We are aware that there are many versions of the Bible, some old and some new. Sometimes we read from the Authorised Version of King James, which is the one most of us grew up with and the language is familiar and some of the most well-known texts are found. What do we know of the Bible?
We know the Bible contains many books collected together over centuries, written by different authors in different times, telling different stories of family life, wars, murders divided into the Old and New Testaments.
What is the purpose of the Old Testament in our Christian context? The Old Testament is a collection of ancient literature, telling the story, the history of a people called Israel. How do we read and interpret the Old Testament? We interpret it by taking seriously the claim of the text that is talking about encounters and relationships with God. The Old Testament is the scripture through which God’s word becomes a reality and a resource to today’s church. Reading the Old Testament is a means of seeking the ways of God that allow us to submit ourselves and our actions to God in our efforts to be faithful community members in the world whilst discerning God’s presence and will in our deeply challenging world.
The New Testament tells of Jesus and the impact He had on the world and continues to have. The New Testament inspires us because of its recognition of the Holy Spirit and is the decisive witness to Jesus Christ and therefore the norm for shaping Christian belief and practice.
As an exercise I did a search for some well-known words used in the Bible. I looked at ‘Covenant’ because God made a covenant with Noah when he sent the rainbow that he would not destroy the world. There are 272 verses stating God’s covenant with his people. Out of those 15 are in the New Testament. Do you know where? The majority are in Hebrews and refer to the covenant God made, with the house of Israel, the old ways but with Christ as the new covenant, the way to salvation.
When clergy and Licensed Lay Ministers are licensed by the Bishop, they vow only to use the books and services authorised by the Church and you heard me (Patrick) remind us all of that when he was inducted into the Raddesley Benefice. In the oaths is mentioned the Book of Common Prayer which contains the 39 Articles of Religion, Article VI says Holy Scripture ‘containeth all things necessary to salvation and goes on to list the books of the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Although we know the Bible is many different books do we wonder why they are ordered as they are? Old Testament first and in some Bibles this is followed by the Apocrypha, a set of additional books that are found in Roman Catholic, Greek and Slavonic Bibles, then the New Testament.
Why are the books ordered in this way?
They are ordered like this because they come from Jewish tradition. All Christian churches accept the 39 books of the Jewish canon which is divided into three parts.
TORAH – books of the law
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
PROPHETS former prophets – Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Lamentations
Latter prophets - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. The 12 prophets – Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi,
WRITINGS – Psalms, Proverbs, Job Songs of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes Esther, Daniel Ezra, Nehemiah 1 and 2 Chronicles
However, if you look at the contents page of your Bible this order does not order look right? This is because it is the Jewish Canon and we have a different order.
But as you see the books are not ordered like this in our bibles. They are in the order known as the Protestant Old Testament Canon which differs from the Jewish Canon. We have the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Historical Books: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Poetry and Wisdom Books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel and Minor prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
Let’s leave that now and turn to the New Testament books.
These books join the Old Testament due to the figure of Jesus as the unifying centre of Scripture for Christians. In relation to Jesus the Old Testament precedes and anticipates what is going to happen in the New Testament. The relationship of the covenanting God, the covenant of the Old Testament takes its character from Mount Sinai. Moses received the Ten Commandments and other instructions from God about how to lead the Israelites whilst they were in the desert.
The New Testament was written by at least 12 different authors, including Luke, Mark, John, Matthew and Paul and was not originally supposed to be collected together as we have them. Here is not the time or place to pursue the all differing authors except to say that they serve many functions – narrate, exhort, correct, edify, interpret, guide, and encourage. The best way to approach the New Testament writings are as a collection of documents in diverse forms written by a number of different individuals both named, the gospel writers as listed above and un-named to an assortment of churches and individuals living in different areas, like Paul, or with few or no hints as to their addressees and for a variety of reasons. In other words a series of documents that defy easy categorisation or attempts to describe commonality!
This challenges us as we read the Scriptures as we believe they contain all things necessary for salvation. I did a bible search of the word ‘Salvation’ and 152 verses in both Old and New Testament contain the word salvation. How do we interpret it? What do we understand by salvation in today’s context, in our faith context and in our own lives?
I leave you to ponder the answers to these questions.
Let’s sort the order of the New Testament. Does it appear logical now we know that many people wrote the documents in it? There is not time or space to explore from a historical angle the texts but we accept it contains the narrative of God’s mercy in calling out and sustaining a people who are called to live in obedience to him and be God’s servants in the world. The writings also tell of what God did through Jesus for the salvation of all the world. The New Testament’s task is to record and discuss the events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and interpret these events to give us an understanding of what God did for us through his Son.
In Christian terms salvation is only possible through Jesus because he was crucified, for all our sins and we come to share fully in his life if we accept our sinfulness and confess our failings in humility and learn to live more for Christ as we learn about his saving power by the forgiveness of our sin. Having considered briefly a major theme of the New Testament why are the books ordered as we see them?
It begins with the four gospels the narrative of Jesus, his life and teaching, then comes the Acts of the Apostles and the beginning of the early church followed by letters with directions and thoughts on how live as disciples and followers of Jesus in a variety of contexts and places in the then known world of the Mediterranean Sea and against the political situation of the Roman Empire. The final book Revelation offers hope of eternal life with God because Jesus will come again and He is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega and the last two verses state: ‘Surely I am coming soon. Amen. Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.’ (Revelation 22:20-21).
So the order is Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.
Beginning of the church Acts of the Apostles
Letters of St. Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon.
Other letters to different groups and individuals: Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, Jude.
The future and hope of everlasting life: Revelation.
Therefore as we read the bible let us remember it is more than a historical document. It is a record of God’s dealing with people throughout the ages. It is also a record of Jesus Christ, ‘the Word became flesh’ . The bible speaks to all, young and old, to help understand, believe and respond to its message.
As the collect for Bible Sunday states:
Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comforts of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.