Posts tagged writings

One (Particular) God

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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.

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.

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