My Approach to the Bible (A rough draft)
Very few people read the Bible straight through, cover to cover. I don't think it is designed to be read that way, so I don't think that is a problem. I do have a few thoughts on how to approach it.
There are ideas about this that are debated at the highest levels, but I am not a scholar and won't be analyzing those ideas in detail. Instead, I will point out some well known and simple facts that you can check and point in a direction from there. If you want to know more, you might start with the "Documentary Hypothesis" about how the Old Testament was assembled. The New Testament's history is better known, but details are still highly disputed. It's not necessary to participate in these esoteric debates to get a handle on the historical context.
A little history
The Bible began as oral history. This is agreed upon by even the most fundamentalists of Biblical scholars who might also claim the first five books were written by Moses. Within those early scriptures, there are references to writings that we no longer have access to, so even the Bible itself tells us there was some kind of assembly of stories that went in to the creation of what we have today. You only need to read the first few pages to know there are multiple telling of the same stories within the text. Or read slowly through the David and Goliath story in 1 Samuel, chapters 16 to 18.
Authorship was not important at the time the Old Testament was written. It was not until centuries later that it was stated Moses wrote the Pentateuch. Explanations were attempted to explain away problems, like Moses speaking of himself after he died. In the 17th century the study of "Biblical criticism" developed and has continued since. It's not a "criticism" as in pointing out things that are wrong, rather a form of understanding the languages and painstakingly trying to discern the meaning and intention of the original authors.
We know more about the history of the time of the gospel writings and the letters of Paul, but scholars have found transcription errors, inconsistencies in the copies we have, translation errors from Greek to Latin to early English to modern English, outright fraud of authors claiming to be someone they are not, and despite years of work, we know nothing about the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John other than what they tell us about themselves in the gospels. But this doesn't always tell definitively whether or not the accounts in the writings are true or false.
How about a few facts to start out?
The creation narrative is probably one of the oldest stories, so its place at the beginning is not all bad. But by time we get to just the fifth book, we have one that is very much out of place, Deuteronomy. It was written sometime around the book of Jeremiah which comes well after the major stories of the Old Testament have all played out. Somehow, the authors claimed to have "found" it, and claimed it was a new revision of the laws that would save the kingdom. The kingdom was not saved by the way.
As for the New Testament, as everyone who has been to Sunday School knows, it begins with the birth of Christ in the Book of Matthew. After that, you get the Book of Mark. That book begins with Jesus just walking out of the desert. However, it is not controversial to say Mark was written first. The lack of a birth story could just be an oversight on his part, or it could be he didn't think it was a big deal to have someone born of a virgin with signs and announcements from heaven, or it could be that story was created later.
More significant, the letters of Paul, supposedly about spreading the story of Jesus from the gospels, were all written before either of those, in fact before all of the gospels. Paul's letters don't actually talk much about the stories in the 4 gospels either. Paul doesn't talk of miracles, barely mentions being "born", no sermons, no family life. There is a mention of a "brother", but it is not clear if it is a relationship type of brother or more like "Brothers in Christ".
People who have gone to seminary know this. If they say otherwise, I would ask them for their sources. Sometimes people hear something often enough that they just accept it. Former preachers, and some people who have gone to seminary and decided ministry wasn't for them have begun to let the rest of us in on this. And of course, we have the internet. We can read things that were written hundreds of years ago and intended only to be known by the 1% who were able to read.
None of this should destroy your faith
I'm not attempting to scramble the Bible so it takes on a completely different meaning. The people who assembled it were working in an age when civilization was crumbling and history was getting lost. That we have these writings from regular people, dealing with horrendous change, persecution and attempts to wipe them out is really a wonder. It's something to be marveled. They were attempting to preserve history and historians today are trying to do the same thing. We just have much better tools now.
Instead of people hiding in the hills, putting copies of stories of Jesus in jars because they were afraid the Romans would find them and burn them, we have international organizations working painstakingly to restore those documents, translate them, compare them to others we have and try to hear those voices that were once silenced, and for a long time, lost. We have different, much higher, standards for what we call history. We identify other genres like allegory or myth that appear throughout the Bible. Many preachers have no problem pointing them out.
We should be just as interested in knowing the truth of what those authors were trying to tell us as Origen, Irenaeus, John Chrystosom, and Marcion were. And the consequences of asking questions are far fewer. We may need to be careful in certain polite company, but it is unlikely we will be burned at the stake (if you are somewhere that witches are being burned, I apologize [That's not a joke, it really happens]). We don't have to be searching for the same things the early church fathers were. We don't have to look for a way to be culturally relevant. We don't need to follow the religion of our ancestors. We can search for whatever we want for whatever reasons we want.
As a bit of an aside, I have floated these idea with a few people, leaders both in the church and atheist circles, and I have been met with at best disinterest. But even that disinterest seems to indicate a sense that reading the Bible with the intent of learning what the authors were trying to say is a threat to them. Certainly, if they did not intend to tell us a story of a real man who was actually resurrected, that is a threat to Christianity as we know it today. I think it's wrong to be threatened by that, but I can understand it. But if you don't believe it was history or even powerful allegory, it's harder to see any problem with this approach. What atheists tell me is that it doesn't matter what the authors intended, what matters is how the stories have been used and then they start listing the usual terrible things that have been done in the name of God. To me, this is telling me not to eat fish because they think chocolate is bad for me. There is no connection.
I accept the historian's claims about when these books were written. I also accept that they were written for a community of people who held some set of common beliefs. I part company with any religion when I say I accept the scholarly evidence that not all of those beliefs were held in common by all of the authors. I part company with many atheists when I say I don't believe the authors were always deliberately lying in order to control people and gain power over them. Examples of that can be found in later centuries, but I don't see it in all of the original texts and scholars don't either.
