A Bird’s Eye View of the Bible

Old Testament

The 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament began as oral teaching and were later committed to writing. Their compositions have been redacted over the years. The ones that we inherited are called the final forms.

In the modern arrangement, the OT begins with a theological account of this world’s biophysical beginning as intentional creation. It describes the emergence of a unique moral creature — humans — down to Abraham, whose descendants joined other clans to become Israel. Abram had moved from Mesopotamia via Syria into Canaan or Palestine[1]. His grandson settled in Egypt for generations until they escaped to Sinai, had a covenant and laws with their deity as ruler, and moved back into Canaan. A checkered phase of settlement culminated in a local monarchy under Saul. David and Solomon subdued their neighbors, holding a brief nation in the 11th century BC, until this was lost, and the realm split into two rival petty kingdoms called Israel (Ephraim) and Judah. Assyria destroyed Israel in 722 BC, and Neo-Babylonia destroyed Judah in 586 BC, with much of their population exiled into Mesopotamia (the land of Abraham’s birth). Later, Persia replaced Babylonia. Some captive Judeans (henceforth called Jews) were allowed to go back to Canaan to renew their community in the 6th century BC, while others stayed on in Babylonia and in Egypt. The library of writings that contains this theological narrative (not chronological history) includes versions of laws and covenants enacted at Mount Sinai and renewed in Moab and Canaan. Writings in the names of various spokesmen or prophets were added to the scripture. They called the people back to YHWH. The Psalms, or Hebrew hymns and prayers, and various forms of wisdom literature were also added. The entire OT anticipated the arrival of the Messiah. Jesus read a Greek version of the Hebrew Scripture known as the Septuagint (LXX). In Matthew 23:35, when he reviewed the legacy of sin in his scripture, Jesus began with the murder of Abel in Genesis 4:8 and ended with the murder of Zechariah in 2 Chronicles 24:21. The prophets were never fortune-tellers — not everything they announced was future prediction.[2]

I began by noting that the 39 books represent the Protestant Old Testament. This is because there are several collections, all called Old Testament. Their collections define the Bible of the denominations they represent.

New Testament

At around 5 BC, Elizabeth was told she would bear a son, to be called John. He would grow up to proclaim the arrival of his cousin, Yeshua ben Yosef, or Jesus, as the Messiah. In his teens, Jesus showed promise as an insightful and learned mind at the temple. At his baptism by John, witnesses say YHWH announced his divine authority. This set the stage for a period[3] of ministry during which he founded no church, did no mission work and wrote no books — but he left a dangerous idea: that God loves, forgives, and desires our presence. Drawing the threads of prophecies from Isaiah, Joel, Zechariah and Jeremiah, Jesus declared himself the true Son of God (in opposition to the Roman use of an ancient Hebrew claim). He performed signs to signify his authority. He selected twelve as disciples. His claim to divinity was a political threat to Caesar and led to his crucifixion. On the cross, Jesus promised a thief paradise, with no baptism, religious membership or merits, declaring the volitional nature of faith. After his death and resurrection, followers known as apostles (the sent ones) dispersed throughout the Roman Empire to share the good news (euanggelion) that the Kingdom of God was near.

Three men led the early Church. James led the first Church of Jerusalem, while Peter founded faith communities in northern Turkey, and Paul led the Gentile mission. Saul, the Roman, Jewish, rabbinical Pharisee, announced his apostleship from a personal encounter with the risen Christ and embarked on a daring mission to the Gentiles as Paul the Christian. He became the most influential writer, who shaped our understanding of Jesus’ message and transformed a Galilean following into a global faith tradition.

Paul’s four missionary journeys ended in his execution by beheading in Rome, after James was stoned to death and Peter was crucified. These three men ushered in a new age of YHWH worship. Thus, was born the world’s first global theological religion (Buddhism was the first non-theological religion). The message of the NT is that the triune God became human as Jesus the God/Man, the Holy Spirit is present on earth, and the resurrection of Jesus reconciles us to God. At the end of this life, followers of Jesus’ teachings will be in God’s presence (heaven) everlastingly and will not be abandoned (hell).

The word hell is a mistranslation. Three words (sheol, hades and gehenna) describe the place of the afterlife. Sheol is a Hebrew word that refers to the place of the dead. The Greek equivalent is hades. Gehenna refers to the valley of Hinnom just outside Jerusalem, which by the time of Jesus had become a city dump. During the intertestamental period (between the OT and the NT), the idea of a future place of torment for unbelievers arose, and gehenna was picked up to describe such a place. Like any city dump, something at gehenna was always on fire, as unclean animals and bodies were constantly burned or cremated. Thus, the notion of everlasting fire in “hell” took root. This concept was adopted by the writers of the Gospels in their portrayal of Jesus’ teachings.

In English translations of the NT, most versions render gehenna as hell. As for the word sheol in the OT, the KJV translated it as “hell” as well, even though sheol refers simply to the place of the dead, with no reference to fire or heat, everlasting or not. Thus, two words, which meant “the place of the dead,” came to be called “hell,” a place for unbelievers to suffer burning forever. Other versions are equally unhelpful when they render the words “the grave,” “the power of death,” “the netherworld,” and “the underworld.” The TNIV’s translation as “the realm of the dead” is closest to the original meanings.

[1] The word Palestine never occurs in the Bible. It was a name officially introduced in the 2nd century AD and borrows from the Greek historian Herodotus, who coined the term Philistine-Syria to refer to southern Syria. What we call Israel today was in fact known as southern Syria.

[2] When John the Baptist preached that the people should “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” in Matthew 3:2, he offered a prediction (the kingdom of heaven will happen soon), a present instruction (repent now), as well as a theology (God is bringing his kingdom to us). This sums up the prophetic ministry of the OT — revealing the Lord as Jesus, ministering to the people now and declaring the future.

[3] Although Matthew, Luke and Mark mention only a single Passover, John mentions three, suggesting a 3-year ministry.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Ron Choong

Ron Choong

I am an independent, interdisciplinary investigator of the geohistory and philosophy of science and religion