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Fact or Fiction?

For most of my childhood and early teenage years, the Bible was simply a dusty, neglected feature of my bookshelf. It likely spent its days getting well acquainted with my electric guitar, the sight of which always filled me with guilt for lack of practicing. At Sunday school we would learn about the classic Bible stories: fun episodes to do with lions, giants, and floods. At youth group we explored further into what the Bible meant for us, that is, when I wasn’t laughing at the words ‘Gentile’ and ‘uncircumcised’; Galatians 2.12 was better than any stand-up comedian to my twelve-year-old self.

But outside of the set passages that we studied at church groups, this holy book was just a big unknown. Someone could have told me that it contained cheesecake recipes and I would have had no grounds for dispute.

This changed at the age of fourteen. We were on a family holiday, and I was bored. So bored, in fact, that I decided to read the Bible. I’m not sure why I had packed it in the first place; perhaps I didn’t really have any new books in my life at the time, or perhaps it seemed like the holy thing to do. I was also unsure how to approach it, so I used the techniques I’d learned from previous books and dove in at the beginning. Or I suppose, ‘in the beginning.’

I found it fascinating. As it turned out, Genesis was by far one of the more readable books of the Bible, no wonder God opened with it. It’s all about narrative: flood epics, family betrayal, murder, deception, war. Amazing. The drama continued as I moved into Exodus, who doesn’t love a good escape story? And with plagues!

It got a little slower as I hit the second half of the Exodus. Now that the Israelites had fled from Egypt and made it into the wilderness, God spent several chapters outlining the blueprints for building a tent – known as the ‘tabernacle’ – at which sacrifices were to be offered. Then, in true biblical copy-and-paste style, the following chapters described the construction taking place. The wording seemed almost identical to what I had just read, simply replacing ‘Make it…’ with, ‘They made it…’ Moses must have had a big word count that he needed to hit.

Leviticus was intriguing in a different way. There was virtually no storyline, but it conveyed a foreign world of rituals, and presented the foundation for the biblical sacrificial system. I began to grasp a little more of what this ‘sacrifice’ language had meant in church. At a Christian Summer conference not long afterwards, I bought a Bible Speaks Today commentary on Leviticus and read it all the way through. I was not a typical teenager.

At the top of every teenager's Christmas list.

A couple of more books in and I’d hit my first milestone: the writings of Moses were down. I remember turning up to a youth small group and proudly announcing that I’d read the Pentateuch. I was still a long way off the whole biblical anthology, but this landmark felt good nonetheless. It was as though the bible stories I’d previously heard began to piece together and make a little more sense. I was no longer reliant on the youth group teachings alone, I could now read and explore for myself. Not only that, but I began to teach others too! I would approach some of my friends (read: victims) and take them through the biblical storyline that I knew so far. I’d found the reading process helpful, and I wanted to share that with others.

I won’t take you through my experience book-by-book, but the adventure into the Bible continued. Beyond the Pentateuch, I encountered more events in the wider plot: the violent tales of the Judges, Israel’s early monarchy, the religious failure of later kings, and the military fall and return of the Kingdom of Judah. Curiously, when I hit Chronicles, I found myself reading a lot of the same events again, except this time it felt as though it had been compiled by an accountant.

When I discussed my biblical journey, people often assumed that the bits I’d struggle with were the laws and rituals. These were certainly not a continuous barrel of laughs, but in truth I found the concepts they conveyed to be engaging. What I actually found difficult was the poetry. Not at first. But there’s a lot. This isn’t just Psalms and Song of Songs; even most of the prophetic books are presented in stanzas. I’m sure they’re more engaging when you take time to study portions at a time, but after a few months I felt like I was wading through a literary swamp. I’m not sure poetry is designed to be read in bulk.

The New Testament was a breath of fresh air; back to the stories! I recognized a lot of the narratives in the Gospels, simply because of my exposure to the church teachings. Even those who haven’t stepped foot in church have probably heard about Jesus turning water into wine, or feeding five-thousand people. Nevertheless, there was still a considerable amount that I was reading for the first time. Though, as there’s a great deal of similarity between the different accounts of Jesus’ life, anything I wasn’t acquainted with at the beginning, I was by the end.

And, finally, the letters. In a sense, this was the most familiar territory. Outside of the stories about Jesus, most of the language, ideas, and practices in church were derived from what Paul and the other Apostles had written to the gatherings of believers in the First Century. Admittedly, Revelation was an odd finale, but once I’d passed that, it was done. I’d read the Bible.

And it only took four years.

I was eighteen by the time I’d completed my journey through the Bible, and what did I decide to do once I’d finished? Start again, of course. Due to its length and complexity, it has good re-read value.

If someone was preparing a sermon and needed advice on the meaning of a passage, I was the person they would turn to. I loved it.

One of the reasons that it had taken so long is that around halfway through, I decided to read not only the Biblical text, but the commentary that was provided at the bottom of the page. At many points these comments took up far more space than the main body of the work, though they admittedly helped elucidate some of the more obscure passages.

As a result of my reading, I was often called upon as the person who could help explain the Bible; if someone was preparing a sermon and needed advice on the meaning of a passage, I was the person they would turn to. I loved it.

