Bible Hit Parade

27 Jan

I’m a bit scattered at the moment (rather than scatterbrained, as I always am) because I’m trying to learn Dutch for my research trip to Leiden; carry on writing the novel that the research trip is for; organise the next stage of my asylum seekers craft project; pitch my alchemy book to a publisher who showed a vague interest; interview people for an article I’m writing; and do my usual interpreting and translation on top. But I don’t see why I should neglect the poor blog – what’s one more plate?

The inspiration for this post comes from a sermon I heard recently (which is not an uncommon occurrence, if you’ve been following me a while). It was less a sermon and more a lecture on textual criticism and hermeneutics, which is very much my bag. In fact, while the pastor was apologising to everyone for the dry subject matter, I was restraining myself from performing a drumroll on the rail of the balcony and going “heeeeeeermeneutics!” (But I did restrain myself, never fear.)

Anyway, all that chat about different books of the Bible got me thinking about my favourite books of the Bible. I haven’t ranked them in order (there are 66; it would take a while) but I have decided to grace you with my top five. Before we go any further, I should confess that Romans didn’t make it in. If you feel you must, then please report me to the CIA (Calvinist Investigative Authority).

Philippians

I just had a think about which book are my favourites, but if I had done it scientifically by checking how much of them I have underlined over the years, this one would still have come out on top. Why do I like Philippians so much? I’m not really sure. It’s got some great lines (one of which I can recite in the original Greek*), some powerful theology, some poetry (the poem/song in chapter two is thought to be one of the earliest bits of Christian writing we have, as it may have been a song that was sung in churches in the mid-first century). It’s also got some very human and relatable stuff from Paul (as in St Paul), who can sometimes come across as a bit of a superhuman machine.

It’s very short, too, which probably endears it to me 🤣 It lends itself very well to being memorised, and one day I would like to memorise all of it. But not this year.

Hebrews

If I am considered a suspect by the CIA (see above), then possibly my enthusiasm for Hebrews will make them lenient on me. This one is theology heavy. I like to think of it as the footnotes to the Bible; it explains and systemises a lot of things from other parts of the Bible. It also has some fabulous passages, especially in chapter 12, and many inspirational examples in chapter 11.

We don’t know who wrote Hebrews – if there was ever a name attached to it, it’s been lost. My pet theory is that is was Apollos, but it hardly matters. It’s a work of lofty genius and strangely clinical beauty anyway.

Psalms

Talking of works of genius and beauty, we have the Psalms. This is a collection of poems/songs written by a number of different people, but most notably by King David (both before and after he actually became king). Even the most church-averse person is probably familiar with at least the twenty-third Psalm, the one that begins:

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.**

Psalm 23:1

That’s one of my favourite psalms, but I have others: 25, 27, 73, 103, 116, 119, 121, 131, 139. I realise that’s just an uninspiring list of numbers, but behind the numbers is some beautiful poetry and profound emotion. Many of them have been put to music in modern times and thus made into beautiful new songs, too.

There are also a lot of forgetable and repetitive psalms, including two that are almost identical,*** but I think that’s forgivable in a book of 150 poems. They are a tonic to dip in and out of, especially when life is getting a bit much. I think in Jane Eyre the heroine gets into trouble for not liking the Psalms. I would never insist that other people have to love the Psalms, but they are a very beautiful and accessible part of the Bible, and well worth spending some time with.

John

Finally, a gospel! The four gospels (“good news”es) all tell the story of the life and work of Jesus. There are differences between them (Mark doesn’t have anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood for example), but generally they start with nice, straightforward accounts of things happening in the world – Jesus gathering disciples, the Emperor carrying out a census, angels announcing a birth. (I said they were straightforward, I didn’t say they weren’t unusual.)

John goes straight in with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (which I can also say in Greek). It’s a beautiful passage, but not what you would call a straightforward account of a birth (“the light shines in the darkness”). I like the mysticism of John, which is a lot easier to understand here than it is in one of his other books, Revelation. (No one understands Revelation – a book also known as the Apocalypse, which is quite cool.)

John was the disciple who was closest to Jesus, so you get a particularly intimate portrait. For instance, there’s a bit in all of the other gospels where the disciples discuss who Jesus means when he says one of them will betray him, but in John’s gospel you find out that Peter got John, who was next to Jesus at the supper table, to lean over and ask him. It’s not an important detail, but that’s kind of why it’s touching. You feel more involved in the narrative, somehow.

John was also one of the youngest of the disciples, and so he was almost certainly the one who lived longest, probably dying around the turn of the first century. Christianity had already survived its first persecution (under Nero) and was going through its second (under Domitian). I expect that would give you a bit of perspective on things.

By the way, John also contains the most famous verse in the Bible:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

I can’t say that in Greek. I know, I know, it’s a personal failing.

Ecclesiastes

This one only just made it in. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, if can call a book of the Bible ‘guilty’. It’s unusual in being kind of fatalistic, even a little nihilistic at times – “everything is meaningless” is the refrain – although there’s more to it, of course. This a very handy wee video explaining the message of ‘the Teacher’ (the narrator of the book).

I like it because it is down-to-earth, and reminds you that most things are outside your control so you might as well chill and appreciate what you’ve got while you’ve got it, rather than striving for unreachable goals. I sometimes need reminded of that – see the first paragraph of this post.

It also has a famous paragraph that is sometimes read at funerals:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

The whole passage is lovely, and I’m tempted to quote it at length, but you might be too busy just now. The link above will be there when you’re ready. (There is a time to click on links, and a time to refrain.)

If any of that has inspired you to do a bit more Bible reading, there’s Bible Gateway online (where most of the links in this post go) and there’s the excellent free app called, descriptively, the Bible App. You might be able to wangle a hard copy out of your local church, or ask the Gideons for one. Or you could always buy one. They’re not even all that expensive. It’s not the world’s best-selling book for nothing!

So what are your favourite Bible books / passages? Let me know in the comments below.


* χαιρετε εν κυριω παντοτε παλιν ερω χαιρετε (Phil 4:4)

**If you open the link you will notice that I have linked to Ye Olde translation of the Bible, also known as the Authorised Version or the King James. Generally I’m more in favour of a Bible where you can clearly understand what it says, but since I heard this in the seventeenth century version since earliest childhood, its phrases have acquired an almost magical quality. Feel free to read it in this (relatively) brand spanking new translation instead.

***Psalms 14 and 53, since you asked.

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