1.3.1 Introducing readings from Scripture

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Unit 1 Contents

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There is a great deal in the Bible. In order to relate its content to the topics in CST that are studied in the rest of Module A, we will focus on one ‘strand’ that runs through the overall story of Scripture. I call this the ‘prophetic’ strand, because it is the Old Testament prophets who most plainly represent it.

The prophetic tradition in ancient Israel was one of powerful voices that cried out against suffering, injustice and idolatry. They demanded social and religious change to overcome these evils.

The fact that we find this strand within Scripture is, in one way, highly surprising. This is because many other ancient texts that now survive reflect the interests of those with political power and great wealth, or at least those with high social status. Indeed it is because of the influence of such power and wealth that many such texts were written in the first place.

In contrast to such emphases, at numerous points in the Scriptures of ancient Israel and in the New Testament, there are passages that reflect a dissenting critique of the abuse of power, wealth and status. Alternative labels for this strand in the Bible could be ‘critical’, ‘non-conformist’ or even ‘revolutionary’. I shall stick to ‘prophetic’.

The prophetic tradition is only one of a number of such strands we could identify as running through Scripture. The twin CST module on ‘Living in a Just and Free Society’ will focus on another, which I call the ‘just government strand’. I mention this here because it forms an interesting contrast with the ‘prophetic strand’.

Throughout Scripture, we find that God authorizes those who have power, not least political power. (The most well known passage expressing this is the first few verses of Romans 13 – you could look at this here.) In other words, God’s authority has been given to the very people whom the prophets criticize. We have here two sides of one coin. God grants authority to rulers – but God himself raises up prophets to criticize those rulers for abusing that authority.

This is why it makes sense for the two CST modules to give attention to these two strands in the Bible. If we ignored one of them we would be failing to see a significant part of what Scripture has to say about the subjects that CST addresses.1

What I mean by both these strands will become clearer as we proceed.

As well as the prophetic strand, Unit 3 and Unit 4 in this module will give attention to the creation stories in Genesis 1-3. This is because of their significance for topics addressed in those units, namely ecological responsibility and human work.

The content of the Bible

Before we launch into reading from Scripture, a bit of background is necessary. Some people doing this module will have done academic study of the Bible before, while others might never have directly read it.

First of all, look at some tips on reading Scripture on the website of the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

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Reading (1p)

Mary Elizabeth Sperry, ‘Understanding the Bible’

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Next, you need to know something about the different kinds of book that make up the Bible.

• The first five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, are known as the Pentateuch. After an account of God’s creation of the universe, they do two main things:

–  They present a history of Israel from the calling of Abraham to the death of Moses, just before Israel enters the Promised Land.

–  They present the laws by which Israel were to live in the Promised Land.

• The next books, from Joshua to 1 and 2 Maccabees, continue the history of Israel, through the period of the ‘judges’ and the monarchy, until after the disaster of exile in Babylon (which historians date at 587 BCE).

• Then come some books that are called the ‘wisdom literature’: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Wisdom and Sirach. Their content generally doesn’t relate specifically to Israel, but is wise teaching that is drawn from a range of ancient near-eastern contexts.

• I haven’t included the Book of Psalms in the category of wisdom literature, although sometimes it is, even though many psalms do refer specifically to Israel. Psalms is the longest book in the Bible and is sometimes called the hymn book of ancient Israel – although the range of different kinds of text in it is wider than in our hymn books.

• The rest of the Old Testament, from Isaiah onwards, is formed of the prophetic books.

• The first four books in the New Testament are the gospels, each of which presents a narrative of events in the ministry of Jesus. The first three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke include much strikingly similar material and are known as the Synoptic Gospels. A large part of all the gospels is taken up with events in the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

• The next book, the Acts of the Apostles, gives a history of the first 25 years or so of the Church’s existence, giving most attention to the extending of its mission beyond the Jewish people to the Gentiles (i.e. the rest of the world) and to the journeys of St Paul.

• All but one of the remaining New Testament ‘books’ are letters written to churches during the few decades of Christianity’s existence. The longest of these, namely Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians, and some of the others were written by St Paul.

• The last book in the Bible is Revelation, otherwise known as the Apocalypse. It is a text in which powerful imagery is used to describe the realities facing the first century Church in its context in the Roman Empire – scholars agree that some of the main images refer to the Roman Empire.

The rest of Unit 1

On the next three pages we shall look rapidly at the prophetic strand in the whole of the Bible, in the following way:

1.3.2 Exodus: liberation from slavery

1.3.3 Prophetic critique of political and economic power in Israel

1.3.4 The prophetic strand in the New Testament: Jesus, James, Revelation

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End of 1.3.1

Go to 1.3.2 Exodus: liberation from slavery

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  1. Acknowledgment: In distinguishing these two strands in Scripture, I am indebted to Andrew Goddard, The Bible and Politics, a distance learning module in the Politics and Theology Programme formerly run by Sarum College (Salisbury: Sarum College, 2003). 

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