We believe in one God,
A long, long time ago (before my finals… and midterms, for that matter… I know, I know, a hiatus this long is simply unacceptable), I discussed the problems (and benefits) of the image of God as Father for those with various experiences with their parents. But there’s another Father issue that may trip up some of you: the question of God’s gender.
Many people, when they hear God called “Father,” assume God is male. For some people, God’s gender is of no consequence, but for others, thinking of God as a man is deeply problematic. Some of us wonder why if God is good, he is called our Father, rather than our Mother, or even simply our Parent. After all, men have traditionally been in power in our world, and they have sometimes misused that power. God has more power than any of them—who’s to say he won’t misuse his power, as well? And anyway, we want a God we can relate to and who can relate to us. Can a “Father” really understand the experience of half the population?
If you’ve ever felt this way, I have good news for you today: the idea that God has a gender is a warped view of the Christian God, not based in the Bible or traditional Christian theology. In contrast with other Ancient Near Eastern religions, the ancient Israelites did not (typically) attribute sexuality to YHWH. (And I say typically because there were Israelites who worshipped foreign gods and goddesses in addition to YHWH, which may have colored their views of God’s gender… but this practice is condemned as idolatry in the Bible itself and not considered normative within monotheistic Judaism, despite its place in Israel’s story.) Instead, gender seems to be part of the created order only—a category which God transcends. That’s why unlike Zeus or Baal or other gods from the ancient world, YHWH needs no female consort. Both men and women are said to be created in God’s image, and there is no room for considering one of them “closer” to reflecting God’s nature.
Furthermore, there are, in fact, many instances of female imagery for God throughout Scripture. For example, the Bible contains metaphors in which God gives birth (Deut. 32:18; Is. 42:14; Is. 46:3-4) or a mother nursing (Num. 11:12, Is. 49:14-15). Other imagery is based on women’s work and other experiences: A seamstress, a midwife, a woman in charge of a servant (Ps. 123:2), woman baking, a woman looking for a lost coin (Neh. 9:21; Ps. 22:9-10, 71:5; Is. 66:9; Mt. 13:33; Lk. 13:20-21; Lk. 15:8-10) all represent God. Even Jesus, who had biological sex compared himself to a mother hen caring for her chicks (Mt. 25:37; Lk. 13:34).*
This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.
*For a more extended discussion of these passages and others containing female imagery for God, see Margo G. Houts, “Images of God as Female,” in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger & Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 356-358.
We believe in one God,
The Father. Everyone has a different reaction to that part. Some of you have great relationships with your fathers, making it easy to imagine a loving Father God. Others of you don’t see much of your father but know he loves you—yours is okay, but you wouldn’t mind an additional heavenly Dad. Or maybe fathers aren’t really the sort of people you want to spend time around. Perhaps your father has never seemed to “get” you, or maybe he just doesn’t seem to care. Maybe you don’t get along with him very well. Some of you have even experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at the hands of your fathers.
Complicating matters, you may have multiple fathers—biological vs. adopted vs. step, or even two fathers who are gay partners. You may live with an additional father figure—a grandfather or uncle, for example. You might not even know your biological father because he left your family when you were young. For a few of you, a paternity test has never proven his identity or he was an anonymous donor at a sperm bank. Some of you feel no loss from not having a father because your mother(s), grandparents, or others have done such a fantastic job raising you. On the other hand, some of you deeply miss your fathers, especially the few who have endured the untimely death of a dad.
In my own family tree, fatherhood has looked different in every generation. My maternal grandmother’s biological father left when she was two, so her “Daddy” was her stepfather (and a very good one, thankfully). My maternal grandfather had an abusive alcoholic for a father, but because he learned from his family’s mistakes, my mom ended up with an involved and loving dad. My own dad was very emotionally abusive, but I now enjoy the chance to spend time with my father-in-law Mike, who has been a wise and caring father to my husband.
Your story is probably similar. Dads are sometimes good and sometimes bad and usually a mix. For some of you God as Father is an easy concept, maybe even desirable. For others God as Father is confusing, uncomfortable, complicated, or even revolting. Even when we know God is not supposed to be anything like our human fathers, it can be difficult for some of us to warm up to the “heavenly Father” idea. If that’s you, I want to encourage you, that God is not upset at you for having difficulty trusting him in a father-ish way.
Whether God as father is just an awkward and confusing thought or a sharp sting demanding a journey of deeper healing, I believe God can handle your issues with his desire to be your Father. I believe Jesus invites us into relationship with his Father, but with that invitation God offers his patience. He knows your background and will be with you all the way as you open yourself up to him more and more, gradually learning to trust that he will be the good Father he promises.
On the other hand, those of you who feel great about God as Father—whether because of the merits or deficiencies of your experiences with other dads—have an opportunity to share his love with others. When you care for those around you, including your own children one day (if you have them), remember how meaningful it is to be loved well. Whether an adoptive or biological parent, a “spiritual” parent, an “auntie” or “uncle” to others in your community, an advocate for social justice, or just a true friend in times of need, we all have the power to communicate the God’s concern for others. The way we share the love we have been shown may be just what someone else needs to hope that there really is a heavenly Father who cares for them, too.
This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.
We believe in one God…
One of the things I have most appreciated about my academic study of religion is a newfound appreciation for Christianity’s Jewish background. My first religion course in college was on Judaism, actually— “Early Judaism,” i.e. Judaism of the Second Temple period, that time after the exile and before 70 CE. Of course, my college New Testament introduction and my later seminary courses also emphasized the stories of ancient Israel and the significance of this religious background for Jesus and his Jewish community.
In particular, I have found it fascinating to ponder the enormity of the Jewish commitment to monotheism. In seminary I learned that some scholars believe Israel was originally henotheistic—worshipping only one god but accepting the potential existence of many. Over time, they say, Israel increasingly emphasized that YHWH was not only the stronger god or the proper god to worship, but YHWH was indeed the only real deity. The others were merely idols fashioned by human hands and imaginations. Some more conservative Christians are disturbed to think about Israel potentially believing in other gods, but however things happened, Israel’s dedication to YHWH was radical in their polytheistic surroundings.
Many of us who grew up in a Western context find it enough to simply accept the existence of one God, so I appreciate Judaism’s emphasis on not only the number of gods but also the identity of the true God. God has a name YHWH, typically translated “the LORD” or read by Jews as “Adonai.” The character of this God matches what we might assume in some ways—but in some regards we may be surprised.
The Hebrew Scriptures always emphasize that YHWH is compassionate, forgiving, a lover of social justice, and a powerful force to be reckoned with, among other things. Some passages actually explicitly or implicitly compare YHWH to other peoples’ gods. For example, unlike Baal who doesn’t answer, YHWH never sleeps, always available to his people (1 King 18). Unlike Marduk, YHWH didn’t make people to be his slaves but to be co-reigners over the earth (Gen. 1, as compared to the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish). And in contrast with the sexual overtones of most religions, Judaism’s God transcended gender.
We who are Christians are also devoted to this one God who revealed himself as YHWH to Moses at the burning bush and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. This story is our heritage—with all of its rich descriptions of God’s character and actions and instruction for us. When I say with the Nicene Creed that I believe in one God, I like to pause and remember that this is not just any abstract deity that I worship but a deeply personal God who has interacted with human beings throughout history. And the better I get to know this God, the more I feel grateful that YHWH, in particular, is the one real deal.
This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.
So starts the Nicene Creed. Or at least the version from the Council of Nicaea. Some ancient liturgical versions instead began in the first-person singular: “I believe.” Modern recitations of the creed vary, not only by denomination, but even by specific prayer book edition. And I think I like that.
