A Progressive Christian Primer, Part 4: “The Bible”

Joel Michael Herbert
16 min readNov 16, 2023

Chapter 2: The Bible as Subversive Literature, The Bible as Library, the Bible as Theological Reflection

“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the Book for me! I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!”

These were the words to the kids’ song that I grew up singing nearly every week in church, Sunday school, VBS, church camp… you name it. We also had the books of the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments in song form (two different songs, two different melodies), with a catchy singalong vibe worthy of Pete Seeger. You would almost think the B-I-B-L-E (yes, we spelled it out) was the Fourth Member of the Trinity. We loved the Bible.

I feel like I say this in each chapter, but if you were raised in a Reformed-adjacent tradition (virtually all of Protestantism), and to a lesser extent if you were raised Catholic, you’ll get this. This wasn’t, and isn’t, by any means a fringe thing in American Christianity. Any kid growing up going to church with any degree of regularity is going to learn catechesis like this, which is supposed to be learning the basics of the faith, but really it’s just a fancy Christian way of saying indoctrination.

I do say this tongue-in-cheek, and without a lot of judgment, because every religion does this to one degree or another. Judaism has its own “Books of the Bible” song; the song does not include the New Testament books (obviously), but it might surprise you to know that the order of books in the Jewish Bible is different than in the Christian Old Testament (surprise! The Bible isn’t ordered either chronologically by event OR chronologically in order of when the texts were written! it’s like if a publisher The Horse and His Boy the first Narnia book, and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader the last, for no apparent reason).

Okay, can be honest about something? I saved this content for Chapter 2, though it could easily be (and probably should be) Chapter 1, because I want you to like me and get a chance to jive with my writing style and overall vibe before I start getting all in the weeds with you. But alas!- we must go into the weeds. I promise it will be worth it, and I wouldn’t take you here unless it was absolutely necessary. I’ll try to make it brief and (relatively) painless. I can promise you one thing — it won’t be as long as reading the actual Bible- small comfort, I know…

Ready?

First, a crash course on the Bible. It might seem obvious to state, but the Bible did not drop out of the sky one day fully formed in Shakespearean English. Everyone who has given the Bible more than 30 seconds of critical thought knows this, but it bears repeating, because so many of our assumptions and unchallenged beliefs about the Bible begin to come unraveled when we really consider the implications of this statement.

Let’s take it a step further. Much of the Bible, scholars now know, did not even come to us fully formed as individual works- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Psalms, Proverbs, etc. For many centuries, it was assumed that Moses wrote the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, known together as the Pentateuch — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — and that each of the other books of the Bible were written by the authors whose names they bear.

We know now that this is simply untrue. Scholars of the Bible have known for about 150 years now that Moses did not write the Pentateuch. The predominant theory through the 20th century has been the Documentary Hypothesis, which posits that there are at least 4 distinct voices in the Pentateuch, indicating 4 different, separate traditions that the texts are drawn from. The sources are abbreviated as JEDP: the Jehovah, or “Yahwist” source, which prefers the name Jehovah/Yahweh for God; the Elohist source, which prefers the name Elohim; the Deuteronomist source, which is primarily responsible for the Book of Deuteronomy, a distinct retelling of the events of Exodus and Numbers; and the Priestly source, which is chiefly concerned with liturgical and sacrificial systems, and is primarily found in the book of Leviticus.

Some of the most obvious examples of this are the differences between Genesis 1, 2, and 3, where we find two separate Creation stories, and 3 different names of God. Genesis 1 refers to God as “God” — the way English translators render the Hebrew “Elohim;” Genesis 2 refers to God as “the LORD” — capital L-O-R-D is the way most modern translators have chosen to refer to the Hebrew word for the holy, unpronounceable, unmentionable name of God, written in Hebrew as YHVH, but always spoken in Hebrew as “Adonai;” and — get this — Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve and the snake? — is the only place in all of the Bible that God is referred to with the double name Adonai Elohim — rendered in English as “The LORD God.”

We see other examples of the Documentary Hypothesis all throughout the Pentateuch- in Genesis 5–7, there are two distinct Flood narratives right alongside each other, at times contradicting each other. There are two separate stories of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 16 and Genesis 21. In Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law is sometimes referred to as Jethro, sometimes as Reuel, depending on which source is being used in that moment.

The Book of Psalms has headings throughout it that attribute many of the Psalms to someone other than David. Proverbs, too, contains sayings attributed right there in the text to someone other than Solomon. Isaiah is now known by scholars to be the work of at least two different authors, writing before and after the Exile to Babylon. Many of the books of the Old Testament are very obviously compiled by many sets of editors well after the events they describe, like the books of Kings and Chronicles, which span hundreds of years of history. You get the point.

