When I sat down to write this post, it was – like most of my posts – going to be a standalone article. However, it soon became clear that to even begin to do justice to the question of how to understand the Bible, I was going to need more space. So I decided to make it into a short series – my very first series, how exciting! I’m not sure how many parts it will have, though I don’t expect it to be more than three or four, and I’m not sure on which exact days I’ll be posting the remaining posts in the series – though I will certainly be aiming to do so over the next few days.

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I believe will all my heart that the Bible is true. The vast majority of people reading this blog will be able to affirm that statement with me.

But.

What do we mean when we say that the Bible is true?

Do we mean that it’s true in the same way that a well-researched history book is true? Or a science text book?

I became a Christian in the Pentecostal wing of the church, and have been in and around that part of the church for most of the past thirty years. Some churches that I’ve belonged to have taught explicitly that in order to believe that the Bible is true, you must believe that it is literal truth. Others have not taught this explicitly, but the same implicit assumption has underpinned much of their teaching and beliefs.

Now, let’s consider this for a minute. What does it mean to say that the Bible is literally true?

It doesn’t take much more than a moment’s thought to realise that a literal reading of the text is straightforward and valid in some cases but problematic in others. For example, some Old Testament books like 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles are clearly written as accounts of actual events that took place in history. To read them as fiction or allegory would be to fundamentally misunderstand their purpose. Similarly, the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are presented as historical narratives. (I do not intend to get into a discussion in this post as to whether Jesus was who he said he was and whether, in particular, he rose from the dead. Suffice it to say that there’s plenty of historical evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – more, in fact, than exists for other figures and events whose historicity is rarely, if ever, questioned.)

Some other parts of the Bible, however, are not written as historical accounts. Take, for example, Song of Songs, a lyrical and highly imaginative love poem. Few would try to insist that this is a record of actual events. Of course, its author may have been drawing upon his own experience of love and passion when he wrote it, just as Byron, Keats or any other great poet draws on his or her own personal experience and emotion. But to assume, therefore, that it is a historical record of events that literally happened as described would be foolish. In fact, to read Song of Songs as a historical account would be to miss its point entirely. Its author is trying to convey something about feelings, the ebb and flow of passion, and what it means to be in love, not to set out an accurate chronological record.

And so we have already hit upon one of the major factors that must be taken into account by anyone with a serious desire to understand the Bible: it is not, in fact, a book. Rather, it is a collection – a library, even – of books, letters and other types of documents. That being the case, it’s crucial to understand what kind of text you’re dealing with when you sit down to read a particular part of the Bible. As suggested above, when reading poetry like Song of Songs or most of the Psalms, you don’t particularly look for historical detail; you look for what the author is trying to convey – through the medium of poetry – about God, human beings, the world they inhabit and the interplay between them.

But let’s return for a moment to the notion of literal truth. We’ve already established that some parts of the Bible are presented as a historical record of actual events, meant to be understood as such. Surely, in this case, a straightforward literal reading of the text is both appropriate and adequate? Well… yes and no. How do we know that the record of events laid down by those who authored the historical Old Testament books is, in fact, accurate? Historians use the evidence available to them at the time, usually consisting of eyewitness accounts and other written sources, as the basis for their work. But any attempt at history is bound to be flawed, or at least to be subjective at some level. There is very often some degree of confusion or uncertainty over the precise timing and order in which events actually happened; the historian’s job is to attempt to lay them out according to an order and a chronology that seems to make the best sense of the available data. But whether they actually happened according to that order and chronology, I suppose only God knows.

You might, of course, argue that since all scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), we can assume that these Old Testament historical accounts are accurate to the letter. That depends on how you understand God’s divine inspiration of scripture. But even if we were to assume that yes, these historical texts must be accurate because God inspired them, we are still left with a problem.

You see, we cannot get away from the fact that the Bible sometimes appears to contradict itself. For example, even when we accept that the New Testament gospels are historical accounts, any side-by-side reading of the four accounts will quickly reveal discrepancies. Some events are recounted in some of the gospels but not in others; fair enough, you might say: the four authors simply chose to focus on slightly different events. But the order in which events are set out varies quite significantly between the gospels. They all begin at or around the birth of Jesus (aside from the breathtaking prologue in John 1) and proceed through his life, baptism, ministry, death and resurrection, but beyond that, the order of certain events varies from one book to the next. To quote but one example, in Matthew, Jesus’ clearing of the temple takes place immediately after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and before the cursing of the fig tree. Mark, however, puts the clearing of the temple on the day after the triumphal entry and after the cursing of the fig tree. What are we to make of this kind of apparent contradiction?

Where we have two authors describing the same set of historical events in a different order, by definition the two accounts cannot both be literally true. If we are committed to holding to the divine inspiration of scripture (as I am), there are at least two conclusions we must draw:

1. To say that scripture is inspired by God cannot mean that it is in all cases literally accurate. Matthew and Mark cannot both be correct in describing events in the order they do. So if divine inspiration means anything, it must mean something other than literal historical accuracy.

2. If we believe that all of scripture is useful for teaching truth and error (as the rest of 2 Timothy 3:16 goes on to say), then it must follow that the kind of truth that the Bible is intended to teach us is not in all cases literal truth. The truth that is important about the events referred to above in the gospels of Matthew and Mark (namely the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree) cannot be the order in which they occurred, because that is not consistent between the gospels. Rather, the important truth the text is trying to convey must lie in the significance of the events themselves – who was involved, what happened, and why.

In part 2, we will go on to look a little more at other types of texts found in the Bible and the kinds of truth they are intended to convey.

(Click here to go to part 2 in this series.)