you’re dead.
The Second Coming: The general consensus among scholars, both Christian and Jewish, leads us to conclude that virtually all the references to some form of final destruction refers to a final destruction of life as the audience knew and understood it. For example, many Jews, Christians, and Jewish-Christians all believed the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE was the beginning of the end of the world. The Jews believed it was a final punishment of God. Christians and Jewish-Christians believed it was the coming of the Lord Jesus, as predicted by the Apostle Paul, who thought it was just around the corner. So, he counseled people not to have sex, not to complete business transactions, and other admonitions. Theologically – not literally – it was the end. It was the end of the Jewish Temple-State of Jerusalem. It was the end of life as Jews, Christians, and Jewish-Christians knew and understood it at the time.
The Virgin Birth: The Virgin Birth became an important doctrinal belief as the derived Doctrine of Original Sin became more and more defined. Of course, there are always stories about the birth and childhood of any significant public figure. George Washington became the great Revolutionary General and our first President. As parents and teachers taught youngsters about him, especially after he had retired then died, stories about Washington’s youth began to grow – the cherry tree incident or the account of throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River (which is almost a mile wide at his plantation in Mount Vernon.) The same kind of phenomena occurred with Jesus, as well. There were stories. Many Jewish-Christian mothers tried to liken his birth to the birth of Moses. However, as the Doctrine of Original Sin was being hammered out several hundred years after Jesus’ death, the concept of the Virgin Birth took on a new significance. If Original Sin were true fact, then no person could be born naturally without being in Sin. Jesus could not be in Sin if he were to save us the way the theology was proclaiming. Therefore, he wasn’t born “naturally.”
It becomes important then to understand a little about the biblical culture, the authors, their audiences, and the events they were addressing. This lets us “see” the people of the Bible as real people. “Seeing” the people of the Bible as folks just like us allows Spirit to touch our hearts just as it did theirs.
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