The Orthodox Faith – The Bible – The New Testament (3)

There are four Gospels in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Our English word Gospel comes from the ancient Anglo-Saxon work “God-spel’, which literally means “Good News”. It is a translation from the Greek word “Evangelion” which means Good News.

It is tempting to see the Gospels as a short biography of Jesus. After all, they tell about His birth, most of His adult life, including His death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. However, the Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense. Biographies talks about the person’s childhood. In the Gospels, except for Christ’s birth and his finding in the temple, we are told nothing of his boyhood and teenage years. We know Jesus had an education because he could read the Bible in Hebrew in the Synagogue, which does require quite a bit of knowledge. Beyond that, the Gospels don’t say much else about His early life. A modern biography would tell us how that person spent his time. Of course, the Gospels tell us about Christ’s preaching, miracles and encounters with various people. A modern biography would go into much more detail. For example, what did Jesus eat, how did He spend his time when He wasn’t preaching or teaching? But the Gospels tell us nothing of this.

This is because the Gospels don’t pretend to be ‘objective’ about Christ’s life. They were written by men who were aflame with their love of Jesus Christ and their desire to bring Christ’s message to the world. That is why this is ‘Good News’; actually, the best news that a suffering humanity could hear, is the news that sin and death have been overcome. As St. John wrote in his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are called the “synoptic” Gospels. Synoptic means that if you put these three Gospels next to each other in parallel columns you can immediately see similarities in the order of events in Christ’s words, his miracles and so on. It is clear that there is a relationship between them and scholars debate how they are related. However, these scholarly questions do not take away from the “Good News” of the Gospel.

St. John’s Gospel, the last of the four, is rather independent of the first three. Christ’s words and miracles are described rather differently than the first three. All four Gospels were written in the second half of the 1st century. But St. John’s Gospel was written much later, perhaps in the mid-to-late 90s of that century. Traditionally, it is said that St. John, who lived to a great old age, wanted to supplement the first three to bring out the deeper meaning of Christ’s words and deeds. Sometimes it is difficult to tell where Christ’s words end and St. John’s begins.

If we look at all the gospels, we can see varieties in Christ’s words. This does not mean the writer of the Gospel did not pay attention to what Christ said and did. We should remember that most of the time Christ and the people in the Gospels were speaking in Aramaic, the everyday language of the Jews for that time. These words were then translated into Greek by people who were not native Greek speakers (except St. Luke) but rather had learned Greek as a second language. Except for St. Luke they certainly were not Greek scholars. So it is not surprising that the Gospels they left has some discrepancies. To the contrary, this shows that we have several views of Jesus Christ and they were not coping each other word by word. We have four writers describing Christ’s words and deeds. We know how much eye-witness testimony can vary, but that does not mean that the Gospels are inaccurate. We should be glad that we have several different accounts of the same words and deeds. The Gospel writers ere not trying to falsify the record but they were giving the sense, if not the exact meaning, of Christ’s activities. Again, we should remember that Christ was speaking in Aramaic, which was then put into Greek.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Bible – The Old Testament (2)

As noted previously, the Old Testament is the first part of the Bible. Of course, the Jews don’t call this part of the Bible the Old Testament because they do not accept the New Testament. For Jews it is simply the Bible or the Hebrew Bible or the Hebrew Scriptures. As Christians we see Jesus Christ as fulfilling the Old Testament, but Jews do not accept this. The Old Testament contains four kinds of books. These are books of law, history, wisdom and prophecy.

The first five books of the Old Testament are the books of the law. In Hebrew these five books are known as Torah and in Greek as the Pentateuch. They begin with the creation of the world, the sin of Adam, followed by stories of the patriarchs (i.e., Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, etc..). We have the story of the Jewish captivity in Egypt and the Exodus from Egypt. Finally, thee are several books filled with moral and ritual law. Many of the laws are followed by Jews today. Traditionally, it is thought that these books were written by Moses, but many scholars think that these books were written later than the time of Moses and were written from oral and written material from Moses’ time.

The next section of the Old Testament contains the historical books. They tell of the entrance of the Hebrews into the Holy Land, the story of the kings (i.e., David, Solomon, etc.). The historical books also tell of the Jewish deportation to Babylon and the return from Babylon. Again, scholars tell us that these books were written much later than the events they describe.

