The Bible may be the best-selling book of all time, but it’s certainly not the easiest to understand.
As a collection of 66 books, written by dozens of authors in at least two distinct languages, God’s Word is a complicated text, to say the least—and one that can be used for almost any purpose. It has been bastardized to enforce chattel slavery, held aloft as a political photo prop, and even commodified as a product for “patriots.” But two Christian scholars hope their new book will remind both the faithful and irreligious of the Bible’s purpose and how it should not be used.
Dr. Edward D. Gravely, a Southern Baptist elder and one of the coauthors of Bible 101, specializes in Koine Greek and the New Testament. Gravely is a professor in Christian studies at Charleston Southern University along with coauthor Dr. Peter Link, who teaches biblical Hebrew and the Old Testament there.
Their new book, Bible 101: From Genesis and Psalms to the Gospels and Revelation, Your Guide to the Old and New Testaments, joins an arena of handbooks and study guides claiming to break the Bible down into layman’s terms for easier engagement. Contrary to what one might expect for such a feat, Bible 101 is not a whopper of a text. Like other books in the “Adams 101” subject-specific series (a Simon & Schuster imprint), Bible 101 is only 288 pages and smaller than an iPad mini.
Reporter Nicola A. Menzie spoke with Link and Gravely about their guiding principles in getting down to the key components of Scripture, their thoughts about taking the Bible out of context for various causes, and more. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
A lot of books out there claim to make the Bible easier to understand. What makes Bible 101 different from, or even complementary to, these other books?
Link: I think the starting point is simply that in Bible 101, we not only take you to all of the Bible and provide not only organization to what you’re doing, but we really do, I think, a good job of getting to the heart of the matter. And really kind of drawing your attention to this is what the text is interested in; this is what the Book as a whole is interested in. So it’s not a commentary. You’re not going to be caught [up] in millions of questions. But it is directly describing, ’Here’s the heartbeat, the main thrust of the text. And it gets to it, I think, rather efficiently.
Gravely: I agree. Honestly, when the project was first pitched to me, I would have described the level of succinctness of this book as shocking. You know, it’s “Here’s 24 chapters; each chapter needs to be about 1,000 words. Do the New Testament. Go.” … So those are the moments where you think, Okay, I’ve got a lot of very important decisions to make about what to put on this page. I think—this is gonna sound weird as an academic—the book is better for being shorter, because the editors were very rigid about their format. … So we would constantly say, “Okay, you’re over the word count. What are you going to cut?” I actually think that made the project much better.
Link: We felt challenged to not only speak to people who already knew what we knew—academics—but also to speak beyond just people who are already in our theological tribe. So if we could figure out how to communicate what the Bible says the way the Bible says it and only focus on those things that are most essential, then different groups could interact with the Scriptures. … There’s no doubt when you read the book [that] it is a thoroughly evangelical Christian perspective; it’s a conservative perspective. … We were proud about that. But we also want to be able to speak to those who don’t start at those same points or don’t even know that those differences exist.
In your book, you talk about how the New Testament authors and Jesus himself believed the Tanakh, or Old Testament, to be God’s Word. Why is that important?
Link: We want to take the Bible on its own terms. And the Bible itself takes the Bible pretty seriously. One of the things I’ve always said is that the writers of the Bible are also its greatest readers. So when you sit down and you read how a prophet is understanding the Torah, that’s not just a random fact; that’s not just a random idea. The Bible itself depends upon that, right? So all we’re saying is, if you take what the authors really care about, as you can see by what they’ve written, then here’s what they put front and center. That’s what we tried to do—make that front and center. We also don’t want to be dishonest and deny the fact that we’re doing this as evangelical conservative Christian scholars. We are that. But we’re also challenging ourselves to say, “Is the language we’re using … understandable to other people?” I sure hope so. That’s kind of been the goal.
Gravely: We have a wide variety of students here at Charleston Southern University. My approach in beginning a New Testament survey class is to always sort of try to help them understand that lots of people who don’t share our views, they still do gravitate to the Bible and to the New Testament. …
I think people have an instinct that we need to know … something about Jesus, and they do a little bit of poking around. If they look at reputable scholars of any stripe, they will very quickly realize that if the New Testament does not tell us about the real Jesus, then nothing does. The New Testament is the only game in town. I know there are critical scholars who will argue that the New Testament doesn’t say true things about Jesus; that’s not my point.
