The Christocentric Calendar

Dennis the Short (470-544 CE) or Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk who worked in Rome, came up with the idea of dating everything from the birth of Christ, instead of the Roman counsels who had held office.  In 525 CE, he developed his Christocentric calendar, but he was off by a few years in his calculations, since Jesus may have lived from 6 BCE-26 CE.  His dating system was known as Anno Domini, the year of Our Lord.  This AD system did not become popular until the Carolingian Reform of the 9th ninth century and the promulgation of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century.  Since then, all world events have centered on the birth of Christ.  At the 2000 millennium year celebrations even non-Christian countries such as China and India celebrated the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.  In the twentieth century, Jewish and Christian scholars adopted the term CE, or Common Era, showing a neutral stance towards Christ.  Now practically every country dates things from the birth of Christ, whether they consider themselves Christian or not.  2018 CE means 2018 years since the birth of Christ, the Common Era.  The time before Christ is called BC, before the Common Era, BCE.

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How to Study the Bible

Scriptural Study

There are many ways to study the Bible since it is a great book of literature, one of the most studied books of all time. There are a number of technical ways to study the biblical texts.

(1)   Textual criticism is where you study variants in the original Hebrew or Greek texts that are all from the third century on.

(2)   Source criticism has been an attempt to trace the oral traditions before it was written down so that the practically every story is older than its written text.

(3)   Redaction criticism is the study of how the manuscript editions of the texts have changed, which is especially true in the four centuries before Christ, and the first and second century after Christ..

(4)   Comparing the biblical writings with writings from the same era is known as comparative literature study since there are not that many writings to compare.

(5)   Also the finds of Biblical archaeology sites has intensified our knowledge of Biblical times, especially in the Israelite territories.

There were different literary forms that came under the various cultural human influences.  Originally, many thought Moses wrote all the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.  Bible scholars of the last century have been able to locate four distinct strands:

(1)   the Jahwist (J), (950 BCE)

(2)   the Elohist (E), (850 BCE)

(3)   the Deuteronomist (D),(650 BCE)

(4)   the Priestly (P) sources. (600-400 BCE).

The Priestly source put it altogether after the exile around 458 BCE, long after the death of Moses.  Scholars have developed documentary hypothesis with source criticism and careful analysis.

Dating an ancient document is never an exact science.  However, general scholarship about the New Testament books holds that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest Gospel.  The first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians is the oldest document, around the year 50 CE.  Mark, with a hypothetical other source (Q = Quelle), that is now lost, became the source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  The Gospel of John is generally considered to be the latest of the gospels, around 90 -100 CE.

The books of the Bible were formed gradually.  They are the product of Jewish and Christian religious communities that was 95% illiterate.  These stories were first word of mouth, then later in writings.  Moses did not write all the books of the Pentateuch.  Paul did not write all the letters ascribed to him.  Matthew and Luke partially rewrote Mark with other sources.

 

History versus story

In what sense are these books literal interpretations of what is happening?  History means different things to differ people.  The idea of footnoting has become a general practice that was not known over a thousand years ago.  History sometimes refers to a good story.  Even in our own lifetime we can still argue about the events surrounding the deaths of President John Kennedy, the victims at the OJ Simpson house, or Trayvon Martin.  Thus, it does not seem out of place to question events that supposedly took place either pre-historically or thousands of years ago. They did not have to happen exactly as detailed by men hundreds of years after the events.

These myths are not lies, but stories.  Story telling is an important human activity and essential to the life of any society.  Myths awaken and maintain an experience of awe in the face of the ultimate religious mystery.  Myths explain where the world came from and where it is going.  Myth promotes virtues and a certain social ethical order.  Myth gives individuals a role and identity much like our modern psychology.  Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) and Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) have shown that myth is not a negative but a positive part of life.  If we do not have religious myths, people create their own secular myths in sports, like baseball and football.

            Christian Reflection on the Bible

The Bible, particularly the Christian New Testament, represents the source and foundation of any Christian reflection.  Scripture alone (sola scriptura) sounds easy enough until you realize that there is always an individual human interpretation or an established communitarian way of interpreting the Bible because it is a ‘living document.’  Layers of understanding continue to develop with each new reading.  Thus various biblical passages have served as the source of theological conflict for many centuries.

