Preacher and Theologian in Residence | Morehouse College
The Bible is a complicated book. As a literary corpus, it is imperative to understand that God did not write or author the Bible, human beings did. Specifically, men. The Bible was intricately stitched together, politicized, edited, redacted, and canonized over time dating back to 250 BCE to a thousand years prior. The Council of Jamnia was a late first century council of men that convened in 90 CE to finalize the Hebrew Bible, typically referred to as the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible was divided into three parts TNK: the Torah (Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings). The oldest biblical texts were compilations of manuscripts produced by medieval Jewish scholars from the 9th century to the early 11th century CE. It wasn’t until the 4th century CE that a coherent New Testament was bound and comprised of 27 collected writings. In the early 5th century CE, Christian scholar Jerome translated both the TNK and New Testament into Latin–which is known as the Vulgate.
To conceptually grasp the Bible given its nuanced complexities requires a comprehensive understanding of linguistics, anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, theology, and religion as precursor to extrapolating, making meaning, and inferences of texts. Taking an interdisciplinary approach and using a particular analytical skill set helps readers to systematically deconstruct scriptures. To this end, biblical scholars have developed various methodologies by which readers can become that much more acquainted with the Bible and allow the reader to ask important questions of the text given the reader’s own positionality and social location. Some of these methods of inquiry are: biblical criticism, source criticism, feminist criticism, queer criticism, textual criticism, and literary criticism. All of the aforementioned are postured to investigate the implicit biases that exist beneath the surface of texts and aid the reader in comprehending the historical context of biblical passages–which informs one’s exegesis and application of various passages.
To criticize the Bible is not to diminish or dismiss its profundity or potency; rather critiquing Biblical literature helps the reader excavate the rich histories, theologies, and practices entrenched within it. There are innumerable communities and people represented within the Bible, spanning from: the Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Ashdodites, the Amorites, the Amalekites, the Babylonians, the Corinthians, the Colossians, the Egyptians, the Ephesians, the Greeks, the Galileans, the Galatians, the Hebrews, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Israelites, the Nazarenes, the Persians, the Philippians, the Syrophoenicians, the Samaritans, the Thessalonians, the Romans and so forth. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it simply demonstrates the multiplicity of aggregates, divergent theologies, and admixture of cultures situated synchronistically within the canon.
Therefore, given the richness of the Bible and its inner-complexities, we must question the notion that the Bible is the inspired, infallible word of God. While this idea is scriptural according to 2 Timothy 3:16, it is not exempt from scrutinization. All things scriptural are not necessarily ethical or empirical. Meaning, everything that is in the Bible is not factual or historical. Some dimensions of scripture are meant to be metaphorical, and not metaphysical. The Bible is replete with parables, myths, allegories, symbols, and stories that help to illuminate a deeper truth that is being espoused. To that end, regarding the Bible as the infallible and inspired word of God is called biblical fundamentalism. This is not to be conflated with literalism. Reading from a fundamentalist purview takes the entire Bible to be ‘true’ and scarcely calls it into question. Hence, it is necessary to utilize a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ to upend the embedded assumptions and interpolations we bring to the text as a reader, and immerse ourselves in the world behind the text as best we can.
Two quintessential questions that the reader must always ask of the text is what did this mean and what does this mean? There are some passages in both the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament that are convoluted to the degree that preaching or teaching them is not only problematic, but reprehensible. For example, Ephesians 6:5 states, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.” The word servant in the Greek, which the book of Ephesians was originally written in, comes from the word “δοῦλοι,” which actually means slave, not servant as the King James Version renders. Linguistic contextualization is critical to understanding passages that have been translated to English from their original semitic, or other, language in antiquity. Misinterpreting words, or illocutions, can provide erroneous interpretations, insinuations, and implications for people’s lived social and spiritual realities. I use this text as an illustration because Western colonizers and American settlers in the primitive 13 colonies used such passages to enslave indigenous peoples, Caribbean peoples, and West Africans in 17th and 18th centuries, thus legitimizing their hegemonic oppression with scripture.
The aim here is not to suggest that we shouldn’t read, teach, or preach the Bible. The Bible has a plethora of moral, ethical, and theo-political frameworks that are still relevant for today. The example above is to merely crystallize for the reader the importance of biblical hermeneutics (ways of interpreting the Bible) and being responsible with texts we have inherited.