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The Light Shines in the Darkness (The Christmas Story)

Botticelli_NativityMerry Christmas from your friends at Bible Gateway! Wherever you are and whatever circumstances you face, we hope that you’ll find comfort and hope in the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came to restore our relationship with God.

If you haven’t ever read the Christmas story, or if you haven’t read it in a while, take a minute this morning to read the short account that lies at the heart of Christmas. Here it is:


The Birth of Jesus: Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Who Was Where at the First Christmas

Chances are you’ll be reading or hearing the Christmas story in the next 24 hours! As a companion to your reading, here’s a timeline that shows where the myriad characters of the Christmas story were during the big event (click on the image below to enlarge):

Christmas Story timeline visualization

(Also available: high-resolution image and PDF.)

This visualization traces the Christmas story as told in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, showing you who is with whom throughout the story. The references in the visualization let you explore the text yourself.

Each line represents a person, and the narrative unfolds as you follow from left to right, starting with Gabriel appearing to Zechariah and ending with the return to Nazareth of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

The following detail shows the most-famous part of the story:

A detail of the Christmas story timeline focuses on the birth of Jesus.

In this part of the story, Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem and find no room in the inn, so Jesus is born in a stable. Angels appear to nearby shepherds, who seek the newborn child and then depart, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

This visualization is a companion to our Holy Week Timeline, which takes a similar visual approach to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Hanukkah: Remembering the Second Temple

Hanukkah1Most Christians think of today as Christmas Eve—which, of course, it is. But tonight, Jews are the world will celebrate the final hours of Hanukkah, an eight-day commemoration of the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem thousands of years ago.

Hanukkah is commonly associated with the distinctive nine-branched menorah, as well as with trappings like the dreidel game; and because of its timing on the calendar, it is sometimes subsumed into the Christmas season in the minds of Christians who might otherwise be more interested in Hanukkah’s unique historical roots. The story behind Hanukkah is unrelated to the Nativity, but because it remembers an important event in Jewish (and, indirectly, Christian) history, it’s worth Christian consideration.

Hanukkah commemorates the Jewish revolt against oppressive Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who attempted to outlaw the practice of Judaism and require the worship of pagan deities. This story is as close as the nearest Bible, provided that your Bible includes the apocryphal books (which are not considered part of the biblical canon by all Christians). You can read about the events that inspired Hanukkah in 1 and 2 Maccabees. Here’s an excerpt from 1 Maccabees describing the persecution of Jews under Antiochus:

Two years later, to collect tribute from the Judean cities, King Antiochus sent his chief officer, who came to Jerusalem with a large army. The agent spoke peaceably and the Jews believed him, but he was deceitful. Without warning, he attacked the city, dealt it a brutal blow, and killed many Israelites. He plundered the city. He set fires within it, destroyed its houses, and tore down its protective walls. His forces took women and children as prisoners and seized livestock. After all of this, the agent’s forces fortified David’s City with a very strong wall and powerful towers, and it became their fortress. They stationed sinful, immoral people there, and these soldiers held down their position. They stocked up with weapons and food, collected the spoils of Jerusalem, and stored them there. They were a great menace.

They ambushed the sanctuary.
They were an evil opponent of Israel
at all times.
Its inhabitants shed innocent blood
all around the sanctuary,
and they even polluted
the sanctuary itself.
Because of them,
those who lived in Jerusalem fled.
The city became
a dwelling place for strangers.
She was like a stranger to her offspring,
and her children abandoned her.
Her sanctuary was as barren as a desert.
Her feasts turned into mourning,
her sabbaths into shame,
her honor into contempt.
Her dishonor became as great
as her glory had been.
Her joy turned into sadness. — 1 Maccabees 1:29-40 (Common English Bible)

Start reading the full story from the beginning here.

If you’re like many Christians, you’ve been (quite reasonably) hearing and reading a lot about the birth of Christ this Christmas season. But this year, you might find it rewarding to take a few minutes to read a story that powerfully shaped Jewish history and theology in the centuries before Christ.

Bible Discovery in 2015

howtounderstandthebible


We’re going to resume the weekly readings in “How to Understand the Bible” week after next, after the Christmas and New Year’s holiday.

Perhaps you are thinking now about how you might systematically read the Bible next year. Bible Gateway offers different Bible reading plans. Andy Rau describes them here.