The Old Testament Hebrew Bible raises questions of interpretation for a Christian.  To what extent am I projecting Christian views and values on the children of Israel, the people of Israel, or the Israelites?  These are the various terms that translators have used to describe the slowing forming group of Yahweh believers of over three thousand years ago.  Yahweh was their God and intervened in their lives and they had a special relationship or covenant with him.  The Hebrew sacred writings were incorporated into Christianity because all the early Christians were Jewish.  However, the writings were not originally meant for Christians but for the Hebrew people.  Can I really fully understand the Semitic thought process of three thousand years ago?  Will I be able to appreciation how important the promised land of Israel is to Jewish people?  How the exodus from Egypt, the Temple, the exile and the various codes played an important role in their lives? I can try, but I doubt if I will be fully successful.

The New Testament language is important for any further Christian theological development.  Twentieth century linguistic analysis has shown the importance of communicative word structures to express realities.  Words are human expressions of reality, but words convey meaning and feeling only within an understandable shared grammatical linguistic social structure.  The authentic meaning of an utterance does not lie in a dictionary, but within the mind of the expression’s originator.  Words exist in a specific historic time and place.  However some words endure and transcend spatial temporal limitations, while other words get lost in a particular misunderstood context.  We now know the importance of the post biblical history of the scriptural texts, the Wirkungsgeschichte, the reception and the interpretation of the biblical texts in a historical context with their variegated meanings.

The study of words and actions, written about and by people who lived many years ago in a far away land with a different language and symbol structure, has inherent difficulties as has been shown by biblical hermeneutic research.  To understand the origins of Christianity, I must be cognizant about first century Palestinian Jewish cultural condition as well as my own biases.  I need to avoid projecting my own experiences and prejudices upon documents written thousands of years ago.  Can I ever really fully understand the men and women of the Mediterranean area who lived over two thousand years ago?  I can try.  Fortunately, a few of these early followers of Jesus, among the elite literate well educated of their time, left some sparse written evidence.  Their cosmology, their economics, and their sociology are not mine.  I must be aware of this from the start.

The traditional canonical Greek bible, the standard collection of twenty-seven books of the New Testament, centers on the good news about Jesus the ‘Christ’, literally ‘the anointed one’, and his followers.  The collected canon of biblical books during the first four centuries is in itself an indication of how the value of these texts developed slowly and emerged over time.  These diverse inspired authors of the second half of the first century of the Christian era provide a basic insight into the thought and practices of the primitive Christian communities.  Our shared sacred documents also reveal information about the perceived role of the Holy Spirit in the activities and expectations of the newly forming Christian communities.

The New Testament was written in Greek, so I must be even more cautious when dealing with the meanings of English or Latin terms derived from the Greek biblical texts.  How did the early followers of Jesus Christ understand themselves and their symbolic activities?

 

My Understanding of the Bible

What is the Bible?

The Bible is the most published book of all time, existing in virtually every human language.  One of the first books printed off the original German Guttenberg Press in the fifteenth century (1440) was a Latin Vulgate copy of the Bible.  What a strange great literary work, or more precisely a series of books, that has had a profound effect on the world. In fact, most of the great works of Western European civilization assume some biblical knowledge. The Bible serves as the source book or “Word of God” for over two billion Christians.

Although many believe that the English translation of the King James Version of Bible is inspired, the actual inspired words of the Bible were written in Hebrew and Greek.  The Vulgate Latin translation of St. Jerome in the fourth century remained the dominant normative translation of the original Hebrew and Greek texts for over a thousand years during the European Middle Ages.  In fact, Jerome relied on the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew version of the Bible.

The two major parts of the Christian Bible are the Old Testament and the New Testament.  The New Testament books make references to the Old Testament works.  The New Testament canon was not referred to until the second century.  Consensus on its contents did not occur until the late fourth century.  The Old Testament or Hebrew canon has an even more complicated history.  Often, people are surprised to learn that two-thirds of what we call the Christian Bible actually existed before the time of Christ and describes the words and actions of God’s interaction with his promised chosen people, the Hebrews or Jews.

When you ask young people what they know about the Bible, they might be able to sing the little Bible song, “How do you know that Jesus love you?  I know that Jesus loves me, because the Bible tells me so.”  Most of us have this sentimental approach to the Bible as a book with a lot of nice stories about Adam and Eve, Moses, and Jesus.  We see the Bible as some sort of instruction manual on how to live a supposed good life.  Somehow, the Bible serves as a backup proof text for all the great questions in life.  A biblical response is either good or bad, not subject to argumentation.  You can only discuss the text.  Putting your life and belief system in the Bible means that you are trumping every other argument.  “The Bible tells me so” ends the discussion and the argument.  You can only agree, disagree, or argue about the meaning of the text.

