There have been three slightly related questions that have come in during our Ask Almost Anything series that I believe I would like to try and answer here, rather than take up time in worship. (Don’t worry, we will print some copies out so folks without access to the blog can read them as well.)
The questions all have to do with the Bible. First, “We know that there are books that were excluded from the Bible. Since we know these writings and books exist, why do we not study and include these texts in our church worship.”
This is a complex answer, so hang in there. First of all, I would like to point out that none of us have really read the Bible. The very best that we have is based on copies of books that eventually ended up being in the Bible that were at least 100 years removed from the original texts. Those originals…gone. We will probably never see them. There is a somewhat controversial article over on Time magazine that goes much deeper into this than I care to, so if you want to check it out, be my guest. It’s long. It will upset many people…but it has a lot of good points in it.
The next thing that is important to know is that the 66 books (39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament) that make up the Bibles that we are most used to using in the UM Church, did not arrive in this final arrangement until the late 1600’s. Prior to that there was all kinds of disagreement.
In the earliest part of Church history, most local areas had their own list of writings that they considered to be “canonical” or needed and useful for teaching the faith. These different lists varied widely. The earliest list we have of a set of Books seeming to make up a canon is known as the Muratorian Fragment – part of a letter that ends with a list of New Testament Books. (It is important to note that 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Revelation are not included in this list and The Apocalypse of Peter and The Shepherd of Hermas are included. The first four are now found in our Bibles. The latter two are not.)
Anyway…to make an incredibly long story short, there was a lot of discussion about what made up the canon of the Bible and Orthodox, Roman and Protestant Churches ended up with different lists by the 1600’s. There are various and sundry reasons “why” a book of the Bible ended up in the canon – who supposedly wrote it, when it was written, it’s harmony with the rest of Scripture, etc. – but most importantly, the community of faith found that these words were what God had to say to us.
The second part of this question asks why don’t we study some of the books and use them in worship. Well, actually we do study them from time to time, especially when we are making a new translation of the Bible. Some others study them for their historical significance. We do not read them in worship, however, because they do not have the “weight and authority” of Scripture. They are good books – but they are not the Bible. (Which brings us back to the original thought I had – no one has really read the actual Bible anyway!)
Another question that came up about the Bible had to do with the Song of Songs. Someone wanted to know why we don’t study that book and they wonder if it is because of the sexual content of the book.
Listen, we just finished a unit in our Covenant Bible Study group where we spent quite a bit of time talking about sex and almost all that talk came straight out of the book Song of Songs. We have this book to show us what a wonderful gift sexuality is to human beings and to show how intimacy is an important part of every relationship – even God’s relationship with God’s people. So, if you want to study Song of Songs…join us on the next Covenant Bible Study series!
Finally, there was a question about which translation of the Bible is the best.
Well, this is a hard one two. The first thing to remember is that a translation starts with the original languages – Hebrew for Old Testament books, Greek for New Testament books and moves to English from there. With that in mind, you have to throw out the King James Bible – it started with the Latin translations – as well as books like The Living Bible (a paraphrase of English) and The Message (another paraphrase) and one of the prettiest, The Jerusalem Bible, which is an English translation of the French translation of Hebrew and Greek.
With that in mind and of the good translations that rely upon the original Greek and Hebrew will be fine – American Standard, English Standard, Common English Bible, Revised Standard, New Revised Standard and of course, any one of the dozen or so New International Versions. (You do have to be careful with NIV…there are so many of them because splinter groups broke off in the midst of translating because the didn’t like the theological slant of some of the translators.
Ahhhh….we are such human beings when it comes to our Scripture.
One final word. We do believe that Scripture is inspired by God but we do not believe that it is dictated word for word from God – that would be the Islamic Koran – and a major difference between our religions. We hold that human beings and God worked together to bring us the Bible. What could be more perfect for a group of people who believe that God saved us by coming in the form of both God and man!
Keep those questions coming!