I like it because I believe emphasizing the we and the I both matter to the Christian faith. John’s Gospel recounts Jesus praying that we would all be one, just as he is one with the God the Father. Together we are called the body of Christ, reconciled through the cross not only to God but to each other, built up into a new temple for God.
At the same time, each individual part of the body is considered significant for what it brings to the whole. Jesus also emphasized, like John the Baptist before him, that merely being born into a Jewish family and following Jewish law was not enough. Instead, one’s own personal repentance from sin and humility before God was what counted, and on this basis, Gentiles, too, could be included in the community of God.
Today I think we tend to err on one side or the other. Sometimes we over-emphasize the we. We rest of the knowledge that we are decent people who grew up going to church rather than owning our faith for ourselves and committing our lives to God. We consider ourselves part of the Christian group without experiencing the spiritual growth that leads to a meaningful, active faith. We forget that we are held accountable for our actions and neglect to include Christian teaching as a meaningful part of our decision-making processes. It is easy sometimes to take our identity as Christians for granted because of the people around us—to resist becoming true followers of Jesus because it’s easier to stand on the fringes of the flock, hoping that will be enough.
On the other hand, we sometimes over-emphasize the I. We think it possible to remain independent Christians apart from the community of the church. We surrender to the individualism of Western (esp. American) culture, deciding that your problems have little to do with me and that my life is none of your business. At best, our privatized religion makes us feel an obligation to people close by, such as our family and friends. But to see ourselves as part of the larger church or society? That’s difficult. Without this sense of connection, we don’t love our neighbors so well, don’t value commitments to others, and don’t appreciate the legacy of church history. We also miss out on a powerful sense of unity that comes from worshiping in a truly “together” way—rather than worshipping alone, even when surrounded by others.
I like saying the creed as an “I,” and I like saying it as a “we.” I think we need both—our own faith commitment and a meaningful faith community. With only one or the other, I think we’re missing out on a crucial part of Christianity.
This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
These words are probably either intimately familiar or extremely foreign to you, based on the tradition(s) in which you were raised—if you grew up in church to begin with. For those of you less familiar, these four lines begin the Nicene Creed (this being the 1988 ecumenical translation—for others, see Wikipedia’s page on English versions of the Nicene Creed in current use). The Nicene Creed, used in Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions (with only a few important variations), is one of the great historic creeds of the church.
I like the Nicene Creed for many reasons: First of all, I love that many churches recite this creed as a community over and over again, joining together with Christians throughout the ages. Secondly, I like the Nicene Creed because it is a bit more detailed than the older Apostles’ Creed, especially when it comes to discussing the person of Jesus. Lastly, I like the Nicene Creed because it was crafted to help put some parameters around orthodox Christian belief—to explain what “true” Christianity was really about. I think that understanding what Christianity has been in the past better helps us understand our faith in the present, as well as our hopes for the church’s future.
Below are the concluding two sections of the Nicene Creed. I invite you to reflect on these words, which will guide the discussion to follow. I will be reciting just a few words or lines per post, highlighting some of the aspects of the creed I find most interesting and meaningful, as well as telling a bit of the Nicene Creed’s story.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],*
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
*We will get into it more later, but it is important to note that “and the Son” does not appear in Eastern Orthodox versions of the creed.
This post continues from Pt. 1.
Tell us a bit about Candler. How did you pick it? Is it what you expected? What has been significant about your experience there, good or bad?
I applied to four seminaries: Candler, Dook (that’s Duke for those not schooled in UNC slang), Boston University, and Princeton Seminary. All of these but Princeton are United Methodist-affiliated schools, which is my denominational background. I also visited all but Princeton—they didn’t contact me with their admission decision and financial aid package until quite late, and I had essentially already made my decision for elsewhere. Princeton did offer the only MDiv-MA in Teaching dual-degree program (which I wonder if I shouldn’t have considered more seriously, now that I am considering the possibility of getting some kind of degree in education after my MDiv).