So when the writer of Psalm 119 says that “thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” he is emphatically not talking about what we today call the Bible. He is not even talking about what people in Jesus’ day would have called “the Bible,” which is roughly equivalent to our Old Testament. He probably isn’t even talking about the Pentateuch(!), since most scholars now believe that even the Pentateuch was not fully edited and formed until after the Exile, about 400 years before Christ. Calling the Bible we hold in our hands today “the Word of God” might have theological value for Christians today, but it is highly misleading when we read that definition back into passages in Scripture that talk about the “Word” of God, especially when we try to create an entire “doctrine of the Word of God” from these texts, as many evangelical authors routinely do.

At various points in the Bible, various authors do refer to other portions of Scripture as “word” of God, but it is not at all clear what they mean by this. Some may be obvious, as when describing the Ten Commandments as the “word of God,” as according to Exodus 20, it was spoken to Moses directly from the mouth of God. Jesus himself refers to the “word of God” in this way when he references the fourth commandment, “honor thy father and mother,” in an argument with some of his detractors. What the Psalmist has in mind in Psalm 119 is more obscure. When he says “the entrance of thy word giveth light,” or “thy word is a lamp unto my feet,” or “how can a young man keep his way pure? by giving heed according to thy word,” he is not referring to a private devotional time where he “reads the Bible” and highlights it. He just as easily could be referring to conversations he has in prayer or meditation with God; if the Ten Commandments were available to him to read in that era, or perhaps the book of Deuteronomy, perhaps he is referring to meditating on these commandments. But either way, the Bible as “the Word of God” is only incidental to the interaction that happens between a human and the Divine — that is, the “Word of God” can come to a human being in many different ways, and the writers of Scripture themselves seem to indicate that.

The Bible may indeed contain words of God — it certainly claims to — but the Bible cannot possibly all be the words of God. In the book of Job, for instance, Job’s friends spend nearly 40 chapters barfing “wisdom” all over him in his suffering, which is a pretty shitty thing to do to someone covered in boils who just lost all of his kids… but I digress… Anyway, it is only at the end of the book that we discover, from the mouth of God Herself, that Job’s buddies are full of it. What are we to do with that? Are Job’s friends’ pieces of advice worthless? Are they completely wrong? Is there any value in them whatsoever? Are we only to pay attention to the tiny portion of the book where God actually speaks? If so, why is the rest of the dialog even included?

The New Testament is little better, unfortunately. I know, I know… hang with me juuuuust a little while longer. By the time Jesus and the apostles came along, the Old Testament as we know it had pretty much come into existence. That’s an oversimplification, but not too much, so let’s go with it. But — newsflash! — the New Testament absolutely had not. In fact, there was not remotely such a thing circulating around as a “New Testament” for nearly the first 100 years after Christ, and there was no official version of the New Testament for another 200 years after that. Like the Old Testament, the NT was composed of various writings from a lot of different people that only slowly came to form into a cohesive unit, over several, several decades.

Imagine this: you are a person who believes in Jesus Christ, living in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) around 50 CE, 20 years or so after Jesus’ death. You are a Gentile, as is most of your community, but you all came to faith in Christ from the preaching of an itinerant Jewish evangelist named Paul. There are Jewish members of your community as well that also believe in Jesus, though they are the minority. They keep kosher and the Sabbath, which are strange practices to you, but Jews as neighbors is nothing new to you, and besides, Paul’s teaching that all peoples are one now and brought near to the One True God, the God of Israel, through Jesus the Messiah, rings true and beautiful to you, so you gladly enter into loving community with both they, as well as other Gentile members of the community, that you would otherwise never have associated with before. You are a Roman citizen, freeborn, but among the community are also slaves, menial laborers, artisans, some temple prostitutes, some sex workers, a handful of rich merchants from your city, and plenty of people who you used to think of as “rabble”- the poor, homeless, beggars, blind and disfigured folks, pickpockets- it’s a real Dickens novel around here.

Paul talked a lot about the Jewish Scriptures when he first came to town, and your Jewish fellows ate that shit up, finding all kinds of foreshadowing in their Scriptures about Jesus the Messiah and generally getting really nerdy about it, like it was fantasy football or something. You try to get into it with them, and some of it you find very interesting, but mostly it’s over your head, because hey! you’re not a Jew! All this talk about Jesus being like a new kind of Moses and Jesus being a king like David but also a priest like Aaron… it’s all kind of lost on you. You don’t read well, and most of your community doesn’t read at all, so you content yourself to let your Jewish friends make the connections for you, since they know their own Scriptures so well already.

