You Don’t Understand the Bible Because You Are Christian by Richard Gist

Summary: We as modern Christians miss a number of nuances of scripture because we do not understand ancient Hebrew culture.

The title of this book is intriguing. I rarely accept review copies any more because I just prefer picking my own books and the prospect of a free book is not all that enticing. But I accepted a review copy of this book by the author after he emailed me.

The overall point of the book is important and I think useful. There are a number of things about scripture and the Christian faith that we miss because the bible was not written directly to us as 21st century Americans. It was written to people of a particular time and place (although that time and place varied throughout scripture). And while we can trust that the message of scripture is not completely lost to us as 21st century Christians, because of the power of the Holy Spirit, the tradition of the church and research by academics, there is real value in exploring ancient culture.

Richard Gist is a pastor and not an academic, so there are strengths and weaknesses of writing from this position. The book is readable and it does not get bogged down in too much theory or jargon. But it also is not well cited and I question more than a few of his areas of exploration.

Parts of this were excellent. I think his chapter on Cain and Abel makes sense, the suggestion that Cain’s grain was rejected because the Hebrews were nomads and not city dwellers and farmers both fits with the text and history of the time. Gist also discusses the tension between different strands of the Old Testament and that was not bad.

Where I think he goes off the rails is talking about the New Testament. The two major problems are the discussion of Jesus’s divinity and the tension between Paul and Peter. Gist suggests that the gospels were all written about a generation after the initial disciples (which may be true), and that the reason we can tell that is true is that they include the divinity of Christ. He also believes that there was a tension between the followers of Jesus and the followers of John the Baptist. So gospel writers minimize John, while appropriating much of John’s ethical teaching and placing it into Jesus’ mouth.

Gist later expanded this idea by suggesting that Paul completely transformed Christianity to a gentile religious tradition and away from Jewish tradition, against the teaching of Peter. Those that followed Peter attempted to keep Christianity Jewish, those that followed Paul attempted to distance Christianity from Judaism. Because the gospels and Acts and all of Paul’s letters were written by followers of Paul, there were jabs at Peter and the Judaizers placed into much of the New Testament.

The problems with this line of thinking are numerous. First, it is hard to explain how Christianity would have started without the early disciples believing in the divinity of Christ. If they were intentionally making up Jesus’ divinity, it would have been odd that Mary and James and others close to Jesus (who Gist is saying didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ) would have become leaders in the church.  And while Peter was the leader of the early church in Jerusalem, I think it is a stretch to say he would have been the leader of the Judaizers that are referred to by Paul. This is made even more problematic if the tradition that Peter was the first bishop in Rome is actually true.

There are some hints at good points here and there even if there are some pretty off the wall suggestions, but honestly I can’t recommend the book. I do think that there is value in exploring the Jewish roots of early Christianity and Jesus. Paul Yancey’s the Bible that Jesus Read, Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew and a whole host of others books in this area are all places to start (several of these are in the bibliography).

The central problem of the book is that instead of attempting to understand nuance within orthodox Christianity, Gist seems to start by assuming orthodox Christianity is wrong and then re-created the right understanding. This is why we have tradition and the creeds in the Church, to provide boundaries to our explorations. Scripture has been read for hundreds of years by Christians and while I certainly agree that new insights can be found and research is important, research that attempts to overturns a couple thousand years of tradition and the creeds needs to be pretty strong to be taken seriously. This book is not that.

Another book in a similar vein that I would recommend is The Bible Wasn’t Written to You. Also Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes is well worth reading as well instead of this one.

You Don’t Understand the Bible Because You Are Christian by Richard Gist Purchase Links: Hardcover, PaperbackKindle Edition

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A copy of the kindle book was provided by the author for purposes of review.

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