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Revised Common Lectionary Commentary

Book Outlines



Saint Dominic contemplating the Scriptures

Saint Dominic
contemplating the Scriptures

The following outlines are normally placed in the left column of the commentary page each week, as a brief introduction to the biblical book in question. The complete collection of available outlines appears on this page in the sequence of the biblical books.

Note that outlines do not appear for all books of the Bible. More outlines will be added as the books are used in the three-year cycle of readings.


Old Testament


Genesis

Genesis is the first book of the Bible. It begins with two versions of the creation story, neither of them intended to be scientific but telling us why we are on earth. In the story of Adam and Eve, it tells us that we are responsible, under God, for the care of all creation. It then continues with the stories of the patriarchs: Abraham (who enters into a covenant (or treaty) with God), Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.


Exodus

Exodus is the second book of the Old Testament, and is part of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Jews refer to these books as "The Torah". At times, they are referred to as "The Law", although "Torah" means teaching. Exodus centres on the rescue of God's chosen people from captivity in Egypt and the making of the great covenant, or agreement with God, at Mount Sinai.


Leviticus

Leviticus is one of the first five books in the Old Testament. It is a book of law, and naturally follows Exodus. In Jewish circles, it was known as The Priest's Manual. It has six parts: (1) laws dealing with sacrifices; (2) the consecration of priests to their office; (3) laws which distinguish between ritually clean and unclean; (4) the cereomony for the annual day of atonement; and (5) laws governing Israel's life as a holy people; and (6) an appendix on religious vows.


Numbers

Numbers begins with the first census of Israel, and is named for it. After several chapter containing laws, the narrative section begins in Chapter 9. It follows the people of Israel from near the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula to Moab, east of Palestine, over a period of 38 years. Numbers is not a history in the modern sense but rather a record of how God acted in history: as an indicator of how he would act again on behalf of his people.


Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is a book of instruction, or torah. It is the fifth book of the Bible. It recasts Israel's mission and destiny, mostly by restating the history of the people recorded in the first four books. It emphasizes teaching and learning for all generations. Moses speaks on God's behalf, with authority, to the assembled people of Israel, as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.


Joshua

Joshua tells of the conquest of the Promised Land (Palestine). God had promised to their forefathers that they would one day occupy this territory. The book begins with the crossing of the Jordan. It then relates the stories of military victories, achieved under his guidance, through which the people of Israel came to control all of the hill country and the Negev Desert. It describes the allotment of land to each of the tribes and ends with Joshua's final address to the people.


Judges

The people of Israel are now settled in the Promised Land. Judges tells the story of the gradual conquest of much of Palestine not already held. It tells of reverses, times when the people of Israel were subjugated by pagan peoples, attributing this misfortune to deviation from God's ways. Each time, a "judge", a wise charismatic leader, arises as God's spokesperson and frees Israel from its oppressors.


Ruth

This is a short story set in the period before 1000 BC, when warlords ruled Israel: they raised a militia in time of need, and stayed on to settle disputes in the community. It is a book about love and fidelity, of how Ruth, a Moabite widow in a Jewish family brings her widowed mother-in-law back to enjoying life. Near the end of the book, Ruth bears a son who becomes David's grandfather. This carries a message: marrying foreigners is acceptable. When it was written is uncertain, but this message gives us a clue: at various times, pagans were blamed for Israel's sorry state of morals. Pagans came to Israel through intermarriage, so marrying non-Israelites was, at least, opposed. This occurred twice: during the time of Josiah and Jeremiah (about 600 BC) and of Nehemiah (about 450 BC).


1 Samuel

At one time, the first and second books of Samuel formed a single book. They were separated in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint (about 250 BC). 1 Samuel begins with the story of Samuel: hence the name. 1 Samuel is the first of four books which tell the story of Israel's monarchy. Samuel anointed the first king. We then read about King Saul, and later about David's rise to prominence.


2 Samuel

At one time, the first and second books of Samuel formed a single book. They were separated in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint (about 250 BC). 1 Samuel begins with the story of Samuel: hence the name. 2 Samuel tells the story of David's rule, first as he gradually gained control of the whole of Judah (the south), and then when he was king of both Judah and Israel (the north.)


1 Kings

The two books of Kings were originally one. They continue the story of the monarchy begun in 1-2 Samuel. 1 Kings begins with the enthronement of Solomon and the death of David, recounts the reign of Solomon, the breakup of Israel into Israel in the north and Judah in the south, through to about 870 BC. While these books read like a political history - in which some kings are judged good and others bad - they trace the apostasy that led to the loss of national identity and autonomy.


