Sunday 20 October 2019
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 29C
I want to spend quite a bit of time this morning on just one verse of scripture: 2 Timothy 3:16. Some of you know this as an important proof text. Others don’t know this particular verse from any others. But I want to spend some time with it today because it is important for how we understand scripture. In the version we read it in today, it says this: “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character.”
If you google the phrase, “How do we know scripture is inspired by God?” the first hit, from allabouttruth.org, references 2 Timothy 3:16, and it says this: “The Bible itself makes claim to being the inspired Word of God.” Then it quotes our verse and continues, “The Bible claims to be without error, authoritative, sufficient to meet all of our spiritual needs and it does not defend itself. It merely states truth asking us to examine ourselves with its message. And so inspiration tells us that God is the author of the Bible, using writers to communicate to us.”
Did you catch that? Supposedly, this one verse from the second letter to Timothy proves that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that it is without error, authoritative, sufficient to meet all our spiritual needs, and that it is written directly by God, using human writers as little more than scribes who commit God’s divine words to print. All that from this one verse. “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character.” Interpreters in this vein often go on to claim that the Bible, and only the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that it has a special authority above all other writings, and that that special authority is granted to it by God, in the words of the Bible, right here in 2 Tim 3:16. You don’t need any other proof. Everything between the two covers of this book is God’s divine proclamation, and everything outside of it is not.
Of course, the reality of things is not nearly so simple. The story of the Bible is much more complicated, and much more interesting than that. It’s not that God just picked out a few scribes to take down some notes on the divine musings and those got collected together into what we now know as the Bible. And despite what a lot of people claim, the Bible itself never suggests that that’s the case. There is another book out there that does. The Qur’an is supposed to be the result of the prophet Mohammed copying down the words of God that were revealed to him through mystical encounters with the angel Gabriel. But that isn’t the story of the Bible. That is not even what the Bible claims to be.
Let’s go back to 2 Timothy. What does it actually have to say? Let’s take just the most important words: “Every scripture is inspired by God.” It’s only three words in Greek: two adjectives and one noun. Πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος. Πασα is one form of the adjective παν. It’s fairly common in English. Panoply, panorama, panacea, Panhellenic, pan-American, pan-African. It means all or every.
The second word is also fairly common in English: γραφη. Lithograph, photograph, pictograph graphite, graphic. It means writing. More basically, it means something represented by means of lines. A drawing, an outline, a painting, a writing, a list, a medical prescription, a legal bill of indictment. Sometimes, though, it can mean a holy writing, a scripture. So πασα γραφη can mean every writing, every scripture.
There’s just one more word: θεοπνευστος. While this particular word is very uncommon, it is a compound of two very familiar words. Θεο, as in theology, is the Greek word for God. Πνευμα, as in pneumatic or pneumonia, can mean breath, wind, or spirit. So θεοπνευστος can mean God-breathed or inspired by God.
Every writing God-breathed; all scripture inspired by God. There’s no verb, so the ‘is’ is implied. Every writing is God-breathed; all scripture is inspired by God.
On the surface, that might sound pretty clear. Here it is in the Bible, and it says that every scripture is inspired by God. So every part of the Bible is inspired by God, right?
That might make sense if this book, the Bible, was all written at one time, if it were all written by the same person, if it had always been contained in one, complete unit. But of course, that’s not what the Bible is.
So, what would these words have meant when they were first written? Specifically, what does the author mean by “scripture?” The Bible didn’t come to us all in one piece. So how did we get it?
The Bible isn’t really a book, it’s a library. The different books contained in the Bible were written by different people, in different places, in at least three different languages, and over the course of several hundred years. We don’t have any original copies of the Bible, and we don’t have any original copies of any single book in the Bible. What we have is copies of copies of copies of copies. Our oldest manuscripts are just little fragments, maybe a few verses, and it’s only much later copies that contain multiple books in a single manuscript.
The oldest parts of the Bible are written in Hebrew and part of what is commonly called the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. There are a number of different kinds of literature in the Hebrew Bible. There are historical narratives, songs, love poetry, laments, court records, legends, myths, proverbs, prophetic literature, accounts of ecstatic visions.
In Jewish tradition, they are divided into three sections. The first is called the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Sometimes these books are known as the Pentateuch or as the Books of Moses. When Samaritans talk about the Bible, this is what they mean: just the first five books, the Torah.
The second section of the Hebrew Bible is called the prophets or the Nevi’im. These are further divided into the former prophets—like Judges, Samuel, and Kings—the major prophets—like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—and the minor prophets—like Amos, Jonah, and Habakkuk. Even though we call these books, they didn’t come in a form that we would call a book. They were written on papyrus scrolls. The major prophets are called major prophets because they’re longer. They each took up a whole scroll. The minor prophets, however, were much shorter; all twelve of them could fit in the same scroll.
The third section of the Hebrew Bible is called the writings, or the Ketuvim. These include books like Psalms, Job, Esther, and Chronicles. In some traditions, these writings are considered less authoritative than the prophets, which are considered less authoritative than the Torah.
All these books together form what we usually call the Hebrew Bible of the Old Testament. It’s what most Jews mean when they talk about the Bible. But it’s not what Jews in Jesus’s time—in the time of 2 Timothy—would have thought of as the Bible.