Eventually I decided to take this a step further and study theology at university. It was an evangelical college validated by a state university, which essentially meant that there was a high academic standard, but I was studying alongside other Christians. A few of the modules looked at the more faith-based ‘practical’ theology, but the majority were systematic, historical or biblical. Guess which one I majored in.

Until this point, I was very familiar with the biblical narrative and concepts, and a surface-level reading of the Christian scripture, but it was only now that I was able to dig a little deeper. And that’s where the troubles began.

There are many examples that I could draw from, but I think it may be helpful to focus on one, which should serve as an exemplar for the mental quandary in which I found myself.

I mentioned earlier that I had read through the directions in the book of Exodus for the construction of the ‘tabernacle’, the portable tent and locus of sacrifices during Israel’s time wandering in the desert. Within the biblical narrative, this tent was in essence the precursor to the temple which would later be built in Jerusalem and serve as the central institution for all of the Jewish religious activity. A proud symbol at the heart of the nation.

Despite the tediousness of the instructions, I found the actual concept captivating. As someone who frequently led the musical worship in church services, discovering the origins of Israel’s worship activities shed new light on the significance of what I was doing. My interest in this area became so acute that if someone mentioned the word ‘tabernacle’ in a sermon, everyone would look over to me and smirk knowingly.

Then I came across an idea which rocked my world.

While the tabernacle was supposed to be the precursor for the Jerusalem temple, most scholars argued that it never actually existed. How could this be? Well, the Priestly writings – within which the tabernacle is found – were composed around the time of the Babylonian exile, several hundred years after the construction of the temple, and within living memory of its destruction. The tabernacle, they argued, was simply a priestly retrojection of the temple back into an idealized Israelite past. The temple was not modeled on the tabernacle; it was the other way around.

This made sense, and it scared me.

Now you can build your very own tabernacle!

You may be wondering why this had such an impact. After all, most Christians have a peripheral awareness of the tabernacle at best, why should it matter if it wasn’t a real object? However, it’s not the tabernacle itself that’s at issue; it’s what the Bible claims about history. If the books of the Pentateuch incorrectly presented the tabernacle as a historical fact of Israel’s past, what else might not truly have occurred?

As long as I’d been contemplating the Bible, I was aware that the opening stories in Genesis had a mythological flavour. Nevertheless, I believed that once those first eleven chapters were out of the way and Abraham emerged, we were in more historical territory. Now, however, everything had been thrown into question.

The more I dug into this rabbit hole, the more I unearthed. As it turns out, a large number of biblical scholars doubt the historicity of the early patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), the exodus from Egypt, and the tumultuous period of the Judges. It’s only once the monarchy is established around 1,000 BC that a more reliable account of Israel as a nation can be discerned. Though even at this point, many of the stories about David and the other kings are saturated with political polemic.

Some friends that I spoke to weren’t bothered by this at all. They would claim that it didn’t really matter what happened historically, what mattered was the theological truths that the Bible claimed about God. I could never get my head around this position. After all, the theological claims about God are inseparable from what he did in history: how can you ground the claim that God is a great liberator, if he never actually rescued Israel from slavery?

If you remove the history, all you’re left with is speculation about an unknown divine being.

‘But never mind the Old Testament,’ the devout Christian might say, ‘what about Jesus?’ My academic study focused more on the Old Testament than in the New, so I cannot give a great deal of scholarly examples in this matter, but I am nonetheless aware that the same difficulties found in the Old Testament are not absent from the Gospels. Given the different presentations of Jesus between John and the Synoptics, the contradictions between the accounts, the nature of oral transmission and the partisan purpose for composition, it seems that the Historical Jesus may have not have had a great deal in common with what we have read about him in our Bibles today.

In addition to this, the Jesus of the Bible also implicitly affirms the reliability and historicity of the Old Testament on many occasions. He makes no effort to distance himself from it. If he was wrong about that, how could I trust anything else that he claimed? It all became one big tangled mess in my head.

I had been encountering difficulties with my belief from a number of angles, but losing trust in the Bible meant that I no longer had an anchor in the storm.

For some time, I wrestled with how I could gain any true understanding of the divine from a book of spurious history. Some Christians may say that their faith is reliant on God rather than the Bible, but I don’t understand how this could hold up in practice for any believer: if there were no Bible, how would they know anything about this God? We would be abandoned to philosophical speculation about the origin and nature of the universe with no concept of sin, salvation, or the relational God on which the Christian faith depends.

Ultimately, I knew that my faith was untenable. I had been encountering difficulties with my belief from a number of angles, but losing trust in the Bible meant that I no longer had an anchor in the storm.

At first I met with a great deal of uncertainty. Without my faith, and the Bible on which it is based, I no longer had access to the lens through which I saw the world. However, beyond this initial insecurity, I’ve found great liberation. You see, the Bible not only affected how I saw the world, but it also affected how I read the Bible. This sounds odd, but it’s very much the nature of how Christians approach their sacred text. When you believe the claims that the Bible makes about itself, it’s impossible to read the text with authenticity. Since finding a new prescription, the situation has become all the clearer.

Initially I was terrified about the consequences if the Bible did not portray history. My entire life had been based on that assumption.

Now, I am simply relieved. If there is any historical truth to what is written in the Bible, God had a lot to answer for.

But that’s for another post.


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