I’ve updated this with some of the feedback and suggestions I got from friends - thanks everyone for the corrections and for making me think more deeply about what I wrote and wanted to say!
It’s now been nearly a year since I promised more posts, so it’s high time I did some procrastiblogging and actually provided them! As I said, I have a bunch of things I might write about, but we’ll deal with the most controversial one first …
So, for those who don’t know, I’m a Christian. I go to an Anglican church (although I identify more with the specific church than with Anglicanism in general), I read the Bible, I pray, and I try my best to treat everyone with the respect and kindness they deserve because they’re part of God’s creation. I also talk about my faith to people who want to listen, and that’s what prompted this article. Having been brought up Christian, I tend to forget how little people know about what’s actually in the Bible - and how little I know about the Quran, the Buddhist Sutras, the Vedas or any other religious texts. So this is me explaining a little bit about the book that my life is based on and inviting you (if you have anything similar) to do the same for me.
This is what I wish everyone knew about the Bible.
1. It’s not one book
It’s a collection of 66 “books” written by many different authors over a period of 1000 years or so and partially based on much older stories. Interestingly, the Greek root of the word Bible means “books” or “library” - we’ve just lost that nuance over the years. It’s also worth mentioning that there are a huge number of texts written about the Jews and about Jesus which aren’t included, and in fact the Bible didn’t reach its current form until nearly 400AD. I won’t go into why some books were included and some weren’t, but this article / study guide thing I found on Google summarises some of those reasons.
Even calling the individual bits “books” is a bit misleading, since they come from a vast range of genres including poetry, history books, conversations, letters, biographies and songs. These are divided into two sections: the Old Testament was written before Jesus was born, and the New Testament was written after he died.
There are just two things I want to mention here.
- It really annoys me how many people get caught up on the 7-day creation thing (and how many Christians try hard to defend it). It takes up a minuscule fraction of the Bible, it’s only one of many creation stories throughout the Old Testament, and it’s also clearly written as a poem rather than a scientific report. So probably not the best place to start reading from.
- The majority of the Bible never mentions Jesus by name; it’s just an account of the history of Israel and how God was present in it. The main reason it’s included is that it contains a lot of pictures and pointers to Jesus, and pictures are sometimes easier to understand than definitions. But maybe don’t start reading from there either (although it is fascinating stuff).
2. You should start reading in the middle
Having told you where not to start reading, allow me to suggest what you should start with: the four books at the start of the New Testament which we call the gospels. They’re basically biographies of Jesus - detailed accounts of what the writers believed were the most important things he said and did before and after he died. The actual identities of the authors will probably never be known for certain, but they identify themselves as eyewitnesses of his life and it’s quite likely that they were indeed his companions.
I won’t go into detail, but the interesting thing about the books is the different ways they tell the same story.
- Matthew (the first in the Bible’s ordering) was writing to the Jews about Jesus, so he hammers home (sometimes credibly, sometimes not so much) how Jesus fulfils every single one of the Old Testament prophecies about a coming Saviour of Israel.
- Mark (probably the first written) is my favourite because it’s short, to the point and was clearly written to non-Jews who just wanted to know the facts about Jesus’ life and why so many people were following in his footsteps.
- Luke was written by a doctor to (perhaps) a more educated class of non-Jew, so it contains more detail and sophisticated language than Mark.
- John was (most likely) written latest, after the author had read one or more of the others, so it contains completely different events to the other three and interweaves the things Jesus did with John’s view of their spiritual significance.
3. Everything both supports and contradicts everything else
Mark says that at the start of Jesus’ ministry he was baptised and immediately led into the desert to be tempted by the devil. John says that after he was baptised he chose some followers and went to a wedding. Who’s right?
Much ink has been spattered across tree mulch, leather and reeds over the past 1800 years explaining how everything in the Bible fits together neatly and all the apparent contradictions are actually harmonious. Much more paper, parchment, vellum and papyrus has been used to explain that resolving the contradictions is hopeless and so the Bible is clearly complete rubbish. I’ll leave you to form your own opinion on that - hopefully somewhere between those extremes. I’ll give you this to think about though: since it’s virtually impossible to get two identical eyewitness accounts hours after a crime, and since the Bible was written and assembled over hundreds of years, if there were no (or few) contradictions I would be much a whole lot more suspicious.
4. Few Christians have read all of it
This is one where I guess I’m more likely to get in trouble with Christians than non-Christians. I’ll say it quietly so hopefully no one notices … the Bible is a looong book. On average it has about 1200 pages of small writing. There’s a lot of stuff in it that you have to sit down and think about for a long time to understand. So a lot of people (myself included) know most of the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament reasonably well and are pretty hazy on the rest.
Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of people who have read the whole thing multiple times through - it doesn’t take a lifetime or anything. So like the rest of this post, it’s just a thing you might find interesting to know, not something you should feel bad about (if you’re a Christian) or use as an argument against any Christians you meet (if you’re not).
The end is nigh!
I hope my list of facts, opinions and theories has been interesting. I hope it’s been clear which is which! As I said at the start, this is what I’ve been brought up knowing and what I (incorrectly) assume everyone else knows as well. So I’m curious: what’s your equivalent? What do you wish everyone knew about the Quran, the Vedas, the Tao Te Ching, or the works of atheists like Richard Dawkins?
Hopefully you learned something either about the Bible or about me! If you have any responses/questions/comments I’d love to hear from you.
Icons designed by Freepik