When I asked what people wanted me to talk about after Easter, I received several questions about the Bible, and so that is what we are going to be looking at today. If you were coming for an uplifting sermon, you’ll have to come back next week, because today is more about me teaching then about explicating scripture. I cannot cover everything today nor am I even going to try. I’ve often thought about trying to create a sermon series to talk about the Bible itself, but in my initial thoughts I haven’t figured out yet how to do that, but perhaps some time in the future, especially if there is a clamoring for it, although after today you might also hope I never come back to this information.
All of us have assumptions that we make about the Bible, some of them correct but unfortunately many of them incorrect. Many want to treat the Bible as if it’s a simple book to read, when in fact it’s not. There are some extremely difficult passages that we encounter, and we even read in 2 Peter, talking about Paul’s letters, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand,” and these difficulties were leading some people astray. (2 Pet 3:16) And while the Bible might be the bestselling book of all time, it is one of the least read books as well. As someone recently posted on Facebook, we treat the Bible like we do software licenses, we don’t read it, we simply scroll to the bottom and click “I agree.” If we are serious about the Bible, then we actually need to take it seriously, which means we need to pick it up and read it. We also need to be very aware of what we bring to scripture when we read it, that influence what we find. In the passage we just heard from 2 Timothy, we are told that all scripture is inspired by God, an idea that we will have to come back to, but what scripture is he referring to? It’s only the Hebrew scriptures, because the New Testament doesn’t exist yet, but I’m sure most of us don’t think of that when we read or hear that passage.
But what is the Bible? Perhaps you have before said, “The Bible says it; I believe it, that settles it.” If you say that, please remove that from your repertoire, because the Bible doesn’t say anything, or it does much like we could say that the library says something, or worse like we could say the internet says something. We want to treat the Bible like it’s this, (just one note), when in fact it’s like this (lots of notes), and yes I meant it to be discordant. Although the disciples may have been of one accord, the Bible is not, and even when we say the word Bible, we should probably say which Bible it is that we are talking about.
The protestant Bible consists of 39 books in the Hebrew Scriptures and 27 books in the New Testament, or 66 books total, but non-Protestant churches have different amounts. The Roman Catholic Church as 73 total books, the Orthodox churches have 79, and others like the Ethiopian or Syriac church have different numbers. These books were written by many different people over a thousand years or so, and they also represent many different genres of books. There is poetry and history and gospels and letters and apocalypse and prophecy and law and short stories, to name just a few, and just as we would not read those the same way in ordinary life, we can’t read them or treat them the same way in scripture either. And they don’t all say the same thing. We need to see these books and being in conversation with each other, and sometimes they disagree. Ezra and Nehemiah set laws that forbid Jewish men from marrying foreign women, and yet the book of Ruth tells the story of a Jewish man marrying a foreign woman, giving birth to the Davidic line. So it is inappropriate to say the Bible says, x, y or z. Instead, at the very least, we should say scripture says something, or even better, quote from the specific book that you are citing.
If you turn to page to page 839, you will find the last page of Malachi, which is the last page of the Hebrew Scriptures. As I said we have 39 books in the Hebrew Scriptures, although Judaism only has 24, even though the books are exactly the same. How is that possible? Whereas we have 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 kings, etc, they are combined all into one in the Tanakh. They also combine Ezra and Nehemiah into one, and they treat the 12 minor prophets all as one rather than 12 separate books. Minor in this case applies not to their importance, but instead to their length. Jewish Bibles also order the books differently than we do, and you can see those differences up on the screen. We order them with the first five books, known as the Torah, then the histories, the wisdom literature, and followed by the prophets.
When we talked about Ruth, I said that Ruth was one of only two books in our Bible named for women, with Esther being the other one. But after worship someone, who was raised Roman Catholic, came up to me and asked me if I knew that there was another book named after a woman, and I said the book of Judith, which is part of the Apocrypha. This is an area of the Bible with which most Protestants are not familiar. So where did the Apocrypha come from?
The Hebrew Bible is written, surprisingly enough, in Hebrew, with small sections in Aramaic. But sometime in the second century BCE, in Alexandria (Egypt, not Virginia), a translation was made into Greek, which became known as the Septuagint, and when that copy was made they added some additional works that were not found in the Hebrew texts, but which were known in the Greek speaking Jewish communities. They are called the Apocrypha, which means secret or obscure, because the authors of the works were unknown. This has led them to be disputed not just among Jews but also among Christians, and it was right around the time that the Septuagint was written that Judaism began to standardize the texts which would be found in the Bible, which is called the canon. Canon in this context has nothing to do with the military instrument, but instead means rule or measuring stick. So these are the books by which everything else was measured. The process of how the Hebrew scriptures were canonized is not clear. Some argue that it was set by the time Jesus was born, and others say that it was after his death, but these are the only scriptures that Jesus would have known.
