Christians have many, often highly contested, words for describing the Bible—inspired or authoritative, trustworthy or inerrant, and so on. In fact, Christians can spend so much time arguing over inspiration and authority that we easily overlook Scripture’s other qualities. One such underappreciated quality is its strangeness.
By strangeness, I do not mean to challenge what we believe about the Bible but to point to a special quality that helps us fully appreciate the Word’s depth and mystery. Think what is required for a collection of texts to be comprehensible to twenty-first-century scholars as well as to third-century agrarian Jewish communities as well as to members of European feudal states in the Middle Ages and all cultures and times in between. That is some feat.
I felt this strangeness while working on a wonderful new book, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently by eminent Bible scholars Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. While both are Jewish, they often speak to mixed groups and have repeatedly found how even leaders of both Christians and Jews not only do not know but have never imagined how the other group might interpret these shared stories. After all, the Old Testament of the Christian Bible is roughly the same as the Hebrew Bible.
So Levine and Brettler took the Old Testament passages most often referenced in the New Testament and explored how the original passages were read by different groups—by early and later Jewish groups, by early and later Christian communities, and by modern scholars. They are not deciding who is right but instead point to the variety and depth of these readings as a measure of the depth and fecundity of the Bible itself. So we learn how Christians see the temptation of Eve and Adam in Genesis 3 as the basis for humanity’s fallen state while Jewish groups did not give the same story this weight or significance. Or how Christians tend to focus on Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish as the main point while Jewish groups tend to see God’s radical love extending to the evil Ninevites as the shocking turn at the heart of the story.
What I find so fascinating is how two different religions can cherish their inspired Scriptures but read the same stories very differently. In other words, the Bible is deeper and broader than our readings of it.
Another angle on this mystery is from an expert on the Bible’s strangeness. N. T. Wright has made a career of revealing new truths from Bible passages we thought we knew well. In his new book, Broken Signposts: How Christianity Makes Sense of the World, his focus is on the Gospel of John. But instead of explaining what the Gospel says and teaches, he uses the Gospel as a lens through which to look at something else—namely, the seven signposts that all worldviews must explain and by which we measure everything else: justice, spirituality, relationships, beauty, freedom, truth, and power. Wright uses John’s Gospel as his exhibit A for how the Christian faith explains each signpost—and so makes sense of the world.
And, according to Wright, John shows us even more. Christianity also explains why we experience each signpost as frustratingly broken and unattainable. No matter how much we try to embody justice, we end up sowing division and injustice. And so it goes. But Jesus also reveals a path, a vision, for healing these broken signposts and living in a way that brings coherence and integrity to the seven ideals, which is at the heart of the work of the church.
This is not a mere intellectual exercise but an apologetic that works only to the extent that Christians live out what they preach. And that is the real significance of appreciating the Bible’s strangeness. If the Bible is not something that merely needs to be mastered and explained, but demands our participation for it to “work,” then the Bible reads us as much, if not more, than we read it.
And that is why I wish to celebrate these two books that reveal this strange but holy quality of Scripture. At a time when the church and Christians too often embody the problem rather than the solution to today’s woes, I take comfort in knowing we do not have to remain in this wilderness because God has provided us a divine resource by which we can rediscover a new measure.