As part of my English Lit degree, I’m doing a free-choice philosophy module this semester. Each week we learn about the views of a different ‘big thinker’, starting with Plato and ending up with people like Foucault and Freud, focusing in particular on how their teachings affected what people know and how they know it. I was quite excited to learn that one week we’d focus on Jesus, and as our lecturer is a fervent atheist I was really intrigued about how the lecture would go. The set reading was some extracts from Matthew’s Gospel in the King James Version, which, despite having a great name, is quite hard to read. Feeling a bit rebellious, I decided to read from the NIV version instead. After all, I don’t think Jesus would have used the Aramaic equivalents of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ when He spoke: I’m sure He spoke in the everyday language of the people He was speaking to, so why shouldn’t I read His words in my everyday language too?
Anyway, I had the lecture last week and it didn’t disappoint. The lecturer began with a disclaimer, stating that we were only studying Jesus because His teaching had had such a massive impact on the world we live in, and that we could make our own minds up whether He was a ‘sacred figure’ or not (at which point my friend turned to me, smiled, and whispered ‘Yeah I will!’). It was really interesting stuff, particularly about the translation and transmission of the Bible, but when the focus moved on to Jesus’s teachings the lecture began to get controversial. Fair enough, he pointed out how revolutionary Jesus was, and that his teaching upset the social order (i.e. God loves the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy just as much as those at the top). He went on to make some preeeety crazy claims, though, like that Jesus promoted violence rather than love (despite ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ and ‘love thy neighbour’ being in the set reading – hmmmm…), and that the Bible has loads of contradictions rather than conveying any sort of overall message. Still, it gave me plenty of food for thought. It’s good to be challenged sometimes about what you believe, a) to stop you ever becoming complacent, thinking you have all the answers, and b) to give you a chance to re-evaluate and clarify what you actually believe. Anyway, here’s the end product of my thinking…
Firstly, what about apparent contradictions in the Bible? I think that the problem is with us rather than the Bible itself: discrepancies often arise when we take a verse out of context, in which case it is very easy to misinterpret the message behind what’s being said. Some people point to the slight differences in the four accounts of Jesus’ life as examples of contradictions, but I think they make it more reliable. Imagine four witnesses are asked to give an account of a crime and they all give exactly the same account of what they’ve seen, identical to each other’s down to the minutest detail. You’d be a bit suspicious, right? It would seem like they’ve got together and got their stories straight, anxious that someone might find a weakness in their argument. The Bible’s not like that, though. Each of the writers of the gospels brings their own unique perspective, emphasising the bits they thought were most noteworthy rather than tweaking their stories to make them exact replicas of each other. If this analogy seems too simplistic, the article ‘Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?‘ answers this question more thoroughly.
So is the Bible accurate, seeing as it was written by so many different people? Well, I believe that one thing all the books have in common is that somehow God wrote them all. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that ‘all scripture is God-breathed’ (NIV), or, more explicitly, ‘inspired by God’ (NCV). I believe it’s accurate too: I don’t have any nuanced theological arguments to support this, simply my faith, but I recently stumbled across an article called ‘The Historical Reliability of the New Testament‘ which is definitely worth a glance if you’re even the slightest bit intrigued.
But hasn’t the original meaning been distorted by translation? No, I don’t think so. In one sense it’s like evolution: if that theory were true (and I’m not saying it is, by the way!) then that wouldn’t minimise God’s role as Creator: I’d still believe God was the one who started it all off, and, to take this illustration a step further, is overseeing and shaping the creative process as time progresses, or, in the case of the Bible, in each translation. Even if, for argument’s sake, a particular passage of scripture has been altered a little bit from what the original writer said, the underlying message of God’s love, grace and forgiveness conveyed by the Bible will undoubtedly still shine through.
So did Jesus actually exist? Historical evidence, if it could talk, would reply with a resounding ‘yes’. But the big question is, is Jesus who He says He is? Luke had a similar conundrum. He begins his gospel by saying he’s heard loads of different accounts of Jesus and the storm of controversy around Him, but instead of basing his beliefs on what others have said, he says:
“With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:3-4)
The only way to answer this question, then, is to investigate for yourself like Luke did. Intellectual credibility is at stake here: if you defiantly insist that Jesus isn’t who He says He is but haven’t properly looked into it for yourself, then all you’re doing is making unsubstantiated claims based on what everyone else thinks, right? In a real world situation this approach generally isn’t a good idea: if someone didn’t back up their opinions with evidence in an academic essay, for example, they probably wouldn’t get a great mark. This applies to Christians too, by the way. Too often we think we have things sussed (myself included!), but we can never reach a point where we know it all; we’re always learning, and even when reading a really familiar passage, God can reveal something completely fresh and astonishing. Wherever you’re at, then, reading the Bible can help you discover a God more amazing than you can comprehend.
One thing I’ve not emphasised enough is that I believe the Bible really is the divine word of God. My mate reminded me the other day how amazing it is that God wants to speak to us through it: to tell us how much He loves us, to reveal how great He is, and to teach us how to become the people He wants us to be. Isn’t it awesome that the God who created the universe wants to talk to us, let alone have a relationship with us?
So what have I learned after my post-lecture reflection? Firstly, I’m so blessed to have God’s Word at my fingertips in a language I can easily understand. I wonder what Christians before the Reformation would have given for such easy access to the Bible, or what they’d have thought of our lack of appreciation for it. Secondly, God’s word still remains pure, even when it’s translated. We’ve just been learning in one module that all translation is interpretation, but the big difference here is that God’s involved. Whereas translations of texts often adapt and rework them for the age or culture they’re being translated for, translations of the Bible make its truths accessible to people of that age and culture, enabling them to realise just how amazing God is. And finally, when I’m on the daily bus journey to or from Uni, I should definitely open my Bible app a bit more often and my Facebook app a bit less.