In the new year I am going to be sending out some of my own discoveries in my personal Bible reading. If you’d like to receive these discovery notes (two to four times a month) I’d invite you to sign up here.

My “Bible Discovery” notes will be thoughts on specific passages I am reading, and will be very brief. I really think one of the best things we can do for each other is to share our discoveries.

I do hope you will have a blessed Christmas, wherever you live in the world. Remember God’s grace to us in his living word (Scripture), and in the word made flesh (Jesus Christ). God is with us! We are not alone!

P.S. Besides my “Bible discovery notes” I’ll also inform you of new resources for spiritual growth. Just sign up here.


Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.

Read the Bible at Your Own Pace with Bible Gateway’s New, Improved Bible Reading Plans

Have you thought about reading through part or all of the Bible in 2015? The New Year is an excellent time to start spending time in the Bible—and we’ve completely revamped Bible Gateway’s Bible reading plans to make it easier than ever!

Our new Reading Plan page has been completely redesigned and stocked with new features, all aimed at making it as easy as possible to incorporate Bible reading into your daily routine. Here’s what you can do at our new reading plan page:

  • Choose from over a dozen different Bible reading plans, from year-long plans to short, thematically-focused ones.
  • Easily track your reading progress.
  • Start, pause, restart, or end a reading plan at any time.
  • View and print out monthly lists of your Bible readings.
  • Receive a daily email reminder with a link to the current reading (coming soon).

Most of these advanced features require that you be logged into your Bible Gateway account. (If you haven’t yet created a free Bible Gateway account, here’s how to do so—it will only take you a moment.)

Regular Bible reading is an important, immensely rewarding activity. Whether you’ve never cracked open a Bible before or have read through it dozens or times, we think you’ll find that time spent reading God’s Word makes a dramatic difference in your everyday life. Our Bible reading plans vary widely in pace and intensity, so whether you’ve only got time for a single Bible verse each day or want to challenge yourself with a much heftier reading commitment, there’s a plan for you. And if you do start a plan and fall behind, our new reading plan management makes it easy to restart or get quickly caught up.

So, choose a reading plan and get ready for the incredible journey of reading through the Bible, one day at a time!

The Wayfinding Bible: An Interview with Jeannette Taylor

Jeannette TaylorWhen we find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, we tend to look for a helpful map or visual representation that tells us “You Are Here” and offers an over-arching context that guides us on our way. That’s the premise behind The Wayfinding Bible (Tyndale House Publishers, 2013).

It’s the first study Bible to incorporate the science of wayfinding (orientation, route decision, route monitoring, and destination recognition) to help readers easily navigate the big picture of God’s Word.

Printed in full-color, The Wayfinding Bible (website) (Facebook page) was selected as a finalist for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s 2014 Christian Book Award®.

Bible Gateway interviewed its co-editor, Jeannette Taylor.

Click to buy your copy of The Wayfinding Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

What need among Bible readers prompted your creation of The Wayfinding Bible?

Jeannette Taylor: Since my start in the Christian publishing industry in 1984, I’ve had the wonderful privilege and responsibility of researching consumer wants and needs regarding Bibles. Over the years I noticed a clear pattern when consumers were asked about obstacles to Bible reading. After “lack of time” (the reason that inevitably comes up first), the most common obstacles are: “the Bible is so big, I get lost/discouraged trying to get through it”, “I don’t know where to start”, “It’s hard to follow the storyline of the Bible—it’s not written in chronological order”, and “I’m afraid of getting bogged down in laws and genealogies and other boring passages.”

Despite the hundreds of Bibles available for consumers, these frustrations remained. The reality that many Christians were unsure how they could most successfully read God’s Word led to the idea of creating a Bible that featured reading routes of varying lengths and complexity.

How did you come to use the science of wayfinding as you developed this Bible?

Jeannette Taylor: Honestly, the wayfinding concept was a direct revelation from God. Here’s the unvarnished story. While I had a clear understanding of the needs of frustrated Bible readers and had come up with the idea of routes through Scripture, I was stuck on how best to design this Bible to ensure it was easy and effective to use. One afternoon, while I was riding my bike and puzzling through the Bible details, the word “wayfinding” popped into my head. I have no explanation other than to say that God put it there. With a basic understanding that wayfinding was connected with traveling and staying on track, by the end of the bike ride I had roughed out the general layout of this Bible: three routes—Flyover, Direct, and Scenic; helpful features such as Historical Markers and Scenic Overlooks; and explanatory “Getting Your Bearing” articles at key turning points in the Bible.

