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The Bible is the most read book on the planet with translations into hundreds of languages. For some people the Holy Bible is the literal Word of God but for others it is simply a collection of ancient texts with some historical value. And in between there are many views on what the Bible really is and how it should be used for guidance in daily living.

bibleThe Bible is divided into two main sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. Most biblical scholars consider that the books of the Old Testament were probably all available in manuscript form by about 300 BC in their original Hebrew language and then in a Greek translation made by Jewish Rabbis called the Septuagint around 200 BC.

By contrast the New Testament books were all completed by around 100 AD in the Greek language.

As Christianity developed it became necessary to agree exactly which books should be in the official list or ‘canon’ of both the Old and New Testaments and this resulted in 39 books in the Old and 27 in the New together with 14 books considered as ‘Apocrypha’ meaning ‘not authentic’. Generally Catholic Christianity has maintained this complete set of 80 books as the Bible but Protestants have removed the Apocrypha from their bibles and have kept to only 66 books.

What really differentiates the Old from the New Testaments is the style and content. The Old Testament starts with the story of Creation followed by Adam and Eve and Noah and his ark. Subsequently God is revealed in the history of the Jewish people and so the Old Testament is full of their wanderings and struggles, and their successes and failures. It charts the rise and fall of nations and their leaders and is full of battles and warfare. Laws are set out and prophecies are given and mixed in with it all are the wonderful temple hymns which we know as the Psalms.

But the New Testament reveals God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It opens with the four Gospels which are an account of these three stages of Jesus’ presence in the world followed by some history and letters associated with the development of the early Christian Church. And then it concludes with Revelation, a book very much in the style of some of the prophetic visions in the Old Testament.

Many questions come to mind when we open a copy of the Bible and start to read. We might ask for example:

“It is just about people from 2000 years ago or more, how can it be relevant to me?”

or

“I like the New Testament but why, if it is the Word of a Loving God, is the Old Testament so full of battles and warfare?”

and also

“Is it all literally true or is there some other way to understand it?”

One of the clues to finding an answer to these questions can be found in the Gospel’s description of how Jesus talked to people. Throughout the Gospels and in Matthew in particular we can read about Jesus talking to the people in parables. These were everyday stories of people and events that all his audience could appreciate and understand. And yet within these simple stories Jesus was able to convey much deeper ideas about our inner spiritual life and how it should be lived. Put simply parables are ‘earthly stories with heavenly meanings’. But the Gospels tell us something more about Jesus' use of parables.

In Matthew 13:34 it says: “All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.”

The message we might take from this is that we need to look deeper than the letter or literal sense for the true meaning. Not just in what Jesus teaches but throughout the whole Bible. In other words we need to look at the Bible as divine revelation given in parable form – a form of code that presents an earthly story which contains a heavenly or spiritual meaning.

And this is just how Emanuel Swedenborg came to understand and interpret the Word of God.

At the very beginning of his first great work Arcana Caelestia Swedenborg makes the following comments on the Old Testament:

The Word of the Old Testament contains heavenly secrets, with every single detail focusing on the Lord, His heaven, the Church, faith, and what belongs to faith; but no human being grasps this from the letter. Judging it by the letter or literal sense, nobody views it as anything more than a record, in the main, of external features of the Jewish Church. Yet at every point there are internal features that are nowhere evident in the external ....

But that every single detail, even the smallest, down to the tiniest jot, means and embodies matters that are spiritual and celestial is a truth of which the Christian world is still profoundly ignorant ....

And in True Christian Religion, his final book published in his lifetime, he included these words:

The spiritual sense is not the one which transparently underlies the literal sense of the Word, when it is scrutinised and expounded to support some dogma of the church; such a sense can be called the literal sense of the Word as understood by the church. But the spiritual sense is not to be seen in the literal sense; it lies within it, like the soul in the body, or as what is thought by the understanding shows in the eyes, or as the affection of love shows in the face. This sense is the principal reason why the Word is spiritual, not only for human beings, but also for the angels.

Although this concept of an inner spiritual sense to the Word of God pervades all of Swedenborg's writings he summarised his teaching on the subject in the short book Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture.

If we start to look at what the Bible says from a spiritual point of view all sorts of things begin to make sense which they didn't previously. For example the wars and battles in the Old Testament  can be seen as images of our inner spiritual battles as we struggle to turn from a self-centred way of living to a self-less approach to life rather than just the violent history of the Jewish people.  And in looking at the Bible as a source of deep spiritual teaching we become less concerned with issues of whether parts of it are literally true or not. And because the Bible is teaching us about a person’s spiritual development and relationship to God it is as true today as it was 2000 years ago and as it will be in 2000 years time.

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