As mentioned earlier, the Bible takes first place among the sources of tradition. The Bible is God’s message to human beings. It is inspired by God and written in the words of human beings. The Bible has two main parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word testament is also translated as covenant and is an agreement or pact of God with humanity. Basically God promises to protect and guide first the Jewish people (in the Old Testament) and then the Christian church (in the New Testament).
The Jewish people and then the church agree to follow God’s teaching and live as God wants us to live.
The Old Testament contains four kinds of books. They are:
1. Books of the Law
2. Historical Books
3. Books of prophecies
4. Books of Wisdom
The book of the law, the first five books of the Old Testament, go from the creation of the world and human beings, Adam’s sin, the escape of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and their entrance to the Promised Land. For Christians, the Law given in these books is basically the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. For Jews, this law consists of over 600 commandments. These laws no longer apply to Christians, so the church does not emphasize them.
The historical books tell of the entrance of the Jewish people into the Holy Land and the growth of the Jewish nation. The people of Israel are attacked and led into captivity several times. But God always remains faithful to them.
The books of wisdom are collections of wise saying and prayers. They give much insight into human life and how it should be lead.
The fourth kind of books are books of prophesy. On a popular level there is an often misunderstanding of the role of the prophets. On television programs for example, one often finds people trying to get a detailed vision of the future with precise names, dates and times of what the future holds. Of course, the books of prophesy contain many prophesies pointing to Jesus Christ. Some are quite detailed, some are more general.
The basic role of the prophets was to proclaim holy will to the Jewish people. Sometimes the prophets criticized the Jews. For example, sometimes the people of Israel were tempted to worship false gods. When they did, God sent prophets to condemn this. Sometimes the people of Israel let the poor be downtrodden and oppressed. When this happened God sent prophets to tell them to see that justice and compassion are shown to the poor.
The New Testament also contains four kinds of books. First there are the four Gospels by Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The word Gospel means “Good News” in English, which is translated from the Greek word “evangelium”. These books describe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They do contain Jesus’ teaching, very often given in parables, which are short stories that make a point. In the Gospels we find many of our Lord’s miracles described.
The New Testament also contains one historical book. This is the Book of Acts, written by St. Luke, the author of the third Gospel. It begins with Christ’s Ascension into heaven forty days after the resurrection. It describes Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in Jerusalem, immediately followed by the preaching of the Gospel. At first the “Good News” of Christ was preached to the Jews and then to the non-Jews. In the earlier parts of the book St. Peter is given prominence and in the later parts St. Paul is given prominence. This book is the history of the early church. The Book of Acts is followed by the Epistles. Epistle simply means letter.
Several of the apostles wrote epistles and they are responses to questions or problems arising in the churches founded by the apostles. They were written to respond to the needs of a particular place and time. They are not theological treaties, but they do tell us what the apostles believed and taught.
Finally, the last book of the Bible is the Book of Revelation. Sometimes this book is taken as a detailed blueprint of the future. It does not talk about the future but much like the Old Testament prophets, the Book of Revelation is written to comfort Christians suffering persecution and their final salvation. It applied first to the early Christians persecuted by the Roman governors. It is a message of hope and comfort, telling us that God will never abandon His people and that no matter how bad things are God will rescue His people. In that sense, the book of Revelation has always been a book of comfort for Christians suffering persecution.
The Bible is the record of God’s relationship with His people first the Jews, then the Christians. It teaches us about God and how He wants us to live. The Bible is the source of the Church’s theology but also the foundation of the Liturgy and iconography of the church. The services of the church are filled with quotations and references to the Bible and in fact, we cannot really understand the Liturgy without knowledge of the Bible. Therefore, Orthodox Christians should be regular readers of the Bible, beginning with the Gospels, the other New Testament books and the Old Testament. No matter how many times we read the Bible, it always has a message for us.