I embarked on an in-depth study of the science of wayfinding and discovered many useful connections between wayfinding and Bible reading.

Describe “wayfinding” in general and its importance in everyday life.

Jeannette Taylor: A simple definition of wayfinding is: helping people navigate complex built environments. In life we all encounter many complex built environments: hospitals, airports, college campuses, large cities, etc. To help people find their way in those confusing locations, architects use wayfinding signs. Directional signs, maps with “you are here” arrows, route markers, and marked paths are all wayfinding tools developed to ensure people stay on track.

The Bible is its own complex built environment. It includes 66 books of various lengths and types and styles. Those 66 books are not organized chronologically. It was written thousands of years ago in cultures very different from ours today. As Pastor Wade Butler explains:

Most people who attempt to read the Bible have never been exposed to a book like it. It is not arranged like any other. It was collected according to literature type and not according to chronology. I am convinced that this is the greatest hurdle [to Bible reading] of them all.

Describe the goals of The Wayfinding Bible and how its formatting and features accomplish that goal.

Jeannette Taylor: The core goals of The Wayfinding Bible are to encourage people to start reading the Bible, to keep reading the Bible and, by doing so, to draw closer to God. The foundation verses of The Wayfinding Bible express this clearly:

“Show me the right path, O Lord;
      point out the road for me to follow.
Lead me by your truth and teach me,
      for you are the God who saves me.
      All day long I put my hope in you.”
         Ps. 25:4-5 NLT

To encourage reading and keep people on track, we developed three reading routes through the Bible—Flyover, Direct, Scenic—and we designed a fun and easy-to-use graphic tool so people can stay on their chosen route. Colored route lines run across the top of Bible pages. Readers simply select their desired reading route, then follow the route line from one reading to the next.

The three paths of discovery in the Bible look almost like a subway map. Explain what they are.

Jeannette Taylor: The three routes in this Bible—Flyover, Direct or Scenic—are identified by color lines that run across the top of the Bible pages. This design was actually modeled on wayfinding signs like subway or bus route maps. Just as a subway rider uses route line signage to ensure they reach their destination, Wayfinding Bible readers simply choose their preferred route and follow the color line to complete their reading track from Genesis to Revelation.

Why is the New Living Translation (NLT) a good match for this Bible?

Jeannette Taylor: The goal of the translators of the New Living Translation was to present the message of the original texts of Scripture in clear, contemporary English. They translated the Bible texts as simply and literally as possible. The result is a great Bible for reading. And since the goal of The Wayfinding Bible is to encourage people to read—and to want to keep reading—the Bible, the NLT is the perfect match for The Wayfinding Bible.

What logistical planning was necessary to create this Bible from idea to store shelf?

Jeannette Taylor: The simplicity of many easy-to-use tools is a result of significant and complex planning and engineering. This is certainly the case for The Wayfinding Bible. In order to make using The Wayfinding Bible easy and intuitive, the routes had to be carefully planned and combined with visual tools that are helpful and logically located. Making this happen required the combined skill and experience of Doris Rikkers, who mapped out the routes and wrote the notes, and Tyndale’s design and typesetting team.

What book of the Bible was the most challenging to visualize in the wayfinding style?

Jeannette Taylor: The shorter books of the Bible were the most challenging to lay out. We had to make sure that the combination of notes and sometimes less than two pages of Bible text all worked together to be visually appealing. For instance, we had to combine 2 and 3 John into one reading in order to make the design work.

How are readers of this Bible reacting to it?

Jeannette Taylor: The response from readers to The Wayfinding Bible has been very positive. One reader posted the following review for The Wayfinding Bible online:

This Bible is such a blessing! I am literally drawn to it and am excited about the next reading. My past experiences with other Bibles always left me frustrated because I was lost, and had a hard time understanding what was presented to me. This Bible is easy to follow, and I LOVE the fact that I can choose which route I want to take. For the first time in my life, I KNOW that I will finally be able to finish reading the entire Bible! If you have ever been frustrated, confused or overwhelmed by reading the Bible, this is for you!

