There seems to be a particularly large amount of angst among atheists when it comes to reading the bible.
I have previously written on my complaint that atheists read the creation stories as if they are supposed to be a factual account similar to a reporter recounting the events of a sporting event in a newspaper. I tried to make the point that books deserve to be read in the light of how they were written and for whom they were written.
But I would like to expand this further: the bible should be read in light of why it was put together and why its books were deemed inspired.
And I think it is important that we start with this: that the bible is not a book, it is a collection of writings. Unlike the Koran or other holy books, the Bible doesn’t claim one human author, it claims multiple authors writing for different purposes to different audiences in different regions. As a Christian, I see a common thread through the scriptures which tie them together, but as we pull out a book from this library of books, it needs to be read understanding that it relates to the other books in some way. The question is how.
Yet when an some atheists pick up the bible and find a violent verse from Deuteronomy, they immediately equate that as something to be read in the same light as the ten commandments. The book of Jonah is read as a narrative similar to the gospels.
This sort of reading, taking each book in isolation of each other and not looking to that which binds them together under the same cover, is destined to lead to errors. It is also unlike how we would read any other significant book.
Development of Canon
The history of the development of canon is fascinating and interesting, but I will not go into it here. Moine and I touched on this a while back, but never followed up:
This was in reference to Irenaeus, a 2nd century Bishop who put forward one of the first proposed canons. Just to clarify a few things: a) Irenaeus was not a pope, and b) it wasn’t sorted out in a papal apartment. 🙂
For the sake of brevity, let’s stick with the basic version that the church agreed to declare what is considered scripture formally at the council of Hippo in 393 as the need arose to instruct the Christian church. We can certainly find evidence that the canon was largely accepted before this, but that’s beyond what I want to touch on here.
Why were these books chosen? Why was Revelation included (it is hard to understand, after all)? Surely the early church fathers were familiar with Deuteronomy, with the old law which commanded stonings for seemingly anything. Why didn’t they just do away with the Old Testament? Surely that would have been easier for the church, right? Then we wouldn’t have to read about babies head’s being bashed against rocks or try to explain Samuel hacking Agag to pieces, right?
Enter Marcion. Marcion was an early church figure who made such a suggestion – let’s do away with the Old Testament. Since we have Jesus, the Old Testament is done, finished – we are freed from those books and the God of the Old Testament.
If I can credit atheists for one thing, their consistent hammering on the more difficult to understand passages of the old testament forces many Christians to try to reconcile their faith with these books. Too many protestant churches pick bible verses to fit their idea of God, rather than discovering God through the scriptures. As a result, I think many protestants have hints of Marcionism (not fully, but when it is convenient).
What we know is that the early church fathers rejected Marcionism. Marcionism was rejected and the Old Testament was recognized as inspired and a part of our understanding of Jesus and the deposit of faith. The church fathers were compelled to include the Old Testament, baby head bashing and all, into the list of inspired books. Furthermore, this canon was defended even up to the council of Trent as some people had trouble wrestling with some of the text.
Why? Did the church fathers just simply not know their scriptures? Did they simply turn a blind eye? Did they simply not care? Or was there a reason these books were included?
In facing the challenge of Marcion, the church fathers recognized that in understanding Christ, we must understand that through Christ the scriptures are opened up. Christ opens up the old law, the Old Testament. We see this in the stories of Christ after the resurrection when, on the road to Emmaus, Christ started with Moses and explained the scriptures to his disciples (Luke 24:27). This idea that it is through Christ that we read the scriptures is shown most effectively in Revelation chapter 5 when only the slain lamb is able to open the sealed scriptures. In chapter 5, it is only the slain lamb who can give us an understanding of the sealed scriptures.
As Christians, we cannot discard the old Testament. We cannot choose to read some verses and ignore others. We must read the Old Testament for what it is: pointing and leading us to Christ and His sacrifice. The Old Testament tells us of God’s repeated calling of his people, and their repeated turning away. The Old Testament shows us in dramatic fashion the consequence of sin and what justice demands when we separate ourselves from the source of life. The Old Testament opens up to us answers as to who we are, why God created us, our struggling relationship with God, why Christ came to save us. If we try to isolate violent verses, either to ignore them or to try and disprove the suitability of Christianity, they become impossible to understand and comprehend and reconcile. But when we view them through the lens of Christ they become scriptures that ring true and open our understanding of God and our relationship to him.
Reading the scriptures in light of Jesus requires that we go beyond the scriptures and into the faith that he left us in His church. I am sometimes asked “who are you to say how the bible should be read”?
The fact is, I am not picking and choosing. Like many others, and like any other significant written text, my understanding of individual scriptures is developed by reading them directly, reading them through the Tradition of the church, reading the commentary by scholars, reading reflections by theologians, etc.
Furthermore, I try to read the bible with an understanding of why it was compiled in the first place. Any book that is taken out of its intended context and purpose will result in a misreading. It would be an incredibly foolish and presumptuous position for me to say that I can pick up any great work, read it isolated, and say that I understand the author perfectly. It would be even more foolish for me to do so with the Bible as it encompasses so many themes, so many books, and so much history.
But sadly this is what the atheist does when they proclaim a disproof of the bible based on passages of violence or the ridiculousness of a person being eaten by a whale or what they understand to be contradictions.
I’ll leave the reader who got this far with this short video from Fr. Baron where he talks specifically about the violent passages of the Bible. He is much more coherent in thought than I, although I borrow plenty of his explanations.