May 2018

May 23: Telling the Story

For most of us, our primary experience of the Bible comes from reading. As people in a text-heavy society, we tend to trust an idea more if it is written down. But for centuries before literacy was widespread, most people’s experience of scripture was through the spoken word.

In fact, many of the words of scripture did not initially take shape as ink on a page. They were not thoughts springing from a single human brain or whispered by a divine spirit to a scribe in a study. Many of the words of scripture were first proclaimed in public spaces, and then repeated in various forms in people’s homes, on holidays, and during rituals—perhaps for generations—l before being compiled and organized by an editor.

This is actually a fairly reliable way of preserving stories. The Odyssey and The Iliad survived generations before they were written down. "Miriam’s Song" was sung for hundreds of years before it was written down as a book called Exodus.

Oral tradition has some benefits over text. In an oral culture, a story never belongs to a single person. Think about the stories your family retells at every major gathering: certain elements in the story cannot change because those things make the story. But some things in the way the story is told do change, depending on the audience, the storyteller, and the context. Each member of your family might tell the story of how the Christmas tree caught on fire that one year a bit differently, but key elements will remain the same. If someone tried to change one of the key elements, the rest of the family would correct them. But the small details and emphasis may change with each teller, which keeps the story fresh and alive.

No member of the family could suddenly change the story completely because it doesn’t belong to one person. It belongs to the family. Your family's stories are passed down and retold again and again. The telling may be slightly different every year, but you still recognize the story.

Much of the Bible works this way. The stories existed long before they were written down, and they belonged to a community. The authors were part of that community and bound to that history. They couldn’t just invent things. These stories still belong to a community. We are part of that community now, so it is up to us to preserve the stories by listening to and telling them over and over again. It’s like the words of the old hymn:

I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
of Jesus and His love.

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker


May 7: The Bible and Wikipedia

The Bible is more like Wikipedia than you might think. Wikipedia is a surprisingly helpful analogy for understanding what the Bible is: a living, dynamic tradition.

Modern ideas about authorship value individual ideas and talent. The ancient world of the Hebrew authors of the Bible, however, had very different notions about authorship. Authors were valued not for their individuality but for their contributions to a greater tradition.

Peter Enns writes, “If you know how Wikipedia works, you have a good idea of how the authorship of biblical books went down: an anonymous text is added to over time, but none of the additions are screaming for individual recognition.”

The original authors and editors of biblical books were not concerned about who wrote what when. Modern individuals, however, have pressed hard to identify single authors of texts, like David for the Psalms, Solomon for Proverbs, Moses for the Pentatuech, and Isaiah for the whole book of Isaiah. Critical scholarship shows this is not the case, but those traditional attributions remain prevalent among Christians.

Over time, David became associated with the book of Psalms, which included “authoring” psalms that were clearly written long after his death. Later authors weren’t concerned with the credit because they valued themselves not as individual authors but as purveyors of a tradition. They were carrying on the style and philosophy of King David so they wanted his name associated with their work. Similarly, Proverbs is associated with Solomon, but the book as a whole is a compilation of sayings that span a great length of time.

Most scholars agree that the book of Isaiah was added to two different times in the span of about three hundred years after the original Isaiah wrote. Scholars divide the book into three “Isaiahs,” but later authors continued to write under the name “Isaiah”, because their notion of authorship demanded it. They didn’t do this to fool people but to honor the prophet Isaiah.

The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is traditionally attributed to Moses, but it is more like Wikipedia than anything else. Several sources spanning hundreds of years were compiled and organized by an editor hundreds of years after Moses’ death.

These notions of authorship also apply to the New Testament. Most scholars agree the disciple John did not author all the New Testament books attributed to him, nor did Paul. Instead, disciples of these Christian leaders continued their teaching and work by attributing their later work to their mentors.

This does not diminish the Bible in any way. These later authors and editors aren’t “lying” or “showing disrespect for God’s word.” They are respecting history and tradition because that is how ancient authorship works. Ideas about authorship and copyright are different now, but in the ancient world this was how authors showed respect for their traditions.

The Bible is complex and dynamic, a back-and-forth between respect for tradition and the need to continue transforming it. That sounds a lot like the church.

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker