I decided it was in our best interest to keep the first episode of BOOK short and sweet, so I didn’t include any specific introductory information about what is actually inside of a Bible. If you know your way around a Bible, you can probably skip this one. This is just the basics for those who may be new to the whole thing. If you have access to a Bible you might want to flip through it as we go. There are also many free online Bibles.
There are several different types of bibles. The name “Bible” means different things to different groups of people. The Jewish Bible, for example, is sometimes called the “Tanakh”, which is an anagram for Torah, Navi’im, and Katuvim – the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Torah, also the Book of Moses, Book of the Law, or Pentateuch, consists of the five scrolls we know as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We treat them like separate books, but they actually comprise a single volume split into five parts due to the limitations of the scroll format. The Torah collects the songs, poems, legends, laws, histories, and genealogies of the family called Israel, which was to become the nation called Israel.
The next section, the Prophets, consists mainly of the biographies of important people in Israel’s history. Joshua completes the story of the Torah as the formerly nomadic people of Israel make their home in the Canaan. Judges, Samuel and Kings are basically Israel’s version of “Game of Thrones,” telling the sordid tales of the best and worst of Israel’s rulers. Then there are the life stories and sayings of several individual prophets named Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. We’ll look more closely at these dudes sometime in the future, but here’s the thing to remember with the prophets: These guys aren’t so much “mystical predictors of the future” as they are divinely inspired pundits. They looked at Israel’s current events and spoke urgent words of warning and hope to a nation that was very often divided or in peril.
The third section of the Jewish Bible is the “Writings.” This is additional material that covers a wide range of genres and topics. Psalms, Job and Proverbs represent a strikingly diverse overview of the wisdom, poetry, and musical traditions of Israel. Ruth is a continuation of Judges which tells the beautiful (and shocking) love story about a pagan woman and an Israelite man who are the great grandparents of King David. Song of Songs is a candid book about love and sexuality, while Ecclesiastes (or Qohelet) is a subversive sort of “anti-wisdom.” Lamentations are just that: lamentations for the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of enemies in the 6th century. The book is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. Esther and Daniel are two very different stories of Israelites living and even thriving in captivity, while Ezra and Nehemiah recount the return to Israel from that captivity. The last two books, called Chronicles 1 and 2, are a retelling of the books of Kings from a very different political perspective.
That’s the Hebrew Bible. If you’ve been following along in a Christian Bible, these books would be collected under the heading “Old Testament,” and are ordered by a loose chronology rather than by genre.
The rest of the Christian Bible, the “New Testament” collects books and letters written roughly four hundred years after the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures. The books of the New Testament are mostly written in Greek, the international language of the time, but many of them are written by and for Jews. And while the Jewish Bible obviously does not contain the Greek books of the New Testament, the New Testament itself relies heavily upon the Hebrew Scriptures as its foundation and context.
The first four books of the New Testament, often called the “gospels,” tell four very distinct but thematically consistent versions of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. They liberally quote and invoke the Hebrew Scriptures as they describe the life, prophetic campaign, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The first gospel, written by a follower of Jesus named Matthew, focuses especially on the Jewishness of Jesus and his message. The gospel of Mark is primarily concerned with action: both the symbolic actions of Jesus and his call to others to take action. Meanwhile, Luke sets out to record the most complete “eye witness” account of Jesus’ life. John’s gospel is the most “Greek” of the four, discussing the same events and ideas as the other three, but in more cosmic philosophical language. The book of Acts, a sequel to Luke’s gospel, describes the growth, success, and troubles facing the apostolic movement which sprang up after the death and vindication of Jesus.
The next thirteen books of the New Testament are letters written by the most famous and prolific of the early apostles, a man named Paul who stood as an enemy to the Jesus movement before his own conversion. His letters to the Roman, Corinthian, Galatian, Ephesian, Philippian, and Colossian churches, as well as his personal notes to his friends and colleagues Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, contain some of the most beloved and difficult teaching in the history of the church.
Next, a book called Hebrews by an unknown author (traditionally Paul) argues for the supremacy of Jesus. Then, other apostles James, Peter, John, and Jude weigh in with letters full of admonishment and encouragement for the early Christians.
Finally, the oft-misunderstood book of “Revelation” offers a politically and theologically charged vision with a message of hope – that’s right, HOPE – for early Christians suffering persecution.
And that’s my five-minute stroll through the Bible. I’m sure my quickie descriptions didn’t do justice to any of these texts, and while I’m not sure we’ll have time to do a full show on every last one, I know we’ll be revisiting most of them and doing our best to appreciate them in their individual historical and literary contexts as well as their place in the whole sweep of scripture.
Each of these books has its own perspective and personality, and each one speaks to an authentic historical moment. Some are wild and imaginative, full of symbolic imagery and language. Others are down-to-earth dramas, full of humanity and candid emotion. Some parts of the Bible serve as sharp critiques of others, at which point we become eavesdroppers in an ancient debate. And yet, even with the stark diversity of texts, genres, and viewpoints represented in the Bible, there are thematic threads of continuity which run through all of it. Sometimes this manifests as direct quotes of one book in another, such as the discourse of Jesus who hardly made a statement without invoking the Hebrew Bible. We’ll do our best to keep track of these continuities along the way.
Well, that’s enough for now, I’ll see you soon with more talking!