How to Approach Difficult Bible Passages

As a teacher, I am regularly asked about Bible passages and the theology they convey. Sometimes the questions are straightforward; other times, not so much. Some time back, for example, as I was innocently trying to lead our community group through Romans 8:18-30, I was asked how to interpret verses 29-30 in light of that not-at-all-discussed-among-Christians topic of Predestination and Freewill. It happens.

The vast majority of the time, I am more than happy to dig into a text and explain what I think and why. Having been privileged to study under some brilliant Biblical scholars (and having read many more), I am all too eager to hold forth on the Scriptures, and I genuinely hope that my discussion helps those listening. However, in the past several years I have discovered a more fruitful approach to addressing these questions: walking through Bible passages with people and training them how to read and interpret wisely. Continue reading

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The Bible in Thirty Chapters

What If…

The Bible is a pretty large book. Although we might not immediately think of it as such, how many other 2,128-page1 books do you have laying around your home? Or which reader has four different versions of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare on their bookshelf? The Bible is unique, not only for its contents, but also for its construction and history.

Though rightly regarded as the most important book you could ever own or read, modern Christians often fail to recognize the unique place in history we inhabit when it comes to accessing and understanding the Bible. For much of history, most Christians did not have access to the entire Bible. The first pandect (Bible in one book) was produced in the 8th century.2 Even after the invention of the printing press and the proliferation of Bibles in vernacular languages, many Christians only had access to particular books or collections of books in the Bible.


This reality got me thinking: what if I only had access to a couple of biblical books? Which ones would I want to have? My particular fondness for Luke and John would make those gospels priorities for me. Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy are vital for understanding God’s covenant with Israel, so those would be useful too. I might be a terrible theologian if I did not have a copy of Romans and a terrible 21st century Christian if I did not at least consider having Revelation. Simply imagining life without the whole canon serves as an important reminder of how blessed and privileged we are to live with access to multiple copies and versions of the entire Bible.

Thinking Smaller

However, as anyone who has read extensively in the biblical text knows, no biblical book contains within its scope the entire story of God’s People, the whole history of salvation, or even every key doctrinal point.3 Having access to certain books, therefore, might still leave a reader relatively uninformed about the biblical metanarrative, the overarching story of the Bible. This reality led me to reflect further: what if, instead of whole books, we only had access to certain chapters of the Bible? What if we only had access to, say, thirty chapters of the Bible: which ones would we want to have?

Before proceeding, I want to note a couple of things about what follows. First, this is an exercise in theological reflection. Far be it from me to suggest stripping the Bible down for parts or ignoring chapters which do not appear on this list. Second, I hasten to note the importance of reading all portions of the Bible in their literary contexts. Chapters in the Bible were not original to the text, having only been added in the 13th century.4 Even though this exercise is somewhat arbitrary, then, the process of focusing and limiting the Biblical text does reveal much about our theological commitments.

Finally, this list arises from my own concerns and contexts. The foci of these chapters are the biblical metanarrative (creation, fall, redemption, restoration), the history of Israel, the life and work of Jesus, and the message of the Church. Of course, there are plenty of other themes and messages to be highlighted by this type of exercise. Without further preparation, these are the thirty chapters I would use to summarize the Bible:

The Bible in Thirty Chapters

Genesis 1-3: Creation, Fall, and Curse

Genesis 12, 15: Call and Covenant with Abram

Exodus 12: Passover Initiated

Exodus 14: Crossing of the Red Sea

Deuteronomy 5-6: Ten Commandments and Heart of the Torah

Psalm 23: The Good Shepherd

Psalm 106: Summary of Israel’s History

Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant

Ezekiel 37: Dry Bones and Restoration of Israel

Matthew 5-7: Sermon on the Mount

Luke 22-24: Lord’s Supper, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus

John 3-4: Born Again of Living Water

Acts 7: Summary of Israel’s Rebellion and Stoning of Stephen

Acts 26: Life of the Apostle Paul

Romans 9: God’s Continuing Covenant with Israel and Inclusion of the Gentiles

1 Corinthians 11(17)-12: Lord’s Supper, Spiritual Gifts, and Ecclesiology

Galatians 3: Abraham, the Law, and Faith in Christ

Hebrews 1: Christology and Superiority of Jesus

1 John 3: Children of God and Law of Love

Revelation 21: New Heavens and New Earth

What do you think of this list? Which chapters would you remove? What other chapters would you include?


1 The number of pages the in NRSV Bible on my desk.
2 Codex Amiantinus, a Vulgate edition prepared as a gift for Pope Gregory II.
3 Arguments for a Protestant reading of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or a liturgically-informed reading of the Gospel of John fail to entirely convince me here, as both of these approaches present considerable contextual problems and often neglect important components of Israel’s story.
4 Alternative systems were devised by Archbishop Stephen Langton and Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro, with modern Biblical chapters deriving primarily from Langton’s system.

February 2017 Biblical Studies Carnival

february-2017-bsc

Welcome to the February 2017 Biblical Studies Carnival!

