Introductions to the books of the Bible: Understanding God’s Word like never before through a unique view of its books through the eyes of those who were there!
–Introduction to The Eyewitness New Testament–
Optional Yearly Reading Schedule–January 1
Who is leading this expedition of discovery—you are!
These introductions to the books of the New Testament will change how you read the Bible.
Several factors will contribute to making this unlike any study you have participated in before. You will find yourself understanding the Bible like never before for simple reason. You will be the leader of this investigation. This is a self-discovery guide. No one is going to tell you what to think or believe or how to interpret a passage or a book of the Bible.
You will be presented with historical backgrounds to the New Testament’s books…then you will lead the inquiry to figure out what they mean and how the pieces fit together.
Whether you have been reading the Bible and leading Bible studies, or even preaching from the pulpit, for years, or whether this is your first attempt to read the New Testament in depth, you may unearth insights no one has ever thought of. Our expedition through the New Testament will include beginners along with seasoned scriptural veterans. We will all be embarking, in many ways, upon an entirely new method and approach. There will be twists and turns and surprises along the way…and you will discover them.
Our most serious roadblock to understanding the Bible–familiarity
It is a curious thing that the best selling book of all time, year after year is one of the least read and understood books of all time. If we could measure the percentage of books actually read cover to cover alongside the quantities published and sold, the Bible would doubtless be at the bottom of the list. Probably 90% of every new NYTBSL novel sold is read cover to cover. With the Bible, that percentage is probably reversed—it’s probably 10% (or less).
Does this mean that most Bibles are bought as mere showpieces, to give at weddings or lay in coffins or place on tables and nightstands and bookshelves and church altars for mere appearance? Perhaps. But there is a deeper problem. Many people would like to read the Bible, even feel they should read it, and occasionally try to read it. But they find the going difficult. They bog down. Reading the Bible is a daunting task. It is a long and overwhelming book. Much of it is hard to understand.
Another roadblock stands in our way as we approach the Bible. That is its familiarity. The Bible is deeply embedded into the consciousness of western civilization. Most literate individuals, whether they have read a word of it, know quite a bit about the Bible. Yet if those perceptions aren’t accurate, how can we read the Bible with insight?
Familiarity is just as big a problem for Bible-studying Christians. They are so familiar with the Bible that it becomes difficult to approach its books with fresh insight. We would like to come to its pages it as if reading them for the first time, with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of an eager new reader. But it’s not easy.
This Eyewitness New Testament, which probe the origins of Christianity through the chronological eyes of its first century writers, has been written to offer a unique perspective in Bible study in the face of such obstacles.
A unique chronological approach to the books of the New Testament
You will quickly notice the most unusual aspect of this self-discovery guide. You may have already noticed it in the Table of Contents—the letters of James and Galatians precede the gospels.
We will examine the books of the Bible chronologically, in the approximate order they were written, not in the order in which they appear in our Bibles.
By placing the New Testament’s books into the contextual flow of the church’s development, this distinctive sequence will uniquely unlock the Bible’s history, personalities, between-the-line meanings, and spiritual themes.
We’re going to say: First A was written. Who wrote it, when, and why? How did circumstances unfold that caused it to be written? How did it contribute to the Christian movement at the time?
Then B was written. Who wrote it, when, and why? How did circumstances unfold…
Then C was written. Who wrote it…
In other words, how did the writing of the books and letters we are all familiar with contribute to the growing movement that was first simply called the Way, and later came to be known as Christianity?
The sequence in which the books of the Bible are presented is so deeply ingrained in our minds that not to begin with Genesis or Matthew may be disorienting. For many this will represent the most unusual aspect of our Bible reading together. Once you are accustomed to it, however, this new pattern will give the biblical writings a whole new “look” as they fit into the historical context of their times.
When was each book written…why was it written?
To achieve this “fresh look,” we will approach the books of the Bible as if we are there…as if we are part of the new Christian community of the first century…reading for the first time the new papyrus scroll as it hits the bookshelves of the synagogue bookstore or the hand-written copy of a new letter or group of sayings or life of Jesus that is being copied and passed around among the home churches of Antioch or Ephesus or Corinth in 55 a.d.