The wisdom books contain meditation about the meaning of life, the human situation, God’s relationship with humanity. In addition, the Book of Psalms is found here. The psalms are traditionally attributed to King David. The psalms tell of all aspects of human life: psalms of praise, of loneliness, of complaint, of blessing and so on. The liturgical services of the Orthodox Church are filled with psalms either in full or in part.

The final section of the Old Testament contains the books of the prophets. When people hear the word prophet they think of someone who predicts the future. This is true in the sense that the words of the prophecy point forward to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the primary function of the prophet is to proclaim God’s message for His people, regardless of whether they contain predictions of the future or not. For example, when the Jewish people were straying from the one, true God to worshipping idols, the prophets criticized this behavior and called them to return to the true God. On the other hand, when the Hebrews were in captivity God sent prophets to comfort them. Among the prophetic books there are apocalyptic parts. Apocalyptic refers to the end of history and the judgement of God.

We also find the book of Jonah. Many people think of this book simply as a story of Jonah in the belly of the whale and try to research what kind of fish it was, how big it was, etc. However, the real meaning of this points forward to Jesus Christ. In other words, the three days and nights Jonah spent in the whale represent the three days and nights Jesus spent in the grave. Because of this, this book is read at the Easter Vigil.

As we see the primary meaning of the Old Testament is to point forward to Jesus Christ. However, that fact should not make us forget that this preparation is told through the history of the Jewish people, which means that we can never forget the deep connection we have between Jews and Christians.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Bible (1)

In English, when we say the word Bible we think of it as a book, a book singular. However, in Greek it is “Ta Biblia”, the Books (plural). Indeed the Bible is a small library of books written by many different people and in many different times and places. The Bible contains books of history, law, poetry, Gospels, letters and so on.

The Bible is divided into two main parts. The Old Testament tells of the creation of the world and the sin of Adam. It tells the story of the Patriarchs and the Exodus. It continues with the history of the Jewish kingdom, of King David and King Solomon. It contains books of prophesy, foretelling the coming of the Messiah. The Book of Psalms forms the basis of the services of the Christian Church. We should remember that the Jews do not call this the Old Testament because they don’t accept the New Testament. For them it is simply The Bible.

The New Testament begins with the four Gospels which tell of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Book of Acts is the history of the early church. It is followed by epistles, or letters, written by St. Paul and others. Finally the New Testament ends with the Book of Revelation which tells us that the Church and individual Christians will suffer greatly in the time of tribulation, but will be saved by the victory of Christ.

We call the Bible “The Word of God” and such it is. However, this does not mean that the Bible fell from heaven. Rather it is the Word of God in human words. God did not dictate the Bible word by word. The Biblical authors were not merely passive instruments that God used. Rather God respected their freedom so the Bible was written by concrete individuals in concrete places and times. This means that the words of the Bible reflect the conditions in which they wrote, as well as their different personalities. Nevertheless, the Bible is truly the Word of God for humanity. That does not mean every particular historical detail in the Bible will correspond to modern ideas about history (or science, for that matter). We believe that the Bible is inspired by God and convey what God wants us to know about Him and what He wants from us.

When we read or hear the bible read we find books attributed to Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, John and many other authors. Critics of Christianity will tell us that modern historical research calls into question the traditional author of any given book. This leads critics to say that this proves the Gospels are wrong, hence Christianity is not true. However, important modern critical research into the Bible is (and the modern, critical approach is, in fact, taught in Orthodox seminaries) it is not the only way to understand the Bible. But instead of worrying about such details, the Church recognizes the books of the Bible as books written for and by the church. Our faith tells us that the Bible is the church’s book, which is inspired. The Bible interpreted and lived by the Church is God’s word for us.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Holy Trinity (4)

The book of Ecclesiastes says: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecc 1:9)

This saying can have a positive meaning. After all, the teachings of the Orthodox Church originated centuries ago but they are still a living aspect of the Church. But it can also have a negative meaning. We remember the false teaching of the priest Arius from Alexandria in Egypt who, in the beginning of the 4th century, said that Jesus Christ was not truly God, but a created being. Many modern people would agree with this. They say that Jesus was a prophet, a mystic, a religious teacher but not God. Actually, these modern people have an even lower idea of God than Arius had. Arius said that Jesus Christ was a creature but He was the first to be created, created before the angels, the cosmos and human beings: and even that Jesus helped God to create these things. Few moderns would go this far. But the church does not accept either ancient Arianism or the modern belief. This faith of the Church is that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are not creatures but are uncreated and fully divine as God the Father.

