Ways of reading the Bible
In the ancient world, important literature (religious or secular) was written on scrolls made from animal skins, while less important writing was written on sheets of paper loosely bound together (rather like a modern book). The Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament) were written on scrolls, while rabbinic commentary on them (known as midrash) was written on paper. The New Testament, however, was always written, like midrash, on leaves of paper. Why might this have been?
Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in the same God, but Jews believe that God definitively revealed himself1 to human beings in the Law, as recorded in the first five books of the Bible (the “Torah”); Muslims believe that God’s definitive revelation was the Qur’an, dictated word-for-word by God in Arabic to the Prophet Mohammed; but Christians believe that God’s definitive revelation to human beings wasn’t anything written, but was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. For this reason, the New Testament does not have the same status for Christians as the Qur’an does for Muslims or the Torah does for Jews – it’s not “scripture” in the same sense. Although the NT is hugely important (because it gives us the evidence for Christ’s life and resurrection), it doesn’t matter that we have four different gospels that often disagree about the details. If anything, it’s helpful. It’s like having four different witness statements about a police incident. They will differ in detail, because different people always remember things differently: if they all agreed about everything it would look like collusion. The fact that they don’t agree suggests that they are independent witnesses, and that the big things that they do agree about did actually happen. As a result, it’s important to read the New Testament as a whole to get a sense of who Jesus was, and what he actually did and said, and not to take short passages or sayings out of context.
- Helen-Ann Hartley (who is now the Bishop of Ripon): Making Sense of the Bible (SPCK, 2011)
- Nicholas King: The New Testament freshly translated with a cutting-edge commentary (Kevin Mayhew 2006)
1 or “Godself” - God is neither male nor female!