The Bible As Unfinished Work

May 13, 2103

For a very long while the Bible was clearly an unfinished work.  I believe it is still.

sagrada familia church barcelonaThe books in the Hebrew Testament were written over several centuries, probably most before 500 BCE. The set of books we have today were in final form by about 100 BCE – that is a few decades before Jesus’s birth. The books in the New Testament were mostly written in the century after the crucifixion. The list books to be included, chosen by the members of the early Christian communities from a much lager set of possible texts, was largely fixed by the end of the 4th century CE.

Since then, nothing has been added, though there were some later controversies about whether some things included should be excluded as not quite the right stuff.

Now, with a millennium and a half of stability, it is tempting to view the Bible as a finished work. But should we consider it to be a book to which nothing more can or should ever be added?  Many Christians do consider it finished, but I don’t agree. I believe it is important we see the Bible as an unfinished work, even if we do not know how or when there might be more added.

We know the Hebrew Testament was unfinished, a work in progress over many centuries, with books added until about the time of Jesus. (These were the Scriptures that Jesus knew.) There does not appear to be any scholarly consensus about how or when the current Jewish canon was set.

And we know that the New Testament was a fluid collection of works over the first few centuries after the crucifixion.  The considerations of which books to include touched on many matters, not least important disagreements about how to consider Jesus. Was He God? Or man? Or both? Settling on the approved canon by the end of the 4th century also involved settling on important understandings of what was orthodox doctrine in these matters.

dead-sea-scroll-fragmentBetween 1947 and 1956, nearly 1000 texts were discovered in caves at Khirbet Qumran in the West Bank. These Dead Sea Scrolls include manuscripts that are the earliest versions of material in the Hebrew Testament. Might we one day discover ancient texts from early Christian communities that could alter or add to our understanding of Jesus’s life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection? Even alter our view of orthodox belief? Might this change the Bible canon? I don’t think we can completely dismiss this possibility. It isn’t what I mean, however, in urging that we consider the Bible unfinished.

Instead, ask yourself whether the Bible is a story with a clear and definite ending, or whether it is a story “to be continued?” The latter, I think most would agree. This isn’t one of those “and they lived happily ever after” books, as if nothing more needs to be done. Rather, it challenges each of us to live a transformed life: “now see what love can do” (in Penn’s words), the Bible urges us in telling us the good news.

We may disagree about what comes next. Will Jesus come again and establish Heaven on earth? Many have thought so. Or has Jesus already come again, taking up residence in our hearts? That is more my view. But whichever, there is more to the story, and we are all called to be involved in composing and creating what comes next.

Those who hold that the Bible is the super-inspired, inerrant word of God want us to see the Bible as complete: nothing could be added or taken away without harming the Bible’s perfection. This is all and only what God wrote, the whole deal, they say. Such a view is wrong in many ways, I believe, but one principal failing in this fundamentalist (or inerrantist) take on the Bible is that it writes us out of the story when God wants to draw us in.

The Bible is unfinished because we are unfinished.

Next: The Bible as Starter Yeast

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Bible in which I want to say how and why I find the Bible essential for my spiritual life. Earlier posts in the series were on The Bible as a Gift, The Bible as a Community Chronicle, and The Bible as Inspired Work.

The reflections in these posts about the Bible draw on material I presented at the Midyear gathering of Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative, and on reflections that Friends at that gathering shared with me, as they welcomed me into their midst.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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