B is for Bible

The Bible is one of those topics on which I feel profoundly ignorant, and a lot of people assume that I’m an expert. Both are probably true: on the one hand, I have both read the Bible and studied it, and on the other hand, I know some people who specialise in Biblical Studies and are always ready with some aspect I’d never known about or considered before. Because I did joint honours for my BA, I was excused from languages (I did logic instead, basically) and have never formally studied either Greek or Hebrew (although I have dabbled in both in informal settings). I am interested in the Bible, but I’m not interested in quite a lot of the questions which are asked about it. For example, I understand the intellectual interest in asking which sentences of which letters were actually written by Paul, but I’m not very moved by the argument that we should excuse the misogyny of some letters because it’s not original to them – it’s still there and still damaging, and unless you’re going to edit the canon or print all the Bibles with strikethrough text for those passages, it’s part of the Bible and who cares who wrote it originally?

That said, I do think it’s important to realise that the Bible is not a single text, and that even apparently single texts have multiple authors and editors. My Quaker Bible Study group are reading Exodus at the moment, and with the aid of the notes in my study Bible, I gave them a five-minute run-down of the J/E/D/P theory about the sources of the text (which I haven’t studied since 2006, but at least I have studied it…). In that setting, even a simple version of the theory helps to open up questions about what this text means, at what level it can be said to be true, and how narrative devices are employed within it.

Sometimes a simple version is not enough, though. I do get asked highly technical questions about the translation of particular Biblical phrases, especially when I am talking about religious language. My research focus is on religious language as used today, but this is hard to convey to people, and when a debate begins in a workshop they often turn to me as an expert. Even if I have heard an answer, more by luck than effort, I’m not confident to give it with the air of an expert opinion – because I’m really not an expert – so I end up shrugging. That’s okay inasmuch as it allows me as a facilitator to refocus on the real issues in the workshop (getting stuck in intellectual or historical stuff rather than talking about what we think and feel now is a common problem), but sometimes I sense people’s frustration with it. There is often a desire to know more about the Bible, and a hesitation about where to start reading.

I can relate to that because I experience it too. Having learned some things about the Bible, and found many of them useful and interesting – I wrote recently about John Shelby Spong‘s explanation of the Gospels as liturgical texts, for example – I know I’d like to know more, but where to begin? I’ve read the Gospel of John, but never really studied it. At one time I tried to blog about the lectionary readings for the week, but didn’t know enough to say anything useful in the time available. Sometimes I’ve used the plans in the Gideon Bible or a Bible-reading phone app to have daily passages, but found myself wanting more commentary and context than this approach provides. Reading right through the Bible helps with context – you know which passages come before and after this one – but not with understanding them. I’ve heard fascinating things about Isaiah, but wouldn’t know where to start. And so forth – in a complex library like the Bible, where do you begin? The obvious answer – Genesis – does not turn out to be an easy beginning, nor is it automatically the most interesting one.

In the end, I’ve concluded that the kind of Bible knowledge I want needs to be built up, piece by piece, over a lifetime, rather than gained in a single reading or qualification. Biblical texts really become interesting to me when they relate to my experience, and that cannot be forced, although I can encourage it by asking the right questions. The other thing which really interests me is the way in which sometimes a Biblical reference or allusion will appear in my speech or writing without my noticing at first; somehow it has snuck in through my general knowledge or the English language and it only comes to me later that this refers to a Biblical source. Tracking these down, and understanding why and how they have come to be meaningful to me, can be very rewarding – and serendipitous.


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