Week 1 – Bible and Literature
In the first week we think about the Bible, our Scriptures, the book of God, without which we would know so little about Jesus.
We think about its richness and variety – it is not really one book at all, but 66 documents gathered into sections, with two main sections, what we call the Old and New Testaments.
It is full of stories, narratives, poetry, drama, characters, instructions, challenges, images, but sometimes we make it dull and flat.
Good Christians all rejoice
Wednesday 1.3 Some History (and Geography) helps
The time of Abraham is somewhere around 1800 BC. The last books of the New Testament were written maybe around 100AD. That is 1900 years of time, so of course things changed.
Our story is focused on a small area (modern day Israel / Palestine) on the eastern end of the Mediterranean, but much of the big activity in the Old Testament is generated either from Egypt to the south or from Assyria / Babylon / Persia to the East (in modern day Iraq/ Iran). Abraham originates from this area and it is the Assyrians and Babylonians who will destroy Israel.
In the New Testament there is a shift west-wards. The super-power is now Rome which has conquered Greece and Egypt and is pushing east. Jesus is born in a place which was still ruled by a king – Herod, but by the time he is adult Jerusalem is part of a Roman Province.
The language for traders was a form of Greek, and so the New Testament documents are written in this Greek, so they could be read in the new churches that sprang up across what is now Turkey and Greece and even in Rome. The citizens of Corinth or Thessalonica or Rome, even if some were Jewish by origin, would not have known the world of the Galilean villages or Jerusalem. But traders brought goods and told stories, and ideas travelled round the Roman Empire. Ships sailed in the summer months, but as Paul found out being in a boat later in the autumn was dangerous.
Abraham lived at a time when there was little organised religion. He worshipped his God under trees and piled up stones as altars. The tribes when they settled in the Promised Land – maybe around 1200 BC or possibly earlier – had a number of sacred places, some like Bethel linked back to Abraham, but as the tribes became a nation and had a king over them so they also had a capital city, Jerusalem, and then a Temple which became the centre of religious life.
When the Temple was destroyed and the Israelites were scattered, then they remembered their key stories and teaching and they met in smaller groups, which became the synagogue. Not a place for sacrifices, but for teaching and praying. Even when the Temple was rebuilt, the synagogues remained part of village and town-life, so Jesus goes to Jerusalem for special occasions but he teaches in the synagogues.
Abraham and Moses and David and Jesus had four very different ways of living and worshipping.
We must not think that things were the same any more than your life is the same as Alfred the Great or Queen Elizabeth 1st and the people who lived in your area in those days.
And just like our world today, the times of Jesus were complex and challenging. We’ll look at this in a bit more detail in week 3, but the world of Galilee and of the rural farming peasant was very different from the cosmopolitan trading city of Corinth, or the historic cities of Ephesus or Alexandria.
If Abraham lived differently from David, then so too did Lydia in Philippi from Andrew the fisherman in Galilee.
And, yes, the Bible is mostly about men, because the public world was the man’s world mostly. We see in the ministry of Jesus however an opening for women, they could follow him, learn from him; Mary Magdalene is the first to see the Risen Jesus and tells the men – the apostle to the apostles.
The Bible is written through these changing cultures; it is written in Hebrew and some Aramaic and then Greek reflecting the changing cultures.
Slaves were a constant reality so while there is teaching about treating slaves properly, the Bible does not teach the abolition of slavery, and nor does it teach about Trade Unions or European Unions. It is of its time.
And what was permitted could change – like sacrificing animals, or having concubines (extra wives).
Because of where Israel is situated, it was often caught up in war, whether with the local tribes like the Moabites or Philistines, or later the bigger powers like the Babylonians or Egyptians. And in Jesus time, it was ruled by the Romans who were not liked; the Jews longed for the time when God would bring in the new King and set them free. The Bible is very political, set in real situations of unrest and injustice, poverty and danger.
Those of us who live in greater peace and stability might need help making sense of this as it is not our world.