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Why the Bible Is So Hard to Read

Fr. Dominic Assim, the pastor of the Catholic parish I attend, recently urged his parishioners to read the Bible, from start to finish.

I agree wholeheartedly. The apostle Paul was said to have been a prisoner in Rome when he wrote this in his second letter to his trainee, Timothy: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

But I recognize that reading the Bible from cover to cover takes you through some really difficult terrain. It’s like asking people to read Shakespeare or Dante’s 14th-century, 1,555-page poem, Divine Comedy – not that people would benefit nearly as much from reading Shakespeare or Dante as from reading the Bible.

For believers, the Bible is the word of God in the words of humans. For non-believers, in my opinion, it is at least the definitive religious work of all time that should be read with an open mind and with all the aids available.  

A Major Challenge

But for those of us accustomed to quick, online videos and media designed to make it easy and quick to be entertained or to learn, the Bible is a major challenge.

For one thing, the Bible is more like a series of still photos than a video. It often goes from one isolated incident to another, with little apparent transition, partially because it has dozens, if not hundreds, of authors. It also was written partially in now obsolete languages, in foreign and ancient cultures. The latest addition was written nearly 2,000 years ago.

It’s more like a library than a book, and to add to the confusion, the Bible accepted by Protestants has only 66 books. The Catholic Bible contains seven others that Protestants traditionally reject. And, there are at least dozens of translations.

Many people, in my view, disregard a basic fact we’ve learned about the Bible from archeology, paleontology and history: It’s not “true” is the way modern people understand the term, nor, in many cases, was it meant to be.

Not How Moderns Conceive It

It contains many literary forms, including poems, songs, fables, narrative that includes hyperbole – ways of conceiving and writing that were prevalent in ancient times – and some history. But in general, its notion of historical truth is not how moderns conceive it.

The first question we may have is, “Did that really happen?’’ It’s a question that takes a backseat to the Bible’s purpose of teaching about God and God’s relationship to humans. This is easier to see in the Christian Bible than in the Hebrew Bible, which is older.

Jesus’ story about the Prodigal Son, for instance, is fiction, referred to as a “parable” in today’s understanding and intended to be understood that way. Its “truthfulness” is not in the facts presented but in its message, that God is a loving father who welcomes home the most reprehensible among us. All the stories in the Bible are true in the sense that they provide valuable insights into the nature of God and God’s relationship to humans.

Although the Hebrew Bible contains some history, according to historians, many of its stories are based on ancient stories from cultures other than that of the Hebrews. We would refer to many of them as “fiction.” That includes the stories about Adam and Eve, which don’t provide accurate information about the first humans but a lesson in God’s creativity.

No Conflict

In my view, there is no conflict between science, including the theory of evolution, and the Bible, properly understood. Why don’t we hear this directly from religious leaders?

I believe it’s because they think we are incapable of grasping the distinctions, or that our faith isn’t strong enough to comprehend that much in the Bible isn’t factual but meant to illustrate God’s intervention in human history and our relationship to God.

For me, knowing all this has meant the difference between profound skepticism and a deep respect and appreciation for the Bible. In my view, for people searching for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, reading the Bible is indispensable.

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