2 Kings

The two books of Kings were originally one. They continue the story of the monarchy begun in 1-2 Samuel. 1 Kings begins with the enthronement of Solomon and the death of David. 2 Kings continues the story of the monarchies of Israel and Judah. It covers the period from about 850 BC to about 585 BC. During this period, Israel fell to the Assyrians (in 721 BC) and Judah to the Babylonians (586 BC). While these books read like a political history - in which some kings are judged good and others bad - they trace the apostasy that led to the loss of national identity and autonomy.


Ezra and Nehemiah

These two books are considered together because they offer an account of events after exiles returned from Babylon, namely the rebuilding of the Temple and the walls of the city of Jerusalem. In both books we find lists of returnees and of temple officials. The books tells of the renewal of temple worship and the establishment of a program of instruction - so that the legal and ritual traditions would be handed down. For such teaching, Mosaic law was central, so it is likely that the Law took close to its final form during Ezra's time. The Law became the definitive reference for godly behaviour. Part of Ezra is written in imperial Aramaic, the language used by the Persian court in its dealings with subject peoples throughout the Empire.


Esther

Esther is an unusual book of the Bible: it never explicitly mentions God (although there are probable implicit references). It is a short, thrilling, novel about the escape of Jews from annihilation in Persia. The story revolves around the royal court of Ahasuerus (Xerxes), who ruled from 486 to 465 BC. It is Esther, his Jewish queen, who risks her status (and perhaps her life) to reverse the royal edict and have the vizier hanged. Written much later, it explains the origin of the Jewish festival of Purim, one of only two feasts not prescribed by Mosaic law. Its themes of divine help to persecuted Jews and the destruction of all their enemies are also found in other books probably written after the Exile, such as Judith and Daniel.


Job

The book of Job is about suffering: it seeks to answer the question: why does God allow the faithful to suffer? The first two chapters, which are in prose, tell of a legendary figure of Judaism called Job. In this story (which may be extremely ancient), a very righteous man is tested: is he as godly as he seems, or is his godliness only an appearance, a result of his acquisition of wealth and his position as father of a dynasty? His continuing fidelity through deprivation of all that he possesses demonstrates that he is truly godly. (In the final act of the drama, God restores his greatness.) Most of the book is poetry, and appears to have been written later. It is largely concerned with the meaning of divine justice and suffering. Through dialogues with Job's so-called "friends", we see Job learn that wisdom is God-given. Humans cannot find the way to it; God gives it to those who worship him.


Psalms

Psalms is a collection of collections. The psalms were written over many centuries, stretching from the days of Solomon's temple (about 950 BC) to after the Exile (about 350 BC.) Psalms are of five types: hymns of praise, laments, thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms. Within the book, there are five "books"; there is a doxology ("Blessed be ... Amen and Amen") at the end of each book.


Proverbs

A proverb is a pithy statement expressing some truth in a striking way which is easy to remember. Most of this book is instructions given by a scholar (or father) to a student (or son) on how to lead a moral life, with proper respect for God. Life involves choices; it is important that one be informed, trained and persuaded to make the right ones. The objective of life is attainment of wisdom, i.e. integrity in God's eyes. Wisdom brings rewards: 22:4 says: "The reward of humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life". 9:10 says "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight." Put another way, 1:7 says "The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility goes before honour." The opposite of being wise is being a fool; "fools despise wisdom and instruction."

It is difficult to date Proverbs. Sayings and poems appear to have been formed into an anthology after the Exile (in the 400s BC), but some of the sayings probably date back to Solomon's time. Solomon was known for his wisdom. Some of the sayings are known in other ancient Near East cultures; they have been acculturated to the Jewish tradition.


Ecclesiastes

The name of the book is Greek; it is a translation of the Hebrew Qoheleth, which the NRSV translates as Teacher in 1:1. Ecclesia means congregation or assembly. But the Hebrew root is simply qhl, so other expansions are possible, one of which is qehillah, meaning argumentative speech. The author may be an arguer: this is what he does. Scholars suggest, from the colloqial style of the Hebrew and the use of Persian loan words, that this book was written during or after the Persian period, probably in the late 200s BC. At that time, the author could have been "king of Jerusalem" (1:1) under the Ptolemies.


