The Bible Story
A Short Summary

Burton G. Yost and Loren L. Johns

Bluffton College
Bluffton, Ohio 45817


THE BIBLE STORY: A SHORT SUMMARY

Copyright © 1997 Burton G. Yost and Loren L. Johns

All rights reserved. No part of this booklet may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. For information, address Prof. Loren L. Johns, Bluffton College, 280 West College Avenue, Bluffton, Ohio, 45817-1196.

Published by Bluffton College
Bluffton, Ohio



Contents

Introduction: What is the Bible? 1

Summary

The Bible Story: A Short Summary

What is the Bible? What is it about? How might its message be summarized in a few short pages?

The Bible Story: A Short Summary, by Burton G. Yost and Loren L. Johns, is an attempt to answer the above questions. The Bible is the story of God and God's creation-the story of how God has worked and is working with a humanity prone to rebellion to restore that humanity to renewed relationship with God.

The Bible is the story of how God spoke long ago to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets and how he has spoken more completely through God's Son, Jesus Christ (cf. HEBREWS 1:1-2).

Explore through this book the character of the Bible and its witness to what it means to be human in response to God. Discover the Bible's liberating thrust and its revelation of a loving God who reaches out to humans despite our repeated rejection of God.



Burton G. Yost is Emeritus Professor of Bible and Religion at Bluffton College. Loren L. Johns is Academic Dean at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

Introduction:
What Is the Bible?

The Bible is a collection of writings (books) which make up the sacred Scriptures of the Christian and Jewish faiths. Protestant Bibles contain sixty-six writings or "books" divided into the Old and New Testaments. Roman Catholic Bibles contain several more writings that are usually considered as secondary and called the Apocrypha. The Jewish scriptures, called the Tanak, contain the same books as the Protestant Old Testament, except that the books are combined and arranged in a different order. Each of these three collections is called the "canon," that is, the official scriptures of that group.

More important than the list or the number of writings is what they contain. Christians and Jews say that the Scriptures are the record of God's eternal word or message about God and God's relation to humankind and the created world. Most of this message takes the form of history because it is understood that the Lord God has revealed Godself through entering and acting in history and has guided the interpretation of those deeds. This story of God's words and deeds as understood by God's people forms the main structure of the Bible. In addition to the main story, there are other writings: religious poetry and prayers, wise sayings, and explorations of human wisdom. These other writings also relate to the basic story of God and God's purposes.

In reading the Bible-especially the historical parts-it is important to keep in mind that at least five levels of history are involved. First, there is the event itself. Second, there is the understanding of that event that developed over time after the event as God's people passed on the story orally and reflected on its meaning. Third, the event was written down from the perspective of its understood meaning at some later time-sometimes much later, sometimes within a generation.

Fourth, at some point years after the writing, the authority of the written story to shape and guide the community of faith was officially recognized and the writing was granted "canonical" status. Finally, readers who lived still later and in very different cultures and circumstances from ancient times to the present have read these stories and have seen God revealed through them.

The event, the oral tradition and interpretation, the writing, the canonizing, and the reading all take place in different times and circumstances, yet the presence of God in each of these stages allows modern readers to see a timeless message in the light of their own personal and historical situations.



1
The Prologue to the Bible's Story:
The Religious and Moral Backdrop (GENESIS 1-11)

To set the stage for the main story of God and God's people, the Bible tells of God's good creation and how it got fouled up. First, there is the account of the creation of the world from chaos to order. The basic structures of the world-light and darkness, sky and earth, sea and land-were put in place, then the general categories of the inhabitants of that world were added. Next, the story focuses specifically on the creation of humans and the "fall" of humanity into sin or disobedience. The rapid compounding of human evil into violence, all forms of wickedness, and arrogance caused God to take some drastic actions, such as flooding the world (the story of Noah) and scattering the people by confusing their language (the tower of Babel).

Several of the stories in GENESIS 1-11 have parallels in older mythological tales known in Sumer, an ancient civilization in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley that invented writing. For instance, the Enuma Elish is an account of a mythological battle among the gods that results in the creation of the world. It is likely that these older tales were known by Israelites who drew upon these accounts in their writing of the creation accounts in GENESIS 1 and 2. Similarly, the story of Noah and the ark likely draws from the well-known Gilgamesh Epic, which also features a cataclysmic flood and the salvation of humanity by means of an ark.

Our awareness that the biblical stories may be based in part on older mythological tales by no means invalidates the witness of Scripture in GENESIS 1-11. Rather, it helps us understand the force of the biblical narrative. In contrast to the chaotic and violent Enuma Elish, for example, the account of creation in GENESIS 1 and 2 emphasizes an orderly, peaceful, and loving God whose creation is purposeful and "good."

Central to the stories of GENESIS 1-11, which serve to orient the reader to the God and to the story of faith that follows, is an emphasis on ethical responsibility. Humans were created in the image of God, free to choose and fully capable of responding to God. But instead of accepting their limitations, however, they attempted to "be like" God.

Exercising their freedom to choose good or evil, Cain killed Abel when he became jealous of him. The human desire to be independent from or equal to God resulted in the attempt to build a "tower of Babel" that would reach to the heavens. In short, the human refusal to live in loving relationship to God and to each other resulted in evil of all kinds-jealousy, pride, and murder. Indeed, when God saw how violent humans had become, God "was sorry that he had made humankind" (GENESIS 6:6, 11-12).

Thus, taken as a whole, the "prologue" to the Bible, GENESIS 1-11, serves as a religious and moral backdrop to the story that is to follow. It reveals the "problem" of humanity's separation from God-a problem to which the rest of the Bible, GENESIS 12 through REVELATION 22, provides a solution.

With GENESIS 12 we see a major shift in the story. The Lord God decided to deal with the problem of this violent and idolatrous humanity. In this new approach, God started with one family to return order and shalom (well-being) to the people and the world God had created. Through the calling and ordering of a people special to God, God's will has been made known to the whole world.



