Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

3 Ways to See the Bible “as an Adult” (But Let Me Explain Before You Jump down My Throat)

understanding the bible

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works.Tweets at @peteenns.

I know the title of this post might sound offensive, but don’t give in to that feeling. I’m probably not even talking to you.

The title channels something I read by C. S. Lewis somewhere in the past (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 that he knows a lot of very intelligent and educated adults who were brought up in religious homes and who have very 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.”

Complexity in Understanding the Bible

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 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 assume that the order of the books in the Bible reflect when they were written.

This may be especially true for Christians, since the Bible’s macro-structure—New Testament follows Old Testament—indicates a chronological order.

But that doesn’t hold when we get down to details.

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, but we should not assume that David or Hosea had a copy of the Pentateuch they could consult just because we can flip back to those books in our Bible.

They may have been aware of traditions of say Adam or the exodus or the 10 Commandments, but that is not to say they were aware of books that we know today.

Which leads to my 2nd point. . .

(2) Canonical/scriptural consciousness grew over time.

Ancient Israel’s notions of Holy Scripture developed over time, and it wasn’t until the exile to Babylon (586-539 BCE) and it’s aftermath that a “canonical consciousness” arose.

This is not to say that nothing was written down before the 6th c. BCE. Far from it. It only means that a collection of authoritative canonical writings is a later development.

That consciousness seems to have been nurtured first 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 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 anonymous.

We don’t know 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 or after the exile,” “sometimes during the early monarchy,” “likely pre-monarchic”—or something like that.

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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 gives us.

The more I learn, the more I see the wisdom of not leaning on my own understanding—not because I am ignoring complexity but because I refuse to.

[Apologies. An earlier version of this post had “5 ways,” which I reduced to 3 because I was beating a dead horse good and dead. But I forgot to change the title—and I chalk that up to mourning for the Yankees’ poor showing in the playoffs. Forgive me.]

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