If someone wants to make either of the above claims then they carry an equal burden of proof and should use the same tools of historiography to make their case. Either choice, that the authors based their works on facts and at least attempted to report them accurately or that the authors were deliberately fabricating with the intention of deception, or anything in between is a statement of fact that can't be determined by simply reading the Bible or listening to a few lectures or sermons. If someone wants to rely on faith or is simply not interested and only cares about how religion later affected culture, then they are having a different discussion. My approach to the Bible should not affect their belief or non-belief. It does not diminish their worldview any more than their worldview diminishes this discussion.
What don't we know?
The only sources in the Bible are other scripture. Sometimes it is scripture that's lost. Sometimes it's a verse that we can see is misinterpreted, maybe on purpose, because that's how that form of writing works, when you retell a story with a message, you add your special flavor to it. You add what your generation has learned. You embellish to make it interesting. But otherwise, they are not attempting to connect real events and real people to their narrative. They are using characters that may or may not have done something in the real world, but in most cases not what we read in the Bible.
That we have the stories at all is a bit of a twist of history. That's a story to expand on elsewhere. We can't be certain of the motivations of the people who copied the texts and expounded on them and died for them and risked their lives for them. We can take them at their word that they were inspired by something and that they believed. Moving much beyond that is speculation. Rather than making something out of the fact that we have the copies, I would rather just be thankful for them. They are as unique as the Anne Frank diaries or the collected stories from slaves in the United States, a rare glimpse into the people who were persecuted and who lost the battles and rarely interacted with the elite members of society.
It's easy to dismiss the context of the time in which the stories were written, even if you were aware it. The stories were eventually adopted by the same government that was doing the persecution. Some reforms had been attempted between the time of the gospels writers and the time of Augustine, but the idea that there should be one religion, enforced by the emperor, won the day. The stories were spread using power and coercion, but it is not where they originated.
Judaism was not adopted by an empire, but they dealt with being exiled in a way that is rare in human cultures, so the story of their survival is different. It's so rare we give it a name, The Diaspora. The Bible may want us to remember battles won and land conquered, but those stories have not been confirmed by archaeology. The divisions in the kingdom and loses to Syrian and Babylonian empires have.
Islam is a story of a conquering leader. It also contains stories of diplomacy. I'm not as well versed with it, so I will leave it for now. I bring these up to highlight the differences of the three major monotheisms.
Okay, I admit it, I like the Bible.
The discovery of the history of the time of the writing of the Bible is more than just another story of dead people. It's a story that has taken on its own life. It has been passed down through flourishing cultures, cultures that eventually transformed into many of the societies throughout the world today. The rituals and traditions that many of us know as "Christian" were never imagined by first century Jews.
I don't mind saying that I like some of them. I like Christmas. I like communal singing. I like communion, if it's open to all regardless of their beliefs. I like the idea of people who live near each other getting together to work toward some sort of better future, to support each other in doing that, without having a specific agenda for exactly how they will accomplish it. I value tradition and security, and I know those are associated with conservatives. I value openness and willingness to change too, normally associated with liberals. I think most of us are on a spectrum, not in a corner.
But is there such a thing as a modern Christian?
None of these traditions or values are owned by religion although religions have done quite a good job with them sometimes. Sometimes they have seemed to have the exact opposite agenda. Just as motives have not always been clear in the past, it can be hard to know what organization to trust today. Many churches will say they are open to wherever people are "on their spiritual path", or that they "don't own the franchise", but it is rare to find a church that does not have a price of admission. Becoming a member usually requires a belief statement. Most don't create their own, the Apostles' Creed will usually do:
believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.
believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic** church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
use of this creed includes these words: "He descended into hell."
If you glanced through the above because you are familiar with it, read it again slowly and ask yourself which parts you actually believe, or to what degree. In a membership ceremony, there may be a wave of the hand, a wink or nod, that allows for not believing all of it, but then I have to ask, why teach it to children? Why repeat it every Sunday? These questions will not get you elected to the church council.
It took decades of councils of bishops to develop the creed. They continue to be debated and versions modified. Wars have been fought over these words. All of it is claimed to be supported by the Bible, but some of it is quite difficult to find there. Church today is often assumed to be the place you go to learn the meaning of these words. But these words were written hundreds of years after the Bible. If men who called themselves scholars decided on these words, why should we as knowledgeable people accept their decisions? If Biblical scholars today can't question the decision of Biblical scholars of the past, what does "scholar" mean?
No one really knows
The Bible sometimes says horrible things about people. One thing all traditions say is that all people are fallible. They all have a provision that we cannot completely know the mind their God, or completely understand whatever it is they point to. We are always seeking, always getting closer, but to say that we know as much as God is blasphemy. Science, including the science of history says basically the same thing. There is no such thing as 100% certainty in the philosophy of science. We approach certainty and discover new questions with every answer.
This does not make these two "ways of knowing" equal. Science for example admits its limitations and seeks new ideas and encourages questions. It just shows that we all share the limitation of being human.
We should all be teachers. Anyone can say they know something you don't. A teacher takes the time to show you what it is. Teachers encourage you to move on and learn more so someday you can teach them something. There is no reason to claim that there is a way of knowing that is only accessible to certain people. This is true when we approach an expert in a field of study or when we are sitting around the kitchen table. An expert who cares about what he knows should care about you understanding them just as you should care about that person across from you at the table.
That's my approach, hope you'll join me.