Why it’s important to keep diversity in mind when reading the Bible
by Dr Gareth Wearne
We tend to assume the Bible has some place — for better or worse — in debates about morality and social values.
But why do we care about the opinions of writers who lived 2,000 years ago or more?
From its stances on slavery to sexual ethics and gender equality, the Bible contains much that could be considered problematic.
Yet as recent debates about freedom of religion or same-sex marriage show, the Bible is not going away any time soon.
At its heart, this is a question about what sort of society we want to be.
A 2018 survey of young Australians aged 13 to 18 found that while 91 per cent thought having people of different faiths made Australia a better place to live, 44 per cent thought religion caused more problems in society than it solved.
Fifty per cent thought people with very strong religious beliefs were often too intolerant of others.
In this climate, simplistic approaches that reduce Christian views to a single “biblical” position risk splitting Australia into two camps: those who accept the Bible’s authority, and those who see it as a problem for diversity and tolerance.
This division stems in part from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bible’s nature, which views the text simply as a static object, waiting to be interpreted or applied in a range of situations.
It ignores the fact that the Bible is made of different parts, which came together over hundreds of years to meet the changing needs of multiple communities.
A diverse text for a diverse community
Few people realise that the Old Testament in most modern Christian Bibles is primarily based on a single, 1,000-year-old medieval Hebrew manuscript.
This manuscript is generally regarded to be a reliable witness to ancient forms of the text.
But it represents only one of the versions that existed in antiquity.
Two of these versions are especially important for shaping the Bible as we know it.
The version we know from modern Bibles is the so-called Masoretic text — named after the medieval Hebrew scribes who copied the manuscripts.
The other version is an ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint, which was produced by Greek-speaking Jewish communities living in Egypt around 2,200 years ago.
But understanding the diversity of the Bible is not as simple as asking which version to use, because the diversity of the Bible is also reflected within the text.
When it comes to the New Testament gospels, it can be tempting to assume we are reading the actual words of Jesus.
However, a simple comparison of parallel passages reveals that can’t be the case.
We can see this in one of the most well-known stories in the New Testament — the parable of the sower.
One story, multiple versions
In Mark 4:1-20 we find a story told by Jesus about a farmer scattering seed on different kinds of soil.
The story is a parable, or extended metaphor, about ways of responding to Jesus’s teachings.
Versions of the parable also appear in the books of Luke and Matthew, and similar stories are found in some early Jewish writings.
The story is unusual because it’s one of only two times Jesus explains a parable to his followers.
It also occupies pride of place at the beginning of a major block of teachings in all three gospels, suggesting it held special significance for the writers.
In Mark, when Jesus is asked what the story means, he quotes the Masoretic version of the prophet Isaiah, saying he teaches in parables so only a select few will understand his meaning.
In Isaiah, these words are intentionally divisive, forcing people to choose for themselves how they will respond to the prophet’s message.
Matthew’s Septuagint version of the story contains a crucial difference — Jesus says he uses parables to help his hearers understand and accept his message.
In other words, the parable in Mark serves the opposite purpose to that in Matthew.
Many readers notice this tension but don’t know what to make of it.
Though the versions differ, both forms of Isaiah exist side-by-side in the New Testament and, while they are used in different ways, both are recognised by the gospel writers as having equal authority.
The Bible and the future of diversity
The complexity reflected in the pages of the Bible means, when it comes to religious viewpoints, we must resist oversimplifications.
Far from being a timeless and unyielding text, the Bible we know today reflects the diverse and changing needs of the communities that shaped and interacted with it over time.
This can serve as a model for modern readers.
Before we attempt to relate any biblical passage to modern contexts, we must first try to identify the distinctive voices it contains and the purposes it was intended to serve.
We must also attempt to evaluate the complex factors that have influenced our perception of the text, while acknowledging that others may perceive it differently.
After all, no interpretation exists in a vacuum.
[Dr Gareth Wearne is a lecturer in biblical studies at the Australian Catholic University and an ABC Top 5 humanities scholar for 2019.]
For original article [posted 23 Oct 2019] see: