Q & A with John the Baptist

Sometimes I wish we still wrote pamphlets with incredibly long titles.* If so, this post/pamphlet would be: “’Who are You, Then?’ and Other Questions Asked of John the Baptist Which He Probably Also Asked Himself,” or “Two Sides to the Conversation: John the Baptist’s Exchange with the Religious Leaders” or “The Confluence of Identity and Faith, as Presented in John the Baptist’s Exchange with the Temple Delegation.” Actually, those sound like master’s thesis titles, and I promise this is not a thesis!

We’ll just stick with “Q & A.” Continue reading

Joseph: Nine Months before Christmas

It was one of those rock-and-a-hard-place moments. On the one hand, he longed to be faithful to the law. On the other hand, he wanted to be faithful—even gracious—to his future wife.

His wife… Would she still be his wife one day? Could he marry an unfaithful woman? Was the wedding off? It was his decision to make, and he felt like Moses, stuck between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army. He couldn’t go forward, but there was no way he could go back. Continue reading

The Alphabet Soup of Bible Translations

Walking into the Bible section at a Christian bookstore is like alphabet soup: ESV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, NLT, MSG. What’s with that? Why do we need all those different translations of the Bible?

Bible stack
top to bottom: NLT, ESV, NIV, NASB (c) Carole Sparks

Or maybe your pastor recently switched translations and you’re trying to keep up in the Bible you’ve carried to church for the last twenty years. Hey, I’m not judging. I love an old, well-worn Bible: so much history, so much love, so much spiritual discipline and fruit represented by those weathered pages. What is more, I purposefully take a different version to church so I can compare as we move through the text. But I’m a Bible nerd; y’all know that.

Updated translations help us
understand God’s word better.

Bibles are printed and distributed by publishers who, with the exception of American Bible Society and a few others, are trying to make money (e.g. NIV by Zondervan and CSB by Holman). However, updated translations help us understand God’s word better, so we’ll invest the money…or use BibleGateway!

If you’re looking for a new Bible or just curious about translations, consider these key points first. Continue reading

Are YOU Talking to ME?

The Woman at the Well (part 2)

Not just anyone can cop an attitude with Jesus, but this woman did! Let’s sit down with Jesus and the woman He met at Jacob’s well outside Sychar, a small town in Samaria. (For more on the context and background, check last week’s post.)

John 4:1-42. You might want to pull out your Bible or click on the link. I’m not going to quote all the text here.

After He raised a ruckus in the temple at Jerusalem and then drew record crowds to big baptism services, things got a bit dicey for Jesus down in Judea, so he decided to make Himself scarce. (This is where we started last week.) Continue reading

Bible Study: Making the Familiar Fresh

I’ve been in church my entire life—since before my 0th birthday, which means even in the womb, I heard Scripture, singing, and prayers. As of this week, that means I’ve been going to church for more than 44 years. (Yes, it’s my birthday week. Woohoo!) As pre-teens/teenagers, my sister and I read the Bible through annually for several years in a row. As an adult, I’ve spent time in the Word almost every day for the last twelve years (at least). I’ve done dozens of Bible studies and heard innumerable sermons.

So there are certain parts of the Bible that are as familiar to me as the back of my hand. My memorization may be a bit messed up from switching translations over the years, but I know these passages. When I contemplated spending this year in Psalms, I knew such familiarity would confront me in certain well-known chapters. Why do I say “confront”? Because that extreme familiarity makes it difficult to see/hear anything fresh from the words on the page.

The Holy Spirit stirs our
ever-changing experiences in
with His never-changing Word.

I believe, however, God always has something fresh to say through the Scriptures as the Holy Spirit stirs our ever-changing experiences in with His never-changing Word. That’s why people say, “It’s like I never read that verse before!” He applies His Word to our life in new ways because we are always in a new place. In other words, it’s our experiences that change the relevance of Scripture, not the Scripture itself that changes. Isn’t it remarkable how the Bible can do that?

sheep-psalm-23
sheep on a rocky hillside in Lesotho (c) Carole Sparks

So there I sat for my quiet time on January 23rd, looking at Psalm 23. What can I do? How can I read it? What could I possibly add to the books and sermons I’ve read/heard from these six verses?

