For anyone wanting to understand the Bible, the most important realisation is that there is no such thing as The Bible. It does not and has not existed. Bible is a convenient word to refer to the scriptures of a variety of religions with a Middle Eastern background. Scriptures are the sacred writings, sacred texts and sacred stories of
religions. The literature that is subsumed under the word Bible is the sacred literature of a variety of religions, past and present, which have as their focus some aspect of the primary (hi)story contained in the Hebrew scriptures.
Each community has a Bible or Qur'an which comes into being as that community itself comes into being. The canonisation process is part of the shaping of the community. A canon is symbolic of a community. If there were no such things as the religions in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions there would be no Bibles or Qur'an. There
would only be biblical literature - a large body of conflicting texts whose diversity would be bewildering to an outside observer. So, whenever anyone states that the bible says something or claims an authority based on the bible, it's important for me, as a gay man studying bible, to always ask "whose bible do you refer to?"
The other important realisation is that, despite such canonisation processes, there is no uniformity of meaning within any of the resulting bibles. So when I'm asked, "Did things happen as the biblical narratives say?" I have to answer "No, I don't think so". John's gospel ends saying that the account is not a factual
detailing of events but is instead a selection of material designed to lead a person into a deeper understanding of a truth. It is clear that John does not regard truth and facts as the same thing. John is not unique as a biblical writer because one of the features of the biblical literature is that it is not content with only one version of a
story. After all, in Christian Bibles there are four gospels not one and in the Hebrew Bible there are two Davids, that of Samuel and that of Chronicles. Even Genesis gives us two or three accounts of the origin of things. It is as if the story could not be exhausted or complete in the one telling - it must be told and retold.
This perspective might be surprising to those from a Christian background but I think is less so from a Jewish one. The Jewish tradition is willing to turn and turn again all those tales and tease out new possibilities. Of course, all traditions impose their own constructions on these stories to attempt to tame them but I think that
Christians have been the more successful at such taming. Jesus and the early Jesus movement would probably be totally unrecognisable, and most likely highly disturbing, to anyone from our time, be they believer or non-believer.
So if the Bible does not exist and is not factual anyway why bother? Here are some reasons why I bother. I hope they might be useful for others wanting to do bible, and not only bible for that matter.
Firstly, I live in a culture that has been shaped by this biblical literature. Whether I like it or not if I want to see some basic cultural change take place, which I do, then I'm driven to wrestling with these biblical texts. Especially for me, the question of how these texts have been used and are being used is a central one. It is not
simply a matter of discrediting these texts but rather of exposing the ways they have been used and relativising these readings that is my focus. No single group or person owns these stories and there is no single meaning of a text. Even if there was it would be lost over time with the changes in language and culture. I have set myself the
task of undermining those readings that are used to oppress people.
Secondly, I have an interest in history that is linked with such a reading enterprise. It is not only the plurality of contemporary readings but also of readings over time. This historical question brings me face to face with the biblical texts as a whole. What are the worlds of these narratives and what sorts of communities are being
envisaged here? The biblical texts themselves are alien historical artefacts. If we want to find out about Jesus and the movement he started, we have to read Christian biblical texts. If we want to get some sort of a grasp on the religion of 'ancient Israel' all we have are the texts written by this Israel to express its religion.
One does not accept them as 'gospel', that is not how one does history. Instead these texts are read critically because they are not windows through which we can step into another world and because when we read we create a world by filling out the textual gaps with our imagination. So a critical reading is not only critical of the text but
also critical of myself, the reader. Any historical conclusions drawn from these artefacts are necessarily contingent.
Thirdly, the plurality of readings in time and space remind me that these texts are an ecumenical scripture. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all stand on one version or another of these biblical stories. This is a rich heritage and there exists the possibility for entering into an enriching conversation that is multi-faith and
multi-cultural. The biblical world is a truly diverse and plural phenomenon and as a queer person who flies the rainbow flag of diversity and plurality, it is a wonderful surprise to discover how rainbow hued the biblical world is or could be if people across (and within) the traditions started to really speak to each other.
I have learned so much from exploring Jewish traditions and my forays into Islam have alerted me to a rich interpretive world still to be explored. And, of course, there is a vast plurality of Christian readings as well. Beware of anyone who says that any particular reading is the true Christian way of reading - no such animal exists. When
I use the terms Jewish, Christian, Islamic, I also include non-believers with a background in those cultural traditions as well.
Finally, I have a humanistic reason for reading and wrestling with biblical texts. By humanistic, I include the deeply personal and the deeply spiritual, which are also where the fun comes in. Humans are story-telling animals. This fact is one of the fundamental truths of Australian Aboriginal religions and a fact that has been forgotten by
Western culture. What is most important about any story is not whether it is factual but how we enter into it, to explore it and bring it into confrontation with the reality of our own lives. Such an encounter is a creative opportunity by which we listen not to the words of the text but open ourselves to what can lie, in the words of Jewish
biblical scholar, Avivah Zornberg, "hidden in the spaces between the letters, in the silences between the words" [Zornberg, xviii]. As she subsequently concludes:
"...derisha, midrash is the work of continuing translation in the face of mystery.... Precisely where primary, privileged enlightenments have failed, the need to translate, to seek meaning through the "other words" of human discourse, remains the endless project of human life... And Jacob, containing within himself the
infinite tension of life in such worlds not realized, must utter words that will merge mystery and meaning, and teach his children to speak themselves toward blessing" [Zornberg, Avivah Gottlieb, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, New York et al: Doubleday, 1996, p381].
This paper began a discussion thread in the Ideas at the Powerhouse website. Highlights from the festival, held held in Brisbane, August 16-19 can be found here.