2
Faith's Fathers and Mothers (GENESIS 12-50)

God's new plan was to call out one family and promise that family a future. Abraham and Sarah lived about 1800 B.C.E. At God's call they left their familiar society in the Euphrates valley (modern Iraq) to go to a land that the Lord would show them. God's promise was threefold: a land for wandering migrants, children for a barren couple, and from that land and with those children God would bring blessing to the nations (GENESIS 12:1-3).

Such promises were hard to fulfill, as Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel found out. The promised land of Canaan at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea lay between the great political powers in Mesopotamia and in Egypt. Barrenness plagued the family in each generation-as well as the usual sibling jealousies and quarrels. In addition, occasional famines caused conflicts and made it necessary for the chosen family to leave the land.

Only with Abraham's great-grandson Joseph, who through great suffering rose to a position next to the king of Egypt, did any significant blessing come to the nations. Time and again, problems would arise and it would begin to look as if God's promises would never be fulfilled. Instead of rising to prominence, Joseph was sold into slavery. When his faithful patience provided an opening for him, slander landed him in jail.

However, despite setback after setback, God kept God's promises to the ancestors. At the end of this book and this saga of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the promise was still alive because of their tenacious faith, but the only land they possessed in Canaan was a burial plot and the family was in Egypt ... outside the promised land. However, the God who called and promised, had, through the difficulties of life, been faithful in guiding a struggling but faithful family.



3
Slavery, Exodus, and Covenant
(EXODUS, LEVITICUS, NUMBERS, and DEUTERONOMY)

The story picks up in the second book of the Bible with God's people in Egypt-not as the favored kinfolk of Joseph, but as slaves of Pharaoh (the title for the king). They were building cities and monuments for him. The Egyptians treated them as a slave people and made their lives miserable (EXODUS 1:14). But God saw their misery and heard their cries and acted!

Again God called a servant. This time God called a deliverer, Moses, who was familiar both with the royal court of the king and also with life in the desert. The terrible struggle for freedom that followed is told in the stories of the ten plagues. God, the creator, used natural elements, such as the Nile River, bugs, and dust storms, to overcome Pharaoh's stubbornness and set the people free. After the death of Egypt's firstborn children, Pharaoh finally relented and let the Israelites go, only to change his mind and pursue them to the sea. Once again God used the elements of nature-wind and sea-to save the Hebrew people and thwart their enemy. "Yahweh," the name of God revealed to Moses, is a warrior-deliverer; the people were free!

But free for what? Free to face the deadly desert, free to face an uncertain future because they were accustomed to being governed by others. For both situations they needed a guiding and providing presence. Facing hunger and thirst in the desert, they complained bitterly, but the Lord sent supplies. Facing an unstructured future, they received from God laws and rules to ensure just social structures.

There in the Sinai desert, Yahweh-God entered into covenant to be their God if the people would obey God's instruction. Moses, their deliverer, was now the covenant mediator and lawgiver. The Ten Commandments formed the basic stipulations of the covenant and the law codes spelled out in some detail how the people were to live in holy faithfulness.

God had heard the people's cries of suffering and had done right in delivering them and bringing them out of Egypt into a special relationship with God. God had acted and had shown the people grace. Now the people were called upon to respond joyfully to that grace by doing what was right toward God in keeping the covenant agreement. Yahweh's double grace of deliverance and covenant-law, when combined with the people's obedience, formed them into God's priestly kingdom, whose purpose it was to bring God's life-giving truth to all the nations (EXODUS 19:4-6).



4
Settlement in the Promised Land
(JOSHUA and JUDGES)

Moses the deliverer and covenant-maker was not allowed to enter the promised land. Leadership passed to Joshua sometime around 1220 B.C.E.

Exactly how the land came to be occupied is uncertain. The account in JOSHUA-the longer, simpler, and popular account-tells of a blitzkrieg-type invasion by the united tribes under Joshua which wiped out the Canaanites and allowed the settlement of the land. The account in JUDGES implies that the Hebrews slowly infiltrated the land, taking control of the tribal areas, while continuing to suffer from the presence of troublesome pockets of Canaanite peoples. Archaeological evidence suggests yet a third scenario: that individual clans joined forces with disenfranchised peasants within Canaan and rose up and took control of the land from the wealthy landowners.

It seems most likely that some combination of the above three possibilities accounted for Israel's settlement of Canaan. In Canaan, Judah became the main tribe in the South, while Ephraim (a Joseph tribe) became the main tribe in the North.

With no central governing authority, but with a central shrine (the Tabernacle brought along from the desert), the people were ruled by a series of tribal "judges." The major judges, such as Deborah, Gideon, and Samson, were charismatic military champions who served as ad hoc leaders of the Hebrews. Life was hard and the neighboring peoples threatened their lives.

Because there was no strong central authority in the form of a king, "everyone did what was right in his [or her] own eyes." When the people obeyed the covenant stipulations, things went well, but when they disobeyed, they began to be oppressed. In response to the cries of the people, the Lord would send a deliverer and God's people would be saved. Comfortable once again, God's people would soon disobey and God would again allow the people to be oppressed by a foreign enemy. When they repented and called out to God, God would again send a deliverer (a "judge"), ... and so the cycle continued.

God's active leadership through Joshua and the "judges" is offset by the wavering faith of the people, who often abandoned God and the Law of God. It was a difficult and violent time, and the cry went up for stronger human leadership, for a king.



5
The Kings and Prophets
(1 and 2 SAMUEL and 1 and 2 KINGS)

Sometime about 1050 B.C.E. the last great judge, Samuel, appeared on the stage. He combined in his life the roles of judge, priest, and prophet. As the transition figure between the tribal period and the time of the kingdom, he was the one to anoint the first kings: Saul and then David.

