In the Episcopal Church, we believe “the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation” (BCP p. 526). That sounds well and good. But how do we say that with good conscience when even the scriptures themselves don’t seem to agree with one another? As an example, the very first two chapters of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, contradict each other. Have you ever noticed that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 tell vastly different stories about creation? In Genesis 1, God creates the universe and the world in six days, and he rests on the seventh. In Genesis 2, God creates the earth yet again, this time out of wasteland. In Genesis 1, God creates mankind in his image: male and female, he created them. In Genesis 2, God creates man from the dust and woman from the man’s rib. These first two chapters in our scriptures are very different! How do we reconcile these kinds of differences, which first show up in chapters 1 and 2, and still say that they are the Word of God?
While some Christians read the Bible as a literal account of history, it sure looks like pages 1 and 2 of the Bible make doing so an instant impossibility. We can’t possibly read scripture literally if the first two chapters don’t even go well together. Instead, a healthy understanding of the scriptures is to read them in context. When we do this, we can become more aware of the Truth that is being expressed. If we read Genesis literally, then the world would have to be only about 10,000 years old. We know that the world is far older than that. We’re talking about between four and five billion years! This means that the 10,000 or so years represented since the days of Genesis does not even get us close to taking up one percent of the earth’s true history. When we read Genesis in context, however, we understand that its audience did not have the same access to scientific knowledge that we have now. Early human civilizations had no knowledge of a world before people. They didn’t know anything about dinosaurs or other prehistoric creatures. So God made revelation to them in a way that they could understand. The Truth (notice the capital T) in the Genesis story is that God created us in his image, and he called us very good. This is true whether we were created on the sixth day of a seven-day week, or over the course of billions of years. We are inherently good by nature.
Have you ever noticed that many of the same stories occur in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Some even appear in John’s gospel as well. While John’s gospel for the most part stands alone, the other three synoptic gospels share quite a bit of detail. And at the same time, they don’t match up perfectly. In Matthew’s account of the beatitudes, for example, Jesus shares them in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. There are eight beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. Contrast this with Luke’s version of the story. In Luke’s gospel, there are four beatitudes, and they are not delivered on a mount. Instead, they are delivered in the Sermon on the Plain. So which story is correct?
Both versions are correct because both versions contain Truth. Let’s think of eyewitness testimony in a courtroom. If I’m on the witness stand, sharing events as I saw them take place, I am likely to say something different than you might say when it’s your turn, even though we both saw it with our own eyes. I’m only capable of telling the story from my perspective. You are only capable of telling the story from your perspective. This doesn’t mean one of us is right and one is wrong. We likely paid attention to different details. Maybe I was viewing the situation from a different angle than you were, which meant we saw and heard things slightly differently. Is one of us right and one of us wrong? No. We are just sharing the story as we remember it. Secondly, it isn’t hard to imagine Jesus sharing the same information several times during his lifetime. Maybe the beatitudes were something Jesus shared often, and maybe in different settings. Maybe he shared them once on the mount and another time on the plain. We all know Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech from the time he delivered it on the steps of the Lincoln Monument. But did you know Dr. King shared nearly identical words on several different occasions at several different locations? If someone heard the I Have a Dream speech at Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, they would likely describe it differently than would someone who heard it in Washington, D.C. a year later. And yet, the overall message of the speech remains the same.
Once again, reading in context is helpful. Scholars believe that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, while Luke’s gospel was likely written to a Hellenistic audience. This audience was likely familiar with Jewish vocabulary, but was not actually Jewish. Neither gospel was written like a newspaper article. Again, they were written not to convey events as they actually happened, but instead to share a larger Truth contained within them. The message of the beatitudes doesn’t have so much to do with where they were shared as it does with ensuring people know they are blessed by God. This is true whether someone heard the message on a boat or on the beach or in a house. When I tell my wife I love her as I’m walking out the door, it doesn’t mean it’s less true than it was when told her I love her as I dropped her off at the airport, simply because the setting is different.
