Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

A year ago I read the Bible in 40 days.

At the end, I read it again (in the right order this time) at a much more sedate pace – more like six months. And now I've just read it again in five. (months – not days)

Sheesh - I remember when I used to think that once-through in a year sounded undoable. Wha' haaappened?

I guess what happened is, I became a bit addicted.

Y'see, much of that first 40-day sprint was necessarily spent reading many of the longer books in a single sitting each. Afterwards I found that to return to breaking them up again, especially the shorties, was harder than I'd expected. I tried telling myself that I'd strip each book across a week, Monday to Saturday, but I found that anything 16 chapters or less now felt much more doable in one go.

I'd also been trying to mix-up the different translations, so that where possible I was reading each book in a new wording, but this resulted in an OCD-ish feeling that I should really absorb the whole thing in each of those translations.

Consulting my notes I could see that the Good News and the NIV were going well, but I'd also made far too much progress with the Message and the CEV to leave them half-finished now.

So I kept on reading, and re-reading. Now I'm eyeing-up the God's Word version...

I saw Perry tonight and told him of my solitary year-long achievement, explaining that I needed to just tell someone about it. Perry's computer-like, and super-Holy, mind immediately furnished him with the response "So - you read nine chapters a day then?" Clearly, Perry retains even more Biblical stats than I do.

Over the past year, as well as switching between translations, I've varied things as much as possible in other ways, reading parts of it in my head, out loud, over the internet, quickly and slowly, but always making a point of comprehending it. I've also tried to read it in some sort of chronological order, because that forces me to think more about how it all fits together. I usually read all the footnotes, endnotes and cross-references too, which particularly with the CEV has resulted in a tremendous amount of revision.

Perhaps the most curious spin on motoring through it three times in a year though, has been that I've been fairly churchless for much of this season of my life.

And, perhaps unexpectedly, there's been something oddly liberating about reading it in that context. I've had the chance to take much of this in without other people shaping my interpretation it all the time. Don't get me wrong – I value a wealth of different opinions when it comes to studying the Bible, or most things for that matter, but reading it in a silence away from those other voices must surely help me to identify my own thoughts amongst those opinions. That's gotta be harder to do when some people might be telling you, purely for example, that Jesus' coming is foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament.

So, what do I think about the Bible now?

Well, first of all, I'm very careful about being 100% sure of anything. That tends to sound like arrogance and closed-mindedness to me. There have been issues in my heart this year which have wavered above and below the 50% mark on my scale of certainty. When I'm 51% sure that I have something figured-out, then that doesn't swing it for me. Partly because I'm still 49% unsure, but also because next week those figures might well have switched places.

It's important to maintain some uncertainty, otherwise what room is there for one's understanding to grow?

With that in mind then, here are a few of the uncertain questions that have emerged about the Bible for me this year. Again, you'll notice that I've used the phrase "uncertain questions" rather than "definite conclusions". Everything below this line falls within the context of this paragraph, which is here to make it clear that these are questions.

The Bible is a tough read, but the toughest part must surely be trying to separate the book from the millennia of opinions that now precede it.

Last year I was talking with a non-Christian couple. One of them said that the Old Testament had actually been written after the New Testament, and that that was how it was able to appear to foretell the events of the New Testament. The other said that the Old Testament contradicted the New Testament, because the character of God was different – wrathful in the OT but loving in the NT. Although they were both united in their rejection of it, neither guy nor gal seemed aware that they were also apparently disagreeing with each other over the reason why.

In my opinion, the Bible is basically a collection of documents regarding various different people's experiences of a being who claims to be the only God. Throughout history, men and women have reported seeing and conversing with a bright light, 'angels' and occassionally dead people. Others have claimed to have witnessed impossible events taking place, and / or claimed to know messages from God. The Bible collects together some of these accounts from throughout the millennia, together with some poetry and moral teaching.

