What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

Bible Study

A few days ago Tertullian’s famous question came to my mind, though from a different context: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

For bible study, a group I belong to has been reading a book titled, The Dream of God, by a late member of the parish. So, a few days ago, our group leader said someone asked him, “what has reading Verna’s book got to do with bible study?”

The same morning I had read in my email notifications that another parish had started reading Walter Brueggermann’s new book, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, for Sunday morning bible study. So, what has Brueggermann’s or Verna’s book to do with bible study?

In reflection I realize that bible study in most churches takes a vertical approach, reading a bible book from chapter one to the last chapter, discerning its message for us and how we relate to it.  But there is also another approach, the horizontal or lateral, in which we read the book alongside contemporary sources.

Does it matter at all? Yes, it does, Consider, for example, reading Jesus’ birth narratives from Matthew’s or Luke’s gospel vertically. In Matthew we have Jesus’ genealogy, back to Abraham. There is also the story of the magi, Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing to Egypt and Herod the Great’s massacre of Bethlehem babies, then the family returning from Egypt and settling in Nazareth because of fear of Herod Archelaus.

None of this is found in the other birth narrative, in Luke. There we have an empire-wide census when Quirinius was governor in Syria. Instead of magi visiting the infant Jesus, we have shepherds, Jesus circumcised on the eighth day, presentation, and ultimately, return to Nazareth. In a lateral approach we will discover that Roman sources do not mention the census in Luke, and Quirinius, according to the historians Tacitus and Flavius Josephus, was appointed governor of Syria in 6 AD (CE).

In my next blog I’ll pick up from here to a discussion of a familiar phrase: a bible-based church – what it is supposed to mean and its implications.


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