Three gospel writers sharing stories about the life of Jesus a few decades after he died are very likely to have some discrepancies among them. And yet, the important message of the three synoptic gospels is essentially the same. Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God who was born to the Virgin Mary. Jesus, fully human and fully divine, performed miracles and healings. He called twelve disciples to follow him and he established his Church on earth. He gave us the sacrament of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. He died on the cross and rose from the dead on the third day. After his resurrection, he appeared for a period of 40 days and then ascended into heaven. Jesus’s message was about love of God and love of neighbor. He was a voice for the voiceless and an advocate for the poor and the marginalized. He taught us to follow in his example. That’s the Truth of the three synoptics. In fact, even John’s gospel shares that truth. John’s gospel, by the way, was written later to a decidedly Christian audience. In John’s gospel, the divinity of Jesus is emphasized more than his humanity. But the message in John’s gospel is the same as it is in the synoptics.
So can the message of scripture change? That’s a loaded question. The message doesn’t change, per se. But the ways that we understand the message can change. For example, passages in scripture have been used to justify slavery. Even Jesus talks about slaves in the gospels and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with slavery. Scripture passages appearing to uphold slavery were used by Christians in the early days of our nation to support the enslavement of African people. However, slavery in biblical times was something very different than it was in the American South. With time, discernment, and revelation on our side, we know that it does not go along with Jesus’ teachings about love and care for our neighbor. So even though the word “slave” appears in scripture, it does not justify the practice to continue. The more important message in the gospels is to love one another and to treat people fairly. This message clearly trumps any supposed justification for keeping human beings as property and forcing them to work against their will for no pay.
And what about verses that seemingly condemn same-sex relationships? Well, there are a few verses that people seem to thump when it comes to voicing their dissatisfaction with same-sex relationships. And, as before, we must remember context. If we want to look at Leviticus as our guide here, then we have to remember that Leviticus was written to a very specific audience. Much of what it contains is an old and outdated understanding of things like cleanliness. So unless we’re willing do to the other things Leviticus tells us we should do, like avoiding eating shellfish, killing our disobedient children, and refraining from wearing our hair in certain styles, then we can essentially disregard any other specifics outlined in Leviticus. Is there Truth in Leviticus? Sure. The theme of Leviticus is to live our lives as best as we can. We are to honor God and we are to try to avoid situations that might make us sick or that might harm others. And for a book written several thousand years ago, I suppose some of it makes sense. But we now know that many of the rules contained in Leviticus are not rules worth following. Do you enjoy that juicy bacon cheeseburger? I sure do! Well, Leviticus tells us we can’t eat it. If we’re willing to eat it anyway (and I certainly am!), then we’d best not use Leviticus to speak out against same-sex relationships. It’s that simple.
Episcopalians, myself included, are not always the best at quoting scripture. Our sisters and brothers in the Baptist tradition, for example, are far more skilled when it comes to memorization of the books of the Bible than many of us are. But this does not mean we don’t take the scriptures seriously. About 75 percent of our Book of Common Prayer is straight from scripture. And we simply take the scriptures too seriously to take them all literally.
Here’s an exercise I find helpful when it comes to reading scripture. It comes to us from St. Ignatius of Loyola. When reading the scriptures, place yourself in the setting. Imagine the scene surrounding you. Think of the pieces that are not written in the text. If we’re imagining the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, we can imagine our surroundings as if we’re one of the people listening to Jesus talk. The events take place in the Middle East, so we know it was an arid climate. The sun was likely intense. Maybe you see a rock you want to sit on as you listen. Imagine touching the rock. Is the rock warm because it’s been sitting in the sun all day? Is there dust on your feet? You’re probably wearing sandals, which was customary footwear of the day. What do they feel like on your feet? Is there a breeze? Maybe there are some children playing with toys as their parents listen to Jesus. Are there trees? Remember, the events are taking place in the desert. What kind of animals are there? What does it smell like? Probably not so good, considering hygiene practices of the time. And there were probably animals there. Are the animals smelly? There’s a good chance.
Do you see how this can enhance the story and help us to discover the Truth it contains? None of those details are important. And yet, all of them are important. They are unimportant because they don’t add or detract from the story. But they are important because they help us to establish context. The more we know about the context, the better we can become at understanding the scriptures within their contexts.
Indeed, the scriptures are the Word of God and they do contain all things necessary for salvation. God continues to make revelation to us and he continues to help us to discern how to understand them. Read one passage of scripture today and read it again in a year. I bet your understanding of that passage changes, at least a little bit. We continue to learn and to grow in our faith. And while the words on the page remain the same, our understanding of them can continue to deepen and to grow. Take the scriptures seriously. Just try really hard not to take them too literally.