Apparently there was divided opinion about the need for a king. One group, which apparently included Samuel, believed that a king would interfere with Yahweh's direct rule over the people. But the other group, anxious about the continued threat of the Philistines, wanted the security of central rule, with a military deliverer and strong leadership (1 SAMUEL 9-10). The latter group prevailed, but Samuel laid down the limits of kingship, that is, "the rights and duties" of kingship (1 SAMUEL 10:25) and warned about potential abuses of the monarchy.

A. Kings

Saul, the first king, was much like the previous judges in that his kingship was modest. A man of considerable gifts and military leadership, he eventually succumbed to jealousy and depression. Through a series of precipitous and ill-advised decisions, he lost the favor of God.

David became the first great king of Israel around 1000 B.C.E. by establishing the kingdom of Israel on the level of the great kingdoms of the world. At first he was the king of Judah in the south. Later, he was anointed king of all Israel. One of his first acts was to capture Jerusalem from the Jebusites and to make it his capital, his own personal city, and the religious center of Israel.

David was a "genius," a man of faith, a poet, a musician (the reason many PSALMS are attributed to him), a military strategist, and a great administrator. He was also popular with the people; he won their hearts. To this great king was given the third great promise of the Bible-the promise of an everlasting dynasty in which his sons as kings would be "sons of God" (2 SAMUEL 7).

But David had a weakness: the arrogance of great success. This led to adultery, murder, and a long series of troubles within his own family. Although King David was brilliant and successful, he also suffered a lot and thus came to be the model for Messiah. And although David was popular with the people, later biblical tradition suggests that God did not allow him to build a Temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem because he was violent; he had shed so much blood as a warrior (cf. 1 CHRONICLES 22:8 and 28:3).

Solomon succeeded his father David and tried to outdo him in worldly power and splendor. Among his many building projects, he erected the Temple in Jerusalem, which became the center of the official national religion with its priesthood and ceremonies. In addition to his building endeavors, Solomon is noted for his riches and his wisdom. (The book of PROVERBS and other wisdom writings are attributed to him.) On the other hand, his many wives and concubines were his undoing, since they led him into the worship of false gods.

Among the more significant "accomplishments" of Solomon was the growth of Israel's government structures. To finance the building of the Temple and his other impressive building projects, Solomon taxed the people heavily. While the improved infrastructure provided new means for growth and prosperity, such as new and expanded international trade opportunities, the common person found the heavy taxation burdensome. When his son, Rehoboam, made it clear that he intended to continue and expand Solomon's policy of heavy taxation and big government, the people revolted.

After the death of Solomon, the kingdom of Israel split into two: Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Regional cultural differences existed between the south and the north, and there was great resentment-especially in the north-of Solomon's forced labor policies.

The northern kingdom of Israel was larger and more prosperous, but also more unstable. It experienced several changes of dynasty in its two-hundred year history (922-722 B.C.E.). The best-known king was also the most infamous-Ahab and his queen Jezebel-because they officially supported the worship of foreign fertility gods. The powerful Assyrians-longtime enemies of Israel with their capital at Nineveh-eventually destroyed Samaria, the capital of Israel, and took the leading citizens away as exiles. Thus, in 722 B.C.E., this part of the history of the people of God came to a tragic end.

However, the southern kingdom of Judah continued for another 135 years. The dynasty of David survived those years, even with many evil kings. Only two received high marks from the "Deuteronomistic historian" (the historian responsible for the final editing of JOSHUA, JUDGES, SAMUEL, and KINGS in the sixth century B.C.E.). Hezekiah at the end of the 700s and Josiah about seventy-five years later were the two kings noted for their faithfulness and reforms.

Despite repeated warnings through the prophets, especially Jeremiah, the people of Judah had managed to convince themselves that God was on their side and they were invincible: no foreign country could ever seriously threaten them. Had not God promised that Zion (i.e., Jerusalem) would be God's dwelling place forever (EXODUS 32:13; 2 KINGS 21:7)? Had not God promised that a descendent of David would sit on the throne in Jerusalem forever (2 SAMUEL 7:13-16; 1 KINGS 9:5)? These promises had lulled the people into a spiritual complacency-a complacency that was soon to result in their downfall.

In 586 B.C.E. the city of Jerusalem, along with the Temple, was destroyed by the Babylonians, who carried away its leading citizens to exile in Babylon. However, it was through this group that the story of the Jewish people continued--through the people of Judah, who are now beginning to call themselves Jews.

B. Various Offices for God's People

The king was the Lord's CEO, chief executive officer, responsible for the well-being of the people. It was his job to see that the affairs of the nation, both domestic and foreign, were conducted justly and in loyalty to Yahweh under the Sinai covenant.

The priests were responsible for the regular or ordinary will of God by conducting the ceremonies and teaching the Torah (law or covenant stipulations). By "regular" will of God, we mean the will of God revealed in the law codes and traditions of the people.

The prophets were the "watchers" who checked the spiritual health of the nation. They noted when and how the king and/or people departed from the path of righteousness (keeping things right according to the revealed will of God) and boldly declared what God's will meant in terms of national welfare. We might say that the prophets looked after the extraordinary, that is, the circumstantial will of the Lord.

The sages were those persons in the community who served as teachers of the leaders. These maintainers of the wisdom tradition were the especially astute observers of human nature and circumstances. They passed on "wisdom" in the practical affairs of life not specifically covered in the rules of the Torah. As in any society, when all these persons did their jobs, life was good, there was shalom, the people "lived long in the land," and the Lord could say, "I will be your God, and you shall be my people" (JEREMIAH 7:23).

What went wrong? The people of Israel were intended to be the kingdom of God. The king was the "son of God" (not a supernatural being), the one who was to be God's servant-ruler. The temple in the city of Jerusalem was to be the place where the Lord was to be worshipped by a proper priesthood in proper ceremonies. The people under the rule of God's king and the guidance of God's prophets were to be the covenant people obedient to God.