I visited Duke just for one day—and that visit really turned me off. They are very focused on pastoral ministry—which is great! But I was in a process of discernment (and still am) and wasn’t sure if I wanted to pastor a local church. After saying that in my introductory statement that day, I felt almost shunned. So a definite no-go there. Candler and BU both brought me in for a weekend visit—Candler was first and they really sold me on their program, their faculty, their location, etc., and they were very open with the discernment process. BU was great, too—and they originally offered me a good deal more scholarship money. But Candler counter-offered and once my finances lined up with my top choice, it was easy to say yes!
And I do love it here—of the things that I could have expected, it has been on par. What I didn’t expect, I think, is how challenging seminary would be to my faith. That sounds so strange. I came from a huge public university and was incredibly strengthened in my faith in a tight-knit community. Then I come to this much smaller school where everyone is a Christian, and suddenly I’m encountering much more alcohol, sex, swearing, etc. than I ever did in InterVarsity at UNC! So these types of experiences have been forcing me to reconsider my own boundaries and the boundaries of what I consider Christian community to be—I am re-learning who I am as a person and as a Christian. I think that is ultimately good—but it has been so hard and something I didn’t expect at all.
In either your undergrad or seminary studies, what have you learned that has most challenged your faith? Enhanced it?
One of the major things I’ve learned is that we have to acknowledge the anthropological lens through which all things of faith are considered. Take Scripture, for example. It is, indeed, a holy book, but it has been passed down through human hands for thousands of years; it has been written with human perspectives and agendas and cultural contexts. God speaks through it, but there is as much that we can learn about ourselves in it as we can about God. I think the acknowledgment that we are human gives us great freedom to explore our faith intellectually, but we must do it with an awareness of the challenges it will bring, as well.
It is not always easy to let go of childhood beliefs—there is a huge step one has to take between believing that the stories of the Hebrew Bible happened exactly as they are described and recognizing that they may simply be stories crafted by people who had intimate encounters with a God called YHWH and wanted to convey what they took to be theological truths through stories about their people and their experiences in the world. I think either understanding requires faith, but the one that allows for the reality of human experience has really reoriented my faith perspective—and for the better, I think.
What advice would you give to younger students interested in theology?
I would encourage high schoolers to check out the program at Candler (shameless plug!) called Youth Theological Initiative. It is on hiatus this summer (2011) but should be back in full swing the following year. It is an amazing month-long opportunity for high schoolers to study theology with renowned professors and be in a peer group that will reflect on theology in the classroom and in the world. It is an awesome program to look into.
Other than that, my advice is to always ask questions! Even the ones that people sometimes don’t want to hear. This may sound strange—but don’t let people treat you like you’re a heretic for questioning something or believing something that is outside the box. God can handle your questions! Find people with whom you feel comfortable discussing the issues you most care about—and let loose! Get in arguments, challenge yourself! Find an outlet where you can creatively express your thoughts–writing, visual art, dance, etc. Explore and learn and think as much as you can!
Not everybody with an interest in theology goes on to major in religion or attend seminary one day…. but some do! What leads people to seminary? What do people appreciate about the experience? Might seminary be for you? To connect you with current seminarians and seminary graduates, I’m going to be posting some occasional interviews. Though I’m limited by my pool of contacts at various schools, I hope these posts give you a sense of what seminary is like, as well as informing you about some schools you might consider!
Our first interview comes from Whitney, a second-year MDiv student at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Whitney graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008 with an A.B. in Religious Studies. We became friends as leaders for UNC’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Tell us a little bit about Whitney. Where do you come from? What’s your religious background? Anything else we should know about you?
I was raised in a United Methodist home. I was baptized as a child and my parents raised us in a local congregation in Charlotte, NC. We were highly active in the church, so I have a lot of memories of Sunday school, children’s choir, VBS [Vacation Bible School], and so on from my childhood. I first read Scripture before the assembly in this church, I was confirmed in this church, and I had my earliest moments of spiritual awakening at this church. I attended a different church in high school after my parents divorced, and this new church was also United Methodist. When I came to college, I was involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship which had very strong influences on the formation of my faith and my decision to eventually pursue religious leadership at seminary.
