Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Introduction Part I (The Bible)

Books, Christian Education, Christian Living, Church History, Culture, Scripture

Overview

When I was first asked to do this series, it’s focus was to be only on Ancient Near Eastern Literature and the Bible. But then I started thinking. Because there is an aversion that many have not only to ANE stuff, but even to ancient books closer to the Christian home, perhaps something more basic and broad would be more helpful. So this is going to be a series of posts on non-biblical literature and how to think, well, “biblically” about it. It will focus on ancient literature, with individual posts given to the The_Good_The_Bad_and_The_UglyApocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, other Second Temple Literature (Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus and Philo, Mishna, Targums), the Apostolic Fathers, some of the Church Fathers, Gnostic Texts, Ancient Near Eastern Literature, and relevant Ancient World Literature (Part I and Part II). Don’t know what a lot of this even is? Have no idea why you should care? Never fear. These posts will help give you some answers. The final post (an annotated bibliography) to lead you to some good sources to help you begin your adventure. As this is a blog, we can only do the most basic of overviews. This is my attempt to whet your appetite to a whole world you never knew existed. And what an amazing world it is: The good, the bad, and the ugly!

Introduction: The Bible

If we are going to talk about extra-biblical literature, we should probably begin by contrasting it to the Bible. This will give us a proper framework and grounding to proceed. What makes Holy Scripture unique? It is “Holy,” not because some man or ecclesiastical body said so or because some mere angel communicated the words, but because it is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16) by the Spirit of God (2 Pet 1:21). It is the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15) spoken by the Word of God (Jer 1:11; Heb 4:12).[1]Scripture” comes from the Latin for scribe or writing. In this sense, almost any writing can be “scripture,” but they would not be “holy.” So the Bible is a collection of books that make up the writings of God. Together, these two words show the uniqueness of the Bible among all other writings of history (be they religious or non-religious). For in the Bible, each text has two authors, with one being the Uncreated Creator of all other things.

Despite what Rob Bell recently told Oprah about the Bible being a bunch of 2,000 year old irrelevant letters that we need to stop quoting to contemporary people,[2] the Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). The Confessions of Faith summarize the Apostle’s thought here as they begin, “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…” (LBC and WCF 1.1). But just here, we come to a vital point. Neither the Scripture nor the Confession teach that the Bible is the only useful or helpful book. Rather, the scope of Scripture is narrowly confined in the Confession to being the source and fully inspired presentation of that information we need to know in order to glory God, to be saved, and to live as righteous people.[3]

Obviously, the Bible touches on a lot of other topics. But its purpose is to reveal saving and sanctifying knowledge about the Triune God. So while it may give some helpful insights into somethings like healthy food, biology, or leadership, it is not a diet book, a science text book, or a coaching manual. To put that another way, we rightly read about having a healthy diet, trying to understand the world of quantum mechanics, or figuring out strategies that make good leaders in books other than the Bible. The Bible does not claim to be any of these things, and most people know implicitly that it is perfectly fine to go to books outside of the Bible to learn more about such things.

This is an important first insight to have when coming to think about the world of extra-biblical literature. For there are biases that some people have against such literature that they need not have if they just recognize a couple of things up front. First, they already read extra-biblical literature every day: a novel, a newspaper, a blog like this! Well, the ancient world had their own versions of all of these things too. So I’m not asking you to consider something you aren’t already doing.

Second, almost none of the books we will look at in the ancient world—be they Christian, Jewish, or pagan make claims of themselves that they are Holy Scripture. Sure, a handful might, just as books like the Koran or the Book of Mormon (which isn’t ancient at all) do today, but for the most part, even religious texts are not claiming to be Scripture in the sense we are talking about here. This point can be very helpful in overcoming deeply rooted feelings that somehow to read an ancient book other than the Bible is to commit a kind of spiritual adultery against God’s word. No, it is no more right or wrong to read the Baal Cycle than it is to read Stephen Hawking (books about origins), to read Joseph and Aseneth than it is to read Pride and Prejudice (Romance novels), to read 1 Maccabees than it is to read Foxes Book of Martyrs (history books).

In the next post we will look at some apprehensions people have about this literature and suggestions for reading this material.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

[1] For the Word of the Lord and the Person of Christ see my previous post here: https://thedecablog.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/christ-in-the-old-testament-part-vi/. The LBC summarizes this in 1.4 saying, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.

[2] Here is Mr. Bell’s statement along with some helpful commentary by R.C. Sproul Jr: http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2015/February/Rob-Bell-Suggests-Bible-Not-Relevant-to-Todays-Culture/, last accessed 2-25-2015.

[3] LBC 1.6 says, “for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life.

5 thoughts on “Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Introduction Part I (The Bible)

  1. I am not sure if their are not comments as yet, or if I simply cannot see them. I for one, have greatly enjoyed this series. I have read Enoch and Jubilees and revisit them regularly. Thanks to these posts I will now pursue some of the other literature as well. I read Piper and Sproul and others with Godly discretion and discernment. Certainly I can read the Apocrypha with the same.

    Thank you for the time you took on these posts. they really are beneficial
    Blessings
    Bruce

  2. Glad you are enjoying them, Bruce. I enjoy telling people about this. It is a marvelous world to learn about and to learn to think about rightly.

    Doug

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