How to read the Bible Safely

And Sarah laughed.

God told Abraham that his wife Sarah would become pregnant and give birth to a healthy son.

And Sarah laughed. She knew she was too old to convene and give birth.

And God laughed right along. Because he knew that was exactly what would happen. And according to scripture, God was right.

So how do we read this story? Before we can answer that question, we have to answer three fundamental questions:

  1. Why do we read the Bible?
  2. How can we read the Bible safely, so we don’t end up misunderstanding and misusing scripture?
  3. What should we bear in mind as we read scripture?

So let’s begin.

Big Question #1: Why do we read the Bible?

Ours is a God of Words. As in “God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Reading scripture is reading the words some used to describe their experience of hearing God. Thinking and talking about scripture is one way we can interact with God. Remember, God made us because God was, well, lonely. And through his Prophet Micah we are called to walk humbly with our God. Reading and wondering about scripture is how we can wrestle with God’s angles.

The danger comes in human hubris. Some people think they know exactly what God wants us to do. They don’t: only God knows exactly what God wants us to do. With enough human arrogance, you can convince yourself you – and only you – know what God wants us to do. People have been burned at the stake because they didn’t accept what the way one patriarch or another saw God’s will. Wars have been fought. Nations have been ravaged. So reading scripture safely requires some care.

Biq Question #2: How can we read the Bible safely?

Good question! Here are Fr. Tom’s 7 Points for Reading the Bible safely:

  1. Read the Bible to wrestle with angels – not to win an argument or score a point.
  2. Remember you are not God. What God says is by definition beyond our understating. If we could understand what God says completely we would be God. We’re not, so don’t play God. That means we can’t be 100 percent sure we are right. Which is why we should not use civil law to force others to abide by our understanding of the Bible.
  3. Study the context: the Bible covers almost 2,000 years. A lot has changed in that time. God is unchanging. But our ability to relate to God has changed. We don’t hear these stories as a nomadic people huddled around the campfire in the dark of night. Science and scientific methods can help us better understand
  4. Learn the lesson God is trying to teach us. The story of Joshua winning the Battle of Jericho is intended to show how God’s power can help us overcome great opposition. The scientific finding that the walls of Jericho were in ruins before Joshua was born is not relevant.
  5. Don’t sweat the inconsistencies. Genesis has two creation stories. We know the Book of Genesis was edited and revised, perhaps with a rule that you couldn’t delete but you could add. Faced with two different creation stories, the editors apparently decided to use both. Because each story shows us a unique perspective of this myth.
  6. Don’t get caught up in thinking scripture is a history or a science book. Science tells us the earth was created millions and millions of years ago. But if you misread the Bible as a science book you can twist God’s word to ‘prove’ the earth is at most 10,000 years old. I believe in aeronautical science when I fly in an airplane. I believe in the science of physics every time I cross the street. When I am sick I believe in medical science. But in matters of the spirit, I believe in the God I find in scripture. And I don’t see any conflict between faith and the science we use to study and live in the real world: that would be like saying the cantaloupe and watermelon in my fruit salad are in conflict with each other.
  7. Remember: Sarah laughed.

Big Question #3: What should we bear in mind as we read scripture?

We could spend a lifetime answering this third question. Instead, here’s an overview of what we need to bear in mind when reading scripture:

  1. We do not have a ‘first draft’ or ‘official copy’ of any Book of the Bible. We don’t even have the original scrolls. All we have are copies of copies of copies of copies of copies.
  2. The Bible was not dictated by God nor was it whispered into the ear of Saints by angles.
  3. We really don’t know who wrote most of the Bible. Much of it was written by anonymous authors. We don’t, for example, know who wrote any of the Four Gospels. We do know manuscripts with titles we see today do not start appearing until around 200 CE.
  4. Some of the Epistles or letters were written by someone other than the “author” named by tradition. Theologian John Dominic Crossan tells us, for example, “we have seven letters certainly from the historical Paul (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), three others probably not from him (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians) and a final three certainly not from him (1-2 Timothy, Titus).” Some of these letters which Pail did not write contain some of “his” most controversial theological statements.
  5. Each time a section of the Bible was copied the text may have been changed through human error or a very human desire to address an issue by slightly changing the text. So the Bible is full of redactions, errors made by scribes as they copied the text, editorial changes, revisions, scribal additions, etc. Doubt this? Look at the differences between different copies of the same Biblical text.
  6. Christians and Jews can’t agree on biblical teachings and doctrines. In fact, we can’t even agree on the number of books in the Old Testament: Protestants number these books at 39, while Jews number the same books as 24.
  7. The sum total of all the discrepancies between all the various scrolls, codexes, and parchment segments of the Bible is more than the total sum of words in the Bible.
  8. The Bible was not written in English. Not even in the Elizabethan language of the King James Bible. Some of it was written in Ancient Hebrew. Other parts were drafted in Aramaic, and Greek. Each time a document is translated into another language, the meanings of some words and phrases is changed or lost.
  9. During hundreds of years since the Reformation, publishers have printed hundreds of authorized English translations of the Bible. Then there are authorized translations in languages other than English. Few agree on how to translate certain key passages used in formulating doctrine.
  10. Of these differing translations, some are based on available scrolls and manuscripts. But others draw on the Latin Vulgate (a late fourth-century Latin translation credited to St. Jerome). A few use source documents which are now widely discredited.
  11. The Church existed for nearly 400 years before the final biblical canon was established by a Church Council. That right: a church council voted on which books went into the Bible. Book of Revelation in, Gospel of Thomas out. A church council, then, is like a church committee today only a lot nastier.
  12. The Bible is pack full of discrepancies, historical errors, and contradictions. Genesis has more than one Creation Story while the four Gospels have widely differencing accounts of the nativity.
  13. The Bible is a collection of written works, many of which began as oral stories, stories which were collected during almost 2,000 years. These stories served as a spiritual guide for their lives, providing meaning context for their origins as well as their traditions.
  14. The Bible is NOT an accurate historical record. Nor is it a science book.
  15. The Bible is our guidebook for a Spiritual life.
  16. The Bible must be read in the historical context in which it was written.
  17. The Bible does continue to speak to us today; however, we must remember to start by placing the text in the historical context in which it was written.
  18. For every person that believes the Bible teaches such-and-such, at least 5 people will disagree with you. Wars have been fought, heretics executed, and cities burned as a means of settle religious disputes, disputes which are often said to be based in one particular understanding of the Bible.  So get over it.
  19. To a Christian, Jesus is the Word of God – not the Bible.
  20. The Bible is much too serious to take it literally. Biblical literalness and the belief in biblical inerrancy is considered a heresy by many in the Church.
  21. The Bible is perhaps one of the greatest inspired works of mankind, in all its diverse forms. Read it with a critical mind, question it, subject it to the test of reason, dissect it thoroughly. Become a REAL student of the Bible. Question what it means to you in your life in this place and time.

So now we’re answered our three questions: So how do we read this story? Before we can answer that question, we have to answer three fundamental questions:

  1. Why do we read the Bible?
  2. How can we read the Bible safely
  3. What should we bear in mind as we read scripture?

How do we understand Sarah’s story? To be brief: God said, with me all things are possible. And Sarah laughed. And God, well God had the last laugh. Which was OK-fine with both Abraham and Sarah and even with Issac.

Let us pray: God of the prophets and apostles, you greeted old Abraham and Sarah with news of wonder and life. Send us into the world to preach good news, as Jesus did, heal the sick, resist evil, and bring the outcast home.  May the Church say: Amen!


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