Orthodox Christians can rightfully say, “The Bible is our book. Our Apostles wrote it, we preserved it, and for almost 2000 years we have honored it.” It is also necessary that we know it.
The Bible is the primary source of authority in the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox churches, whether Eastern or Oriental. In the Bible the New Testament takes precedence because it contains the books of the New Covenant reality foreshadowed in the Old Testament. In the New Testament the Holy Gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, because they record Jesus’ life and teachings, have a certain primacy. Therefore it is appropriate that, having already published a short work introducing the Pentateuch, the St. Mark’s Orthodox Fellowship now turns its attention to the Holy Gospels.
As an Eastern Orthodox priest (of the Antiochian Church) I have been aware for some time, and pleased by, the increasing presence of our Oriental Orthodox brethren in this country. Additionally, many of us also know that there has recently been a revival in scriptural studies among our Coptic friends, epitomized by the popular Bible studies in Cairo led by their beloved Patriarch, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, but also seen as an important aspect of the spiritual vitality in many parishes and monasteries, both in Egypt and abroad.
This series of books promises to be an important part of this renewal of Scripture studies, because they are rooted in the ancient (but ever new!) Tradition and, most importantly to the reality of North American life, are in English. This is truly a significant step in ensuring that the inheritors of the Coptic Orthodox heritage who now make their home in North America remain conversant with the Holy Bible.
The word “Gospel” means “good news”. More precisely it refers to the proclamation of the news that God Himself has broken into our fallen world, our existence, and rescued us from the stranglehold of death and sin. This happened in a concrete time and definite place, locatable in history and on a map. Jesus Christ, son of Maryam, died on a cross in an act of redemption and rescue, the gates of hades have been destroyed, and Satan and his minions defeated. Further, this Jesus, son of Maryam but also God the Son, rose in His Resurrected Body and was seen and even talked to and eaten with. These facts (His Death and Resurrection) and their interpretation (redemption and deliverance) comprised then, and still comprise, the “Good News”.
The Church, those Apostles and their compatriots who together made up the earliest Christian community, told and re-told this story of Good News orally, over time adding other stories of Jesus birth and ministry recalled by various members of the community. At some early point these stories were written, compiled, read aloud in worship, and passed on to others. In her heart, and from her beginning, the Church knew the “Good News”, and indeed it can be said that she owed her existence to, and was constituted by, the Good News. Though the Church has existed at some level since the creation of the angels, certainly the Good News of Jesus Christ can be said to have “re-created” the Church with a new mission and message. And this Church “re-created” the Bible by gathering the ancient writings of the Old Covenant along with the newer Gospels and Letters (and, eventually, the Revelation of St. John) into what we recognize today as the Holy Scriptures. So, in a real sense, there was Gospel, then Church, then the Gospels as we have them now.
Whichever was written first (and modern scholarship argues for the chronological priority of the work of St. Mark, the great evangelizer of the ancient Coptic people), written Gospels were widely distributed and became major tools of the Church’s mission of carrying the word of redemption to the wider world. Further, the Holy Gospels have also occupied a major place in the liturgical and devotional life of Christians.
In the Holy Liturgy, east and west, central place has been traditionally given to the proclamation (usually by chant) of a portion of the Gospels. Indeed, the Gospel reading is typically accompanied by a procession of the silver or gold Book of the Gospels with lights, incense and singing (often “Alleluia’s”). This ceremonial highlights the crucial place in our worship life held by Gospel-proclamation.
Likewise, the private devotional life of Orthodox should be permeated with the presence of the Gospels. Read, studied, prayed over, and finally incorporated into our active lives, the Evangelists’ writings are meant to be life-giving nourishment to the believer. Indeed the Gospels have “authority” for us, not because they are “law”, but because, as is revealed in the etymology of the word “authority”, they truly bring us to life through encounter with the One Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As the Evangelists, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, “author”, or bring to life the Gospels, so the Gospels “author” eternal life in us. All of this is the work of the Holy Spirit and finds its real context in the life of the worshiping community.
Congratulations to the members of St. Mark’s Orthodox Fellowship for their work in encouraging and aiding the understanding of the Holy Bible. The Old World’s holy book can now be read in a language of the New World, and when truly understood is known to be the Word of God for all worlds.
Archpriest Gregory Mathewes-Green, Pastor
Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church