The Bible is the record of the Hebrew people and the early Christians.  These human authors worked under the influence of God’s Spirit.  Yet at the same time, they were under the influence of their community and culture.  Why these stories and words?  Christians believe that the biblical phrases are God’s words in human terms in content and message.  Their history and science is true for its time.  They believed what they were writing.

History is always an interpretation.  In fact, our concept of what is history is always changing.  The result is that a literal interpretation means that you have to understand what they were trying to say about God.  There is nothing wrong with different points of view or inconsistencies.  The first two chapters of Genesis are not contradictory.  The synoptic gospels give different versions of the Baptism of Jesus.  Most of us just say “so what?”  We understand different points of view.  The Bible had different authors over a considerable amount of time.  The Old Testament took hundreds of years to complete.  The New Testament took thirty to sixty years to finish.  Very few people could write, so that the oral tradition dominated during this period of time.  The texts themselves were rewritten so that we say that the texts we have with all its corrections are the ones that God wants us to have.

Jesus did not write anything because he lived in a predominant oral society.  The apostles of Jesus followed suit and transmitted the living oral tradition to their disciples and the new followers of Christ.  The apostles did not need to write anything since they could explain everything.  However, once Christianity moved out of Jerusalem there was a need to write things down in a more permanent record.  The early Pauline letters to the new Christian Churches show how Christianity spread.  Increasing space and distance from the place of Jerusalem and the time of Christ developed.  In order to prevent heresy or diverse views and encourage the early Christians in the face of persecution the need for a written record became evident.

 

Criteria for the Sacred Books

The first collection of these Christian books (biblia) was the Pauline letters and the Acts of the Apostles around the year 100 CE.  The collection of the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were present by the year 200 CE.  By 367 CE, Christians had arrived at a consensus about the twenty-seven books of the New Testament that we have today. The criteria for the sacred books of the biblical New Testament were:

(1)   a connection with the apostles,

(2)   a connection to one of the major Churches,

(3)   being orthodox in its views.

Over seventy different versions of gospels, acts, and epistles by various Christians appeared in the second and third century but did not make it into the official canonical Bible.  They are offered referred to as the apocryphal, hidden, or lost books of the Bible.  Scholars have been interested in these books to help us understand what some Christian people were thinking about at that time.  Our extant existing Greek texts come from the third and fourth centuries.

The Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures were the scriptures mentioned in the New Testament writings.  In what sense are these inspired writings?  There have been a number of theories to explain this.  Was the writer possessed by God in a hypnotic state?  Did God verbally dictate every word?  Did God provide negative assistance to make sure that the writer did not err?  Is this inspiration retroactive?  Every word in the Bible is true if we understand the literary form.  There was a divine influence on the minds and wills of the biblical writers, but they lived and wrote in a specific time and place.

            The Books of the Bible

The Old Testament takes up two-thirds of the Christian Bible.  Hebrew Scriptures (Tanakh) are divided into

(1)   the Law or Instruction (Torah),

(2)   the Prophets (Nev’im),

(3)   and the Writings (Ketuvim).

New Testament literature used these three terms to refer to the Hebrew Scriptures, the only Bible that they knew.  Most of the final codification of the Hebrew Bible took place after the Exile in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ.

           

The Law

The Law, the Torah, or the Pentateuch, consists of first five books that were developed over a number of years but firmly established around 400 BCE.

The five books of the Pentateuch are:

(1)   Genesis (10th-5th century BCE),

(2)   Exodus (450 BCE),

(3)   Leviticus (550-400 BCE),

(4)   Numbers (550-400 BCE),

(5)   Deuteronomy (7th-6th century BCE).

 

The Prophets

The former prophets are the so called historical works.  These works tell us of the establishment of the Israelites in Palestine and the troubles that they faced.

(1)   Joshua (8th-7th century BCE),

(2)   Judges (7th-6th century BCE),

(3)   1 Samuel (7th-6th century BCE),

(4)   2 Samuel (7th-6th century BCE),

(5)   1 Kings (7th-6th century BCE),

(6)   2 Kings (7th-6th century BCE).

