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Bible Studies

In the beginning: People did not have personal copies of the Bible until the nineteenth century. Before the invention of printing, books were copied by hand and were extremely expensive. Printed books did not become inexpensive until quite recently. The public reading of the scriptures is a feature of both the synagogue and the church (1 Timothy 4:13); therefore, early Christians heard the Bible read out loud to them during the service. Bible study was mostly conducted in groups, though it was possible for individuals to go to a nearby church or synagogue and consult the scriptures themselves. In the first century, the apostolic writings that the Church later adopted as the New Testament were considered secondary to the oral teachings of the apostles and their accredited representatives.

Apocrypha
The Apocrypha consists of the material in the Septuagint that does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, and others use the Apocrypha as a worship resource and as instruction in faith and morals, but do not use it to formulate doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church and the eastern churches use it as part of the Old Testament. The Apocrypha contains the history of the Maccabean revolt, which is vital to understanding the political backdrop of the New Testament and the origin of the Jewish holiday of Hanukah.

For more details, see The Apocrypha and the Old Testament.

Canon (thing)
The word canon comes from the name of a reed that grows straight enough that it can be used as a measuring stick. Therefore, a canon is a standard or norm.

(The word ‘canon’ can also refer to a person.)

The by-laws of the ancient Church were called canons. (Many modern churches still call their by-laws canons.) When we speak of the canon of scripture, we mean the standard list of books that are recognized by the Church as Holy Scripture—or more specifically, the church by-law that affirms that list.

Some people think that officials in the ancient Church sat down and went through a stack of writings, accepting some as part of the New Testament and rejecting, banning, and suppressing others. That was not the case. It was actually a process in which the Church defended writings that were already in use as Scripture as they came under attack. For example, when Marcion began a campaign to exclude the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, they were in already in use as Scripture. It wasn’t until then that the Church needed to issue a formal statement that they are indeed Scripture. Eventually it became necessary to issue a list of canonical books, not to exclude the ones that weren’t on the list, but to defend the ones that were.

The history of the canon does not tell you when a given book of the New Testament first became Scripture. It tells you when it first became necessary for the Church to defend it as Scripture. The history of the canon is the history of the defense, not the acceptance, of New Testament books.

The ancient Christian writings that are not part of the canon today were never actually rejected; they were just never accepted. The ancient Church was a persecuted minority that was unable to ban or suppress books, but it did neglect the books in which it had little interest. Some writings were never widely accepted, because the ancient Church felt they were heretical. For instance, the ancient Church never had much interest in the Gospel of Thomas. Other ancient Christian writings that never found their way into the New Testament were still recognized as orthodox and were still used authoritatively as we would use church by-laws or devotional writings, but not as scripture. For example, the Didache, the Apostolic Constitutions, the epistles of Clement and Ignatius, various ancient liturgies, and the Nicene Creed were all influential in ancient times and still play a role in modern ecumenism.

The Nicene Creed, though not scripture, is canonical, because it appears in the canons of the first three ecumenical councils. It was formulated at the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325, it was expanded at the second ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381 to defend the deity of the Holy Spirit, and it was made inalterable by local councils at the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431.

The ecumenical councils never dealt with the New Testament canon, because there was no need. Local or regional councils were able to resolve any disputes about it.

