The Bible as Dialogue
As we know, the Bible used by Christians consists of two parts. The first part, the Old Testament, is a collection of texts that are shared by both Jews and Christians. It includes passages that celebrate the grandeur of creation and others that tell of war and conflict, regulations about worship, songs of joy and despair, advice on how to get ahead in the world, and denunciations of corruption. The second part of the Bible, the New Testament, gives us narratives about Jesus and his followers, along with a group of letters, and at the end, the book called Revelation or the Apocalypse. In this course, we’ll explore how readers make sense of these texts holistically.
Overview of the Bible
The word Bible comes from the Greek word bibl a, which means “books.” The Bible is a collection of books that were written and edited by different people over many centuries. Much of the Old Testament was put in written form between the 8th and 2nd centuries B.C., though some of the sources are older than that.
● The first part of the Jewish Bible is called the Torah, a Hebrew word that means “instruction.” It consists of narratives about ancient Israel, along with the laws and customs that gave it its identity.
● Next are the prophetic texts, which relate the message and actions of Israel’s prophets. Finally, there are other writings, including narratives, poems, and wisdom writings.
The New Testament writings were composed by the followers of Jesus in the mid- to late 1st century A.D. The oldest writings were letters sent between individuals and congregations. Later, narratives about Jesus and his followers were composed. Eventually, some of the narratives and letters were collected and used along with the writings of the Old Testament as sacred texts within Christian communities.
It’s helpful to think of the Bible as a collection that emerged within community.
● On the one hand, a community needs to have something that binds it together, something that creates a sense of shared identity. That bond may be formed by shared beliefs and values, along with practices that express those values. These bonds are also formed by stories that shape identity and recall the experiences that have made the community what it is.
● On the other hand, a community includes multiple points of view. And as it continues over time, it faces the challenge of affirming what is shared, while holding in tension some points of difference.
● These dynamics also characterize the Bible, which we might describe as a community of texts. The writings collected in the Old Testament reflect a shared belief in the God of Israel, and those in the New Testament join this to belief in Jesus. At the same time, writings in both the Old and New Testaments encompass multiple perspectives on what these shared beliefs mean and how they are to be lived out.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament begins with the stories of ancient Israel. Scholars recognize that biblical narratives are based on various ancient sources that have been combined and edited over time. In their current form, these books have a sense of narrative that can be studied as literature.
When reading a narrative, one basic question concerns plotline. A plotline is more than a simple listing of events. It has to do with the way things are connected and how one thing leads to the next. A second question concerns character portrayal, which can range from simple to complex.
In a broad sense, the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis through Deuteronomy) tell a story of migration. They trace the migration of Israel’s early ancestors from Mesopotamia, near the Euphrates River, to the land of Canaan, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. From there, they move south and west into Egypt. Major figures in the story include Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and his 12 sons.
In terms of plotline, the migration from Mesopotamia to Canaan is depicted as an act of trust, as Abraham and Sarah follow where God leads them. But the plot thickens when they experience famine, conflict, and apparent disappointment. Hope continues by only a narrow thread. Abraham is portrayed as courageous at some points and indecisive at others. Sarah can be both trusting and skeptical. And their varied strengths and failings are an integral part of the story.
The broader narrative continues as the people flourish in Egypt for many generations. But then there’s a political change, and they become enslaved. Here, the plot turns to issues of oppression and the need for liberation. The dominant figure is Moses, who will lead the people into freedom. Moses is sometimes bold and sometimes fearful. His opponent is the Egyptian pharaoh, who can be both arrogant and vacillating.
The moment of liberation is called the Exodus. It’s when the people leave slavery in Egypt and begin the migration through the desert toward Canaan again. But now the people are portrayed as contentious and unfaithful. Their struggle is not against the tyranny of the pharaoh but against the harshness of life in the desert and the conflicts that threaten to tear the community apart.
Throughout these narratives, one of the most intriguing elements is the portrayal of God. At times, God speaks clearly and graciously, but at other times, he seems inexplicable. Conflict may break out, yet God remains silent. God can show compassion for those who suffer and outrage at those who prove faithless. The varied aspects of the biblical portrayal of God are challenging yet encountering them draws readers more deeply into the question of who God is.
