Why do we need the Bible today?

"The Bible is in a way enormously modern": Why we should read this ancient book today

The Swiss Bible researcher Konrad Schmid on the Bible as world literature and critical reading. An interview from “Bücher am Sonntag”.

Books on Sunday: Konrad Schmid, who wrote the Bible?

Konrad Schmid: The Bible was written in the 1st millennium BC and in the first two centuries after Christ. At that time the concept of author's literature was not yet known. Anyone who wrote something clung to the existing streams of tradition. The first biblical author known by name is Jesus Ben Sirach. We know Paul in the New Testament. But essentially the Bible was created anonymously or under a pseudonym.

But were they people?

Yes. The Bible begins with the sentence: "In the beginning God created heaven and earth." The authors could also have written: "In the beginning I created heaven and earth" - just as the Koran uses the first person of God. But the Bible seeks to testify to people's experiences with God and leaves no doubt that it was written down by people. We have a book of Isaiah, we have the letters of Paul; but we have no book from God.

So isn't the Bible God's Word, as many Christians believe?

Even as it sees itself, the Bible is not the direct word of God, but rather it testifies to it. If you look at the biblical writings historically, you see that there is not a single book that is a uniform text. The Bible is traditional literature that includes a variety of commentaries. The book of Isaiah was probably written between the 8th and the 3rd century BC. Generations of scribes have written on it. Many texts that later entered the Bible initially had a profane character. The psalms, for example, were songs and prayers. They do not claim to come from God, but they are directed to God.

To person

Konrad Schmid

The 54-year-old theologian is Professor of Old Testament Studies and Early Jewish Religious History at the University of Zurich. He has, inter alia. taught in Jerusalem and Princeton. In his latest book, he explains to a wider audience how the Bible came about.

Konrad Schmid & Jens Schröter: The Origin of the Bible. C.H. Beck 2019. 504 p., At CHF 43.–, e-book 34.–.

Is it a coincidence which books have come down to us?

Not exactly coincidence. But there were no clear principles. There were no authoritative decisions, neither in Judaism nor in Christianity, that would have defined what should and should not belong in the Bible. The books used in worship have gradually gained acceptance. It never came to a complete providence. For example, the Ethiopians have 81, the Protestants 39, and the Catholics 46 books in their Old Testaments.

So the Bible is not a fixed size?

From the theological point of view, the canon must be described as fundamentally open. The one fixed letter of the Bible, as we know today from the finds in Qumran, did not even exist in the time of Jesus. The idea that the Bible was entirely inspired by God did not arise until ancient Israel in AD 70, when the second temple was destroyed. Only then did Judaism and Christianity develop into book religions. Before that, Judaism was essentially a cult religion, in which texts became increasingly important, but the sacrificial cult at the temple was central.

"The Bible not only allows a critical perspective on oneself, it also demands it."

The Bible is very heterogeneous. Is there something that connects the different scriptures?

In the tradition of Protestantism the answer is: Of course there is something that connects; the gospel of God's giving to lost people who cannot redeem themselves. If you are reading the Bible as a book by yourself, it is very difficult to identify a continuous thread or focus. There are perhaps different foci: the decision for monotheism, which finds nothing divine in the world and nothing worldly in God. Another basic idea is the covenant concept: God is turned towards the world. And third, the thought of human finiteness. All three moments are still relevant today: Even in the 21st century, it is not an absurd thought for a person not to idolize the world, to live from its realities and to understand oneself as something penultimate and not something last.

Have the findings of historical-critical biblical research reached the churches?

This is a great task that the churches in Central Europe, but especially on other continents, still have to do. In many places one has a metaphysically exaggerated image of the Bible, and the churches have not yet really opened up to their critical perception. In my opinion, this is one of the main factors behind the crisis in the churches today: it does not address critically questioning people enough. I believe that the Bible itself not only allows a critical perspective on itself, but also demands it - because of its diversity.

So should one read the Bible like any other literature?

