One of the great marvels of the modern era in which we live is just how many editions of the Bible that are available to us. Off the cuff I could name probably ten different translations:
- TNIV – Today’s New International Version
- ESV – English Standard Version
- NASB – New American Standard Bible
- KJV – King James Version (Authorized Bible)
- NRSV – New Revised Standard Version
- AMP – Amplified Bible
- NET – the net Bible
- NLT – New Living Translation
- NJB – New Jerusalem Bible
- NAB – New American Bible
And if you take off the “Today’s” or “New” from the beginning of most of these, you’ll find many older English editions of the Bible too, dating as far back as, *gasp* the 1950’s. Okay, there were other translations made in the 19th century too, but it was only the mid-to-late 20th century that this translation enterprise really took off and became a market.
But for all these translations, and overwhelming number of “study Bibles” that each publisher has made, American Biblical literacy on the whole doesn’t seem to have improved all that much. There are still people around who’ve memorized lots of verses, or who are adept at quoting relevant verses on an as-needed basis, and some of them even understand what they’re reading & reciting. But for many, reading the Bible is a chore because they haven’t made much sense of it yet.
This problem needs to be tackled from a number of angles: 1) knowledge of the Bible’s content, 2) knowledge of the Bible’s structure, and 3) knowledge of the Bible’s context.
#1 is easy to solve: knowing the Bible’s content is just a matter of 1) reading from the Bible on a daily basis so there is constant exposure to the words of Scripture, and 2) reading through the whole Bible on a regular basis, such as in a year. Many reading plans exist for this purpose, and I’ve noticed that a lot of Bibles actually come with suggested plans now. This is a good thing, if people actually use them. Switching between different translations every now and then can also provide a deeper appreciation for the message of scripture.
#2 is solved by most study Bibles. These days almost every Bible has some explanatory notes at the beginning of each book within it, and many offer cross-references so you can see when different parts of the Bible are being quoted or alluded to. These tools vary from publisher to publisher, but on the whole can be quite valuable for helping people to understand how the Bible is structured and how it supports itself.
#3, however, is not solved by the availability of Bibles, choice of translations, or abundance of study Bibles. Some information about the Bible’s historical & literary context is offered in many bibles, like at the beginning of each book when it might identify the author, date of composition, and the general historic situation. But Bibles on their own are unable to provide to some degree is what happened in response to the collecting of these sacred writings. This falls into two categories: 1) how did the Jewish community view & treat the Old Testament in the “intertestamental period” up to the lifetime of Jesus and the Apostles? 2) how did the Early Church receive and reflect on the faith while the New Testament canon was still being sorted out?
The best places to start for these two questions are the Old Testament Apocrypha and the Apostolic Fathers.
Many Protestants feel a shudder of discomfort when they hear the word Apocrypha – it tends to be associated with mysterious and bizarre “Catholic stuff” that’s better left alone. There is indeed some strange stuff in the Apocrypha, but let’s face it, there’s some pretty weird stuff in Genesis, Samuel, and Kings as well. One of the arguments I’ve heard leveled against the value of the Apocrypha is that Jesus or the Apostles never quoted them. This is far from true. I Ezra (or III Esdras) is referenced twice in the NT, IV Esdras 21 times, I & II Maccabees and Tobit just over 20x each, Judith 11x, Baruch 6x, Sirach nearly 100x, Wisdom of Solomon just over 100x, and so on. More importantly, these writings give us almost all the historical information that we have on what happened after Malachi and before the gospel books. They also provide insight into how the Jews were understanding the Old Testament as Messianic hopes started to increase as they approached the time of Jesus.
The Apostolic Fathers are very different situation. While the New Testament was still in circulation as individual writings and not formally codified as “The New Testament,” Christian leaders continued to write sermons, tracts, and letters to encourage and instruct one another. Much of the Apostolic Fathers reads a lot like the NT epistles or the book of Hebrews. But what’s especially valuable here is that this is the second generation of Christians writing – the Apostles’ disciples and successors. If we remember that the book of Acts is about how the gospel spread and the seeds of the Church are planted across the Gentile Roman world, then we can see the Apostolic Fathers showing us how the Church began to grow upon the “foundation of the Prophets and the Apostles” as Paul once put it in Ephesians 2:20.
Now, I don’t mean to say that every Christian must read the Apocrypha and Apostolic Fathers, but I do assert that people who need to intellectualize their faith and people who want to study the Bible serious really ought to take the time to read these related writings. The OT was written ultimately to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah, and the Apocrypha shows us how God’s people finally began to anticipate the coming of that Messiah. The NT was written ultimately to help God’s people to live in the new covenant from Christ, and the Apostolic Fathers show us how the Early Church began doing that.
Oh, and best of all, this stuff is all free to read online. There may well be better translations available in print, but here are at least some good websites to access these writings:
- The Apocrypha in the RSV translation
- The Apocrypha in the NAB translation
- The Apocrypha in the New Translation of the Septuagint
- Apostolic Fathers: the Didache
- Apostolic Fathers: Epistle of Barnabus
- Apostolic Fathers: I Clement
- Apostolic Fathers: II Clement
- Apostolic Fathers: the Shepherd of Hermas
- Apostolic Fathers: 7 Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch
- Apostolic Fathers: Epistle of Polycarp
- Apostolic Fathers: the Martyrdom of Polycarp
- Apostolic Fathers: Epistle to Diognetus