How will this Bible help stem what some are calling the crisis of Bible illiteracy in the church?

Jeannette Taylor: Studies have shown that millions of adults want to read the Bible but get lost in the Bible’s complexity and quit. The Wayfinding Bible encourages the reader to keep going because the reading routes follow the Bible narrative chronologically and people are essentially reading God’s story. As with any good story, the reader wants to know what’s going to happen next. And after all, the Bible is the greatest story of all.

Bio: Jeannette Taylor began working in the Bible publishing industry in 1984. Hired as Zondervan’s first market research analyst, she was appointed general manager of the Bible division in 1988. She was instrumental in the creation, development and launch of multiple bestselling Bibles including the NIV Study Bible, The Student Bible, The Adventure Bible, The Teen Study Bible, The Women’s Devotional Bible, and The Quest Study Bible.

Named vice-president of marketing for the Zondervan Corporation in 1992, Jeannette directed all marketing functions for the publishing house. After the birth of her first son in 1993, she left Zondervan and started her own marketing/market research consulting firm, JET Marketing. In 2010, Jeannette co-founded Somersault (@smrsault), a Christian publishing consulting firm, with four other partners. In addition to her consulting businesses, Jeannette is an adjunct professor at Cornerstone University, where she teaches marketing at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Jeannette lives with her husband and two sons in West Michigan.

How We Read the Bible: Bible Gateway’s 2014 Year in Review

Bible Gateway has published its 2014 Year in Review. Based on over 1.5 billion pageviews and over 150 million unique visitors to Bible Gateway from December 2013 through November 2014, the data we’ve gathered provides a glimpse at how people engaged with the Bible in 2014.

You can view our findings here. Our Year in Review draws on data from English- and Spanish-language Bible readers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and includes:

  • A breakdown of the popularity of each chapter in the Bible.
  • A chart showing the “paths” people took through the Bible.
  • Lists of the most popular Bible verses and keyword searches.
  • A chart showing how the popularity of certain keyword searches rises and falls throughout the year.

A chart showing the relative popularity of every chapter in the Bible.

That’s a lot of data to take in, but diving into the details illuminates some interesting things about the ways people approach and read the Bible. What are some of the key findings?

1. People really do read the Bible throughout the year.

The Bible isn’t always an easy text to read—especially if you start at the beginning and try to read it straight through—and it’s common for attempts to read through the entire Bible to peter out within a month or two. However, our findings show that a significant core of Bible readers stick with their Bible reading all the way through the year, something that shows up clearly in our chart of popular verses by day.

2. The New Testament is read much more than the Old Testament.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the New Testament—widely considered more accessible for modern Bible readers than the Old Testament—is read much more than the Old (the NT is one-third the size of the Old Testament). That said, specific sections of the Old Testament remain very popular; over 30% of Old Testament pageviews are in Psalms and Proverbs, two books known for their poetry and wisdom. The opening chapters of Genesis, best known for the Bible’s creation story, made up another popular section this year. Our general fascination with the creation story can explain that, but high profile discussions about creationism and evolution in 2014—such as the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate in February no doubt played a part as well.

3. The most popular Bible search terms remain consistent from year to year…

The keywords and verses people looked up in the Bible this year remain very consistent from year to year (see our 2013 and 2012 data). And those keywords are strikingly personal—faith, peace, marriage, children, joy, hope, grace, and similar words fill the list of popular English keywords. Notably, the word “love” was the top search term for 200 days out of the year. And that’s broadly true for Spanish Bible readers, as well; there’s a great deal of overlap in the top keywords in Spanish and English.

There’s a personal and devotional sense to many of these search terms, which may echo the Bible in American Life Report’s findings that most Bible readers look to Scripture to find answers to personal challenges and big questions in their lives, rather than for political or “culture war” purposes.

Similarly, the most popular Bible verses in 2014 are much the same as they have been in previous years. The most popular verses (John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11, Philippians 4:13, and others) overwhelmingly offer messages of comfort, reassurance, and encouragement.

4. …but major world events do affect what people look for in the Bible.

