Christians need Jesus and God but do we really need the Bible? Before you label me as a heretic, here’s why I think there may be good reasons to answer both yes and no to this question.
Most Christians didn’t have access to their own copy of the Bible until long after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century. For most of the past 2, 000 years people would gather in small groups to hear a community Bible being read. Early churches only possessed a few sections and they’d trade with other churches to gain a more complete understanding. With or without the entire Bible these people were often extremely committed Christians…sometimes even willing to die for their faith. They knew that it was important to read as much as they could because it was an incredibly useful tool they could use to learn more about God and Jesus. As it says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
But somewhere along the line some Christians began treating the Bible as some kind of mystical talisman with magical qualities. They’d flip through the pages of this collection of stories, letters, poetry and other genres by various authors and stick their finger in a page looking for that special verse intended just for them. The words started to become confused with “the Word” (or the Logos) which is Jesus himself and not a book. As it says in the opening of the Gospel of John “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The entire Bible may be inspired by God and be inerrant, meaning that not one jot or tittle can be changed, but as with any document our interpretations may vary greatly regardless of whether or not we change anything. There are currently thousands of churches interpreting the Bible in their own way, resulting in many different meanings being derived from the same text.
Much of the Bible was passed down through oral tradition for long periods before being written down – translated from spoken Aramaic into written Greek before going through subsequent translations into other languages. We can claim that every word should be taken literally but that often wasn’t the way the writers intended the Bible to be read. Some biblical concepts that made perfect sense to readers immersed in the culture at the time of writing are completely lost on readers today. The same goes for words that have subtle variations of meaning in the original Greek but don’t translate well into languages like modern English.
To put it into perspective, here are a few examples of expressions we use today that can’t be taken literally. Most people know what they mean but only because they’re part of our cultural understanding…
If I say the sun is setting we all understand what’s happening but we also know that the sun really isn’t doing anything. The earth is rotating, making the sun appear to drop below the horizon but we don’t take it literally. Other expressions like laughing your head off or having egg on your face may make perfect sense to us in 21st century North America but to someone learning the English language, or reading this 2, 000 years from now, the meanings may not be quite so obvious.
Another thing some Christians say that needs to be challenged is “I read the WHOLE Bible” as if giving the Old Testament and the New Testament equal weighting somehow makes them better Christians. Jesus made it clear that the Old Testament is important when he said in Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” but he also said several times “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” whenever he’s about to teach something that’s different from what’s found in the Old Testament. The law said “An eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth” but Jesus said “Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” I don’t want to accuse anyone of intentionally ignoring Jesus but it’s sometimes tempting to do an end run around him to find a sound bite in the Old Testament that will support our agenda. I often encounter this kind of thinking when talking to people about Jesus’ peace teachings. Reading the Old Testament to learn about how God interacted with people prior to Jesus coming on the scene is a good thing. Using it as an optional guide for how to live when we don’t like what Jesus has to say to us is…not Christian.
Jesus understood the Old Testament better than anyone who ever did or ever will walk the face of the earth, and his teaching takes the entirety of Old Testament Scripture into account. If we’re constantly flipping back into the Old Testament instead of paying attention to him, it’s as if we’re saying “I don’t think you really know what you’re talking about Jesus, so I’ll just ignore what you’re teaching and follow what’s in the Old Testament instead.” The same goes for jumping ahead to the Book of Revelation. Making our interpretation of John’s mysterious vision of the future more important than how the Jesus of the Gospels wants us to live today doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it marginalizes Jesus.
So, do Christians really need the Bible? If we’re going to use it the way it was intended to be used…yes we do. But if we’re using it in a way that pulls us away from the teachings of Jesus, it may actually be doing more harm than good.