Organizing the Bible (Pt. 3 of 3)

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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.

You Tell Me: Doubts

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One of the things I’m doing right now is a family studies degree, and one of the things I’ve doing for this degree is a thesis.  My thesis will be based on some data other researchers have already collected, and the data just so happens to be based on surveys of youth group kids as they transitioned to college.  (Obviously, this is totally up my alley!  It’s been a while since I’ve gotten quite this drooly over something for school.)  I’m fascinated by every last ounce of it, but one of the things I’m finding particularly interesting are survey questions relating to doubt.

Some of the things I’m asking right now:

  • Do more spiritual conversations with parents mean fewer doubts?
  • Does perceived parental hypocrisy increase doubt?
  • Do closer relationships with youth leaders or other adults in high school mean fewer doubts in college?
  • Do feelings of social isolation lead to increased doubt?
  • Do gender, high school GPA, level of interest in the intellectual side of college, or parents’ education affect doubt level?

And lots more…  Unfortunately, I haven’t yet gotten to examine all the relationship between various survey question responses.  In the meantime, though, I’m curious to hear from you, whoever you are.  Some of you are high school students, some are college students, some are friends or relatives of mine in their 20s or 50s or 70s who are faithful visitors to my blog.  I’d love to hear about your experiences with doubt throughout your lifetime, but especially when you were in middle school, high school, or college.

What sorts of spiritual or theological questions have you had?  How difficult were they for you to handle?  Who could you turn to?  How did you resolve them (or become comfortable with your level of uncertainty)?

Do you feel that your relationship with your parents, other adults, or peers affected the way you were able to handle the doubts you had?  Did negative relationships with any of these groups actually lead to any of your doubts or questions?

Did you feel others around you had similar doubts and questions?  Did they have a similar level of engagement with their faith, intellectually or emotionally?  Did you ever feel burdened by extra doubts because of your general intelligence, curiosity, or unwillingness to let cheap answers slide?

I’m fascinated to hear your story.

Organizing the Bible (Pt. 2 of 3)

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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.

Organizing the Bible (Pt. 1 of 3)

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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.

Jesus was Jewish

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It’s in the title, but I’ll say it again:  Jesus was Jewish.

For those of you who have grown up in church, I’m not sure if this has been emphasized, but it sure wasn’t for me.  I don’t think I ever heard anyone seriously talk about Jesus as a first-century Jew until I got to college.  Jesus was always a nice guy, a prophet, maybe even God incarnate… but Jewish?  Not in my church, at least.

If you grew up with a Bible storybook, you probably remember Swedish Jesus.  I’m not sure why anyone would ever think Jesus had blue eyes, but apparently many American illustrators have been convinced.  And if Jesus wasn’t Swedish, he still wasn’t Jewish.  Though Sunday School portrayals of Jesus probably reflected more of my white American culture than I knew, Jesus was, in theory, supposed to be somehow removed from the messiness of life.  He probably didn’t throw up, definitely didn’t poop, and was also very “cultural neutral.”  Otherwise how could Jesus be relevant to our Gentile lives?  To China and Guatemala and South Africa and 98% of my elementary school?

I’ll save questions of relevance for another day and focus on the simple fact that this isn’t true:  We were wrong.

Jesus wasn’t a person devoid of everything that makes humans human.  Even if it’s hard to believe, he not only threw up and pooped, but he had to learn to walk as a baby, he  probably had a favorite food, and he enjoyed laughing with his friends.  And he lived at a specific time in a specific place.  In fact, Jesus lived as part of a specific people, speaking their language, keeping their customs, and otherwise surprising us by how very little he is like most of those who follow him today.  But even in his difference, he was like us—like us, Jesus had a culture.

So the next time you think of Jesus, remember that he kept the Sabbath (albeit, not always how the Pharisees preferred), ate kosher, and went to synagogue.  He was circumcised as a baby, visited the temple with his family for holy days, and grew up hearing stories about Abraham, Moses, and David.  He referred to Jewish texts in his teaching and declared the arrival of the kingdom of the Jewish God YHWH, eventually convincing his followers that he was the Jewish Messiah (for which the Greek translation is “Christ”).