People look for different things in the Bible depending on what’s going on in the world around them. This is most obvious in the seasonal surge of searches related to religious holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—as well as big but not especially religious holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

But holidays aren’t the only events that have an observable impact on Bible reading. “Blood moon” is hardly a common Bible search term, but searches for it spiked in April and October when the lunar tetrads were in the news. Searches for “Noah” jumped in the spring, when Darren Aronofsky’s Bible blockbuster arrived on the big screen (with a similar spike around the movie’s DVD release date). On the movie’s opening weekend, visits to the Noah story in Genesis 6-9 at Bible Gateway saw a 223% increase over the previous weekend. Our Year in Review page features an interactive chart where you can see for yourself how several dozen different keywords trended throughout the year.

What does it all mean?

There’s much more to be gleaned from the data, and we invite you to look through our Year in Review findings to see what jumps out at you. Considering this data, we’re gratified again to see how important the Bible is to people on an everyday, practical basis.

“The Bible, written thousands of years ago, remains amazingly relevant today to people the world over,” notes Rachel Barach, Bible Gateway’s general manager. “We continually search its pages for knowledge, wisdom, and understanding—especially during seasons of heightened social activity. Bible reading is part of everyday life for millions of people, and what they read there is remarkably personal and practical. Our Bible reading also reflects our efforts to spiritually process world news and events: the number of people searching for the Bible’s words about ‘peace,’ for example, remained high all throughout a year marked by disturbing and difficult to understand outbreaks of violence. ‘Blood moon’ was a top Bible search in April and October when lunar eclipses were in the news. And ‘Noah’ was Bible Gateway’s top search when Noah was being hotly discussed by film critics and in churches around America. People today continue to turn to the Bible for insight into life’s questions, big and small, and we are honored that people use Bible Gateway every day to search, read, and listen to the Bible as it relates to their lives.”

The Logos Became Sarx

A guest post by Kent Dobson, general editor of the NIV First-Century Study Bible.

[Also see our blogpost, Reading the Bible with Eastern Eyes: An Interview with Kent Dobson]

Advent is a strange time of year. We look forward to the Christmas, the coming of Christ, and then when we get to Christmas, we remember what happened at Bethlehem. What is the point of this time of year? Are we just to remember what happened? Look back and say, “wish we could have been there”?

This time of year we keep reminding one another that the real meaning of Christmas is not found at the mall. Then we go the mall anyway. We go to Walmart and then tweet about keeping Christ in Christmas. It’s seems like we’re unsure of how to fit Jesus into all this mess.

When John begins his Gospel, he starts in a cosmic place, with the creation of all that is, saying the logos (word) was God and brought the world into being (see John 1:1). From a Jewish point of view, the logos might have been understood as the divine wisdom of God, the word of God, even possibly the torah, or law, of God. In other words, wisdom (the wisdom of God) brought the world into being; God’s word ordered all that is. This perspective was not unique to John.

From a Greek point of view, John was swimming in philosophical and poetic waters. Logos was understood to the Greeks as something like reason, logic, order, wisdom, meaning, and intelligence. Plato would have agreed that the logos brought all that is into being. Then he may have yawned after the first line and stopped reading.

But John is just getting warmed up. His argument takes a most radical and unexpected turn. He says the logos became sarx, or flesh (see John 1:14). Sarx was a crude term, a crass way of referring to the body. John was saying that the logos, the divine wisdom, the word, reason, et al, became gritty and grimy and human. John said the person, the living flesh of a man named Jesus, has something to do with the divine order that holds all things together.

John is saying clearly that we cannot separate the divine from the physical, the spiritual from the messy. The belief in this type of separation, known as Gnosticism in the ancient world, was starting to dominate certain Christian circles in John’s day. This concept of separation still creeps up in our language and practice today. It’s understandable why. Even today we wonder why God would want anything to do with the messy world we inhabit.

But God does inhabit the mess. We may prefer a pretty little manger scene, pristine and glowing, with wise men dressed in costumes, and college guys with pathetic beards, to an actual stinking barn. But that’s not how the story goes. And we may not like the story as it is because it’s a messy story with a pregnant teenager, a dirty barn and isolation and exclusion. We would like the story cleaner. We would like God somewhere else.

It seems to me that we need more sarx. We need to know that God is with us. We need more Good News and light in the messiness of this time of year. It is not possible to always remain before the pristine manger scene in our cultural imaginations. It’s not possible to attend the church pageant and convince ourselves that we kept Christ in Christmas. We are likely to go to the pageant and yell at our kids all the way home. Life is a mess. But Christ entered the mess. That’s the power of the Good News.

