‘Go on, say it to her,’ my would-be tutor encouraged me, pointing to a pretty Chinese girl sitting nearby. ‘Don’t be shy. It’s just a greeting. You wanted to learn some new words, right?’ His impish grin did not inspire my confidence.
It’s one of the oldest tricks in the language teaching book: Tell the student a complete lie. The deception lasts until the girl who is ‘greeted’ frosts over, giggles, or bursts out in laughter. Deceptions like this range from fairly harmless to cruel. But, in general, they are fragile. The serious language student will practice their new words with many native speakers. The more trivial errors are more likely to persist, but the outrageous ones tend not to survive the environment of a community in conversation.
There is a similar remedy to mistakes and deceptions about the Bible. The more outrageous ones are fragile in the environment of the Bible community.
Who is in this community? The human authors of the Bible, their initial audiences, the readers in the generations since then, and even us today.
Today, let’s consider the first group: the human authors of the Bible. There were dozens of them over thousands of years.
First example: Luke and Paul. When Luke gives us Jesus’ model prayer, it is usually understood as a series of verbal requests to a personal God to bring about his good rule in the world, to supply our needs, and to forgive us. But could it instead be self-affirming, desire-free, vague meditation? Well, if for some reason we are unsure what Luke meant, we can check with Paul. Paul was in a missionary team with Luke. In the New Testament books that Paul wrote, he shares many of his own prayers, confirming that it involves requests to a personal God.
The Old Testament writers are also a part of the community. King David sheds light on Christ’s prayer, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, because this prayer is a direct quote from his Psalm 22. King David writes these words as a good man agonising over God’s refusal to step in, yet still trusting God with his every breath (read the whole psalm). This matches how Matthew and Mark present Christ. The same principle is at work when a recent movie makes a reference to a classic movie, and you watch the classic movie to check that you understood the reference right.
Christ quoting David like this is a fitting example of the link between the books of the Bible. To the writers of the newer books, the older books were a precious heritage – authorities even. Yet many are quick to assume that newer writers disagreed with their authorities. For example, Leo Tolstoy was sure that Christ was in fact preaching a stateless, churchless (and synagogue-less) society, though Christ failed to actually say so. Tolstoy insists that this idea, though so alien to the Old Testament, is there when you read between the lines of the New.
Certainly, writers added developments to the heritage of the older books. There is a reason why the second part of the Bible is called the New Testament. But the developments are the very things likely to be spelled out, not hidden between the lines. The new claim that the Messiah had arrived was endlessly debated between Christian and non-Christian Jews. The issue characterises the entire New Testament. Stephen’s trial and defense speech in Acts 7 presents us with one of the specific clashes. Even in its differences, a community helps us to understand.
Paul says, ‘The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God’ (Romans 3:2). The Jews were the human authors of the Bible (Luke was arguably an exception, but he certainly knew the Jewish heritage). God did not give his verbal revelation independently to isolated corners of the earth, but to a distinct nation with a rich sense of history. In the environment of their conversation, their real intentions and messages come to light.
My next few posts will be about another part of the community: the initial audiences.