As much as possible…we’re going to try to be eyewitnesses. If we had indeed been there…we would read the books and letters and other documents in the order they were written. It is like reading any series of books. As you eagerly await each new installment, you want to get your hands on it the moment it is published.
We don’t want just to read about the history, we will try to participate in it. We want to be part of the origins of the Christian faith as the Church of Jesus Christ first came into being. We will do so by trying to assess why the documents of those origins were written and the impact they had upon that explosive first century movement that changed the world. To do this, we will obviously have to look back through time, using all the scholarship the last nineteen hundred years has provided us. We cannot understand what is being said if we don’t know the circumstances that led the author to say it. These two factors establish each book in its proper historical setting.
James and Galatians—inextricably linked in deciding what the young church would emphasize
The letters of Galatians and James, for example, are separated in the New Testament with ten books between them. We don’t generally associate the two or read them in conjunction with one another. Yet the historical context of the first century tells an intriguing story. It is a story of “circumstances” that helps us understand the message of both books more deeply…as if we had been there.
James and Galatians were the first New Testament books written. They are pivotally important documents to the origins of Christianity. They were letters that were copied and re-copied and circulated through the church. We now call them “books,” but originally they were very personal, and not particularly polished, documents. These two letters may have appeared within a year or two of one another. A between-the-lines rivalry had been shaping up between Paul and James over certain matters of doctrine. When they wrote these letters, the two church leaders presented two very different perspectives—James emphasizing the importance of works and good deeds, Paul emphasizing faith over works. It seems that James and Paul were each responding to what they considered the imbalance of the other. Place the two letters beside one another and the impact is explosive!
Paul writes: “A man is not justified by…works…but through faith….We may be justified by faith…and not by works…”
James writes: “What use is it…if a man says he has faith but he has no works…faith, if it has no works, is dead…I will show you my faith by my works…faith without works is useless.”
Both men also reference Abraham, as if debating back and forth in open letters to the church.
James writes: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works…and as a result of the works, faith was perfected.”
Not to be outdone, Paul counters with an opposite Abraham argument: “It is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham…in order that the blessing of Abraham might come…through faith.”
It is positively fascinating! Yet this heated debate between James and Paul drops out of sight when ten books are placed between Galatians and James. Without knowing the historical background, or realizing how close in time the two letters appeared, we lose sight of the impact of their differences upon first century readers.
This same debate is still a matter of controversy within Christendom. Which is the true basis of true Christianity—faith or works? It is a controversy that began within twenty years of Jesus’ death. The two letters, both written around 50 AD, present the case for each perspective. Reading the books in their written order, helps us recapture that eyewitness perspective. The controversy between James and Paul, with Peter and Barnabas drawn into the thick of it, reached a climax in Antioch. Stay tuned!
The biblical adventure is detective work
This is how the Church of Jesus Christ originated between the years 30 and 100, and developed into the world-changing faith we call “Christianity”—in the rough and tumble world of real people facing situations and issues that were new and complex and had no easy answers.
You can see that questions of dating and timing and authorship will be integral to our discussion of each book of the Bible. Historical context is imperative. Textual criticism (who wrote what, why, and when, what sources they had available, where those sources originated, whose now-invisible hands contributed to the Bible’s authorship in ways history has lost sight of), will figure prominently in our look at each book. To some, this may at first seem like dry analysis. Yet gradually you may find yourself enjoying this aspect of the biblical drama like a detective story. We are trying to place ourselves into that drama. We have to do so by looking backward in time, and using all the available scholarship at our disposal.
The chronology of the Bible is a complex and fascinating study. Guesswork is involved. No one knows for certain when any of the Bible’s books were written. Imagine the situation a thousand years from now, if history forgot the order in which C.S. Lewis wrote the Narnia chronicles, with Narnia “scholars” hotly debating in which order the books should appear.
