A post in the Christianity series.
The Bible, the source of all major teachings and writings defining Christianity, is a common tripping point for many people trying to understand the religion. The Bible contains such a myriad of lessons, stories, and situations that it can be difficult to know where to start or how to understand it. The very structure of the Bible has also often caused confusion and consternation when people take passages from different parts and try to compare and contrast them, leading to the oft-used argument that the Bible contains many contradictions.
It also doesn’t help when Christians themselves regularly misquote and misuse the Bible to justify their current religious, societal, and political stances, pushing a “Christian way” that is often anything but. Granted, this is not a new phenomenon. Misusing the teachings of Jesus started almost immediately after Jesus left the Earth, leading to writings in the New Testament already warning against such behavior.
So what, then, is the Bible? How are we supposed to read it and use it? People have spent entire careers studying the Bible, and disagreements on how to interpret the Bible have lasted for generations. As such I can only provide a brief, high level overview of my current views and thoughts on the matter and hopefully that will whet your appetite enough to do some digging yourself!
The writings in the Bible are old. The oldest date back to almost 1,000 BCE with the most recent writings showing up ~100 CE, making the Bible a collection of stories that are literally between two and three thousand years old. These dates aren’t just speculation or guesses. Through ancient manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as a myriad of archaelogical finds throughout modern history, we have a pretty clear picture of the general events of the ancient Middle East including many of the events, people, and places mentioned in the Bible.
I bring this up not to dismiss Biblical teaching as irrelevant in today’s day and age, but to try to set the stage and to serve as a warning when reading and interpreting the Bible. The authors of these books lived in times, societies, and cultures quite different from our own; therefore, when a passage is proving difficult to understand, one source of help should be the culture and society at the time in which said passage was written. We also need to take into account the type of writing. The Bible is not meant to or expected to be a strictly historical or scientific collection of writings. Our knowledge of ancient civilizations has shown us that accurately recording events was not often a high priority of many authors. Ancient writers often focused on a story, tale, or parable to get a point across. Likewise, internal consistency is not highly prized in these writings. For example, compare the creation story in Genesis 1 with the story in Genesis 2. In short, as with discussions of almost any event from any time or place, context matters. This is just as true when reading the Bible.
Now, diving into the actual content of the Bible, it’s important to understand that there are significant differences between the Old and New Testaments because they exist to tell different parts of the Christian story. Reading only one or the other will leave the reader without a full picture of the religion, and trying to treat one as the other will often lead to confusion.
The Old Testament can be viewed first and foremost as a history lesson. The books of this section of the Bible cover a significant chunk of time (multiple millennia) and tell the story of how we and this universe came to be, who God is, and why Jesus came to Earth to be crucified. Specifically, we read of the stories of the Israelites, how God regularly saved them from oppressors and slavery only to see them turn yet again to evil ways, forgetting God and ending up back under oppression and enslavement. No matter how hard the Israelites tried, they were unable to break this cycle. However, through all of this, the stage was set for the final solution that would allow all people to escape sin’s enslavement.
Even so, the Old Testament can be a tough read for many reasons. Throughout this thousand-year history lesson we see a God who is just and loving, yet angry, strict, and at times violent. God regularly tells the Israelites to wipe out entire peoples, and God Himself destroys entire cities and kills many, many people. Yet this show of power, anger, and strength is regularly contrasted with love and patience. No matter how hard the Israelites try to make their own way and abandon God, God never abandons them. If this is hard to accept, that’s perfectly undestandable. There are many writings and lamentations in the Old Testament (for example, many of the Psalms) where the author wrestles with the contrasting and conflicting ideas of loving and patient, yet strict, just, and at times quite violent.
From the story of Israel to the wisdom of Proverbs to the many prophets, all are lessons and preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ and the final solution to sin’s hold over mankind. With the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament ends and the New Testament begins.
The New Testament, then, is the conclusion and culmination of everything that happened and everything that was predicted throughout the Old Testament. With the birth of Jesus, His ministry and eventual death and resurrection, we see how His sacrifice finally breaks the endless cycle of sin that controlled the Israelites. More generally, the New Testament introduces a very sudden and complete reversal of the rules guiding how we are supposed to live. With Jesus’s death and resurrection, we are no longer beholden to the laws of Leviticus nor required to regularly attone for our sins with various sacrifices, because Jesus became that sacrifice for everyone who has or who ever will live.
This sudden change wasn’t easy to grasp back then and it still isn’t easy to grasp today, which is why the rest of the New Testament after the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) dedicate themselves to explaining how the rules have changed, how Jesus expects us to live, and overall how to live like Christ. Throughout the many letters in the New Testament we regularly see churches fall into many of the same traps we see today (falling to such emotions as pride and arrogance) as well as suggestions and recommendations on how to catch and fix such issues.
One example of the changes and one of the common “contradictions” that I hear mentioned in discussions about the Bible is the phrase “an eye for an eye”. When the Israelites were led out of Egypt in Exodus, God instructed them to take an eye for eye, tooth for tooth, … (also in Leviticus 24). Israel had been living in Egypt for many generations and ancient Egyptian culture was extremely violent. People were regularly killed or maimed for simple infractions such as theft and there was little rhyme or reason to many punishments. To help lead the Israelites to be their own society and God’s people, God gave them rules, guidelines, and regulations to help with that transition. These kind of cultural changes are very difficult and often take many generations to fully cement themselves. Thus, the call for “an eye for an eye”, or repay someone only and exactly what they did to you, is just a step of many towards becoming Godly people. Jesus, then, in his Sermon on the Mount took the next step and finally put the old laws to bed. Humanity was ready and, with Jesus’s death and resurrection, finally able to move forward in the path to Christian living.
So that is a very short overview of the Bible, or more specifically the way that I’ve learned to read and understand it. There are many valid life lessons in both the Old and New Testament, but it is important that when contradictions seem to arise, take a step back and evaluate each section in terms of location in the Bible, the cultural context, and overall message.