Seeing as I’ve called this Bible Study “Beginnings” I want to start right at the beginning with the basics of what we’re doing. So the first thing I’d like you to reflect on are these two videos by the Bible Project on “What is the Bible?” and “The Story of the Bible.” Each one is about 5 minutes and together they provide a good place to start for understanding the big picture of what the Bible is, and what it’s about.
If you want to dig a bit more into the material presented in these videos you can find study guides and reflection questions here.
Why Are We Talking About the Story of the Bible?
Genesis chapters 1-11 tell a story that is the introduction to the the big story of the Bible. So to understand what it has to say to us today we need to understand how it connects to that big story as an introduction and frame for what follows.
And yes, Christians do believe that despite being a complex library of religious literature that was written by a variety of people over more than a 1000 year period, the Bible tells one big story. We believe this because behind all the different times, places, and people stands God’s Spirit. The Spirit inspired not only the people who wrote these books but also the communities of faith who discerned that the words of these books were God’s unique and lasting Word to people in all times and places. And because God’s Spirit directed this process, it all fits together as one story.
What is the Story All About?
The short version is that Christians believe that the Bible is the story of how God created a good world, how that world got messed up, and God’s plan to rescue the world and restore the goodness he intended from the beginning. It’s also about our role as human beings in this big story.
But Christians also believe something else about this story. The New Testament claims that the Old Testament is ultimately a story about Jesus if we learn how to read it correctly. Now this is a pretty big claim, yet we find that it comes from Jesus himself.
- Read Luke 24:13-50 and focus on verses 25-27 and 44-48. What do you think about what Jesus is saying here? Do you think Jesus can do this for people today?
Now it might seem a bit puzzling how the Old Testament can be about Jesus, even if you accept that many of the prophecies were talking about him. But it makes a bit more sense when we look at what the writer of the Gospel of John has to say about Jesus at the opening of his book.
- Read John 1:1-14. What do you think about John’s claims about Jesus?
The Gospel John claims that Jesus is God’s Word, eternally one with God and the one through whom God made all things. For instance when we look at the creation story in Genesis chapter 1, John is saying that Jesus is that word that God spoke to create the universe (and John’s not the only New Testament writer to say this, see also Colossians 1:15-20).
As my particular Christian tradition puts it:
“He is the living Word of God to whom the written word bears witness.” (Living Faith 5.1 the Presbyterian Church in Canada)
So How Do We Read the Bible?
Now this is a pretty big idea and one that can be a bit hard to wrap our minds around. Yet, if we begin to accept it, I think it provides us with a really helpful way to understand the Bible.
If Jesus is God’s Living Word, then anything we can say about Jesus we should also be able to say about the Bible. And if we think about how Jesus revealed who God is through his life, death and resurrection, then I believe we can understand how God reveals himself, his great story, and his purpose for his through the Bible.
- Jesus Acted: He did things that were both natural (eating meals with people) and more than natural (calming a storm).
- The Bible tells the story of God’s great acts in human history. Some of these acts are carried out in ordinary ways (through ordinary people and nature), some are more mysterious or miraculous.
- Jesus Taught: He provided concrete teaching about God, the world and how people should live.
- The Bible presents God’s teaching, through prophets, priests, apostles and through Jesus himself.
- Jesus Tells Stories: This is one of the most distinctive things about Jesus is his use of stories to reveal who God is, what God’ Kingdom is about, and how people should live in light of God’s Kingdom coming on earth. We call these stories parables.
- The Bible tells parables that reveal truths about God, the world, God’s purpose for the world, and our role in that purpose.
So how do we know when the Bible is giving us history, concrete teaching, or a parable?
Well that’s a bit tricky. There’s not a lot of consensus on this. Different groups of Christians read the Bible in different ways and have always done so. Some Christians argue that all of the Bible is to be read factually and historically – stories might have deeper spiritual meaning, but they’re all history that happened exactly as they were written. Other Christians go entirely the other way saying that most (if not all) of the Bible is made up of fictional stories that only have a metaphorical meaning. Most Christians tend to be somewhere between these two extremes. These differences of perspective unfortunately often end up in name calling – “Godless Liberal!” “Crazy Fundamentalist!” I’d like to avoid that.
On the whole, I personally to fall on the conservative side of center. I believe that most of the stories in the Bible are historical on at least some level and that many are very historical – especially the Gospels. However, I think it’s essential to believe that the key events actually happened (or will happen). What do I call the key events? Basically what’s is found is the ancient creeds of the Christian Church, like the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
I also believe that some of the stories in the Bible are more parable than history. I would classify books like Job, Esther and Jonah in this category.
So How Do We Read Genesis Then?
Some Christians read Genesis historically, some read it as a parable. I personally read Genesis 1-11 as a parable that draws on the history of the world, and Genesis 12-50 (the story of Abraham’s family) as entering the realm of history. But no matter how we read Genesis 1-11 I think most Christians would agree that these are some of the most important stories in the Bible, stories that help us to understand the rest of what follows. And no matter what kind of word they are, they are God’s Word. So let’s get ready to listen and reflect on what God might be saying to us today though them.