Okay, so this is a bit different than normal, but bear with me. Play along if you’d like.
Let’s imagine an alternate history in which we have lost all sixty-six books of the Bible except for ten.
Ten. That’s it.
All the rest of the books have been somehow or another lost to history. We know that there are other writings that have been lost to us, but other than maybe the occasional quote from a Church Father, we don’t know anything about the lost books. (We’ll have to pretend the Church Fathers quoted the New Testament way less than they actually did, but just go ahead and pretend with me.) It’s kind of like how we know that Paul wrote other letters that have not been preserved to us or that Luke used written sources for his gospel we don’t have, or that there were other more extensive records of the actions of the kings of Israel and Judah as referenced in Kings and Chronicles.
So now here’s the fun part. You pick which ten books of the Bible you want in our alternate history smaller canon. Whichever ten books you want.
Now keep in mind that these books are going to be the basis for the life of the church historically and presently. It’s going to be all we have on which to base our doctrine, all we have to inform our life together, all we have for devotional life, hymnody, knowledge about biblical history/figures, etc.
Pause the blog post now if you want to go ahead and make your list. Share it with me on twitter or in a comment here or keep it to yourself if you so desire. Do what you want.
Got your list?
Okay, let’s go.
I think this is an interesting question for a lot of reasons. It’s one of my favorite questions to ask other Christians who are able to provide a competent answer.
One thing I initially noticed when I first started asking this question is that there were a lot of the same books mentioned over and over again. There were like five to seven books that it seemed like almost everybody had and then a few others that most people would choose. Occasionally someone would pick a book that nobody else had chosen, which I would find very interesting. But more on that later.
Some of the most common books that people would mention included: Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Matthew, John, Romans, and Revelation. Others that got a few mentions were books like Isaiah, Acts, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians. I was surprised at how consistent people’s answers were. And initially I thought this was pretty significant.
You see, this question takes advantage of the fact that while all of the books of the Bible are the inspired Word of God, that doesn’t mean they are all equally important or useful for our faith and life. Some books, like the ones mentioned above are, at least for the people I asked, some of the more helpful/useful ones. So I wondered, what does this tell me about the canon? Should we focus on these kinds of books that are clearly more helpful? After all, there are more bible studies going on about John than Leviticus. But then, maybe we should do the exact opposite. Since we know these are the books that we study the most, maybe we should be intentional about studying the books that don’t make the list.
Eventually I figured out that this question is not interesting because it tells us something about the scriptures. Rather it’s interesting because it tells us a lot about ourselves. I remember one time I had someone have Job on their list. This was the first time anybody had mentioned Job, so I asked him why. And he said that when he had spent a lot of time in the hospital he spent a lot of time reading Job and it was a comfort to read about his story and how he and God responded to Job’s suffering. It was a really important book for him and he wanted to make sure that that was a part of the canon for him and people like him. Now I, on the other hand, did not pick Job. (I’ll include my list below.) It’s one of my favorite books, but it didn’t make my list, probably because I didn’t have the same kind of personal connection with the book the way he had. So the interesting thing is to take your list or even someone else’s list and ask why you or they might have made the decisions that were made.
Furthermore, I think it says a lot about one’s own theological tradition. I’ve asked this question mostly to other Lutherans and I’m never surprised when all of them include Romans. Obviously it’s one of the most important of Paul’s writings, but especially so for our own theological tradition. I haven’t necessarily gotten to test it out, but my theory is that different traditions would give different answers to this question. For example, I would expect dispensationalists to include books like Revelation and Daniel or perhaps Ezekiel. These are particular important books for their tradition, but their all books that I feel comfortable not having to include on my list of ten books.
Finally, I think going through the process makes us think about what we value from the scriptures and it helps us to ask some good questions about the various writings in the scriptures. Namely, what each writing contributes to our faith and life.
So here’s my list. It’s undergone some editing since I first came up with this question, but this is what I’ve settled on as my own answer.
The Pentateuch is so foundational for all of the scriptures, but I think especially for us, Genesis and Exodus are the most important ones out. Genesis tells the story of the creation of God’s people and records the foundational promises God makes to his people from the garden to Noah, Abraham, and beyond. Exodus tells the story of God delivering his people from their slavery and his strength over against the gods of Egypt. The second half records the establishment of the Mosaic covenant which is foundational for the rest of the scriptures.
I’ve included the Psalms because they have provided so much of an inspiration for the worship life of the church. In particular I value things like the lament Psalms which demonstrate that this kind of pleading with God is appropriate and is what God’s people do when they are faced with affliction and suffering.
Isaiah is here out of all the prophets because he’s the most poetic and has some of the best Messianic material out of all of them.
I’ve got three of the gospels, but they’re all about Jesus, so I don’t feel bad about using three out of my ten on that. I chose Matthew because he does a lot with showing how Jesus’ teaching, life, and work fulfills the Old Testament. That’s a super important theme that I wouldn’t want to lose. Luke does a great job showing how the message of the gospel is for all people, especially those we wouldn’t expect, those people on the margins, including gentiles, women, sinners, etc. He also some of the best passages from the gospels, like the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, Jesus’ birth narrative from Mary’s perspective, and the Road to Emmaus to name a few. Finally, there’s John because he’s the best out of all the gospels. I can’t not include John.
Acts is here mainly so that we have the account of Paul’s call/conversion. If we didn’t have Acts or one of the letter where he retells that event, we wouldn’t have a definite idea of where Paul had come from.
Out of all of Paul’s letters I include Romans because it does a great job of handling some important themes such as how we’re saved, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, baptism, the law, Christ as the new Adam, election, and others. 1 Corinthians similarly also deals with a lot, but unlike Romans deals with a lot more practical themes such as living in the new covenant, various kinds of gifts, the church as the body of Christ, women in the church, the unity of the church, etc.