An Omniscient God and a “Clear” Bible

The Bible is much easier to understand when you know the original cultural, historical and literary context

Cuzco School, “Trifacial Trinity,” c. 1760, Lima Art Museum
Cuzco School, “Trifacial Trinity,” c. 1760, Lima Art Museum (photo: Public Domain)

It’s a very common motif, in anti-theist atheist polemics, to say that the Bible appears to be very complicated and inscrutable (and, they wrongly think, ubiquitously contradictory). This shouldn’t be the case — so they argue — if indeed it is a divinely inspired document from an omniscient God, meant to communicate to all human being at all times.

One atheist with whom I dialogued recently expressed this objection as follows: “It should not take an expert delving into Koine Greek verb tenses [to understand a particular passage of Scripture]. ... It’s not consistent with a message inspired by a perfect communicator, sending His message to all people throughout the ages.”

I agree insofar as he and I are not living in the first century Near Eastern / Semitic / Mesopotamian culture (specifically, Israel) with its Greek and Roman influences, and a strong local history of Judaism and ways and modes of thinking therein. 

Since we are not in those “shoes” and because of time and vast language and cultural differences, it’s necessary for us to enter into that mindset through study of the culture, including recourse to language tools that also bring out the nuances in the Greek. For the people back then, many such things which are unknown or obscure to us would have been much more clear.

I don’t see that this is even arguable. I submit that it’s self-evident. The Bible was specifically written for this target group. The rest of us are still quite capable is using our heads to figure out “difficult” texts and indeed, there are many available excellent tools to help us to do that (now with the internet, more readily available than ever).

To note just three examples of multiple hundreds: who would think that a modern American or European is supposed to have knowledge at their fingertips about first-century Jewish burial customs, involving spices for anointing, linen cloths, and whether a Jew could purchase burial linen cloths on the Sabbath or Passover (things that come up in proposed atheist “Resurrection contradictions”)? Obviously we will not. I certainly didn’t know a thing about any of these matters till I read commentaries, historical accounts etc. 

My atheist friend seemed to think that they should all be readily evident in their meaning and nature to the modern reader (otherwise we are entitled to question that the Bible is inspired revelation: it being so frustratingly “complicated”). I totally disagree. Many of these bogus proposed “contradictions” involve things precisely of this nature (and I know, having dealt with many hundreds of them myself): points of ancient Hebrew culture, nuances in the Greek texts of the New Testament, etc.

Because the usual atheist skeptic (the professional ones, at any rate) goes barging into the biblical text like a bull in a china shop, thinking they understand it better than Christians like myself who have devoted their lives to studying the Bible, they oftentimes miss these finer points, where commentaries and historians, even archaeology, can provide much helpful background cultural and linguistic information, that we require: being so far removed from the original literary and cultural context.

To reiterate: the Bible was originally written for people in a certain cultural, historical and “literary” context. It was much more easily understood by them. For those of us removed from that context, it’s required to delve into scholarly aids and to be taught by skilled teachers, in order to comprehend various things that are unfamiliar to us in our time and culture.

Yes, we have to use our noggins and think and research a bit, but that’s normal. No one said that the Bible was as easy to interpret as Aesop’s Fables or The Iliad. But it’s able to be understood through the usual means of teaching and explanation that are true of anything whatever.

But  even for the ancient Hebrews, teaching aids were required to fully understand the Bible, as the Bible itself indicates:

  • Exodus 18:20 (RSV, as throughout): Moses was to teach the Jews the “statutes and the decisions” — not just read it to them. Since he was the Lawgiver and author of the Torah, it stands to reason that his interpretation and teaching would be of a highly authoritative nature.
  • Leviticus 10:11: Aaron, Moses’ brother, is also commanded by God to teach.
  • Deuteronomy 17:8-13: The Levitical priests had binding authority in legal matters (derived from the Torah itself). They interpreted the biblical injunctions (17:11). The penalty for disobedience was death (17:12), since the offender didn’t obey “the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God.” See also Deuteronomy 19:16-17; 2 Chronicles 19:8-10.
  • Deuteronomy 24:8: Levitical priests had the final say and authority (in this instance, in the case of leprosy). This was a matter of Jewish law.
  • Deuteronomy 33:10: Levite priests are to teach Israel the ordinances and law. (cf. 2 Chronicles 15:3; Malachi 2:6-8 — the latter calls them “messenger of the LORD of hosts”).
  • Ezra 7:6, 10: Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding, under pain of imprisonment, banishment, loss of goods, and even death (7:25-26).
  • Nehemiah 8:1-8: Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people in Jerusalem (8:3). In 8:7 we find thirteen Levites who assisted Ezra, and “who helped the people to understand the law.” Much earlier, in King Jehoshaphat’s reign, we find Levites exercising the same function (2 Chronicles 17:8-9). In Nehemiah 8:8: “... they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly [footnote, “or with interpretation”], and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

The people did indeed understand the law (8:12), but with  assistance — not merely upon hearing. Likewise, the Bible is not altogether clear by itself, but requires the aid of teachers who are more familiar with biblical styles and Hebrew idiom, background, context, exegesis and cross-reference, hermeneutical principles, original languages, etc.

Bela Lugosi portrays the famous vampire in this screenshot from the trailer for ‘Dracula’ (1931)

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Culture is key in forming hearts and minds. And Catholics well formed in both their profession and their faith certainly can impact culture for the good. We can all agree we need more of that today. One writer who is always keen on highlighting the intersection of faith and culture is the National Catholic Register’s UK correspondent, K.V. Turley, and he has just released his first novel. He joins us here on Register Radio. And then, we talk with Joan Desmond about the so-called “woke revolution” taking place even in some Catholics schools, in modern medicine, and again in culture.