That is the challenge before us. In the midst of much uncertainty, numerous traditions have accompanied the biblical texts down through time. Scholars who study the biblical texts have many theories and “educated guesses” about the dates and authorship of the Bible’s books. In some cases there is uniform consensus when a book was written and who wrote it. In other instances there are wide differences of opinion. We will do our best to evaluate these theories objectively.
Recognizing that we will not be able to resolve every uncertainty, we will try to put ourselves in the sandals of first century Christians by reading the books of the New Testament as they read them.
Reading the Bible for the big picture
To effectively work toward these objectives, we have to spare no effort to discover the Bible’s “big picture.”
This is harder than it sounds! Anyone who has participated in Bible studies through the years, who has listened to teachings from the pulpit, who has read books about the Bible, even who has the notes in the margins and footnotes of his or her Bible, will have been urged in a hundred unseen ways to adopt a “small picture” approach to the Bible. We are all victims of TMS—“tiny mind syndrome.” Nowhere is TMS more lethal than in the attempt to unlock the mysteries of God’s Word.
We are constantly being told what to believe and why. Fences are built up around our belief systems, and we are stringently warned not to cross them. Do not think expansively about God and his methods and purposes, is the unspoken message. Do not think for yourself. Let others do your thinking for you. We are told exactly what this or that passage means, exactly who wrote every book and when and why. Our teachers, pastors, priests, and expositors eliminate all uncertainties from the biblical landscape. Just last evening I heard a well-known preacher advertising a certain study Bible on television. With great fanfare and pride he emphasized its key selling point–that “every verse” in the Bible was explained. What he took as its greatest feature, to my mind is a travesty. It pinpoints precisely what is wrong with today’s Christian leadership. Indoctrination is more highly valued than fresh thought.
Real life is not so simple. There are uncertainties. There are ambiguities. There are questions raised by Scripture that no one knows the answers to. Hiding from them does no one any good…and does not help us understand the Bible in its fullness. Trying to “explain” them and so remove all ambiguities is just as bad.
So our approach here will be to engage these uncertainties and ambiguities head on. We may ask more questions than we answer. We will pose no dogma and doctrine to prevent free thought. Rather, we will encourage expansive thought.
In this process we will offer many “Big Picture Windows” as sidebars to the story. Let’s pause for our first window here.
— A Window into Reading the Bible for the Big Picture —
Self-Discovery—Unlocking the Bible’s Meanings For Ourselves Without Being Wedded to Interpretations in Which We Have Been Schooled
The objective of “self-discovery” is to stimulate and encourage individual thought, prayer, and scriptural exploration. In this process, many points of view and alternate perspectives will be presented. The object will not be to coerce agreement, nor to proselytize to one point of view. Uniformity of perspective and interpretation is NOT our end game.
If you agree or disagree with anyone else’s conclusions—mine or those of your pastor, priest, or favorite biblical author or the writers we will quote—those will be determinations you will make on your own.
This is not to imply that the Bible’s truths are relative, or that there are no absolutes involved. Rather, we are speaking of matters where opinion among Christians is widely varied.
Most of us have asked questions such as: How old is the earth, did Moses write the Bible’s first books, is speaking in tongues a first century phenomenon or meant for Christians today, is every word of the Bible to be taken literally, is salvation primarily validated by belief or actions, does God choose beforehand who will be saved and who will not be, will unbelievers really burn forever in hell, will Christ’s second coming be literal or figurative, are Paul’s words about women in the church still valid today, is Christianity intended primarily as a personal life of faith or is it to be lived out corporately in the context of a church, and if the latter which is the truest form of the church?
There are no easy answers. Interpretations are different among serious and believing Christians. These and a thousand other questions do not easily fall into the realms of definable right or wrong, absolute truth or absolute falsehood.
God has the answers to such questions. But we don’t yet know what many of those answers are. Different churches teach different things. All Christians have their own opinions. In the same way that we may be right about much of what we believe, we will surely be wrong about some things, too. Open-mindedness is the safest path.
