What the Bible is and what it isn’t

Posted: March 9, 2010 by datechguy in catholic, opinion/news
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One of the things that generates a lot of debate concerning religion is the nature of the bible. This is a subject that has entranced scholars for centuries.

If you want to study and understand history and western civilization you have to know the bible. Even the great atheists such as Christopher Hitchens understand this as true, but in my opinion it is even more important to understand two things about the Bible:

What it is designed to be.

What it is not designed to be.

First of all what is the purpose of the bible…

Well the great scholars and references will state that various books are history , others are prophesy, others are narratives and still others are specific letters to specific people or groups. Christians state it is the revealed word of God. That’s all true, but that doesn’t get to the heart of our argument.

The best short explanation I ever heard was from a Baptist preacher who called it:

Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

I put it a different way. It’s very simple:

The purpose of the Bible is to keep you from burning.

That’s it. Scripture exists for the sole purpose to help keep people from damnation and the consequences thereof. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t serve interesting historical, social, literary and anthropological functions as well, but the primary purpose, the reason it was inspired by God, was to lead man to him and out of the darkness.

Once you wrap your head around this the rest falls into place.

That first part is something that any Christian of any denomination can agree with, this next part is going to be a little more iffy.

Important Disclaimer: I want to stress that what I’m about to write is my personal opinion, it is NOT the official position of the Catholic Church. To my knowledge it doesn’t conflict with Catholic teaching. If a priest in full communion with the Holy See spots something incorrect in what follows I would be grateful for correction.

In my opinion one of the great mistakes that people make with the Bible it to make something of it that it is not. It does chronicle history but it is not solely meant as a history book, for example 18 years of Christ’s life is missing (actually more like 29, we only have a brief glimpse at age 12). Those years might be of interest to historians but in terms of the purpose of the book (see point 1) they don’t matter.

As we go farther back, particularly in Genesis we see items that seem to conflict with established science, such as geology. We see other things that have issues with the fossil record, and if you go all the way back to the start, the question arises where Cain got his wife.

Tradition tells us that Moses recorded the first 5 books of the Bible. Naturally his own experiences he recorded from events he was present for but items before his time would have come via divine inspiration, the oral traditions carefully preserved and passed down with whatever written records existed. This makes it no less the revealed word of God but gives the physical origin.

Now lets take Moses as such. He is blessed with direct contact with God but he remained a man of his time, with the physical perceptions and the scientific knowledge of a man of his time. In spiritual matters he was of course far advanced yet those spiritual matters have little to do with science, in fact nothing to do with them. Science wasn’t necessary for said matters. To wit, in this Sunday’s first reading we have the story of the water from the Rock:

From the desert of Sin the whole Israelite community journeyed by stages, as the LORD directed, and encamped at Rephidim. Here there was no water for the people to drink. They quarreled, therefore, with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to a test?” Here, then, in their thirst for water, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!” The LORD answered Moses, “Go over there in front of the people, along with some of the elders of Israel, holding in your hand, as you go, the staff with which you struck the river. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock in Horeb. Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it for the people to drink.” This Moses did, in the presence of the elders of Israel. 1 The place was called Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” Exodus 17:1-7

I have no doubt that this happened as it said, but how did it happen? Did God spontaneously create a stream at the point of the rock. Was there a stream just below that area and did God lead them there? Did God cause the rock to be weak exposing an underground stream to be accessible from that point? Any of those answers and others you might think of are feasible and logical, but as far as Moses was concerned, it didn’t matter. All that mattered is that the water appeared as the Lord said it would. The science behind it, and the miracle, whether a miracle of spontaneous creation or simple anticipation is irrelevant, what mattered was the water was there for the people to drink. Moses didn’t have to understand the source of the water except that it came from God.

Understood God's Laws of life, no clue on Newton's Laws of Motion

Likewise consider the Biblical accounts before that, Noah for example, and consider Moses understanding of them. He is a man of his time. Imagine him in the 21st century. Explain germs to him. Explain microbes to him, Explain the internal combustion engine, heart transplants and the internet to him. To say they would go over his head is the understatement of the year.

Now try to explain to him how a planet is created, how species develop, and how God chooses to make man in his own image, that is give him a SOUL. That soul, the connection to God IS the image that God is referring to. As scripture states God is spirit, it is that spirit that we have that makes us in his image.

In our science we basically have educated guesses in pursuit of truth. As time and our knowledge expands our guesses become better and more informed but in the end a lot of it is still a guess, yet these guesses are a million times better than Moses would ever be able to make. If our science would be beyond Moses, how much more beyond him would be the actual methods of how God works explained on a scientific level?

It is my opinion that God gave Moses the answers that were truthful, but also in a way that he and his people, bronze age humans could understand and grasp. Like at the waters of Massah and Meribah he didn’t give him a thesis on Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms combined to create water, he didn’t give a geological explanation of how steams wear down soil and cause erosion, he provided the water.

It doesn’t matter for example if the entire world was flooded in Noah’s time, or if it was an individual continent, or just a country the size of Iraq or whatever. In the understanding of Noah it was the world, and in the understanding of Moses it was the world. It makes it no less the action of God nor do the lessons drawn from it change. It is no different than trying to explain to a 3 year old how something works, you tell him the truth but in a way that he can grasp it.

This is how I see it, Man can’t grasp God. God is really beyond our understanding, which is why Christ as fully God and fully man is so significant. That is simply because of our nature. Yet we can grasp the important and practical parts of what is necessary. The commandments, right and wrong, good and evil, thus allowing us to function in such a way to get to where we need to go. Likewise nothing biblical precludes intelligent life created elsewhere by God and offered salvation through whatever methods God chooses. We don’t know and we don’t need to know. In terms of our salvation it doesn’t matter.

Some theologians make the mistake of ignoring science, turning it into a threat to their faith instead of celebrating the wonder of God’s creation. Meanwhile secularists use their own literal interpretations to try to deny the works of God for the sake of their own ambitions and self aggrandizement, both are equally wrong.

Man didn’t need God to provide him a science text, man can write those texts himself. Man did need instruction on the salvation of his soul. God provided that and still provides it through Scripture, prayer, the Church and Tradition. We can take advantage of those things provided or not. It’s totally up to us.

  1. Lonnie Hicks says:

    My view is that the bible’s religious import is undeniable but new archeological evidence makes it clear that the social import of the bible may be as great. In my blog on this topic and in my novel “The gospel according to Lilith” I make the argument that the ancient Israelites intended to create an egalitarian society and did so according the the archeological evidence. This is the neglected aspect of the bible and one which will require a rethinking of our views of both the old and new testaments. I cite in support of this argument the NOVA special of November 2008 which brings to us real evidence of this possibility.