But it was not to be. Kings and people did not keep the covenant, and it appeared that the promises of God could not be kept after 586 B.C.E. The leading citizens were out of the promised land. There was no longer a Davidic king. The Temple had been destroyed and the priesthood was not functioning. This supreme crisis had scattered the people and shattered the faith. It was not clear whether there would be a continuing people of Yahweh-God.


6
Exile and After
(1 and 2 CHRONICLES, EZRA, NEHEMIAH, JEREMIAH, EZEKIEL, HAGGAI, ZECHARIAH)

Israel (the northern kingdom) had been taken into exile to Nineveh and passed out of Bible history in 722 B.C.E. Was the same thing to happen to Judah in 586 B.C.E. when they were taken into exile in Babylon? It looked like it might be the end of God's great experiment; all the promises seemed to be broken and the people were demoralized.

The history books from DEUTERONOMY to KINGS told why the disaster had happened: the people had willfully and continually disobeyed the covenant God had made with the people at Mt. Sinai. The prophets before the exile had said the same thing in dramatic and urgent terms. Jeremiah declared that there would be seventy years of exile (JEREMIAH 29:10).

Actually the condition of the exiles in Babylon was not that difficult. They were not prisoners of war but forcibly resettled immigrants who could establish their own businesses and cultivate their own farms. Economically and perhaps politically the peasants who were left in Israel and Judah were worse off. What the exiles in Babylon suffered was the sense of being separated from the sacred land and the sacred Temple, with its priesthood, rituals, and ceremonies.

In this crisis-of-faith situation a serious rethinking of the faith took place. Ezekiel was a dominant figure in that rethinking, as was the author of ISAIAH 40-55.

About forty-five years after Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were transported to Babylon, a new political star was rising in the east and a new empire was forming. Cyrus, king of the Persian Empire, permitted all exiled peoples (not only Jews) to return to their native lands. His decree recorded in EZRA 1 and on Cyrus's Cylinder signaled the "new exodus" foretold by the prophet (JEREMIAH 31:2-14, 28). But only a minority of the Jewish exiles returned; the others were well-established in their new environment and the sacred place was not that important to them.

Those who did return found a society in shambles. Judah was now a small province of the Persian Empire that was physically broken down and populated with a demoralized people. As Jeremiah had said, the Lord was going to "pluck and break down" before turning to "build and plant." According to the account, one of the first things to be rebuilt was the Temple. Over about twenty years, with great opposition from enemy neighbors, but with the encouragement of the prophets HAGGAI and ZECHARIAH, the modest second Temple was built.

In the succeeding decades, things did not go well. Apparently the Law either was not observed at all, or was observed only half-heartedly. Economic and political structures were weak and disorganized.

About eighty years after the return, Ezra, the priest and scribe, brought a new edition of the Law and energetically worked to promulgate and enforce it. If the reason for the earlier judgment by the Lord was not keeping the Law, then the obvious remedy was to keep it carefully. This was Ezra's mission. But other problems remained. Nehemiah, a rising Jewish official in the Persian Court, asked permission to return to Judah and serve as governor. The endeavor for which he is remembered is the rebuilding of the city wall. This represented the reestablishment of economic order and a limited degree of political and military self-sufficiency.

Thus, at the end of the Old Testament, things seem to be recovering slowly. But the complaint still was, "We are slaves" within the Persian Empire (NEHEMIAH 9:36).

The cycle of history outlined in JUDGES 2 had come full circle. The period starting with the deliverance from Egypt and the covenant at Sinai, followed by the occupation of the promised land of Canaan, was seen as one of general faithfulness. The time of the kingdom, though it had its ups and downs, was viewed by the prophets as a time of disobedience and unfaithfulness. Punishment in the form of double defeat and exile came next, followed by the promised new exodus, renewal, and reform. Thus Old Testament history ends on a mildly optimistic note. But the prophetic literature held even greater promises concerning an ideal king and a glorious age to come. The great promises of God to Abraham, Moses, and David had been neglected. Their fulfillment had been postponed and hope was often abandoned. Nevertheless, those promises still stood, and they would be fulfilled, though perhaps in unexpected forms.



7
The Other Part of the Old Testament:
The Writings

In this brief sketch we have been following the general outline of the books of Moses (the Pentateuch or Torah), the history books, and the prophets. These books carry the story line of the Bible.

But another group of books has a different purpose. This group is called the "Writings." The Pentateuch, or first five books of the Old Testament, is often called the "Law." The historical books of JOSHUA, JUDGES, SAMUEL, and KINGS are often called the "Former Prophets," and the writing prophets the "Latter Prophets." The third major category in the Bible-the "Writings"-is actually a miscellaneous category consisting of late writings (whether historical, such as CHRONICLES, or prophetic, such as DANIEL), PSALMS, and wisdom literature.

The book of PSALMS is the hymnbook of the Bible, the "praises of Israel"-humanity's response to the nature and activities of God. While praise or trust is the dominant attitude, lament is the most common type of psalm. This book is probably the most used part of the Bible. It reflects the piety of Israel in all its gritty boldness, expressing praise and lament, anger and frustration, hope and despair, doubt and thanksgiving-all directed by Israel toward Yahweh, their God.

The book of PROVERBS is a collection of wisdom sayings growing out of the observation of what constitutes the "good life." Many things in life do not fall under legal limits; they are not subject to laws. Such things are deemed wise or foolish; they lead to good or bad consequences.

ECCLESIASTES and JOB are deep probings of the traditional moral view of life. The represent a more skeptical form of wisdom literature, even challenging conventional wisdom at times. What is the worth, they ask, of much that we value, such as hard work, if it all comes to nothing in death? After all, when you're dead, you're dead. Why is it that sometimes the righteous suffer for no apparent reason? Is there any real value in this life to serving God?

The SONG OF SONGS (or the SONG OF SOLOMON) is a collection of love poetry designed to show the beauty of human love and romance, or, as some say, an allegory of passionate love for God. The book of RUTH recalls that the great-grandmother of King David had been a foreigner, a Moabitess. It represents a challenge to those quarters of Judaism that linked Jewish identity with ethnic purity.