Song of Solomon

This book is also known as the Song of Songs (the opening words of the book) or Canticle of Canticles. Song of Songs is the Hebrew idiom for the superlative, the greatest song. It contains poems, or songs, of Israel. The poems are about love and devotion, and are set as a dialogue between a woman (the bride) and a man (the bridegroom). It is possible that some poems date back to Solomon; however, the occurrence of Persian and Greek words in others suggests a later date. Such poetry was in vogue in the Near East in the 400s and 300s BC.

Judaism has seen these songs as having another level of meaning: the love between God and his people; the man and woman are then the Lord and Israel. Christians have also allegorized mutual love: in our case, between Christ and the Church. But the basic meaning is literal: love, including sexual love based on human instincts, is blessed, a part of God's creativeness, and creation, to be valued and enjoyed.


Isaiah

This book can be divided into two (and possibly three) parts. Chapters 1 to 39 were written before the exile, from about 740 BC to about 700 BC. These were difficult times for the southern kingdom, Judah: a disastrous war was fought with Syria; the Assyrians conquered Israel, the northern kingdom, in 723 BC, and threatened Judah. Isaiah saw the cause of these events as social injustice, which he condemned, and against which he fought valiantly. Chapters 40 to 66 were written during and after the Exile in Babylon. They are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will soon end the Exile. Some scholars consider that Chapters 56 to 66 form a third part of the book, written after the return to the Promised Land. These chapters speak of hope and despair; they berate the people for their sin, for worshipping other gods. Like Second Isaiah, this part speaks of the hope that God will soon restore Jerusalem to its former glory and make a new home for all peoples.


Jeremiah

From Chapter 1, we know that Jeremiah was either born or began his ministry in 627 BC. During his life, Babylonia succeeded Assyria as the dominant power in the Middle East. He was a witness to the return to worship of the Lord (instituted by the Judean king Josiah), and then (after Josiah's death in battle in 609), the return of many of the people to paganism. When Babylon captured Jerusalem in 587, Jeremiah emigrated to Egypt. God called him to be a prophet to Judah and surrounding nations, in the midst of these political and religious convulsions.


Lamentations

In 587 BC, the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, and deported many of the inhabitants, leaving only the poor and weak. The five poems which make up this book were almost certainly written in Palestine at this time of political, social and religious crisis. Perhaps these laments were recited at the site of the Temple. An ancient tradition holds that the author was Jeremiah - largely because 2 Chronicles 35:25 says that he uttered a lament upon the death of King Josiah at Megiddo; however, Lamentations mourns the loss of the city, not the king. Lamentations is therefore considered anonymous.


Ezekiel

Ezekiel was a prophet and a priest. His ministry began before the conquest of Judah in 587 BC, and continued in exile in Babylon. This book is the foundation for both Jewish and Christian visionary or apocalyptic literature, e.g. Revelation (or The Apocalypse.) It is a book that contains many strange things (strange because we do not understand them, e.g. Ezekiel eating a scroll), but the prophet's message to the exiles is clear: he assures his hearers of God's abiding presence among them, and he emphasizes God's involvement in the events of the day, so that Israel and all nations "will know that I am the Lord". For the first time, we see the importance of the individual in his relationship to God. To a dispersed and discouraged people, he brings a message of hope: hope that God will restore them to their homeland and the temple.


Daniel

This is the most recently written book in the Old Testament. The first six chapters are stories about Daniel set at the Babylonian and Persian courts. Chapters 7-12 are visions about the end times. As the novel is a popular genre of literature today, so the apocalypse was popular in the ancient world. Daniel 7-12 is the earliest example we have; apocalypses continued to be written until about 200 AD. Apocalypses were written in times of national or community tribulation. Daniel dates from the time of the Seleucid (Hellenistic) king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BC), a ruler who tried to wipe out Judaism.


Hosea

Hosea was a native of the northern kingdom, Israel. He prophesied during the decades before the kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians (in 721BC). It was a time of warfare and near anarchy. Four kings of Israel were assassinated within 14 years. Hosea's marriage to a prostitute symbolizes Israel's relationship to God. The people of Israel have become unfaithful to their covenant with God. Hosea's wife leaves him after bearing him three children. But Hosea takes her back publicly - something unheard of in Israelite culture. His personal life is an embodiment of God's redeeming love. God will have compassion on Israel; he will not desert his people.


