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Introduction: the Bible and modern


scholarship

In 2004 I wrote a book called What the Bible Really Teaches. What
I tried to do in that book was look at passages in the Bible which
tend to be overlooked by fundamentalist Christians. I looked at
passages about the return of Christ in glory, about salvation,
about sin and grace, about the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, about
resurrection, about heaven and hell, and about the moral law.
I had myself been closely associated with fundamentalist
Christians, and deeply moved by their faith and commitment. But
as I looked at the biblical texts, I found increasingly that the Bible
did not support their particular interpretation of Christianity –
which was odd, because they claimed above all to be ‘biblical
Christians’.
What they were doing, I found, was to impose a rather narrow
form of Calvinist and literalist doctrine on the texts, and sometimes
actually twist the texts to give them a meaning quite different from
their natural reading. This was not dishonest. They just honestly
did not see that they had to force the texts to fit their doctrines,
rather than the other way round.
I then tried to give an interpretation of the Bible just looking
at the texts as they actually are, and found it very different from
the fundamentalist interpretation. This again was very odd; for my
friends typically claimed that other Christians (the vast majority
of Christians, in fact) ‘cherry-pick’ the texts they like, and ignore
others. Yet this is precisely what the fundamentalists were doing
– and I set out to describe the texts they ignored or interpreted in
a peculiar way in some detail.
I never claimed that my interpretation was the correct one. In
fact my point was that the Bible can be interpreted in a number of
ways, including Calvin’s, which was more sophisticated than that
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of many fundamentalists. The Bible contains many different sorts
of teaching in its different letters, Gospels and prophetic writings.
I argued that the fundamentalist claim to have the one correct
interpretation of Scripture was almost certainly mistaken, and that
other interpretations could be called ‘biblical’ with at least as much
justification.
Though my book did propose a particular interpretation of
the Bible, it left the texts more or less intact. It did not take into
account the work of biblical scholars since the eighteenth century,
who have asked critical questions about when the biblical books
were written, by whom, for what purpose, and in what cultural
and historical context.
However, thinking Christians, as well as those who simply want
to know what sort of book the Bible is, now have to take such
critical research into account. We cannot simply proceed on the
assumption that the Bible was one book, written by God, carrying
one coherent message. The Bible obviously consists of many books
written over many centuries in at least three languages and in
many different styles. Scholars who have devoted their lives to
investigating these languages and their historical contexts have
contributed enormously to our knowledge of the Bible.
Not all biblical scholars are Christians, or even believers in God.
Some are very critical of Christian beliefs. But on the whole they
have tried to give an honest and informed account of what his-
torical methods and close analysis of linguistic forms can tell us
about the Bible. Anyone who ignores their work, which has been
going on for at least three hundred years, cannot any longer be
regarded as competent to interpret the Bible.
For example, it was traditionally thought that Moses wrote the
first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, including the account of
his own death, which presumably he miraculously foresaw. Biblical
scholars, by analysis of the text, have distinguished different strands
or traditions with the Pentateuch, written by different authors in
different styles and from different points of view, so that it is widely
accepted among scholars that it was not all written by Moses.
It is true, of course, that biblical scholars are not infallible. They
may be wrong. But if a majority of competent scholars who have
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spent their lives mastering ancient Hebrew language and history
come to agree that the Pentateuch is an edited collection of different
traditions, their opinion must be taken seriously.
If there is a consensus among scholars, we need to know what
it is. If there are disagreements, we need to know what they are,
and how strong the various arguments are. We cannot go on as
though nothing had happened.
This present book, therefore, is about what happens to Christian
belief, and to our reading of the Bible, if we take the work of biblical
scholars seriously, but as always itself subject to criticism. It is about
whether and how the Bible can be read as a sacred text after
informed critical scholarship has done its work. And it is about
how Christians can read and interpret the Bible if they pay
attention to what biblical scholars say, but also want to read the
Bible as Scripture, as an inspired text that is normative for Christian
faith, as in some sense the word of God.
Some will think that informed critical scholarship has deprived
the Bible of any credibility or authority, and that it is best relegated
to a museum of ancient literature. But I argue that a critically
informed Christian reading of the Bible can still treat it as the word
of God, though only if it is interpreted with care and discrimination,
and taken as a whole, so that all its individual passages are parts of
a complex and many-layered unity that points beyond itself to the
one true Word of God, the person of Jesus Christ. For Christians,
the Bible is not the words of God. It is the witness to the Word,
the eternal wisdom of God, who was embodied on this planet in
Jesus. The Bible belongs not in a museum but in a church.