What the Holy Scriptures Are Really About

4 May 2016

I was a bit surprised by the reaction of some of my readers to my article on Mary Magdalene. As we pointed out in the Article, there is little in the Bible, the historical or archaeological records to support the contention the Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, or that she actually married Jesus. Rather, it seems, that the main source of this information are a few best selling authors and the associated block buster Hollywood movies. Unfortunately, such beliefs and misconceptions die hard even in the face of the available evidence. In any case, the main point of the article was that while Mary Magdalene was a sinner whom Jesus saved, she emerged as a faithful, devoted follower of the Lord, as well as a strong, independent leader in the early church. In this weeks article we look at the meaning of the words “Holy Scripture”. We are always hearing that this act or the other is wrong because the Holy Scripture says so. But what are we actually talking about when we use the term Holy Scripture? Richard Hooker, one of the great Anglican divines stated that we must base our reflections on Christian theological matters on the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.


What the Holy Scriptures Are Really About

The Holy Scriptures

The Holy Scriptures, commonly called the Bible, are the books of the Old and New Testament, other books called the Apocrypha, are often included in the Bible.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament consists of books written by the people of the Old Covenant before the birth of Christ, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to show how God was at work in nature and history. The books of the Old Testament really tell us the story of the Ancient People of God the Israelites commonly called the Hebrews and another name for the Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible. The books in the Old Testament were originally written in Biblical Hebrew or in some cases Biblical Aramaic. The oldest fragment of the Hebrew Bible so far discovered is dated 600 BCE and contains a version of the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:23–27)

The New Testament

The New Testament consist of books written by the people of the Old Covenant, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to set forth the life and teachings of Jesus and to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God for all people. Most scholars think that the Canonical Gospels were originally written in Greek about 40 to 80 years after Jesus's crucifixion which took place about 30 CE.  

The Apocrypha

The Apocrypha is a collection of books written by the people of the Old Covenant and read in the Church “for example of life and instruction of manners” but not used to establish doctrine. In many editions of the Holy Bible these occur in a special section between the Old and New Testament and are thus referred to as as Intertestamental books. The following books are usually included among the Apocrypha: Esdras (Book 1 and 2),Tobit, Judith, Rest of Esther, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremy, Song of the Three Children, Story of Susanna, The Idol Bel and the Dragon, Prayer of Manasseh, Maccabees (Books 1 and 2).

Apocryphal or Gnostic Gospels

We must be careful not to confuse these biblical Apocrypha which the so called Apocryphal or Gnostic Gospels. In 1945, at Nag Hammadi, a town in southern Egypt, some agricultural workers discovered a sealed ceramic jar which later turned out to contain a number of Christian texts dating back to the fourth-century. These  Nag Hammadi texts were written in Coptic which was the language of the early Christian Church in Egypt.  The discovery includes a number of "Gospels" including the  Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and the Acts of Peter. These texts were not originally included in the New Testament because the content didn't conform to Christian doctrine, and are thus referred to as “Apocryphal”  (Greek for hidden) or in more recent times Gnostic Scriptures. Gnosticism is a modern term for a collection of ancient religions whose adherents shunned the material world and embraced the spiritual world. Gnosticism mixed elements of mysticism, Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity.  It should be noted that these Apocryphal texts tend to date from a much later period than the Canonical Gospels.  However, while these are not Biblical texts, many experts still believe that they give us significant insights into Christian history particularly about the struggles between early Christian or Christian like sects with different views about salvation, the role of the Church or even the theological significance of Jesus.  Finally, it should be noted that  despite the exaggerated claims of some, there is actually very little in the non-Canonical Gospels to challenge the authenticity of the New Testament. In many instances these texts just reinvent and embellish the story of Jesus that is already contained in the Canonical New Testament rather that introducing  new historical or eye witness material.   Paul Foster’s book the Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction provides a great introduction to this fascinating topic.

The Maccabees Bible

These books have a special meaning and power. They are found among the Apocrypha, but they tell the story of how God’s people waged war on the Greeks who attempted to force them into idolatry. Antioch Epiphanes, a General of Alexander the Great, decided to put a statue in Temple of Jerusalem. Judas and Jonathan Maccabees led a revolt against this idolatry. Moreover, the Jews were forced to change their eating habits ad mode of dress. The Greeks were not content to conquer the Ancient peoples through the prowess of their army, but were out to replace Jewish Culture by Hellenistic patterns. Here we have a wholesale process of Imperialism.

Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God.

We call them the word of God because the Holy Spirit inspired their human authors. The Holy Scriptures witness to Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word. God still speaks to us through the Bible.

Inspiration

Inspiration does not mean that the Biblical writers knew everything about History, Art, Sciences, Politics or even Theology. They wrote from their imperfect knowledge and context. The Holy Spirit guided the writers in spite of their imperfection, and one cannot categorically state that everything written down in the Bible is free from human error. As an Anglican, I do not subscribe to the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Scripture, i.e there are no human errors in the Bible.  

The Meaning of the Bible

We understand the meaning of the Holy Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the church in the true interpretation of the scriptures. As an Anglican, I know my faith through reflection on the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the traditions of the Church - The Creeds, the Sacraments, the Liturgies and by applying the teaching of scripture and tradition to our context and reality. Human reason must play an important part in knowing ones faith. In this regard, we would all do well to adopt the motto of Saint Anslem of Canterbury, the eleventh century theologian and philosopher of  "faith seeking understanding"