Joel

The first verse tells us that this book is by Joel "son of Penuel". We do not know who this Joel is, for he is not mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament; however, the text does tell us something about him. First, he was a prophet. There are twelve prophetic books at the end of the Old Testament, of which Joel is one. Second, he has an appreciation of worship in the Temple. He mentions various officials, but never a king, so he probably lived after the return from exile. The earliest he could have written is then 515 BC, when the Temple was rebuilt. Sidon is mentioned. It was destroyed in 343 BC, so Joel wrote before that date. He starts by describing a locust plague and a drought, which he sees as God's punishment. The effects are catastrophic, like the day of the Lord. The people repent, and God restores their fortunes. Again God is in their midst. Israel recognizes God's saving presence and is vindicated, and other nations are (or will be, at the end of time) judged harshly.


Amos

In about 750 BC, Amos heard the Lord calling him to prophesy to the northern tribes. He leaves Tekoa, a village just south of Jerusalem, and travels to the north. Israel has split into two kingdoms. Times are prosperous, but society is corrupt and God is largely ignored. This book is our only source of knowledge about Amos. He speaks as a voice independent of the royal court. He predicts God's punishment upon Israel, Judah and the surrounding nations. He foretells that Israel will fall. Within a few decades, the northern kingdom will be conquered by Assyrian armies.


Jonah

Jonah is a prophet, but he is unlike any other for whom a book is named in the Old Testament. Some (e.g. Jeremiah) heard the word reluctantly but then fully embraced the ministry to which God called them, but Jonah tries his best (and his worst!) to avoid doing God's will: he is a caricature of a prophet. The book opens with God's call to Jonah: "Go at once to Nineveh ... and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." Jonah's reaction is to try to escape God's presence. When called a second time, he does travel to the capital of Assyria, and its residents repent of their waywardness. A message of this book is that God does care about other peoples, even those who are Israel's enemies.


Micah

Micah was the last of the eighth-century prophets. He was from south-western Judah, west of Hebron. He is preoccupied with social justice and is totally independent of political and religious leaders. Times are bad: Assyria has captured Damascus and Samaria. Jerusalem was besieged in 701 BC. But danger was internal too: leaders accepted bribes; merchants cheated their customers; pagan gods were worshipped along with the Lord. Micah preaches about sin and punishment; people have rejected God. The coming punishment is due to their sin. Even so, there is hope for the future: a remnant will form the nucleus of a new Israel, and its leader will be a true shepherd, one who brings peace.


Habakkuk

This book is one of the twelve Minor Prophets, minor mostly in that they are all short books. The book begins with a dialogue between the prophet and God which seeks to discover why Israelites suffer from foreign invaders, and in which God announces that he will deal with the wicked at the proper time, and will vindicate the faithful. Then follow five woes against a wicked nation. The final chapter is a psalm, intended for liturgical use. It is likely that Habakkuk was written when the Babylonians were a world power, probably between 608 and 598 BC.


Zephaniah

In 1:1, Zephaniah tells us that he is descended from Hezekiah, most likely the king who ruled Judah 715-687 BCE. This prophet's intimate knowledge of Jerusalem and affairs in the court, and the absence of a theme found in other prophetic books - denunciation of the king - suggest that he was of royal descent. 1:1 also tells us that his ministry began in the reign of King Josiah, the great reformer. But his denunciation of corruption in religious affairs suggests that his prophecies date from before the reforms of 621 BCE. The book predicts doom for Judah for failing to follow God's ways, and adverse judgememht on other nations, too; however, the final chapter promises comfort and consolation for those inhabitants of Jerusalem who wait petiently for the Lord and serve God as a community. They will rejoice when God comes into their midst.


Haggai

The text tells us exactly when the prophet Haggai wrote: in 520 BC, when the first exiles returned from Babylon to Judah. The Babylonians had been defeated by the Persians in 539. The Persians were benevolent, and permitted (and even helped) Jews return to the Promised Land, although it was only a small parcel of land. God's message delivered through Haggai is a practical one: rebuild the Temple, so God will again have an earthly dwelling place.


Malachi

We know of no prophet named Malachi, so it is likely that this book is named after a passage well known in later Judaism: 3:1 speaks of "my messenger", malaki in Hebrew. The book was written generations after the people returned to Israel and restored the Temple. The prophet addresses his message of judgement to corrupt priests, and gives hope of a future messenger from God. God will then come to judge, purify, and end the era. This messenger, per 4:5, was expected to be Elijah.


