The Bible: Fact or
The title, "The Bible: Fact or Fiction?" is a loaded statement, an unfair question. Lately, we have gotten used to hearing TV evangelists shouting about the uncontested authority of the Bible. While this approach is nothing new, it is more in the forefront today than every before in my memory. You have probably had the experience of talking with someone who quotes the Bible chapter and verse, proclaiming its authority, and your lack of salvation if you do not agree with their position: that either the Bible is one hundred percent true and you believe every jot and tittle, or you are bound for hell. You either believe or your don't.
Therein lies the problem. The real question should be, "Does anyone have the authority to make that kind of statement?" If someone tells me that if I do not believe as they do, I am not a Christian, I counter, "Who has given you the authority to make that decision?" Certainly not God, and certainly not the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that if you do not believe all of the Bible you cannot have salvation.
Probably all of us here this morning are Christians. Whether you are a member of this church or another, you have formulated your own beliefs and your own understanding of the Bible. You concept of it is probably different from that of the person beside you, but is nonetheless Christian.
Since the very beginning of Christianity as an organized faith there has never been a unanimous answer given by the church as to exactly how the Scriptures are the revelation of God, and the standard of truth. When one particular group, or several groups, claim that they have the authority, the truth, and the way, it is an old song sung by many over the centuries. How can ten different groups exist, all with different points of view on the message of the Bible, and all ten claim that they are the only ones who are right?
Before I give some of the historical background about how the Bible was put together, I believe it is important to make this personal. We all believe in God. If we are secure in our faith, we don't feel the need to shove it down someone else's throat. If we are secure in what we believe, we are willing to explain what we believe and why, and we are also willing to listen to another point of view and not get defensive.
But if we are insecure about what we believe, we may do one of two things:
We may get angry, and judge and accuse other people. We may try to talk louder than other people to intimidate them, because deep down we are very afraid - afraid to look at what we believe, afraid to admit that we have some doubts, that we are not as convinced as we pretend to be.
We may absolutely refuse to listen to anything else. We may pretend to be listening, but we really are not.
If a belief makes someone act angry, stern, self-righteous, and judgmental, what kind of faith is that? These attitudes prevail among people who refuse to look at the Bible in any critical way.
Have you ever noticed that about ninety-nine percent of the conversion experiences aired on TV, in which people join a fundamentalist church, are of people who were down in the dumps, alcoholics, drug addicts, had lost their family or job, or were in some way at the bottom when they turned to God? I don't want to question these conversions for a moment; I believe they are real.
Yet consider for a moment is how much more real is a commitment to God that is made when nothing is wrong. There is an old saying, "There are no atheists in fox holes." But when the shells stop exploding, the commitments to God fade quickly. Swedenborg tells us that there is no deathbed repentance. If a commitment to God is made when we are not desperate, but are our normal, everyday selves, then it is the real "us" that is committed; our faith is not something we hang onto because we are afraid of reverting back to an undesirable kind of existence.
When I went to theological school, I needed to believe in something. I really wanted the truth. I read the bible and Swedenborg's writings like crazy, and I was excited and enthused. I went home for a visit after my first term and started telling my friends everything I'd read. They challenged me. They didn't share my blind enthusiasm, and they popped my bubble in a hurry. Thank God, I realized that I was believing, not because I really believed what I read, but because I needed to believe. That, in a nutshell, is what I think is the driving emotion behind the view that says it is all or nothing - that either the Bible is right or it is wrong. We all need to believe, but are we needy in our belief?
Let's take a few moments to look at how the Bible came to be. You could say that the Bible took over fifteen hundred years to write. Abraham lived around 2100 BC, and Moses, who is the traditional author of the first five books of the Bible, around 1400 BC. They were real people, not legend. There is enough evidence outside of the Bible to show that most of the people and events described in the Old Testament are based on real people and real events. Scholars and historians who are not Christian have little doubt that the Old Testament is based on real history.
How do they know that? They know from digging clay texts out of the ground from neighboring countries, which validate the stories in the Bible. They know from unearthing pots, swords, tablets, and many other items that point to the stories being true. Biblical scholarship and archeology are sophisticated sciences.
In brief, the Bible was put together this way: First, as the stories were written down, they were never thought of as eventually becoming part of something known as "The Bible." They were records of God's encounters with the people of Israel; they were poetry, prophecies, wisdom, and sermons.
Around the year 150 BC, the story goes, seventy-two Jewish scholars got together, wrote down seventy-two different versions of their various scriptures, and translated them into Greek. According to tradition, all seventy-two translations came out exactly the same. Three and a half centuries later, this collection of writings was named the Old Testament.
The New Testament was not written down and put together as one collection of books until about the same time. Most scholars agree that it was in the year 369 AD that the church officially recognized the writings of the Old and New Testament as being Sacred Writings, to be distinguished from all other church writings. There were many writings that did not make it into the Bible - and one of the reasons a collection of inspired books was made was to distinguish them from other books which also claimed to be inspired.
During the first thousand years of Christianity, the Bible (as it then became known) was not available to Christians. Many of the clergy had read little or nothing of the Bible themselves, but were, instead, following the edicts of the church. It was not until the development of the printing press in 1450 that every church had a copy of the Bible. So during three-quarters of the history of Christianity, the Bible was not even available to Christians.
