How We Got the Bible, and Why it Matters Part 1
How We Got the Bible, and Why it Matters Part 1

The Bible can still get you free.

Yes, there are contradictions in the Bible.

Yes, the Bible has been used to oppress Black women at all points of the intersectionality of our being…as women, as Black women.

Yes, the Bible has been used by men to keep us in our place, to control our sexuality, to define how our gender is assigned and designated, and to train us to be their good little assistants who don’t complain about doing all of the work.

Yes, the Bible has been used to deny our own humanity through the use of binary opposition that uplifts ‘light’ and ‘lightness’ as holy and ‘dark’ and ‘darkness’ as evil.

But the Bible can still get you free.

It is important to remember four very important factors as it relates to the meaning of the words of the Bible:

  • That the Bible translation you use can and does impact how you understand its meaning
  • That the biases of the person teaching the Bible to you often bleed through how they both present and understand the Bible’s meanings
  • There is no such thing as an impartial reading of the Bible. All reading of the Bible is subjective. There is no one right way to do it, and no one can divorce their own “life codes” from how they read the Bible. For example, if a pastor bashes women from the pulpit, talks about women as sexual temptresses but never discusses men, whether or not that pastor is male or female, he or she is reading the Bible through a lens of misogyny and their interpretation may not be for your highest good.
  • There is a distinct difference between reading the Bible devotionally (for how we understand it now, what is says to us now) and reading the Bible academically (how the Bible is studied from the point of view of the first people that hear it, the intended hearers). Academic readers use a process called exegesis that uses tools of interpretation in order to get at meaning; the goal is to get as close as possible to the author’s intent. Exegesis is a ten-dollar word that comes from the Greek, and it means “to draw out of.” It basically means to interpret a text through a thorough analysis of its content.

This raises questions, and rightfully so, of why any Black woman should be reading something that has aided and abetted her/our own oppression. Many people have abandoned the Bible outright for this reason. Hang with me awhile, and hopefully you will see why I still love it in spite of its flaws, and why I still find value in it.

If you are a believer that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, that it is infallible and without error and not to be examined, this might be a good place to exit stage right. I firmly believe faith is to be questioned, interrogated, and re-examined afresh for every generation. I believe Jesus did that. His belief that the Torah could be questioned and re-interpreted was at the heart of his beef with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes who were offended that he offered other alternatives of what the Torah meant or could say. Go into any library’s Judaica section, and you will find volumes and volumes of commentary written by rabbis across the centuries about what the Torah means. I believe we are meant to discuss and interrogate the discourses we fix as holy and instructive.

So let’s start with Jesus. Jesus is always a good a place to start, right?

Jesus did not write any part of the Bible, and the only Bible that was around when he was on earth was the Torah (the books we now know as the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures). The Bible is not a book. It is a library of books written across thousands of years in many different geographical locations.

The information we have about Jesus comes primarily from the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There are other Gospels that were not canonized. The canonization process is how the Bible went from scroll to book format. (We’ll talk more about that later.) But for now, it is important to note that the Gospels are not biographies as we would think of a Jesus narrative today. Also, the Gospels were not written down until a generation AFTER he was crucified.

How we got the information that appears in the Bibles we know today started with the oral tradition. The majority of people living at the time of Jesus could not read or write. People who knew Jesus (the men and women who actually followed him) or were helped by Jesus (think of the stories the people who were healed by him told folks!) were repeated often enough that people learned them by heart. This practice is very similar to the African griots that kept oral records of the history of their villages. The oral tradition was the Google of its day.  This may explain why Jesus taught in parables. Parables conveyed theological meaning in a short story format that was easy to remember, and he used familiar scenes that are still relatable today: “a certain man had two sons” or “a sower went out to sow.” People with means, who could read and write in different languages (this is the work a scribe does, by the way) and could afford ink and parchment, wrote these stories down. The compilers of the Gospels gained access to these stories, and used these stories to convey a portrait of Jesus that were written more to convince you of something about Jesus they wanted you to know than they were written as a snapshot of the chronology of his life. In much the same way a district attorney and a defense attorney would present their most compelling information to a jury to either convince you of the defendant’s guilt or innocence, the Gospel writers wrote to convince the first hearers of the Gospel (the Bible was meant to be heard, not read in the first few hundred years after the crucifixion) that Jesus was the Son of God. That Jesus was the Messiah. That Jesus was a healer. This is why the Gospels sound similar, but not identical. Quite frankly, I would be more suspicious of a conspiracy if every Gospel sounded exactly the same. It is clear they had access to the same stories about Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke…but they made very different decisions about how to tell those stories, so they could make their most compelling Jesus argument.

If the Apostle Paul were alive today, he would be all over Reddit, Flickr, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, youtube and Instagram. Paul was the media savvy disciple, and understood the value of writing things down. This is one reason why so much of the New Testament was written by Paul, or by people writing in Paul’s name. In the ancient world, plagiarism was not the offense that it is today. In fact, in the ancient world, writing in someone else’s name was meant to be an honor, not a violation of the honor code.

This is just a brief overview of how the Bible came to be in the first place. Paul had a very clear vision of what he determined the Christian faith to be, and was quite adept at getting that point of view across. He circulated letters explaining what he thought Jesus’ life and death meant. Those letters were read out loud to the first believers, and these letters answered the questions the members of those particular early churches (people’s homes, not actually buildings) had about the faith. But Paul’s version of Christianity was not the only version out there.

Bible scholars who make a living studying the history and social settings of life at the time his letters were being composed speculate that in addition to traveling to local synagogues, Paul would travel to different regions and set up shop as a tent-maker or leather worker, which was his trade. He would talk about Jesus to his customers. In Corinth, for example, women were full members of the church. They had spiritual gifts and the authority to use them. They participated regularly in the church services, and worshipped, prayed, and prophesied right alongside the men (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). But if you are studying the Bible with someone who thinks women should shut up in the church, they might only highlight the parts of these verses that talk about a woman keeping her head covered, which was the tradition at the time, and Morris Day and the Time slide right on past the verses that let us know women prayed and prophesied in the first churches.

This little bit of information, that women in the ancient world were judges, church leaders and prophets, can get a woman who is struggling with her own call today free.

There is no faith without unanswered questions. And there is no interpretation without making choices about what words mean, and choices about how to present the information that is in the Bible.

This is why the English translation of the Bible you use is so important. In ancient languages like Greek and Hebrew, a single verb could have multiple meanings. Someone made a choice to interpret words a particular way. In part 2, I will talk more about the choices made about which books of the Bible were included and excluded, I will review the English translations of the Bible churches most commonly use today, and rank them in terms of which have the closest proximity to what the texts said in their original languages.