At the Spirit’s prompting, I began to re-write each verse in my own words, based on my own life right now. I didn’t even realize I was doing it at first. The result was something very personal and very fresh, a reflection of what I know about Jesus, the Shepherd-King.

As I share my…paraphrase (using the word very loosely), I encourage you to try this next time you come upon an all-too-familiar Bible passage. And just so you know, I had to go in afterward and look up the references to other verses; I don’t just have those things in my head.

Psalm 23

according to Carole, near her 44th birthday

Because God is in charge of my life, nothing I need is missing.

He shows me good times to rest and good places to be nourished,

both of which restore me at the soul level. He leads the way along the life progression that’s right for me so I and those around me cannot help but praise Him.

When I feel like things couldn’t get any worse, like I’m about to die, and like I’m all alone, I don’t have to be afraid. Even at those times, He is near though I can’t see His light. His correction actually comforts me because it shows that He loves me (Proverbs 3:11-12/Hebrews 12:5-6).

He spoils me right in front of people who hate me. He blesses me, calls me out, and sets me apart for His purposes (Ephesians 2:10). He is wastefully, extravagantly generous toward me.

I am confident of His never-ending love for the rest of my life and of my spot in Heaven thereafter.

Have you ever tried rewriting Scripture like this? It’s not inspired or anything, but it can be a special moment. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Bible Study: the Holy Spirit stirs our ever-changing experiences in with God’s never-changing Word! (click to tweet)

Check out this fun, faith-filled alliterative approach (see what I did there?) to Psalm 23 from April Yamasaki and Mel Sawatzky!

The Completely Not-Boring History of the Bible – part 2

I’m fascinated by the miraculous way the Bible has been handed down through the ages. More than any other book ever, we have evidence of the Bible’s accuracy: verifiable portions of Scripture, a chain of possession, references to the specific portions of the Bible in other texts (e.g. Josephus), and on-going archaeological research.

Last month, I shared some of the Old Testament’s history. This month, let’s look into the New Testament. I pray these aren’t just facts to you but that they inspire you to reverence for the Word and worship of the Author.

Greek Scriptures (or New Testament)

greek-nt-list
Table of Contents for the New Testament, in Greek (c) Carole Sparks

The letters, histories, and prophecy of the New Testament were originally written between about ad48 (possible for Galatians) and ad95 (Revelation of John). Naturally, many others things were written about Jesus and about Christ-followers during that same time period. When it became necessary to determine those which should be included in the “box set,” so to speak, the early church fathers tested their apostolicity. That doesn’t mean they were necessarily written by one of the apostles but that the apostles approved those documents, recognizing their authenticity and the truth within them.

Why They Needed a “Box Set”

  1. It was important to safeguard those books which were written or valued by an apostle or prophet. As we got further away from Jesus’ time on earth, we needed sure-fire resources for knowing what He was like and what He did.
  2. The churches and church leaders needed to counteract heretics and other false teachings as they arose. With a standard set of teachings, the Church (universal) could maintain the same doctrine throughout the small churches.
  3. As the church expanded, other people groups needed the Scriptures in their own languages. Why bother translating the non-inspired stuff?

As far as we know, the first list of books that exactly matches our present-day New Testament was made by Athanasius of Alexandria in ad367. Much earlier (ad115!), however, Polycarp equated the New Testament writings with those of the Old Testament. That means he recognized the same authority and power in the NT documents as in the OT. Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John.

The Meetings

During the first three hundred years of Christianity, believers were persecuted all over the place. Persecution kept groups small and communication sporadic. After Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, church leaders could meet to discuss/debate/argue. One of the first meetings was the Council of Nicea in ad325. (St. Nicholas was there, by the way.)

They had a lot of meetings. At the Synod of Hippo in ad393, they agreed upon the twenty-seven books that would comprise our New Testament. (The most controversial? James and Jude.) But here’s where it gets a little tricky. They weren’t giving those books any additional authority. They simply listed the books which already had apostolic authority. It would be like listing the names of all the parents in your church. Being on the list doesn’t make you a parent. Instead, being a parent means you’re on the list.