This principle has existed in Protestantism since 1771, when Johann Salomo Semler published the book "From free investigation of the canon". In Catholicism this openness came later; with the Second Vatican Council (1963-65). Semler writes that as thinking people we cannot simply submit to the authority of a text that was also written by people. For example, if you take the Bible literally, there is no way of positively engaging with science. We now know that the world is older than 6,000 years and was not created in seven days. The biblical view of the origins of the world reflects the situation of science 2500 years ago, not the current state. Today's Christianity rightly determines such questions of the world in a different way.

And what does a critical reading say about patriarchy?

The Bible itself was created in a patriarchal world and often reflects its order unbroken. In some ways, however, the Bible is also enormously modern. She says, for example, that God created man and woman and that man and woman are made in the image of God. This means that the sexes have the same dignity. In their time this was tantamount to a spiritual revolution.

«A 'marriage for all' can be reconciled with the spirit of the Bible."

But the Bible also contains laws. How should one deal with this normative claim?

The Bible is an ancient book, and its laws come from a bygone world that still knows slavery, for example. One should consider all legal texts in their context at the time. They cannot claim an unquestioned liability today, otherwise one would immediately end up with a very antiquated social and state model. The western world has good reason to derive its binding law from the consensus of its citizens, not from the Bible. Today we are no longer a homogeneous society that is part of a single religious tradition.

In the political discussion about “marriage for all”, however, the biblical prohibition of homosexuality is still present.

With regard to homosexuality, the biblical idea of ​​a responsible partnership is central. Accordingly, a "marriage for all" is perfectly compatible with the spirit of the Bible; especially since in antiquity the exclusively homosexual partnership was not even known. There were of course homosexual practices, and when such practices are forbidden in the Bible, then it is not opposing the responsible union of two people, but it is about the social and economic protection of the then only known institution of marriage between man and woman . If you read the biblical laws carefully, you will find that many laws have been canonized along with their earliest interpretations. It is not the individual law that is binding for the Bible, but the dynamic of its necessary interpretation.

Why Should We Still Read the Bible Today?

There are two basic motivations: The first: It's a very interesting book, it's excellent literature. Although you might need some guidance. Many people want to read the Bible from cover to cover. That's not a good idea. One silts up quickly.

Where would you start reading?

With the book of Genesis. This is world literature, incredibly interesting! You know the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and Joseph somehow. But when you read them, you realize how surprisingly different they are from what you remembered about them. The Book of Job is also a magnificent text, as are the Psalms. In the New Testament I would start with the Gospel of Mark, the oldest gospel that is incredibly simple and beautiful, then move on to Matthew and Luke, which are based on Mark. The most complex Gospel is the Gospel of John, which argues strongly theologically and is furthest away from the historical Jesus.

"It would be a loss of intellectual honesty if one did not deal with the culture-defining power of the Bible."

And the second motivation?

This book has shaped our culture like no other. Much in our world today, many of its spiritual decisions, cannot be understood at all if one does not take into account the influence of the Bible on culture. Of course, the Bible and its interpretations are not solely responsible for how we think of the world today. But the fact that we assume, for example, a certain disenchantment with nature, that we do not ask forgiveness from a tree before we cut it down, has to do with the fact that the Bible brought into the world the idea that the world is the world and God God. Of course one can complain about the disenchantment of nature. During the 20th century the negative consequences of this process became apparent. But it also had positive consequences: This gave us the opportunity to improve our livelihoods with science and technology. It would be a loss of intellectual honesty if one did not deal with the power of the Bible to shape culture.

But the Bible doesn't make it easy for readers.

I think if it were a simple and straightforward book it would have been forgotten at some point. Its complexity is perhaps one of its most important survival factors. There were many religious writings in antiquity, but as a living book only the Bible survived antiquity. It is complex and it has given rise to diverse interpretations. The result is that it does not provide a clear answer to every question.

Rather?

The purpose of the Bible is to better understand the questions that people ask themselves and have always asked. To penetrate and think through them more strongly in the light of tradition. The question is not whether we still have religion in the 21st century or not. The question is whether we have a well-kept or an unkempt religion. The neglected religion is that of simple answers, fundamentalism, escape from the world. Cultivated religion perceives life in its complexity, and the Bible, if read openly, can be a guide to this.