Our Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning Bible studies have just completed viewing 12 lectures by Professor Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill on the history of the New Testament. These lectures have been challenging, interesting and informative. Speaking as a historian rather than a theologian, Professor Ehrman has stressed the fact the New Testament, likely the most important book in the English language, has a story. It was not compiled in heaven and distributed on earth. Rather, it came together as human beings and human communities sought to articulate their understanding of the immediate and enduring meaning and significance of Jesus of Nazareth.
Professor Ehrman noted that one of the central struggles in ancient Christianity was the nature of its relationship with Judaism. Was it a movement within Judaism or was it a completely new faith? Were Jewish practices normative? Was the Jewish Bible, our Old Testament, authoritative? Ehrman noted that both the Ebionites, who insisted on the essential Jewishness of both Jesus and Christianity and the Marcionites, who rejected any connection with Judaism, including granting canonical status to the Old Testament, are part of Christian history.
Ultimately, it was the wisdom of those who held sway in ancient Christianity that it was essential for the followers of Jesus to recognize his Jewishness and our faith’s Jewish roots. As such the Old Testament was included in the Christian Bible. This remains a most important understanding. To fully understand our faith and to faithfully interpret the Bible we need to understand its Jewish essence. Judaism is not the only religious tradition that helped form the Bible but it is by far the most significant one.
As such, in the last weeks of this year and in the weeks before Easter in 2013, our Bible studies will focus on readings from the Jewish prophets. These fascinating characters had the audacity to speak for God to a religious, but not always, faithful society. At times they warned of impending doom and predicted certain destruction, at other times they spoke of God’s unfailing love and promised the people that no matter what, God would never give up on them. I invite all to join in our reading and consideration of the prophets.
Speaking of the Bible, in a recent CNN Blog Rachel Held Evans wrote the following. I think it is very well said. But the Bible is not a position paper. The Bible is an ancient collection of letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, histories, prophecies, philosophy and stories spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own.
When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word, we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone and turn a complicated, beautiful, and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.
As always, I look forward to reading the Bible with you in the days ahead.