What is the Bible?

Dear Maggie,

What is the Bible?  Is it just a story or is it real?

Biblically Baffled

Dear Biblically Baffled,

Thank ya for yer fine question!  If ya pardon me, however, I want to start by sayin that a story and real aren’t necessarily opposites.  At the dinner table each night ya probably tell a story of something that really happened in yer day.  What I think ya mean though is the kinds of stories we call myths.  These are big stories that convey meaning, but don’t necessarily line up with what happens or happened in the world as we experience it.  With that clarification on to answerin yer question!

The Bible is a big book that is about the ongoing relationship of God and the Creation, especially God’s people. It is composed of a wide variety of genres from histories to mythologies, from poetry to plays.  Whatever the genre all of the Bible is about God’s ongoing effort to redeem the whole of Creation, especially those of us made in God’s image—humankind. 

The first part of the Bible is what is called the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures.  There are five different groups of texts in this collection called the Tanakh.  The first five books are called the Torah which is Hebrew for “Law.” The Torah contains the big stories of how the Jewish people came to be chosen by God as well as the promises God made to them and the promises they made to God.  There is some history in these books, but they aren’t concerned with the kinds of details we would call history now.  These are more archetypal histories: big stories that are meant to help us understand our place in the whole of the Creation and for the Jewish people to understand their place in God’s mission to save the world. 

After the Torah there are the Nevi'im or "The Prophets."  Those are books about different people and events through which God worked to reconcile the world and the Jewish people to Godself.  Finally, there are the books called Ketuvim or "The Writings." These include of books including poetic works like the Psalms and Job as well as stories like Ruth. Some are possibly fictional stories, like novels, meant to help us understand important things about God and the world.  Some are closer to what we’d now call histories.  All of them are true in the sense that they are a part of the unfolding story of God’s redemptive activity in the world.

Next comes the New Testament.  There are three genres in the New Testament.  There are the Gospels, the Epistles, and then a couple of works that don’t fit like the book of Hebrews and Revelation that are genres unto themselves.  The Gospels are stories of Jesus’ life and teachings.  There are four and each has a different emphasis because they were related to different communities.  You might tell yer friends at school and your parents the same story, but emphasize different elements because of the different audience.  It’s kind of the same with the Gospels.  For instance, many people think the Gospel of Mark was written to a group of Jews in Palestine who were being persecuted.  Mark makes sure to remind them of all those times Jesus would tell his disciples that they will suffer for their faith.  The Gospel of Matthew on the other hand was probably written to a Jewish community that was trying to figure out how to still be Jewish even though the other Jews in their community had kicked them out of the local synagogue.  Matthew emphasizes the ways in which Jesus is like a new Moses.  That is why right off the bat he gets in the time Jesus went up on a mountain (like Moses going up to Mt. Sinai) and begins to teach how to really fulfill God’s law (completing the work Moses started in bringing God’s commandments to the people).  We call that passage the “Sermon on the Mount.”

Jesus was constantly teaching and healing and yet our Gospels are fairly short and couldn’t contain the half of all Jesus said and did.  The stories they told were offered in order to help the growing Christian community understand who Jesus was and the basic message Jesus expected them to now live out into the world. 

The Epistles and the rest of the New Testament are all works that were meant to help these new communities figure out how to live faithfully into the reconciling way that Jesus taught.  They were all occasional pieces which means that specific conflicts or problems were the impetus for their creation.  That is important to keep in mind as we read them now.

There’s much more to say on this topic.  Figuring out what the Bible is and discerning its truth is the journey of a life time!  Even we Saints are still struggling through the challenges it brings to us.  It is a worthy task because it is God’s story into which God has invited us to participate.  Whenever we read the Bible we’re joining in God’s story of reconciliation for all the world.

I hope that makes you a little less baffled or at least baffled in the right direction.

God’s peace be with ya,
St. Maggie