The Bible Doesn't Say Anything

Opened bible on a wooden desk background.
Opened bible on a wooden desk background.

The Bible says...

This is a powerful statement. We've all heard it before, from a pulpit or politician, friend or foe. These three words conjure an absolutist stance and the highest authority, but the fact is, the Bible doesn't say anything.

Here's an experiment. Go find a Bible. Place it on the table. Now listen. Put your ear very close if you must. Block out all peripheral noise, turn Netflix and YouTube off, and listen to the Bible. Open it even, and listen closely. I am not a psychic but I can predict you have come to the conclusion that the Bible is silent. It does not speak.

If we have established that the Bible does not speak, then how can it "say" all these things? When people claim the Bible "says" anything, it is a claim that there are words on the pages within that, when read by a person and repeated, syllables and phonetic noises can be understood by others who speak that language and can find meaning in it. Or, it is that when an individual looks at all the squiggly lines of black (or red) on the white pages of this book, their mind links them together in such a way that they form a particular meaning. My point is that the Bible does nothing. The reader does everything.

Reading is an act of interpretation. You are right now interpreting symbols that I have placed in a particular order on the internet. Once I submit this piece, I have no control over it, and you can make whatever sense you want out of it. That is the beauty of interpretation. Words are art, and they cannot be constrained to one kind of meaning. They exist to be interpreted.

The Bible has been interpreted by millions of people for over a millennium, and interpretations have varied as much. I would say that no two people can read the Bible in the exact same way, because our interpretations are filtered through our experiences, which no two people share. So how is it possible that the Bible "says" any one thing?

It is not my goal here to argue about particular things people use the Bible for, because this has been done ad nauseam by others. The Bible "said" that slavery was good. The Bible "said" that women shouldn't vote. The Bible "said" that only heterosexuals should be married. Fine. It also "said" that we are all equal under God and that we are to love each other unconditionally. Fine. The Bible is a text that was compiled over the course of a thousand years, being edited and reshaped the entirewhole time. Even up until the 17th century it hadn't been finalized by Protestants, who eventually removed the "Deuterocanonicals/Apocrypha" (the original 1611 King James Version included them!). The authors of the text had particular ideas they wanted to express, and women's rights and biotechnology were not among them.

When people say "The Bible says..." they are typically doing one of two things. 1) They are diverting authority, and criticism, to God. It's not their opinion, it's God's. The individual thus removes themselves from the equation by associating their view as divinely inspired and approved. 2) They are appealing to common ground to persuade somebody of something. This is related, but has a different rhetorical effect. These two modes often function in pairs from opposing sides. Imagine this (not that you'd likely need to imagine it): Sally claims "The Bible says X." Joan, a non-Christian, finds Sally's claim wrong, and responds, "But doesn't the Bible also say Y?" This happens very frequently, and usually leads to a standstill. Sally will not budge because she has God's authority on her side, and Joan will not acquiesce because her opinion has no biblical basis. The problem is that, "The Bible says..." diverts people from engaging with their own opinions and predispositions because they turn themselves into secondary sources. Sally claims it is not her own opinion, and Joan is only using the Bible as a tool that she doesn't even believe in. How can this dialogue ever advance?

I am suggesting that if people acknowledge that the Bible doesn't actually say anything, but that every claim is their own interpretation, heavily filtered through their own life experiences, there won't be a diversion of engagement; people will actually be able to communicate person to person, about their own opinions. As soon as the shift from "The Bible says" to "I interpret the Bible as" happens, it puts the conversationalists into a dialogue about their own actual thoughts and opinions.

To illustrate this more concretely, Colossians 3.22 reads, "Slaves, obey your masters in everything." This seems like a clear enough statement that the author upheld the institution of slavery. However, Galatians 3.28 reads, "There is no longer slave or free...for all of you are one in Jesus Christ." Paul sent back a runaway slave (Onesimus) to his owner (Philemon), only saying that Onesimus should be treated kindly, as he is now a fellow believer. So what does the Bible "say" about slavery? I will not lead myself into the quagmire of interpreting these passages here, but my point should be clear: Diverting personal responsibility for your opinions to the Bible, for whatever agenda you're trying to advance, is only effective in solidifying support with those who already agree with you. It is neither convincing nor practically effective.

I close by suggesting that if you, the reader, have ever used the phrase "The Bible says," that you examine your personal hermeneutic, because it's usually not the case that your opinions are only yours because "The Bible tells me so," it's because you have an opinion that you use the Bible to justify. And if you are someone who uses "The Bible says..." to counter a biblical interpretation with which you disagree, I suggest you don't give in to this temptation. It only feeds the illusion that the Bible can actually speak.

But the Bible doesn't say anything.