What is Truth?

Ord, David Robert and Robert B. Coote. Is the Bible True? Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994.

Among the many wonderful fables of Aesop is the one of the fox and the grapes. When the fox was unable to reach the grapes high on the vine above him, he sulked off, mumbling that they were probably bitter anyway. No one would believe that such a story is factual (i.e. it actually happened), but most people would agree that it speaks to a deep truth about the human condition: our propensity to rationalize away our failures.

This little fable reminds us that to talk about that which is “true” is not the same thing as to talk about that which is “factual.” Such an understanding is at the heart of the first part of David Ord and Robert Coote’s little (131 pages) gem of a book. Furthermore, they point out, even if you stubbornly insist that what is true must be factual, it is an intellectual error to assume that those who penned the books of the Bible had the same understanding. In fact, we learn from this book, there is every reason to think the writers of the books of the Bible did not equate factuality with truth.

The gospels of the New Testament, the authors write, “if read as factual accounts, flagrantly contradict one another.” They give numerous examples of these contradictions and conclude that the wisest approach is not to try to reconcile one book to another, but to simply immerse yourself in a given book and see what “truth” it might speak to you in the same way you might read several different novels for the “truths” they have to speak.

Many of you probably read George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm, in school. Now, no one believes that animals actually talk and behave like human beings, but those who read the book with discerning minds realized that Orwell was using the fiction of animals behaving like humans to tell the story of the failure of totalitarian states. “Many biblical stories” the authors state, “are like Animal Farm. They are true, though not historically accurate or factual. They are concerned with proclaiming a message, not with providing us with a chronology of events from the history of Israel or the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We must learn to read them not as history but as message.”

And what message (what “truth”) do the authors glean from these texts? To summarize, it is an end to the old division between humanity and divinity and a new union of the two in love and friendship (see Hosea 2:16 and John 15:15).

The second part of this book deals with the question of how we got the Bible. This really is the study of two questions: how were the books written and how were they selected for inclusion in the Bible (after all, many other books were written that could have been included in the Bible but weren’t).
As to how the books were written, we come to learn that the old Sunday School idea that Moses sat down and wrote the first five books and the rest were written in some similar fashion by other individuals is simply against all evidence. The books of the Old Testament were written centuries after the events they depict, and are usually a sort of copy and paste job using different overlapping sources. Ord and Coote do a remarkable job of distilling the key points of what a seminary student might learn over the course of a semester into a few short chapters.

Most people do not even realize that there are two very different creation stories in the first chapters of Genesis. Ord and Coote not only help us to understand how that came about, but, more importantly, give us insight as to what those stories meant to those reading them.

The most disappointing chapter in the book occurs in this second part. It is a chapter entitled “What Archaeology Reveals.” The chapter tells some interesting stories, but the reader hoping to learn about archaeology and ancient Israel would do better to check out Wikipedia’s entry on that topic.

Moving to the New Testament, the authors tell us that “The process by whereby four gospels came into being is identical to that which gave us most of the Old Testament.” And apart from the gospels, the letters of Paul (those actually written by Paul as well as those written in his name) make up the bulk of the rest of the New Testament. The purpose of all these books is to use metaphors to tell the message described above in part one.

In the final chapter of part two, we see the political infighting that unfolded as the powers that be fought to have “their” books become scripture and not others. Some rulers and bishops and churches were more powerful than others. Can you guess who got their way? This will be disappointing reading for those who assume that the collection of books that we call our Bible came about as the result of a careful, polite and scholarly process.

In part three of their book, Ord and Coote urge us not to make an idol of the Bible, as it were a container in parchment of ancient words to be worshipped, but rather to be in dialogue with the Bible. This makes the Bible a living instrument, fully capable of being interpreted in always new ways. The more we learn about the Bible the more likely our interpretations are to become closer to the best the Bible has to offer. In the words of Ord and Coote, “To follow Jesus does not mean we live as he lived as a Judean in the first century. It is not a question of going back to see what answers he gave to problems in his own time, or what course of ethical or moral action he prescribed for people in Roman-occupied Palestine. It is a matter of discovering Jesus’ attitude and allowing the living Christ to inspire that attitude in us today. .. Again and again Jesus steered the people of his time away from rigid interpretations that would literalize Scripture, as if the written word were the be-all-and-end-all of everything. They were to judge not by appearances – not at a simplistic, surface level – but to go deep and make an accurate assessment of an issue. That necessitated entering into dialogue with scripture.”
Two thousand years later, the conversation continues.

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