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More About the Books of the Bible

New Testament

The Gospels and Acts

The Gospel According to St. Matthew

The Book of Matthew, written by an unknown Christian about 90 C.E., declares the advent of the Kingdom of God. (The author says, “Kingdom of heaven,” which may be because Jews did not use the name of God. Even today they will write G-d.) God has drawn near to dwell with God’s people, the church, breaking into the world in the person of Jesus, and in his authority to teach, to cast out demons, heal, and to forgive sins. (Matthew 1:23; 16:16; 28:20). The author tells the story of the life, ministry, and suffering and death of Jesus. Matthew is structured in three parts and includes five important speeches of Jesus: The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29); The missionary discourse (9:35-10:42); The discourse in parables (13:1-52); The ecclesiological (theological doctrine relating to the church) discourse (17:24-18:35); The eschatological (the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind; i.e., the end of ordinary reality and reunion with the Divine) discourse (24:1-25:46). Matthew stresses forgiveness and the need to forgive.

The Gospel According to St. Mark

The first of the gospels to be written (c. 70 C.E.), and attributed to the companion of Peter and Paul (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37-39; Colossians 4:10; Tim 4:11) is also the only one to declare itself a “gospel.” The author assembled various stories that were being told about Jesus and wrote them down. It is structured around Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, and crucifixion. It is meant to create and strengthen faith in Jesus and to develop disciples. Mark focuses our attention on the cross and Jesus Godly identity realized in his servant life, suffering and death. It is on the cross that he makes God’s kingdom present and experiences his coronation. His disciples, too, find their true meaning in service and even suffering, for the cause of justice and mercy in the world.

The Gospel according to St. Luke

The Gospel of Luke was probably written between 80 and 90 C.E. after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.). The books of Luke and Acts were written by the same person, possibly an educated Hellenic Jew, fluent in Greek with a fine literary style, who had become a follower of Christ. Scholars refer to the books as Luke/Acts and treat them as a double volume, meant to be read and studied together, because the story of Christ told in Luke then broadens into the story of the early Church in Acts. Luke's gospel ends with Jesus' ascension and the disciples in the Temple, waiting to begin their ministries; Acts begins with the ascension and the return of Jesus' Spirit, guiding the disciples to the successful completion of their mission. Luke shows how the beliefs and prophecies of the Jews had pointed to the coming of the Messiah. His leading characters, including a young woman named Mary, are all faithful Jews who know the promises of God and are ready when he returns to dwell with his people and usher in his Kingdom on earth; but the promise is not exclusively for them. The Jewish faith expected that when God's glory was revealed, all people would see it. That's Luke's point: the Messiah is good news for all people, Jew and Gentile alike, and all of creation. Harold W. Attridge, the Lilian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale University Divinity School says, "Luke's Jesus is very much interested in instilling compassion and forgiveness in his followers.... Jesus is probably at his most powerful in the gospel of Luke, from a variety of perspectives, as prophet, as healer, as savior, as benefactor."

The Gospel according to St. John

The gospel of John is attributed to the disciple John, or to one of his disciples, but we don't really know who wrote it. It was a common practice in ancient times to write in the name of a well known authority. Even to a first time reader, it's obvious that the Gospel of John, written about 90-110 C. E., is very different from the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. John begins by describing Jesus as the Word of God made flesh. Although he includes many of the same events of Jesus' ministry as the other Gospel writers, they're in a different order and the focus is on Jesus' Godly identity, including his own description of himself as I AM. The Gospel of John is more interested in Jesus as God who has returned to his people, bringing his Kingdom to the world and connecting heaven to earth. God chose to become incarnate in the human race. He came to save his people from their sins, and his coronation as their King took place on the cross. He has swallowed up death (depicted in the ancient world as a monster who swallowed his prey) and his Spirit is alive in the world through his people.

The Book of Acts

The Acts of the Apostles is the story of the early Church, told through the experiences of its leaders. The word apostle is based on a Greek word that means "one who is sent out." The Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church at Pentecost, fifty days after Easter (Pentecost means fifty). It was probably written about 80-85 C.E. and, like the Gospel which bears his name, is attributed to Luke, referred to in Colossians as a doctor and a disciple of Paul. Traditionally he has been identified as a Greek, but some scholars think he may have been a Hellenic Jew who had become a follower of Christ through Paul's ministry. It was a common practice in ancient times to attribute authorship to an individual of note, so we can't know for sure that the actual author of the Gospel and Acts was Luke the physician. The author was obviously educated, fluent in Greek, and possessed of a fine literary style. Scholars refer to the books of Luke and Acts as Luke/Acts and treat them as a double volume, meant to be read and studied together, because the story of Christ in Luke then broadens into the story of the early Church in Acts. The Gospel according to St. Luke ends with the story of the Ascension. Acts begins with it. At the heart of the Book of Acts, as throughout the Bible, is the story of God's love and grace in Jesus Christ. It is a book of faith, for all people.