Others whom we respect may point us in valuable directions. But real discovery in the quest for “truth” is a process that cannot be spoon-fed by doctrinal formula, church teaching, or by the opinions of others. We can listen to a diversity of teaching. We respect and honor traditions and certain doctrines that have come to us through the church and through our mentors and spiritual teachers. But what comes to form the final bedrock of your own belief, and mine, is up to no one else but you and me alone, guided by the Spirit of God himself. Self-discovery of God’s truth, and how to turn that self-discovery into daily dynamic reality, is the only kind of discovery worth making.
This is exactly how the church developed in the first century! The early followers of “the Way” faced these same uncertainties, and hotly debated them. They disagreed in their conclusions. They wrestled with what was true and what was not. They had no church “authority” or “tradition” to tell them. The various leaders and teachers and apostles who were instructing them in matters of faith disagreed, too. “Truth” in those early days was fluid and dynamic and changing.
By making this a “self-discovery” adventure, we are following in the footsteps of first century Christians!
A non-doctrinaire, open-minded, “big tent” perspective on spiritual inquiry
To get to God’s “big picture” will require a perspective, a mindset, an approach that will be difficult for some. It is difficult because it represents precisely the opposite perspective most of us are encouraged to adopt.
That new perspective, simply stated, is this: A broad open-mindedness on matters of dogma, doctrine, and interpretation.
If you have read many books of Christian teaching, you will know that most tend to be didactic and persuasional. They are typically written from a particular slant or doctrinal outlook, with the underlying intent that readers will adopt that same perspective and frame of reference. You will get this same emphasis in church and in the Bible studies you have been part of. The goal of most authors, priests, ministers, and Christian teachers is to persuade to his or her point of view.
This persuasive slant is not merely limited to books of spiritual interest, or to sermons or teachings from church. Even the footnotes and references and introductions in the Bibles you use are more doctrinally slanted than you may think. Two of the Bibles I use extensively in my own study are full of notes and commentary that point in exactly opposite directions. The one is notably biased toward a fundamentalist perspective, the other unabashedly non-traditional and liberal. I may look up the same passage, and two biblical footnotes will give two opposite interpretations…yet both are represented as absolute, incontrovertible truth.
That is a scary thought. It ought to frighten us, that the notes in our Bibles are not attempting to be objective, but are doctrinally motivated!
When I encounter such difference of opinion—and especially when I use biblical commentaries and reference books—I have to remember that the authors are persuasionally not informationally motivated. They are doing far more than merely supplying information on the biblical texts, they are subtly imbuing that information with didactic overtones to convince you to a point of view and a particular interpretation. I therefore have to filter what I read through the lens of my own objectivity in order to counterbalance opposing views. Only so are we able to preserve the intellectual freedom necessary to draw wise conclusions of our own, without allowing bias to cloud our sound judgment. You should do the same with what you read here as well—balancing all presented perspectives with objectivity.
We will therefore make room in the discussions that follow for many diverse outlooks. We will share a variety of thoughts and perspectives. We do so not from wishy-washiness, or to avoid saying with Martin Luther, “Here I stand.” We simply need to be sure that we say, “This I believe,” on the essentials only, and remain open-minded and objective about the rest.
In the course of time we will talk about many controversial topics. We will talk about miracles, the Trinity, evolution, the factuality of Genesis, the virgin birth, the second coming, the fallibility of Paul, the ethics of war in the Old Testament, whether every word in the Bible is factually accurate, and many more such debatable points, even whether Paul should legitimately have been called an apostle. These questions stem not from skepticism, but from the attempt to put ourselves into the eyewitness sandals of first century Christians. They were asking about the reliability of Paul’s apostleship, too. If we don’t ask the same questions they did, our understanding of the New Testament story will be incomplete. We will not intentionally seek controversy. But when it arises in our readings, neither will we shy away from it. Neither, when the need arises, will we shy away from exposing narrowness, bias, and the equal but opposite imbalance of both liberalism and fundamentalism in biblical interpretation. To be objective, we have to keep our eyes open and our senses awake.
