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Understanding the Bible

What Does the Bible Mean?

To make useful sense out of the Bible, we need to ask this question too. Here the answers are far less certain - partly because of the nature of the question. For it is really two questions: What did it mean - then? and What does it mean - now? In theory, biblical critics have tried to keep them separate. But it is not so easy, and quite often what particular individual thinks the Bible means now will affect the way he views its meaning in its original context. This so-called 'higher cricism' inevitably must be a good deal more subjective than 'lower criticism'.

Nevertheless, these questions are important and cannot be ignored if are to do justice to the Bible's message.

  • Every part of the Bible comes to us today as part of an alien culture. Modern people are not the same even as ancient Greeks or Romans - let alone Canaanites or Egyptians! The way they thought and wrote needs to be interpreted and reformulated if it is to have the same impact on us today.
  • Take the earliest Christian confession: 'Jesus is Lord.' In modern British culture, that statement would seem to mean that Jesus was a member of an aristocratic family. In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth. But what is the truth?

    To Romans and Greeks in the first Christian century, to say 'Jesus is Lord' could have indicated he was deity of the sort worshipped in the esoteric mystery religions - much like Lord Isis or Lord Serapis.

    To Jews, on the other hand, the name 'Lord' (Greek kurios) was the personal name of the one true God of the Old Testament (Yahweh) - and to say 'Jesus is Lord' in that context had rather different connotations.

    So which set of associations is right? The mere words themselves are not much help. They need to be set in their proper historical and cultural perspectives - and that is the job of the higher critic.

  • Then we must remember that the Bible is not just one book, but a whole library. Moreover, the Old Testament is a national archive, and its assorted parts were variously used at different periods.
  • The book of Psalms has many references to the king who ruled as God's agent in Jerusalem. Before the exile, these were hymns of celebration in the worship of the temple. But later, when the monarchy had disappeared, they were understood in a different way, and even in the Bible itself we can see signs of a reinterpretation of them.

    The same phenomenon is present in the New Testament, though on a shorter timescale. The Gospels inform us about the teaching and life of Jesus. But they were also part of the preaching of the earliest Christian churches - and what their teaching meant in the church was not necessarily exactly the same as it meant in Galilee at the same time of Jesus.

    The story of the lost sheep, for example, has two meanings given to it: referring to the work of the evangelist who goes to the work of the pastor caring for those who do not know God (Luke 15:1-7), and for those who are already followers of Jesus (Matthew 18:10-14).

    What does the Bible say?
    What does the Bible mean?
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