Now let’s move onto the New Testament, and its canonization. If we look at the New Testament, it starts with the gospels, then the book of acts, then the Epistles of Paul, epistle means letter, which begin with the letters to groups, and goes from longest letter to shortest, then moves to letters to people, also moving from longest to shortest, then we move into what are known as the general epistles going roughly from longest to shortest, except that those from the same potential author are together, and then we conclude with the book of Revelation, and please note it is revelation singular not revelations plural. But how we got these books is a complex process, which we can only touch on today.
All of the New Testament was written in Greek, with some Aramaic words, and none of the works were written by Jesus, nor were any written in English. The oldest writings we find in the New Testament are not the gospels, but instead the letters of Paul. Paul’s letters date at the earliest from the 50’s or about 20 years after Jesus’ death, and are written to the communities he had founded to answer their questions or give them guidance. The gospels were begun to be written around 70, when it became clear that Jesus was not immediately coming back and those who were witnesses to Jesus’ life and either knew him or knew the disciples and apostles began to die and so they decided that the stories needed to be recorded, and the books of the New Testament continued to be written over the next 60 years or so, with perhaps the last one written being 2 Peter, written perhaps around the year 120. But the creation of the New Testament cannon actually began with someone working to remove books.
Marcion, was a wealthy shipbuilder, and perhaps the son of an early bishop. He said that the God found in the Hebrew Scriptures could not be the same God that Jesus talked about, that Jesus showed us a higher and greater God then the one worshipped by the Jews. And so Marcion rejected the Hebrew Scriptures, and instead created a canon of scripture which consisted only of Luke and the writings of Paul, although he excluded the Pastoral Epistles, which are 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, because he did not believe they were written by Paul, and he edited out other things that he thought had been added later which corrupted those texts.
In response, Marcion was declared a heretic and excommunicated, but Marcion’s actions moved the church to adopt the four gospels, and in the west to accept the 13 letters attributed to Paul that we know today. The Eastern church initially only accepted ten of Paul’s letter, also rejecting the Pastoral Epistles, because they too did not believe they were actually written by Paul, an idea widely accepted by scholars today as well. In 180 Iraneus published a letter that listed 21 of the 27 books we have today and said they were to be read in churches, but it also lists others that were later left out. Around the year 200, Origen of Alexandria published another list that included everything except James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, but also included others works that were eventually left out. What we also see is in writings is that there was still considerable debate taking place surrounding Hebrews and Revelation, primarily because of questions of authorship, and the Apocalypse of Peter was the preferred book in many churches. Then in the year 367, Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, published a letter for his congregations in which he lists the 27 books of the New Testament and says that these are the only books that should be read in worship. In 393 the synod of Hippo, accepted Athanasius’ list, which was later also approved by the Council of Carthage, although this did not actually settle the issue, because the Eastern and Western church still accept different books, as the Eastern Church did not accept Revelation until the 6th century. But it was the Protestant reformation which finalized things in the west.
In seeking to return to sola sciptura, or by scripture alone, Martin Luther rejected the books of the Apocrypha as being scriptural because of their authorship questions, and he also sought to remove Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation. Luther was successful in the first, but rejected in the second. John Calvin also had issues with some works, and never published commentaries on 2 and 3 John or Revelation, perhaps indicating that he thought they should be removed from the canon. In response to the Protestant reformers’ actions, in 1546 at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church voted to finally set and close the canon.
One of the other questions I hear a lot is, what translation should I use. First let me say that as much as we might like the language of the King James Bible, just about any modern translation is better, simply because the manuscripts we have are so much better. They didn’t even use the best Greek and Hebrew manuscripts available at the time. The two primary ones I would recommend are the New Revised Standard Version, which is what we use in worship, or the New International Version. There are differences between the two, and I use almost exclusively the NRSV, but both are good. When you are looking at translations they should have an editors or translators note at the beginning explaining how it is that they approached the manuscripts to make their translation. If the Bible does not have this note at the beginning, do not use it. You should also have a good study bible, and it does need to be a good one. I am often appalled at what people read to me out of their study Bibles or tell me that it said. Here are the ones I recommend.