And if that’s not enough, Paul takes it one step further saying, “you are the body of Christ.” Something of the sarx, the “fleshiness” of Christ, is still walking around in the body of the church.

Maybe we need more sarx, more incarnation, more word becoming flesh—at Walmart, in the car, at the pageant, at the staff party, in the mess.

May you be a little more light in this world.

May you be a little more Christ in this world.

May something of the logos of God made sarx, now living again in the body of Christ be embodied your home, in your family, at the mall, in church, in all, as Christ is in all.

The way to keep Christ in Christmas is to be the body of Christ right now.

Merry, messy Christmas.


firstcenturybibleBy Kent Dobson, General Editor of the NIV First-Century Study Bible.

The new NIV First Century Study Bible from Zondervan allows you to explore scripture through the eyes of a first-century disciple. It includes full-color photographs and illustrations, ancient life depictions, Greek and Hebrew word studies, Jewish and Christian interpretations, and current cultural background details, all which reveal that the Bible is a living book. Learn more at www.firstcenturystudybible.com.

Literary Forms in the Bible: An Interview with Leland Ryken

Leland RykenTruly comprehending the Bible involves knowing both what it says (content) and how it says it (form). Being able to identify and appreciate the many literary forms in which the Bible is written assists readers in more fully understanding God’s Word.

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Leland Ryken about his book, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible (Crossway, 2014).

What need among Christians does this book seek to meet?

Dr. Ryken: These days we hear enough about the literary dimension of the Bible that ordinary Bible readers have a vague awareness that this is something they need to know about. Many of them are looking for help but don’t know where to find it. My handbook brings together in one place what they need to know.Click to buy your copy of A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

I believe that biblical scholars and preachers are in a similar position. They pay lip service to the literary forms of the Bible, but in actual practice they fall back on the traditional approaches of biblical scholarship. Biblical scholars have not provided the leadership that the average Bible reader deserves in regard to the literary forms of the Bible. They should have taken a refresher English course, but they have not done so. My handbook can supply what they need.

How many literary forms do you identify and define as being in the Bible?

Dr. Ryken: I was surprised to learn how many literary forms are present in the Bible. Part of my research for the book was in ordinary literary handbooks, but I also learned a lot from handbooks of classical rhetoric and scholarly articles authored by biblical scholars. By the time the dust settled, I had 240 entries in my handbook. As I say in my preface to the book, the most obvious lesson to be learned from this is that the Bible is more infused with literary forms and techniques that we realize.

The literary forms you describe go into greater detail than merely identifying literary genre, such as narrative or poetry. Explain the difference.

Dr. Ryken: The bias of biblical scholarship is to use genre labels and literary techniques for purposes of classification and to let the matter rest at that level. I see the same tendency in my students when we get started with explicating poetry. Merely identifying a literary form or figure of speech with the correct label is of very limited usefulness. The usefulness of correctly identifying a genre or literary form comes when we generate an analytic grid or methodology for analyzing a Bible passage. A knowledge of the form should program how we interact with the example before us. For instance, the usefulness of labeling a text as belonging to the genre of satire is that we immediately know that there are four ingredients that we need to explicate.

You write that “form is meaning.” Why is it important to know the literary form of the Scripture passage a person reads?

Dr. Ryken: The human race has a bad way of assuming that literary form and content are two separate entities. In Christian circles, this results in disregarding the literary forms in the Bible because what is regarded as the really important thing is the religious content. The literary principle that form is meaning disallows that practice right from the start. There is no content without the form that embodies it, starting with language but extending to further dimensions of literary form. There is no content to Psalm 23 without the poetic images that make up the actual text. If we fail to interact with the images, we are not interpreting the poem; we are instead operating with a theological construct rather than a biblical text.

Did God inspire the literary forms of the Bible?

Dr. Ryken: I absolutely love this question because it takes us right to the heart of my enterprise. If the biblical writers wrote as God carried them along and as God superintended the human process of composition, then it is a logical inference that the forms were inspired by God. If the authors wrote as God moved and intended them to write, then everything that they put into their works, including the forms in which they encompassed their message, is inspired. It is also relevant to refer back to the previous question: there is no content without the form in which it is expressed. The practical conclusion of this line of thought is that the literary forms of the Bible deserve an attention commensurate with their inspired nature.

