Monday, November 8, 2010

Wisdom writing..? Word of God..?

The Confirmation group that met last Sunday evening looked at the wisdom writing of the Jewish faith known as ‘The Torah’ and affirmed that it was originally written in Hebrew. We looked at the Hebrew alphabet and recognised that it is a very different language to English! We agreed that the five books of ‘The Torah’ (The teaching) form the first five books of the Christian Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Biblical scholars believe that these five books were written between 950 and 450 BCE.

We then looked at the wisdom writing of the Christian faith and affirmed that the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. We looked at the Greek alphabet and recognised that it is also a very different language to English. When we compared the amount of written material between the Old and New Testaments it was clear that about two thirds of the Christian Bible is made up of the Old Testament (Hebrew writing).

Last week we had affirmed that Jews and Christians look to an ancient common ancestor called Abraham through his wife Sarah, and their son Jacob. We also affirmed that Muslims looked to Abraham as their ancestor through his wife’s servant Hagar, and their son Esau. The wisdom writing of the Muslim faith is called ‘The Koran’ and was written by the Prophet Mohammed in Arabic. We looked at the Arabic alphabet and affirmed that it is also a very different language to English!

The purpose of looking at the different languages was to remind us that the wisdom writings of our faith, and the other monotheistic faiths, was written by people who lived in cultures very different to our own. In order to read them in our language a scholar must translate them into English and to make things, clear put their own understanding of things in the translation.

Bearing this all too human translation process in mind, is it right to call the writing of the Bible ‘The Word of God’ or should it be thought of as a ‘Library of Wisdom’ that has many different styles of writing gathered together?

Personally, I think the term ‘Word of God’ is unhelpful because it infers that people for about one thousand years ran around with an ancient form of dictaphone recording things as they were said! The term ‘Word of God’ also infers that since the words come from an Almighty God it would be inappropriate to question them… or question the religious institutions that use them. I would probably take one step further and suggest that to call this collection of writing ‘The Word of God’ unhelpfully borders on idolatry. What do you think?

I think the term ‘Library of Wisdom’ is more helpful because it gives permission to bring critical thinking to the interpretation of the writing within it. There is no doubt in my mind that God can challenge, guide, inspire, and ‘speak’ to us through this writing… but I do not think the collection has a single message for all of humanity… from a divine author in the sky.

When thinking about a particular piece of Biblical writing it is helpful to think about the context in which it was written? Who wrote it? And who was it written for? What was going on in that part of the world at the time? And who were the major players in that culture? Was that piece of writing intended to be a literal account of things, or is there a metaphor expressed to explain a situation… or offer hope?

Last Sunday evening we affirmed that there were different styles of writing (genres) in both the Old and New Testament and identified the following:

In the Old Testament there are:

1. Foundational Myths & Legends - stories about the origins of the world, the first generations of humans, or the early years of a nation, intended to provide a foundational world-view upon which people base their communal and individual lives (Genesis, parts of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
2. Legal Codes - collections of laws and instructions by which the people are to live (Leviticus, parts of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
3. Genealogies - lists of inter-relationships between peoples, either of successive generations or of different nations (parts of Genesis, much of Numbers)
4. History - semi-historical narrative accounts of select events in a nation's life, focusing especially upon political and military exploits of its leaders, since usually written under royal sponsorship (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, etc.)
5. Prophetic Books - collections of the oracles or words of God spoken to the people through human intermediaries (prophets) and the symbolic actions they perform at God's direction for the people's benefit (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah etc.)
6. Psalms/Odes/Songs - poetic lyrics of songs/hymns intended for communal worship and/or individual prayer (Psalms)
7. Prayers/Laments - words addressed by people to God, esp. reflecting situations of crisis or lament (Lamentations)
8. Proverbs - generalized sayings and aphorisms containing advice on how to live well: "do good and avoid evil" (Proverbs)
9. Wisdom Literature - various types of inspirational stories that encourage people to live wisely (Job, Wisdom, etc.)
10. Apocalypses - symbolic narratives that suggests how God will resolve issues of brokenness and injustice through future interventions (Daniel)

and in the New Testament there are:
1. Gospels - proclamations of the "good news" about Jesus intended to establish and/or strengthen people's faith in him; quasi-biographical, semi-historical portraits of the life, teachings, and actions of Jesus (Mark, Matt, Luke, John)
2. Acts - a partial narrative account about the beginnings and the growth of early Christianity; not a complete history of the early Church, since it focuses only on the actions of a few missionary leaders (Acts)
3. Letters - real letters addressing practical and theological issues relevant to particular communities (especially Paul's)
4. Apocalypse - a symbolic narrative that suggests how God will resolve the issues of brokenness and injustice at the end of time (Revelation)

Jesus focus in the Gospels:
Inevitably it is in the Gospels of the New Testament that we find stories that describe the life of Jesus. Last Sunday we took some time to read aloud the first chapter of each Gospel to see how the story of where Jesus came from seemed to grow as time went by. Mark’s Gospel was apparently written about forty years after Jesus lived on earth. This Gospel begins with Jesus as an adult man being baptized by John the Baptist. In Mark’s account of this Baptism the heavens open and a voice is heard from heaven saying, ‘This is my son, my chosen one!’ In Mark’s Gospel – and in the letters of Paul written before it – there is no Mary, or Joseph, or stable, or shepherds, or anels, or Magi. The relationship between God and Jesus is, according to Mark’s Gospel, affirmed in his baptism.

It is in Matthew’s Gospel, written about fifty years after Jesus lived on earth, that we meet for the first time Mary, Joseph and the Magi. Then in Luke’s Gospel, written about five years after Matthew, that we read about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary in person, visiting Joseph in a dream, the birth in a stable, angels singing to shepherds, and shepherds coming to worship. By combining the different stories of Matthew and Luke we see the composite whole that script Nativity plays and Christmas cards.

Yet by the time we get to John’s Gospel those Christmas elements have all gone. In John’s Gospel, written at least sixty years after the life of Jesus, there are no angels or shepherds, or Mary. In John’s Gospel it is affirmed that Jesus was so awesome – so related to God – that he was present with God right at the beginning of the world, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1).

For the communities that followed the teaching of Jesus after he died there was clearly a growing sense that he was not just human… he was divine.

We will focus particularly on Jesus who became the Christ in next week’s session. To prepare for that session please read through the Gospel of Luke by next Sunday. If you do not have a Bible – please buy or borrow one – or look at Luke’s Gospel on-line.

I look forward to hearing from you either by email: or blog:

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven;
May your sacred name echo through the universe,
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world,
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings,
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us,
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever.

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