The narrative thread continues in the books of Joshua through 2 Kings. These tell of Israel’s movement into the land of Canaan, where there is warfare and unrest. In time, the people establish a kingdom with its capital at Jerusalem. The most notable king is David, who helps forge a national identity. He’s followed by Solomon, who builds a temple to be the country’s center of worship. But unity is shattered when the kingdom is divided, and military invasions come. The northern kingdom is conquered by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom is conquered by the Babylonians. In each case, people are taken into exile.
● Here, the narrative shows the struggle to make sense of national tragedy. The writer wants to affirm that founding the kingdom was congruent with the will of God. But that makes it difficult to understand how God could let the kingdom be destroyed and the people deported.
● The plotline traces patterns of human disobedience that seem to bring about this devastating result, yet it also holds onto more hopeful elements. Other Old Testament books continue the story by recounting the return of some of the people to Jerusalem, where they rebuild.
Along with the narratives, the Old Testament includes prophetic writings. A common theme in theses texts is the call for a just society. Yet the prophets also have distinctive emphases, and they often convey their messages through poetic imagery.
The final collection of material in the Old Testament consists of psalms and wisdom writings. The psalms are songs and poems that probe the depths of despair and rise to exuberant joy. The wisdom writings ask what it means to live a good life.
The New Testament
The New Testament also begins with narratives. Here, the variety is clear at the outset. Each of the four gospels tells the story of Jesus in a distinctive way, giving us four portraits of Jesus, not just one.
Mark’s gospel is the shortest of the four; from the outset, it portrays Jesus engaged in conflict. The narrative begins when Jesus is baptized and tested by Satan in the desert. After that, Jesus announces God’s kingdom, then he goes to a synagogue, where he encounters a man possessed by a demonic spirit. Jesus’s first action is performing an exorcism; thus, our initial impression is that he is the agent of God confronting the forces of evil.
Luke’s gospel is rather different. It begins with angels promising a child to an elderly couple, then telling a young woman named Mary that she will give birth to Jesus. Luke speaks of Jesus being born in a barn, where he is visited
In the New Testament, our impressions of Jesus are formed by the interplay among the four gospels. by shepherds. Instead of starting with scenes of conflict with evil, Luke tells of Jesus being present among ordinary people.
Matthew takes another approach. His opening lines trace Jesus’s royal genealogy back through the generations of Israel. When Matthew tells of Jesus’s birth, he says nothing about shepherds. Instead, he refers to wise men, who are foreigners. In Matthew’s account, the wise men foreshadow the significance of Jesus for foreigners—those outside of Israel’s tradition.
Finally, John’s gospel sets the story of Jesus in the context of creation. The opening lines recall how at the beginning of time, God spoke and brought the world into being. For John, that same creative word of God now becomes flesh in Jesus.
The second main part of the New Testament consists of letters written by leaders in the early church. Many of the letters are by the Apostle Paul, and they give us a sense of the debates within the church: what the Christian faith meant and how it was to be lived out. In each case, Paul takes the questions seriously and works through them in light of his understanding of God and the significance of Jesus.
The last book in the New Testament is called Revelation or the Apocalypse, and few books in the Bible have generated more controversy than this one. Revelation is written as a series of visions that include a great red dragon and a seven-headed beast doing battle with the allies of God.
● Many readers assume that these visions make mysterious predictions about the end of the world. But the book’s remarkable imagery seems different when you realize that it originally addressed readers living in the Roman Empire. The book offers them a way of seeing the world that is both startling and encouraging.
● The dramatic plotline leads readers through the struggles of the present toward a more hopeful future. It culminates in a vision of New Jerusalem, where the river of life is flowing and the gates stand open to receive the nations of the world.
As we read through the Bible, we encounter poets and prophets, visionaries and social critics. They write in different literary forms and address different contexts. For us, that’s not a problem; it’s an invitation. It’s an invitation to explore the breadth of material within the Bible and to join in the dialogue that’s created as we encounter the various perspectives it contains.