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Posts Tagged ‘Revelation’

The short answer to the question posed in the title of today’s post would be, “very few.” Approaching the Bible with preconceptions of what it is, what we should find, and how it should be interpreted can be inherently dangerous. This is true in so many ways we shall probably not be able to cover all of them in this post.

Have you ever read or heard of someone who lost their faith, because of what they learned from an advanced study of the Bible? Make no mistake; that has happened, and I am well aware of most of the issues that could result in a loss of faith. At the same time, I have become convinced that it is not generally the facts discovered about the Bible that result in a loss of faith. In most instances, I believe that occurs when we discover that the facts of the Bible do not conform to the preconceptions which we bring to it.

Let’s look at just one possibility. If you simply assume that you can go to a museum somewhere and read the original manuscript of the gospel of John, and then you read a book about the history of the Bible (or even this blog),  then you are going to be challenged when you learn that the original disappeared in antiquity, and we must rely on manuscripts that are copies of copies of copies of copies, dating from the third century at the earliest, and that our first substantially complete New Testament manuscripts were written in the fourth century. Should this be a challenge to our faith? Only if our faith is based on the assumption that the original must be preserved. What we find is that the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is what we should expect. Actually, the manuscripts of the New Testament provide a treasure trove with which no other literature from the ancient world can compare.

One of the assumptions we should bring to the Bible is the recognition that it is literature, actually a wide range of types of literature. On the most elementary level, the Bible contains examples of prose and poetry. Common sense should tell us that poetry in any language cannot be interpreted literally to the same degree as prose. Poetry, by definition, uses symbol, hyperbole, metaphor, simile, and other types of fanciful language to appeal as much to the heart as to the intellect. We should not read the Psalms in the same way we read the book of Acts. And while we are talking about this subject, we should recognize that apocalyptic literature was a specific literary form in the ancient world that employed grotesque imagery and accounts of great celestial battles with which to present its message. Those who attempt to interpret the book of Revelation literally simply reveal their ignorance of this type of literature. I feel confident in saying that the Christians who first read that book would not have seen it as a literal description of the end times. So, we should ask ourselves what type of literature we are reading before we attempt to interpret it.

We should also read the Bible with the understanding that it was written to give a message first to the people alive when it was originally written. This does not mean the Bible has no meaning for us today. On the contrary, we can and should seek its message for us. However, we should also be aware of the danger of misinterpreting the Bible if we do not understand the culture in which a particular part of the Bible was written.

Let’s consider just one example, and that is the account of creation in Genesis 1. I do not pretend to be a physicist, but just to illustrate the point, let’s also assume for a moment that what physicists refer to as “the Big Bang” represents a fairly accurate description of the physiological processes that took place when the universe was created. God chooses to reveal His role in the creation of the universe to Semitic people living in the ancient world. He could not talk about the scientific aspects of the Big Bang, because these people would not have understood the concepts involved. They would not even have possessed the vocabulary with which to describe it. The truth is God could not do much better in describing it to me, since I am not a physicist either. At the same time, if God revealed the origin of the universe to someone with a PhD in physics, He might employ mathematical formulas as much as words. By saying, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” God revealed the essential point of creation, that He is transcendent (above the universe that is His creation), and that the universe we inhabit was the result of a divine plan. That is as true today as it was when first written.

So, we should approach the Bible, prepared to accept what we find there, rather than anticipating that it will always confirm what we already believe about it. People sometimes are disturbed by notes in our Bibles, explaining that certain manuscripts include or omit words, phrases, or even entire verses. In future posts I want to talk about what are called “textual variants,” but for now understand that they are the inevitable result of copying anything by hand, as the Bible was for hundreds of years. They are not the product of some “liberal conspiracy” to undermine faith in the Bible, and they should not affect our faith.

And this brings me to my final admonition. I hope you have come to understand that I have a deep reverence for the Bible. Why else would I have spent over forty years studying it? At the same time, my faith is not and should not be in the Bible. The Bible can become an idol just as easily as any number of things. The Bible is a tool to reveal the mind and heart of God. It is not God Himself. We should approach it with humility and respect, but not worship. The Bible can be a powerful servant; it does not serve as an effective god.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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