Unpacking the Bible
500 years ago, on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses on the door of a church, signaling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Because of the printing press, invented around 1440, he was able to read the Bible for himself and he took different meanings from it than what had been the orthodox view. In 1531, Michael Servetus also read the Bible for himself and then published a pamphlet called the Errors of the Trinity and our Unitarian Faith was born.
The right of individuals to interpret sacred scripture for themselves, whether that scripture is the Bible or Doctor Seuss, is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. This is reaffirmed in our 4th principle of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
First, let me ask you a question, do you ever cry in church? A lot of people cry in church, and that is usually a good thing. Tears can be good, and in times of grief or disappointment, just letting them flow can be very healing. We cry when are hearts are touched, and our services should touch our hearts.
But people also cry in churches because their church is hurting them, telling them that they are somehow less than worthy, less than whole. They are told that God doesn’t love them just as they are if they are gay. They may also be told that they are less than worthy if they happen to be female. It is in the Bible after all.
This morning we are going to try and unpack some of the misunderstandings about the Bible. Much of what we have been told is simply wrong. This sermon today might help some of you dialogue with or resist anyone who might be beating you about the head and wounding your heart with their literal interpretations of scripture.
The word Gospel comes from the Greek word, euangélion, and means quite literally “good news.”
It does not mean absolute fact, something that can’t be questioned, although the word has taken on that meaning in our language today.
In ancient Greece when a city-state was at war, and soldiers were far away engaged in combat, the people at home worried, just as we do today when our sons and daughters are at risk in foreign lands. After a battle, a runner raced back home, hopefully to bring the word of victory, to spread the gospel, the good news. That is the earliest evidence we have of how the word gospel was used.
When the early Christians were writing in Greek, they used the same term with the same meaning because they believed that the message of Jesus, the message of a loving God, of hope for the poor and oppressed, was very good news indeed.
Now we all want good news to be true. There is nothing so upsetting as to think something wonderful has happened and to find out there was disaster instead.
You know that feeling when you have struggled to park in the last tiny spot on a crowded street and then while walking away, you discover a small sign that tells you it is street sweeping day? We want good news to be true. We want to park our cars, our lives, someplace good, and not have to move them again. We don’t want to be required to read the fine print.
So it is with the Bible. If you read the fine print, if you study it, you will find that while it may contain good news, and much wisdom, it is far from fact. It is not literal and to interpret that way is, dare I say it, fake news
My Old Testament professor in seminary, a delightfully droll Franciscan priest, was fond of saying that the Bible is not history, it is not science, and it should never be used as a club, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The Bible, he said, is a collection of the stories of a people and their struggles to be in right relationship with the divine, with God. It is full of metaphor and full of inconsistencies. It wasn’t written down all at one time; and God didn’t dictate it.
Biblical scholars, using modern methods, have determined that the bible is in fact a collection of stories, many of which were originally oral traditions, and almost of which were edited and changed over time.
The word Bible actually means library and comes from the name of the town Býblos, a Phoenician port where papyrus was prepared. And there is not just one Bible, a fact that many Biblical literalists don’t know. The Hebrew Scriptures are a collection of 24 books in three divisions: the law (or Torah), the prophets, and the writings. The Protestant Old Testament contains all the same books, but arranges them differently in order to make theological points about Christianity. The Roman Catholic Old Testament is larger than the protestant version; containing 15 additional books also known as the apocrypha, which means literally “hidden away”. The Greek Orthodox Church includes even more, and the Ethiopian Church yet again more.
So, if someone tells you that they follow what is in the Bible, it would not be at all unreasonable to ask, “Which one?”
The official version of the bible and the books included in it is often referred to as the canon.
Most of the individual books have also been edited. Some are clearly combinations of different earlier versions. The Torah, what Christians call the Pentateuch, is composed of the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Scholars have determined that there were originally as many as five separate and distinct written versions of the material in the Torah that were combined at a later time.
They are referred to as the J, D, E, and P versions; P is for priestly and the style is rather dry and formulaic. The D source is found mainly in Deuteronomy.