So who decided which works were inspired and which weren’t? They would have answered, “God.” All they did was state the obvious, agreeing on what everyone already knew to be true. Can’t remember where I read this, but…

The Church is not the determiner of Canon; the Church is the discoverer of Canon.

Canon

canon
Not this kind of canon. (c) Carole Sparks

This is a good place to stop and talk about Canon. We say the sixty-six books of the Bible are Canon. This word comes from Greek, and it means “measuring stick.” In reference to the books of the Bible, it means “an officially accepted list of books.” Anything claiming to be from God has to “measure up” to what we already have in Scripture.

Don’t miss the sweet and simple application here. The Bible is a measuring stick for our lives! We compare ourselves not to each other but to the standards laid out by God Himself in His Word.

Chapters and Verses (OT and NT)

When Matthew sat down to write the history we know as the Gospel of Matthew, he didn’t segment his narrative into numbered sections (chapters) with numbered lines (verses). It was just a non-fiction story like a biography you might read today. In fact, Greek didn’t typically have paragraphs (and Greek word order? Oh, it’s so hard!). But even before the Council of Nicea, copyists had started making paragraphs in the books.

The Hebrew Pentateuch was divided into segments for synagogue reading during the Babylonian captivity (around 536bc), and the books of the prophets were sectioned off around 165bc. So there were some smaller sections early on.

Over a thousand years later (1227), Stephen Langton, who would later become the Archbishop of Canterbury, divided the Bible into the chapter divisions that we still use today.

The verses began as spaces between certain words, but they differed from place to place. Around the middle of the sixteenth century, they were standardized to help with cross-referencing and first appeared in print in 1551.

 

So there you go! This remarkable book that we treat with such nonchalance has been preserved through thousands of years, across thousands of miles. It’s fallen into enemy hands, been burned, been vilified, been dissected and disparaged. And yet it remains the True and Living Word of God. Its inspiration is still clear, it’s influence still constant.

Ever wonder how we got the Bible as it stands today? Find just a little of the history here. (click to tweet)

What amazes you about the transmission of the Bible? What wonderful fact did I leave out? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

 

The Completely Not-Boring History of the Bible, part 1

If there’s such a thing as a Bible nerd, I’m it!

I love the Bible because it helps us know God. In His Word, God reveals His heart and everything we need to know about Him and our world. It’s not everything there is to know, but it’s everything we need to know. I’m guessing you love the Bible, too, or you probably wouldn’t take the time to read this blog. Today and one week next month, I’m stepping away from application and study to share some of the fascinating, affirming history of the Bible. I hope you learn something new!

It All Starts with Inspiration

Most Christ-followers believe the Bible to be inspired. That is, God used human authors, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, to write down the information He wanted conveyed. That’s why we see different styles and perspectives among the different books of the Bible despite the unified themes.

It’s been a long time since
those days of inspiration…

But it’s been a long time since those days of inspiration, and even people who believe the original texts were inspired may have doubts about the clear transfer of that information over two thousand (or more) years. After all, we don’t have any of the original documents. The history of the Bible, however, shows us that God has preserved His Word through time, and that’s why I find that history fascinating.

Hebrew Scriptures

Lots of dates here, but just follow the order of events.

The original Hebrew Scriptures are made up of three parts: Torah, Nebihim, and Kethubhim (law, prophets, and writings, respectively). The Torah is also called the Pentateuch, and includes the first five books of our Bible. We know it was recognized as authoritative in Ezra’s lifetime, which was about 440bc. The section called Prophets includes the major and minor prophets, while the Writings includes Psalms and the books surrounding it (Job, Ecclesiastes, etc.). The last books to be written were Malachi (450-430bc) and Chronicles (before 400bc).

By 150bc, all thirty-nine books of our Old Testament had been accepted by the Jewish community. The translation of Jewish Scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint), however, began one hundred years earlier, in 250bc. They did this because so many Jewish people spoke Greek. This is important to us for two reasons.

  1. The Greek translation was based on the set of Scriptures available to the translators at that time (250bc). If you compare the Greek translation with the Hebrew Scriptures currently available to us, you’ll see there are very few differences, which means there haven’t been any major changes or errors enter the text between 250bc and whatever dates our documents reflect. That’s impressive.
  2. The New Testament was originally written in Greek, which means New Testament authors used the Greek translation when they quoted the Old Testament. This helps explain many of the differences between quotations of OT verses in the NT and the actual verses in the OT. These days, translators sometimes work to align the two.

