Are there any books you would recommend for someone who wants to start reading the Bible?
Was the Bible written by God, or by people?
Many religious traditions, such as Islam and the Mormon church, claim that their scriptures, or sacred writings, were dictated word for word by God, and the human beings who wrote the words down were simply transcribing a divine message. While some Christian traditions hold to a doctrine of "verbal inspiration," meaning that each word of scripture was dictated by God and is factually as well as theologically accurate, most Jewish and Christian traditions do not make this claim for scripture, holding not that scripture was dictated by God, but that the documents in our scriptures were inspired by God.
That doesn't tell us what is meant by "inspired," though, and different people mean different things by it. When I say that I believe that our scriptures were inspired by God, what I intend to say is both that God was present with the men (and perhaps, in the case of the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, the woman!) who wrote those documents, and that the documents reflect these people's encounters with the living God in their community; and that as we gather in community to read the scriptures, the Spirit is present, and works through our prayerful and thoughtful reading of the scriptures to inspire the community.
There are some very strange stories in the Bible. Why are they there? What are they proving?
There are some stories in the Bible that are VERY strange to us, and that can make the Bible very hard to read sometimes. That's totally natural. After all, the vast majority of things we read in our day-to-day lives, like the newspaper, memos at work, and emails, were written in our native language, usually by people from a similar social class and level of education, and often from a cultural background that's similar to ours. When we pick up the Bible, though, we're reading something that's translated from an ancient language few of us know (Greek or Hebrew), and by someone whose cultural background and historical circumstances are very different from ours.
When I encounter a story in the Bible that sounds strange, the first thing I do is I try to find out as much as I can about anything from the historical or cultural background of the passage that might explain what I'm seeing. I've got the advantage of many years of study and an extensive library (well, that part's not so much of an advantage when I move ...), but you've got the advantage of being at a church with staff who have many years of study and extensive personal libraries. The first thing that I'd do is shoot off an email or make a telephone call to one of those people to see what s/he thinks and what resources s/he has to offer.
It's not a bad idea to build up your own resources as well. I highly recommend the Harper Collins Study Bible, which you can see in the resources listed down the right-hand side of this page. It's got the best notes of any study Bible I've seen, and it's the one that I get whenever I give a study Bible as a gift. Those notes may help you with many questions you have about a passage.
A good commentary also might be able to help you with questions you have about a particular book. Some commentaries are better than others, and some are more readable than others too. I'm always happy to recommend one, if you're looking for a commentary on a particular book in the Bible, but generally speaking, I find that commentaries from the Sacra Pagina series (like the Luke commentary in the sidebar on the right-hand side of the page) and the paperback (woo-hoo! They're cheap!) Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (like the 1 Corinthians commentary in the sidebar) are good ones for people who don't know Greek or Hebrew and don't want to get bogged down in too many details. For the gospels and for the book of Revelation, I can't recommend highly enough the paperback (see above "woo-hoo!" on cheapness) "Social Science" commentaries in the sidebar. A one-volume commentary on the whole Bible clearly won't be able to get into the same level of detail as a commentary on a particular book or just two or three books, but they can be handy to have as a desk reference. The one I recommend is the Harper Collins One-Volume Bible Commentary.
If you're interested in exploring the historical and cultural backgrounds of the Bible more generally, that could make comprehensible a lot of stories that seem strange from our cultural perspective. Bruce Malina's The New Testament World is short, pretty readable, and very helpful, even for understanding Old Testament cultures (which, like the ones in which the New Testament was produced, were what anthropologists call an "honor/shame culture"). K.C. Hanson's and Douglas Oakman's Palestine in the Time of Jesus is another paperback written for folks without much prior background, and it's got excellent information. And for a great treatment of what Jesus' and Paul's ministries were about in their historical and cultural context, I recommend Richard Horsley and Neil Silberman's The Message and the Kingdom.
But even when you do know a lot, some stories in the Bible are strange, in part because they're getting at something that scholars of religion call "the numinous," things that are on the border between the world as we usually experience it and the other-worldly. Personally, I'm grateful for the things that make me say "huh?" that I encounter in the Bible because they bring me back to the community, where we can wrestle with questions in the presence of the Spirit. In the end, I think that's one of the most important things that reading scripture does for us.
What was the cut-off point for what got in the Christian canon of scripture? What about all of the gospels that weren't included? Why hasn't the canon changed in so long? And what did Jesus consider to be included in the canon of scripture?
I'm going to unpack this into several questions; see the questions below.
How did we get a 'canon'?