Another great hero of the faith was Esther, who was elevated to the high position of queen of Persia. Basic to all of this "wisdom literature" is the attempt to understand God's actions in the world in ways that can make sense to people seeking the truth about God and human experience.


8
Between the Testaments: 400 B.C.E. to Jesus

A four-hundred year gap exists between the last events of the Old Testament and the time of Jesus. Our knowledge of those centuries is sparse. The only canonical exception to this silent period is the book of DANIEL, written around 170 B.C.E. in the midst of one of the biggest challenges to the faith of Israel in the intertestamental period. Fortunately, the Apocrypha (especially the book of 1 MACCABEES), the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Jewish writings from this period of time that were never canonized), and the Dead Sea Scrolls (which date from the second century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.) provide helpful windows on this time period.

Three main events dominated this period and their repercussions were extensive. First, Alexander the Great conquered the huge territory ranging from Greece in the West to Pakistan in the East, including Palestine (around 333 B.C.E.) and Egypt. Along with his military conquests came the spread of Greek language and culture. This spreading influence, known as Hellenism, is not unlike the spread of American culture around the world today.

Along with the spread of Greek language and culture came the spread of Greek religion. But how should the faithful Jew respond to this new culture, language, and religion? Should it be resisted? Should it be embraced (the answer of the "Letter to Aristeas" in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha)? Should part of it be embraced and part of it resisted?

Conservative Jews resented pagan Hellenism and agreed that its spread must be resisted. But how? Should they take up arms (the answer of 1 Enoch and 1 MACCABEES) or should they resist nonviolently (the answer of DANIEL)?

When the Seleucid Antiochus IV "Epiphanes" (a self-imposed nickname meaning "God manifest"), took the throne of Syria and Palestine in 175 B.C.E., he decided to be more intentional and consistent about the "Hellenization" of his subjects than ever before. He made it illegal to offer sacrifices to Yahweh in the Temple or to circumcise a baby. In short, he outlawed Judaism. He went so far as to "desecrate" the Temple in Jerusalem by marching into the Holy of Holies (where only the high priest was to enter, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement), and proceeded to sacrifice a pig (ritually unclean to the Jews) on the altar to his god, Baal Shemesh, or Zeus.

As a result, the Jews revolted. This Maccabean Revolt was the second important event. After about twenty-five years of fighting, the Jews gained independence from what was left of the Greek empire. Their independence under a group of Jewish rulers called the Hasmoneans lasted from 142 to 63 B.C.E. That eighty-year period was the first since 586 B.C.E.-and the last until 1948 C.E.-that Jewish leaders had control over their own land.

Although this revolt began with high motives to provide a kingdom in which Yahweh could be worshipped properly without interference from foreign influence, the Hasmonean dynasty soon deteriorated into a typical Hellenistic tyranny, complete with its own paranoid and cut-throat power politics, including the murder by Jews of fellow Jews who criticized Hasmonean policies. When a dispute arose in the 60s about who would be the next legitimate Hasmonean king, the Romans stepped in to restore orderly government. However, that "rescue" in 63 B.C.E. came at a high cost: the Jewish people were again put under foreign domination.

In the meantime, the form of religious faith called Judaism, which had roots going back to Ezra, continued to grow and develop. The twin emphases of keeping the Law and observing the temple rituals, with its calendar of festivals, characterized this movement of Jewish religion as different from Israel's earlier faith. Accompanying and spurring these emphases was the rise of the synagogue as a local place of worship and instruction in the Law.

In the second century B.C.E., several Jewish religious "parties" developed around differing visions about how God's people should understand and maintain their identity. Immediately below the surface of the identity question was the issue of how and how much faithful Jews should resist Hellenism.

The resulting "parties" consisted of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. The Sadducees were a priestly, aristocratic group that ran the Temple establishment, held public offices, and cooperated with the Roman overlords. They were the conservative "establishment" group who advocated compromise and acceptance of Hellenism-as long as their system of Temple worship was not threatened. This group had perhaps the most to gain from cooperating with the Romans: not only continued control of the Temple, but also the high standard of living deriving from their Temple activities. For the Sadducees, the Torah alone-the first five books-were authoritative. The Prophets were perhaps interesting, but not ultimately useful for determining doctrine.

The Pharisees were a nonpriestly or lay group that took the keeping of the Law, in both written and oral forms, very seriously. The "oral law" allowed them to adapt the written Law to changing circumstances. They advocated a clear and courageous resistance to Hellenism, but not organized, violent resistance. The Pharisees were optimistic about the possibility of complete faithfulness to God-if one were fully committed to it. They also tended to look down on the common person who could not afford all the sacrifices required for "full compliance" to the Law of Moses.

The Essenes were convinced that everyone else was lax, if not evil. The Essenes were a priestly group whose origins stemmed from the second century B.C.E. when a new line of priests took control of the Temple. The Essenes believed that of all the Jews, only they were acceptable to God. As a result, they withdrew into separated communities, such as the community at Qumran near the Dead Sea. They were very rigid in observing the Law-especially laws concerning purity and the religious calendar-and looked forward to the Day of the Lord in which they would serve as soldiers in God's final war. (One of the Dead Sea Scrolls even contains detailed instructions for how to fight in this Final Battle.)

The Zealots represented a fourth option. It is questionable whether a continuous, organized movement of Zealots existed from 167 B.C.E. to 66 C.E., when the Zealots led the First Jewish Revolt against Rome; "Zealotism" was, after all, illegal, and its adherents were forced "underground." Nevertheless, "Zealotism" remained a clear and present theoretical option to Jews and throughout this period, several Zealot leaders and movements arose. These Zealots advocated bold and violent resistance to the evils of pagan Hellenism, even if it meant death, for in their view, their own resistance was a continuation of the Maccabean concern to "throw out the pagan foreigners."

