‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?’
Today is Bible Sunday. There’s a well-known saying whose author I haven’t succeeded in tracking down. The internet claims it is by either Karl Barth or an anonymous African woman. ‘There are plenty of other books I can read – but the bible is the only book that reads me.’ The question I started with is a good example of how the bible can pose questions it is going to take a lifetime for me to answer, if I ever do. What exactly does nourish and satisfy my heart, and why do I spend so much of my money and time on things which ultimately do not? A later remark in this passage, coming as though from the mouth of God, is similarly trenchant:
‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, says the Lord’.
So. God is not, I am sorry to say, made in my image. The bible is not my echo chamber, resounding with proof texts to support my position and attack my opponents. If I read the bible, and listen to it, it’s going to ask me to examine myself and all that I think is most important.
During this year, we’ve had a little series of sermons that have given personal testimony about the preacher’s own faith journey, and it occurred to me that I could tell something of my own story through charting what has been my relationship with the bible over the years.
I grew up in a very churchgoing household. My father was a lay reader, himself the son of an older father, a vicar who was solidly Victorian in his approach. Dad raised us in a similarly disciplined fashion, and I became what you might call a competitively devotional child. By the age of 7 I had learned to recite the names of all the books of the bible in correct order, much to the bemusement of my teachers. (Actually that has proved a reasonably useful life skill, when looking passages up). As a result of frequent family Scripture quizzes, I could answer questions like ‘Who was Abishag the Shunamite?’ at an age when I shouldn’t have known anything about such things (ask me afterwards). But seriously, I read my bible notes each night and I pored over the full colour illustrations in my bible (Daniel surrounded by prowling lions and rather a lot of bones was a favourite I can still bring to mind). My father taught me how to read the bible out loud, too. He ensured that young people came up to read the lesson in church. When it was my turn he took me into the empty church the day before and rehearsed me properly, teaching me to project my voice to the back. He believed that the word of God should be proclaimed boldly, and it was my first lesson in how to proclaim anything boldly, and I will always be grateful for it. Of course I also experienced his own sermons – always carefully researched and thoughtful. But it was not all seriousness. He also had a wicked sense of humour and was everyone’s first choice to create sketches for comedy revues at church events. I recall several trenchant disquisitions about contemporary church politics set to music and sung like psalms. The bible, then, was so important you could have fun with it, be irreverent.
The next key stage in my relationship with the bible was an important RE teacher at my secondary school. Intriguingly, she declined to teach O level RE because she regarded it as too much about mugging up facts. Instead, she tempted us to dare the A level, which she pretty much addressed at first year undergraduate level, and made us think, and argue, and grasp some of the issues about the biblical texts, their internal contradictions, how they have come down to us. I think she probably kept me in the church – not because she proselytized but because she challenged me to use my brain, and not just accept uncritically what I had been taught. She even arranged to teach me NT Greek at a time when I should have been doing games – sadly, as a 6th former, that was my nerdy and not terribly healthy choice. So, though I chose English and not Theology at university, the siren call of biblical studies didn’t go away, and at a later stage of my life, when the issues about women in the church – and of course their presence in the bible – became insistent, I returned to take a degree in biblical studies.
There, I added Hebrew to my Greek (much harder, but maybe I was just older), and had a ball. There are nuances that emerge in the bible’s original languages that don’t really come out in English; you do feel closer to the text. Incidentally, seeing that Jews have to learn at least to recite some Hebrew, and Muslims do their best to learn the Qu’ran in Arabic, why exactly is it that even the most bible-thumping parts of Christianity don’t ask their followers to get acquainted with the fairly simple Greek of the New Testament? Here are some of the eye-opening things I learned about the bible (apologies to those of you who already know all this):
The fluidity of the text we inherit, and the fragility of the scribal tradition. With the OT, the best extant texts we have date from the 10th century of the Common Era, that’s AD, that’s more than a millennium after they were first penned. We have copies of copies of copies. That’s why the Dead Sea scrolls are so important, fragments as they are. Just this last week, on holiday in Jordan, I set eyes on one of these, from the book of Isaiah. The close writing is tiny and exquisite. I was bowled over to be able to decipher the name of God, written by the hand of a scribe over 2 millennia ago, and I found myself bursting into tears. With the NT we can get even closer. Some papyri of Paul’s letters go back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries, and we have a few entire codices (ie book-shaped MSS) dating from the 4th
Then there is the occasional disparity between versions of a text that exist – almost always at key verses that underlie debatable points of doctrine. But also I learned how to address these disparities. There are rules of thumb. You have to look and see how many sources attest each version, and how reliable those sources normally are. And then you have to apply the principle of lectio difficilior – the principle of the more difficult reading. Scribes and copyists of course smooth things over when they hit a passage they don’t understand or which they very much wish said something different. So you must take the more difficult reading – the bumpy or surprising version, the sentence that seems not quite to make sense, because this is more likely to be original. It is puzzling to me that biblical fundamentalists always know exactly what the bible says; and that for all their desire to get close to the text, usually fail to adopt the lectio difficilior.
