The Bible consists of a rich array of material full of many different literary forms (genres). There are epistles (letters) to groups and individuals, oracles and prophesies, hymns for various usage, laws, proverbs, codes and encryptions, apocalyptic writings and of course the gospels recording Jesus' acts, parables and stories as well as the responses of people and the theological importance of these events.
There are sixty-six books contained in the Bible traditionally attributed to forty different (human) authors. The writing of these books span over a thousand years from the first writing to the last, some of the source material used for the scriptures was centuries older derived from the oral tradition of the Hebrew culture. There are a variety of settings and places at where the parts of the bible came to be, it straddles Egypt the land of the pyramids and Pharaohs, the land of Canaan which became Israel, Babylon the land of the Chaldeans, the Persians and the Medes had to do with it, Lebanon and Cypress too, some of it was written in Rome and at other places of the Roman Empire.
In the Bible there is the New Testament and the Old Testament. The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament are grouped into four or five major groupings. The first five books make up the Pentateuch or Torah, Torah is Hebrew for Law. Then there are the Former Prophets, the Wisdom Writings, and the Latter Prophets. The Latter Prophets are classified further into the Major Prophets and Minor Prophets, classed as such by what the actual length of the book is.
The twenty seven New Testament books consists of three synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John, The Acts of the Apostles, the Apostolic letters and the last book of the New Testament and the Bible, The Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse.
The books of the Bible were originally written in Hebrew or Greek with some of the Book of Daniel written in Aramaic. Often the exact meaning of pieces of scripture does not translate well into our languages.
So there are numerous books in the bible, falling into different groupings and sub-groups, these were written by a number of people. The writings are of a variety of types and were written a long time ago over a long period of time in ancient languages and were set in different places and conditions. Much time and effort is put into studying the scriptures by academic scholars to derive what is meant by the different passages, this is called exegesis. Literary Criticism is the science used to investigate the passage and exegete it. Exegesis is to draw the meaning out of the word, verse, or passage. A satellite orbiting the earth using different frequencies of light to view the earth other than visible light can pick out and map features not apparent in just visible light e.g. hot and cold spots, geological forms beneath the sea or forest, even if a crop needs watering. So too are different methods applied in researching scripture, each adding more to the overall picture. In Literary Criticism there is Form Criticism, Textual Criticism, Traditio-Historical Criticism, Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism, each one another wavelength used in viewing the scriptures. Archaeology and anthropology make contributions to this field.
The whole structure of the writing is looked at, what is the genre or genres of the text. The content and themes of scripture are more fully appreciated when the Sitz-im-Leben, the situation in life, is realized. In our life situation we can readily recognize the form of a business letter as opposed to a letter from a friend, so too the life situation has to be taken into consideration of the different passages of scripture to glean the appropriate message. Is the text prophesying or a liturgical setting? To whom is it addressed and who is speaking? Who wrote the passage?
The text is studied in detail. Words and verses are looked at in their context. When a meaning of a word is unclear other places in the Bible where the word is used are looked up as well as other non-canonical writing, preferably from the same period as the text. This enables a "feel" for the word to develop and hopefully the meaning of the word is arrived at.
The actual history of text is viewed, was it part of an oral tradition before being committed into writing? Has the text undergone any redaction? Is its authorship simple or complex?
The social and political scene at the time a piece of scripture was written is considered. Different cultures have different ways. Study of history and understanding the traditions of the culture are expedient to understanding the scriptures that have come to us from those times. For example in Genesis chapter thirty-one Jacob and his family fled from his uncle Laban. Unknown to Jacob his wife Rachel stole her father Laban's household gods. When Laban caught up with Jacob Laban accused Jacob of stealing the household gods and made a search for them. Rachel had put the idols inside her camel's saddlebag and was sitting on them. Rachel excused herself to her father for not standing before him as she had her period so Laban did not search the saddle and did not find his household gods. This story is more than just about Rachel's craftiness in escaping detection. By understanding the Hebrew world-view we see the narrator making a gross insult on the Laban's idols being sat upon by a menstruating woman. In the Israelite culture a woman having her period made for a spiritual uncleanness. Refer to Leviticus 15:19-23 for their view on the matter.