Is the Bible written by God? There is nothing that I can currently see to suggest that it is. I think it's collaborative. God seems to like doing things together with us. I come to the book with the preconception that God guides many people's lives, often through the Bible, but without that preconception, the Bible barely makes that claim about itself, and it certainly doesn't claim to have been worded by him. Not even on the spine.

Is it true? Aside from some minor contradictions, I can't find a reason why it can't be. Sorry, double-negative, I think it is true. I choose to believe it's true, but my understanding of "truth" has expanded to allow for paraphrases, colloquial expressions, exaggerations and rounding of numbers. Just like the English language today.

I could write on this blog:

Earlier today I said "Now I am going to type-up my blog."

Nobody would take that to mean that I actually spoke those words out loud, because in fact the sentence communicates that I made the decision to do it. There are instances in the Bible when a crowd speaks, and I'm sure they didn't all chant the same words in unison, panto-style.

Similarly, when God is described as angry, it's hard not to suppose that this is the author of that bit asserting their take on events, and maybe composing words to paraphrase God's actions. What other perspective would an author have through which to understand God's drive, other than his / her own emotions?

To sum-up the God of the Old Testament as simply 'wrathful' is selective and misleading. There are instances of wrath, yes, to stop man's wrath, and make man nice again. There are instances of God being many other things as well.

By definition, God must be far more complex than we are. Unfortunately, we can only understand things that are simpler than we are. Hence, we describe God as not just simpler than he is, but simpler than we are.

Is the creation story actually true, or is it allegorical? I see no reason why it shouldn't be true, (another double-negative) it certainly makes no claim to be an allegory. If it were, we'd have to seriously consider if the rest of the Bible is allegorical, and as I understand it, many atheist historians would have problems with parts of that.

Yes, I believe the creation model, but mainly because I disbelieve the untempered, and mostly supposed, millions-of-years model. Everything changes, especially things that are alive. We're kidding ourselves if we think we can mathematically calculate events as long as 200 years ago, with no-one to corroborate if even one answer is correct. To base further calculations on unconfirmed results... well.

The creation story might well be wrong too. Jesus seemed to think the creation story was literal. (Mark 10:5-6) I swing that way too, by default, because I have fewer problems with that theory.

Do I think the Bible is infallible? What the heck does infallible mean? What a confusing word to use in this context. Who's writing these questions?

Do I think the Bible is "alive"? No. If it were, it would change.

Do I realise that it's been insidiously changed by evil monarchs and church leaders down the years?

Sorry, no. I've read it.

There are extremely minor differences between very early sources, but that's it. I consider editing and redaction to be a part of the writing process, I think all writers do. If you wanted to "control the masses" with this, I'm afraid you'd have to change so much, you'd need to give the whole thing a complete overhaul. Or begin again from scratch. In my opinion, this has so not happened.

In the Bible, the authorities, the church, and people who follow God are repeatedly portrayed as corrupt. No-one's ancestor was a good guy, no-one lived for thousands of years and no-one became a god. God's anger talks of having people eat their own children. You just wouldn't make those things up, or leave them in.

I do accept that Paul's letters are written by Paul, (just as this blog is written by me) and therefore have something of an agenda to them. In fact, I'd have to accept that every one of these books was written with an agenda. That's why we write books. That's why we speak. That's why we do everything we do. Perhaps an important question to ask is just what each individual author's agenda was? In Paul's case, he openly wrote to promote the church. And criticise it.

It was suggested to me tonight, (not by Perry) that some of the early historical books may well be by believers attempting to make some sense out of history, including seeking to understand why God had caused / allowed Israel's troubles, such as the exile. That sounds like a good theory to me. If that person was writing to make the case for God's existence, then the Bible is exactly where that book should be today.

