Recently we spoke in church about the dangers of taking the Bible literally. It is probably something that we all do a lot of the time, consciously or unconsciously. After all, that is often the way we have been taught. Even those of us who try carefully not to take the Bible literally sometimes find ourselves doing so as the vivid characters just seem to leap off the pages. (Ahem, I don’t mean that literally, either.)
Abraham, assuming that he is an historical figure at all, lived some 850-900 years before the first words of the Bible as we know it were ever written down. That is over 40 generations. No doubt many stories were passed down orally, but it is unwise to think of the stories of Abraham as an historical record.
Likewise we like to think of Moses as the author of large parts of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Not so – Moses was dead several hundred years before the accounts of his life were written.
We could go on through the Old Testament, pointing out that Isaiah was really three separate authors spanning three hundred years or so. Or that Zechariah is actually two quite distinct authors. Or that the first chapter of Genesis was written some 500 years after the second chapter, and was based on a Babylonian creation myth that the Jews learned during the exile. (That has quite a few implications for how we read Genesis.)
Still, you may be thinking that may all be so for the Old Testament, but it doesn’t really matter because at least we have the eyewitness accounts of Jesus in the New Testament.
Alas, even there we may be disappointed. It is wrong to discount the Old Testament anyway since so much of the New Testament is based on the stories, legends and myths of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is wrapped in the clothing of Moses and Elijah, among others. The accounts of his life are written to reflect Old Testament stories. The writers of the gospels, in seeking to express the powerful experience of God that came through Jesus Christ, can only turn to the Old Testament stories to seek to define what this experience was. They expressed the presence of God in the life of Jesus by reciting stories based on the scriptures that they already knew.
We should not be alarmed by this. It was the practice of the time to tell stories in this way. In a sense, they told parables about Jesus in which the old stories about Moses and Elijah were given new life.
When we consider the books and epistles of the New Testament in the order in which they were written – and, with a few exceptions, that is more or less possible – we gain insights into how the ‘Jesus story’ developed. What we find is that things completely unknown to Paul, or at least not mentioned by Paul, seem to become quite central later on; and Paul’s letters themselves, the earliest writings in the New Testament, read very differently if we don’t look at them through the ‘grid’ of the gospels that were written after Paul’s death; or, more particularly, the ‘grid’ of the creeds and doctrines that developed in the Church in the third and fourth centuries.
Paul is the closest we have to the historical Jesus. He stayed with Peter for 15 days not so many years after the crucifixion and must have learned from first hand accounts of what Jesus did and said. He met James, the brother of Jesus, at the same time. If we wanted to find the authentic account of the historical Jesus, it must surely be from Paul’s hand? Yet Paul says very little of the ‘life story’ of Jesus and much more about the underlying meaning of Jesus’s time with us. Paul demonstrates no knowledge at all of the story of the virgin birth; he mentions neither Mary nor Joseph nor the manger. His understanding of the resurrection is also quite different from what appears to be expressed in the later gospels of Luke and John. (More on that later.)
It should make us pause to think about how we throw around verses from the Bible completely out of context, or indeed whether even our readings in church are always linked to the wider story.
Put simply, the New Testament is not a story book of historical events but an attempt to give meaning to the powerful experience of God that Jesus was somehow able to communicate among his followers. Once we understand that, it is that powerful experience of God that becomes our central focus.