The bible is an earthly book, often the subject matter is of a coarse or lewd nature. Some people accuse the bible of being violent, full of murder, sex, incest etc. This is said to malign but these things are reflection on fallen mankind and are not present for gratis violence or pornographic reasons. Some who start to read the bible are surprised at its some of the contents; "That's not very nice, fancy the bible containing those things!" The bible in no way condones fornication or wanton violence but rather is a true account of a real world, a fallen world, a sick and dying world. To portray otherwise would be false. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah for example, is not so as to indulge perverse delight in what those in habitants did. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah serves as an example of the punishment of eternal fire of those immoral inhabitants indulging in unnatural lust, (see Jude verse seven). So the bible is an earthy book.
Although the Bible has a variety of books and human authors spanning millennia in its formation with many different factors coming into play the Bible is a single work as well and must be viewed as such. Literary Criticism is applicable to the Bible as it is to the works of Shakespeare or Homer; however this is not sufficient, it is helpful but not adequate. The Bible must be viewed in its own light as well. The threads that appear at one place in the Bible are also present elsewhere in the Bible. Even through the diversity the scriptures have continuity.
Let's pull on some threads. The character Melchizedek is only present in person in three verses in the Bible, in Gen. 14:18-20. In these verses Melchizedek meets Abraham with bread and wine on Abraham's successful return from rescuing Lot and his household, Lot is Abraham's nephew, who had been taken captive in a regional war. Melchizedek is the king of Salem (Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High. Abraham gives a tenth of everything to Melchizedek. Then in Psalm 110 in a prophecy about the Christ, the Messiah, it says in verse 4 "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, 'You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek'." The full importance of this one verse can only be realized when viewed in the old covenantal backdrop of the Levitical priesthood and all those laws and regulations The New Testament book, Hebrews, explains what great significance this verse from Psalm 110 has, especially that it is not along the lines of the established priestly tradition and draws out the great significance those three verses in Genesis have; that Jesus Christ's priesthood and person is timeless and of eternity, that Jesus is the King of Righteousness- the meaning of Melchizedek's name, and the King of Peace- Salem or shalom. Another element of continuity of Genesis 14:18-20 is the bread and wine Melchizedek brought out of which the true meaning came to be revealed and fulfilled by Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews was writing to those who were already versed in the true meaning of the bread and wine and does not elaborate but here again there are whole chapters bundled into a few words. The bible has elegance.
Abraham and Melchizedek's time was around 2000 BC; Psalm 110 was composed by the prophet King David around 1000 BC. The Levitical priesthood and the Law were first instituted by Moses around 1300 BC and are contained in the books Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The book of Hebrews was written in the first century AD. We see from the various books a great theme emerge. Breaking open a little egg, the three verses of Genesis 14:18-20 and a fully fledged eagle flies out; they contain volumes, alluded to in Psalm 110, expanded upon by Hebrews in contrast to the Mosaic order, all of these being about Jesus the Christ. The Messiah is one of the central themes of the bible, as noted the bible reflects a grubby fallen world but testifies to a loving God and saviour.
It does well to research the time and places as well as the circumstances and people of pieces of scripture however often the true significance of a piece of scripture is for another time, place, circumstance and people or person. There is a double reference or even more. One example of this is from the book of Zechariah chapter eleven verses four and on to the end of the chapter. Zechariah is telling the people of his time about the contemporary situation. Zechariah in chapter eleven portrays a good shepherd rejected by his sheep (a strange occurrence!). So Zechariah stopped being shepherd of the sheep annulling his duty to the sheep, for his wages he received thirty shekels of silver from those who traded in the sheep. Zechariah then says that the Lord told him to cast the thirty pieces into the treasury (some ancient manuscripts say cast to the potter). Zechariah in biting sarcasm calls it the handsome price he was paid off by the people- thirty shekels of silver is the traditional price of a slave, Ex. 21:32. Zechariah then portrays a worthless shepherd who exploits the sheep. The contemporary meaning at the time for Zechariah's acted out parable is that the Israelites have rejected and despised God. God no longer affords the covenantal protection for his people as they have broken the covenant. Because of this they are ruled by those who exploit them and will come to be under the power of a tyrant.
