What does the Bible teach? Well, pretty well anything, depending on who is speaking. Do we just accept what we were taught when we were young, or recite a few favourite texts and ignore the rest, or feel well and truly turned off by all the claims?

Here’s my potted history of biblical meaning. It is derived from a number of biblical scholars, the main one being John Barton.

1) Authors wrote for various purposes. The further we go back in history the fewer people could write. The earliest written texts would have been by professional scribes employed by kings. In those days communities remembered their stories by singing them or re-enacting them; unlike today, a story could be remembered for centuries by repetition in song or liturgy. However, recited texts can get adapted as the generations go by. Written texts are different. If you still have the original papyrus, it will probably say exactly what it said before.

2) A later generation valued what the author wrote, and preserved it. Most ancient writings have been lost; the ones that survived were considered important enough by some successors. Perhaps a generation later, people looked back on someone – like the prophet Amos – and said to each other: ‘At the time we thought he was talking a load of guff, but now we realise he was right. Young people today, you know what they are like, they will forget unless we write it down for them.’ Later, when the upper classes of Jerusalem were sent into exile in Babylon, they probably wrote down what they had previously recited in their celebrations.

3) Over time valued scriptures accumulated. They were kept as ‘the scriptures’. Old ones were venerated. Unlike today, there were not so many of them. They were seen as holy, and therefore meaningful.

4) Old scriptures, despite being venerated as holy, become out of date. So the tradition developed of interpreting holy scriptures allegorically, not literally. This is the exact opposite of what many people expect today, but it is what Jews, Christians and pagans were all doing at the time of Jesus. The New Testament often allegorises the Old Testament, ignoring or rejecting literal meanings. An example is Deuteronomy 25:4: ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain’. Paul responds:

Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever ploughs should plough in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop (1 Corinthians 9:9-10).

Paul’s predicament was typical. If he interpreted the text literally it had nothing to say to urban Christians of his own day. If it was to be understood as relevant to his own place and time it needed to be given an alternative meaning. In the same way the early Church at first took Paul’s epistles literally but later, when they became scriptures, attributed deeper meanings to them. This became standard practice for Christians throughout the Middle Ages.

5) At the Reformation, Protestants denied the authority of the Pope to interpret scripture. They had good reason to suspect that the Vatican were interpreting it in their own interest, but at the time they could not appeal to any alternative authority. So they insisted that the Bible should be read literally, not interpreted. By every Christian. In order to make this seem credible, they had to do two things: make bibles more widely available, and convince themselves that every biblical text can be understood by anyone capable of reading. This is the origin of the idea of the ‘clear, plain teaching of the Bible’. Reformers applied this principle to matters of doctrine and ethics.

6) It didn’t work. Inevitably, as individual Protestants read biblical texts, they didn’t find them easy to understand. When they thought they did, they found other people coming up with different interpretations. Protestantism divided.

7) Some insisted that every text is literally true, and therefore every text must be consistent with every other text. While claiming that they were not interpreting Scripture at all, in fact they interpreted each text to make it consistent with every other text and with what they thought the Bible ought to mean. So a tradition of interpretation was built up, committed to the view that the Bible was a consistent whole, designed by God to be so. This is the origin of the conservative evangelical tradition.

8) Other Protestants emphasised the principle that each individual Christian should read the Bible and work out for themselves what it meant. The process of critical scholarship was built up, interpreting each text in accordance with what they thought the original authors would have meant, even if they disagreed with other biblical authors. These were the forerunners of today’s liberals.

9) In the 19th century reactions against modern science, evangelicals committed to seeing the Bible as God-given literal truth extended its remit to cover the major issue of the day, the relation of science to religion. Scripture was to be taken literally on scientific as well as other matters. The world was only 6,000 years old. Evolution was false.

10) What if we don’t know what the original authors meant? What if we do, but it is so long since anyone believed that that Christians have long since allocated different meanings to the texts? Are all later meanings to be dismissed, however helpful and popular they have turned out to be? Along comes canonical criticism, which gives priority to the intentions not of each biblical author, but of the people who put the Bible together as a coherent tradition.

End of my potted history. If you multiply the number of biblical texts by the number of ways Christians have seen fit to interpret the Bible, the resulting number is – well, a big number. So the Bible has proved a great support to dictators killing their enemies, aristocrats employing slaves on their farms, hermits escaping society, husbands beating wives, wives running away from their husbands and revolutionaries overturning governments. Whatever you want Christianity to be, you will find a suitable text and method of interpretation.

So should we conclude that the Bible can mean too many things, and just give up on it? I’d like to think we can do better. Some interpretations are more defensible than others. My description of the two traditions produced after the Reformation is of course a simplification of a very complex range, but if we look back to those debates to find the sources of our present disagreements we can see how they approached the Bible from opposite ends and with opposite presuppositions, both of which are still with us.

One presupposes that the texts were at least supervised by God, if not determined word for word; so the Bible is a consistent whole, to be understood by comparing each text with other biblical texts. There is no point in trying to explain a text by comparing it with something written by mere humans: the Bible’s claim on us is what God gives, so should be self-sufficient and complete.

The other presupposes that the texts were written by various humans, for the kinds of reasons why humans write things down. Their authority as scripture comes from later generations valuing them. Liberal scholars therefore do not start with the Bible as a whole. They start with each text, use non-biblical resources to find out what they can about it, and reach conclusions about why the authors wrote it and what they intended to say. Only after they have done this for each text do they put all the texts together and ask what, if anything, they have in common.

I prefer the liberal approach for two reasons. The first is method. It is honest. It starts by looking to see what there is, and only after establishing what it sees does it develop theories about it or ask what it might have to say to believers today. The literalist approach, by contrast, starts with a theory about the Bible, and what’s more a theory that didn’t get clearly articulated until the sixteenth century. By the time it gets to seeing what the text says, it is already committed to only seeing what fits the theory.

The other reason is the results. The literalist method claims to provide clear, plain, simple certainties, but in practice all it has ever produced is a cacophany of conflicting voices all disagreeing about what that meaning is. The liberal method produces lots of conflicting theories, constantly debated, so it doesn’t provide simple certainties; but it doesn’t expect to. This is typical of all genuine search for knowledge. Debates continue, but from time to time consensus on something or other emerges. All those different biblical authors do witness to certain beliefs about God and what God expects of us.

I have no business to psychoanalyse biblical literalists, but it does seem to me that, at least in the context of some current debates, there are two agendas going on. Ethicists observe two very different ways moral judgements are used. We can use them as personal guidance in our lives. Or we can use them to bully other people.

If you want to bully other people, you can find in the Bible lots of doctrines we have to believe, and commands we have to obey. There they are, in black and white.

If you want guidance for your own life, you don’t want lists of commands. You want insight, inspiration, ideas to make you think new thoughts and see your life in a new light. Whichever of these you are looking for, you can probably find it in the Bible.