The Letters of Paul

The Book of Romans

Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in about 56-57 C.E. Jewish-Christians were the leaders of the early church throughout the empire, including Rome. The emperor Claudius tolerated other religions, and could even be said to have treated the Jews generously; however, he hated proselytizing. In 49 C.E., he expelled all Jews, including Jewish-Christians, from Rome because some Jews were causing disturbances in the city at the instigation of "Chrestus". Many scholars believe that this refers to the efforts of the Jewish-Christians, inspired by their faith in the risen Christ, to convert others. By the time Jews were allowed to return to Rome, the Gentile-Christians had taken over leadership of the Roman church. Tensions arose between the two groups of believers, prompting Paul's letter. Throughout Romans, Paul appeals to his readers to embrace holy living, especially admonishing his Gentile-Christian readers, who were tempted to look down on their persecuted Jewish-Christian brethren, that they were all brothers and sisters in Christ and belonged to the Lord.

The Book of 1 Corinthians

Paul's letters to the Corinthians, written between 53-55 C. E., give us a glimpse of what life was like in a 1st century Greco-Roman city and the challenges faced by the Christians there, some of whom were Jewish converts, others Gentiles who had formerly paid homage to many gods. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Asclepius, the god of healing, were favorites of the Corinthians, and Corinth was also a major center of Emperor worship. The city was ethnically diverse and very sophisticated, the home of a large theatre and a haven for philosophers. It was a place where a resourceful person, even a former slave, could get ahead. Just as it is in the large cities of our day, there was a sharp divide between rich and poor; so the Gospel, with its emphasis on justice and equality and the oneness of all believers in the crucified and risen God-man, regardless of status, must have seemed just as radical to the movers and shakers of Corinth as it does to our "it's all about me" society today. The Corinthian Christians were a contentious bunch. 1 Corinthians seems to be a call to unity and advice on issues that were causing division among them—they were in a mess. As the one who brought them to Christ, Paul is trying to bring them back to his teachings.

The Book of 2 Corinthians

Paul's letters to the Corinthians, which made it into the New Testament canon as 1st and 2nd Corinthians, were written between 53-55 C. E. As stated above, they give us a glimpse of what life was like in a 1st century Greco-Roman city and the challenges faced by the Christians there. The city was ethnically diverse and very sophisticated, a place where a resourceful person, even a former slave, or Freedman, could get ahead. Just as it is in our day, there was a sharp divide between rich and poor, and this was reflected in the membership of the Church. The Corinthian Christians were a contentious bunch, and some of their problems were a result of the socio-economic divide. The "haves" too often gave in to the temptation to exclude the "have nots" and the "have nots" resented it and judged the "haves" accordingly! As he had done in his first epistle (1 Corinthians) and during a personal visit sometime after 1 Corinthians was written - an encounter which had not gone well at all - Paul once again reminds the Corinthians of their responsibility to live the Gospel. Christians are to work for justice and equality and honor the oneness of all believers in the crucified and risen Lord, regardless of gender, race, education, age, or worldly status. The following reading may seem hard to understand, but read Chapters 2:14-3:18 and you'll see that Paul is summarizing arguments he made there. When he says that the Gospel is veiled, he's really saying that the false apostles do not understand the Gospel, because they don't have the Spirit. If they did, they would seek to emulate Christ and make themselves the servants of the Church, as Paul has done, rather than vying to lord it over the community.

How do you approach God? How do you see God reflected in others? How might others see God reflected in you?

