This is not exactly a review, but more of a discussion. It originally appeared one of my old blogs, but with all of the discussion on marriage equality, some of what this book had to say may be especially applicable right now.
Timothy Beal’s The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book… Some people may not like what it has to say, but I found it enlightening, well-researched, and perhaps, life changing. Reading, understanding, and challenging ourselves by what Beal has to say in this book can lead to a maturing spirituality, one where faith is defined by possibilities rather than the walls of the Pharisees.
Strict black and white interpretations of scripture can be lacking, even dangerous. In the book, one such example of the dangers of taking a single scripture literally and forming one’s whole theology around it is the story of Aaron’s son Phineas. Phineas executes an Israeliste man and a Midianite woman. He is praised by God through Moses for eradicating the Midianite influence. Taken literally and out of context, a group called the Phineas Priesthood in America has used this story to justify taking violent means to discourage interracial relationships.
This is but one example of how people taking scripture too literally can be very dangerous, but there are many. An example in the spotlight right now is the defense of “traditional Biblical marriage” and how it is taking away the legal rights of many Americans… arguments that the “Bible is clear” about homosexuality fail to acknowledge contradictions, contexts, and other nuances. In fact, direct translations refer only to “laying with a man” and don’t address lesbianism at all. Of course, the verses used to point out how the “Bible is clear” are taken as the word of God, but the verses surrounding them which include other laws of cleanliness are not. The Bible simply is NOT clear on this, despite what the televangelists want to tell you. (Side note: Those who read my blog will note that my piece on the Chick-Fil-A debacle never appeared. I decided to forgo this piece right now, as my emotions on this are still high and the impending elections are causing more tensions than I care to deal with at the moment.)
These dangers are only a small part of the picture. What’s most important for Believers, like myself, is to understand the history of the Bible and understand that the treasured notion of Biblical inerrancy is a modern concept that has numerous flaws. Before I can explain what Beal is getting at with this, I should first define what Biblical inerrancy means. In short, it’s the belief that all scripture is right, correct, and totally free of error. In other words, it means that the Bible is perfect.
But the history of the Bible pokes many holes in this theory. How did the Bible come to be? I think many of us seem to think that there is an old book that scholars translate to our modern language, but that’s not even close to the truth. There is no such thing as an original copy and the old scrolls we have were already copied from copies of copies of copies. In fact, there are so many different sources, no one could ever pin them down.
The Bible does contradict itself. The Bible does have questionable content. The Bible was written by man. Does this devalue the Bible? No, not at all. But it should be taken into consideration when we read. Christianity thrived long before there was a Bible. Jesus’s love conquered sin and death without their being some book to tell us so. The Biblical writings are there to enhance, guide, and aid our faith, but they are not the literal word of God. In fact, Beal does a great job in explaining that this concept is only about 100 years old. Before it was never really considered that the Bible was the literal word of God.
Some will probably read my blog, discount Beal as a heretic or a liberal, and scoff. I urge you not to. I urge you to give this book a chance. If nothing else, it can help you understand why you believe what you do, as neither Beal nor I would urge you to take what he says are the Gospel truth without thinking about it and challenging it.
The late philosopher Jacques Derrida has a wonderful phrase; “impoverishment by univocality.” Meaning that when we try to make a text univocal, “one voiced,” of one voice with itself, we deprive it of its richness.
Please comment, challenge, and think. I welcome it all and so does Beal.