Documentary Hypothesis
The documentary hypothesis was first advocated by Wellhausen in the nineteenth century. It theorizes that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) are composite documents. The constituent documents are detected through literary analysis. The theoretical component documents of the Pentateuch are called J, E, D, and P. J is characterized by the use of Yahweh as God’s name; E is characterized by the use of Elohim to refer to God, D is essentially Deuteronomy, and P is characterized by sacerdotal regulations, such as are found in Leviticus. There is no physical evidence to back up the documentary hypothesis; it is based solely on literary analysis. The recent Book of J, which purports to be the J document of the documentary hypothesis, is a literary reconstruction. You can get more information about the Documentary Hypothesis.
Eisegesis
A common term for the imputation of a preconceived idea into scripture; the opposite of exegesis. It is an invalid method. The difference is whether you are going to the Bible to back up what you have already decided to believe (eisegesis), or if you are going to the Bible for guidance in deciding what you should believe (exegesis).
Epistle
Epistle comes from the Latin word epistola, which simply means a letter (as in written correspondence). The epistles of the New Testament follow the form for letters in the first century. Letters in those days did not come in envelopes, so they began with the name of the sender, followed by the name of the recipient, and then a greeting. (The Epistle to the Hebrews lacks these features.) After the body, the letter contained detailed greetings to the recipients. Paul subtly reworded the usual greeting, “greetings to you,” so that it read “grace to you.”
Exegesis
The analysis of scripture to discern its meaning. It is a form of higher criticism. Historically, there are three major exegetical methods, each of which dates from the earliest times and each of which has its uses and abuses:
Symbolic or Allegorical
This form of Biblical interpretation is often used by the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament: for example, Galatians 4:21-31, and most of Hebrews. In this category fall the use of types and antitypes, or any method that finds a consistent symbolism throughout scripture.
Grammatical-Historical
This form of Biblical interpretation attempts to discern the meaning of the text by examining the cultural, historical, sociological, and linguistic context of the scripture.
Rational
This method of Biblical interpretation deduces meaning from assertions in different parts of the Bible.

Some modern exegetes characterize their exegetical method as literal, which is actually a misnomer. Literalists commonly use deductive reasoning, grammatical-historical data, and symbolism in their interpretations. A more accurate term for literal interpretation would be face-value interpretation. Exegetical methods that have originated in modern times include form criticism and redaction criticism.

