Several months ago, a friend recommended a book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey. It sounded interesting, so I bought it, read it, loved it (many thanks Rev Hatfield). I have since devoured all Kenneth E Bailey’s other books, and was disappointed to learn he has died recently, so won’t be writing any more.
The books are interesting because Mr Bailey is a clever man. He has a knowledge of both middle Eastern culture, and also the languages the Bible was written in. He takes a passage, one that anyone who reads the Bible knows well, and puts in into context. He shows how people of Bible times would have responded to the things said and done, what the language is likely to mean, why things have been translated as they have.
So, take for example, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, who Jesus asks for a drink. I already knew that Jews and Samaritans were enemies, and that a man speaking to an unknown woman was unusual, but the book explains so much more. It points out the flirtatious nature of the woman’s initial words to Jesus, how she was assuming he wanted something more than water! It also shows how she tried to misdirect the conversation, to move it away from a personal discussion about her own faith. All very interesting.
My Bailey also spends a lot of time showing how words have been translated. He very often challenges why particular words have been used in the English translation, why passages have been broken up into certain chapters. He points out that sometimes whole meanings have changed because the end of one chapter has been placed at the beginning of the next one, which makes the reader assume it is part of something else. I’m not sure if I’m explaining this properly – but unless I copy vast chunks of his text (which will make this very long) I need to just give you an overview. Really, you need to read some of his books for yourself.
Now, the thing that has caused me a problem, is when Kenneth Bailey looks at particular translations. Why Luke would have used a certain word, and whether the translation is reliable. It is fascinating, especially if you speak another language, so have a feel for how direct translations are rarely possible between languages with different roots. (If you are someone who believes you can put a phrase into the Biblical language equivalent of ‘Google Translate’ and come up with a phrase you can trust, this article is not aimed at you!) However, it has left me with a slight insecurity. The whole church practice of taking a text – one verse that explains an ethos – seems very flawed when you realise how unreliable our translations are. How much can we trust what we read in the Bible?
There is great danger in thinking along these lines. Although the Bible never claims to be infallible – Christians do NOT claim that it was dictated word for word (which some other religions claim about their holy books) – it is what we rely on to learn about God. The Bible claims to be the word of God, to point the way to God, to explain something of the character of God. It should not therefore be dismissed as unreliable. Except, our translations ARE unreliable. As you read what Bailey writes, you realise that to take individual verses literally is actually a bit dodgy. It can give a very skewed idea about what Jesus taught, about how we should view God, about how the church should be functioning.
What then is the solution? I do believe the Bible is an important way that God teaches us. I do believe we can learn the character of God within the pages of the Bible, that it guides and shapes us. I am just not sure any more that we should take snippets and be confident that “This says such and such, therefore, we must behave in this way.” I’m sure there are people who will label me as ‘liberal’, who will dismiss what I am saying as ‘diluted Christianity’. But actually, I am simply one person who is trying to discover who God is. I now believe, that to take individual verses as ‘proof’ of something is dangerous. We might be heading off in the wrong direction. I believe that the only reliable way to use the Bible is to read LOTS of it. To look at individual passages in the light of all the others. That the whole Bible will give us a taste of the essence of God, and that will lead us into the right choices. But to base any action on a single verse is foolish. We should not be ignoring certain parts of the Bible, even the difficult boring bits, they were put there for a reason. They all work together to give us an overview, an understanding, of God.
Take for example the story of Jesus allowing the children to approach him, when he took them onto his knee and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
I have heard many sermons use this as a text. We are urged to come to God trustingly, openly, simply. Which might be right. But do read what else has been written guys, don’t just take that snippet. Children have lots of attributes: They are very selfish. They don’t plan ahead (“I need the toilet NOW”). They will eat sweets until they are sick. They believe in everything that looks true, including monsters and talking teddies. Are we meant to approach God like this? With no forward planning? No questioning? No regard for others beyond our own immediate comfort? I don’t think so. To know what was meant, you need an understanding of the whole.
Or look at the passage where women are told to “not speak” during church services because it is “shameful”. Yet according to scholars, “speak” is better translated as “chatter” and the “shame” is like, “a shame if I don’t do that”, a sort of “not quite proper” rather than a strong condemnation. Yet many English churches have used this passage to stop women preaching, ignoring the places where Paul refers to women prophets and female leaders in the early church.
When I discussed this at home, it was pointed out that some people like to keep things simple. They like to take things at face value, they would feel I was over complicating things. The trouble is, it is because people have taken things at face value, have used snippets of the Bible to set their direction, that Christians have done some terrible things. Wars, murder, oppression, all done with the backing of a few verses from the Bible, all justified as “God’s Will” because of things written in the Bible. If we study the whole Bible, learn the character of God, and use that as our guide, then I feel this is much more reliable. We are working with a translation people, written thousands of years ago and transcribed millions of times. YES it points the way to God. NO, each and every word cannot and should not, be relied upon. The whole “God won’t let us misinterpret his will” argument is rubbish too – try living in Henry VIII times. Which is a bit scary because it means that to understand God requires effort. To live as God intends us to live, whatever our age, means we have to work hard. We cannot simply clutch at a few random verses and announce we’ve “got it”.
Knowing God takes time. Perhaps a whole life time. Perhaps that is the point.
Thank you for reading.