Prominent in the diverse forms of Judaism at the turn of the millennia was apocalyptic thought. Sometimes apocalypticism took a revolutionary form, but it usually counseled waiting for the Lord to intervene in a cataclysmic way to defeat all evil forces and to set the world aright. Faithful Jews who held this viewpoint developed a literature using dramatic symbols and visions.

Another school of thought was indebted to the wisdom tradition and developed a literature much like the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The book of DANIEL, which probably comes from this period, includes both of these viewpoints-wisdom and apocalyptic. The Apocrypha and other writings not included in the Jewish or Christian canons (the "Old Testament Pseudepigrapha") were products of this era. The Apocrypha contains history and wisdom literature, while the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha also contains apocalyptic writings.


9
Jesus and the Coming of God's Reign,
6 B.C.E.-30 C.E. (MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE, JOHN)

The stage was finally set for the coming of God's special agent. The Romans and the Jewish hierarchy were in control of politics and religious activities. Both levied taxes under which the people suffered. The various Jewish religious groups formed a spectrum of resistance ideologies, from willing cooperation with the Romans to opposition by violence. All groups emphasized the keeping of the Law and of the Temple rituals, though in different degrees.

The Pharisees were the most influential group, but it is estimated that membership in all four of the groups or "philosophies" constituted only 10% of the population. The other ninety per cent were the ordinary "people of the land" who had neither the interest nor the leisure to pursue religious or political activities beyond the minimum. Everyone, of course, hoped for deliverance by God in one form or another.

Non-Christian writings (Greek, Roman, and Jewish) yield only the barest details concerning Jesus of Nazareth. The four Gospels of the New Testament are our only extensive source for the life of Jesus. Though the Gospel of Thomas has recently been touted as a major new "original source" for the historical Jesus, it likely dates from the second century C.E. and its traditions are heavily overlaid with the influence of the Gnostic heresy.

MATTHEW, MARK, and LUKE have a similar outline and outlook and are therefore called "Synoptic" Gospels. (The word synoptic means "similar point of view.") JOHN is quite different in outline, incidents reported, and the manner in which Jesus' role is presented.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem about 6 B.C.E. (the Gospel of MATTHEW tells us that Herod the Great was the king and it is known that Herod died in 4 B.C.E.) and Jesus probably died at Passover in the spring of 30 C.E. After a period of refuge in Egypt, the family returned to Nazareth where Jesus grew to adulthood in an observant Jewish family.

When Jesus was baptized by John, a voice from heaven identified him as God's son (i.e., God's anointed king [see Psalm 2]) and as the servant of God (who would suffer for the sake of his people [see ISAIAH 42:1-9; 52:13-53:12]). He went about announcing the approach of the "Kingdom of God" or the "Reign of God"; that is God's rule over life (cf. MARK 1:14-15).

Through his teaching, he explained the nature of that kingdom, who will enter, and how one lives in it. This he did with parables that both revealed the truth to those willing to invest in it and hid the truth to those unwilling to invest in it. His other teachings pointed beyond the Law of Moses to a higher righteousness that demanded nonretaliation to injustices and love for enemies. Through his miracles, his exorcisms, and his healing ministry he demonstrated, he brought into reality the presence of God's Reign in the lives of his followers. His calling of disciples was a call to enter God's Reign. But more than that, this special group of Twelve became the nucleus of the church as the new people of God. With Jesus, the kingdom of God, the new reign of God, began.

Some persons, including the Twelve, wanted to identify Jesus as the Messiah, the agent who was to inaugurate God's reign. Jesus consistently spoke of himself as the Son of Man, a somewhat enigmatic figure who combined humility and suffering with divine power and future majesty. His demeanor and pronouncement indicated that he was the "suffering servant of the Lord" spoken of in ISAIAH 40-55. Wherever he went, he aroused great interest, engendered hope, and stirred up opposition.

Jesus spent most of his short (three-year?) ministry around the Sea of Galilee, but he felt the compulsion to go to Jerusalem for a final ministry around the Temple, at the center of Judaism. After several serious confrontations in the Temple with the religious authorities, in which he even more critically undercut the authority of the religious establishment, he was arrested and condemned to die.

Though Jesus was guilty of no serious crime, the Romans were nervous about revolutionaries and easily gave in to the wishes of the religious leaders who felt threatened by Jesus' popularity. So the Romans gave the order to have Jesus crucified. The charge written on the cross was, "King of the Jews," a reference to Jesus' presumed claim to be Messiah. Thus, the charge under which Jesus was executed was that of inciting sedition. However, Jesus saw his death as part of God's plan to make a new covenant with humanity and thus "save" the human race (MARK 14:24).

As final as it seemed, death was not to be the end for Jesus. Some of his women disciples went to the tomb and found it empty. They also saw a messenger who said, "He is risen!" Another group of disciples claimed that he appeared among them and ate with them and instructed them. Therefore, they knew that Jesus had been vindicated by God; death could not hold such a God-filled life.

As Jesus' former disciples pondered all the events that had taken place (LUKE 24), things that Jesus had said and done began to fall into place. When they experienced the power and presence of Jesus after his resurrection, their disbelief changed into conviction and their despair was transformed into joyful hope. They believed that God's Reign had come after all!



10
The Earliest Church: 30-60 C.E.
(THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES)

The rest of the New Testament, after the four Gospels, traces the history of the spread of faith in Jesus Christ and draws out some of the implications of the life, death, and the resurrection of Jesus for the life and faith of the earliest Christians.

The book of ACTS follows the spread of the gospel (i.e., the "good news" about Jesus) from Jerusalem, the religious center, to Rome, the center of the empire's political power. After the disciples had waited fifty days until the Jewish festival of Pentecost for the promised power, they suddenly were filled with the Holy Spirit, the very presence and power of God. It was this presence and power of God in the person of the Holy Spirit that permitted Jews who had gathered from all over the world to hear the good news about Jesus in their own languages. The scattering at Babel was thus reversed and a new unifying force of God was at work in the world. Everyone could now be told that "God had made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus who was crucified," and those who believed were baptized into a new universal fellowship.

