In my previous post, I made the claim that liberally religious people shouldn’t shy away from belief. I’d now like to deepen that idea by looking at the specific issue of how to make sense of the Bible in a liberally religious context (I define this context in my previous post).
When I find myself in liberally religious Bible studies, I often feel that there is an unstated confusion about how to approach the Bible. It seems some people feel pressure to suspend disbelief and operate as if the text somehow comes from divinity. These people feel it is not kosher to bring in modern scholarship about the human authorship(s) of the Bible, despite the fact that they generally accept this approach (even if they might not know much about it). Other people refuse to take on a position of assumed naivete and they deny that there is any sacred about the text. This can lead them to approach morally problematic sections of the Bible by being hostile toward the Bible (and perhaps even religion) more generally. And perhaps the largest set of people believe that the Bible was written by humans who were somehow divinely inspired, but they aren’t sure who these humans were, when they wrote, exactly what their relationship with divinity was — and they especially aren’t sure how the human authorship of the Bible should bear on the text study at hand.
I think there is an opportunity to cut through this emotionally charged and confused stew by unabashedly putting forth the idea that the Bible is a collection of texts written and compiled by humans. If done correctly, embracing modern biblical scholarship could in fact strengthen liberal religious belief.
I recently finished reading biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman’s book Who Wrote The Bible? In the book, Friedman makes the case that the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) were written by at least six people. Although the specifics of who wrote which section of the Bible are certainly above my current pay grade, the general approach that different people wrote different parts of the Bible is very convincing.
In making this argument, Friedman makes the case that the total Pentateuch is greater than the sum of its discrete human-created parts. From my perspective, his most compelling reason for saying this is that by incorporating different perspectives, the Bible creates a theology that none of the individual authors of the Bible intended. Specifically, by including both a personal and a transcendent God, Friedman writes that the Bible creates “a balance that none of the individual authors intended.” He continues:
But that balance, intended or not, came to be at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. Like Jacob at Peni-El, both religions have lived and struggled ever since with a cosmic yet personal deity. That applies to the most sophisticated theologian and the simplest believer. Ultimate things are at stake, but every human being is told “The master of the universe is concerned about you.” An extraordinary idea.
In liberally religious settings, identifying how different sections of the Bible have different conceptions of God could strengthen the overall idea that the Bible as a whole offers different theological perspectives that come together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
This is just one example of how modern biblical criticism can strengthen analyses and study of the Bible.
But beyond using modern biblical criticism to strengthen our analyses of the Bible, I think the most compelling reason to embrace modern biblical criticism is simply that this approach to the authorship of the Bible seems to be correct. If we obfuscate around the human authorship of the bible, we risk losing the growing group of people who don’t accept traditional explanations of the origins of the Bible.
Especially in the Jewish tradition, another reason to approach the Bible with reverence is that it is the foundation for centuries of commentary and analysis (some of which teaches against what seems to be the intended original meaning of the text). If we approach the Bible through modern analyses of who wrote it, a modern audience might be more inclined to then open this trove of centuries commentary.
Embracing human authorship of the Bible doesn’t have to mean surrendering the mystery and awe that is so central to religious experience. On the contrary, if we see the Bible as a collection and synthesis of different people’s experiences of divinity and human experience, we can approach the text with reverence and humility. An honest and sophisticated approach to the Bible’s origins could enrich our synagogues, churches and mosques.