My brother-in-law asked me a thought provoking question recently:
Why is the Bible written in the style it is, rather than just a list of facts, instructions, and information?
Much of the Bible is constructed the way it is due to the time in which it was written. There weren’t many writers (or scribes) at the time, so what we get in the Bible is a transcription of information that was handed down orally. While today we might consider this a very unreliable means of communicating information, if there was no other option for writing down or passing information people were very good at relying on their memory. The stories recounted in the Bible often had historical or tribal significance, so it stands to reason that they would take more of a storytelling mode instead of a prescriptive list of rules and instructions.
For more reading on this, you can refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding Sacred Scripture, or further reading recommendations below.
But in some ways, it is a list!
There are several portions of the Bible that actually do contain fairly clear, prescriptive lists of rules. The two areas that spring immediately to mind is the Holiness code in the book of Leviticus and the Ten Commandments. Both of these areas, among others, reflect very clear and prescriptive laws that applied to observant religious of their time. There are parts of the Old Testament and much of the New Testament that provide historical facts, genealogies, landmarks, names and behaviors of various settlements/tribes/organizations and the like. So in a certain way, the Bible does contain lists of facts, instructions, and information.
Christ taught in parables
There are other areas of the Bible written in the form of illustrative language, parables, and other storytelling modes. Christ often taught in parables, and the disciples help us to shed a little light on this mystery. They noted the change in his manner of teaching privately from them versus publicly in the crowd, so they asked Him directly why he employed parables in Matthew 13:10-17:
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
— Matthew 13:10-17 (NIV)
What does this tell us? Christ employed parables as a way to divide the crowd: the throng of people whose heart had grown too calloused to understand the deeper message of Truth, and the disciples who had already seen and believed. When He taught the crowd in parables, it was an opportunity for those that truly sought the Word of God to find it. It also provided a teachable moment for the disciples, who already were following Christ and could hear the truth. It is comforting to note that even the disciples required to have the parable explained to them by Christ, so I suppose there’s hope to all of us that continue to have challenges when reading or understanding Scripture. Thankfully, Christ left us the gift of the Church to help us in interpreting the Truth.
What does this have to do with how the Bible is written and constructed? Possibly nothing, but in the light of this verse I feel validated in the challenge of trying to understand difficult Bible verses that might not make sense to me given historical distance or language barriers. It’s an opportunity for truth-seeking, and an opportunity for trusting that the Holy Spirit inspired the divine authors to include these lessons in this form for an explicit reason.
Finding out more
Ultimately, the form that the Bible takes may be one of those mysteries that we’re not meant to fully comprehend. I know that there are many theologians, historians, and others that are far more qualified than I am to even posit a basic answer to this question, however there is one book that I have heard recommended for those curious about the known history of how the Bible was compiled. It’s called “Where We Got The Bible” by Henry G. Graham, so give it a try if you’re interested in learning more.
Also of note: Speaking in parables was another prophecy fulfilled.