The Book of Colossians

The letter to the Colossians is attributed to the apostle Paul or one of his disciples. It was addressed to the Colossian Christians at the behest of their teacher, Epaphras, who was concerned because false teachers were trying to lead his flock astray. Paul had certainly experienced the very same thing, and understood Epaphras' concern for his brothers and sisters in Christ. (There's nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes puts it: Pastors today have to contend with the grasping Word of Faith and so-called prosperity gospel preachers/ teachers confusing and stealing their flocks.) The letter attacks the false teaching that the Colossian Christians weren't fully one with Christ; in other words, their salvation hadn't been completed because they didn't have the "inside knowledge" that the false teachers claimed to have. But their teachings, the author insists, detract from the person and work of Christ for salvation and he strongly refutes them. He assures the Colossians that they became fully one with Christ (we could say "born again", another teaching that's been misused and abused) when they received him in baptism. All they need to do is to put their trust in him and continue to live as children of God as they were taught.

The Book of Galatians

Paul's letter to the churches of Galatia was written about 50-55 C.E. The Galatian congregations were made up of Jews and Gentiles. In his letter, Paul rejects in no uncertain terms the teaching of some Jewish Christian leaders that Gentile followers of Christ must also follow the Jewish laws regarding diet, etc., and that they are required to observe the Jewish festivals. He also says that Gentile Christian men and boys need not be circumcised in accordance with God’s covenant with Israel. Paul preaches freedom in Christ and assures the Galatians and us that we may have full confidence of salvation in him. (Martin Luther loved the Book of Galatians, calling it “My Katie,” in honor of his wife, Katharina von Bora Luther.) Galatians stresses justification by faith through grace. We are acceptable to God through our faith in his mercy through Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit is at work and Christ is alive in the believer. We are clothed with Christ and sent forth to witness to and serve the world.

The Books of 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians

1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians are dated between 43-50 C.E. 1 Thessalonians is Paul's earliest letter and possibly the oldest writing of the early Church. Thessalonica was a trade center and the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia (now located in northern Greece). Its citizens worshiped many pagan gods, and it was a stronghold of emperor worship. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul emphasizes that the God served by the Thessalonian Christians is the true God, "God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," and encourages them to remain faithful in spite of persecution. He also uses this letter to reassure the Thessalonian Christians, who were eagerly awaiting Christ's return, about the fate of those among them who have died in Christ. 1 Thessalonians assures us all that there is only one living and true God and that he wants to save his people and make them holy. He is our hope in the face of illness, hard times, the loss of loved ones, persecution and even death. Whether we live or die, we live with Jesus Christ, who died, rose and lives again! 2 Thessalonians contains similar themes, but it emphasizes the "day of the Lord," or the day that Jesus Christ would return to the world. Persecution had increased, and the persecuted were looking to the Lord's return for relief, when the tables would be turned on their enemies. Paul encourages the believers to hold on to their faith in Christ and the true message that he, Paul, proclaimed to them. In spite of false claims, hostility and persecution, we can continue to grow in faith, love one another, and stay true to the teachings of the gospel.

The Book of Ephesians

Ephesians is a book full of praise to God, which celebrates the universal church and her mission. The author rejoices in our adoption as children of God through Jesus Christ: Grace through faith is the exquisite gift of God. We cannot boast of being saved because we choose or will it, nor through our own good works; but because we are saved, good works will be the result. As the Body of Christ, true believers will live in love and unity, practicing mercy and working for justice in the world.

The Book of Philippians

The Philippian church was the first Christian church in Europe (Macedonia, modern day Greece; Philippi was founded in 356 B.C.E. by Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great). Lydia and her household were Paul's first converts there (Acts 16:11-15) and he returned more than once during his ministry. Paul's letter to the Philippians reveals the close and intimate relationship he enjoyed with the members of the Body of Christ at Philippi: Paul and the Philippian Christians loved each other very much. Of all the churches he'd planted, the Philippians had remained faithful to the Gospel and united with one another even though they were facing opposition. In spite of the themes of persecution and suffering, physical and mental, this is Paul's most joyful letter. It is both a letter of thanksgiving to the Philippians for their emotional and material support of his ministry and for God's grace for both himself and them. Because of God's unconditional love and grace, it is he who deserves our ultimate thanks. Paul encourages them, and us, to live out the salvation we have in Christ. And we can do it, because God has promised to be at work in us!

General Letters and Revelation

The Book of 1 Timothy

The book of 1 Timothy was probably written near the end of the first century C. E. It is attributed to Paul, but he had been dead for many years when the letter was written. It was common and accepted practice in ancient times to claim authorship of important works by authoritative, respected figures. The author obviously revered Paul and was familiar with his ideas and teachings. Along with 2 Timothy and Titus, 1 Timothy is one of the "pastoral epistles," meant to instruct and encourage pastors and other church leaders. Each of us who believes in Paul's message of God's grace and the importance of sharing it with others can see ourselves as "Timothy." Believers are encouraged to live lives of loving faithfulness and grace-filled service to others.

