The title of this post comes from something C. S. Lewis wrote somewhere (that I really don’t feel like looking up right now) and that I also heard from Jon. D. Levenson while sitting in a doctoral seminar in 1991.
Levenson remarked how intelligent and educated adults, who were brought up in religious homes, have nuanced, adult, views of all sorts of things like economics, history, politics, math—even other religions.
But when it comes to the Bible, their thinking hasn’t changed much from their childhood views. For some reason, growth to adulthood has bypassed their understanding of the Bible.
This isn’t about being “stupid.” It’s about the nature of religious training, where too often staying still in one’s view of the Bible is lauded as a virtue, a sign of “strong” faith that does not “give in” to change—for change is simply a polite way of saying “compromise,” a weak or dying faith.
And that is quite unfortunate.
The Bible is a rich and complex book. It deserves—in fact, demands—more than being kept safe in our younger ways of thinking. Studying the Bible with adult faculties alerts us that the nature of the Bible requires of us a more nuanced and critical appreciation.
Not “compromise” but nuance, where naiveté gives way to an appreciation of the Bible’s more “adult” nature—like children who grow up to adulthood and their view of their parents grows right along with them.
So here are 3 ways of seeing the Bible that reflect such an appreciation of the complexities of the Bible’s
production and history. These 3 overlap somewhat, and for what it’s worth, they are not in any way controversial among biblical scholars.
(1) The books of the Bible were not written in the order in which they appear. It’s understandable to think that the order of the books in the Bible reflects when they were written, since the stories follow an order of events.
But that doesn’t hold when we get down to details. You can’t tell when a book was written by the page numbers at the bottom of our English Bibles.
Just because Genesis is first does not mean Genesis was written before Exodus, or Deuteronomy was written before 1 Samuel, or Leviticus before Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
When the books of the Bible were written is a complex issue. Historically speaking, we should not assume that David or Hosea had a copy of the Pentateuch they could consult, even if for us flipping back to the Pentateuch from ”later” books suggests an order in which they were written.
Authors writing during the monarchy may have been aware of traditions of, say, Adam or the exodus or the Ten Commandments, but that is not to say they were aware of the books that we know today.
Which leads to my 2nd point. . .
(2) Canonical/scriptural consciousness grew over time. Israel’s ancient writing eventually became canonical (authoritative). This was a process that took time. A “canonical consciousness” did not arise until the crisis of the Babylonian exile (586-539 BCE) and its aftermath.
This is not to say that nothing was written down before the 6th c. BCE. Far from it. It only means that a conscious collection of writings to form a sacred text is a later development.
That consciousness seems to have been nurtured in earnest during the exile, when previously known means of communion with God were off the table—namely Temple worship. Prophets became less frequent, too, until they faded from the scene.
In other words, the need for a “Bible” arose later, as a means of hearing God’s word from the past then and there. The custodians of God’s word passed from the prophets to the scribes—from the spoken word to the production and transmission of the written word.
This leads to my 3rd point. . .
(3) The biblical books are the products of anonymous writers and editors. Even if David is responsible for some psalms, Solomon for some proverbs, and Moses for some laws, the books of Psalms, Proverbs, and the Pentateuch are literally anonymous—they claim no author.
We have no idea who specifically is responsible for giving us the books we know so well by name and location in our Bibles. We can make good stabs at roughly when books—and parts of books—were either written or edited, but often it’s hard to say more than “before of after the exile,” “sometimes during the early monarchy,” “likely pre-monarchic”—or something like that.
These 3 ways of thinking have all sorts of ramifications, of course, which can and should be talked about and worked through by people of faith. Which is really my point here.
These observations—and others like them—are not the end of a conversation, but the beginning of a better one, where the Bible’s complexities and many layers come to surface in ways that fuel our thinking about faith and life, not things that have to be submerged or held at bay in order to maintain faith.
Otherwise we are telling people that to maintain their faith they need to remain as children.
Now, I know what Jesus said about becoming like a child to enter the kingdom. But I also know what the Bible says about growing in wisdom and insight, leaving behind childish things, and opting for meat rather than milk.
As I see it, acknowledging and embracing “adult” observations of our complex Bible actually force us back to a child-like trust in God, rather than leaning on a false sense of security that a child’s understanding of the Bible provides.
The more I learn, the more I see the wisdom of not “relying on my own insight” (Proverbs 3:5)—not because I am ignoring complexity but because I refuse to.
[An earlier version of this post appeared in October 2015]