This week, as we follow Jesus from Palm Sunday to the cross, we may hear Pilate ask Jesus, "What is truth?" (John 18:38.)
It's not just Pilate. People sometimes ask whether I think the Bible is true.
My first response to this question is always, yes.
But when push comes to shove, the real answer depends on what we mean when we say something is true.
The Bible is made up of many kinds of things, and many of those things don't fit neatly into true/false check boxes.
Take the psalms. They're poetry. They're inspiring, mostly. But what do you do with Psalm 137:8-9, which are absolutely barbaric? They speak the truth of someone's, or some community's, bitterness and longing for vengeance. The desire to smash infant heads open probably has some basis in events: "They did that to our children."
Take Job. Between it's introductory and concluding stories, it's more questions than answers? Why do bad things happen to good people? Maybe they aren't really good? Maybe there is some secret sin they are hiding? Or, as it concludes, maybe we just don't understand much about why anything happens at all, be it good or bad.
Take the parables. They're not fables or legends exactly. But they are stories Jesus uses to help people think. Jesus never said about any of them, "This really happened." Are they inspired? Yes! Are they literally true? No. Although several of them are probably based on hearsay and other stories circulating in the news of that time. Do they lead us to understanding? Well, they might. It depends on us to make our own sense out of them.
Take Paul's letters. They never claim any inspiration for themselves. But they're not fables or legends either. They're somebody's personal correspondence.
One of the biggest bugaboos about Biblical truth comes with the question of historicity. And this is often what people are really getting at when they ask the question about Biblical truth. Did creation happen in 6 days? Did Jonah actually get swallowed by a whale? And, at Eastertime, did Jesus actually rise from the dead?
And in each of these cases, the answer is that the Bible is historical, but it is not history the way 21st century people do history.
When I say it's not history, I mean it is not something similar to a Doris Kearns Goodwin account of past Presidents, or (in spite of the efforts of Cecil B. DeMille) Ken Burns would document on a PBS mini-series. It is not log of verifiable events.
But it is historical in that it records the stories and responses to those stories that were current at the time they were set down. So, the creation story is the historical response of a people living in captivity being told (and forced at spear-point to acknowledge) that the universe was created by someone else's superior gods. The resurrection stories, starting with Mark's sparce account, are the historical accounts of various communities who were struggling to live and make sense of their conviction that Jesus was still at the center of their lives, calling the shots, with everyone else around them saying otherwise – that the Jesus project was over and done.
The trouble with asking a question about truth in the Bible is that has to be answered in the context of which part of the Bible we're talking about. People put a leather binding on it and paint gold around the edges, and suddenly it looks like its monolithic. Put the word "Holy" on the cover and all of a sudden it's divine and infallible. But it's not. Never has been. It is what it is because of a historically verifiable series of events in the 3rd century where certain church leaders said this is what it is – and churches everywhere (mostly) have gone along with it.
What about the Bible, then? Is it true? Yes! – And it is up to us to mine it's 3000-year-long witness to the human story for the wisdom it has preserved there. That wisdom comes in many forms, but if we will dig into it, argue with it, and then when we have found gold live by it, we will find life and comfort in it.