1) The Bible is written in two languages. Hebrew for the Old Testament (with a tiny smattering of Aramaic) and Koine Greek for the New Testament. All of our “versions” refer to the type of translation being done and what the translator’s emphasize.
-The NRSV emphasizes the most literal and accurate possible rendering of the Greek and Hebrew. They also include gender neutral pronouns when it doesn’t change the meaning of the text (i.e. “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers”). The NASB is very similar with slightly less GI language in older versions.
-The Message is a paraphrase based on the original languages. The translator attempted to capture the essence or impression of the original phrases while paraphrasing them into much more readable modern English.
-Anything with “Living” in the title is a paraphrase and is more concerned with readability than strict translation.
-The NIV is an attempt to be an accurate translation with an emphasis on overarching meanings and individual literal phrases. However, in some cases it seems to diverge in favor of reconciling discrepancies between verses or otherwise smoothing out controversial literal phrases.
2) The Nicene Creed (http://carm.org/apostles-creed) /Apostle’s Creed (http://carm.org/apostles-creed). I apologize to the anti-creedalists and anti-dogmatics but they’re important. These two short texts are the historic markers by which essential and necessary elements of Christianity have been judged. Its the barest bones ecumenical agreement by which Christianity has been affirmed. And if you look at it you probably won’t find anything you disagree with or notice any particularly glaring lack.
3) And it follows: Baptists, your Catholic friends aren’t going to hell. Catholics, the Methodists aren’t damned apostates and Evangelicals lay off the Mennonites. You’re all Christians. With One Lord. And if you can affirm the aforementioned creeds you agree on the largest and most important things. We can get along with the rest.
4) And another one in the same vein: If you’re any kind of Christian today you have 2000 years of Church History. Your church lineage doesn’t go Jesus-Paul-Skip a few- 99-Missionary Apostolic Baptists. You own the first 1500 years of the history of the churches just as much as Catholics, for good and bad. Augustine and Aquinas are yours, so are Constantine and the Crusades. The persecutions and the persecuting. The sinners and the saints. That’s something you have to own. Know where you come from.
5) The Lord’s Prayer. Ok, it is in your bible, but we don’t seem to take it very seriously. This is the one word for word prayer given from Christ himself to the disciples for their use. Its been said by nearly every Christian who has ever lived and its still said every day by millions of Christians. Get on it, its worth knowing.
6) You need to understand the broad scope of Jewish history. Its in your bible but its an interpretation of what happened not so much the clear history.
Out of Egypt. Wilderness. Promised Land. Judges. Kings. Ruled by Assyrians. Ruled by Babylonians. Freed/Ruled by Persia/later Macedonia. Ruled by Greeks. Temporarily threw out Greeks, ruled by Jews for a tiny window. Ruled by Romans. New Testament Era.
Why is this important? Its the Assyrians who bring about the creation of Samaritan culture. The Babylonian exile and the return from exile is the primary topic for most of the most famous OT prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, Nehemiah). The Romans put Pontius and Herod into power and brought crucifixion into wide use in Israel. And also look at that list, Israel got its tail kicked a lot. They had suffered a lot of oppression prior to Jesus, it helps explain why they were looking so hard for a military leader (a la the Zealots and Sicarii).
7) The bible is written in a particular context at a particular time. The author meant a particular thing, the audience heard a particular thing and in between is a lot of history, idioms and relationship. The authors assume things about their audience, jargon and metaphors, inside jokes and current events. When Jesus says “41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Matt 5), hes referring to a Roman practice by which soldiers could conscript civilians to carry their very heavy packs for them. Anyone who lived in his day would have understood that. But its not obvious to us today. Revelation is full of Hebrew and Roman imagery. And if you don’t understand Jewish ideas of cleanliness, holiness and purity before God you’re going to be very confused by most of the New Testament (esp. the gospels, Acts, Galatians and Romans).
8 ) A lot of how you read Scripture doesn’t actually come from scripture directly. Oh, you understand Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a trinitarian community? That’s not in the text. You understand Christ as fully human and fully divine? Also not explicitly in the text. Instead what we have our gleanings or hints at these doctrines which went through centuries of debate and formulation before they were finally declared Orthodoxy (or right doctrine) by the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. If you’re going to accept these precepts (which you should, or, y’know, you’re a heretic) then you should probably be aware of where they came from and how that slots into your particular tradition.
9) The Hebrew Scriptures (AKA the Old Testament) are not just about predicting Christ. It is not a gigantic Jewish fortune cookie. The texts have meanings before we ever get to Christology. Is it viable to read the H.S. in light of Christ? Of course. Are some sections meant to be read as messianic prediction? Sure why not? But this is not the beginning or even necessarily the end of the text.
For example, Isaiah is 66 chapters long. In most churches we read about 3 chapters of that. God didn’t give the Jewish people a gigantic tome of prophetic words to carry around for centuries just so we could be sure Jesus was legitimate. The text has a story to tell and when we ignore that we’re losing out on a lot. God is showing His grace, mercy and redemption long before the birth of Christ and Christ Himself framed much of his message in light of the Prophets who had come before him. When we ignore anything in the Hebrew Scriptures that doesn’t look explicitly like Christ then we are letting go of a long, rich tradition of interpretation and insight that is still applicable today.
10) Finally, the books of the New Testament did not magically appear in a pre-bound authorized KJV edition. They were compiled over the first two centuries A.D. before they were brought together into an official canon. However, they were also not randomly drawn together. The books of the New Testament were evaluated by the disciples of the Apostles themselves for criteria such as orthodoxy, accuracy and the reliability of the author. The people who had the best knowledge of the person of Christ found the books of the New Testament to be representative of Christ and his apostles. In fact other “gospels” are nothing new, we have a series of 2nd century letters from an early Christian leader, Serapion, to his congregation at Antioch discussing the docetic “Gospel of Peter”. Serapion begins excited about having more information about Christ but when he gets his hands on a copy and realizes just how bat-crap crazy a lot of it is (like Christ was a ghost with no body and a giant flying cross which speaks). He declared it a heretical book and gave a letter detailing his reasoning, making him one of our first canon scholars.
This list is by no means exhaustive but knowing these things will go a long way towards equipping you to understand Christianity in a more comprehensive way. None of these should ever be understood as replacing the Scriptures themselves but as a means of growth in addition to reading, studying and living in community with a good church. Do you have any suggestions? Gripes, Complaints, Critiques? What do you think needs to be here that isn’t and isn’t already detailed in Scripture?