J and E refer to two different Hebrew names for God. Scholars are still arguing about which source came first and the actual number of different sources, but they are in full agreement that the Torah was not written by Moses.
Have you ever wondered why there are two versions of the creation story in Genesis? Genesis one describes creation as happening in seven days and God creating both man and woman in his image at the same time. It is in Genesis 2 that God takes a rib from Adam to create Eve.
From the story of the flood to the tales of Abraham and Sarah, from the parting of the Red Seas to the listing of the Ten Commandments, there are both repetitions and differences in what the Bible says. So, if someone tells you they believe what the Bible says, after they tell you which version, you might want to ask, which part of that version?
You also might want to ask them, if they say the Bible is the literal truth, if they think men really have one less rib than women. Did anyone else ever try to count their own ribs and those of an opposite gender friend or sibling? I did. It was very confusing. It also wasn’t particularly easy and I don’t remember even getting a firm number.
Pull out an anatomy textbook later, or ask your doctor if you still aren’t sure. We aren’t going to engage in rib counting this morning here in church.
If you want, I suppose you can do that later, in the privacy of your own homes.
The New Testament section of the Bible was created in a similar fashion. It is a collection of stories and letters about Jesus and the early Church, some of which are repeated and many of which are inconsistent with each other.
Most scholars agree that some of the letters attributed to Paul were written earlier than any of the actual Gospels. They agree that Mark was the first gospel written; at least of the ones included in the canon, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark when they wrote their versions of the life of Jesus. Many believe that they also had copies of another text, possibly older than Mark, which contained various sayings of Jesus. That document is referred to as “Q”.
There was much controversy in the early church over what writings should be included. There was a lot of very diverse material floating around for the first four centuries, as well as very different oral traditions. People argued about what should be included and what should be left out. Even as late as the protestant reformation Martin Luther argued that the book of James should not be included in the canon.
Some writings were lost for more than a thousand years, but scholars were aware of their existence because of historical records that made reference to them. Many of these texts were found in modern times.
You may have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary, from which David read a portion of earlier. Often referred to as the Gnostic Gospels, more than 52 ancient Christian writings were discovered in 1945 in Egypt.
These writings, that are still being studied by scholars, give us a lot of clues about the diversity of Christian belief in the earliest years.
So, when someone tells you women should be silent in church because it says that in the Bible maybe you might want to quote from the Gospel of Mary where Levi calls Peter hot headed because he does not want to believe what Mary is saying.
You might also ask them why Paul felt the need to tell women they should be quiet. Most likely they were speaking up and he wanted to silence them.
I haven’t even gone into the whole issue of translations, but it is pretty clear that Jesus didn’t speak King James English. He didn’t even speak Greek. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows very well that literal translations often result in distorted meanings.
When in a silly argument with someone who says that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality, I like to quote Luke 17:34 from the King James Version. The verse reads, literally:
“I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.”
Now, when you interpret that verse literally it is pretty clear that at least half of the gay people go to heaven, isn’t it?
I don’t suggest that you leave here today and go out and start arguments with biblical literalists. But if it interests you, do some reading about biblical scholarship.
But what I most want to leave you with today are some questions. What is your holy text, and what good news does it contain?
Do you find meaning in scripture; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or perhaps another tradition? Do you find it in poetry, in nature, in connections with other people?
Each of us must find our own truth. We find it in our own lives and in the lives of others that we come to know. We find it in the world around us. It is helpful to read, to study, and to learn what others believe to be true. But in the end, we must each make our own peace with the meaning of our own lives, and our own peace with whatever we mean when we say the word God.
There is some gospel, some good news, however. We don’t have to do any of this alone. There are other souls around engaged in similar journeys. Maybe we can learn from one another. Maybe people can stop using sacred texts like the Bible to justify their own bias and bigotry.
Maybe other people can stop being afraid of what the Bible says and understand that it is not literal and is not meant to be a club to beat you about the head, but is instead a collection of stories told by people trying to understand their lives and the world they lived in.
Isn’t that what we all are trying to do?
Amen and Blessed Be.