Last week I posited that, perhaps, the Bible isn’t meant to be taken entirely literally. I intoned that there could be large swaths of scripture that speak of the Truth without speaking a word of truth. If that’s the case, why does modern Christianity put a premium on observing the Bible through a factual lens? It turns out that “modern Christianity” is the key word in the previous sentence. The idea that the Bible needs to be understood as literal is a relatively new conceit.
After Jesus showed up and did his thing, his disciples didn’t just hang up their sandals and reminisce about the good old days. They left their homes and started telling anyone who would listen about all the amazing things they had seen and the strange words Jesus had said. Some of the people that heard their message began to follow them the same way the original disciples had followed Jesus. After a time, these new disciples went off to tell others the good news. On and on this went, the message of Christ spreading like a fire.
Or like a plague, as it may have been viewed from the Roman perspective. Jerusalem was occupied by Rome, and became ground zero for the Gospel. As the disciples and their disciples ventured further and further away, they left a trail of converts in their wake, which Rome found deeply unsettling. The Romans believed that there were multiple gods, and that they would get angry if the populous began following a God that wasn’t part of their pantheon. To that end, they made it illegal to practice Christianity under penalty of death.
But, just like telling a teenage girl they are forbidden from seeing their boyfriend ever again, this only encouraged Christendom. Even under the pressure of persecution Christianity thrived. Slowly, the religion of the Romans was being replaced by something new. Two hundred years later, Rome legalized Christianity. Eighty years after that, Rome figured, “If you can’t beat ’em…” and Christianity became the official religion of Rome.
All of this, and we’re only up to the early 4th Century. (313 AD or thereabouts.) Let’s fast forward a bit. Rome falls, the Dark Ages ensue and the Middle Age occurs between the 5th and 15th centuries.
Thanks to the Catholic Church, Christianity was still alive and well in the Middle Ages. The general population had gone from the educated decadence they knew under Rome, to the filthy peasants we know from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Most people were illiterate, so they relied on the Church to tell them the finer points of Christianity.
Despite this, Christianity was still something that bound the populous together. With little education, the world was a strange and at times, terrifying place. They lived short, brutal lives with no real amount of comfort. The lure of “eternal paradise” was too good for many to pass up, so they followed along, even if they didn’t understand the “finer points” of how Christianity worked. They didn’t need to look under the hood of their religion to believe it. All that mattered was that there was something better waiting for them.
Around the 15th Century, the Middle Ages began to lead into the Renaissance. Incredible art began getting hung in cathedrals, bringing Christianity to life in a way no one had seen before. Great thinkers began to rise up and educate those that would listen. These thinkers would help usher in the Age of Enlightenment.
Throughout all of this, Christianity was still seen as something of a mystic religion. The strange Latin words spoken in a church service, the upside-down deeds of this “God” fellow and his son Jesus… It all pointed toward something transcendent that everyone felt but couldn’t quite put the words to. And yet, they all tried. Christianity was primarily observed orally. The printing press was invented in 1450, but it hadn’t quite caught on and most people couldn’t read. If you wanted to hear a story about Jesus, you had to go to someone who knew one and listen to them tell it.
Then, in the 17th Century, everything began to change. Science had begun to reach a breaking point in which one discovery led to the next. For the first time, we were beginning to discover and understand the world around us. We were figuring out how weather worked! We started thinking about space, and what Earth’s relationship to other stars were. The scientific method became the philosophy of the day. Man feasted upon the tree of knowledge, then turned his sight toward Christianity.
Educated minds were not okay with the inherent “mysticism” of Christianity. They wanted to set themselves apart from their boorish, uneducated ancestors from the Middle Ages. They wanted to pick it apart and dissect it, smear it across a slide and examine it through a microscope, they wanted to apply the scientific method and convert Christianity to a series of formulas.
At the same time, the printing press had finally found traction. People had learned to read, and for the first time, they had sheer unadulterated knowledge at their fingertips. You could learn anything! The printing press made textbook after textbook, each page was to be scrutinized, memorized, and perfectly understood.
Then there was the Bible. If every book you’ve ever picked up was a text book, how would you interpret a storybook?
In the mind of the public, the Bible was no different than a math or science primer. Every word in it was the objective truth. Why? Because it had to be, it was in a book. Also, we’re civilized. Unlike our silly ancestors who never stopped working long enough to wonder “how was the world created”, we have the answer right here!
Those same people went on to explore the world, discover a new continent, and then move there when they found their ideas were rebuffed by other thinkers.
We are taught that the Bible is literal because they believed the Bible was literal. That’s how they taught it, and how it continues to be taught in many places…
Despite that for the proceeding 1700 years, no one else did.
Despite the fact that science itself tells us that the Bible cannot be entirely literal.
Despite the fact that Origen, one of world’s first Christian theologians said that the contradictions within the Bible were put there to remind us it’s only to be understood spiritually.
Despite St. Augustine saying that if science contradicted your understanding of scripture, your understanding of scripture needed to change.
Despite John Calvin saying that the Bible doesn’t speak of science, it speaks of other things.
There is a long and historic precedent for believing that the Bible is something other than being entirely true. But, if that’s the case, what good is it? What can we take from a book of stories that may or may not have happened? That, my friends, will be the topic for next time.