When it comes to translations you also need to decide what you are going to be using the Bible for. There are roughly two types of translations. One is verbal equivalence, which seeks a more word for word translation. That’s impossible to actually do, but that’s what they seek. The NRSV and the NIV are verbal equivalent translations. Then there is dynamic equivalency, which seeks to capture the thoughts being conveyed. Bible’s that use modern English like the New Living Translation or Eugene Peterson’s The Message fall under this category. Sometimes these are still actual translations, as Eugen Peterson actually used the Hebrew and Greek texts to make a modern language translation, while others will use a verbal equivalent translation and then turn it into modern English. Again the translators note should tell you what they did. If you are reading for spiritual information, one of these works great, or if you are looking for a different way of approaching a familiar text, these can help you. But if you are looking to study scripture this is not the way to go, and it is a lot harder to say the Bible says something when using these translations.
Finally, I was asked to talk about the Wesleyan quadrilateral, which begins to also answer how it is that we should approach scripture. What the Wesleyan Quadrilateral says is that we approach scripture using tradition, experience and reason. This wasn’t actually formulated by John Wesley, but instead by a Methodist theologian by the name of Albert Outler, although Wesley himself used these terms. One of the criticisms of the quadrilateral, and one with which I am in agreement, is that people tend to see all the parts as being equal. That’s certainly not Wesley meant, nor is it I believe what Outler meant. Scripture in this is primary, and they are supported by the other three. When reading scripture we should ask what the tradition says about a passage, and I would argue not just what tradition says, but what would originally have been understood about this passage. What was the original context. This is where a good study Bible will help, because their context was not our context and we all too often read ourselves and our own understanding into scripture, and unless you are aware of the lens that you bring to scripture this is all too easy, and then we end up attributing our own ideas and beliefs to scripture and make them God’s ideas.
Second we should ask what our experience tells us about this passage, and that what does our reason tell us about this passage. It was in reading scripture this way that John Wesley was to be the first theologian of any significance to come out in opposition to slavery. Because he said, I can see what scripture says, and I know what the tradition says, but his experience of slavery, especially during his brief time in Georgia, and his reason about who God was, said that slavery was not a God given institution and that God did not want to see his children treated or living in the condition they were. Wesley believed that rather than taking a particular passage and quoting it out of context or without understanding its original meaning, that we must read passages in the context of the entirety of scripture, and in particular through the call of love and forgiveness which we find in the gospel as given to us through Jesus Christ.
Which leads me to my point of conclusion, which is that obviously there is a lot more to say, and we simply don’t have time. But there are a lot of things that need to be taken into consideration when it comes to reading scripture.
- First, just like last week when I quoted from Philippians and said that we need to approach our salvation with fear and trembling, we also need to approach scripture in the same way. The Bible does not always say what it means and mean what it says. There are very difficult passages with which we need to grapple.
- Second, everyone has Marcionite tendencies in them, we all want to pick and choose, all of us, so if scripture is not challenging you deeply, then you either aren’t reading it, or you’re skipping around a lot.
- Third, as soon as you think you have a particular passage or story all figured out and you are sure you know what it means, go back and read it again, because you’re probably missing something.
- Fourth, how we read scripture will change with time and different experiences and different realities. It doesn’t mean your old understanding was wrong, it’s just different.
- Fifth, reading scripture is important. It should be encountered daily, and it should also be encountered in community. Remember that literacy is a new thing. Most people throughout history have heard the Bible read in a group, and then they talked about it together.
- Sixth, sometimes in order to truly encounter the text you have to try and forget everything you think you know about it and start fresh. It’s like the Special K commercial, taste them again for the first time.
- Seventh, you don’t have to read the Bible literally in order to take it seriously, and this is an idea I would like to come back to again.
- Eighth and finally, one of the great dangers and perhaps sins that I see today is what Rev Peter Gomes has called Biblioidolitry that is making the Bible into an idol and worshipping it instead of God. We say it is the word of God, but it is not God. It points us to God and leads us to God, but it is not God. If your faith is based on the Bible, you have built it on the wrong thing. Paraphrasing Dr. E Stanley Jones, the word did not become ink and come to be printed on a page. The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone and foundation of our faith. This is just a book. An important and sacred book, but this is not God, and sometimes we forget that.