You’re approaching the identification of these literary forms from a modern Western professor of English mindset. Yet the Bible is written from an ancient mid-Eastern Hebrew and Greek language perspective. Does that pose a challenge to you or the reader?

Dr. Ryken: I did not find this an obstacle in any way. I cast my net of research as widely as possible, meaning that I read material from biblical scholars as well as literary critics. Furthermore, as literary scholar Northrop Frye insisted throughout his career, the Bible is the prototype and foundation for our understanding of English and American literature. There are no literary forms covered in my handbook that are not demonstrably present in the Bible. I enjoyed enlarging my repertoire of literary forms while doing the research for my handbook.

You write that the literary form of motif in the Bible is the most difficult to pin down. What do you mean?

Dr. Ryken: The difficulty posed by the word motif is that it is so broad. I did not want to omit entries that are genuinely helpful (such as quest motif), but neither did I want to include items that are not really literary (such as “the providential motif in the story of Joseph“). The word motif is used in such a broad range of contexts that I could not allow the mere appearance of that word to count as a reason to include something.

How does the Bible show versus tell?

Dr. Ryken: The moment I saw an entry for “showing versus telling” in a handbook of literary terms, I knew that I wanted to include it in my handbook. The concept is basic to a literary approach to composition and texts, and it is a cliché in writing courses. To “show” means to embody or incarnate in concrete form—in a story about characters performing actions in a specific setting, for example, or a poet reflecting on a topic with images and figures of speech. To “tell” means to state truth propositionally, abstractly, and by means of summary instead of enactment. “You shall not murder” is “telling;” the story of Cain embodies (“shows”) that same truth, without using the abstraction murder and without telling us to refrain from it. “Showing” is a touchstone for regarding a given text as being literary, and by this criterion at least eighty percent of the Bible can be labeled literary.

Why should readers not be surprised that the Bible contains parody, sarcasm, and satire?

Dr. Ryken: Let me first answer the question of why I think most readers of the Bible are surprised by the presence of certain genres in the Bible. The Bible is a serious book that aims to impart spiritual and moral edification. Additionally, most people read only parts of the Bible. It is easy to come to view the Bible as a “nice” book where nearly everything is refined in taste. Certain genres and the literary technique known as realism do not fit this standard of refinement. Name calling (vituperation), ridicule (as in satire), and the realistic portrayal of sex and violence are something that most Bible readers do not expect to find in the Bible.

But you ask why readers should not be surprised by parody, sarcasm, and satire. Upon reflection, I would say that we should not be surprised by any of the forms that we find in the Bible because the Bible is so thoroughly literary. In composing my handbook I was continually amazed by the literary sophistication of the biblical authors. That sophistication is demonstrably present in the Bible. How the writers became so literary and rhetorical in their composition is something that I cannot explain.

What is the danger of quoting or memorizing a Bible verse without consideration of its literary form?

Dr. Ryken: One way to get at an answer to this question is the following: I have sometimes been surprised at how thoroughly students who engage in oral interpretation as an event at speech contests are expected to research literary criticism of the text that they recite. The same thing is true of actors who perform a Shakespearean play. They do not just memorize the lines; they study the plays and familiarize themselves with literary criticism of the play being performed. From this I draw the conclusion that in order for Bible memorization and quotation to be fully meaningful and correct, a person needs to know as much about a passage as possible. This includes knowing something about the form. In our circles we are familiar with the caution “don’t quote a text without knowing the context;” a good counterpart might be “don’t quote or memorize a passage without knowing its literary form.”

One of your book’s entries is “Unity of Text,” where you write, “No principle of literary analysis is more important to grasp than the unity of story, poem, or other text.” Unpack that.

Dr. Ryken: A great weakness of biblical scholarship and Bible commentaries is that they are too atomistic. It is as though a biblical text is a collection of details rather than a coherent whole. Additionally, when biblical scholars and preachers assert a unifying core for a passage, it is usually a concept rather than a literary form. I tell my students that storytellers do not have a thesis to prove but a story to tell. The unity of a story or poem is a literary unity, not a concept or proposition. My career in the literary study of the Bible is nearing half a century now, and as my students and readers of my books provide feedback on what they have learned from me, probably no theme has been more constant than that my literary approach has shown them how to discern the unity of a passage.