By Jesus’s time, Jews had been dispersed all over the known world, sometimes by force and sometimes by choice. A lot of Jews did not speak Hebrew in their daily lives. That meant that a lot of Jews couldn’t understand the Hebrew Bible. So translations were made of the Hebrew Bible, the most of which was called the Septuagint. It’s called the Septuagint because it was reportedly translated by 70 different translators. It was written in Greek, which was the common language of most people around the eastern Mediterranean. It isn’t just a translation of the Hebrew Bible, though; it has more books than the Hebrew Bible, and some other books are longer in the Greek version. The Septuagint has books like Tobit, Judith, Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Solomon. It has a 151st Psalm. And it has longer versions of Esther, Jeremiah, and Daniel.
In the time of Jesus, and in the time of 2 Timothy, this is probably what people would have been referring to when they referred to scripture. No one had made any proclamations about what was and what wasn’t scripture. From community to community, they would have had different collections of books. But if we had to take a guess at what 2 Timothy means when it refers to scripture, the Septuagint would be a pretty good guess. So if we really wanted to say that 2 Timothy 3:16 is the final word on how scripture is inspired by God, then we would have to say that 2 Maccabees is inspired by God, but the Gospel of Mark isn’t. We would have to say that the Book of Tobit is inspired by God, but the Epistle to the Hebrews isn’t. We would have to say that Bel and the Dragon is inspired by God, but the 2nd Letter to Timothy isn’t. If we use 2 Timothy as a proof text for the special status of the Bible, then 2 Timothy would exclude itself from that special status.
The smaller part of what most Christians call the Bible is usually called the New Testament, sometimes the Second Testament. It’s written in Greek. Like the Hebrew Bible, it is written by many different authors, in many different places. It’s safe to say that none of the writers of the New Testament thought they were writing scripture. Many of the writings in the New Testament are letters, written by real people to other real people about their particular concerns. If you look at the last chapter of Romans, for example, you’ll find all kinds of personal greetings being exchanged between Christians in Rome and the people who are with Paul. Those details don’t really mean anything to us now, other than that it’s interesting to hear the names of some early Christians. The New Testament begins with four Gospels—stories of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, though these were written after most of the letters. And it also contains an account of the life of the early church, the Book of Acts, and the record of one man’s very interesting dream, the Book of Revelation.
In addition to writing new sacred texts, early Christians also adopted a new technology. It’s called the codex, but it’s what you normally think of when you hear the word book. Essentially a stack of pages that you can flip through. Using a codex meant that Christians could collect more writings together under a single cover. For the first time, people could collect all, or most of their sacred writings into a single document.
But that new technology also meant that people had to think about which things got included in the book and which were left out. That wasn’t an easy process. It took years and years. There wasn’t really a consensus on the New Testament until the third or fourth century. In fact, the argument hasn’t really ended. The bible we use in this congregation does not contain the same books as the Bible they use at St. Mary’s, which isn’t the same as the Bible George Pantley grew up using in the Orthodox Church, which isn’t the same as the Bible used in the Ethiopian Church… I could go on. The point is, not everyone agrees on what we mean when we say “the Bible.” Not everyone agrees on what we mean when we say “scripture.”
I’m not trying to bad-mouth the Bible. I’ve devoted most of my life to studying the Bible, and that’s because I think that it is extremely important, that it is incredibly meaningful. Every Sunday after I read the Gospel, I say, “The Word of the Lord.” And it is the Word of the Lord. It is inspired by God, absolutely. It is the sufficient grounding of our faith. It is the ultimate authority for our theology, and we are helped to understand it through our tradition, our reason, and our experience. The Bible is incredibly important.
But the Bible isn’t written by God. It doesn’t claim to be written by God. And we misunderstand it if we treat it as if it were written by God. The Bible is written by people about their experience of God. That doesn’t make it any less important or any less meaningful. It just makes it different.
The Bible is a conversation. It doesn’t end on the last page of Revelation. It breathes in new life every time we read it, every time we seek to interpret it together. If it didn’t then it would be dead and irrelevant to us. But it isn’t. The Bible keeps speaking.
The Bible is an argument. It does not always agree with itself, in part because none of its writers ever thought their works would be combined the way that they have been. Mark does not agree with John about who Jesus is, and neither of them agree with Paul. But those different views are held in tension for us, between the covers of the same book, so that none of our human conceptions of God can become an idol to us.
The Bible is the journey of a people in their relationship with God. It is a narrative. It is a story. It moves and changes and reacts and goes off course and then swings back. And because of that, it can speak to a much broader swath of the human experience. The Bible can make meaning for many different types of people because the Bible has been formed in the experiences of many different types of people, facing all kinds of different challenges and experiences. That is part of what makes the Bible so beautiful.
Every scripture is inspired by God. Yes, it is. And there is a complicated, mystifying, and beautiful story that lies behind that statement. The Bible isn’t dead. As we read it together, as we place it in dialogue with our lives, it creates new meaning. Each time we open its pages, each time we sing its words, new life is breathed into it, it is inspired by God. So let us take seriously this marvelous book and love it for what it is; it is our story, and the story of so many others, as we seek to love and understand and serve our great and glorious and gracious God.