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A New Way of Reading the Bible

I have been discussing how I experienced a radical change in my Christian faith, from being a conservative evangelical to being a more open-minded and better informed Christian.  I can now begin to talk about how my new way of understanding the faith intersected with the scholarship I was involved with in pursuing the academic study of the Bible.

As a budding biblical scholar, I had come to see that the Bible was filled with problems.  As a believer with a new perspective these problems were not detrimental to my faith but actually provided important insights that previously I simply had no access to.

To explain that will take a couple of posts.  The overarching point is that the discrepancies, contradictions, and mistakes of the Bible reveal clearly that we are dealing here with different authors with different perspectives, and it is important to let *each* author speak for himself to see what he wants to emphasize.  The viewpoint each one has is important, and it is crucial not to confuse the message of one author with the message of another.

This scholarly approach to the Bible is called “historical criticism.”  I talk about it in my book Jesus Interrupted.  Here is the basic overview I give there:



The discrepancies in the Bible are important, in part, because they force us…

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How a Non-Historical Account Can Be Meaningful: The Death of Jesus in Mark
How Can Paul Say that Jesus Appeared to “The Twelve”?



  1. Avatar
    gwayersdds  June 14, 2017

    This approach to understanding the bible makes a lot of sense. When and why did “they” come to the conclusion that the books of the bible have to be considered as a unified whole and not as individual efforts to present the author’s theology?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 15, 2017

      This happened early on — as soon as multiple Gospels, for example, were all accepted as authoritative (second century)

  2. John4
    John4  June 14, 2017

    I agree, Bart, that a harmonizing-devotional (i.e., what I would call an “orthodox”) reading of the Bible “often creates unity of thought and belief where, originally, there was none.” I don’t, however, view this (as you do) as a “drawback”. To my mind, Bart, it’s a feature, not a bug. Let me explain.

    Like you, I love the historical-critical method. That’s how we make sense of non-Biblical material. That’s how I personally have been able to make sense of an otherwise inscrutable Bible. However, the historical-critical method has never struck me as the only valuable way to read the Bible. You agree that it is not the only valuable way to read the Bible. You recognize that a harmonizing-devotional reading “has its advantages in helping readers see the unifying themes of the Bible.” But then you cite as a “drawback” what I myself see as the *greatest* advantage of the harmonization-devotional method. To my mind, Bart, without the (relative) “unity of thought and belief” created by two millennia of harmonizing-devotional readings, interest in biblical scholarship would be as narrow as, say, interest in Homeric scholarship. Wouldn’t that be a terrible shame, Bart?

    Thank you so much for all of your wonderful work! 🙂

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  June 20, 2017

      I would not at all consider it “a shame” if the Bible had not been read for 2,000 years with a harmonizing-devotional intent. Interest in biblical scholarship would be different, for sure. Maybe if it had been read and studied less, a variety of scriptures would have been read more–a plus in my view. The harmonizing-devotional approach is not a feature of the Bible but of human beings and, for it to not have existed, people would have to have been different than they are. The sense one gains is of what humans do and who they are, not of the Bible….not of what the biblical authors did. To think that through the harmonizing-devotional approach one understands what the Bible’s authors meant seems to me to be a fantasy. By developing and maintaining a vision of the connectedness of the various books of the New Testament–a vision of them as basically saying the same thing–and a vision of the Old Testament as a God-intended necessary step to the Gospel, one clouds the individual contribution of each author and, when the method is applied to the Old Testament, it interferes with the reader’s ability to understand the Hebrew Scriptures as they were intended by their authors (as much as we can determine that) and as they were understood by the progeny of those who wrote the books, without all the things first century Christian authors read into them. When one sees the alleged harmony, one sees what the church hoped believers would see more and what each author actually wrote and meant less. That the h-d approach is “not the only valuable way to read the Bible” is beside the point. The question is how worthwhile the devotional approach is, whether people are getting what they think they’re getting, and whether they are distorting the book they claim to love so much and are really worshiping the human being and the Church rather than God.

  3. Avatar
    dankoh  June 14, 2017

    I’ll add to this that none of the NT authors thought they were writing “history” – which makes the “search for the historical Jesus” that much more complicated. They were all using their recollection of events, and sometimes may even have invented events, in order to further illustrate their message.