— A Window into Reading the Bible for the Big Picture —
The Dual Imbalance of Fundamentalism and Liberalism
The problem of imbalance in Christendom exists most visibly at its two extremes. At the risk of oversimplification, these extremes can probably most usefully be identified as “fundamentalism” and “liberalism”—both of which tend to look upon the other with something less than the attitude Jesus encouraged us to adopt. As a general rule, liberalism and fundamentalism approach the Bible with opposite preconceptions that color the response to nearly every scriptural interpretation. These biases, however, obscure objectivity and in many cases prevent the capacity to discover a balanced, reasoned, and common-sense middle ground. The fundamentalist perspective is generally rooted in traditionally Protestant and “spiritual” perspectives, as well as an unwavering commitment to the Bible as “literal, inspired, and inerrant.” Liberal bias, on the other hand, tends toward greater skepticism concerning the biblical accounts, and views the historicity of the Bible and its interpretations in more “secular” than “inspired” terms.
Attempting to investigate the biblical texts objectively, and thus to find truth wherever it exists, we will draw upon much from both traditions, quoting authors from many schools of interpretation. Our goal is not to judge between divergent perspectives, but to be open-minded enough and truth-seeking enough to learn from research coming from all camps. Knowledgeable scholarship exists throughout the spectrum. It would be short-sighted of us not to avail ourselves of it. The big tent of self-discovery will thus be embracing enough to look humbly and honestly at many options, judging none, and attempting—without bias or preconception—to see where fallacies exist in certain interpretations, and where sound reasoning exists in others.
If we keep open minds, our conclusions may surprise us. Truth is unexpectedly balanced and refreshingly inclusive of many points of view. The entry requirements for this Big Tent are thus an open mind, a willingness to look at all sides, and a desire to find Truth whether or not it conforms at every point to the teachings of our church or prior doctrinal outlook. In looking at the big picture, however, we will not hesitate to expose the narrowness of bias in both liberalism and fundamentalism when it becomes necessary.
Objectivity in Bible reading has to know its adversaries well.
A personal not a distant or intellectual approach
This is a mutual quest of discovery. It is our mutual journey through the pages of Scripture. It is “we” in the largest sense—the collective body of God’s people who are trying to find truth in this remarkable book…truth by which to evaluate the world, truth by which to judge right from wrong, truth by which to live their lives.
It is a high quest—the desire to know truth and live by it. There are no easy answers to life’s many and varied issues. The Bible contains those answers. But we have to discover them in our own way. The saying, “We are all in this together,” is never so true as when it comes to reading the Bible.
This will be no “doctrinal tract” attempting to lay out Christian “orthodoxy” on every point. It is certainly possible to read and study the Bible intellectually, mechanically, by doctrinal formula that diverges at no point from approved interpretation. We are going to try to do something different. Risks are inherent in such an approach. It is one of the inevitable dangers of trying to be objective that neither the right nor the left, neither conservatives nor liberals, trust you in the end. They mostly approve of only those who endorse their own built-in preferences. By its very nature then, objectivity in matters of spiritual and biblical interpretation is a dangerous path to attempt to walk. I happen to think it worth the risk. If objectivity is our common goal as we set out, though we may not live up to it perfectly, that mutual commitment should serve us well.
Because this is a personal guide, and because it developed initially between my wife and myself, Judy asking that I write some introductions to the books of the Bible as we progressed in our own Bible reading, there has been no attempt to set out every topic in a perfect order. Nor will every book necessarily receive the same level or the same type of treatment. This study has been an organic and living thing that has grown and sent down roots and expanded in the writing.
Despite its limitations, you may want to use this guide for group study and discussion. You will learn exciting things from the discoveries of others. You Bible study leaders, pastors, teachers, and priests can be especially helpful as you lead your groups in learning to dig into the Scriptures to ferret out gems of wisdom they have never seen before. How exciting your people will find it to get beyond spoon-fed explanations and fill-in-the-blank formulas. By leading them into self-discovery, you will watch them blossom into increasingly perceptive students of the Bible.
The what is up to you!
