What is the religion's sacred text?
by Kendra Hotz
The sacred text of Christianity, the Bible, is a collection of many different books and letters that include many types of literature. The books that are accepted as scripture are often referred to as the “canon”. Although there is widespread agreement among Christian churches about what writings are canonical, there are some points of disagreement. We can identify three bodies of work that comprise the Christian canon: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Deutero-Canonical books. These latter are the subject of some dispute.
Christians share with Jews the 39 books of the Tanakh as holy scripture, though they organize them differently and refer to them as the “Old Testament.” The Old Testament consists of the 5 books of the Law, 12 books of history, 5 books of poetry and wisdom literature, and 17 books of prophecy. The Old Testament provides a sweeping account of human history. It begins with a theological interpretation of creation that affirms one God to be the creator of all. It continues with an account of how the tribes of Israel , freed by God from bondage in Egypt, came into the land of Canaan and were ruled by judges.
It is impossible to determine when these earliest accounts were written, but around the time the monarchy was established, compilers began to collect both written and oral traditions and to organize them into a coherent narrative. Sometime early in the tenth century b.c.e., the tribes were united under a single monarch, but by 922 civil war had left them divided into two nations—Israel and Judah.
In 722, Israel was defeated by Assyria and its people exiled. Between 586 and 539, Judah was defeated by the Babylonian Empire and its people exiled. Unlike Israel, Judah eventually returned from exile so that the people were able to maintain their distinctive identity. The Old Testament does not attempt to provide a neutral history of these events. Instead, it offers an interpretation of them in light of God's call to the people to live in covenant faithfulness.
In addition to the 39 books of the Old Testament, all Christian churches accept the 27 books and letters of the New Testament as scripture. These include 4 Gospel accounts of the life of Christ, 1 historical account of the early church, 13 letters written by or attributed to the Apostle Paul, 8 general letters, and The Revelation of John, an apocalyptic book. The writings of the New Testament were composed within a century of Christ's death, although it took much longer for the church identify which works in circulation during this period were canonical.
The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell the story of the teaching and ministry of Jesus and of his death and resurrection. The book of Acts narrates the establishment and growth of the church after Christ's ascension. It describes some of the early challenges and controversies the church faced. The letters of Paul provide a window onto the life of local congregations when the church was in its infancy. He addresses questions about whether Gentiles must become Jewish to be accepted as Christian, how the Lord's Supper ought to be administered, and how soon Christians might expect Jesus to return to establish the Kingdom of God. The general letters and the book of Revelation provide theological lessons, encouragement to Christians who are suffering persecution, instruction about how to treat the poor, and a vision of God's coming reign.
All of the writings of the New Testament interpret the meaning of human life and history in light of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. They often offer fresh interpretations of the Old Testament in light of the life of Christ, but always remain grounded in the central affirmations of Jewish faith that there is only one God, that God acts in human history (and has acted in the history of Israel in particular), and that God makes a moral claim on human life.
The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches also accept certain “deutero-canonical” books that are not part of the traditional Hebrew Bible. Protestants often regard these works as edifying, but do not regard them as having the authority of scripture. These works were largely composed during the period between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, and some of them, such as the books of the Maccabees, provide an account of that period.
These include 7 books of history, poetry, and prophecy, as well as additions to the books of Esther and Daniel that are found in the Greek, but not the Hebrew, texts of these books. The Eastern Orthodox canon also includes a few other works, such as the 151st Psalm, not recognized by either Protestants or Roman Catholics.
©2006 Kendra Hotz
G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis
Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz
is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor
(with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping
the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections
(2006) and coauthor of Transforming
Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.