In the first century, different traditions within Judaism were in discussion and debate about what documents were authoritative for communities, and different communities gave different answers. For example, the Sadducees were a group that believe only the "Pentateuch" (from penta, meaning "five"), the first five books of Hebrew scripture (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers), were authoritative. As a result, the Sadducees rejected theological innovations like belief in angels the resurrection of the dead, and some kind of final judgment, of which were not mentioned in the Pentateuch, but did play a role in later books. The Pharisees took the lead in saying that other books should also be authoritative, and they especially emphasized prophetic writings like Isaiah. Judging from what books Jesus quoted, Jesus landed with the Pharisees on questions of canon, viewing his ministry especially as an extension of the work of prophets like Isaiah. When Jesus talks about "scripture," he is referring to the Pharisaic collection of sacred writings, which is pretty much what we call the "Old Testament."
That's also what first-century Christian writers meant when they used the term "scripture," though most Christian congregations used the Septuagint (from the word for "seventy," the number of scholars who were said to have worked on the translation), which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures.
Christians weren't in a hurry to write their own accounts of Jesus' life or what the Spirit was doing among them, and we have no Christian documents prior to Paul's letters, from around 50 A.D. In part, Christians didn't produce documents earlier because in the ancient world, written documents were considered less reliable than oral tradition. With oral tradition, you knew the character of the speaker, and the character of those who taught him or her; with written documents, it was harder to weigh the reliability of those responsible for their content. Furthermore, writing materials and scribal services (necessary because most people in the ancient world could not write, beyond what was needed for basic tallies of inventories or shopping lists) were exorbitantly expensive. Even the wealthiest and most literate of citizens was unlikely to own more than about twenty books the size of one book in our Bible, and Christianity was on the whole more popular with the poor than with the rich. Early Christian churches were fortunate to own a copy of one gospel, and most did not consider more than one gospel to be authoritative for their community.
Some documents, though, became very popular very quickly after they were produced. Some of Paul's letters were that way; he'd write to one community he founded, and others, who had heard sections of the letter read while they were visiting a neighboring community, would encourage their home church to raise the money to have a scribe copy the letter. Paul wrote some letters that we don't have, and there's a fair chance that the reason we lost some of them is that they weren't popular enough to copy. But some were circulated so widely and so quickly that the earliest reference we have to a Christian document as "scripture" is a reference not to a gospel, but to Paul's letters: 2 Peter 3:16, written in about 115 A.D., which notes that "There are some things in [Paul's letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures."
The first recorded canon of Christian scriptures is the one from Marcion, a second-century bishop. Marcion compiled one book that he called "the gospel," which incorporated material from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and another book he called "the apostle," which was a collection of letters from Paul. Marcion wasn't very popular with his fellow bishops, though, and he was condemned by many of them as a heretic. Marcion's time saw a lot more success among Christians in reaching out to wealthy citizens, and the number of Christian documents went drastically up in the second century. Both Marcion's collection of "the gospel" and "the apostle" and the increasing number of letters to churches and accounts of Jesus' life and his apostles' travels started a conversation among Christian communities about whether there should be some consensus about what documents are authoritative.
Still, there couldn't be one list of authoritative scriptures for Christians until there was some centralized Christian authority, and that didn't really happen until the emperor Constantine became a patron of Christian churches in the fourth century. Although Constantine continued worshipping Sol Invictus, the sun-god of his ancestors, throughout his life, he made Christianity legal in the empire, and he paid for bishops of his choosing to come together for councils that could issue rulings that had Constantine's backing. The most famous of these councils is the Council of Nicea, which was where the Nicene Creed was written. The Council of Nicea didn't explicitly deal with the issue of what was in or out of the canon; it was more concerned with WHO was an authoritative teacher, and which teachers should be considered heretical. In the process of approving or condemning a particular teacher, though ecumenical councils like the one at Nicea had a major influence on which books were considered "orthodox"; books supported by teachers who had been condemned lost favor (and the patronage of wealthy people who wanted to be on the emperor's good side!), and books supported by influential bishops received wider circulation (in part because their supporters had patronage from the empire). Still, there seems to have been fairly wide consensus in favor of the gospels and letters attributed to Paul that are now in our canon, even as debate continued about books like James, Jude, the letters of John, and Revelation (which was the slowest to get support, especially in the East.
Why did people support some books being in their canon, and not others?