The joyful advance of the gospel from Jerusalem to the neighboring provinces was counter-balanced by opposition. There were imprisonments and even martyrdom. Stephen, one of the new group called deacons, was stoned to death. The story of the advance centered first on the Apostle Peter and then on Paul. In obedience to a heavenly vision and the working of the Holy Spirit, Peter baptized the first Gentile converts and thus opened the door to the whole non-Jewish world.

Paul, however, was the great Apostle to the Gentiles, the one who through his three missionary journeys, threw open to Gentiles the gates of reconciliation to God in a new way. By using the modern names, we can easily trace those mission journeys.

Using Antioch in Syria as his home base, his first trip took him to south-central Turkey. In a second trip, starting from Antioch, he traveled from one end of Turkey to the other and then crossed over to northern Greece (Macedonia) and ended at Corinth in southern Greece. His third "missionary" journey centered in the city of Ephesus in western Turkey, but also took him again to the churches in Macedonia and Greece.

When Paul returned to Jerusalem, he was mobbed by his enemies and imprisoned. After two years in jail at Caesarea, the Roman capital in Palestine, he was sent on a ship to Rome. He finally arrived there after a long voyage, a great storm, and a shipwreck.

The book of ACTS concludes with Paul proclaiming the new reality of God's Reign in the capital of the Empire of this world. Though he was a prisoner facing possible execution, the closing verse of ACTS assures the reader that his preaching of the gospel and the spread of God's Reign continued "unhindered."

The spread of the gospel of Jesus raised serious questions about God and about the life of faith, as well as practical issues that exercised the church for a long time: what is the relation of the old people of God, the Jews, to the new people of God, the Christian Gentiles? And what is the relation of the original Jewish Christians to the increasing number of Gentile Christians?

At first the church, the believers in Jesus as Lord and Messiah, was simply a sect within Judaism. But as Paul's success among the Gentiles increased, so did the tensions between the traditional Jewish Christians and the new, nontraditional Gentile Christians. At the heart of the controversy was circumcision for the male converts. That is, did a Gentile have to become a Jew and obey the entire Mosaic Law in order to become a Christian?

ACTS 15 reports a council in Jerusalem in 49 C.E., which decided that the Gentile Christians did not have to obey the whole Jewish law in order to be "saved," or to be Christians. But, as with our race problems in North America, such decisions, while important, did not solve the problem.


11
The Letters of the New Testament: 48-125 C.E.

A. The Letters of the Apostle Paul: 48-62 C.E.

A very important part of Paul's ministry was the letters he wrote to the churches he had founded. They are our most direct connection with this great apostle.

In his missionary travels, Paul did not stay long in one place. His strategy was to preach first to the Jews in the synagogue and then speak to the Gentiles. (Most of these Gentiles were actually "God-fearers" associated with the synagogue-Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism and who studied the Law and worshipped Yahweh, but who were not circumcised and who did not observe the ritual law.)

After gathering a group of converts and appointing some leaders, he would move on to other fields. His continuing contacts were by means of letters and personal messengers.

Because faith in Jesus Christ was a new departure for Jews and a whole new faith for Gentiles, there was much to explain and new issues were constantly being raised. The letters traditionally ascribed to the Apostle Paul are ROMANS, 1 and 2 CORINTHIANS, GALATIANS, EPHESIANS, PHILIPPIANS, COLOSSIANS, 1 and 2 THESSALONIANS, 1 and 2 TIMOTHY, TITUS, and PHILEMON. Most scholars now hold that 1 and 2 TIMOTHY, TITUS, and possibly EPHESIANS, COLOSSIANS, and 2 THESSALONIANS were written by followers of Paul in his name (and in his honor) after his death (see "Post-Pauline Letters" below).

Paul wrote as a missionary-pastor-theologian. As a theologian, he drew out implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for individual persons, for the church as a corporate body, and for history as a whole. He articulated his understanding of faith, hope, and love for the church, and his hope for history.

As a pastor he was concerned with the moral and spiritual life of the Christian church and with church order. The letters are "occasional letters" in the sense that they were written to or for a specific situation, whether in anticipation of or in response to a practical issue regarding faith and life. Paul's letter to the ROMANS and the post-Pauline letter to the EPHESIANS are both examples of more general "epistles," or statements of Christian faith.

The basic message of Paul's letters is that Jesus is the answer-for both Jews and Gentiles. Not only the pagan Gentiles, but Jews too are alienated from God by sin and are in bondage to the powers of sin and death. Jesus Christ is the God-sent deliverer ("messiah" is the Hebrew word, meaning "Christ," or "anointed one"), God's Son, the Lord of history, the very power and righteousness of God to set creation right toward God. The individual person who identifies with Jesus and personally appropriates what Jesus has done by faith is said to be "saved." In Paul's vocabulary, faith means not only belief or assent, but also obedience and trust. It is above all a relationship term.

Paul uses several terms to describe that saving action: "justification" means to set in right relation; "reconciliation" expresses the overcoming of alienation, "redemption" carries the idea of deliverance and restoration; and "re-creation" speaks of renewal and newness of life. Newness of life is made possible by the Holy Spirit in both the individual's life and in the church, and its main manifestation is self-giving love.

At the heart of Paul's burden was his conviction that Christ is the power of God to set humanity right with God. This justification by grace through faith puts Jews and Gentiles on equal footing so that all alike might be saved on the same basis. Furthermore, Jesus was going to return very soon to redeem all of creation and to restore the Reign of God.

B. The Post-Pauline Letters

In the letters of Paul's followers, matters of church order, proper doctrine, and sound leadership became more important subjects. These letters reflect a church struggling to define faithfulness in an increasingly hostile world. They reflect the situation and needs of second-generation (i.e., post-70 C.E.) Christianity, not those of first-generation (i.e., pre-70 C.E.) Christian Judaism.