“But wait, Carole,” you say, “You just said there weren’t any big differences between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint.” You’re right; I did. The differences we see are the result of differing translation techniques for Hebrew and Greek. Some of the words may be different or in a different order, but the “jist” of the quoted verses will be the same. Check out this example…

1-peter-1-24-25
1 Peter 1:24-25 NIV
isaiah-40-6-8
Isaiah 40:6-8 NIV

The original Hebrew text had consonants but no vowels. That’s just the way Hebrew was written, and because the Scriptures were designed to be read aloud in the Temple by educated theologians, it wasn’t necessary to have all the vowels. Imagine you read, “Lrd my Gd.” You know what that’s supposed to say. Then read, “Evrythng ws gd.” A bit harder (Everything was good.) but still possible. It’s easy for you to tell the difference between “God” in the first example and “good” in the second. But if you weren’t a native English speaker, you would find it much harder.

Here are the same verses as above but in Hebrew and Greek.

isaiah-40-6-8-hebrew
Isaiah 40:6-8, Hebrew (BHS)
1-peter-1-24-25-greek
1 Peter 1:24-25, Greek

 

 

After the Jewish people were scattered (diaspora) and the Temple destroyed, laymen needed to read the Scriptures in synagogues around the known world. Therefore, a group of scholars (the Masoretes) standardized the consonantal text and added vowels and punctuation based on the traditional readings. “Standardized” means they decided on a correct spelling for things (like color v/s colour) and a single set of grammar rules (like was v/s were). This happened after ad500, but don’t let that gap in time worry you. The Jewish scholars were serious about tradition, so we didn’t lose anything. The vowels and punctuation obviously help us significantly with translation.

How We Christians Got the Books of the Old Testament

The first Christians, being Jews, accepted the Hebrew Scriptures as-is…or as-was. It wasn’t long however, before they rearranged the books, split the minor prophets from the major, instituted all the 1st- and 2nd- books, and separated Ezra from Nehemiah. There was no big theological reason for all this. It was a practical issue: how much Greek text would fit on a standard scroll. Greek, with all its vowels and cases (a grammar thing) takes up a lot more room on the page than Hebrew, with its vowels that are just dots and dashes under the letters. The best example I can think of (and it’s not exact) is our wordprocessing fonts. Try typing the same thing in Courier then in Times New Roman. It takes up different amounts of space, doesn’t it? (I wanted to demonstrate here, but my blogging platform wouldn’t let me.)

How We Get Our Translations

The Hebrew text used by scholars and translators today is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. By the way, the part that’s not in Hebrew is in German. The BHS is based on the Leningrad Codex, which was transcribed and put together in ad1008. “Codex” just means it has separate pieces of paper bound like a book rather than scrolls, but it was still hand-written. Think of medieval monks writing out books by hand and decorating (called “illuminating”) the pages. The BHS has been updated many times since 1008. Modern-day translators start with it, then consider the latest archaeology, historical discoveries, and language research as well as variances from other sources before they settle on what words to actually write for the translation.

We’re always learning more
about history and language…

The fact that we’re always learning more about history and the evolution of language is one of the big reasons we need new translations. The other big reason, by the way, is that our own language changes over time. Remember reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in high school? Aren’t you glad our English Bible doesn’t read like that?

I hope understanding a little of where your Old Testament comes from helps you love and appreciate it even more. Next month, we’ll look briefly at Apocryphal books, the New Testament, the meaning of Canon, and our modern-day chapters & verses. (Go straight to that post *here*.)

Knowing the history of the Bible helps you value it more. Check out this brief intro. (click to tweet)

I told you I was a Bible nerd! I love this stuff! If you have a question or thought about the history of the Bible, please leave it in the comments. I’ll find an answer for you or at least point you toward an answer.

Note: I didn’t include any references because I wanted this to read like a conversation. If you’re interested in where I got my information, please just leave a comment or e-mail me: carolesparks(at)outlook(dot)com.