The later prophets are what we normally think of as prophets, those who stand out against the authority and ask to reform things to the ways of God.  They are normally divided into the three Major Prophets and the twelve Minor Prophets.  The three most famous Major Prophets are:

(1)   Isaiah (lived in the 8th century BCE, but finished around 6th century BCE),

(2)   Jeremiah (6th century BCE),

(3)   Ezekiel (6th century BCE).

The twelve Minor Prophets are:

(1)   Hosea (8th century BCE),

(2)   Joel (8th -5th century BCE),

(3)   Amos (8th century BCE),

(4)   Obadiah (6th century BCE),

(5)   Jonah (6th century BCE),

(6)   Micah (8th century BCE),

(7)   Nahum (8th century BCE),

(8)   Habakkuk (7th century BCE),

(9)   Zephaniah (7th century BCE),

(10)           Haggai (6th century BCE),

(11)           Zechariah (6th century BCE),

(12)           Malachi (5th century BCE).

 

The Writings

The Writings as they are referred to in the New Testament are the poetic or wisdom books:

(1)   Psalms (David, 150 psalms from 12th – 4th century BCE),

(2)   Proverbs (Solomon, 9th century BCE)

(3)   Job (6th century BCE)

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Then the five scrolls:

(4)   Song of Solomon, Song of Songs (6th century BCE),

(5)   Ruth (9th – 6th century BCE),

(6)   Lamentations (6th century BCE),

(7)   Ecclesiastes (4th century BCE),

(8)   Esther (4th century BCE),

(9)   Daniel (6th -2th century BCE),

(10)           Ezra-Nehemiah (4th century BCE),

(11)           1 and 2 Chronicles (5th – 3rd century BCE).

The Septuagint

The Septuagint, or the Jewish Alexandrian Greek translation of the Hebrew texts from the third to the first century BCE, contains seven extra books that were not in the Hebrew Bible.  The Roman Catholic Bible editions usually include these works, while many of the Protestant Bibles, particularly the King James Bible uses only the Hebrew texts.  The seven extra books are:

(1)   Tobit,

(2)   Judith,

(3)   1 Maccabees,

(4)   2 Maccabees,

(5)   Wisdom of Solomon,

(6)   Ecclesiasticus or Sirach,

(7)   Baruch.

The Greek Orthodox editions use the Greek Septuagint, plus five other books:

(1)   Esdras 1,

(2)   Esdras 2,

(3)   The Prayer of Manasseh,

(4)   3 Maccabees,

(5)   4 Maccabees.

 

New Testament Books

Most Christians agree on all the twenty seven books that make up the New Testament.  Obviously various Christian groups emphasize one or another of these books as more important.  All the books of the New Testament were written in Greek, the literary language of the Roman Empire.

There are four gospels:

(1)   The Gospel of Matthew (70-100 CE)

(2)   The Gospel of Mark (60-70 CE)

(3)   The Gospel of Luke (80-90 CE)

(4)   The Gospel of John (90-100 CE)

The Acts of the Apostles (80-90 CE, associated with Luke) describe the activities of the early Christians.

The Book of Revelation (70-100 CE) is apocalyptic in nature as it describes the end times.

There are fourteen Pauline epistles, letters generally attributed to the apostle Paul.  Epistle is the Greek name for a letter.  Nine of these Pauline epistles are addressed to the seven Christian Churches that he had visited:

(1)   Romans (53-57 CE),

(2)   1 Corinthians (53-57 CE),

(3)   2 Corinthians (53-57 CE),

(4)   Galatians (late 50s CE),

(5)   Ephesians (early 60s CE),

(6)   Philippians (early 60s CE),

(7)   Colossians (late 50s, early 60s CE),

(8)   1 Thessalonians (early 50s CE, perhaps oldest document of NT),

(9)   2 Thessalonians (early to late 60s CE);

Five other Pauline associated epistles are also part of the New Testament canon:

(1)   1 Timothy (late 60s – 100 CE),

(2)   2 Timothy (late 60s – 100 CE),

(3)   Titus (late 60s – 100 CE),

(4)   Philemon (late 50s, early 60s CE),

(5)    Hebrews (late 60s – 100 CE).

There are seven other letters that are not addressed to a specific church, but are universalistic or catholic in nature:

(1)   James (90s – 100 CE),

(2)   1 Peter (late 60s – 110 CE),

(3)   2 Peter (late 60s – 130 CE),

(4)   1 John (100 – 110 CE),

(5)   2 John (100 – 110 CE),

(6)   3 John (100 – 110 CE),

(7)   Jude (70-90 CE).