“The Bible is a love-letter written by our heavenly Father
and transmitted by the sacred writers to the human race
on our pilgrimage towards our heavenly country.”
(Saint John Chrysostom)
The recipient of a love letter cherishes it, reading it again and again, wearing down the corners of the pages, keeping it in a safe place, guarding it in her heart, memorizing its every line. She contemplates the beloved author every moment, humbled that she has attracted such undeserved love, bowed at the impossibility of reciprocating in kind. The Holy Bible is the greatest love letter ever received, and it is ours to cherish.
Women in our parishes have told me that they would like to have a Bible study, but for one reason or another, this has not been able to happen on a regular basis. The aim of this series of four articles is to address this desire. It is my hope that you will find here the encouragement and tools to study the Holy Bible, whether alone or with others.
We know that we should study the Holy Bible. After all, if we love God, we will obey His commandments (St. John, the Evangelist). To find out what they are, we read the Bible. Likewise, when we hear people say that something is or is not one of God’s commands, to find out if they are correct, we search the Bible. One of my dear readers told me that a friend of hers had said that there is nothing in the Bible against lying, after all, it’s not one of the Ten Commandments. My friend wasn’t sure. Are you? In a few minutes, a little farther down this page, you will know the answer.
To get started, we’ll need notebooks or journals, our favorite writing instruments, and real paper and ink Bibles. We’ll talk about different versions of the Bible, including online Bibles, another day. For now, use whatever you find at home.
The Basics: Types of Literature found in the Holy Bible
Open your Bible to the table of contents. We usually find two main sections: the Old and the New Testaments. The simplest way to describe the difference is that the Old Testament (OT) tells us about God’s work with His creation before the birth of Jesus Christ, while the New Testament (NT) tells us about God’s work including and following the wondrous birth. Orthodox Christian teaching, however, shows us that everything in the Holy Bible, whether found in the Old Testament or the New, points to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The poetry volumes, or Wisdom Literature, of the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, are read in every service of the Greek Orthodox Church. When you say the morning, evening, or bedtime prayers, you are praying from the Psalms. Recently, my appreciation of the these divine poems has grown deeper after reading the inspirational article by Fr. Lazarus Moore found here. I believe it is worth reading in its entirety, and just perhaps, it will inspire you to read the Psalter regularly. If so, you may want to purchase The Psalter According to the Seventy, probably the best English translation, the one used in church services. Wikipedia also has a fascinating entry under “Kathisma,” about the use of the Psalms in Orthodox prayer, including an explanation of the numbering differences between the Greek and Hebrew texts.
St Gregory of Nyssa highlights the importance of the Psalter in the education of his beloved sister, St Macrina:
The education of the child was her mother's task; she did not, however, employ the usual worldly method of education, which makes a practice of using poetry as a means of training the early years of the child. For she considered it disgraceful and quite unsuitable, that a tender and plastic nature should be taught either those tragic passions of womanhood which afforded poets their suggestions and plots, or the indecencies of comedy, to be, so to speak, denied with unseemly tales of "the harem." But such parts of inspired Scripture as you would think were incomprehensible to young children were the subject of the girl's studies; in particular the Wisdom of Solomon, and those parts of it especially which have an ethical bearing. Nor was she ignorant of any part of the Psalter, but at stated times she recited every part of it. When she rose from bed, or engaged in household duties, or rested, or partook of food, or retired from table, when she went to bed or rose in the night for prayer, the Psalter was her constant companion, like a good fellow-traveller that never deserted her. (from Life of St Macrina)
Also found in the Old Testament are the five books of the Law, including the Creation account and the Exodus of the chosen people from Egypt; history books, including the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz; and the prophecies, wherein we first learn of the virgin birth of the anticipated Christ. On feast days of the Lord, His holy Mother, and the celebrated Saints, portions of these books are read during the Great Vespers services.
In addition, there are a number of Old Testament texts not found in popular Bibles, which are also read in the church on feast days. Examples of these are Tobit, in which we meet the Archangel Raphael, and which is quoted by Saint John Chrysostom; the Prayer of Manasses, read during the Great Compline; and the Prayer of the Three Holy Children (in the furnace), read on Holy Saturday morning. Are these in your Bible? If not, you can read or listen to them online. Some of the audio files are available here, on this site already, and I plan to add more.
The four Holy Gospels--penned by the Evangelists: Saint Matthew, the former tax-collector, and disciple of the Lord; Saint Mark, the disciple of Saint Peter; Saint Luke, the physician, first iconographer, and traveling companion and disciple of Saint Paul; and Saint John, the virgin, the beloved of God--are the crown of the New Testament, relating the birth, life, miracles, teachings, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. During the Small Entrance of the Divine Liturgy the ornately decorated Holy Gospel Book is processed through the church. The text is read in a grand voice, by clergy, while all stand reverently. And here it is now, on our desks for us to read!