While I will never be able to fully understand first-century Judaism, the bit I have been able to learn as a 21st-century white American Gentile (relying on the scholarship of others, I might add), has been very meaningful to me.  As I get to know Jesus’s culture better, I can better understand Jesus himself and better understand the message he was trying to communicate to his friends.  The story may be good by itself, but it all makes more sense—and feels more colorful and textured and delightfully complex—when we begin to understand where Jesus fits in context.

Review: Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches

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Review of Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches.  Edited By Ronald H. Nash.  Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1987.  174 pp.

One of the most interesting complexities of the evangelical movement is that it cannot be contained—little bits of it are present everywhere. Of course, many evangelicals in the U.S. are members of conservative denominations which originated in this country, many having separated from older mainline churches which were deemed “too liberal.”  I’ve often been intrigued that the conservative split-offs typically see themselves as the only people left who love Jesus.  Based on my own personal experience, I have never been convinced this was true, and lucky for me, Ronald Nash agrees and has edited a fabulous book on the topic.

Nash notes that many in mainline denominations have evangelical-ish beliefs (which he defines as the basic beliefs of historic Christianity, including the deity of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the importance of a personal faith, etc.) whether or not they have embraced the evangelical label.  Furthermore, there are discernible movements of self-identified evangelicals within mainline churches.  This book attempts to tell their stories, with chapters by various evangelical leaders outlining the history of renewal efforts within eight different traditions:

The United Methodist Church
The Episcopal Church
The Lutheran Churches (focused on Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA)
American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Disciples of Christ
The United Church of Christ
The U.S. Catholic Church

The upside of this book is its ecumenical flavor and its sense of hope about the vitality of mainline denominations.  These leaders are not ones to segregate themselves from those who aren’t like them; instead they want to “work within the system” to encourage an orthodox and vibrant faith within their churches.  The downside of this book is that occasionally a more narrow understanding of evangelical interests is presented.  For example, feminism is often lumped in with evangelicalism’s foes, despite the fact that there are many self-identified evangelical feminists.  While not by any means the focus of the book, such assumptions about evangelicals might be distracting or frustrating to some readers.

Additionally, some might complain that the book is outdated.  Certain important renewal organizations that now exist are not mentioned, and one wonders what each writer’s attitude toward renewal would be today.  Would they be just as optimistic?  Would they have any new concerns?  At the same time, because of its emphasis on the history of renewal efforts, this book offers something substantial that one might not gain from updated accounts focusing on the last twenty years.

All in all, Evangelical Renewal offers a valuable introduction to evangelical strands within mainline denominations, and as such, it is useful reading for evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike.  For evangelicals, it offers encouragement and a sense of connection with various renewal efforts, hopefully leading to a more gracious partnership between Christians from diverse backgrounds.  For non-evangelical members of mainline churches, this book provides insight into the concerns of evangelical renewal advocates.  Perhaps non-evangelicals can relate to some of these concerns more than they expected, or perhaps they realize they very thoroughly disagree with them.  Either way, it is always useful to understand those unlike you, making this book a tool for reaching across divides.

What is theology?

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When I was in high school, I wasn’t exposed to much discussion of theology. While I knew theology played an important role in certain events in history (e.g., the Reformation), the only significance of theology in my church experience was defining who was “in” and who was “out.” Any mention of theology focused on a narrow set of topics such as the divinity of Jesus, the pervasiveness of sin, and the importance of salvation by grace through faith and was used exclusively to determine who should be considered a “real Christian.” Of course, theology can be quite useful when it comes to putting boundaries around a group identity, but it is really about much more. In fact, I’ve come to think that theology should stretch to be about as big as God himself.

Michael Pahl, in his new book From Resurrection to New Creation: A First Journey in Christian Theology (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2010), defines theology this way (117):

theology, theological. From Greek theos, “God,” and logia, “rational discourse.” The doctrine of or teaching about the nature, person, and work of God or more generally about the totality of one’s religious beliefs; or, the discipline which studies God and/or religious beliefs.

Theology, then, is primarily about who God is and what God’s doing, but it is also about how our religious beliefs extend beyond God to other important areas of life.