Another important thing about my religious background: everyone in my family is in a different spiritual place. Both my parents raised me and my two siblings in the church, but of my immediate family, only my mother and I claim an active faith at this time. My sister calls herself an atheist, my brother is uninterested, and my dad might be called an Easter-Christmas Christian, except that he hasn’t stepped foot in a church in years. My grandmother is my greatest spiritual role model—she has served as the music minister at her Methodist church in Arkansas and is a great encourager for me as I consider ministry as vocation. What’s more, she truly lives a Christian life, and that is an example that is hard to find, even in seminary.
You were a religious studies major at UNC-Chapel Hill. How did you first become interested in studying religion as an academic discipline?
I came to UNC as a journalism major, but realized within my first year that it wasn’t something I wanted to study or pursue professionally. As a sophomore, I took a class called the Philosophy of Religion as an elective credit, and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t declare religious studies as my major until my junior year and decided to do so because the program at UNC is so strong—I still wasn’t sure what career I wanted to pursue, but I wanted to make the most of my time as a student. And I absolutely loved my classes in the religion department at UNC, despite its reputation for devouring sweet young Christians such as myself. ;) I found I was able to maintain a healthy dialogue between my personal faith and my academic study of religion. My studies at UNC most definitely encouraged me to continue studying religion and theology at the graduate level.
Because of your religious studies degree, you already knew a lot more about the Bible than the average person on the street. Why seminary?
I decided around my junior year of college that I wanted to make a career out of ministry, so I knew seminary would be in the picture someday. More than that, though, the religious studies program at UNC was essentially a free-for-all: there were very few required courses and you basically got to choose your own track. Which was great! And for the most part I was able to study what interested me, which did include a decent amount of scriptural studies. But seminary is different, at least in most MDiv programs, I think—you have gen eds [general education classes] that assure you cover all your bases. At Candler we have a year of Hebrew Bible and a year of New Testament that are required for everyone. I have learned so, so much. And even if I had come out of UNC thinking I knew everything there is to know about the Bible, there is always another interpretation, or another manner of presentation, or another professor’s opinion. We don’t call the Bible a living book for nothing—I think it would be most difficult to exhaust its capacity to teach.
This series is continued in Pt. 2.
I’ve explained the basic organization of the Christian Bible and the special organization of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) used in Jewish circles. However, there is a final topic which I alluded to in my original post: the Deuterocanon/Apocrypha.
The Deuterocanonical books make discussing the organization of the Bible tricky, since they can be put several places, depending on the tradition and the specific Bible. They appear between the Old and New Testaments, after the New Testament, or woven into the Old Testament itself. Many Protestant Bibles don’t contain these books at all, though some (especially Anglican) Bibles do. Roman Catholic Bibles and Eastern Orthodox Bibles contain most of these books, but there is disagreement between them (and even between various Eastern Orthodox traditions like Greek, Russian, etc.) about which books should be included.
Why are there inconsistencies among Christian groups about which books belong in the Bible? And why these books, in particular? After all, nobody is still bickering about what to include in the New Testament. The process of canonizing these books may have been complex, but the reason why is actually quite simple: they appear in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint), though not the Hebrew version (the Masoretic text).
Many think the additional books in the Septuagint were originally written in Greek, while a few may have simply not survived in their Hebrew form. Either way, they were composed later in Jewish history, and since some decided there were no truly inspired Scriptures after the time of the Jewish exile, these later books became suspect. (It should be noted that a few Old Testament books may have been composed on the late side, as well, but because they discussed earlier periods, they were “safe.”) For this reason, soon after the time of Jesus, Jews decided these additional books did not belong in their canon. Christians kept them around for a while—though in various locations, various books were accepted.
