First and foremost, as I’ve studied the original text of the Bible I’ve discovered that it’s a compilation of letters written thousands of years ago by many authors. These authors - many of them unknown - were writing for their time, place and circumstance, much like we still write letters today – you’ve seen them, “An open letter to the legislators,” or “Dear Editor.” These types of letters were passed from generation to generation, and eventually the early Catholic Church chose which ones to canonize – which letters would be considered part of the official Christian text. It’s the same process that brought about the Torah, Qur’an, Tipitaka, or the many ancient texts of Hinduism. A group of early leaders deemed popular letters as authoritative to a particular religion. Thus, the Bible is an inspired work of humanity that has fostered the direction of religious belief.
Let’s consider the Gospel of Matthew. Why did this particular author write a letter to the early church? Well, the books main theme is the Pharisees (the Jewish leaders that strictly enforced Jewish law) and their domination and oppression over early Christian believers. The date of the writing suggests that the author most likely represented a group of Christians that were no longer under Pharisee rule; but since they were a church in turmoil (clues within the Gospel show that its intended readers were arguing with one another and building walls of separation) they needed to be reminded of past experiences so as to encourage them to move away from their own exclusivity. The same goes for every book and letter in the Bible… there is an intended audience and a purpose for the writing. The Prophets shared their visions in order to encourage their community in times of trial. And the authors of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, a.k.a, the books of the law) intended to help a group of people order themselves.
It’s also important to note that the Bible has been translated many times over, and the translations also have their intended purpose. For example, the King James Version was written for King James (wouldn’t we all like to have a formal document that benefits our leadership and treasury)? You see, the original authors of the Old Testament wrote in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. Both of these languages included different word meanings than modern-day English. In fact, we have since created words to describe things that didn’t even exist when the Biblical letters were written. It is very important to understand the original context of writings we use to teach and direct our faith.
So, why is the Bible still relevant today if it was written for people of another time and place? I’m glad you asked! The Bible was never meant to be taken literally (that happened when early church leaders wanted to use the Bible to control their people). The authors used all sorts of allegory and metaphors to make their points. No, I don’t believe that Jonah really got swallowed by a whale and lived to tell about it, but I do believe that Jonah’s story provides great insight into how God desires us to relate with people we may not like (that’s what’s happening in Jonah). To discover deep faith, we don’t need to turn something that was written for intimately spiritual purposes into historical fact.