Form Criticism
Form criticism is a technique of higher criticism that seeks the message of the New Testament by analyzing the literary forms in which the message is given. Within form criticism, the terms legend and myth have specialized meanings: a legend is a historical account used for didactic purposes; a myth is any pictorial representation of an abstract truth.
Gospel
The English word gospel is the modern form of godspell, which means good news. We use it to translate the Greek word euangelion, which also has the literal meaning of good news. In New Testament times, an euangelion was a public proclamation that a new king had conquered his enemies and had ascended to the throne. The first four books of the New Testament are gospels, because their primary purpose is to announce that Jesus is Lord, to tell us how He ascended to His throne, and to convince us to submit to His Lordship. The gospels, though they contain historical facts, are not primarily biographies, they are essentially press releases. In fact, in John 21:25, John states outright that his book does not contain complete information about Jesus’ life and deeds. The term gospel therefore refers to any of the following:
  • Any written or oral proclamation that Jesus is the King of the universe, including details about His triumphant ascension to His throne.
  • One of the first four books of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
  • A selection from one of the first four books of the New Testament, read aloud in church as part of the synaxis, also called the Service of the Word.
Hermeneutics
The branch of theology that devises, evaluates, compares and applies methods of interpreting the Bible. It also devises criteria for determining which methods are appropriate in a given circumstance or for a given passage. You can “do hermeneutics” without actually interpreting a Bible passage, because hermeneutics is the study of interpretation methods, not the application of them.
Higher Criticism
All Biblical scholarship can be divided into higher and lower criticism. Higher criticism is the analysis and study of scripture to determine its authorship, date of composition, literary structure, or meaning. Most Bible study falls into the category of higher criticism; anyone who has an opinion on what the Bible means is technically a higher critic.
Lectionary
A lectionary is a schedule of Bible readings that are used in worship throughout the year. The intent is that the passages appointed for the day are to be read to the congregation and that the sermon is to be based upon them. The purpose of a lectionary is to assure that all parts of the Bible are used in proportion to their relative importance, and at the right time of year (that is, resurrection stories at Easter, nativity stories at Christmas, and so forth). Modern lectionaries contain only the scripture citations, but ancient lectionaries contained the complete text of the readings. Ancient lectionaries are a major source of information for the scholars who reconstruct the original text of the New Testament. Today, most denominations that use a lectionary have agreed upon the Common Lectionary, which is divided into two parts: the Sunday Lectionary, which goes through the entire Bible in three years, and the Daily Lectionary, which goes through the entire Bible in two years. The concept of the lectionary was inherited by Christianity from Judaism. You can get more information about the lectionary.
Lower Criticism
All Biblical scholarship can be divided into higher and lower criticism. Lower criticism is the study and analysis of manuscript evidence to determine the original wording of the original text of the scriptures. Lower criticism produces the text that is used by translators.
New Testament
New Testament is the term for the Christian scriptures. Testament is the Latin word for will, as in last will and testament; it translates the Greek word diatheke, which means covenant. We use the word testament because God’s covenant, like a will, is unilateral. The term comes from 1 Corinthians 11:25, where Paul quotes Jesus as proclaiming a new covenant from God. There are no variations in the canon of the New Testament in Christendom. The earliest extant list of New Testament books is contained in Bishop St. Athanasius’ Easter Letter, which was issued in AD 367.
Old Testament
Old Testament is the Christian term for the Jewish scriptures. Testament is the Latin word for will, as in last will and testament; it translates the Greek word diatheke, which means covenant. We use the word testament because God’s covenant, like a will, is unilateral. The term comes from 2 Corinthians 3:14, where Paul refers to the Hebrew scriptures as the old covenant. In the first century—and in the preceding centuries—there were two canons of scripture among the Jews.
The Palestinian Canon
The Palestinian canon is in Hebrew and Aramaic, was used by Jews in Palestine. Modern Jews and most Protestants accept only the Palestinian canon.
The Alexandrian Canon
The Alexandrian canon appears in the Septuagint, contains everything in the Palestinian canon, plus a few additional books. We call the additional books the apocrypha. The Septuagint was used by the very large Greek-speaking Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt, and by Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire, who spoke Greek, and who held their synagogue services in Greek. The early Church inherited the Septuagint from the synagogue, and used it so effectively in evangelism that the Jews eventually disowned it. In the fourth century, St. Jerome, a biblical scholar whom the bishop of Rome had commissioned to produce a new Latin translation of the Bible, wanted to remove the apocrypha from the Old Testament, thus abandoning the Alexandrian canon for the Palestinian canon, but the Church did not heed his advice. During the Reformation, Martin Luther took up Jerome’s position. Today, the eastern Churches and the Roman Catholic Church still recognize the apocrypha as Scripture. Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists accept the apocrypha as a worship resource and for instruction in faith and morals, but do not base any doctrine upon it.
Christian Bibles use the Septuagint’s names for the books of the Old Testament.
Q
Q is a hypothetical document which is supposed to be the literary source for the three synoptic gospels. (Q stands for Quelle, which means source in German.) There is no physical evidence that Q ever existed; the evidence is found solely in literary analysis.
Redaction Criticism
Redaction criticism is a technique of higher criticism that analyzes the New Testament (particularly the gospels) to deduce the author’s intent or viewpoint. Some redaction critics go so far as to deny any historicity at all in the gospels.
Septuagint
Centuries before Christianity, there was a large Jewish community in the Greek colony of Alexandria, Egypt. With the permission and cooperation of the Temple in Jerusalem, they translated the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament) into Greek for their own use. The translation is known as the Septuagint, meaning seventy, because about 70 scholars worked on it.

The Septuagint became the Bible for Greek-speaking synagogues all over the Roman Empire and became the Bible of the early Christian Church, which also spoke Greek. When the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, it quotes the Septuagint, not the Hebrew. The Septuagint is more messianic than the Hebrew, and it backs up Christian claims about Jesus very well. The Jews eventually disowned the Septuagint.

The Septuagint contains additional material over and above the Hebrew Bible. This additional material is called the Apocrypha.

In Christian Bibles, the Old Testament books appear in Septuagint order—Law, History, Writings, and Prophecy. The New Testament books are arranged in the same way—Gospels, Acts, Letters, and Revelation. The only English-language translation of the Bible that uses the Septuagint as its Old Testament is the Orthodox Study Bible.

Synoptic Gospels
The synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Synoptic means with one eye, signifying that the synoptic gospels, as opposed to the gospel according to John, tend to have the same perspective on Jesus’ ministry.