Oh, Bible. You do confound us so.
You are so very dense, complicated and repetitive, not to mention confusing, contradictory, outrageous and far too long-winded to actually read. And yet you are so wise, textured and powerful. You are surprising and exciting and flush with cultural references. In fact, you make it almost impossible for any of us to understand who we are as a civilization without at least getting your Cliffs Notes.
As author E.D. Hirsch Jr. tells children in The First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy:
The Bible is by far the best-known book in our culture. Hundreds of its sayings have become part of our everyday speech. Biblical stories are frequently referred to in books, newspapers, and magazines, and on television. Many paintings and other works of art portray people or scenes from the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible is the basis of some of our most important ideas about law and government. Because it is such a basic part of our culture, it is important for you to know something about the Bible, regardless of your individual religious belief.
Unfortunately, when it comes to talking with kids about the Bible, some nonreligious parents categorically dismiss the entire the thing by calling it “a book of myths” — akin to Greek and Roman mythology — which is both short-sighted and completely inaccurate. (Ironic, as most these parents seem to value broad-mindedness and truth so very highly.)
The Bible’s focus is a single god (AKA God) and, as such, is used as scripture for the three main monotheistic religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And, yes, there are myths in the Bible. But there is quite a lot of history there, too, and some really great stories about how to live that have been handed down from generation to generation. Certainly, we can tell kids that the Bible has lots of fiction inside it, but we must tell them, too, that it contains truth — and interpretations of truth. And there are many things whose historical accuracy is simply unknown because the stories were corroded by time and endless retellings. It’s a like the game of telephone; something always get changed from one end to the other.
It’s for this reason that the first three gospels of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark and Luke — all contain the “same” story of Jesus’ life, and yet all of them are different — sometimes strikingly different. [Warning: This next part is a bit of a tangent] History tells us that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and that Luke and Matthew borrowed from Mark in telling their own versions. History also tells us that there was another, unknown source of information about Jesus’ life — sometimes called Q — which is why Luke and Matthew have some overlapping stories that cannot be found in Mark. (There’s a great diagram here that explains this much better than I do, if you’re interested.)
Anyway, I think it’s best to describe the Bible as a book of many genres. It’s fiction, nonfiction, biography, genealogy, letters, poetry, wisdom, proverbs, songs, prophecy and apocalypse. It’s also one of the world’s most important works of literature. Right up there with Shakespeare’s stuff, if you ask me.
Did Jesus really exist? Yes. Did Moses really exist? No one is quite sure. Did Moses introduce the 10 Commandments to the Jewish people? Not likely. Did Jesus feed 4,000 people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish? Not on your life. Is the following verse one of the most beautiful ever written?
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
— 1 Cor 13:4-13
You bet it is.