Zechariah was also portraying the future. A lot of people know that the apostle Judas betrayed Jesus to the chief priests and leading men of the Jews in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. When Judas saw that Jesus was condemned he brought back the money saying, "I sinned in betraying innocent blood", the chief priests and elders replied, "What is that to us? See to it yourself'. Judas threw the money down in the temple and went and hanged himself. The chief priests discussed what to do with the money, as it was blood money they could not put it in the treasury, so they bought the potter's field in which to bury foreigners in. Purchase of land for a cemetery made good financial sense since it was their responsibility to dispose of the corpses of those who died in Jerusalem on pilgrimage.
This passage from the book of Zechariah is a prophecy about Jesus centuries before his coming. The good shepherd is Jesus, in John 10:11 he tells us he is. We see Jesus' betrayal priced at thirty pieces of silver that came to be used to buy a potter's field. Matthew 27:9-10 quotes Zechariah 11:12-13 as being fulfilled by the betrayal of Jesus and the purchase of the field from the proceeds. Interestingly Matthew attributes the passage he quotes to Jeremiah not Zechariah. Jeremiah does have references to the potter but not the passage Matthew quotes which is Zechariah's. A human mistake on the part of Matthew in God's inspired work-or is there a deeper reason? In actual fact because the chief priests and elders rejected the Holy Spirit and despised God's plan for them God used them in another way- just as the potter in Jeremiah reworked the vessel that spoiled in his hand into another vessel as it seemed good to him to do. So this aspect to the scenario is incorporated into Matthew's Gospel by Matthew's mistake.
Further to the Zechariah 11:4-17 rebuke and warning of the Israel of that time it was a foretelling the time centuries later when Jesus the good shepherd was rejected by the people and there is yet to be a complete fulfilment. The worthless shepherd has not yet come, his type has already come and is already here but the epitome of such is yet to arise. The worthless shepherd referred to in Zechariah is the false prophet of the book of Revelation, commonly called the Antichrist.
The Bible is a single work and it must be weighed up with its own self. Greater depth to this passage from Zechariah is seen in John 13. In John 13 Jesus washes the feet of the apostles, washing the feet was the work of a lowly slave. Jesus did this to set an example for the apostles, (and other disciples), to follow. It is also the explanation and reason for Jesus' ministry and vocation. Jesus is recorded to say in Matthew 20:28-"even as the Son of man (Jesus) came not to be served but to serve and give his life as ransom for many" (brackets mine). Also Phil. 2:6-7 states "who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of man". Although the apostles did not understand the washing of their feet at once, it became plain to them soon after in the cross.
So the traditional price of a slave at thirty shekels of silver which the book of Zechariah foresaw the betrayal of Jesus fixed at speaks in a multiplicity. Aside from its contemporary meaning, its future meaning is on one hand about the rejection and contempt some of those had for Jesus of whom he had come for, and on the other hand the price points to Christ's ministry and call, his role as a servant. Passages of scripture are entrenched and telescoped into other passages. There is a whole language of symbols, signs and archetypes weaving several major themes. Even the nation Israel's history, recorded in the Bible, and God's dealings with them, are an acted out parable imbibed with meaning. If one piece of scripture is pulled on so many more pieces of scripture are also pulled on. Often the relevance of the different passages is not readily seen. Often it is heard of people saying how they have seen a particular verse or passage many times before only to be struck by the significance of it in a way they had not before perceived. The scriptures are a matrix of many dimensions. The bible has a holographic quality to it; a holograph is a type of photo done with lasers, the image is three dimensional. If it is cut in half then each half will show the whole picture, not just half a picture. If only a tenth of the photo was used, again the whole picture is still present and in three dimensions, (the picture size will be reduced and some finer definition lost). Viewing the scriptures in the context of scripture gives the biggest picture and the most detail but pieces of scripture still give the picture. Click on "…the great sea monsters…" in Gen.1:21 and it is a window to Daniel chapter seven and also Rev. 13 and elsewhere. In a later chapter more depth will be given to the use of apocryphal language of the bible.
Although the bible had around forty human authors and millennia and centuries of formation it is from the One God in eternity. God is the author of the bible, to properly explore the bible's depths takes the Spirit of God. Because it was the Spirit that inspired the scriptures the interpretation is not a matter of ones own. If there were two preachers, one of them had a PhD. in biblical studies and theology then that person would have certain knowledge. However if the second preacher did not have such an extensive education but was a Spirit filled Christian then this preacher would have a better acumen of God's word and a more fruitful ministry. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of wisdom and revelation, and the spirit who caused the scriptures. 2Peterl :20-2 1 "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." The bible is a spiritual book.
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