I said earlier that we would look at the who, when, and why of the books of the New Testament. You may have noticed one journalistic “w” that was glaringly missing—the what.
What each book of the New Testament has to say—its meaning, its importance, its application—will be your part of the assignment. That is what self-discovery means. We have to read these New Testament documents for ourselves to see what we discover in them—just like the first century Christians did.
What is the resulting impact on my faith and my perspective of the Bible?
Answering those questions will be up to you. Happy discovering!
— A Window into Reading the Bible for the Big Picture —
A Personal Word of Dedication
To the memory of John Robert Carter (1921-2007)
Every beginning effects what eventually comes to be written. Ken Taylor originally began the Living Bible to help his own children understand the Bible more clearly. Who could have foreseen what it would ultimately become? William Barclay speaks of his New Testament translation and Daily Study Bible commentaries beginning , as he says, “by accident.”
The Eyewitness Bible had similar origins. I began writing Introductions to the books of the Bible simply for the family and friends of my father-in-law some three weeks after he passed into the next life to be with the One who had been his Lord for over sixty years. I envisioned the project as a private tribute in which those of us who loved him could participate together in honoring a man who was devoted to the Bible and read it through yearly.
The project, however, quickly took on a life of its own. Many joined us along the way, receiving emailed or printed copies of each book of the Bible as we completed them. Gradually readers encouraged us to make it more widely available.
Thus, we now invite you to participate in what began simply as one family’s Bible reading project in honor of my wife’s father, a man whose memory we cherish and whose love for and devotion to God’s Word was an inspiration to all who knew him. Though the format has changed, the content of what follows is much the same, with minor editing, as we used these Introductions to accompany our reading of the New Testament.
My father-in-law, Bob Carter was an active Gideon for many years. After his passing, I was struck anew by something we already knew but which became suddenly newly alive in his death. That was his lifelong love for the Bible as God’s Word.
More important even than his work placing Bibles in motels and hospitals, Bob read and studied the Bible. He read the Bible through most every year, often in a different edition, many that had come from our own Christian bookstore. This had particular meaning for me as we went through Bob’s things after his death. We found Bibles all over the house—in book cases, on shelves, on his nightstand, down in his basement workshop—marked up in his own hand. It was with great affection that I gathered these six or eight tattered, worn Bibles, realizing what a legacy Bob had left behind. Nearly every one had a Gideon yearly Bible reading schedule inside it. At Bob’s memorial service, the pastor read from the Bible that Bob had been reading just weeks before. The Gideon reading schedule was in the book of James as a bookmark, for the date Nov. 23—apparently the last day Bob had been able to keep up with the year’s reading. He went home to be with God sixteen days later.
Down in his workshop another Bible was opened on his workbench to 2 Thessalonians (where he had been in the Gideons schedule in late October when he stopped being able to get down the stairs regularly), surrounded by scriptural notes and references taped or pinned up around his work area. He and I went down to the basement together on Thanksgiving day, the last time he saw the workshop he loved so much. It was more than a workshop, it was his sanctuary, his prayer closet. After he was gone, whenever I went downstairs it was with the sense of entering hallowed ground. Evidences of a life of Bible reading were everywhere! It was a workshop filled with sawdust and dirt and drills and saws and wrenches and oil cans and such an array of tools that I didn’t know what half of them were. Yet amid the constant projects in progress, it truly was a place where Bob spent time with God, and in God’s Word. I found it wonderful to touch that part of my father-in-law’s life. No wonder the man we knew and loved continued to grow and develop as a man of God to the very end of his earthly life. What a wonderful legacy to leave behind!
Bob’s Bible reading regimen had a profound impact on me in the subsequent weeks. That’s when Judy and I decided to make the commitment, in honoring to a man we deeply respected, to follow his example and read the Bible through again the following year.
As an alternative to the usual method of reading straight through from Genesis to Revelation, instead we read the books in the order in which each was written. We tried to approach the Bible from a fresh perspective, encountering the writings as they first came into circulation.
God bless all of you who join us in this Bible reading adventure.