Apocrypha / Deutero-Canonical Books


Sirach

Sirach is also known as Sira and Ecclesiasticus, probably meaning church book, an indication that it was used by the early Christian community. It is in the Apocrypha of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and is considered deutero-canonical by Roman Catholics. Adherents to Judaism excluded it from the Bible, as did the Protestant Reformers. We know (from 50:27) that Jesus ben Sira, a native of Jerusalem, wrote it. Ben Sira ran a school in biblical studies for young Jewish men. Written about 180 BC, it is faithful to the author's Jewish heritage and tradition and makes use of ideas from other cultures where they are compatible with his heritage.


Wisdom

Wisdom has been a book of the church since the earliest times. For some Christians, it is part of the Apocrypha ("hidden books"); for others, it is in the Old Testament. Until this book was written (about 50 BC), the best that could be hoped for when one died was to exist in some inderterminate state. Wisdom tells us that being made in the image of God includes sharing with him in immortality. Only the godly, the ethical, will be granted eternal life; those who choose to deviate from God's ways will be punished and will disappear into nothingness.


Baruch

This book is set during the Babylonian exile (soon after 600 BC) but it was probably written between 200 and 60 BC. It is attributed to Jeremiah's friend and secretary, Baruch. In Jeremiah 43:1-7, both men are reported to have been taken to Egypt (in 582 BC) but a later tradition says that Baruch went to Babylonia. Baruch 1:15-2:19 is largely a rewrite of Daniel 9:4-19, so Baruch was written after Daniel. As is the case with several books in the Apocrypha, most of the book is passages copied or paraphrased from Old Testament books. Jeremiah's Baruch was meticulous; he would not have made the many errors to be found in 1:1-14.


New Testament


Symbol of St Matthew

Matthew

This gospel is the first in the New Testament, but it was probably the second to be written. Scholars recognize that it borrows material from Mark, and from a sayings source containing sayings of Jesus and known as Q (for Quelle, German for source). The author shows an understanding of Jewish culture and religion not found in the other gospels. It was probably written about 60 to 70 AD, possibly for a largely Jewish audience.


Symbol of St Mark

Mark

As witnesses to the events of Jesus life and death became old and died, the need arose for a written synopsis. Tradition has it that Mark, while in Rome, wrote down what Peter remembered. This book stresses the crucifixion and resurrection as keys to understanding who Jesus was. When other synoptic gospels were written, i.e. Matthew and Luke, they used the Gospel according to Mark as a source. Mark is most probably the John Mark mentioned in Acts 12:12: his mother's house was a meeting place for believers.


Symbol of St Luke

Luke

Three gospels in the New Testament offer similar portraits of the life of Jesus; Luke is the third of them. Its author, traditionally Luke the physician who accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys, draws on three sources: Mark (via Matthew), a collection of sayings (known as Q for Quelle, German for source) and his own source. It is a gospel that emphasizes God's love for the poor, the disadvantaged, minorities, outcasts, sinners and lepers. Women play a more prominent part than in the other gospels. Luke never uses Semitic words; this is one argument for thinking that he wrote primarily for Gentiles.


Symbol of St John

John

John is the fourth gospel. Its author makes no attempt to give a chronological account of the life of Jesus (which the other gospels do, to a degree), but rather "...these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." John includes what he calls signs, stories of miracles, to help in this process.


Acts

This book is the sequel to the gospel according to Luke. Beginning with Jesus' ascension, Luke tells the story of the beginnings of the church. By no means a comprehensive history, it does however describe the spread of the church from Jerusalem to all of Palestine, and as far as Greece. The episodes he reports show how Christianity arose out of Judaism. He shows us something of the struggles the church underwent in accepting Gentiles as members. The Holy Spirit guides and strengthens the church as it spreads through much of the Roman Empire.


Romans

Romans is the first epistle in the New Testament, although not the first to be written. Paul wrote it to the church at Rome, which included both Jews and Gentiles. His primary theme is the basics of the good news of Christ, salvation for all people. The book was probably written in 57 AD, when Paul was near the end of his third missionary journey around the Eastern Mediterranean. It is unusual in that it was written to a church that Paul had not visited.


1 Corinthians

Corinth was a major port which also commanded the land route from the Peloponnesus peninsula to central Greece. An industrial and ship-building centre, it was also a centre for the arts. Its inhabitants came from far and wide. In this epistle, Paul answers two letters he has received concerning lack of harmony and internal strife in the Corinthian church, a church he had founded. Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus (now in Turkey), probably in 57 AD.