Every now and again, a letter from Paul or one of his associates arrives, and it is always read for the whole community, which usually meets once a week in the courtyard of one of the more well-to-do members of the community, or sometimes in a public area of town like a park. There are a handful of folks in the community who are seen as elders, and one of them usually leads the gathering, encourages everyone with a reading from the Jewish Scriptures, and will read the occasional letter from Paul or one of the other “apostles” — Paul’s friends from Judea who knew Jesus personally. Over time, other letters from Paul or one of the apostles written to other communities like yours in other parts of the empire get passed around and eventually make it into the hands of your elders, so they read those letters too. Sometimes Paul addresses issues specific to those other churches, but most of the time the bulk of the letter feels universally relevant, and you always gain some kind of insight from them that makes you feel more connected to God and to other Jesus followers around the empire.

This is the extent of your “New Testament.” For the entirety of your life as a Christian, this is what you have access to — the Hebrew Scriptures (via others who know it and can read it) and a handful of letters from Paul and some of the other apostles. The gospels won’t even be written for another 20 years (around 70–85 CE). By the time you are aging and one of the elders of the community yourself, your community may have come into possession of one of the four gospels, or possible even two, and it will become a treasured possession. The gospel of John won’t be written until after your death, nor will the letters of 2 Peter, Jude, Timothy, Titus, the epistles of John, or Revelation. There are probably a couple of other documents and letters flying around, maybe even treasured by your community as on equal footing with Scripture, that will eventually become lost to history, later condemned as heretical, found to be spuriously forged by someone writing in the name of an apostle, or, perhaps, loved by many, but simply not to the level to be accepted by the broader Jesus Movement as worthy of inclusion in the “New Testament,” which won’t exist in even its most primitive form for nearly a century after your death (170 CE).

This general process will continue for the next 300 years, when the prominent bishop Athanasius sends out an Easter letter listing the books of the official New Testament in 367. But even then, the Church hierarchy won’t officially recognize this list for nearly three more decades.

By the time of the turn of the second century, most of what we call the New Testament today had been written and was circulating around the various Jesus communities, but it was not at all obvious which texts would later become Scripture. Some communities felt strongly about some texts that later fell out of favor, like the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Apocalypse of Peter (none of which were written by the apostles whose names were attached to them). Some texts that did make it into the New Testament were of doubtful authorship even back then, like 2 Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation. It was quite common in the first centuries of Christianity for an anonymous author to write their own “gospel” or “apocalypse” or “acts” and attach the name of a well-known authority figure like Peter, Mary, Thomas, Barnabas, or even Paul to it, to guarantee it a wider audience. In fact, most scholars today believe that 7 of Paul’s 14 letters in our current New Testament were either pseudonymously authored or heavily edited after his death (Hebrews, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians).

The Gospels have their own documentary hypothesis. Today, most scholars believe that Mark was the first gospel to be written, around 70 CE (at least a decade after the death of Paul), followed by Matthew and Luke/Acts in the 70s and 80s CE and based heavily on Mark’s work, and finally the Gospel of John, toward the end of the century. Matthew and Luke also share a source primarily of Jesus’ teachings that Mark does not use, a source lost to history and known to scholars as “Q.” Fun, huh?

It is doubtful that any of the Gospels are in fact written by their namesakes — though, to be fair, the titles are traditional and added much later, and no gospel writer claims to be an eyewitness, and each is written anonymously, so there’s no deception going on here.

All of this background to say this:

  1. The Bible has always been first and foremost a library of texts, not a single text.
  2. The Bible has always been a record of theological reflection for Jewish and Christian communities of faith (and, crucially, arising from those communities of faith) rather than a prescription for “inerrant, inspired truth.”
  3. The Bible has always been a Subversive set of texts, a Revolutionary set of texts, a set of texts that challenges Empire and uplifts the Disinherited.

Whenever the Bible fails to be understood as these three fundamental things, the role of the Bible is destined to be deeply misunderstood.

It is not just illogical, but irresponsible to read the Bible as if it was handed to the church by God on a silver platter. This denies historical reality, first of all, and it puts the Bible on a weird pedestal that, frankly, gets very close to idolatry. The Bible is not God. The Bible is not Divine. The Bible is beautiful in many ways, and points us to the Divine, but the Bible is, at the end of the day, a very Human book. It is not as simple as to say “the Bible contains mistakes.” That seems to me to be missing the point. The Bible does, demonstrably, contain “mistakes,” from a Western, modernist point of view. The gospel writers contradict each other on numerous points; James and Paul disagree dramatically with each other on the nature of justification, as do Paul and Peter and James, by Paul’s own admission in Galatians 1 and 2. But this is the point. Again, Paul and James are not trying to write systematic theology. They are doing theological reflection. They are doing their best to work out what it means to believe in and follow Jesus in real time, and they invite us into that wrestling, in the same way that Jesus invited his original hearers to wrestle and reinterpret the text of the Old Testament in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as in numerous other places in the gospels. We see this pattern all through the Old Testament as well, with various authors pushing back on other authors, sometimes even contradicting them, like the editors of Kings and Chronicles, who wrote on either side of the Exile and had different theological agendas. Like Isaiah and Jonah, who pushed back hard on the idea that God only loves Israel and Judah, with no love for other states, especially enemy states like Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon.