There was a complicated set of reasons on each side of each argument, but I think it's fair to distill things a bit in this way:
Among gospels, the chief issues were about how Jesus' importance was presented and how much of Jesus' heritage from Hebrew scripture was preserved in the document in question. Many of the documents that were rejected, like the Gospel of Thomas, present Jesus' importance mostly or solely as a teacher of wisdom. Indeed, the Gospel of Thomas is almost entirely a collection of sayings; none of Jesus' acts, like his healings or his practices of table fellowship, are mentioned, nor is Jesus' crucifixion or resurrection. Christians had reached wide consensus, though, that what Jesus DID was at least as important as what Jesus SAID. In particular, there was wide consensus among Christian teachers that no gospel could be complete if it said nothing about Jesus' reaching out to the poor and the marginalized, his gathering people -- even people with physical conditions that rendered them "unclean" -- into community, and his consistent embrace of nonviolence and humble service over vengeance and competition for honor, even to the point of going without resistance to a Roman cross, and the way that the God of Israel vindicated all that Jesus had done by raising him from the dead. If you take a look at the gospels that in the long run didn't "make the cut" -- and you can read a good translation of all of them in a paperback edited by Robert Miller called The Complete Gospels -- I think you'll find that there's no gospel in the canon that fails to include these points, and no gospel outside the canon that includes them all.
While letters and books on the apostles' ministries tend treat Jesus' life more implicitly, I think you'll find that this same criterion -- "christology," the view of Jesus' importance -- explains a lot for letters too. But other factors that weren't so heavily considered for the gospels played a larger role for the letters and collections of acts. In particular, I'd say that a big criterion was how the document portrays what people are called to do in response to God's invitation, and how consistent the document's view is with views in books that Jesus called "scripture." In particular, it was central in all Jewish tradition that God's call was for people to form a community that lived in particular ways, and Jesus held to the tradition of books like Isaiah that God is particularly concerned with the poor and the outcast. And an important starting point for Jewish theology is that the supreme being of the universe made the world and said that it was good -- otherwise, why would God care so much what happened to people on the physical plane? Some books that never made it in most canons, like the "Acts of Paul and Thecla," bought almost wholly into traditions from Greek philosophy that said that physicality, and especially sexuality, are bad, or are distractions from what is spiritual. Many books that didn't make the canonical cut were rejected because they saw following Jesus solely as an interior choice and a recognition of truth rather than as also being a new way of relating to other people as Jesus did. Other fail on questions of christology, of Jesus' importance, like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which uses scenes from Jesus' childhood to argue that Jesus' importance was almost entirely in terms of his power, as the boy Jesus turns the mud sculptures of sparrows he was making into real birds that fly away when he gets in trouble for making them on the sabbath, and he kills and then raises from the dead a playmate.
What about the gnostic gospels? Were they condemned because their view of women was more positive than canonical works'?
If you're curious about this, I highly recommend reading the gnostic gospels themselves in translation (you'll find them in The Complete Gospels, or in Bentley Layton's The Gnostic Scriptures), rather than reading books only ABOUT the gnostic gospels.
The final saying of the Gospel of Thomas is fairly typical, I find, of gnostic attitudes toward women. In it, Peter says to Jesus, "Lord, let Mary depart from us, for she is a woman, and therefore is not worthy of life." Jesus says in response, "No, for I shall make her male, and then she shall be as worthy of life as are you males. For any woman who does not make herself male will not enter the kingdom of heaven." What I think you'll find if you read gnostic gospels is that they portray women as being capable of spirituality, but only if they reject their sexuality.
In contrast, the canonical gospels portray women as followers of Jesus who were among the earliest and most important witnesses to Jesus' resurrection. Romans, Paul's letter to the churches in Rome, commends in chapter 16 Phoebe, "an outstanding apostle," in Paul's words, who most probably was the one who carried the letter to Rome and was then in charge of reading and explaining it to congregations there (no small theological feat, for such a complicated letter!). And in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul tells those who wish to be celibate within their marriage that they should only refrain from sex for a limited time, and they should come together again soon. Both the gnostic gospels and the documents in our New Testament are products of a patriarchal culture, but the New Testament documents have a far more positive view of women, and especially of women's sexuality. I highly recommend Neil Elliott's Liberating Paul for more information on Paul and women's leaderhsip and spirituality.
What are Deists?
That's not exactly about the Bible, but I don't mind answering it. Deism was a movement of the Enlightenment, mostly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that held a view of God as being a little like a watchmaker. A watchmaker makes a watch so that it works in a particular way, and then the watch then runs without further input from the watchmaker. Deists believed that God made the world in accordance with reason, and God does not in any way act upon or interfere with the universe after Creation -- no miracles, and no revelation; just natural laws playing themselves out, and people using their God-given reason to figure out how the universe works and how they should live. A lot of our countries' "founding fathers" were Deist or mostly Deist in their outlook.