Recently I led discussion sections for a course on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and its role in the early development of Judaism and Christianity, to undergraduates at a private, secular university. Quite naturally, the course drew disproportionately on Jewish and Christian students, the majority of whom had encountered the Bible extensively in religious environments but had no experience at all with biblical scholarship.
At times my students would express dismay, even horror, at the information that was presented. One student wrote in a response paper about feeling betrayed, in spite of years of Hebrew School, for having never been taught that nowhere does the Bible say to separate milk and meat. Others foundered to learn that the “virgin who will conceive” in Isaiah 7:14 is not necessarily a virgin at all (and thus, there is little reason to force the passage into a Messianic interpretation). Some struggled with efforts to reconcile their belief in a loving God with God’s reported behavior, or fretted over evidence of polytheistic attitudes within Israelite religion(s).
In the final paper the students were asked to examine the role the Bible does and should play in determining public policy regarding a specific issue of their choice. Predictably, a good chunk of the papers dealt either with abortion or gay marriage, and it was clear to me that the students’ own views fell along both sides of the spectrum on both issues. Some students proof-texted the Bible to demonstrate abortion should be illegal, while others examined the same group of texts and reached opposite conclusions. And similar arguments appeared for and against gay marriage.
But by the end of the course, many students recognized this pattern. One wrote explicitly in his final paper that it seemed to him that everyone was using the Bible to reach conclusions they already held. (Gold star for his forehead!)
Given the frequently alien, thoroughly multivocal, often contradictory and sometimes unintelligible nature of the collection of texts we refer to as the “Bible” (from the Greek for “books,” plural), I seriously doubt, all cries of sola scriptura aside, that anyone today can claim a religion founded primarily on the biblical text. The book itself seems seriously ill-suited to pull the load to which we’ve harnessed it.
Fortunately, much of that load can be handily taken up by our cultural ideas about the Bible–the Bible as icon. After all, it’s not light reading (certainly not the KJV!), and it’s rather lengthy. Not to mention the fact that millennia of interpretive traditions have accrued in a variety of religious communities. So, while it is a massive bestseller of all time and perches prominently on many a living-room mantel, much of our (cultural) familiarity with it is heavily mediated through other sources.
Textual alchemy–doctoring up a passage until it fits with preconceived convictions–remains a constant temptation, for any who assign authority in one way or another to the biblical text. Of course, it would be fantastic to have access to a handbook or instruction manual descended directly from heaven, and penned personally by God. But it’s difficult to argue that the Bible constitutes that book (though many have made a valiant effort!). Certainly moral values can be extracted from its pages. But then one is left wondering what sets this book apart from any other collection of literature, from which one can equally find strategies to draw the conclusions one already holds dear.
As one of the centerpieces of our tradition, the Bible may not be the book we want, and it may not even be the book we need. It performs rather clumsily when pressed into service as a Book of Common Prayer or a catechism. And yet it is, nevertheless, richer and more fascinating than either of the former.
- 10 September 2006