Another false teaching, ancient and modern, is that the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply roles that the one God acts out. For example, in the Old Testament God appears as God the Father, in the New Testament as God the Son and in the ongoing life of the Church as the Holy Spirit. In this teaching the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply names for God’s activities.

A modern variation of this is to say that Christians may call God Father, Hindus might call Him Vishnu and Buddhists might call Him the cosmic Buddha. The idea here is that these names of God are interchangeably human concepts. Christians would say that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinctly real persons with whom we can have a personal relationship. They are not simply interchangeable names.

With God we distinguish nature and person. God’s nature answers the question “what God is”. In other words, human beings have a common human nature. Of course, there is great variety in humanity, but there is a common human nature. Nature corresponds to the ‘what’ of humanity. Persons on the other hand answer the question “who”. If we ask “what” John Smith and Mary Jones are we would answer and say they are human beings. If we ask who they are, the answer is Mary and John.

This distinction exists with God. We ask what God, we answer He is divine, uncreated, omniscient, omnipresent and so forth. If we ask the question who is God, we answer Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They all share in the common divine nature but in three personal ways.

But our human nature and person correspond to the divine nature and person. For example, Jesus Christ is called the Logos or Word of God. Logos means more than simply Word in our modern sense, but also includes the meaning of reason, logic, knowledge. Because we are created in the image of Jesus Christ we participate in the Logos of God. Of course, this does not mean simply logic in a mathematical or philosophical sense. It goes beyond that. This Logos give us the ability to know God and have a spiritual relationship in a way that goes beyond logic in the narrow sense.

Human beings are also spiritual. This word should not be taken in some vague general sense. Rather, God the Holy Spirit dwells within us. In other words, human beings are called to imitate and participate in God because we are made in the image and likeness of God, and because God the Word and God the Spirit dwell within us and lead us to union with God.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Holy Trinity (3)

Although God revealed Himself as Trinity more clearly in the New Testament, He pointed forward to this dogma even in the Old Testament. For example, we see this in the mysterious meeting of Abraham and the three strangers. We will quote here from an older translation of the Bible to show a distinction which is lost in more modern translations. As we read these few lines, let us look for the oddity

And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree… (Genesis 18:1-4)

Here is the oddity. There are three men, but Abraham addresses them with a singular pronoun, i.e., Thou. In modern English the distinction between the informal Thou and the formal You is lost. Now-a-days we use you for all people. English formerly made this distinction which is preserved in other languages as we see in the German “du-sie” or the French “tu-vous” When the Fathers commented on the passage they see the use of the singular Thou to address three people as a hint of the Tripersonal unity of the Trinity. Taken by itself this interpretation may seem somewhat obscure but in context of the whole Old Testament it makes an important point.

It is interesting that this Old Testament Trinity is the basis of many icons. Sometimes when people talk of the Old Testament Trinity icon they think of one that shows God the Father as an old man, Jesus Christ as a young man and the Holy Spirit as a dove. This icon is very popular in Western Christian churches and is also found in many Orthodox Churches. As an object of piety and devotion, it should be respected. However, many scholars will state that a better icon of this scene is seen in the icon by St. Andre Rublev, commonly called the Hospitality of Abraham. An important council of the Russian Church held in 1551 said that only icons of the Rublev type should be used. The idea then is that God the Father never became a human being so trying to paint Him, one is bound to be subjective. By depicting the three strangers as angels the Rublev Trinity leads us to a more profound understanding of this passage.

Incidentally, there is some controversy about who is who in the icon. Some say that the center figure is the Father and the figure on the left represents the Son. Other interpretations hold that the center image is that of Christ with the Father on the left and the Holy Spirit on the right. But this is taking the icon in too literal a sense. An artist ultimately cannot paint a literal icon of the Trinity, so we have to respect the mystery.

However, if we want to know the Holy Trinity, we do so not by manipulating words or concepts, but by the experience of the Trinity through prayer, liturgy, and meditation or by reading the Bible. In the end, God is beyond all words and images but the works are concepts given to us by the church as stepping stones to know the one, true God.

Fr. John