Getting Started: How the Bible is Put Together

from the Spring/Summer issue of Reflections magazine

 

by the Rev. Carol Morehead

As young children, many of us learned to name the books of the Bible. There’s even a catchy song for the New Testament books – “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Acts and the letter to the Romans” – and I learned to sing it quickly when I needed to remember the order of the books so I could find a passage of Scripture.

I’m thankful for that tradition and others which I was given in my early years. I am not a cradle Episcopalian, and it took me many years to find the gifts and strengths which were given to me from a tradition in which I often felt out of place and out of sync. Now, many years later, I have found that the emphasis on the Bible and on knowing the word of God is indeed a rich tradition, one that I value and cherish.

While there are many things I am still discovering in my life of faith, one thing I do have is a familiarity and comfort with the Bible. I often go back to those early days of learning the nuts and bolts of the Bible; it offers a kind of biblical primer, or Bible 101, if you will.

Structure: As we enter into Bishop Reed’s invitation to read the entire Bible, this year (see page 26) it is helpful to remember what we are being asked: not to read a single book, but to read an entire library! Made up of 66 “books,” the Christian Bible is a an entire library which was built over hundreds, even thousands, of years, some of which began with oral tradition and then were written down, and others which were written to specific people or for specific purposes. These 66 books have two main divisions: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is made up of 39 books, divided into several categories including historical writings, laws, poetry, prophecy, and wisdom teachings. The New Testament is made up of 27 books, divided into categories of gospels, letters, acts, and apocalyptic writings. And just to be even more confusing, in the Episcopal Church we recognize the Apocrypha, which is a collection of writings largely from the inter-testamental period (between the Old Testament and New Testament). Our Christian Bible is the product of centuries of manuscripts, fragments, letters, councils, conversations, copying, translation, and interpretation. The canon we have today is the work of God, through God’s spirit, through our rich and varied history, much of which we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Language: The Bible was originally written primarily in Hebrew and Greek. When we read the Bible, we are reading a product of expert scholarship, translation, interpretation, and inspiration. When we begin to read the Bible closely – taking the text seriously and trying to hear it as it actually is – we often find that our understanding of the language can be both helpful and challenging.

Sometimes, we try to learn the original language in an effort to better understand Scripture. Yet one wise teacher told me, “The more you know the original language, the more questions it raises rather than answers.” At times, the nuances of the original texts can be lost in translation. That is why good Bible study includes some consideration of the context in which the text was written, the audience, the purpose, the genre. We then ground our reading of Scripture in a broad understanding of how God reveals Godself through various sources.

Sources: As Episcopalians, we recognize and privilege the authority of Scripture, tradition, and reason, which are often called the three-legged stool (thanks to early Anglican theologian Richard Hooker’s work). “Scripture is the normative source for God’s revelation and the source for all Christian teaching and reflection. Tradition passes down from generation to generation the church’s ongoing experience of God’s presence and activity.

“Reason is understood to include the human capacity to discern the truth in both rational and intuitive ways. It is not limited to logic as such. It takes into account and includes experience. Each of the three sources of authority must be perceived and interpreted in light of the other two.” (From https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/authority-sources-anglicanism.)

This wonderful trio offers us a way to understand our history in light of our present experience through the lens of Scripture. The three work best when considered all together.

Perspectives: One of the true surprises of studying the Bible closely is that while there is one overarching story of God’s redeeming love for all creation, there is definitely more than one perspective articulated in the Bible. In fact, as the biblical canon was formed, diverse and dissonant voices were specifically kept so that God’s faithful followers might wrestle with and hear these different voices. I learned from a young age to be suspicious whenever someone claimed that there is no inconsistency in the Bible.

If my three sons came to tell me about an experience they all shared, I would get three nuanced and different versions of what happened, and by piecing them all together, I would learn about what happened more fully. By hearing each of their versions, I would also learn a great deal about how each boy experienced life, what was exciting or scary, what made him an individual. Reading the Bible is like this: on the one hand, we take each part on its own, listen to hear the voice in the text, to find what is being emphasized and valued, how God is being revealed in this text on its own. On the other hand, once we have heard the individual emphasis of a text, we place it within the larger framework of the whole story, incorporating the other perspectives as well as our own intuitive and experiential story (reason) and the other places where God has spoken (tradition).

Whenever we read the Bible, we are bringing ourselves to the text – our experiences, our opinions, our history, our desire to know God – and some place in the wonderful interplay of word and experience and knowledge and wisdom, we find God being revealed over and over again.

Community: The Bible has historically been a communal document. Whether in the original oral stories, passed down through generations, or in the letters to communities of believers in Christ, or in the Gospels, written for specific communities and taking into account their members and their perspectives, we always hear more and experience more of who God is when we read the Bible together in community. Through hearing one another’s questions and insights, our own understanding is deepened. And when my own world in front of the text keeps me from hearing the whole of what is being revealed, I often gain a new understanding through studying with others.

I still read the Bible on my own, in meditation and study, which allows me to enter into the broader faith community with an open heart and questions and thoughts and insights. We are meant to read and experience the Bible together, just as we are called to worship together and share our common life in Christ.

Next time you sit in worship and hear the Word of the Lord, or you gather with friends to study a particular biblical book, or you sit quietly to read and meditate with a passage of Scripture, remember that you are entering into a relationship with God through these words, this space, these people, this moment. You are entering into the great cloud of witnesses who have also listened and questioned and wrestled with the Bible. And God has promised to be present in the midst of all this. “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” said St. Paul. “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever” (Ephesians 3).

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The Rev. Carol Morehead is Associate Rector for Liturgy, Adult Formation, and Pastoral Care at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio. Read more from Carol’s blog at
www.enteringthemysteries.com.
Reach her at cmorehead@stmarks-sa.org.

Return to Contents, Spring/Summer 2018 issue of  Reflections magazine

From The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas

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