Does having read the Bible mean you know the Bible? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
One step I’ve taken for dialogue with people of other faiths like Muslims or Mormons is to have read their religious works. Thus, I have read the Koran and I have read the BOM, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Book of Abraham. However, that does not mean that I will claim to know these books well, certainly not as well as the adherents of those who treat those books as divine revelation.
In other areas, one can read the plays of Shakespeare, such as Romeo and Juliet, and have a basic understanding of what is going on, but to get a substantial understanding, one really needs to study the culture of Shakespeare and the style of writing he used and the meaning of the words back then.
Richard Dawkins recently made a big deal about how many Christians don’t know their Bibles because they did not know the name of the first gospel in the NT. I agree that that is problematic, but let us suppose someone does know the name of the first gospel in the NT? So what? That does not prove that they know the gospel. That proves they can memorize.
N.T. Wright has issued a challenge in a lecture to encourage people to memorize the book of Ephesians verse by verse. Let us suppose that someone did do that. It does not matter if they are an atheist or a Christian. At the end of the process, even if they can quote the whole book verbatim, does that mean that they know the book?
Again, not really. They can know the words of the book, but that is not the same as knowing the content and what those words all mean. Scholars can spend their lives studying just one book of the Bible and still have much about that book that they do not know.
This, of course, does not mean that a simple message cannot be grasped by reading the book. One can read the book and understand that there is no longer a divide between Jew and Gentile and that our lives ought to be lived knowing that Christ has torn apart this wall of division.
To grasp the simple message is not the same as to grasp the deep message. I could tell you about the Brothers Karamazov since I have read the book, but that does not mean that I could tell you as much as a professor of Russian Literature could tell you about the book.
What many atheists have done is what I’ve done with the BOM and other works. They have read the works and assumed that because they’ve read them, that they thus have an understanding of them. In a sense, you do have an understanding of them, but it is not really a substantial understanding of them. Indeed, many Christians, far too many, lack a substantial understanding of their Bibles.
To really understand the Bible, one needs to study many areas. Just what are these and why do they matter?
First, studying the languages would be very helpful. We do have numerous references on Greek and Hebrew that can help the layman who has not learned them yet (And I freely confess I need to still find a good teacher of these languages for myself), but the most helpful way is to be able to read them yourself.
With knowing the languages, you have to know not only the word, but what the word meant to the author. For instance, we are often told that for the NT, faith meant to believe in something without evidence. The Greek word for faith is “pistis.” Is that what it means? What someone can do, and many have done this for us as well, is to do a word study of the word not just in the New Testament, but in other works. Did Aristotle use it? Did Seneca? Did Plato? Did the Jews at Qumran? Did the Septuagint? How else can we find this word being used?
If we come with our own definitions of what the word means, we are not only misrepresenting the author and making them say what they never meant to say, but we are in fact missing the true message that the author of the work in question wishes to convey.
Second, you need a study of history. In reading the gospels, we read about Pharisees and Sadducees. They do not show up anywhere in the Old Testament. Who were these groups? Did they just come out of nowhere? What was going on in Israel at the time? What was the relation to Rome? Did the Jews coming out of exile have anything to say about what was going on?
Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. What did this mean? Were there other Messianic claimants? How did the idea of the Messiah fit into the history of the Jews? When Jesus made the claim to them, what would they think about him in relation to the presence of Rome at the time?
When Paul is writing his epistles, what is going on? When he says “Jesus is Lord” is he just having an old-fashioned revival service where we just shout “Praise the Lord!” or is he in fact making a direct challenge where he is saying “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not!”?
Third, you need to know about the landscape at the time. Paul wrote to Philippi, a Roman colony at the time. Does it make a difference when he writes and tells them that their citizenship is in Heaven, especially in light of the fact that all of them would have been citizens of Rome?
Fourth, you need to know about the surrounding culture? What was the big deal about honor in the world of Jesus and the New Testament? When the Old Testament talks about slavery, how did that work in the culture back then? Does it matter that there was not a grocery store just down the street for every one?
What about the Old Testament Law with this? Why would God give a darn about tattoos? Are we supposed to put up railings around our roof? If we say we believe in “Do not murder” but do not believe in “Do not wear mixed fabrics” are we just being arbitrary?
Fifth, you need to study hermeneutics. What is the way the text is to be interpreted? When Jesus tells us that we are to hate our father and mother, is this to be taken literally or not? When the proverbs are read, are these ironclad or just generalities? When Jesus tells about the calamities of Matthew 24, are these to be read literally or not? How are we to understand what the text means?
Sixth, with that text, you need to understand textual criticism. How did we get the Bible that we have today? What role did oral tradition play in it? How was the Old Testament passed down to us? How is it that the New Testament has been passed down to us? Can we really trust that the text was copied accurately?
Seventh, you need to understand post-NT history. What was going on at Nicea? Who were the Early Church Fathers? Has the Reformation shaped our understanding of the culture? Are we reading the Trinity into the Bible or out of the Bible? (For the record, we read it out)
Eighth, you need to study theology. What is the doctrine of God in Christian thinking? Does the Trinity really teach that God is one person and three persons, or is it something really quite different? What does it mean when we say God is omnipotent? If we say God is impassible, what does it mean and does it really make a difference?
Ninth, you must be well-read in what real scholars are saying. Of course, Christians can feel free to read devotional literature. We should be discerning in what we read. There is no doubt good application to much of what the Bible says, but we want to make sure that application is faithful to the text. Devotional material needs to be rooted in scholarly understanding.
When we read a text that is puzzling, we not only wrestle with it ourselves, but we also see what other great minds said about it. Perhaps a Calvinist could be helped by reading what an Arminian like Wesley said about a text. Perhaps a Preterist could be helped by reading what a Dispensationalist like Darby said about the text. We need to be open to reading other thinkers who came before us and interacted with the text. We Christians should not be so arrogant, as I believe Spurgeon said, to believe that we are the only ones the Holy Spirit has ever shared truth with.
The man of the book will be a man of many books. The Bible has a message that is simple in some ways. However, it is also a complex book and one does not fully understand it just by reading on one’s own or getting even a basic understanding in the text through Sunday School or other such means.
Please note also that at this point, I am not even telling anyone to agree with the Bible. You can understand the Bible and still think it is wrong. I would disagree, but it can improve our discussion if we find out that those we dialogue with have really understood the text.
With the Reason Rally coming up, what I expect is simply argument from outrage with new atheists taking passages they do not understand and arguing about them. As it stands, I already in a place I dialogue at have seen arguments concerning Elisha and the two bears, a woefully misunderstood story. Note that saying there is something in the Bible you do not like is not the same as saying it is false. I do not like being told I am a sinner and that my way is not always the best way, but it is there in the Bible and I learn to accept it.
Hopefully, a number of atheists will be willing to do their homework and go get some books by evangelical scholars on studying the text. Atheists have long wanted Christians to study evolution before criticizing it. I agree. I would not be qualified to criticize evolution even if I had read the entirety of the Origin of Species. That would be just a start. I’d need to hunker down and really study the subject matter in much the same way.
Will atheists do the same? I’m skeptical, but we can hope.