Although these letters claim to have been written by Paul, there is good reason to conclude that they were written by Paul's later followers in his name. These include EPHESIANS, COLOSSIANS, 2 THESSALONIANS, 1 and 2 TIMOTHY, and TITUS. As opposed to the "undisputed" letters of Paul, these letters are known as the "disputed" letters of Paul, the deutero-Pauline letters, or the post-Pauline letters.

In these post-Pauline letters, several new needs faced by the church are addressed. Specifically, how should the church understand and deal with:

(1) the delay of Christ's return?

(2) people teaching false doctrine?

(3) the needs of the church for ongoing leadership?

(4) an increasingly hostile, sometimes persecuting, world?

These letters take a harder line against supposed heretics and they are more concerned with the institutional and organizational needs of the church. They reflect a new interest in establishing clear leadership structures in light of the delay of Jesus' return and they advocate a more conservative ethic, including a much more restricted "role" for women in the church compared to that enjoyed by first-generation Christianity. (Note, for instance, the differences between the status of women advocated by Jesus [e.g., LUKE 7:50; 8:1-3; JOHN 7:53-8:11] and Paul [e.g., ROMANS 16:1-6, 12; GALATIANS 3:28; PHILIPPIANS 4:2-3] and that advocated by the post-Pauline letters [EPHESIANS 5:21-28; COLOSSIANS 3:18-19; 1 TIMOTHY 2:8-15].)

C. Other New Testament Letters

The other letters are usually called the "general epistles," which simply designates a miscellaneous category.

JAMES apparently seeks to correct an overemphasis on faith as separate from good works by saying that faith, if it is to have any integrity at all, must express itself in deeds.

HEBREWS is an anonymous sermon that affirms the superiority of Christ within the Jewish faith and religious institutions and exhorts believers to a life worthy of Christ's suffering.

FIRST PETER is a beautiful and powerful plea to Christians living under persecution to follow the pattern of the suffering Christ and to realize that they are a "chosen race, a holy people."

John's three letters are addressed to churches threatened by the temptation to deny the real humanity of Jesus and to assimilate the values of "the world." The author reminds his readers that they have "seen and heard" the revelation in Christ. 1 JOHN was also written to encourage and comfort Christians who had just experienced a church split.


12
The Revelation to John

The final book of the Bible is among the strangest and yet most exciting. It is an apocalypse, a revelation, which uses visions, numbers, and dramatic symbols to picture the ultimate goal of God's action in Christ.

This book reveals that it is precisely through Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection (i.e., in his nonviolent resistance to the powers of evil) that Jesus proved ultimately victorious. The lion, the root of David-symbols of God's victorious messiah-proves to be none other than the slain but victorious Lamb of God who holds the scroll of human destiny in his hand and thus determines the fate of all humans and human institutions. Therefore, even small groups of believers who are facing harassment and martyrdom can know that they are on the winning side-that all evil and wickedness has already been vanquished and will ultimately be destroyed.

God's revelation of Jesus Christ to John is thus designed to provide encouragement and strength to Christians facing the hostility of a world convinced that power politics controls the events of history. Even more, it encourages Christians living in seven cities of the province of Asia to "wake up"-to reject the temptation to assimilate to the lifestyle and values of the Roman Empire (with its worship of the emperor) and to embrace a consistent and watchful allegiance to Christ alone.

At the end of it all, Christ will reign supreme with his people in a new Jerusalem within a new heaven and a new earth. Alleluia!


Summary

The long story of the Bible from Abraham to the book of REVELATION covers about two thousand years. The Christian confession is that it is specifically this story, witnessed to by the books of the Bible, that provides the most trustworthy, authoritative insight to the character and will of God as well as to human nature itself. But it is a story that continues in the present and has yet to reach its conclusion. For if the biblical witness is right, then all of creation today still awaits its ultimate redemption. Life is still not right. The suffering of innocent people persists. We still await the coming of Jesus in the present to make all things new.

We have tried to tell the biblical story in terms of events and persons and the meaning which the Bible puts upon those events. Now it is time to summarize in even broader strokes.

Using the three main covenants or promises of the Old Testament as an organizing principle, the scheme would go like this. Abraham was promised children, land, and blessing to the nations. The promise of "children" or a special people moves outward from family to tribe to nation to a universal people, the church. The concept of a "promised land" moves in a similar way from personal property to tribal lands to national lands to every land. The blessing to the nations also moves in ever-increasing circles of influence to the ends of the earth.

God is faithful and the people prove faithless, yet God keeps moving the promise forward to a new level of relationship and beyond that to a fully redeemed people. The promise to David of an eternal dynasty with the kings as "sons of God" moves forward in spite of kingly failures, domination by foreign nations, and the absence of an earthly throne. The "Son of God" brings to reality the "Reign of God" and rules in it eternally. All the promises move toward fulfillment-though with many obstacles and gaps-to fulfillment in Jesus the Christ. But the fulfillment is never final or complete; the consummation always remains as a future hope. Thus, the ever-present God leads into the future and God's people follow with confident hope.

The Bible story moves from a garden to the wilderness to a city. It moves from slavery in all its forms, political and spiritual, to freedom in all of its forms. Always the movement is wider or farther, higher or deeper. Not everything is settled in the Bible story, but trajectories are started there that shoot out through history. For example, the Bible does not condemn nor abolish slavery, but Jesus' insistence on valuing all people equally launches a trajectory which traces through western history.

The Bible reports all the forms of sin and wickedness with their deathly consequences without restraint, but it also affirms that they already have been conquered and will finally be completely destroyed or transformed. As at the creation, so at the consummation, light will conquer darkness, and order will prevail over chaos. The loving God who is the Lord of life will reign supreme!


Created and maintained by Dr. Loren L. Johns, Academic Dean, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Last updated 24 July 2000.