S for Scriptures


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We continue our series on…

The A- Z of the Christian Faith

S is for the Scriptures.

In our A-Z this month we are going to look at the sacred writings of the Christian Faith known as the Scriptures or the Holy Bible. We now generally read the scriptures from the format of a book, scrolls are not so common now! But having it all together like any book can make us forget that the Scriptures are actually a collection of writings, from different times and in different styles. The Bible is not so much one book as a library of different writings. There is some history, lots of poetry, some myth, some folk tales, proverbs, hymns, and quite a few letters. So when we read the Bible we need to remember what sort of literature we are reading, we cannot treat it all in exactly the same way.

It was the early Church which collected the various writings and decided on what should be in the Bible. The list of books regarded as Scripture is called the Canon of Scripture. Most choices were obvious, some were not.

The scriptures are divided into three parts. First, there is the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible, written below as OT), also known as the Hebrew Scriptures. Mostly these were written in the Hebrew language. We share these writings with people of the Jewish faith. Second, there is the Apocrypha, which is a latter collection of Jewish books written in Greek. The Church of England does not treat the Apocrypha as important as the other parts of the Bible. Finally, there is the New Testament (written below as NT). These are the uniquely Christian scriptures and they were written, in Greek, during the first and second centuries.

The Old Testament.


For Christians the OT has two main uses. It does contain some wonderful religious and moral teaching, good for its own sake. And it was the bible of Jesus and the early Church and so we must know something of it to understand what they said.

 It is an incredible complex collection of writings covering centuries of history and reflection. But there are two things which can help us to understand it. First, we can try to have an overview of the history, like in the table above. Second, there are also some important themes or ideas which run through the OT. So as we read we can ask ourselves, is this passage related to the themes of Covenant, Law, Temple, Prophets, or something else.

Covenant is the word used to describe the special relationship between God and his people. The Jewish people believed that God, the creator of everything had chosen the Hebrews to be his people above all others. They traced his special relationship with God all the way back to Abraham.

It was because of the covenant that God acted to rescue the Hebrew people from Egypt. This brings us to the second main theme, that of Jewish Law or Torah. After God had brought out the Hebrews from Egypt, God gave them the Law through Moses. This was to be the way the Hebrew people responded to God’s unique and loving relationship to them, their part of the covenant. God had rescued them and would give them the promised land, in return the Hebrews would obey his law. The most famous part of the law is the Ten Commandments.  

Some people thought that God would continue to bless and favour his people, because of the covenant, regardless of obeying the law. This view became associated with the Temple at Jerusalem. The Temple was the most holy place in the world, the unique dwelling place of God on earth, and where the sacrifices prescribed by the Law were made. Many thought that it would always be safe and God would always protect it.

A different view to the Temple view was that of the Prophets and their tradition. The prophets, like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah etc, called the Jewish people back to faithfulness to God. They said that the people should only worship the one God, Yahweh, and they should offer justice and mercy to all.  Many of the prophets warned the people that if they were not faithful, if they did not keep the Law, then God would abandon his covenant with them.

New Testament.

Just as the Bible itself can be divided into three sections so the New Testament can be divided into three types of literature:

The Four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Although these writings come at the start of the NT they were not the first to be written (the letters of Paul were first), but they are the most important as they give us stories of Jesus’ life and some of his teaching. They each show a similar picture of Jesus but with different emphases. Mark, Matthew and Luke are closely related – in some places the same, word for word  - and are known as the synoptic gospels. Many scholars believe that Mark’s gospel was the first to be written down and that Matthew and Luke had a copy of it when they wrote their own gospels. John stands apart from the other gospels in style and some content. The Acts of the Apostles is the story of the early church as told by Luke and it is a continuation of his gospel. For Luke, the Ascension of is the pivot around which the life of Jesus and the life of the early church are hinged. 

The Letters. The letters contain the earliest writings in the New Testament. They give is a glimpse of the life of the early church, and show it had its fair share of controversy like the church today.  Mostly the letters, or epistles, were written by Saint Paul. They are important because they give us the direct teaching of an apostle (St. Paul) and also other significant early Christian leaders. But, they are letters, written to specific people in a specific time, and so need to be read carefully and interpreted for our time and culture.

The Book of Revelation. This is an imaginative work of prophesy which draws heavily upon poetic, metaphorical, and religious imagery. It is not a literal description of the end of the world and should not be treated as such.

How do we read the Bible?

Unlike most books there are many different ways we can read the Bible.  To begin with we read it in Church. Most probably, this is how it was intended to be used. In the ancient world most people could not read and so trained readers would read it out to people. 

We can study the Bible. There are lots of books written to help explain the scriptures, but often daily-study notes can be most helpful. These can help explain some of the background to a particular passage to aid our understanding. We can read the Bible devotional or prayerfully. One type of prayer involves reading a passage and then, imagining yourself in the story. Or you can take a short passage, just one verse, and use it as a short prayer to repeat during the day.

We read the scriptures on our own or with others. But however we approach the scriptures, we should do so regularly.

Finally, the Church of England has long understood that the Scriptures have authority to help us live the Christian life. However, they are not the sole authority. God has given us the ability to think and question and so we should use our intellect or reason when we look at the scriptures. Also, the Church has many traditions outside the Bible. These also can help us to live out our baptismal vows and be obedient to Christ. We look to all three, scripture, tradition, and reason, when making decisions about our Christian faith and life.