Is it relevant to our lives today? Yes and no. Morality has changed a bit, but not much. Depending on how literal the translation is, many of the idioms are not used in modern English, and the local culture throughout sounds rather, erm, well, stupid. (sorry)

Coming to the Bible with my own set of preconceptions, I've found that it does prompt me to think rather a lot, and I honestly believe that's the point. Blindly following rules does usually remove any examination of morality. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and tried to get those people present to think about why. (Mark 3:4-5)

Is it a good read? No, it's a drag. It has its moments, but it's really not written to be enjoyed. These are simple historical accounts, including lots of very dull lists. Some of it is census results! :) There is some poetry in there, but English is obviously not its first language.

Very little of this flows like modern fiction. Bits of it, like Job and Esther, do. That might simply mean that they were written by someone who was better at telling history in an interesting way.

The main character is God, as everyone else dies sooner or later, obviously. Don't read this looking for a human hero to root for, because they almost always let you down, just like in real life. God is the hero, but the action is firmly on the humans.

Favourite book:
It keeps changing. It used to be Job. At the moment I think it’s Ezekiel, as it always seems to make a lot of sense to me.

Least favourite book:
The Song Of Songs. If there's a book I don't believe, it's this one.

In summary, the Bible is an uphill read.

If you have the preconception that it's fiction, then that's cool, but I wouldn't recommend ploughing through it, because it just won't deliver on those expectations. It's not simple enough. You'll probably be really, really bored. I'm sorry, but there it is.

If, on the other hand, you read it with the preconception that it is true, then the complexity of the real world fleshes it out enormously. Contradictions have exceptions that are not on the page.

If you just don't have an opinon whether it's true, then that's cool too.

I do encourage you to dive-in and see what you reckon though.

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4 comment(s):

At 3:18 pm, Anonymous Rhett said...

That was a gripping post! I definitely share some of your experiences though I'm not nearly as fast as you with the reading (in fact, since I'm currently half way through Isaiah on my quest to read the O.T. straight-through chronologicaly, that makes you six times faster than me, I think).

I find the lists as tiring as you, and I like lists. I didn't mind Song of Songs though, but I did find Job a little repetitive. My favourite two Old Testament books so far would be Genesis (come on, it's a classic) and Judges (it's like a surreal action film at times).

But I find the N.T. MUCH easier to read. If we didn't have an N.T. I don't think I would believe in this God, because the O.T. would not convince me.

I like reading Paul because his letters seem easy to apply to me, and he can be quite clear. And I like reading the Gospels cus they often sit in tension with what Paul says. The only N.T. book that I have to work myself up to read is Revelation.

Anyway, that was a good read.

At 12:24 pm, Blogger Steve Goble said...

Thanks. I can't argue with any of that.

I think you're right – Genesis is probably the most epic book in the whole Bible, if you can skip the lists! I find that reading the lists out loud makes them more interesting, because I need to engage more of my brain to pronounce it all.

BTW I just finished Judges in the God's Word translation on Saturday, and with reference to the discussion we had last year (on my review) about Jephthah sacrificing his daughter, I found this printed in the margin:

Some scholars believe that God would have hated such a sacrifice, so Jephthah probably dedicated his daughter to serve the LORD in some capacity in which she would not be allowed to get married.That's a pretty deep insight you've made about the OT not being so convincing without the NT. I have to agree. I think I find the OT more interesting, but only because of the perspective that the NT challenges it with.

At 3:24 pm, Blogger 98of1000 said...

A fantastic surmisal of the Bible there Steve, and some very level points made. I thought it was funny that you find you are 49/51 about stuff - I said to you after I'd read it I was 50/50 these days. Odd how our only written record of God's interaction with us leaves you divided.

Have to say my favourites (if you should have such a thing) are Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Proverbs as they are so true to life as I have experienced.

At 6:58 pm, Blogger Steve Goble said...

YES - Ecclesiastes! I don't know why I didn't think to cite that one. One of my favourites too.

I think it's good to be uncertain about some stuff. I think the act of writing something down almost always simpifies it. So if the Bible speaks on a topic, it's dangerous to try to force the complicated world to absolutely conform to that simplification.

But, y'know, I'm not 100% sure about that...



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