Invitation to The Scripture Sampler

For 2,000 years the one book which has had more impact than any other writing on the history of the world has been the Bible. The stories, leg­ends, poems, sermons and letters collected in this book have captured the imagination of men and women and invited their response.   

In other words, the biblical literature is the most influential collection of documents ever to be assembled. Although the various writings were first composed to meet some rather specific issues in the ancestral history of the Jewish people and in the life of the early Christian community, they have since become canonized and enshrined as the world’s most widely read religious authority.
As such they have been valued as the Sacred Scriptures of Europe, their values have been embedded in the traditions of Western civilization, and they have thereby impacted the history of the entire world. The Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia—all have histories and communiies which value these writings. For nearly nineteen centuries the Bible has been used—and in many cases abused—to justify its readers’ personal, social and political agendas. Its impact is beyond calculation.

So for better or worse, the Bible remains a formidable factor in the cultural makeup of the modern world. No well-educated person in the 21st century can afford not to be familiar with the Bible’s teachings. Yet too few of us have a working knowledge of the biblical literature.

The Scripture Sampler offers resources which will help us appreciate the literary shape of the biblical texts, the historical background in which they were written, and the religious impact they can make on us as they continue to critique and encourage modern readers.

The Jewish scriptures, originally written in Heb­rew and Aramaic, are the sacred literature of the Jewish people. They tell how the nation of Israel was chosen by God to serve as his people, how he made a covenant with them, how he punished them when they broke it, and how he repeatedly restored them when they repented. 

The Apocryphal books are also part of the Jewish legacy, but were not included within their final collection of official writings.

The Christian scriptures, originally written in Greek, are the writings of the early church. They affirm that God’s fullest revelation is to be found in Jesus. His self-giving style of living and dying shows that God’s love and forgiveness are for all men and women everywhere.

In the process of collecting these documents, the Jewish and the Christian communities preserved a fascinating variety of writings. While the texts deal with a common core of themes which touch on the depths of human experience, they often offer disparate, even conflicting perspectives. Thus the biblical literature embodies a number of tensions:
  ●        between the all-powerful God who controls all of creation, and the vulnerable God who ident­ifies
                  with our human history;
  ●        between a human condition that is rightly centered in its relationships, and the predica­ment of men
                  and women who have lost their integrity;
  ●        between God’s conditional demands for im­provement, and God’s unconditional offers of grace
                  and acceptance.

Obviously, in order to understand the Scrptures, we need to know how to interpret them. Since the 1800s scholars have developed two broad approaches for studying the biblical texts.

Traditional hisorical criticism examines a text
against the historical context in which it originated,
paying special attention to its author, recipients, occasion and purpose,
in order to understand how the text was understood by its original recipients.

Historical analysis is not just about critiquing the biblical text; more importantly historical studies help us critique our own understanding of the texts. This keeps us from imposing our 21st century values and perspectives on ancient documents which are some 2000 to 3000 years old, and which are so culturally removed from us that we can scarcely imagine ourselves back in their world.
Questions such as these will help us assess the texts’ historical dimension:
  • Do we know who wrote this document? When? Where? Why? To whom?
  • Are there any important discrepancies in the text, or alternate translations?
  • Did the author make use of other sources or materials?
  • What social values or cultural traditions lie behind this text?
  • Does it agree with, or contradict, secular writings from the same time and place?
  • How would this writing have been used in the ancient Jewish or early Christian communities?
Contemporary literary criticism examines a text
against the literary context it makes for itself,
paying special attention to its inherent rhetorical, poetical, structural, and symbolic devices,
in order to understand how the text continues to function and affect modern readers.

The Bible contains three basic kinds of literature: narrative, discursive, and poetic. 
Much of the material is narrative; it tells the overall story of how God deals with people. The three essential ingredients in any story are character, plot and setting. “Someone...has to do something...somewhere.” So questions like these will be helpful when we read stories:
  • Who are the main characters in this story?
  • Who are the protagonists, the heroes?
  • Who are the opponents or villains?
  • With which character would you identify? 
  • What is the plot of this narrative?
  • Is this a story of conflict, or journey, or psychological growth?
  • How does the setting affect the emotional tone of the story?
  • Is the story tragic, or comedic?

