Why should I trust the Bible given all its translations, its ancient age, and its occasional difficulties in harsh figures or unintelligible cultural differences?
You should trust the Bible if you make a sincere effort to understand its contents and it finds a meaningful place in your conception of truth and goodness; God does not force anyone to believe. Here is the account of how I came to trust the Bible.
I was raised in a Christmas and Easter Protestant family. We had a Bible; I didn’t think it was weird, but I never read it. My mom read us a children’s translation at night when I was young but it didn’t constitute serious reading through my teenage years. Yet when the Gideons were out distributing tiny orange-covered copies of the New Testament on my way home from school, I took one. I even read some of it, mostly from Matthew’s Gospel, which was the first book in this edition as it contained only the New Testament.
The writing style of the biblical writers is different from emotionally expressive and highly explanatory modern writing, and I found the person of Jesus to be a harsh and intimidating one. I read such passages as, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matt. 5:30) and was bewildered and a bit nervous.
In school, I also learned a few scraps about the Middles Ages and the copying of manuscripts, including of the scriptural texts. I learned about the printing press and the various translations the Bible went through and how Martin Luther translated it into German so that the common people could read for themselves instead of being told the great book’s contents. Somehow or other, I drew the conclusion that the text must be so muddled so as to be unreliable. Who could know what words the original authors actually wrote or what they intended the reader to take from them?
Well, when I started trying to take the Bible seriously and not simply write it off, I learned that I had some misunderstandings about the text.
For one thing, it is a myth that the common people were not permitted to read the Bible. They were. But before the printing press, books were very expensive, so most common people had no easy access to one. Regardless, the Bible had been translated into other languages before the printing press.
Also, I had thought that the monks of the Middle Ages were translating translations and therefore getting further and further away from the original text. Not so. The Church, despite the early Roman persecutions and book burnings, retained early manuscripts of the Bible in the original languages, Greek for the New Testament (with the exception of Matthew’s Gospel, which scholars believe was written first in Aramaic, the language of Christ) and Hebrew for the Old Testament.
The new translations were made directly from the earliest manuscripts, not through various versions of Latin. In fact, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the mid-twentieth century in Qumran, Israel, they contained the earliest known copies of the Hebrew Bible:
“Among the Scrolls are partial or complete copies of every book in the Hebrew Bible (except the book of Esther).”
Many biblical manuscripts closely resemble the Masoretic Text, the accepted text of the Hebrew Bible from the second half of the first millennium CE until today. This similarity is quite remarkable, considering that the Qumran Scrolls are over a thousand years older than previously identified biblical manuscripts” (From the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library).
That almost 2,000 years later, these manuscripts were unearthed and that they so closely matched the texts preserved by Hebrew and Christian religions, is striking. While it is true that not every version contains precisely all the same clauses, the similarity is overwhelming. Personally, I don’t fret over minor details about particular clauses. The take-away, for me, is that the Church has made a concerted effort to preserve the original, authentic meaning of the ancient Scriptures and has largely succeeded, which is an impressive accomplishment especially given the collapses of civilizations through which the Church carried the text.
But what to make of the actual text itself? That of course is more a matter of faith. Critics frequently cite passages of the Bible out-of-context in an effort to demonstrate their absurdity or wickedness, just as I did in the opening of this essay.
What then is the proper context for reading the Bible? The whole thing, and the whole of the faith.
In order to understand something, especially something new or foreign, the investigator must take it seriously and also consider the intention of the author or originator of an idea.
To wit, we are not going to get very far in understanding gravity if we say this: “Gravity? The idea that everything falls? How silly. I can throw a rock into the air; it goes up, so clearly, not everything falls. Gravity is therefore absurd.” How ridiculous a statement! Analogously, this is what happens when parts of the Bible are removed from their context; they become ridiculous strawmen that in no way capture the authentic meaning of the ideas behind them.
To discover that authentic meaning is an involved, committed and admittedly arduous process, even if the investigator later rejects the meaning he or she sought. One thing I deeply appreciate about the Catholic Church is that She has offered a guide to reading Scripture. The Catechism, drawing on Vatican I and II, says:
“Be especially attentive to ‘the content and unity of the whole of Scripture’. Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan… ” (112).
“Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”. According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture” (113).
“Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By “analogy of faith” we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation” (114).
These guidelines mean that when we read Scripture, to gain a full understanding, it’s key to keep the whole text in mind, both the Old and New Testaments, and the Church’s own teaching and also the coherence of the Faith as a whole. If something seems dissonant, it is reasonable to look for an explanation of how it might actually be harmonious.
This is not mere circular logic. As in the gravity example, the fact that I can throw a rock into the air does not serve as a counter-example against gravity because the rock goes up briefly instead of down. Rather, if the investigator truly desires to understand gravity, he or she will consider all the factors of the context in order to understand the rock’s upward motion as part of a coherent picture: the force my arm exerted in sending the rock up, the vertical deceleration rate because of the earth’s gravity and then of course the inevitable apex and descent of the rock back to the earth.
To consider the example earlier from Matthew’s Gospel about cutting off a hand, the investigator should ask: “Who is Christ, the speaker of the quotation? What does the Church say about Him? Is His message merciful? Could I understand this difficult saying in a way that accords with the idea of a merciful, loving God?”
When viewed in such a manner, we can understand Jesus’s saying about removing a sinful member as underscoring the gravity of sin because of the perfection of God’s love. God’s love is so great that He wants nothing to separate us from Him, and sin is precisely what separates us from God’s love. The goodness God wills towards humans is even stronger and more vital than our own bodies. And read with the whole of Christ’s message and teaching in mind, it becomes clear that He does not demand that we chop off body parts. What He desires is that we repent and turn towards God with our whole hearts. Thus other passages become relevant to an understanding of this one: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 3:2) and “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27).
Granted, not everyone will agree with this, and no one is forced to. But this method of reading Scripture offers the only true way to see how Christians understand our own tradition and how the Catholic tradition authentically speaks. In this way, the investigator can accept or reject the text on its own terms instead of an absurd strawman version of it; the use of such a method is the only way to be intellectually honest.
So ultimately, by engaging the Scriptures on their own terms and Catholicism on its own terms, the answers that emerged seemed to me very reasonable and very satisfying at the existential level, some of which I explained last in the last essay.
The Bible confronts me with a narrative of God’s power and His self-giving love in the creation and redemption of His people as He gradually drew them back to Himself through a series of covenants after our initial fall in the Garden of Eden.
And I find in particular a very meaningful conception of life which puts spiritual goods and interpersonal relationships above all imposters that promise a vision of happiness but can’t deliver it such as money, prestige, comfort, power, pleasure, etc. The Bible does not claim to be a manual for a material explanation of the natural phenomena (ie the realm of the physical sciences), and shouldn’t be interpreted as making such a claim. I believe the Bible is reliable as the salvation history of God’s relationship with His people, which ultimately includes all people.