    For example, I am not convinced that Jesus ever overturned the tables in the Temple; he had no reason to, since their purpose was to facilitate the sacrifices, and Jesus as an observant Jew would have had no problem with that. (Though I do wonder if he thought some specific merchants were cheating.) Also, I am having a problem visualizing him doing so in full view of the Temple guards and Roman soldiers whose mission was to prevent exactly that sort of disturbance during Passover.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  June 15, 2017

      Would either Temple guards or Roman soldiers have been standing around watching the moneychangers’ tables? I’m not saying they wouldn’t – I’ve never thought about it. (And I never read the Bible.) But I think I’ve always *imagined* that Roman soldiers didn’t go inside the Temple at all, and most of the Temple guards would have been in some central station, where people could run to find them if they were needed.

      I don’t have any particular belief as to whether Jesus overturned those tables. But I think that *if* he did, he must have believed – rightly or wrongly – that the exchange rates were dishonest, and the priests were allowing it because they were getting a “cut.”

      • Avatar
        dankoh  June 16, 2017

        If he made enough of a ruckus for the priests to notice, then the Temple guards certainly would have also; if nothing else, the priests would have called them over. The Romans are a bit more problematic, as their presence in the Temple, even the Court of the Gentiles (as opposed to being on the wall above) could have started a riot on its own. At a minimum, they would have reported any such disturbance to their superiors, who would have reported to Pilate.

        As to why he overturned the tables (if he did), the synoptics say they were making the temple a den of robbers (leston), while John says they were making it a house of trade (emporiou). In John, he also makes a whip to drive them out, along with the sacrificial animals. In any orderly society, those actions would have been enough to get him immediately arrested (though not executed).

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  June 21, 2017

      Two explanations I’ve heard for Jesus creating a disturbance:
      1) He was engaging in political theater (John Dominic Crossan) to point out the corruption of the temple system.
      2) He was prophesying the coming destruction of the Temple.
      The second seems more plausible to me, less prone to read modern liberal values back into the texts. Even as an observant Jew, if Jesus believed there would no longer need to be a Temple when God intervened to establish his rule on Earth, he might carry out a prophetic demonstration.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  June 22, 2017

        If you decide one interpretation is more plausible than another based on how prone the latter one is to liberal reading-into’s, you’re taking a conservative position and being politically correct or loyal to it, dismissing what might be a correct interpretation based on that. I’m not sure we can ever know the real explanation or even if he really did this.

  4. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  June 14, 2017

    Amen. I am on the same journey from fundamentalism to a more liberal understanding of Christianity, to wherever continued scholarship leads. As a child I attended a United Pentecostal Church, a non Trinitarian sect. I left as a young community college student and was a Baptist for the next decade (The pastor was So. Baptist but he had affiliated the church with the American Baptist Convention because it had a better pension plan and an open communion table. Then I found the PC (USA). As a Christian Educator I took extension classes out of San Francisco Theological Seminary. It was then that I discovered the historical-critical method of Bible study. I also teach Presbyterian Women’s Bible classes using the Horizon’s Bible Study Series. The current one is, “Who is Jesus? What a Difference a Lens Makes” by Judy Yates Siker, a professor of NT at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. You are her are on the same page! Her study looks at Jesus though the lens of each different writer. In the end, we will have to make up our own mind. I first heard of you through a public radio interview about your book, Misquoting Jesus. I am absorbing your books and Great Courses with much satisfaction. This is the brain food I needed. A retired Presbyterian pastor friend told me about this site. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 15, 2017

      Ah, yes. Judy was my student and is one of my closest friends. Her husband Jeff (to whom I introduced her) has made a couple of guest posts here on the blog. I hope you enjoy her lectures.

  5. Avatar
    dwcriswell  June 15, 2017

    When did you begin to realize that the earth is millions of years old and that all the animals could not fit in the ark and other obvious contradictions between the biblical stories and current knowledge? Or were these matters not consequential to you?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 15, 2017

      Only after I was a fundamentalist. As a fundy, I simply thought scientific claims were wrong. And I probably never thought about how many animals could fit on the ark!

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 15, 2017

    Terrific post and “Jesus, Interrupted” had a huge impact on me. Thanks.

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