2 Corinthians

This is a letter, written in the style common in the first century AD. From the text, we know that Paul wrote it in Macedonia after leaving Ephesus, probably in the autumn of 57 AD. It gives us a picture of Paul the person: an affectionate man, hurt to the quick by misunderstandings and evil-doing of his beloved fellow Christians, yet happy when he can praise them. The letter's prime intent is to combat evils which have arisen in the Christian communities in the Achaian peninsula of Greece.


Galatians

There were some teachers in Galatia who claimed that a convert to Christianity must first embrace Judaism, that a Christian must observe Mosaic law. Paul wrote this letter to rebut this argument, to insist that one comes into union with God through faith in Christ, and not through ritual observances. This book is a charter of Christian liberty; it was instrumental in transforming Christianity from a sect of Judaism into a world religion. Galatia is in central Turkey, and was settled soon after 300 BC by Celts. In 25 BC, the province of Galatia was extended southwards. (Modern-day Ankara is in Galatia.)


Ephesians

This letter of Paul was written from prison, probably in Rome. Whilst the Bible states that it was written to the church at Ephesus, the some early manuscripts do not contain an addressee in 1:1. This would imply that Ephesians was a circular letter, sent to a number of churches. If so, it introduced a new idea into letter writing: we know of no other circular letters from this period. This book celebrates the life of the church, a unique community established by God through the work of Jesus Christ, who is its head, and also the head of the whole creation.


Philippians

Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, a prosperous Roman colony in northern Greece, from prison. We do not know whether this imprisonment was in Ephesus or in Rome. It appears that he was held under house arrest. It is possible that the epistle is actually made up of three letters. It contains many personal references, exhorts members of the Philippian church to live the Christian life and to good ethical conduct, introduces Timothy and Epaphroditus as his representatives, and warns against legalists and libertines. Lastly, he thanks the Philippian community for their material support.


Colossians

Colossae was a city in what is now southwestern Turkey. It had a flourishing wool and textile industry and a significant Jewish population. It seems that most Christians there were Gentile. Although long thought to be written by Paul, today this epistle is considered non-Pauline for a number of reasons. The most compelling is that it emphasizes what God has already done for his people: Paul tells us what God is going to do in the future (although some argue that Paul shifted his viewpoint in later life.) It gives descriptions of false teachings which were being promulgated in the churches. Some scholars consider this evidence of later authorship. In the ancient world, writing in the name of a respected author was accepted and regarded as an honour.


1 Thessalonians

This letter is perhaps the oldest book in the New Testament. Paul (with Silvanus and Timothy) founded the church there during his second missionary journey, and as is recorded in Acts 17, was forced to leave the city due to persecution. Many Greeks who already worshipped God, many pagans and "important women" became Christians. The letter was written from Athens to strengthen the new Christians in their faith.


2 Thessalonians

Perhaps this epistle was written to combat the idea that the end of the era has come, something the Thessalonian Christians have learnt either verbally from a false teacher or from a letter purporting to be written by Paul. It says that certain events will occur before Christ comes again - and these have not happened yet, and may be some time in occurring. It promises that those who persecute members of the community will be punished by God at the end of the era. Scholars debate whether Paul wrote this letter. Strangely, the structure of the text is very like that of 1 Thessalonians, which is obviously by Paul, but the key ideas are written in a different style.


1 Timothy

1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus are known as the Pastoral Epistles because the author addresses the needs and responsibilities of the leaders of Christian communities. The styles and themes of these letters are so similar that many think they were written by the same person. Although they claim to be written by Paul, the structure of the church they show and the specific content of their teaching indicate that they were written a generation or so after Paul. 1 Timothy begins by emphasizing the importance of correct belief and by cautioning against false teachers. The leaders are mentioned as bishops, deacons and elders. The term used here for the coming of Christ is not found in Paul's letters but is common in pagan Greek writings. In those days, a writer sometimes honoured an earlier leader by writing in his name.


2 Timothy

1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus, together known as the Pastoral Epistles, are markedly different in vocabulary and literary style from epistles we know to be Paul's. They also present a more institutionalized church. For these reasons, most scholars believe that the Pastorals were written a generation or so later than the letters we are sure are Pauline. 2 Timothy is the most personal of the Pastorals: most of it is directed specifically to Timothy. From the Book of Acts, we know that Timothy was from Lystra in Asia Minor, and was the son of a Greek father and a Jewish mother who had become a Christian. He accompanied Paul on his travels.


