Each morning my boys read to us a chapter of the Bible out loud. One is reading through the Old Testament and the other through the New Testament. This often spurs on questions and conversations about the stories and teachings. Are they real? How do we know? What was it like? Should we believe these stories exactly how they are told?
As I have taught about the formation and history of the Bible in the local church, as well as the history and theology of the Bible itself, I’ve found two things. Many Christians have either not been taught how to ask questions or people have been taught to not ask critical questions. Because of this many Christians don’t question the Bible at all. But if we don’t question something how can we study it? Or, how can it be important to us if we don’t desire to know more about it?
Whether it is about the creation story, life in the monarchal period, the 2nd temple period, the first century with Jesus and Paul, was Mary really a virgin, did Jesus have to die, was Jesus a little crazy, miracles sound nice but like fairytales, a person coming back to life, a person flying to heaven to rule over everything isn’t perfect in the world, etc., and I have encouraged these kinds of questions. Some of them are tough and I don’t have the greatest answer, but I enjoy offering how I think through such questions and the way I go about researching it.
Here are the ways I encourage Christians to begin to start
studying to learn how to ask questions and places to find answers:
1. Developing a relationship to the Bible is simultaneously developing a relationship with people of God. The Bible exists because it is written to, for, within, and by the people of God by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Every time we read it, we trust God’s people have heard, recorded, and preserved God’s commands or teachings accurately, or at least in a way that offers truth. To read the Bible is to trust the teachings of its writers, to trust the bishops who protected and preserved it, and to trust the translators who have put it in your language! Reading the Bible is an act of trust in the people of God.
More than that, it is the people of God who offers the correct way to understand these texts as truth. The importance of leaders in the earliest years of the Christian faith was to interpret the Old Testament in way that made sense on account the life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of King Jesus, and then his pouring out of the Holy Spirit on his followers, surprisingly both Jews and Gentiles. All of the New Testament is working through the political and theological impact of God’s salvation through King Jesus, as well as how the good news (gospel) of King Jesus transforms our lives in our cities so far from first century Jerusalem and Judea. The Bible cannot simply be understood as texts about a world long ago. The meaning of texts from so long ago transforms us by the Spirit, connecting all of the people of God to King Jesus and one another, even through time and space.
All in all, reading the Bible must take place within a community of faith. We cannot understand the Bible if we study it alone, or if we scavenge it for knowledge of facts alone. The Christian must learn the meaning of the Bible, both its history and theology, from the people of God.
2. Read the Bible and books about the Bible often. The reality is that if we desire to learn about something, we will need to study it. The Bible is not from our time or culture. In fact, it is from many times and cultures, written by many different people with differing styles and emphases. The best place to start is with a study bible. The one I currently recommend the most is the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. It offers great insight into the ways the texts would have been understood by those in the ancient world, and teaches about the world of the Bible insightfully as you read since the information is curated by some of the best scholars in the world.
There are plenty of great books about the Old and New Testaments, but there are three I believe are phenomenal for starting to study the Bible. The first is John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. This book is very helpful in understanding the issues that Israel was working through in the Old Testament. The struggle with other nations, the idea of religion in the ancient world, the politics of kings and empires, and more.
As a person moves into the New Testament, an invaluable resource is reading the Apocrypha, especially the Maccabee stories, with the help of Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Ferguson will help the reader of the Bible understand the 2nd Temple Judaism that King Jesus was a part of and living within during the first century. He lays out the history of Jews, Greeks, and Romans so that readers can know the world of the earliest Christians, who wrote and received the New Testament. For more in-depth study of books of the New Testament David deSilva’s Introduction to the New Testament is wealth of information and insight for the beginner (and even for those who are not!). And, if you are focusing in on Paul’s letters particularly, Michael Gorman’s Apostle of the Crucified Lord is well worth the read.
3. Learn to trust the Spirit. The truth is no individual Christian will ever learn everything there is to know about the Bible. We must trust that the God who has given the kingdom of God both King Jesus and the Holy Spirit has provided innumerable resources for us to learn about his work in history and the impact that has made on all creation. Humans need one another and so Christians need one another. We all need God to save humanity and so the Spirit is in the people of God going to the nations and teaching them everything King Jesus taught. This promise to teach humanity is a promise of the grace that the people of God has received, so let’s indulge the Spirit with as many questions as we can. The harder the better.
It is hard for Christians to question the Bible because many are not taught enough about the Bible! After two thousand years of research, arguing, and debating Christianity, founded on the teaching of the Bible, still stands. Even more, Christianity is the largest religion in the world! Many Christians throughout history would have loved the resources available today, we should take full advantage of learning and growing made possible. Like my boys, I hope Christians are comfortable enough with the Bible and trusting enough in those who lead them in the faith that challenging questions about the Bible will lead to enlightening conversations rather than divisive conflict.