In the Acts of the Apostles, we find the adventures of the Apostles after the ascension of the Lord, as well as the journeys of Saint Paul. Next are the epistles, or letters, of Saint Paul to the Christians in various cities. In them we read not only about the early Church, but about how to apply the teachings of Christ to our lives. Epistles of Saint Peter, Saint James, Saint Jude, and Saint John are also found in the New Testament. Portions of these are read during every Divine Liturgy, and occasionally, also during Great Vespers. Finally, there is the Revelation, or the Apocalypse, of Saint John, a mysterious book, both Holy Gospel and prophetic, which is never read in the Church. (See Resources and Notes below, for more about the Revelation.)
The Basics: Chapter and Verse Numbering
Aside from the differences in the Psalms, as mentioned above, the numbering of chapters and verses in the Holy Bible is standard across English translations, and also, as far as I know, across various languages. Knowing how to use the chapter and verse references helps us to locate and check quotes we hear others claim are in the Bible, to investigate the context of quoted material, to direct others to the same text we are reading, and to make comparisons between different versions of the Bible. This same skill is also valuable when using online reference tools, or studying with e-readers. Therefore, even if you plan to use electronic media, the exercises below using your paper Bible will be worth your time.
The next division of text in the Holy Bible, after the Old and New Testaments, are the books of the Bible. These are the titles you see in the table of contents. Each book is divided into chapters, unless it is so short as to be only one chapter, as is the case with Jude. The chapters are designated by large, often drop-case, numbers in the margin to the left of the text. Nearly all headings you may find are modern additions. Within the text of the chapters, tiny superscript numbers designate verses, sometimes arranged in paragraphs, sometimes arranged with each new verse number as the start of a new line.
If I want to direct you to what is quite possibly the most popular verse in the Holy Bible, I will say “Look up John, three, sixteen.” This indicates the book of John (The Holy Gospel According to Saint John), chapter 3, verse 16.
Using the table of contents, book titles, chapter numbers, and verse numbers, find the following and write out the passages in your notebook. Be sure to write the verse reference numbers, like this: John 3:16, before each entry. The words in parenthesis are only for your information.
- John 3:16 (The words of the Lord as found in the Holy Gospel According to Saint John, the Theologian)
- Proverbs 3:5-6 (Wisdom Literature [poetry] of King Solomon)
- Romans 8:38-39 (The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Church in Rome)
- Matthew 5:8 (The words of the Lord as found in the Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the Evangelist)
- James 4:10 (The Epistle of Saint James, the Brother of God),
- 1John 1:8-10 (The First Epistle of Saint John, the Theologian)
- Philippians 4:6-7 (The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Church at Philippi)
- Psalm 119:1-2 (Wisdom Literature [poetry] by King David)
- 1John 5:3 (The First Epistle of Saint John, the Theologian)
- Isaiah 40:31(The Prophecy of Isaiah)
- 1 Timothy 1:8-11 (The First Epistle of Saint Paul to Saint Timothy)
- Proverbs 19:22 (Wisdom Literature [poetry] of King Solomon)
- Colossians 3:13 (The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Church at Colossae)
- Proverbs 6:16-18 (Wisdom Literature [poetry] of King Solomon)
- Philippians 4:8 (The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Church at Philippi)
I hope you enjoyed looking up and writing down these verses, a tiny taste of what to look forward to in Bible study. However, these passages were read out of context. To appreciate the context of a verse, you must read the whole chapter; to appreciate the context of the chapter, you must read the whole book; to appreciate the context of the book, you must read the whole Bible. That is our goal, and we’ll reach it one step at a time.
Resources and Notes
(Please note that resources are provided because of the information appearing on the linked pages. This is not necessarily a recommendation of the remainder of a site, although there may in fact be valuable information there as well.)
Links found in this article:
- The Orthodox Psalter, by Father Lazarus Moore (pdf)
- The Psalter According to the Seventy (available at Amazon)
- An explanation of the arrangement of the Psalter as used in the Orthodox Church (Wiki article, “Kathisma”)
- St Gregory of Nyssa's Life of St Macrina (text)
- Audio files of some of the deuterocanonical books of the Holy Bible
- "What is Real Education?" on the place of the Holy Bible in education, by Fr. Steven Allen (pdf)
- The Orthodox Psalter, by Father Lazarus Moore (read online)
- St Gregory of Nyssa's Life of St Macrina (audio)
- The Lives of the Four Evangelists, by Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem
- About The Book of Revelation (The first page is a brief introduction, explaining why the Revelation is not read in the Church. Subsequent pages discuss the content; however, I have not read the rest of the article.)
Humbly submitted by Sister Irene.
Please contact me with your comments, corrections, and questions.