My Problem With the Bible


My Problem With the Bible
Brian Zahnd

I have a problem with the Bible. Here’s my problem…

I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.

That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.

I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.

One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that history is written by the winners. This is true — except in the case of the Bible it’s the opposite! This is the subversive genius of the Hebrew prophets. They wrote from a bottom-up perspective.

Imagine a history of colonial America written by Cherokee Indians and African slaves. That would be a different way of telling the story! And that’s what the Bible does. It’s the story of Egypt told by the slaves. The story of Babylon told by the exiles. The story of Rome told by the occupied. What about those brief moments when Israel appeared to be on top? In those cases the prophets told Israel’s story from the perspective of the peasant poor as a critique of the royal elite. Like when Amos denounced the wives of the Israelite aristocracy as “the fat cows of Bashan.”

Every story is told from a vantage point; it has a bias. The bias of the Bible is from the vantage point of the underclass. But what happens if we lose sight of the prophetically subversive vantage point of the Bible? What happens if those on top read themselves into the story, not as imperial Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans, but as the Israelites? That’s when you get the bizarre phenomenon of the elite and entitled using the Bible to endorse their dominance as God’s will. This is Roman Christianity after Constantine. This is Christendom on crusade. This is colonists seeing America as their promised land and the native inhabitants as Canaanites to be conquered. This is the whole history of European colonialism. This is Jim Crow. This is the American prosperity gospel. This is the domestication of Scripture. This is making the Bible dance a jig for our own amusement.

As Jesus preached the arrival of the kingdom of God he would frequently emphasize the revolutionary character of God’s reign by saying things like, “the last will be first and the first last.” How does Jesus’ first-last aphorism strike you? I don’t know about you, but it makes this modern day Roman a bit nervous.

Imagine this: A powerful charismatic figure arrives on the world scene and amasses a great following by announcing the arrival of a new arrangement of the world where those at the bottom are to be promoted and those on top are to have their lifestyle “restructured.” How do people receive this? I can imagine the Bangladeshis saying, “When do we start?!” and the Americans saying, “Hold on now, let’s not get carried away!”

Now think about Jesus announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom with the proclamation of his counterintuitive Beatitudes. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” how was that received? Well, it depends on who is hearing it. The poor Galilean peasant would hear it as good news (gospel), while the Roman in his villa would hear it with deep suspicion. (I know it’s an anachronism, but I can imagine Claudius saying something like, “sounds like socialism to me!”)

And that’s the challenge I face in reading the Bible. I’m not the Galilean peasant. Who am I kidding! I’m the Roman in his villa and I need to be honest about it. I too can hear the gospel of the kingdom as good news (because it is!), but first I need to admit its radical nature and not try to tame it to endorse my inherited entitlement.

I am a (relatively) wealthy white American male. Which is fine, but it means I have to work hard at reading the Bible right. I have to see myself basically as aligned with Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Caesar. In that case, what does the Bible ask of me? Voluntary poverty? Not necessarily. But certainly the Bible calls me to deep humility — a humility demonstrated in hospitality and generosity. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a relatively well-off white American male, but I better be humble, hospitable, and generous!

If I read the Bible with the appropriate perspective and humility I don’t use the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as a proof-text to condemn others to hell. I use it as a reminder that I’m a rich man and Lazarus lies at my door. I don’t use the conquest narratives of Joshua to justify Manifest Destiny. Instead I see myself as a Rahab who needs to welcome newcomers. I don’t fancy myself as Elijah calling down fire from heaven. I’m more like Nebuchadnezzar who needs to humble himself lest he go insane.

I have a problem with the Bible, but all is not lost. I just need to read it standing on my head. I need to change my perspective. If I can accept that the Bible is trying to lift up those who are unlike me, then perhaps I can read the Bible right.


(The artwork is by Marc Chagall)

Here’s the sermon version.

  • Nyasha Dzoga

    Now this article gives a fresh meaning to my favorite passage, “A broken and contrite spirit, He will not despise.” Perspective matters! Thank you for this article.

  • Jim E Montgomery

    We are clearly in another cultural world, in another time, and with a different people… the world of the New Testament… is not a world that we can readily or instinctively comprehend… it is a world that, were we to be transported to it, would puzzle us and send jus intro a profound culture shock. -David A Fiensy

  • Mrozowski

    Be careful not to over intelectualize too. Remember this
    Hear o Isreal the Lord our GOD, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your GOD with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
    Bickering over semantics misses the basics.

  • Piet Strydom

    Absolutely love this!!

  • Embarae

    The natural thinking will never understand the spirit of understanding.

  • Julie Dickey

    What the Bible actually says is that SOME who are first will be last and SOME who are last will be first. My interpretation of those verses is that our status in society on earth has nothing to do with our status in the society of heaven. It is in our own best interest to treat everyone above or below us as we would want to be treated if we were in their position because you don’t know who will be your boss in heaven.

  • Ellen Ludwig Holt

    In my own understanding and strength I too have many, a wide variety of problems, with the Bible, but when I allow Holy Spirit to speak to me as I read the Bible, His word becomes alive (Hebrews 4:12) and the truth will revealed to me in my weakness. Social change will only truly occur as those who are identified with Jesus allow Him to change them from ths inside first so that they can be led by Him to bring His love and works to the “poor” of the world.

    Being meek has nothing to do with social status or being a poor Galilean peasant or a rich Roman, but it has everything to do with being humble enough to allow the Lord to lead. I cannot make myself meek, only the work of the Holy Spirit
    can do this as I allow the Word to work out the pride in my life.

    That is why the first beatitide is, Blessed are the poor in spirit. When I recognize my poverty of spirit, that I can do nothing apart from Him (John 15), then I will repent; which will allow Him to do His work in my life, causing me to be meek.

  • The beekeeper

    We certainly love to discuss/debate. An antidote for how to read the story of God’s activity may be to stop reading it for a time and evaluate what The Lord is doing among us. Everyone of us, I suspect, needs to reevaluate our hermeneutical approach from time to time. Stop reading the Bible. Let it read you. The message we hear God speak from his story is “love my world.” It’s hard to do that when our interpretive approach keeps us in constant debate over insignificant issues at the peril of fulfilling the gospel mandates. I don’t have a problem with the Bible because it’s a phenomenal story of God’s love and care for his world. You and I are a continuation of that narrative. Get to living it.

  • Michele L.

    Yes, yes…we are rich by many world standards but we suffer such a penury of spirit that I have no issue with understanding the poverty that Jesus spoke of at all.
    Michele L.

  • Dave Johnson

    This is encouraging. I see us justifying ourselves all the time. I see it in myself readily. The gospel Jesus preached was, “Repent the kingdom of God is at hand.” To the sinner he said, I am life com follow me and go and sin no more. To the religious he said you must be born again, start from scratch come follow me like a babyfollows its parents. To the rich, honest or corrupt, he said sell everything you have give to the poor and come follow me. I see all of these in me and I am seeking to follow him, as a rich American I must go through the eye of the needle, but all things are possible in him. For nine years I have taught disadvantaged children. I have seen them hold on to the disadvantages as the thing that define them and for many it sends them into the same hell their parents raised them in. So isn’t the call for all humans to turn from what they think defines or completes them to a relationship of peace with God through Jesus?

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  • CalebBoone

    Dear Reverend Zahnd:

    These are good points.

    I believe they should be second nature to anyone filled with The Holy Spirit and The Love of Jesus.

    Sincerely yours,
    Caleb Boone.

  • Douglas Young

    This may be the best thing I’ve read in a long, long time…

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