I’ve come to see the proper realm of theology as anything which God might care about—if God’s personhood or work in the world touch it in any way, then it is an area deserving theological study and reflection.  The resurrection of Jesus, prayer, and the Bible might be some obvious topics, but some areas deserving our attention might initially appear entirely secular.  Can we discuss topics like poverty, music, the environment, literature, day care, vacations, or McDonald’s from a theological perspective?  I believe that we can.

Of course few academic theologians have spent much time on day care.  (But that doesn’t mean that none have or that more shouldn’t!)  What does academic theology typically cover?  It depends on the sort of theology.  Here are a few central areas of study:

Systematic theology tries to look at biblical teaching and Christian tradition as a whole and develop theology in a more organized (usually topical) fashion, often drawing heavily from philosophy.  It is sometimes called constructive theology, especially by those who feel traditional systematic theology has often forced theologians to try make theology less messy and complex for the sake of coherence.

Historical theology considers theology over time, with special attention to how Christian teaching has developed in various settings and how these theological developments have influenced the direction of the church.

Biblical theology explores the theology of specific biblical texts (the theology of Israel over time, the theology of Mark, the theology of Paul, etc.) without trying to harmonize the diverse emphases of their authors.

Practical theology focuses on the theology of church ministry (liturgy, pastoral care, evangelism, etc.).

I consider academic theology to be full of important information and tools for the church, making the study of theology through formal coursework, reading, and research quite valuable.  At the same time, just because pastors and professors with seminary degrees may have greater access to certain resources doesn’t mean that regular people shouldn’t be doing theology, too.

In fact, anyone with any thoughts on God whatsoever is, in a sense, doing theology.  While not everyone is called to academia, the whole church is called to the task of better understanding God and sharing him with others, making it important that all Christian communities aim to be gatherings of thoughtful theologians.

Review: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

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Review of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  By Mark A. Noll.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.  274 pp.

When a blog is meant to explore various intellectual questions about religion, there is no clear place to start—one place is about as good as the next with a topic this broad!  A particularly fitting place, however, might be with a book, and what could be more appropriate than a book about the life of the mind within Christianity?  After all, so many people might question this blog’s very premise.  Most teenagers have trouble getting up in the morning for school—do they really want to learn about theology?  Many would assume they don’t.

Because I was one of those teens who deviated from this stereotype, I was always frustrated by such assumptions.  Perhaps they are true of some high school students, but they weren’t true of me, and they aren’t true of many of you.  In fact, many of you may feel frustrated by the adult Christians you meet who seem much less intelligent than you.  Whether you’re looking at Christianity from the outside or the inside, this can be a humorously annoying experience at best—and a deeply hurtful one at its worst.  It feels unfair that the very adults who discredit your significance on the planet with “You’re just a kid,” often lack much of an intellectual life themselves.

It also may often seem that the stereotype of the anti-intellectual Christian (of any age) is quite true.  This can easily lead to superiority complexes among smart people, as well as bitterness on the part of those who have not felt their intellectual needs were met by their faith communities.  At the same time, these experiences can lead to valuable inquiry regarding the source of this anti-intellectualism.

Obviously anti-intellectualism among the faithful can have many different sources, but in the case of evangelical anti-intellectualism in particular, I was absolutely fascinated by Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind when I first read it as an eighteen-year-old.  According to Noll, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (3).  As an evangelical professor of Christian history at the University of Notre Dame (previously at Wheaton, an evangelical college near Chicago), Noll has written several books about the American religious experience, often focusing on evangelicalism.  As an expert in the field, as well as an insider to the movement, Noll explains when, why, and how evangelical Christianity in the United States became increasingly anti-intellectual—a story few know so well.   And because Noll is such an excellent writer, it doesn’t matter whether readers have studied revivalism, fundamentalism, or today’s evangelicalism in any great depth.  This was the first book I read relating to church history, but I found it to be an excellent introduction, not only to the problem of anti-intellectualism but also to evangelical history itself.

For anyone who has wondered why evangelicals often seem anti-intellectual or who wants to compare the evangelical experience in this area with that of other Christian traditions, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind will not disappoint.  Readers learn about the current state of evangelical intellectual life, the historic impact of the so-called “intellectual disaster of fundamentalism” on evangelical thought in politics and science, and where evangelicals might go from here.  This book added much to my knowledge of the American religious experience, as well as aiding me personally in better understanding myself and the Christian communities in which I grew up.

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