And what about the contents of the bible? Well, it’s an astonishingly rich and innovative collection of very different texts. There’s a wealth of literary genre: law, history, myth, human interest narrative, poetry, lament, wisdom teaching, correspondence. And the bible teaches us not just to praise God but to argue with God. And this is at a time when many societies didn’t get much further than what I would call the laundry list stage of literary culture. Writing was either strictly functional (business or trading contracts) or consisted of a list of all the enemies the great king had defeated – ie royal propaganda.
The bible is in fact surprisingly short on propaganda, and long on challenging and realistic narratives. The earliest parts of the OT, the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, may be contemporary with the works of Homer, and they bear comparison in terms of quality, range and subtlety. The story of the rise of the monarchy – Saul, David, Solomon, shows the kings full of flaws and shifting moral compasses even when chosen by God. The gospels show the obtuseness of Jesus’ disciples. The Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters reveal frequent conflict between different camps in the evolving early church.
So the bible is not afraid to include competing versions of stories and histories, side by side. Sometimes editors like to try and point a moral, but they do still include contrasting accounts. We are left to work out how they relate, or which is the more reliable. Often, texts with rather different theologies are there together, like the four gospels, witnessing to different perspectives. Sometimes you have the feeling that the whole canon of the bible is a massive, continuing community dialogue about the puzzling, inspiring ways of God with us, across time and history, which scoops us up to participate in its tradition. Passages from older scriptural books are picked up and re-applied to new contexts. We can do that too!
At certain times, parts of the bible have been regarded as politically dangerous, and yet there they still are – giving us the right to use them afresh. One example would be that of the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharoah and let the Hebrew boy babies live – this was seen by Henry VIII as a terrible example of people taking it upon themselves to defy their monarch. Or the Song of Songs – rather obviously a highly erotic love poem and therefore something, like Lady Chatterly’s Lover, that some men didn’t want their wives or servants to read. And so on. For centuries, the bible was only translated into Latin, and was the preserve of those who were educated. They shared and interpreted only some parts of it.
But then there were the crucial movements towards translating the bible into the vernacular – most notably in English by William Tyndale, that brilliant translator who taught himself the original languages and did it all on the run from the authorities, finally dying at the stake to give us the right to participate fully in the biblical tradition. And our literature, art and music has been enormously enriched thereby, including the wonderful bible-soaked hymnody of Charles Wesley, whose extraordinary text ‘Open Lord my inward ear’ we are going to sing today. We can hardly appreciate our culture without being familiar with the bible.
So, what about us? Do we care to be a living part of this tradition? Some years ago, the Methodist Church (which I was working for) attempted to express the range of how its members experienced the importance and authority of the bible. It produced a series of profiles which went from those who thought it was the inerrant Word of God to those who saw it as one book among others that might be consulted in determining our choices and shaping our faith – and lots of stages in between. I didn’t quite find my own stance in their list, because for me literalism isn’t the touchstone. What I think we are asked to do as Christians is to agree to inhabit these stories and let them shape us; to enter this whole tradition and play our part in arguing about all the issues that arise; to let the essential strangeness of the biblical contexts challenge the assumptions of our own and have a constructive dialogue with them. So I urge us not to consign the bible to the past, not even to our own pasts; not to surrender these precious and maddening texts to the fundamentalists. The bible is too important and too creative – and too open – for us not to care passionately about it.
So this is why part of my relationship with the bible at this stage of my life is to get involved in the Godly Play team. We preside over the gathering of that part of our church community who meet upstairs during the Ministry of the Word – the young children. Week by week, we use beautiful objects and focused words to introduce the young children to the stories of the bible, engaging their minds and hearts so that they too can enter the tradition. We ask them open questions, not demanding fixed answers, but firing their imaginations. Over the course of their lives, the bible, and through it, the word of God, may sustain them and ‘read them’.
And I would invite you to consider what your relationship with the bible is these days. Is it time to re-engage? If you do nothing else, what about this. Jump on a train to London and turn right at St Pancras, and you will find yourself at the British Library. There is an Anglo-Saxon exhibition just starting, where they will be showing the Lindisfarne Gospels, and including the world’s earliest complete bible in Latin, created in Jarrow in 8th century but not seen on these shores since it was given to the papacy a millennium ago. But there is an even greater treasure from our biblical tradition there, one of the most important and reliable extant source texts for the whole New Testament. It is the codex called Sinaiticus, which is from the monastery on Mount Sinai and dates from the 4th century. This is scanned online now but there is something about seeing the actual object itself. Written in lovely clear, spacey Greek script, the library usually displays the double spread which shows the final page of Mark’s gospel and the first page of Luke. There it is – the original, puzzling ending of Mark before they messed about with it: ‘for they were afraid’. Then just blank space before the beginning of Luke – no missing pages. Mark, our church’s patron saint, didn’t tie all the ends up and tell us what to think. He asked us to pick up the resurrection story from a bunch of frightened women and run with it ourselves. Let’s do it.