When We Read the Bible as Literature, Do We Retain Its Truths?

Jay Parini on John Barton's New History of the Bible

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bible in recent years, having taken a deep dive into this sacred literature to write a life of Jesus and, most recently, my novel about the life of Saint Paul, The Damascus Road: A Novel of Saint Paul. It was somewhat frightening to plunge headfirst into these profound waters. What is this peculiar anthology of immensely revered texts? What sort of “truth” does this writing convey? Who actually wrote this stuff? And what does it all mean?

I grew up in a household where my father revered the Bible. He was a former Catholic turned fundamentalist Protestant. In his thirties he began to read the scriptures with a pen in hand, making notes in the margins. I have strong memories of him rising early to sit with the Good Book, as he called it, and watched him reading and writing in the margins. And I have before me his actual Bible from those days, its margins covered with notes.

In Catholicism, one follows a combination of scriptural teachings and tradition. Both play into the religious life of a practicing Catholic, and there are many things priests will teach that are not biblically grounded. The Bible never says, for instance, not to eat meat on Fridays. That’s just tradition. The notion that priests should never marry is wholly traditional: not a word about this appears in the Bible. Even on major issues that confront Christians today—same-sex marriage and abortion, for instance—the Bible remains silent. And tradition fills in the gaps.

For a Protestant, the phrase sola scriptura is crucial. Only the scriptures tell the truth. One should follow what they say. In most evangelical circles, people believe in what the Bible says. It’s the Word of God, the truth. There is even, in some sects, a belief in “biblical inerrancy.” That is, the Bible tells only the literal truth, and it must be followed as such. If anything, in churches where the scriptures are held up as the last word, the scriptures are elevated to a position of immense authority. People in these “Bible-based” churches often just quote a verse by naming the citation. I recall a young minister answering some question I had with a string of biblical references: “John 3:16,” he said. “Romans 6:23. Ephesians 2:8.”

In each case, I knew exactly what verse he meant, and what power it had in this particular brand of Christianity.

I’ve recently read A History of the Bible by John Barton, newly published by Viking, and it offers a supple and intelligent recap of the Holy Scriptures, their origins and contexts, their meaning in a broad historical sense. Barton explains how certain books of the Bible came to be regarded as sacred, something to be set apart from other texts. He writes about their dissemination in various languages and arrangements. He discusses the manuscript tradition in each case, and the schools of interpretation that rose up around this uniquely powerful collection of disparate texts.

Even on major issues that confront Christians today—same-sex marriage and abortion, for instance—the Bible remains silent. And tradition fills in the gaps.

Barton was a professor at Oxford for many years, and he’s got that wonderfully British common sense when it comes to everything. Evidence is put forward in a brisk fashion, and conclusions follow. “At the moment there is a flourishing industry of post-critical study,” he writes, “informed by political, social-scientific and postmodernist insights, which leaves behind the older critical concerns with the dates and literary development of texts, in order to pursue an agenda defined by what is often called simply Theory.” This approach, he says, is “more or less indifferent to what lies beneath the surface.”

As with any literary text—and the books of the Bible must be regarded as such—what lies beneath the surface matters a great deal. And, in truth, we’re now in a broadly pluralistic phase in biblical studies. Approaches to these luminous and important texts vary greatly, and there is just so much information—historical and interpretive—available that it’s rather dizzying. Anyone who wishes truly to understand what the Bible says has a lot of work to do.

This work is often linguistic. The Hebrew Bible came down to us in this marvelous ancient tongue, although, even here, one must take into account a variety of languages at play, such as Aramaic, the original language of the Book of Daniel, which, in fact, pretends (as it were) to be much older than it is. Daniel is actually a very “recent” text by Old Testament standards, dating to the second century before Christ.

Barton lays all of this out with clarity, and (even though I know this material pretty well) it was useful to have everything succinctly laid out. I find it endlessly fascinating to think about when these texts came into being, and what communities the original writing served.

The original five books of Moses tell a story that reaches back at least two millennia and worked to unify the earliest Jewish communities, making them visible to themselves. Many of the best stories—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jacob wrestling with his angel, and so forth—have a mythical quality in their telling, and they were never meant to be taken literally. These stories—and they are stories, not historical accounts—were written down relatively late, in the eighth century. This is the time of Homer in Greek literature.

The Bible is not true in the way Gibbon’s history of Rome is true. This is mythic truth, and I would define myth as a story that operates on a poetic level.

There may be passages that are much older, and it’s probable that oral tradition played a huge role here, just as with the Homeric tales. Ancient people sat around the campfire and told stories about the origins of the world, about the nature of God, about the fate of human beings and how suffering came into the world. To this day, it’s well worth returning to these texts for inspiration and hope, for enlightenment that has nothing whatsoever to do with truth in the sense of modern historical truth.

The Bible is not true in the way Gibbon’s history of the rise and fall of Rome is true. This is mythic truth, and I would define myth as a story that operates on a poetic level. The truth is real, but it’s not subject to epistemological proof. Myth represents a kind of tear in the fabric of reality through which all of these tremendous energies pour. And biblical texts are huge tears in this fabric. Each text is a surface full of fissures, and divine light comes through these fissures.

Christians wanted their own sacred texts in addition to the Hebrew scriptures, and stories about Jesus began to circulate during his lifetime. His famous sayings were popular among those who followed The Way of Jesus, and it’s assumed there were books of sayings by Jesus. Accounts of his life were in circulation in different parts of the Roman world, too. These were written in Greek, which had become the common language of empire by the middle of the first century ACE. Mark was probably the earliest gospel, written about the time of the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 ACE. Matthew and Luke followed, perhaps a decade or so later. John was very late, and nobody really knows how or when it came into being; but it’s very different in texture and tone from the earlier “synoptic” gospels, which have much in common. (Synoptic means, in Greek, “seeing together.”)

Taking any of these texts literally is, in my view, a grave error. They’re real in their way, and can help us to live our lives.

The letters of Paul, for me, have a particular resonance. My father loved them, and I’ve been reading them throughout my life. These letters—at least the six authentic letters by Paul—were by far the earliest of Christian texts. The letters to Corinth and Rome, to the churches in Galatia and Thessalonica, are peerless in their poetic force. Paul’s mind was clear and strong, and he has a distinct way of talking. He pretty much invented Christian theology as we now know it.

But we’re back to “truth” again. Taking any of these texts literally is, in my view, a grave error. It will never really work, in fact. These texts tell many different stories, and there are endless contradictions. The two Christmas stories, for instance, as relayed in Matthew and Luke, have very little in common and cannot in any universe be reconciled. These are mythic tales, added very late to the supply of stories about Jesus, and they have something to teach us that has nothing to do with history. I nonetheless value the truth that’s in these varied writings. It’s real in its way, and can help us to live our lives.

Jay Parini
Jay Parini
Jay Parini is a poet, biographer, and critic who has published seven novels, most notably The Last Station, which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film in 2009 and translated into over 25 languages. He is the D. E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College, and the author of Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America.





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