The Book of 2nd Timothy

2nd Timothy is similar to 1 Timothy in style, content, and vocabulary, but it is very different from Paul's writings. As discussed in the commentary on 1 Timothy, it is unlikely that Paul wrote these two letters to Timothy. It would seem that someone living toward the end of the 1st century who wanted to continue Paul's mission, even add to his theology, wrote these letters. 2nd Timothy quotes from Paul's letter to the Romans, which the writer may have studied to learn more about Paul's theology and style. This makes sense because Paul's letters were very popular in the early church. 2 Timothy encourages the believer to be strong in teaching the Gospel of Christ, as Paul was strong, in spite of his sufferings. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called faith that avoids practical consequences "cheap grace." God's grace compels us to fight the good fight no matter what.

The Book of Titus

Titus is one of the three pastoral letters or epistles in the New Testament along with 1 and 2 Timothy. It is attributed to Paul, but it is not written in his style, doesn't use his vocabulary or seem to agree with his understanding of the church. Most scholars think the letter was written in the 1st century by an anonymous author using Paul's name to give it authority, a common practice at that time. In the letter, the author discusses the role of church elders and how important it is that they be worthy members of the church community and upright citizens who do good works. He or she goes on to say that all believers are responsible to live godly lives, to resist false teaching, and to love and care for one another and the non-believers in their families and communities. Salvation is ours through the grace of God, God's free gift received in the water of baptism, but as disciples, we have a mandate to love one another and our neighbors as ourselves. 

The Book of Philemon

In the book of Philemon, we see how the gospel had turned the ancient world upside down. As Paul wrote to the church at Galatia, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). The book of Philemon is a personal letter to a leader of the Colossian church named Philemon and his wife, Apphia, and was probably sent at the same time as the general letter meant to be read to the whole church body that met in their home. Actually, even this letter includes in the greeting "the church in your house." So Paul likely expected that Philemon would share the contents of this letter with his sisters and brothers in Christ, too. Being a church leader, Philemon's character and behavior were to be an example of godly living to the body of Christ in Colossae. Also, once Onesimus had returned to Colossae, he would be worshiping with the people he had served, and, if Philemon chose not to free him, would still be serving, as well as any other slave converts in the household or from other households. Paul encourages Philemon and Apphia to forgive any wrongs Onesimus may have done them, such as stealing valuables to help him get away. (As an enslaved person he would have had a monetary value himself.) He expects that the church members will deal kindly with Onesimus and treat him as a brother and fellow worker in Christ. The implication is that Paul also hopes that Onesimus will be freed and maybe even outfitted and provided funds to return to Paul.

We don't know much about Onesimus. His name is Greek, but that could have been his slave name. It simply means "useful." He could have been from any place in the Empire! Although slavery worked differently in ancient times than it did, and does, in the west in the past several hundred years, Philemon still had the legal power to punish and even kill Onesimus with impunity. Since this letter was preserved and circulated, we can speculate that it was taken seriously and that Philemon and Apphia responded favorably. According to tradition, Onesimus, who is mentioned by name by Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 107), became bishop in Ephesus. That would indicate that Onesimus went from slave to brother to Bishop.

The Book of Hebrews

The book of Hebrews, composed about 70 C. E., is written in excellent and beautifully phrased Greek, possibly by someone living in Rome. In any case, it was written to Greek speaking Hebrews outside of Palestine. Tradition often assigns authorship to Paul, but this has been disputed from the first. Martin Luther, for instance, thought that the author might have been Apollos (Acts 18:24). Others have suggested that it could have been written by Prisca (Priscilla), a Roman woman and a Jewish convert to faith in Christ, who was also the teacher of Apollos (Acts 18:1-2, 18, 24-26; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19). (Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, as Jews, had been banished from Rome by Emperor Claudius because of troubles blamed on conflicts between Jews who believed in Jesus and those who did not. Claudius was relatively tolerant of other religions, but he balked at proselytizing.)

Hebrews warns and encourages. God's word brings both judgment and mercy - law and gospel. God extends a new covenant given through the sacrifice of Christ to the world. Martin Luther spoke of the "theology of the cross." Hebrews teaches that God is revealed on the cross.