So when you see something in the Bible that doesn’t add up, that’s okay! That’s good! What does that discrepancy tell you about what deeper truth the author is trying to communicate? Don’t try to harmonize it- if you do, you’ll miss what the author is trying to do!

Lastly, we “enlightened moderns” do a bang-up job of judging ancient texts by modern standards. I’ll be the first to say that the Bible has some pretty horrible stuff in it. There are passages where God apparently commands genocide, one infamous story where God commands a guy to sacrifice his own child, and of course the story of the Flood, where God drowns every living thing on the whole planet besides the inhabitants of one particularly large boat. But consider this: the Bible arose in an ancient society where this kind of propaganda was part and parcel for every nation-state. Every people group had myths about angry gods sending judgment on the world; every people group had propaganda justifying why they were the best people group, and why their god sanctioned the destruction and confiscation of the land of “those evil people over there.” The thing that stands out to me about the Bible is precisely that in the pages of the Bible we are invited to not only wrestle with these awful stories, but also to disbelieve them and to reject them. At one point in Jeremiah, the prophet quotes God as saying that child sacrifice is abhorrent to God, that God never commanded it, and it never entered God’s mind, a pretty obvious smackdown of the Abraham and Isaac story.

Jewish tradition knows how to do this way better than Christian tradition- maybe because it’s their tradition that we hijacked from them… hmmm… Jewish rabbinical tradition accepts that Scripture is so beautiful and multi-faceted that there are a thousand different ways to interpret a text, and all of them have value.

We cheapen the Bible when we insist that it only has one interpretation. We lose the beauty to be found in the ancient stories when we make them one-dimensional. Imagine doing that with Homer, or with Dickens or Mark Twain or, shoot, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. How incredibly sad it would be to read a piece of ancient literature that has survived for thousands of years, impose a particular cultural lens upon it, and insist that only we have the correct reading of it, and based on that reading we either pronounce it “inspired, inerrant, and infallible,” or else we dismiss it out of hand as irrelevant, outdated, and immoral. Both of those extremes feel like the height of arrogance to me.

Let’s read the Bible like Jesus did, like Paul did, like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah did- creatively. Through the lens of the Divine Heart who reveals Godself to us as the Good Shepherd, as the Lifter of the Poor, as the Friend of Sinners, as the Forgiver of Sins and the Fount of All Being, the Healer of Broken Hearts.

When we read the Bible this way, we can shake our heads at the portions of the Bible that read like political propaganda pieces and turn the page. Or we can dig deeper if we choose, sweep away the layer of modernity that keeps us from seeing a deeper truth that may be hidden in these ancient documents, sacred texts that thousands of years of tradition thought it worthwhile to preserve, retell, and hand down to us.

Consider, finally, that the Bible is written almost entirely, Old Testament and New, by persecuted and marginalized communities. The conquest texts of the Old Testament read very differently when we understand that they are entirely fictional, that they arose at a time much after the events they describe, at a time when the Babylonian Empire had destroyed the land of Israel, killed the royal families, and deported nearly everyone thousands of miles away, and community leaders had good reason to give their people hope that God had at one point promised them that land, and given it into their hand, and would one day make good on God’s promise and restore it to them. Consider that the Bible is nearly always, at every turn, designed to subvert Empire and Power, to undermine the gods of the oppressors- Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome- and to bring hope to a people often drowning in misfortune and despair. Consider that the Bible cannot ever- ever- be read properly from the perspective of someone “on top”- for to do so would be to read it from the opposite perspective of every single original audience. Consider how reading the story of God’s violent deliverance of the Jews from Egypt would land when heard by a group of enslaved people in the antebellum south of the United States. Indeed- the Bible was forbidden to be read to slaves in many places precisely because of the fear of rebellion it might incite. From our perspective, it feels brutal and cruel that God would kill the firstborn of Egypt to rescue his people from slavery and genocide; from the perspective of the enslaved, I have to admit- it kind of feels like karma.

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Joel Michael Herbert

Husband. Father. Artist. Storyteller. Armchair Theologian. Advocate, activist and politician. Gryffindor. [neuro]Divergent.