Titus

In the letter to the Galatians and in 2 Corinthians, Titus is mentioned as Paul's companion. The author writes to Titus, giving instructions for the management of new churches in Crete. But was the author Paul, or was the book written in his name, out of respect for him and his theology? Titus, 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy, together known as the Pastoral Epistles, are markedly different in vocabulary and literary style from epistles we know to be Paul's. They also present a more institutionalized church. For these reasons, most scholars believe that the Pastorals written a generation or so later than the letters we are sure are Pauline.


Philemon

This is the shortest of the epistles written by Paul. He sends Onesimus, a run-away slave and recent convert to Christianity, back to his master carrying this letter. Paul does not address the general question of slavery as a social institution, but he does plead with Philemon, on the basis of love, to take Onesimus back and treat him as a fellow Christian. Many centuries later, it was on this same basis that slavery was abolished in Western societies. While the ideas are the same as in other epistles, here we see Paul being delicate and tactful. At the time of writing, Paul was in prison - probably in Ephesus.


Hebrews

Apart from the concluding verses (which may have been added later), this book is a treatise (or sermon) rather than a letter. Its name comes from its approach to Christianity: it is couched is Judaic terms. The identity of the author is unknown; Origen, c. 200 said that "only God knows" who wrote Hebrews. The book presents an elaborate analysis, arguing for the absolute supremacy and sufficiency of Christ as revealer and mediator of God's grace. Basing his argument on the Old Testament, the author argues for the superiority of Christ to the prophets, angels and Moses. Christ offers a superior priesthood, and his sacrifice is much more significant than that of Levite priests. Jesus is the "heavenly" High Priest, making the true sacrifice for the sins of the people, but he is also of the same flesh and blood as those he makes holy.


James

Although James opens like a letter, it is an exhortation to ethical conduct. Christians find themselves in an alien world, full of immorality and evil; they are called to a faith that is not merely theoretical or abstract, but acted upon, in every aspect of their lives. In a situation where trials and tribulations abound, and where the poor suffer at the hands of the rich, the author exhorts them to joy, endurance, wisdom, confident prayer and faithful response to the liberating word of God, as they await the second coming of the Lord. The recipients appear to be a group of Jewish-Christian communities outside Palestine. Traditionally, the Church has seen the author of this book as James, the brother of our Lord; however, its excellent Greek style, late acceptance into the canon, and absence of concerns about ritual purity suggest another author. The author seems to have written in the name of James, thus giving the book authority.


1 Peter

An elder in Rome wrote this pastoral exhortation to those in charge of churches in Asia Minor. ("Babylon" is a common code-name for Rome; see Revelation 17:5-6.) The opening greeting claims that Peter is the author, but today most scholars agree that it was written in his name, to give it authority (a common practice at that time.) The addressees appear to be Gentiles, rural folk, both resident aliens and household slaves, in Asia Minor. Christians can expect to suffer, to be ostracized, to be "called names": they are in the midst of a pagan culture. Though they are "aliens" in this world, God has given them "a new birth ... into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading" (1:3-4).


2 Peter

The author wrote this letter because he realized that he was approaching death and wished to leave to his fellow Christians a testimony: a statement of what being a Christian entails, how they should live in order to be judged worthy of the kingdom when Christ returns. Most scholars believe that the author was not Peter because, from internal evidence, it was not written until at least 90 AD, by which time Peter was dead. For example, it refers to Paul's letters as "scripture". His letters only became part of the collection of Christian writings long after Paul's death.


1 John

This epistle was addressed to a general audience, unlike those written by Paul. It shares a style, phrases and expressions with the Gospel according to John, so it is very likely that both were written by the same person. It appears to have been circulated to various churches. The author seeks to combat heresy, specifically that the spirit is entirely good but matter is entirely evil. John tells his readers that morality and ethical behaviour are important for Christians.


Revelation

This is the last book of the Bible and is in a way a summary of the whole of the Bible. It is an apocalypse, a vision which foretells the future and presents an understanding of the past. It tells of the struggle between good and evil, and the ultimate victory of Christ. Writing in symbolic language, its author urges Christians to keep faith in a period of persecution. It is hard to understand because we do not know the meaning of the symbols (e.g. animals) it uses.


© 1997-2001 Chris Haslam



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