If you put the Bible in a flow chart, is it still the Bible?

Q.  If you put the Bible in a flow chart, is it still the Bible?

That’s one of the intriguing questions posed in the cover story of the current issue of Christianity Today, which explores how people are using the concept of “big data” to organize and present data about the Bible as well as the data in the Bible.

The question applies specifically to a flow chart that Vincent Stetterholm of Logos Bible Software created to present systematically all of the laws in the Bible relating to oxen.  I’d like to respond to the question in light of that chart.

Flow chart excerpt
Detail from Stotterholm’s flow chart, which is far more extensive.

First, some appropriate disclaimers.  Stetterholm explains that he created the chart simply as a “proof of concept” and that it was “never really intended for publication.”  Fair enough.  We will approach it with that in mind and not consider that Stetterholm himself ever advanced this chart as “the Bible.” Rather, we are addressing a question raised by the Christianity Today article in the course of its discussion of how Scriptural data can be presented.

Beyond this, it must be said that the flow chart itself is simply marvelous.  Creative, clever, but at the same time concise, informative, and accurate.  Not to mention a lot of fun.  So I have no objections to the chart itself, as a flow chart.  It’s beautiful.  But the question remains:  Is it still the Bible?

I want to offer three reasons why I think this particular chart is not the Bible.  But I also want to offer a suggestion at the end for how another kind of flow chart might be the Bible.

(1)  This flow chart is not the Bible because it is not just the Bible.  Stetterholm adds witty and informative but nevertheless additional commentary to the biblical text.  (Example:  If an oxen falls into a pit that you own, “Now you know why you’re supposed to cover your pits, fool.”)  So we need to recognize that this is biblical content plus some added interpretation.  (Admittedly what we know as the Bible these days typically does include commentary in the form of subject headings, notes, etc., so it’s important to distinguish between that and the biblical text itself when we think about the Bible “is.”)

(2)  This flow chart is not the Bible because it changes the literary form in which the biblical content was delivered.  Just as God used human languages in creating the Bible, God also used existing human literary forms.  And when we change those into other forms, we’re making at least as much difference, but arguably much more difference, than when we translate the Bible from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into other languages.  Think about the psalm that begins “The Lord is my shepherd” rewritten as a thank-you note to God for taking as good care of us as a shepherd would if we were sheep and you’ll get the idea of the difference that changing literary form makes.  The content is the same but the expression is not, and I believe that the form of expression is an intrinsic aspect of each of the literary creations that together make up the Scriptures.

(3)  Most importantly, this flow chart is not the Bible because all of the biblical laws regarding oxen occur in collections of laws where they are offered, together with similar laws that have other subjects, as examples of more general principles that readers are supposed to recognize, internalize, and apply to other situations.  For example, the law that says not to plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together appears with other laws that say not to plant two kinds of seed in your vineyard and not to wear clothes of wool and linen woven together.  All of these laws are intended to prevent the kind of magical “mixing” that the Canaanites thought generated procreative power.

Similarly, the law that says to care for a stray ox until its owner comes to recover it goes on to say, more generally,  “Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost.”  The real point in this law, and several of the surrounding ones, is what it looks like to do right by your neighbor.

We might well ask, as Paul did in 1 Corinthians when he applied the law about not muzzling an ox while it was treading out grain to his own right to receive support as an apostle, “Is it about oxen that God is concerned?” The answer is, “Not only about oxen.”  God does care about them, but about much wider things as well, and the danger of producing a flow chart specifically about oxen and considering it the Bible is that it leaves out this wider dimension.

But so much for possibly too-serious thoughts about a delightful and playful proof-of-concept.  Let me conclude by suggesting that in some cases the plain biblical text might helpfully be presented as a flow chart.  For example, the laws about offerings at the beginning of Leviticus could very meaningfully be presented, verbatim, that way.  The first branches would distinguish between the types of offerings:  burnt, grain, fellowship, etc.  Subsidiary branches of each would then distinguish occasions within these types of offerings:  “If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd . . . from the flock . . . of birds”; “If you bring a grain offering baked in an oven . . . cooked in a pan . . . of first fruits”; etc.  There is a real “decision tree” embedded in this collection of laws and a flow chart might show that very nicely.  And still be the Bible.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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