My point is just simply to point out that if the New Testament doesn’t tell us about Jesus, then we don’t know anything about Jesus. … It’s the only book around that even purports to be written by the people who actually knew Jesus. Scholars take that kind of appellation seriously. … Even if you’re an Orthodox Jew or a Muslim, the world is so Jesus-soaked that knowing that has got to be important.
As experts in your fields and leaders in your church, you must get all kinds of questions and comments about the Bible. What are some common misconceptions about the Bible that irritate you?
Link: I think because people don’t actually spend as much time reading the Bible, particularly in large chunks as they should, they start off and come to certain concepts rather quickly, such as the Old Testament is a book about a God of wrath and the New Testament is a book about a God of love. Well, you might want to read the Old Testament a little bit more closely. Because you’re going to see that the very ideas the New Testament uses about a God of love are directly coming from what Moses and the prophets said. So, … that I’ve got two different books that have no correlation—I think that’s where most people start off [with] the Bible. That’s the standard language they have.
There are popular Bible apps where people get their daily verse, and while it may not exactly be proof-texting, it still lacks the full context. What are your thoughts on that?
Link: Short statements may get concepts right and may, for a moment, capture a glimpse of something. But if it doesn’t draw you into wrestling with the larger text itself, then there’s something missing and lacking in that. That’s really our goal. Can we encourage people—whether it’s through Bible 101, through our teaching, or through our work at the church—to draw in closer to the Bible? That’s what strengthens anyone’s life: to recognize that this Book really does address the most basic needs about what it means to be human. …
If we can persuade people just to get into the Word, read biblical books on a whole-book level, and really try to ask “What does this mean as a whole?” I think that’s when you begin to have great conversations across multiple traditions and multiple perspectives. The goal is not necessarily to come to the same conclusion but to grow deeper into the biblical world itself. That’s one of my great hopes about not just Bible 101 but pretty much everything that I try to do.
There are dozens of versions of the Bible based on different translation choices, as well as study Bibles tailored to men, women, military members, etc. There are also so-called “patriot Bibles,” which include copies of America’s founding documents. What are your thoughts on Bibles like that?
Link: The unavoidable reality of the consolidation of the Scriptures is that it has been read for a long time, and it’s read within communities. When you pass on the Bible from one generation to another, you’re always passing on the Bible and your understanding of it. That understanding can be good, but it will always have weak spots to it. This is why returning to the Scriptures is so essential. So I would say to somebody, if they have never had an ability to interact with the Bible before they got such a study Bible, go for it. But the mission is to not confuse the study notes or my lecture notes—or even Bible 101—with the Bible itself. Commentary on the Bible is not the Bible. Commentary is necessary. If you encounter the Bible and don’t want to talk about what it says, you probably haven’t encountered the Bible. …
The [patriot] Bible you referenced—I’ve actually seen it. I would argue that it probably confuses people who want to kind of conflate what I would call manmade documents [with] a divinely inspired document, which is the Scriptures. That being said, pastorally, I’m not going to come to somebody and say, “You’ve got to put that thing down.” I’m gonna say, “Well, let’s talk about what this means.” When you do it up close, when you actually do life together reading the Bible, you can make those kinds of moments real and the application real. You can actually help people focus on the biblical text in a way that I think is more organic and coherent and useful.
While not everyone believes the Bible to be divinely inspired, it remains a powerful symbol even in secular society. Why do you think that is?
Link: In the conversation that we’ve had in the West, the Bible has been the central conversation partner… and other things have come with it. But it’s really the Bible’s ability to penetrate through cultures and conversations and generations that I think is why it’s still going to be used, no matter who’s in charge, in what[ever] situation you’re in. Once a society encounters the Scriptures, it will leave an indelible mark.
Gravely: Jesus is inescapable. I think people have a well-earned sense that I need to know something about Jesus. And if I need to know something about Jesus, the Bible is where I go. There’s nowhere else to go. I think that’s even if their search for Jesus is not authentic, … not faith-based. If it’s just curious or it could be political, it could be a power move. Regardless of the motive, the Bible is where you go, and I think that’s why the Bible is ever-present and certainly not going anywhere anytime soon.
Nicola A. Menzie is a religion reporter who has written for Religion News Service, CBS News, Vibe.com, and other publications. She is also managing editor at faithfullymagazine.com.