In the case of discursive materials, these sorts of questions will help us better understand the content of the message: 
  • How can we outline the author’s argument? 
  • What supporting evidence is used? 
  • Does the author appeal to personal experiences? 
  • Are quotations from other biblical books brought into play?
  • Can we detect any Greco-Roman or Jewish rhetorical devices?
In the case of poetic material, questions like these will be helpful:
  • What images does the poet use here? 
  • Do the lines balance each other? 
  • If so, in what ways? 
  • How do any metaphors or comparisons picture God and creation and our own situation? 

Using both historical and literary approaches helps us interpret not only “the world behind the text,” that is, the significance it once had for its original author and audience, but also “the world in front of the text,” that is, the meaning it continues to have for us today.

To start looking at a text historically, try asking: 
  • Which people, places, events or customs need to be explained?

To start looking at the literary dimensions of any biblical passage ask: 
  • What sort of writing is this? Its genre? How is it structured or outlined?
 In addition to scholarly historical and literary studies, religious communities have also employed another pair of approaches.

Confessional theological analysis explores the content of a text
against a functional understanding of its message,
paying special attention to how it affects us as Law and Gospel within the community,
in order to articulate the church’s doctrine and ethics in the contemporary world.

The Bible determines our dogma, not vice versa, which is why theological reflection properly comes after literary and historical engagement with the text itself. Furthermore, we need to focus not only on doctrinal truths, but also on ethical practices, for the Bible is to inform both our faith and our life.
Also, we have always been good at applying the Scriptures to our personal and family situations; now we also need to expand our horizons to see how they apply to our larger social and political contexts. So questions like these will help us get at a theological understanding of biblical texts:
  • Do we hear this passage as Law? Is it a word of command or judgment? Does it critique, embarrass or condemn us?           Is it thumbs down?
  • Or do we hear it as Gospel?  Is it a word of promise and hope? Does it encourage, uplift or forgive us?                                    Is it thumbs up?
  • Is the teaching in this passage expressed clearly and obviously? 
  • Or must we infer or deduce the doctrine from what we read?
  • If the content is ethical instruction, is it culturally conditioned and therefore open to revision in new contexts? 
  • Or is it eternally valid just as it stands?
  • How does this apply to our personal, family and churchly lives?
  • How does this apply to our community and social and political lives?
For many Christians, our most frequent encounter with the Scriptures occurs when we are praying or reading inspirational materials. This is a personal experience, whether we are reading individually, as a family or in a small group, as this definition suggests: 

Personal devotional analysis meditates on a text
within the context of one’s prayer life,
paying special attention to its inspiring, nurturing and challenging properties,
in order to comfort and strengthen Christians in their journey through life toward eternity.
The style of our devotional use of the Bible may be quite different from one person to another. Thus the questions we ask must be open-ended and allow for various correct responses. Try some of these:
  • What words or images in this passage strike your imagination?
  • Does this passage help you feel closer to God?
  • Does it call you to repentance, or to give up some harmful practice?
  • Does it summon you to action on behalf of your neighbor? On behalf of society?
  • Does it lift your spirits?  Does it offer comfort and encouragement?
  • Think about how this passage makes you feel. Can you describe that emotion?
  • Can you rephrase the words of this text to turn it into a prayer?

Here are three helpful suggestions: First, find ways to read the Bible together in small groups. The Scriptures were originally addressed to communities, and they still resonate best and achieve their maximum effect when we study them with others who share a commitment to explore our insights together.

Second, focus on the ways in which the biblical writings intersect modern lives and impact us both positively and negatively. We need to hear both polarities: Law and Gospel, accusation and forgiveness, condemnation and salvation. The way the Bible functions—whether it critiques or affirms our human existence—accounts for its continuing authority today.

Third, explore how biblical insights address issues both in our personal and family lives and also in our larger social and political lives. Both arenas, public and private, deserve consideration because the documents in the Bible were originally directed toward the communities of God’s people.
When we are sympathetic and open-minded readers and allow the biblical texts to address our own lives, we can experience a rewarding convergence: The scriptural documents record the overarching story of how God deals with humanity both in judgment and in grace. As the “lawing” and “gospeling” effects of the Bible’s message impact our lives, we will come to experience the presence of the God who acts in history.

Both in form and content the Scriptures function in ways which continue to challenge and encourage us today. In this way the Bible enables us to experience how the God of the Bible purports to deal with humanity. The result is we may come to value these ancient documents as the inspired, and inspiring, Word of God. Although one cannot determine in advance whether any writing deserves such honor, the common reaction of millions of people over the centuries has been to respond to the biblical witness by valuing it as the revelation of God’s own Word.