They weren’t always given the same status as the books of the Old Testament, however. When most Christians spoke Greek—the language of both the New Testament and Septuagint—it was easy to simply accept the Septuagint’s canon. However, the church inevitably faced a decision about the inclusion of these books when the everyday language of the people switched to Latin and a new translation was needed.
Jerome, a Christian who translated the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) in the late fourth century CE, felt strongly that it was appropriate to translate the Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew manuscripts rather than the Septuagint. While he did use the Septuagint to translate the Deterocanonical books, as well, he added prefaces noting their special status. Throughout history a minority made a similar distinction, but because Jerome’s prefaces were left uncopied in many Latin Bible editions, a majority of people accepted the Apocrypha without question.
The real controversy over these books came with the Reformation, when Protestants decided these books should not be considered authoritative. This was partially because the Jews had already rejected them from their own canon, but the theological content of some of the books was also a factor. For example, parts of 2 Maccabees were traditionally used to support the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of prayers for the dead, which Reformers like Luther and Calvin thought were theological mistakes on the part of the Roman Catholic Church.
Protestants decided these questionable books should either be noted in the Bible as non-authoritative or they should be left out of it completely. Today, the latter is more common, though some Protestants acknowledge the usefulness of these books for understanding Second Temple period Judaism (the time between the construction of the second temple in 515 BCE and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE). Indeed, there are some interesting developments of Jewish thought evidenced in these books, such as reflections on “original sin,” discussion of angels and demons, and the hopes of the Jewish people for the awaited Messiah, as well as the resurrection of the dead. While I don’t consider the Deuterocanonical books to be Scripture and haven’t gotten to read them all yet, I look forward to incorporating them into my future study for this reason. It’s exciting to learn more about Judaism from around the time of Jesus and the role these books have played in shaping Christian thought in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the Hebrew Bible is organized differently than the Christian Old Testament. Instead of the Pentateuch, books of History, books of Wisdom, the Major Prophets, and the Minor Prophets, the traditional Jewish organization has only three major parts: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim.
Torah is often translated “law,” but it can also simply mean “guidance,” “teaching,” “instruction”—that sort of thing. Jews typically use the name Torah, while many Christians use Pentateuch, which comes from the Greek word for “five.” Both, however, contain the five books of the law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are sometimes called the books of Moses, because traditionally, Moses was taught to be the author. The books themselves, though, do not specify who wrote them and were probably compiled over time. They are the core of the Jewish faith because they tell the story of the beginning of the Jewish people, as well as listing important laws about how to worship God, set themselves apart from surrounding peoples, and treat one another fairly.
Nevi’im means “prophets,” but these books include more than just the “major prophets” and “minor prophets” of the Christian Bible. Some of the Christian Bible’s books of history also belong in this division: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. Notice, the books of Ruth, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are not included here, even though Christians include them in the “history” section. We will deal with them later! Also, there is no division of “1 & 2” for Samuel and Kings in the Hebrew Bible, but simply the book of Samuel and the book of Kings. Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are known as the “former prophets.”
Most of the major and minor prophets of the Christian Old Testament are sometimes called the “latter prophets” in the Hebrew Bible. These include the big books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as “the twelve,” which are shorter: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Notice that two of the other Christian major prophets are not included here: Lamentations and Daniel.
Lastly, there is the Ketuvim, meaning “writings.” These books include the wisdom books, but also the Christian “history” and “major prophets” books that we skipped earlier. First, there are three books of poetry: Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Next come the five megillot (“scrolls”), which were traditionally grouped together and are read by the Jewish community on special days throughout the year:
- Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), which is often read for Passover, though also at the beginning of each Sabbath in certain communities.
- Ruth, which is often read for Shavuot, a festival commemorating the giving of the Torah, as well as celebrating the wheat harvest, occurring 50 days after Passover and therefore also called “Pentecost” (from the Greek word for “five”).
