Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
“Reliable (Biblical) Narrator?”
As a literature teacher who is also a Christian, I can tell you that the Bible is a spiritually cohesive anthology of various literary genres crafted according to legal, historical, wisdom, poetry, gospel, epistolary, prophetic, and apocalyptic writing traditions.
By cohesive I mean each genre, though different in format and content, unites with the others according to a spiritual theme based on the Judeo/Christian heritage.
The collective works are also known in a larger context as a “story,” and the story has a narrator, a “teller.” Jews and Christians believe this narrator to be our Creator, through His Spirit, influencing the writers applying prayer to inspiration before putting pen to papyrus and, at length, determining what constitutes the so-called canon, or collection, of approved writings that represent the spirit/Spirit of the Bible as we know it today.
And now to the focus of this post: how can a “reader,” whether scholarly or rank and file, know if the people who did all that work over centuries are dependable, honest, faithful, and “reliable” interpreters of what they, in faith, believed God prompted them to record?
I mean, isn’t there a lot of legend and lore, myth and mystery in all those pages? That’s what we hear, right?
I offer the following two methods of “knowing,” as much as we can, that is, as discerning thinking human beings who sincerely want to know the truth.
But first, here is the prompt for my discussion which I hope helps encourage others who in this day and age of so many people disparaging the Bible as just some primitive scribblings for illiterate or semi-literate tribes and tongues.
Lit. Crit. 101 Applied to the Bible
At a recent Bible as Literature class I attended, one young participant, perhaps new to literary criticism, asked of that night’s presenter what I think is the most important question to be asked of the holy book: “But how do we know the biblical narrator is ‘reliable’?”
This question, I believe, gets not only to the heart of trust but also of faith, when it comes to God’s Word…
A working definition of “reliable narrator” is one who is accurate and dependable, who has, as is often expressed, “God’s eye view,” i.e., that which is imbued with information no single person could obtain or, in the case of the Biblical anthology, many single writers.
The student cited various interpretations of the Bible and its language as well as various “schools of interpretation” concerning the text (and there are plenty to examine, both classic and controversial).
I could appreciate his sincere student’s quest for applying the rules of literary criticism to the Scriptures, but as an instructor (elsewhere) I hoped that in the case of biblical analysis, he would soon see the forest of redemption and not dwell only on the trees of interpretation, that he would learn how to keep his eye on the Bible’s over-arching theme: Jesus Christ.
To that focal point of our faith, the unifying theme of both Testaments, Jesus Christ (the Word Made Flesh), St. Paul put it this way to his “students” in the early church:
1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).
Just as in getting into the weeds of analysis regarding any literary work can tempt one to remain mired in this or that side-path of thought or philosophy, this is also true of studying the Bible.
I had the feeling the young man in the class was just now enchanted with his newfound love for Bible literature and all of its intellectual stimulants including the idea of “reliable and unreliable narrators.” I pray that through his faith, however, he will not stray too far off the main road, the big idea, God’s (literal) eye view, that provides both student and believer with the unifying theme of redemption that threads through the whole.
This got me to thinking of a good analogy, of a way to look at determining the reliability of the “voice/Voice” addressing us from all those (66) books comprising the Bible which, after all, includes many authors writing from several thousand years of antiquity.
I immediately thought of a previous post where I compared the evidence of God in every page of the Scriptures, as many Bible scholars assert, to an innovation in the world of high technology called “block chain.”
I call this the “high-tech” method of determining (biblical) reliability. Consider my previous post.
Knowing from High Tech
The (relatively) new term on the block, so to speak, from the world of computer technology, is “blockchain”. From Fortune.com, here is a simplified explanation: “This coding breakthrough—which consists of concatenated [linked] blocks of transactions—allows competitors to share a digital ledger across a network of computers without need for a central authority. No single party has the power to tamper with the records: the math keeps everyone honest.”
The technology is used famously, just now, in digital currency such as bitcoin. Of course, as with all technological advances, there are things to work out. And a few controversies.
What intrigues me about this bit of high-tech, however, is the “linked” aspect whereby “Each block typically contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp and transaction data. By design, a blockchain is inherently resistant to modification of the data” (Wiki).
In short, a little artifact of the user is present in each transaction, you might put it. One tekkie described this as a verifying “fingerprint” encrypted in each link. I would add another analogy, this, from the world of forensics: wherever we go, we leave a bit of our DNA, only our DNA in a blockchain is digital.
At any rate, “we” can be verified, i.e., our activities along a given chain of transactions, and no matter what period of time is involved and how “long” the chain is, the real user–you or me–can be validated.
Cuts waaaaaaay down on identity theft, for one thing.
So this concept has piqued my metaphor minder. I think there is a spiritual app.
I have often heard it said by Bible scholars that if one had only a single page of Scripture, Old or New Testament, this or that version, small or large print, one could find at least one marker of God’s redemption plan there. A bit of His DNA, you might say, imprinted on each page of the narratives, poetry, and teachings. His cryptographic hash validation of the entirety, so to speak.
Of course this requires a serious–and lifelong–study of the text, as with any other field of education.
But for beginners, intermediates–or anybody searching for comprehension–there is an immediate way to discern.
From my lit teacher’s perch I encourage the seeker to read whatever scrap of Scripture one comes across in its unique context. Read it as a “link” to the rest of the text within which it is embedded.
In a previous post, I discussed how plucking a fragment of a Scripture and tweaking it for one’s own use can lead one into dangerous territory. But by reading the words in their context, especially by accessing the original languages (the Interlinear Bible is a great tool for this) important nuance is noted. As Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) once said, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
I am also reminded of the following Scripture (cited from the Interlinear text):
For three there are bearing testimony in heaven the Father the Word and the Holy Spirit and these three one are” (1 John 5:7).
In this reminder, I view another validating concept when we are bombarded with this or that false christ, heretic, religious system, or what have you trying to veer us off course of truth, or just presenting confusion. It is this: Which “Jesus” is being presented? Does this “Jesus” match the same as revealed in the rest of the Scriptures? Is this “Jesus” the One validated by God, that day, at Jesus’ baptism by John: “And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7, ESV)? A little later at that same event, it is also recorded, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matthew 3:16).
Or is it some other?
This is a good research question with which to start.
No, it is the question.
Particularly if these are, indeed, those days where “At that time many will fall away and will betray and hate one another, and many false prophets will arise and mislead many. Because of the multiplication of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.…” (Matthew 24:10-11, BSB).
Which reminds me of the strongest “#Truth validation” of all, aka the greatest commandment of all: love.
Of course, some find controversy in this concept, too.
But once a researcher starts following the verification path, nuance is revealed, artifacts of God’s love are deciphered, and a brand new (spiritual) blockchain of events can begin…
Knowing from On High
In short–and at length, depth, and breadth–here, again, is THE guiding prompt whether in the classroom or the prayer closet, the pulpit or the pew:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 Interlinear version).
See what you might discover embedded there–and validated everywhere else in the Bible–to lead you to–or back to–the central literary and spiritual–question, as Jesus, Himself, of Himself, put it to (Simon) Peter, “Who do you say I am?”…
…to which Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”…
…to which Jesus Replied “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-17).
If you, too, seeker or student, wonder about the reliability question, may I encourage you to seek Him Who can inform your own quest not only in the biblical literature but also in the hungry recesses of your heart.
And you will find.