Bio: Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, including The Word of God in English and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

What is the Big Picture of the Book of Beginnings?

howtounderstandthebible

For 10 weeks we are focussing on how to understand the Old Testament. Many people find parts of the Old Testament daunting and challenging to understand. In the weeks to come we’ll break it all down, bit by bit, looking at the land of the Bible, the book of Genesis, the Law, the books of the prophets, the eras of the kings, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and more. We begin today with how to read the narrative stories of the Old Testament.

If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along, encourage them to learn more and sign up to receive the series via email. (And it is not too late to begin Christmas Scripture devotional readings. Available here.)


If someone were to ask you to take as much time as you wanted to answer the question “Who are you?” you would start at the beginning. Your birth, your parents, your hometown, your ethnicity. To fully understand a person, a people, or a place today, you must go back to their beginnings.

That is why the Bible starts with “In the beginning.” Generations of believers have found the meaning and purpose of life—including its tragedies and triumphs—by reading Genesis, the book of beginnings. When we read Genesis we should see the larger part of the God-story in it. The book is not merely a sequence of events. It is a theology about God’s intention in creating humanity, about the dreadful corruption within humanity, and about God’s way of restoring humanity, beginning with one man and one tribe.

Genesis

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”—in other words, everything. Right there in just a few Hebrew words, Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz, we have a specific definition of reality. First, there is a singular God who chose to create. This eliminates the main alternatives: atheism (no god), polytheism (many gods), and pantheism (god is the universe). In many other ancient religions, there is a god who competes with the sun, moon, stars, and sea monsters who also are gods. In contrast, in Genesis God is Creator of all. It sets forth the perspective carried all the way through Scripture, that there are only two categories in the universe: Creator and created. One Almighty God, and everything else.

And there is order in the creation. God speaks it into existence, and then God commands the way life should work. There is thus a harmony and logic in the creation. For this reason we should not see science and the Bible as exclusive of each other. Science is based on being able to predict the way things will be because there is an order and predictability in nature. This is theologically true, and empirically true.

Genesis puts humanity at the apex of creation, whereas in other religions human beings are slaves to the gods. The revolutionary idea that humanity was created “in the image of God” affirms the dignity and value of human beings. The disobedience of the man and the woman and the fall into sin is all the more tragic because it is a fracturing of the image of God. The book of beginnings describes the genesis of sin in human beings as succumbing to the temptation to rise even higher than their noble place, to believe that they know better than the command of God.

So Genesis speaks of multiple beginnings: of the universe, of humanity, of sin, of the nations, and of one nation in particular which God would use to define the right life. Most of the book of Genesis (chapters 12 through 50) tells the story of the patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the sons of Jacob who produced the tribes of the Hebrews numbering hundreds of thousands by the end of the book. This is the people of God. A particular tribe whom God used in particular ways in order to establish universal principles.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul interprets Genesis as he describes the essence of the meaning of Abraham’s story. Grace through faith. Righteousness as right relationship. Patience in the promise. And so on. The truth of Genesis reaches to where we live. Abraham was justified by faith, and thus it always must be (Rom. 4; Gal. 3; Heb. 11).

We see in the narratives about Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and many others a raw depiction of human virtue and vice, of faith in God and contention with God. We are not to take their behaviors as prescriptions for what we should do in our lives, and there isn’t necessarily a moral to every story. The text does not tell us story by story which actions of these people were right and which were wrong. Genesis gives the narrative, and the whole of Scripture is the magnifying glass through which we examine it.

We need to read Genesis in context so we’ll get the whole sweeping truth of it. Occasionally it is beneficial to read Genesis all the way through in three or four sittings, looking for the big themes. When we do so, we’ll see in it the greatness of God, the dignity and tragedy of humanity, and the piecemeal, plodding process whereby one tribe learns lessons for all of us. Genesis sets the tone of everything else in Scripture. It contains the DNA of the people of God.

So if someone asks you to take as much time as you want to say who you are, you might consider starting with Genesis.


Next time: “How Should We Understand the Law?”

Care to offer feedback this week?

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Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.