I grew up in an Irish Catholic Ghetto where nobody read the Bible. Every Sunday morning, we all walked down Normal Blvd. on the south side of Chicago to St. Ann’s Church to listen to the priest. Before his sermon, he read two snippets: one called the Epistle and the other called the Gospel, but none of us paid much attention. That was our “Bible reading” for the week.
Do you read the Bible?
There are several ways to do this. Many of our readers own their own “Concordance to the Bible” which gives them every verse in the Bible where each word is used. This way they can always contradict what I’m saying by simply citing chapter and verse, without knowing anything about the context. Others read their Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelations, as if it was written by one man at one time for one audience. However, many really joyful Christians have Bible Study Groups which are led by sincere and intelligent men and women who instill in their students a true desire to question and learn. I admire them.
Here’s another suggestion for any Christian who thinks it might be a good idea to start reading the New Testament: begin with Paul. Paul’s epistles (7 out of the 13 that he probably wrote himself) were sent off to the people who started Christianity--about 20 years before the first Gospel (Mark’s) was written. You can dive right into his very first epistle to the Thessalonians and learn what concerned these first Christians. (You’ll be surprised!)
Then read Galatians and see--perhaps for the first time--how Paul broke away from Judaism, and you can judge for yourself if you think Jesus would have welcomed this apostasy. Now read Romans where Paul produces a “Master’s Thesis” on Justification by Faith, and realize how controversial this message must have been; even 50 years later we see a Christian writer named James trying to clear up Paul’s “outlandish” statements (James. 2:14). Finally, read 1st Corinthians and pause a long time over chapters 13 and 14: Paul’s Valentine.
Now stop. Put down your Bible and buy two books: “Paul, The Mind of the Apostle” by A.N. Wilson, and “The First Paul” by Borg and Crossan. These three Scripture scholars have spent their whole lives studying Paul and his effects on the religion that followed. Wilson sketches the life of Paul and shows us where he picked up his ideas; Borg and Crossan identify the major theological themes that Paul weaves throughout his epistles, and how these themes were copied by the three evangelists, Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
Now pick up your Bible again, and read 2nd Corinthians, Philippians and the little slavery letter called Philemon. And now you’re ready for Mark’s Gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke, and Luke’s book on Paul called Acts of the apostles. John’s Gospel--written much later than the three Synoptics and for an entirely different audience—is a study in itself.
As you flip through the Gospels you will find Old Testament quotes on nearly every page. Matthew, for example, has five in his first two pages. I suggest you go back immediately and read the whole context of each quote. You will find that our Gospel writers quite often use a quote completely out of context, like the famous Isaiah 7:14 “virgin shall conceive.” Their plagiarism practices would get a Mercer Law student expelled today, but those were different times and different rules, and it’s our job to understand them.
But do you really need to read the Bible? Some of the happiest people I know have never read it and they’re doing just fine. However, it is full of beautiful stories and sound common-sense and great advice for living, and I urge you to read it if you can find the time.
But be careful; you’ll find many contradictions and parables and different ways of speaking. For example: Jesus says: (Lk. 14:26) “Unless you hate your mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters, you cannot be my disciple.” The word “hate” cannot be taken literally; it just wouldn’t make sense. It has to be hyperbole. However, Paul says in 1Cor.14:34 that “women are not permitted to speak in church.” He meant it literally--but he was flat-out wrong. Obviously, “divine inspiration” does not include inerrancy.
Finally, don’t let the fundamentalists fool you. They really believe they have the “whole truth” and they can always find a Bible verse to prove it—even though that verse has nothing to do with the subject at hand.
But that’s just my opinion.