2.2.1 Introducing readings from Scripture
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Perhaps you know the Bible well, from previous study or from years of participation in Church life (or both); or perhaps you don’t know the Bible at all.
Here is a brief introduction to what the Bible is.
The Christian Bible comprises two main parts, which have traditionally been called the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is more or less the same as the Bible of the Jewish religion (although there are some differences, e.g. in the order in which the different ‘books’ that make it up appear). Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. In light of this, it is also called the Hebrew Bible or Hebrew Scriptures.1
The New Testament is distinctive to Christianity and focuses on the figure of Jesus, who lived on earth 2000 years ago and whom Christians believe is the unique Son of God. It was written in Greek, although it includes phrases and words in Aramaic, which was the first-language of people in the region in which Jesus lived.
As recognized by the Catholic Church, the Old Testament comprises 46 separate pieces of writing, known as ‘books’. The New Testament comprises 27 ‘books’. Here is an outline of what these 73 books contain:
- The first five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, are together 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 in the 580s BCE).
- Then come some books that are called the ‘wisdom literature’: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom and Sirach. What they contain generally doesn’t relate specifically to Israel, but is wise teaching that is drawn from a range of ancient near-eastern contexts. The Song of Songs is erotic love poetry.
- 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. These include much critique, sometimes extremely sharp, of the leaders of Israel for their injustice and their frequent idolatry.
- 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 extension 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 first 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.
How much of the above did you already know?
If you have studied Module A, you will be familiar with that outline.
To build up your picture of what is in the Bible, now do a short reading. This comes from the book that accompanies this module, by J. Milburn Thompson, which you need to have to hand as you work through it (see 1.1.2).
J. Milburn Thompson, Introducing Catholic Social Thought, pp. 11-15
Thompson sums up what the Hebrew Scriptures – he prefers this term – require of the people of Israel as follows:
The primary conditions for being God’s people were to worship God alone (monotheism and prohibition of idolatry) and to create a just community (righteousness and justice). (p. 11)
The way in which Thompson brings out how the New Testament is significant for CST is unexpected and especially interesting. He illustrates the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus (recall 1.2.2) through the example of a US Southern Baptist leader, Clarence Jordan (1912-1969), and a radical Christian community he helped to found, called Koinonia Farm. (Koinonia is the Greek word used in the New Testament for ‘fellowship’ or ‘community’.) Thompson notes that Jordan referred to the reign of God by the phrase ‘the God movement’. By his outline of Jordan’s ministry, Thompson brings out vividly the way in which the message of Jesus is a call to a radically different way of living in the world. It is clear that Thompson identifies with Jordan’s conviction that,
[I]f one took Jesus and the gospel seriously, the result would be radical discipleship. Maybe it is Jesus and his message that is the church’s “best kept secret”. (p. 13)
What is especially striking for you in the reading from Thompson? Are some things surprising?
I was surprised that he takes a Baptist Christian leader, rather than a Roman Catholic, as his main example here. This manifests real openness to ecumenism – that is, to working for unity in Christian witness in the world, despite the divisions between Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians.
Having said that the Hebrew Scriptures require God’s people to “create a just community” (as quoted earlier), Thompson concludes his discussion of the New Testament by saying that it “calls followers of Christ to a kind of community and a way of life that is generous, forgiving, just and loving” (p. 15).
Much of both the Old Testament and the New Testament is about the nature and qualities of the society that God’s people are to form together. In this connection, Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, whose influence in opposing the Apartheid regime in South Africa was huge, famously said: “I am puzzled about which Bible people are reading when they suggest religion and politics don’t mix.”
He was right to be puzzled. A great deal of the Bible is not only about human society in this world but is a political story, in the most ordinary sense of politics (as defined in 1.2.5). From Genesis onwards, a large part of the Hebrew Scriptures is a history, not only of God’s people, but of their political leaders. It tells us about a long succession of rulers and their successes and failures. In the New Testament, Jesus’ proclamation was of a renewal of God’s reign or rule, as we have learned already. This can be understood adequately only in the contexts of Israel’s political history and Roman imperial domination.
Yet one of the most amazing aspects of the way in which politics features in the Bible is that it is about both those who rule and those who are ruled over.
There are these two sides of the coin in the way politics features in the Bible. There are texts which, very clearly, affirm that the authority to govern comes from God and that rulers are under this authority. Equally clearly, there are other texts that portray people who are inspired by God to stand up and speak out against unjust and oppressive rulers, on behalf of those who suffer under them. These people are the prophets.
These contrasting aspects of how politics appears in the Bible can be seen as two ‘strands’ running through it. We can call one of them the ‘just government strand’ – because the texts on this theme emphasize that God gives authority to those who govern, to do justice. The second can be called the ‘prophetic strand’ – because the texts that make up this emphasize equally that God calls people to speak out against the very rulers whom God has authorized!2
In summary, the God revealed in the Bible both is the source of the authority of governments and raises up prophets to criticize those in high positions.
VPlater Module A focuses on the ‘prophetic strand’ in Scripture. This module focuses on the ‘just government strand’. Of course, there is a great deal more in the Bible than only these two strands. But looking at these can help us to relate the Bible’s content to the topics of CST.
The following screens will enable you to see much more clearly what it means to refer to the ‘just government strand’ in the Bible. We shall look directly at several passages which bring it out and show its significance.
End of 2.2.1
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Some argue that these terms are preferable to ‘Old Testament’ on the basis that the label ‘old’ can imply that the New Testament has completely superseded it (and, more generally, can convey something negative about Judaism). ↩
In distinguishing these two strands in Scripture, I am indebted to Andrew Goddard, The Bible and Politics, a module in the Politics and Theology Programme formerly run by Sarum College (Salisbury: Sarum College, 2003). ↩