- Lamentations, read on the Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av, a Jewish month), which commemorates the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Jewish temple.
- Ecclesiastes, which is read on Sukkot (the “festival of booths/tabernacles”) in some communities.
- Esther, which is read on Purim, the day celebrating Esther’s saving the Jews from genocide during the time of the Persian empire.
The last books of the Writings are not grouped together in a special way like these first two sets and include Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (grouped together!), and Chronicles (the Christian 1 & 2 Chronicles). The Writings are considered important Scripture, inspired by God like the Torah and Nevi’im, but most of its books were written later and included in the canon later than the Law and the Prophets.
This series is continued in Pt. 3.
I went to a lot of different schools growing up, but a large chunk of my early education was spent in Christian schools of one sort or another: Catholic, Wesleyan, and fundamentalist Baptist. I am not a big fan of most Christian schools, but there were a few advantages to such environments, one of them being my increased familiarity with various Bible-related things. At the fundamentalist Baptist school, for example, I had to memorize the order of all the books of the Bible, as well as their spelling. While obviously not as important as knowing the content and heart of the Bible’s message, as a teenager I was still a little surprised to first realize that many adults didn’t know these things I’d learned in middle school.
Whether or not you know where to turn to read Luke or Isaiah or Leviticus, however, really has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence. Instead, it reflects simple exposure to the Bible and the level of emphasis placed on learning such information—and precise memorization of book order is only marginally relevant, anyway, when you have a table of contents!
Still, I think it is helpful to have some general idea of what sorts of things come where in the Bible. Here, then, is a basic summary of the Protestant Bible’s contents:
The Old Testament/First Testament/Hebrew Bible
- Pentateuch/Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy)- The first five books of the Bible, containing the story of Israel’s beginning and the Jewish law.
- Historical Books (Joshua-Esther)- These books continue to tell the story of Israel via narrative.
- Wisdom Books (Job-Song of Songs, also called Song of Solomon)- There are a few different genres here (poetry, proverbs, etc.), but what holds it all together is the wisdom emphasis.
- Major Prophets (Isaiah-Daniel)- Books attributed to Israel’s prophets which are longer in length.
- Minor Prophets (Hosea-Malachi)- Books attributed to Israel’s prophets which are shorter in length.
The New Testament
- Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)- Four biographies of Jesus with a good deal of focus on his death and resurrection (though some teaching of Jesus remains in all).
- History (Acts)- This is really Luke, Part 2. The majority scholars accept that Luke and Acts have the same author writing to the same audience. (There is a dissenting minority, however.)
- Pauline Epistles (Romans-Philemon)- These are the epistles (letters) attributed to the apostle Paul, written to various churches under his care.
- General Epistles (Hebrews-Jude)- These are the epistles attributed to authors other than Paul, written to various churches.
- Apocalypse (Revelation, also called the Apocalypse of John)- There are some brief more personal letters to churches in Revelation, but a large part of it is based on a vision, expressed with lots of violent imagery, dualism, and other interesting literary devices. Revelation belongs to a genre called apocalyptic literature (apocalypse simply means “revelation”), which will have to be discussed another day.
If you’re less familiar with the Bible’s content and organization, I hope this list provides a starting point for your explorations of Christian Scripture. In future posts, I will try to give an overview of these various sections to give a sense of what all 66 books of the Bible have to offer.
Before that, though, it is important to note two things:
(1) Jews divide the Hebrew Bible differently than Christians divide the Old Testament, and hence, there is a different order to the same books. Personally, I’ve come to really appreciate the Jewish way of ordering things. But again, that’s for another post…
(2) Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians use all of these books, but they also include some other books in their Old Testament. These books are called the Apocrypha (from a Greek word meaning “hidden”) or Deutero-canonical books (also from Greek, meaning “second canon”). Since these books are considered Scripture for some Christians but not others, we will also deal with them separately.
This series is continued in Pt. 2.