The Book of James

Tradition assigns the book of James to the brother of Jesus, leader of the Church at Jerusalem, who, according to Josephus, was executed by order of the Sanhedrin, urged on by the High Priest Ananus ben Ananus, between 62-69 C.E. (Matthew 13:55; Galatians 1:19, 2:9; Acts 15:13-21). If so, it would have been written prior to the Jewish war and destruction of the temple (66-70 C.E.). Most scholars think the epistle was written later (perhaps 130-140 C.E.) in the name of the martyr-hero James, a common practice at the time. Martin Luther didn't like the book of James. To his way of thinking, it seemed to emphasize law over gospel. Luther believed that Jesus Christ and his cross and resurrection were the heart of the Scriptures. For Luther, the book didn't offer enough of what he considered the core Christian message. Though a scholar of the first order, given his background you can see why James would strike him as "less Christian" than other New Testament writings. But there's a lot of comfort to be found in the pages of James. At its heart, James affirms human free will and our power to used God's gifts to change what needs to be changed (corruption in our lives and our world, for instance), and dedicate ourselves to live godly lives in the real world, with all its complexity, joyfully spreading the good news of the Gospel by our words and our good works.

The Book of 1 Peter

Although the books of 1 and 2 Peter bear the name of Jesus' disciple, many scholars believe that they were written many years after his death. It was a common and accepted practice in ancient times to attribute authorship to an important personage; these letters could have been written by a disciple or disciples of Peter, immersed in his school of theology. The writer of this letter reminds believers to live as the disciples they are, a holy priesthood, called to live the good news of God's grace in the community of faith and to share it with the wider community - not only in word, telling others about God's mighty acts, but in deeds of compassion and righteousness: those who claim to be God's people, the community of faith, are to put love into action and work for justice for all people. Just as Jesus faced temptation and was misunderstood and persecuted, we may experience these things, too. We may even endure rejection for our faith. We should not lose hope. As Martin Luther advised, when one is feeling discouraged they should remember, and even say out loud, claiming God's promise, "I am baptized." God's Kingdom has defeated the kingdom of this world!

The Book of 2 Peter

Although the books of 1 and 2 Peter bear the name of Jesus' disciple, many scholars believe that they were written many years after his death. It was a common and accepted practice in ancient times to attribute authorship to an important personage; these letters could have been written by a disciple or disciples of Peter, immersed in his school of theology. The writer of this letter admonishes his readers to remember God's promises, support their faith, live out their call, and be faithful to scripture. Don't be like those false teachers and faithless ones who impose their own interpretation on Scripture. Grow in faith by practicing goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Christ will come again!

The Book of 1 John

Martin Luther called 1 John "an outstanding epistle." The Gospel of John and 1, 2 and 3 John seem to be thematically and theologically related. In 1 John the writer asserts that the truth of Jesus has always existed (echoing the Gospel of John's opening words, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"). 1 John also tells us that the Word became flesh and offered himself as the sacrifice for our sins and restored our relationship with God (note: not God's relationship with us, our relationship with him). 1 John admonishes those who claim to be followers of Christ to live that way! If we truly love the Lord, we'll love our fellow creatures and work for justice and healing in our world.

The Book of Revelation

The book of Revelation (Apocalypse) is attributed to John, the beloved disciple of Jesus. The author does not claim this identity, and John was a common name (in Hebrew Yohanan, "Yahweh is gracious"). Whether he was Jesus' disciple, who would have been a very old man in the late first century, when the book was probably written, or one of John's own disciples, the author had worked with the seven churches to whom he writes. At this time it had become the law that Roman emperors were to be worshiped as gods, and refusal to do so was punishable by death. Christian churches were also facing many other challenges and threats. The book of Revelation is a beautiful book, written in the style of an apocalypse, an ancient form of writing. This word simply means "revelation." This wonderful book, meant to encourage and uplift believers experiencing terrible persecution, has been misused and misinterpreted (as has the Bible in general), especially in the last 150 years or so when it, together with the OT book of Daniel, has been twisted to support the un-Biblical teaching of a secret rapture of Christians before great tribulations are poured out on the earth in its last days. Neither Daniel nor Revelation were meant to be taken literally or as prophecies of the "end times," which their Jewish and early Christian readers would have understood. What John wants to convey to his readers is that the Roman Empire (and all worldly powers) has been defeated by the Lamb of God on the cross. "....The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever." (Revelation 11:15, NRSV)