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Understanding the Bible
by Reverend Howard Ray Carey

The Bible is a complex library of books written over many generations, yet it has deeply symbolic significance for all of us.

The Bible is actually a library of 66 books, some containing over 50 chapters, others limited to one or two chapters. The writings of these 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament, cover a period of many generations.

Its many authors included Old Testament prophets, priests and scribes, some identified by name and some anonymous. Some books of the New Testament were written by apostles of Jesus, such as Matthew, John and Paul, while some were written by their followers or disciples, such as Mark, Luke and Timothy.

Is the Bible God's word?

Yes, in the sense that God speaks to us through the words of the Bible, and was the source of inspiration for its authors. However, to see the work of God solely in terms of the Bible is to limit our conception of Him.

His presence and guidance can also be seen in the lives of those men and women who have stood above the crowd throughout human history; those who have inspired us and directed our aspirations heavenward .

Did God dictate what the Bible's many authors wrote?

Many Christians claim that the Bible and its contents came verbatim from God, making it infallible. In considering such a claim, it is important to study the evolution of the Bible. In modern times it does not appear as it did when first compiled. Since its origin, it has seen many editions and undergone numerous re-interpretations.

Early church leaders even debated for some time which books should be included. Is it reasonable to accept that all such events surrounding the Bible for the last 2,000 years were divinely inspired?

The Bible is a deeply spiritual book, full of wisdom and guidance for those who read its pages. Many of its authors were no doubt divinely inspired. Yet, it is the nature of the human being to exhibit errors in judgment and understanding.

Are not the Bible's authors and subsequent editors and interpreters subject to these same human limitations? Would these limitations not affect the final outcome of what we know in modern times as the Bible?

Original Meanings Lost Through Translation

Those who translate the written word from one language into another warn us that original meanings are often lost in the process. Unless one understands the idioms, customs, psychology and other factors indigenous to a particular culture, accuracy in translation becomes very difficult.

It is widely known that the Bible used in modern times was translated from Greek. It is less widely known, and a subject of disagreement among some scholars, that the Greek translation was actually derived from Aramaic.

George M. Lamsa, noted biblical authority, says that Aramaic was the language spoken during the time of Jesus (see 'the New Testament --from the Ancient Eastern Text' by George M. Lamsa). If this is fact, then is it not possible that some of the original meaning of biblical text could inadvertently have been altered?

Even those who translated the Greek New Testament into the King James version during the early 17th century exhibited a limited knowledge of Greek. If they were thus limited, would it not follow that errors in translation might occur? A comparison between the modern Bible, the Greek translation and the earliest version in Aramaic would no doubt indicate different meanings among them.

How are we to interpret what is written?

Jesus gave us an important key when he said: "Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" (Lk. 12:57) This is an injunction by Jesus for the listener to decide for himself, not to depend upon another person or outside authority for interpretation. It would be a mistake to throw out all the research and work of those who are expert in such areas of interpretation. But, at the same time, such expertise should only be used as a guide in arriving at one's own interpretation.

The Mysteries of the Kingdom

Only to disciples who had committed themselves fully to God and His service did Jesus declare: "To you it has been given to know the secrets (mysteries', King James version) of the kingdom of heaven...Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear." (Mt. 13:11 and 16)

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (3:9) and to the Colossians (1:26), also writes about these secrets or mysteries which God reveals to those who make a complete commitment and serve unselfishly. It is safe to say that when one dedicates oneself to the spiritual life, represented by Christ, one will acquire the keys of understanding and the ability to judge for ourselves what is right.

Hidden or Symbolic Meanings of Biblical Texts

An important point to remember when studying the Bible is that much of its depth in meaning can be discovered if the writing is viewed as symbolic. As an example, consider the passage in Jn. 14:6 where Jesus says: "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me."   On the one hand, it could be said this excludes all who are not numbered among the ranks of Christianity. Deeper study and exploration reveal, however, that the words 'by me' refer to the love- wisdom or Christ-consciousness. As we evolve and our spiritual understanding grows, we enter into the same awareness as that held by Christ, we come to the Father. This can happen either inside or outside organized religion.

Jesus spoke in parables. He intentionally hid the meaning which he was trying to convey. His purpose was to encourage discrimination and intuitive understanding. He withheld the meanings from those who were unready or unworthy to receive it.

The Bible as a Mirror of Ourselves

The Bible serves many purposes: it depicts historical events, symbolically represents aspects or traits within each of us, and gives us guidance and parameters within which to conduct our lives. Take for instance the account of Jesus' stilling the storm of lake Galilee, recorded in Mk. 4:35-41. If one considers the lake or sea of Galilee as the sea of life, on which we are making our voyage, then the story could represent the waves of our emotional life, tempests which threaten to drown us. Jesus was said to be asleep in the stern of the boat; so also the Christ consciousness often remains slumbering within us until the storms are severe enough to cause us to call on Him for aid. Then we find that he has the power to bring tranquility to our troubled lives and direct us to the desired harbor, toward which we have set our sails.

Another example would be from the book of Exodus, most of which deals with the progression of the Hebrews: out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea, working their way through the wilderness, then crossing the Jordan into the promised land.

In comparison, we could survey our own lives to see if and where we are on that kind of journey. Are we leaving behind our old ways of living and moving forward toward a freer and more spiritual existence?

Note: All biblical references, unless otherwise noted, are from the Revised Standard Version.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005