On Pentecost we remember when God’s inspiration really broke through to the disciples and other followers of Jesus. But how did the Hebrew Bible help the early Church understand how to follow Jesus?
Why does all the Bible matter?
Two winters ago we spent a holiday at Mellieha in Malta. From the entry to the town you can see the next town, St Paul’s Bay. In Mellieha, there is a sanctuary with a painting of Jesus’ mother, Mary, in a cave. It was said to be by Luke, who painted it when he was shipwrecked on Malta with Paul. The cave was consecrated in 409 AD, although the present painting seems a few hundred years younger. We read in Acts that Luke accompanied Paul on some journeys. Luke must have written the book of Acts some time after Paul died. Some say it was before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, some say after. Either way, it was 30 or 40 or so years after the events of Pentecost.
When we think about what the New Testament means we may turn to the writings of Paul or John. We think of Acts as being more historical. It is written not with the approach of a rabbi (Paul), nor of a philosopher-theologian (John). Luke provided an approachable account of the history of God revealing himself to his people. His account was to God-fearing Gentiles, as well as Jews. It was for all.
If we take Luke and Acts together then we can see that Luke presents history in three blocks:
- Period of Israel – up to John the Baptist
- Period of Jesus – to the Ascension
- Period of the Church – from Pentecost.
The purpose in Luke-Acts is to present Jesus’ story within the Judaic tradition. The Period of the Church involved the divinely designed apostolic succession in the figures of Peter and Paul. To Luke, following Jesus was the logical and legitimate continuation of the Judaism of the Pharisees. His history has a theological purpose. Luke is an evangelist.
To understand the Period of the Church, we must have an inkling about what the Period of Israel is about. About 1/3 of Acts contains speeches, and this is how Luke gets his understanding across. At the beginning of the first speech, by Peter at Pentecost, he sets this out:
“This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”
Acts 2:23 (NIV)
and that points to Isaiah 53:
“Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.”
Isaiah 53:10 (NIV)
Can we find out what this “he” was like? “He” was the servant figure is Isaiah 50:
The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one instructed.
Isaiah 50:4 (NIV)
I wish that I had such a well-instructed tongue to know the word that sustains the weary! The importance of the Old Testament is evident. It also provides the bedrock for understanding the New.
Can we trust what we read?
In the Bible the youngest documents are 1900 years old: the oldest…. hundreds of years more. As time has gone on over the last few hundred years we get closer and closer to the originals. The translation by John Wycliffe, written 600 years ago, was from the Latin Vulgate mostly translated by Jerome around 400 AD. The King James version used original languages Greek (NT), Hebrew and Aramaic (Greek and Latin only for the Apocrypha). The NIV used sources seeking to be as reliable to the original canon as possible. The Old Testament was translated from the Masoretic text (Hebrew and Aramaic), copied between 700 and 1000 AD.
The finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls with documents dating back to the 3rd century BC showed these texts had been transmitted reliably for over 1000 years.
Gaining physical evidence of earlier writings is a challenge. The team of Gabriel Barkay working on an archaeological site, Ketef Hinnom, just outside Old Jerusalem, made a remarkable discovery. Some small silver scrolls were discovered. With painstaking care they unfurled the scrolls to reveal the Hebrew text of:
‘The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.”
Numbers 6:24-26 (NIV)
The archaeological site indicated these scrolls could be dated to the 7th century BC, about the time when Josiah was King of Judah. This established a direct line of the text of over 2600 years.
Much God-inspired work has been devoted to giving us something that is reliable. It really is a firm basis for working out how to follow a life of faith.