Arguing over the Old Testament

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

If you were surprised it took a few centuries (as the previous post described) to reach agreement about the contents list of the New Testament, you may be even more surprised by the length of time it has taken for the Old Testament. Christians have never produced a fully-agreed contents list for the Old Testament. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans and Protestants disagree about which Old Testament books they should read in public.

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Making the New Testament

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Discussions of which books are Scripture usually uses the language of canon explained in yesterday’s rather long post. So people discuss when the canon was “closed” – which means when the list was finally agreed. Books that made it into the canon are called canonical, those that didn’t are referred to as non-canonical.

I will use some of that language in this and the next post, exploring just a little more of the history of how Christians reached agreement (or mainly reached agreement) on which books are scripture. Key to that question is recognising which books the church should read in public worship, take as foundational in discerning God’s truth, and listen to prayerfully to hear God’s wisdom and guidance.

In this post I look at the New Testament; in the next one at the Old Testament. The first is about how the early Christians collected their own literature; the second about they appropriated literature they shared in common with early Judaism.

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Reading the right books: the rule of faith

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The early church used key beliefs as a way of measuring which books belonged to the bible

This follows on from the post Reading the right books: memory.

It’s quite clear that the majority of the texts in what is now the Jewish bible and Christian Old Testament were regarded by the earliest Christians as scripture, even while some are used much more extensively than others. It’s less certain where they thought the boundaries were, or how clear a listing they carried in their heads. Jesus, like other Jews of his time, seems most commonly to refer to two broad categories of scripture “the law and the prophets” 1

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Language! taking care of our words in public

Normally I would save political posts for my other blog (where I shall cross-post this). This one, after all, is devoted to things liturgical. However, sometimes there are resonances between public liturgy and public life.

One of the things good liturgy does is teach us something about the use of language. Most specifically, it gives us words to use to speak to God. These have usually been crafted with care, drawing on the depth of the tradition, however updated to be able to make sense in the present. People take care shaping the words of the liturgy, because what we say matters. In so far as we can speak truth about the God who is beyond our full understanding, we want to speak truthfully to, about, and for God.

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Reading the right books: memory

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Over the last few posts, we’ve seen how there is a continuing thread running from Judaism into Christianity of reading the scriptures in the context of giving worship to God. One of the obvious questions that the early church then found itself asking was “Which books should we read in public worship?”. 

This was one of the key drivers in developing a sense of “bible”: making lists of the books that Christians should read above all when they met in public to worship God, and which would therefore also form their core collection of texts when they wanted to think about faith and life.

Some of these books were clearly inherited from Jewish tradition, from Jesus as a user and interpreter of scripture, and then from his apostles and the earliest Christian communities. These earliest communities, the ones we find reflected in Paul’s letters, didn’t know they were Christian, of course. They simply thought of themselves as people who were finding the Jewish prophecies of justice, mercy, and liberation through God’s saving presence, fulfilled in Jesus. Some were ethnic Jews, others were of diverse ethnicity, who nonetheless saw themselves as sharing the Jewish inheritance. 

Some scriptures were more central to their thinking than others. Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, crop up all over the place, along with one key passage from the book of Daniel, concerning “the Son of Man”.1 Often the early Christian writers quote directly from a text, but very frequently they use language, concepts and phrases that are drawn from and shaped by texts they had in their heads rather than on their desks. Scriptures were memorized more frequently than they were consulted in the way we might look things up.

That sense of “I know what the text says, but I can’t quite remember where it’s from” is most obvious in the letter to the Hebrews. The writer has clearly memorised a great many scriptures, but still introduces a key quotation from Psalm 8 by saying: “But someone has testified somewhere” (Heb 2:5). It also means that sometimes the quotation or allusion a writer uses may not quite match up to the exact phrasing of the written text.

Once again, we’re reminded that most people in the ancient world experience books in memory, public hearing and performance. Reading is something they listen to. They are not individual readers looking things up in their own copies of books.


  1. The passage is Daniel 7:13-14. The phrase “son of man” is of course regularly used by Jesus. It seems to be deliberately ambiguous on his lips, as on the one hand it is an idiom meaning something like “A person like myself” – not unlike Queen Elizabeth II’s use of the word “One” to refer to herself. On the other hand, it could also be a title, referring back to a particular interpretation of Daniel. It seems that Jesus, using this phrase, is constantly inviting his listeners to ask themselves “what does he mean? Who is he?”

In the second century church

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The third and final vignette in this little series of glimpses at public reading in the past comes from around the year 150AD. (The previous two glimpses were here, and here.)

In the pages of the New Testament (and some other early Christian literature) we get various instructions about what Christians should do when they meet for worship, and various glimpses of special gatherings. However, we don’t get a full description of an ordinary Christian worship assembly. For such a description we have to wait till the middle of the second century, for a writer called Justin, a Greek-speaking immigrant to Rome from the Palestinian Samaritan city now known as Nablus. Justin was a philosopher who appears to have made his living as a teacher, both before and after he became a Christian.

Justin Martyr (public domain: Wikimedia Commons)
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Creation is not a season

I thought I’d got away without it, but this week I got handed a service order to use labelled “Creation Season”. So, in a break from the ongoing series, allow me rant a little.

I’m well aware that the Season of Creation has some pretty powerful voices behind it, not least that of Pope Francis, but …

I have no problem with dedicating some weeks around harvest as days or weeks of prayer and thanks for creation, I think that’s worth doing.

Eurasian Roller, Mikumi National Park, Tanzania
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Jesus reads the lesson

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Yesterday I looked at public reading in Nehemiah 8. Today we’re jumping forward to the gospels, and Jesus being invited to read the lesson. At the beginning of his account of Jesus’ ministry, Luke chooses to emphasise and elaborate the story of Jesus preaching at Nazareth. The first part of the story (before it all turns a bit sour) goes like this.

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A very public text

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

I want to look at the tradition of public reading through three different texts that show different aspects of it. Today’s text is a story comes from one of the lesser read books of the Old Testament, Nehemiah. It’s the only passage from Nehemiah that crops up in the Sunday lectionary for the main service. Parts of this story, from Nehemiah 8, crop up on the third Sunday of Epiphany (or the third Sunday in Ordinary Time) in Year C.

(If any of the words I’ve just used (lectionary, Epiphany, Ordinary Time or Year C) phase you, then you can find them all defined in the Glossary.)

Gustave Doré’s woodcut of the scene (1843: Public Domain) He imagines Ezra as a second Moses with stone tablets, rather than the scroll described in the story.

Here’s the text. (The reason for putting the word LORD in capitals is a long-standing convention inherited from Judaism. It signifies that the Hebrew text is not the word Lord, but the four-consonant name of God – YHWH.)

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Introducing the glossary

I said yesterday, my next three posts would be examples of the public reading of scripture. However, I realise now I need to implement a glossary for terms that I will be using. You can access this glossary (across four pages) from the drop-down menu above, and I will leave a permanent reminder of its existence in the sidebar.

Every time I use a technical term – whether liturgical, theological or the occasional specialist word – for the first time, I will try to create a glossary entry for it.

If you think I’ve used a technical term, and you can’t find it in the glossary, either post a comment on the blog post I’ve used the term in, or on the main glossary index page. The main index page will accept comments, the actual sub pages with the glossary on will not.