Iain asked recently how I "decide which bits of Scripture are appropriate to your own life and beliefs?" After a number of frustrated attempts to respond in comments I've decided to respond in a post.
I guess I want to say first off that I don't actually discard any parts of scripture. Certainly as a Christian, for me the New Testament trumps the Old. Also, I'm not quite sure what to do with the criticism of finding new meaning in these passages. Obviously I'm interested in the original intent, but it is a tradition of all literature that the reader completes the work. The reader always brings new meaning.
As a catechist I teach the Catechism of the church and the scripture as it's written. But especially with my older students, I always point out the context and changes in theology through the years.
As an individual I admit that I give less attention to the pseudonymous writings of the New Testament. They tend to have been written much later, closer to the 4th century, and they are an attempt to respond to things that were happening in the church at that time. Mostly they are an assertion of patriarchy and order. Take Paul, for instance. If you look at just the books scholars agree he actually wrote you lose all of that slaves obey your masters, wives obey your husbands shit. Paul becomes much more palatable. Iain, does that answer your question?
I want to take a moment to go back over the present content of scripture. I guess we ought to address the original language they were written in. The first language of scripture is Hebrew, which originated in Cannan and was passed on by Abraham. It was the language of the Holy Land until about the 3rd century BCE. Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke and would have been common from the 3rd century on. Finally, the New Testament was written in Greek, except for Matthew which was originally written in Aramaic (now lost). The Septuagint (begun in 250 BCE and completed in 100 BCE), which were the Hebrew Scriptures passed down to us, were written in Greek for Jews in Egypt who would have spoken only Greek. This is the translation the apostles would have used.
There are 72 or 73 books in the Bible (Lamentations is often put in Jeremiah). The word testament means "covenant" and the books represent our covenants with God. In the Catholic canon there are 46 books in the Old Testament. The accepted rules of the Jewish canon, which were set in the first century after Christ, were that the book in question had to be in harmony with the Pentateuch (Torah or law; the first five books of the Old Testament); it had to be written before the time of Ezra; it had to be written in Hebrew; and it had to be written in Palestine. The Jewish canon does not include: Judith (Aramaic), Wisdom & 2 Maccabee (Greek), Tobit & parts of Daniel & Ester (Aramaic outside Palestine), Baruch (outside Palestine), or Sirach & 1 Maccabee (after time of Ezra).
It is the Jewish canon that was accepted by Protestants at the time of the Reformation. But with regard to the New Testament, all Christians agree upon the 27 books in the canon. Most were written in the later half of the first century with the first Gospel, Mark, having been written close to the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Catholic canon was officially determined at the Council of Hippo in 393 AD (we included Apocrypha as historical books).
Now, what types of literary forms do we see in the Bible? Lots. Here's a list: History – in story form (Pentateuch, the Exodus, David, Solomon); Fables – short tale to teach a moral (Judges 9: 7-15, Numbers 22: 26-36); Legend – non-historical story handed down by tradition (Daniel); Allegory – abstract or spiritual meaning under the story, symbolic narrative (Sampson, Solomon); Parables – simple story that illustrates a moral or religious lesson (Luke); Apocalyptic writings – revelation or prophecy to end times (Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelations); Myth – traditional or legendary story usually concerning deities without fact or natural application; Drama (Job); Epistles (letters of Paul and others); Wisdom – oracles (Wisdom, Numbers 23, Genesis 18); Poetry (Psalms, Genesis); Hymns (Psalms, Philippians 2); Prayers (Psalms, Our Father); and Folklore (Noah, Abraham, Moses).
There are also many types of books. I guess the first category is the Pentateuch; Genesis (origin), Exodus (Israeli nation), Leviticus (laws), Numbers (organized nation), and Deuteronomy (spirit of love and obedience to laws). Salvation history is another type of book--Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings. There is chronicler's history in 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Religious historical novels like Tobit, Judith, Esther, 1 and 2 Maccabees. Wisdom books such as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, song of Solomon, Wisdom, and Sirach. And prophetic books, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. There are the Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and the early Christian church (Acts of the Apostles should maybe be included with the Gospels--I consider it the Gospel of the Holy Spirit). The Epistles, or letters of Paul, and the pastoral letters--Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, Peter, James, 1, 2 & 3 John, and Jude.
Now what we're getting into here with our dialogue is textural criticism. This can also take a variety of forms. There is the literalist--typified by fundamentalism. These folks take scripture word-for-word and also insist it to be a history and science book. Whatever. The rationalist looks for things that can be proved. Exegetes look for the religious or faith meaning of the text. The contextual approach, which I've discussed before, analyzes the times, culture, language and other circumstances the book was written in. This approach was recommended by Pope Pius XII in his 1943 Encyclical and also by Vatican II Council. As a Christian, I believe all scripture should be interpreted in light of Jesus. If you just look at the Old Testament you have primarily Deuteronomical theology, which is your eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth stuff. Deuteronomical justice assumes bad things happen as punishment from God. It stands in contrast to New Testament justice--followers of Christ believe that God does not cause evil, God allows evil to exist. Also, today it is more common to find masculine pronouns removed as we become more sensitive to reading the Scriptures through many perspectives.
Okay. So there you go. A quickie lesson on scripture content and textural criticism.