A Down-to-Earth look at the Bible

What do I mean by the title to this blog? I mean an approach to the Bible with a focus not so much on beliefs, as on facts, as far as these can reasonably (if sometimes light-heartedly) be stated. By ‘reasonably’, I mean taking into account over 200 years of textual, historical, cultural and archeological scholarship. If you’re dismissive of these, don’t bother reading on – there’ll be no meeting of minds. 

The Bible is a book that sometimes sits suggestively on a table, or looks down hopefully from a shelf, or is hidden away in a hotel drawer. It could well have many very thin, difficult-to-turn pages, crammed with small-printed words in double columns. These columns could also have (as over-optimistic companions) side-notes in even smaller print, wanting anxiously (though probably disappointedly) to be allowed to impart their erudite riches. Sometimes the language it’s all written in belongs to the long past days of Shakespeare and King James VI of Scotland (by then of course, for better or worse, James I of England). The book’s title is likely to be, “The Holy Bible”, which is often highlighted with gold-braid – although that same Bible forbids women to ‘braid’ their hair, or wear ‘gold’. “Do as I say, not as I do,” comes to mind, but I won’t write that.

If any of its original writers were to emerge from a time machine, and be presented with such a ‘Holy Bible’, they’d be utterly astounded. They’d have had no idea that they were making a contribution to a ‘book’, since they wouldn’t have known what a ‘book’ was. In the beginning, writing was co-ordinated (or perpetrated, some recipients might have thought) on tablets made of clay, then in due course inscribed on scrolls made of papyrus. Not until much later were these scrolls chopped up into separate pages, bound with stitching and glue, and equipped with intendedly appealing (or unforgivably boring) covers. 

Far from imagining that they were adding to an ‘immortal’ anthology, some of these men (and I do mean men) were simply firing off broadsides at the ill-thought-out pretensions and follies of political leaders; the selfishly inequitable and extravagant greed of the wealthy; or the moral failures and glaring hypocrisies of the self-declared righteous. Others were engaged in the writing of letters to rally their supporters, or savage their opponents, while promoting the ‘plain truth’ and warning against ‘fake news’. They didn’t. as it happens, anticipate that their efforts would be ‘read’, but rather ‘heard’, since up to 90% of the population was likely to be illiterate. 

It’s fair to say, I suggest, that the Bible isn’t actually ‘a book’ at all. It might more accurately be described as a ‘library’, but of booklets and letters, folk tales and short stories, humour and tragedy, inspiration and atrocity, poetry and proverbs, laws and regulations, and a very wide variety of ideas and beliefs about a God who on one page, can be a tenderly loving father-figure and, on the next, a pitiless slaughterer of men, women and little children.

Clearly, the Bible didn’t suddenly drop down, ready made, from the skies, as a piece of flawless, definitive, divine craftsmanship. On the contrary, from word of mouth beginnings, it slowly evolved into its current form, over the laborious course of around twelve hundred years. Our thanks are due to countless very human and therefore fallible authors and editors, for their tireless editing and revising, and especially for their leaving in the rough as well as the smooth. 

The result is full of human interest, of drama, incident and colour, the recognisable and the unexpected. There are some pages to smile at, and others to deplore. As with any ancient ‘library’, we need to be selective. Don’t go for one of these ‘read the whole Bible in one year’ invites. Unless you’re a Biblical scholar, historian or anthropologist, there are many pages of repetitive weariness and mind-numbing irrelevance to twenty-first century readers. Go for the pages that like all great literature, entertain, educate and inspire, and stimulate important and deep thought about the individual life, human society, the state of the world, the future of the humanity, and about Mind as the ultimate source and ground of all Being (which you can call God is you so choose). 

And do yourself a favour – read the Contemporary English Version (with big print). 

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