I read/hear a lot of views on scripture. Some views are ones that destroy the credibility of the Bible and Gospel message for the person holding that view. Often, people hold these views and proclaim solely so that they will discredit the scriptures for others they come in contact with. Below are three things I hear a lot.
- A plain reading of scripture trumps understanding the "context" of a passage. More simply, context doesn't matter.
- Scholars hardly ever agree on the meanings and applications of scripture.
- The Bible has been translated so many times that the original message can no longer be known.
Most of these views come from Atheists I know but that doesn't mean I don't hear the arguments from people of various beliefs, skeptic theists, and even Christians.
Some people have heard these ideas so often and for so long that they can't avoid being persuaded by them. I certainly used to believe these views. However, they are unfair blanket statements and they derive from ignorance and/or stubborn disdain. In my case it was both.
I am about to finish my Masters of Arts in Biblical studies (with an emphasis on Koine Greek and the New Testament). My Bachelor of Science is in Pastoral Ministries (which was really just a bunch of bible classes, more specifically inductive bible study method classes). As someone who has spent his last 10 years studying the scriptures and church history (not all in formal schooling), I believe I have a view also worth considering on these matters. It may be more, less, or just as credible as some who make the above stated claims. I can't say rightly and it, of course, depends upon who is speaking. All I can say is that I used to be an Atheist and later an Agnostic. I'm someone who has explored various religions and lived in deep skepticism and disdain for Christianity. The reason I no longer believe the above statements to be true isn't because of divine revelation but because of honest observation and sober reasoning. Even if I abandoned Christianity I couldn't abandon the following views.
1. The plea for context is a fair one when it comes to any type of literature, not just the Christian scriptures. A lot of folks tend to think that Christians pick and choose what they like in the 66 books of the Bible and justify their inconsistency with the argument of context. Sure, people do that. People do a lot of irresponsible things. However, that doesn't discredit the need for context to explain a literary work. Without context ancient words become relative. The more removed one becomes from author's intent, cultural surroundings, ancient literary patterns, and the like, the more difficult it becomes to understand the text.
For instance, I come across many a young minds who know the Shakespearian line, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" and think it means "Romeo, where are you?" This is an improper understanding of the text but without context it'd be hard to know that (Side-note: We need to teach our kids more Shakespeare). If one understand how people spoke in Shakespeare's time and place this confusion wouldn't exist. Also, if people read the surrounding text (literary context) they would see that Juliet's plea is for Romeo to have a different identity for it is that very identity which keeps them apart. Thus, she is asking not "where are you Romeo?" to Romeo himself (whom is hiding under her very nose without her knowledge at the time of the words being presented, which is more context) but rather "Why must you be Romeo?"
Similarly, in the Christian scriptures, there are 66 different books which came about through a great span of time. They document a story between God and his people through all sorts of different literary forms such as poetry, historic recordings, myth, metaphor, proverbs, prophecy, and more. These literary forms derive from specific times and places, which employed unique and various secondary styles of these forms (Hebrew parallelism for example). The authors and recipients of these works tell the current reader a lot about the actual text just as any other text is better understood when it's author, audience, era, and culture from which it derived are understood.
When a single text is observed and examined alongside its connected texts it makes more sense (as we just saw with the Shakespeare example). All of this is context. To understand how all these elements affect the text being read dramatically affects the way one understands the meaning and application of a specific text. This is why a person can read through the Bible and understand why certain passages in Leviticus, 2 Samuel, Job, or Isaiah, don't hold a permanent demand for obedience to people living here and now (for instance, stoning homosexuals is proven to be time and covenant locked and thus can't be obeyed in the Christian life). Understanding the literature, it's source, it's original recipients, the author's intent (often seen through their larger message), and the movement of narrative which exists throughout the 66 books, creates space for understanding.
2. Despite disagreements on several elements of scripture, most Biblical scholars agree on what all deem the important issues. There will always be disgreements. And again, the further removed from the context of a piece of literary work one gets, the more likely it is t see confusion and thus disagreement. This view is often presented in such a way as to communicate that there is near no agreement on the meanings of scripture passages or their applications but church history (written and not) proves this wrong. Besides, disagreement is not grounds for discrediting a piece of literary work. For all my disagreements with Christian siblings, I find ten times as many agreements regarding the scriptures (and I travel is diverse packs of believers).
Perhaps people buy into this idea because Church history is filled with debates, discussions, and even some bloodshed. What people forget is that much of these debates, discussion, and even bloodshed, ended in agreements, creeds, doctrines, and unity of proclamation and application. Sift through different creeds and statements of faith, and baptismal teachings of churches worldwide and you'll find that scholars agree on a plethora of issues. Sure, there are still disagreements but they don't outweigh the agreements by any means. Most denominations can agree on the big tenants of the faith and of the scriptural proclamations. Most disagreements are on small matters that can be looked at with the attitude of "agree to disagree." I'm an Anabaptist Protestant (redundant I know) yet I affirm most of what the Catholic Church teaches, and where we differ, healthy discussion exists.
3. The Bible has been translated more than any other book in history but this does not discredit the translation's legitimacy. The Bible was written in 3 different languages. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The New Testament is written in Koine Greek (now a dead language). Early manuscripts (like ones on papyri) are available to humanity. It's remarkable how much witness exists for the texts, proving the original material to be heavily agreed upon. Part of my New Testament Greek studies have included textual analysis work which demands I investigate the translations made by the committees who have put together what is called the UBS4 (The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition). At the bottom of each page are footnotes providing a grade for verses with debatable translations due to the evidence of original or early manuscripts. Most of the verses are graded as highly agreed upon but some are debatable. However, these debates are over a few letters, a word, or a phrase, that often have very little affect on the meaning or application of the text. Really, it shows that the greek scholars are just fans of semantics.
People have worked hard to study the original languages so that they can properly translate the early manuscripts into the desired language. My point here is that these scholars aren't translating a translation that came from a translation that came from a translation that came from a translation that came from a translation that came from a translation that... you get the idea. Any solid scholar (like the ones who make Bibles) translates directly from the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, into their desired language. If you have an NASB, ESV, or NIV Bible, odds are you'll find a few differences in them but not enough to legitimately claim the Bible isn't credible as though it was the 17th version of a xeroxed document which can't be read. If you think the English Bible you have isn't credible then learn Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic so you can read the original words. They are available.
So if people try to tell you that we can't know what the Bible really says because of translations, or that nobody can ever agree on what the Bible says or means, or that a plain and uneducated reading is the most honest and helpful way to understand the Bible, don't give them too much of your ear. The Bible is big, multifaceted, ancient, and beautiful. We ought to approach it knowing all this and treating it as we would treat any large, multifaceted, ancient text; with humility.