Studying the Bible

I grew up in the Episcopalian/Anglican church in Chicagoland. Even though this faith is closely tied to the teachings of the New Testament, I don’t remember us learning any Bible stories in Sunday School.

Later, I studied philosophy in college and learned about the teachings of Christian thinkers Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. I also learned about the teachings of Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism in a Far Eastern Religions class. But I never formally studied The Bible in any of the philosophy classes I took.  Indeed, it wasn’t until I was in graduate school in Boston in 1978 that I got curious about what was in The Bible.

It was in 1978 that Christian leader Jim Jones encouraged hundreds of people to kill themselves with cyanide-laced fruit punch in Jonestown, Guyana. This was huge news at the time. I was studying journalism in Boston then so I devoured many articles about what happened there. But I never could make sense of why over 900 people killed themselves based on what their religious leader commanded. What happened there, however, did make me more curious about religion. So that’s when I first dipped my toe into The Bible and read The Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes for the first time. These sections of the Good Book appeared to offer some good advice, such as Ecclesiastes Chapter 3. Here are the first five verses:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

In the early 1990s, I studied the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in a workshop I took at a Unitarian Church summer camp I attended in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. So this gave me more familiarity with that part of the New Testament.

But it wasn’t until 2020 that I really dove into the New Testament. That’s when I took Bible Study classes with the evangelical Christian Church we belong to in Spain. There are no Unitarian churches in this part of Spain but we wanted to be part of a English-speaking welcoming religious community. So this is how we got connected to a Christian community here.

Since I joined this class we have read all of Paul’s letters, as well as everything after that up to Jude, the second to last story in The Bible. We skipped Revelations which I understand is often done. Guess I will have to tackle that on my own.

Through all the readings we have done, the most interesting thing I have come to appreciate is how many sayings come from The Bible. These include to “Suffer fools gladly,” “Fight the good fight,” “By the skin of my teeth” and “A fly in the ointment,” among many other sayings. Here’s more information on this subject.

Especially interesting to me is how most well-known sacred music comes from The Bible. In fact, we read Isaiah from the Old Testament last week and it was filled with phrases used in Handel’s Messiah! That was so interesting to me. I love Handel’s Messiah. In fact, it is reportedly the most famous and widely shared pieces of music in history! That being the case, I did not realize how many phrases in this great work originated in The Bible, especially the book of Isaiah.

For example, the phrase, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God” is from Isaiah 40:1 while the passage, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain” is from Isaiah 40:4. And this famous passage, predicting the coming of Christ, is from Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Lastly, here is one more phrase from the Messiah that has its origin in Isaiah 53:3, “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” The Messiah includes ideas from other parts of The Bible but Isaiah is the section most used in this great oratorio. It’s amazing that this prophet predicted the coming of Christ. At least that’s what many Christians think. It’s the most compelling argument I have heard so far for the idea that Jesus was the Messiah.

Here is a detailed document telling all the phrases taken from various sections of The Bible that are used in Handel’s Messiah. Isn’t it great what you can find on the internet?

If you have studied The Bible over many years, none of what I am saying here may come as a surprise to you, but I wasn’t formally schooled in this important religious work so it was all new to me. I am writing this especially for those of you that might be considering reading the Good Book for the very first time.

But whether you be a devout Christian or ardent Atheist, The Bible is worth reading, in part, because some of the common sayings you hear and the music you love listening to might well have their origin there and that’s worth knowing all by itself.


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