Assembled below are the very best articles written this past month from around the Biblioblogging world.  I know this firsthand because I have spent all month sifting through as many blogs as possible to find the finest that scholars and students have to offer. This month’s carnival includes submissions from the categories of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New Testament, Early Christianity, Reading Phil Long (an homage to the Godfather of Biblical Studies Carnivals), Theology and Hermeneutics, Book Reviews, Tools and Resources, and News.

Looking forward to future Carnivals, March will be hosted by Jonathan Robinson and April by Joshua Gillies of Theologians, Inc. (@Whitefrozen). Cassandra Farrin (email) of Ethics and Early Christianity hosts in June, Reuben Rus of Ayuda Ministerial/ Resources for Ministry hosts in July, and Jason Gardner of eis doxan hosts in August.

You’ll note that this schedule lacks a host for May. If you’re interested in signing up to host in May (or any other future carnival), contact Phil Long (email, @plong42). Speaking of Phil, I want to thank him for his continued coordination of these carnivals, and for allowing younger scholars such as myself the opportunity to host. Happy reading! Continue reading

Scripture among the Apologists: Bibliography

Ancient Sources

Eccl. Hist. Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History: The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. Translated by G. A. Williamson. Revised and edited by Andrew Louth. London: Penguin Books, 1989.
Lives Jerome. Lives of Illustrious Men. Translated by Ernest Cushing Richardson. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 3. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.
CA Josephus. Contra Apionem. Translated by William Whiston. The Works of Flavius Josephus in Four Volumes, Volume IV. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974.
Dialogue Justin Martyr. Dialogue with Trypho. Translated by Thomas B. Falls. Revised by Thomas P. Halton. Selections from Fathers of the Church, Volume 3. Edited by Michael Slusser. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of American Press, 2003.
Apology –. First Apology. Translated by Leslie William Barnard. Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation 56. New York: Paulist Press, 1997.
Oration Tatian. Address to the Greeks. Translated by J.E. Ryland. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.
Autolycum Theophilus of Antioch. Ad Autolycum. Translated by Robert M. Grant. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.
Acta The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs. Translated by Marcus Dods. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.

 

Continue reading

Scripture among the Apologists: Conclusions

Open BibleThis study has examined the manner in which two early Christian apologists, Justin Martyr in his Apology and Theophilus of Antioch in Ad Autolycum, employed written sources in their writings. This study argues that Justin and Theophilus both demonstrated the authority of specifically Christian writings, especially in their use of the Fourth Gospel and implementation of Johannine logos theology. This study also suggested that a contextualized methodology constitutes a necessary component for accurate study of early Christian literature; that Justin and Theophilus employed a wide matrix of scriptural authorities in their writings; and that comparison of Justin and Theophilus underline important similarities and differences between these writers which inform the understanding of second century Christianity. It is the hope of this study to have fulfilled Theophilus’ final dictum in Ad Autolycum, to have read “these books carefully in order that [we] may have a counselor and pledge of the truth.”[ii]


[i] Hagner, 233. [ii] Autolycum 3.30.

Scripture among the Apologists: Differences

justin-martyr1Yet there are also considerable differences in these apologists’ approaches to written sources as well. Concerning Greco-Roman sources, while Justin remained primarily Platonic, Theophilus was more influenced by the Sibylline Oracles, Homer, and Hesiod. Justin’s philosophical background and prowess were considerably superior to Theophilus’ training, and Justin’s innovate recasting of Greco-Roman philosophical motifs was more innovate than anything Theophilus had to offer. Continue reading

Scripture among the Apologists: Similarities

Apostolic FathersThe argument of this paper, that Justin and Theophilus each view specifically Christian writings as useful authorities for the construction of their apologetic works, has already been demonstrated. To more fully engage the considerations of the authority with which these two second century apologists viewed Christian sources, this study now offers a comparative analysis of how these two writers conceived of and employed written sources in the construction of their apologetic theologies, paying special attention to the function of the Gospel of John and Logos for each. Continue reading

Scripture among the Apologists: Theophilus on Scripture

theophilus-of-antiochTheophilus of Antioch clearly found numerous sources valuable for the construction of his apologetic Ad Autolycum, drawing upon numerous Greek, Jewish, and Christian sources in this writing. Especially important for his conception of scripture was the doctrine of the Logos, formed in Hellenistic Judaism and applied by Justin Martyr to Christian apologetics, but in Theophilus developed most clearly from the Gospel of John. This doctrine allowed Theophilus to locate writings inspired by the Logos, whether they were composed by the Sibyl, Moses, Paul, or someone else. The Logos is that with whom Greek philosophy must accord, that who inspired the prophets of Israel, and he who continues to serve God’s salvific nomos.[i] In this sense, Theophilus did not explicitly locate the Logos with any one “person,” but instead focused on the literary personification and work of the Logos, an endeavor with which those seeking God had to bring themselves into accordance. This is an admittedly Jewish way of thinking, leading Grant to posit that Theophilus’ Jewish-Christian perspective ultimately stands behind the later excesses of Antiochene exegetical theology.[ii] Continue reading