Saturday, September 13, 2014

Discovering the Bible


I didn't grow up in a household where anyone read the Bible on a regular basis. We were a Christian home, went to church every Sunday, attended Sunday School, and my brother and sister and I were in the various choirs growing up. But our exposure to the Bible was those Sunday School lessons and the weekly readings in church. We learned the story of Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Joseph and his coat of many colors, the Christmas story, Easter, and Pentecost where the disciples received the Holy Spirit.

Then there were the cultural allusions to the Bible, things like the patience of Job, the kiss of death, and killing the fatted calf. Most people are familiar with those, even if they don't know where they came from. And movies like The Ten Commandments, Solomon and Sheba, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Last Temptation of Christ, and even Jesus Christ Superstar.

But all of that is a very limited part of the whole Bible. The Revised Common Lectionary leaves out whole books, skips verses within selections, and only includes one of the Gospels each year. How many people have heard of the minor prophets Micah, Nahum, or Haggai, much less read them?

Years ago, I felt that I should read through the entire Bible. I even started several times. Genesis was easy, because many of those stories were familiar. Exodus wasn't too bad, because I knew a lot of that, too. But then I would get to Leviticus, which is primarily composed of all the laws of God for the Jewish people, or, worse, Numbers, which has endless lists of genealogy, and I'd be done.

Then there were the times I decided to start with the New Testament, thinking that would be easier. Then I'd get to the parables, stories told by Christ that were supposed to be simple enough for the common person to understand the message. Only they weren't simple to me because I wasn't a first century farmer or fisherman. There were other things I didn't understand because I hadn't been raised in the culture of the writer.

It reminded me of reading Shakespeare. Shakespeare is recognized as possibly the greatest English writer who ever lived. However, he writes in Elizabethan English, which is quite different from the English we speak today. Phrases common then aren't common now. Words he used have fallen out of fashion. Fortunately, in junior high school, I had an English teacher who loved Shakespeare and was able to explain the language to us so that we could appreciate it.

I also learned that there were different ways of translating the Bible, two extremes and several blends in between. One extreme aims for the most accurate literal translation of the original Hebrew and Aramaic. The other aims for the most accurate interpretation of the words. Both methods have their problems. A literal translation may be meaningless because, like Shakespeare, the phrases or words used are no longer in common use. Paraphrasing leans heavily on the understanding of the translator of the historical, cultural, and linguistic context. In both methods, the translation can be influenced by the bias of the translator. What if the word is a homonym, like down? Did the writer mean the direction or the soft feathers of a duck or goose? Sometimes it's easy to distinguish because of context, but what if you have a phrase like "duck down"? Does the writer mean to squat behind something or to qualify which bird the feathers came from? Translators make choices and, because they're human, they're going to be influenced by what they currently believe to be true.

That lead me to believe the only way to know what the Bible really said would be to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and read the original texts. That seemed like a daunting task, since it would require learning multiple new alphabets and cultures to make sure I was doing it right. That idea got put on my "Someday" shelf.

When I started my transition to retirement two years ago, I arranged my off days so I could attend the weekly lectionary Bible study at New Spirit Lutheran Church. Tuesday of each week, we read and discuss the passages from the Revised Common Lectionary for the following Sunday. Pastor Alan is very knowledgable and a good teacher, the same way my junior high teacher was with Shakespeare. Many of those obscure-to-me passages have become clearer because of his explanations. We have time to go into the lessons in depth, unlike the fifteen minute Sunday morning sermon.

And now Pastor Alan has started a Read Through the Bible class which I've joined. He does this every few years and I decided this was the year I'd make time to do it. The idea is to read three chapters of the Bible each day and then to have a once-a-week discussion class where we can question things we've read. That's not nearly enough time to discuss twenty-one chapters, but it does help. Theoretically, in a year, we will have read all of the Bible and I will have accomplished one of my goals. In reality, it will probably take more than a year to finish.

So all of this is prelude, a way to say that things I've read in the Bible or learned recently will probably be popping up on this blog on an irregular basis. In between, I'll still be writing about Tucson things, and definitely will be posting updates on my latest fiction.

Photo Credits:
By Amandajm (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
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