When the Bible did become more available, some churches forbade the people from reading it. Only the clergy were allowed to read it, and they would tell the people "the truth." The first English translation of the Bible done by John Wycliffe in 1382. It was condemned by the Church because they didn't believe the Bible should be put into such a vulgar language. Fortunately, Wycliffe died a natural death before they caught up with him. But they went so far as to dig up his bones and burn them along with all his books.
The King James version was the tenth English translation, and was put together as a finished product in 1611. However, it was revised eleven times in that century, and many more times after that, in order to correct such things as the seventh commandment, which in the first King James Version read, "Thou shalt commit adultery." Since the King James Version, there have been many other translations.
The question naturally arises: "Is the Bible reliable after so many translations?" The answer is yes and no and maybe. Yes: one must realize that most of the translations were done directly from the original texts written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. No; there was tampering with the text. Not much, but some.
How can we tell that the text was changed? Recently, computers have been used to analyze the original texts. They read a chapter to get the rhythm, spirit, and style of the text. The computer is then asked if the text has been tampered with, and if so, where? The computer then picks out words or phrases that are written in a style that is different form the rest, or are, for example, fourth century Greek in a place where there should be first century Greek, and so on.
Then the scholars, who are aware of political struggles in the church over doctrinal issues during the time when the text was likely tampered with, say, "Aha! Some group has changed this to support its own point of view." There are a few cases like this in the Bible, but they are found mostly in the New Testament. They are not very common, but they do exist. I would have to say that any reasonable person who studies the inconsistencies in the original texts would have to come to this conclusion.
What does that have to do with our faith? Actually, I doubt that it matters all that much. I have found that most of the people I have met who consider themselves to be Christians have not read the Bible through from cover to cover. And I could probably count on one hand the number of people I have met (other than clergy) who have really studied the Bible. So I don't see that it would make all that much difference if some parts of the Bible are not exactly what happened or what was said.
However, this does not mean that it wasn't inspired by God. People may go to see a great play in which an actor messes up a few lines but otherwise gives a wonderful performance. A few errors do not ruin a great work.
The phrase "inspired by God" is used as if this meant that each book of the Bible was written when a person was overcome with the Holy Spirit, and that person's hand moved across the page at God's direction. This may be true for some of the stories, poems, and descriptions of events in the Bible, but not for all of them. Some of the books of the Bible were argued over; some were written by groups of people who met in committees and fought about what should be said and what shouldn't be. And yet, for example, that does not make the Book of Isaiah - which scholars believe was written by six different groups of people - any less inspired by God. God works through committees that slug out the hard issues just as much as he works through Hollywood-style inspirations. In fact, if God doesn't work through committees, we have all wasted a lot of time!
The Bible is God's Word. I really believe that. The Bible is the basis of this church, and that is why it rests upon the altar. Swedenborg's writings come second, and help us to understand the incredibly complex nature of the Bible.
Yet it is not the Bible that has held the church together all these years. It is the living spirit of God within each of us. That is why we are here today. We don't believe in God because the Bible tells us to; we believe in God because we feel God in our heart. The Bible helps us to understand God; it helps us to learn about ourselves, and it challenges us.
We do not have to believe that every jot and tittle in the Bible is literally accurate in order to reap the benefit of the overall spirit of the Bible. If there are a few words that Jesus didn't say that are written on the page, what difference does it make? We know the overall message of his ministry is that we need to love God above all other things, and treat each other just as we would want to be treated. We haven't mastered that one yet.
This is the message of the Bible. It is a message that will stand the test of any scholarly examination. God didn't need to intervene and make everything consistent. Anyone can see that the Gospels disagree with each other about what happened after Jesus was resurrected. The stories are different because people saw the events differently, but they decided to tell their different versions anyway. They didn't have to hide anything because the point is that it did happen! Exactly how it happened didn't seem to matter, or they would have written all four Gospels exactly alike. What was important for them to say was that God became a human being because He loved us enough to meet us on our level.
You are free to doubt parts of the Bible. But you'd better be sure what your motive is for doubting or disagreeing. The process of understanding the Bible might be compared to the changes that pass over the landscape as the clouds float across the sky; the light falls here and there, partially revealing, partially obscuring, yet always disclosing the same landscape and its beauty.
At that time the Lord said to me, "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also, make an ark of wood. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the ark."
So I made the ark out of acacia wood and chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands. the Lord wrote on these tablets what He had written before, the Ten Commandments He had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly. And the Lord gave them to me. Then I came back down the mountain and put the tablets in the ark I had made, as the Lord commanded me, and they are there now.
Reading from Swedenborg:
There is a secret that has been unknown until now contained in the fact that when Moses saw the calf and the dancing, he broke the tablets that were the work of God, and that, as the Lord commanded him, he chiseled new tablets which then had the same words inscribed on them, so that they tablets were no longer the work of God but the work of Moses, through the writing was still the writing of God. The secret is that the literal meaning of the bible would have been different if the Bible had been written among a different people, or if the character of the Israelite people had been different. For since the Bible was written among them, the literal meaning of the Bible is all about that people -as we can see from both the historical and the prophetical parts of the Bible.
Arcana Coelestia [Heavenly Secrets] #10453.3
Divine Author, there are so many grounds for skepticism about the Bible; so many who claim that it is merely a flawed, human document. Open our eyes so that we may look beyond the doubt and debate that surrounds the Bible and see Your divine presence within its pages. Give us a broader view Your Providence, and show us how Your hand was at work guiding the centuries-long process of crafting a document through many authors and editors into a single, unified story that tells of Your personal relationship with humankind and with every person who turns to you. Amen.