The Bible contains diverse forms of literature but by the numbers narrative is the largest genre. For the last three years writing on this platform I have repeatedly been referring to the story of the Bible in various ways. I have called it the grand/controlling/central narrative. My favourite term is metanarrative because it means the story of the stories and as a conceptual tool it is very useful. The one thing I have failed to do is actually point out which narratives come together to form the metanarrative. If you wanted to know the biblical story, which books of the Bible should you read?
The metanarrative lectionary for the biblical canon I have come up with is made up of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah, Luke and Acts. You will notice how I have arranged the Old Testament is a bit odd.
As you can see from the chart above, my selection reflects the arrangement in the Hebrew Bible where certain books were originally combined and were later separated as we have them in English Bibles today. So including the New Testament books there are 12 books or 15 if you go by the Protestant canon that constitute the overarching narrative of the Bible. The long explanation for choosing that canon as well as selecting those books is as follows.
There a number of different factors going into the selection but first of all a quick note on the category of metanarrative. It is an idea from postmodernism which makes the observation that there are grand, overarching narratives people live by within which they try to fit smaller, particular narratives. The French philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard, in a famous book explained postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Truth for example is itself a metanarrative because it is a standard all other claims must measure up to and if we were to go the full postmodern route we would reject the idea of Truth. As a Christian I cannot go that far but the analytic insights that the postmodern category of metanarrative offers are very useful for doing biblical theology. (The work of N.T. Wright in his multivolume Christian Origins and the Question of God series is a good example of this.)
Now each culture has its own metanarratives that are integral to its worldview. They are its story of the world we live in, how it came to be, why it is the way it is, our place in it and where it is heading. When you read the Bible you see such a controlling narrative at work and Jewish people have interpreted their history through that narrative. While the scriptures are a common central feature of Jewish metanarratives, not all readings of the story are identical. They all see some kind of divinely driven storyline yet there are differences as to what they think it exactly means, how it relates to them in their historical moment and where it is actually heading. The first Christians were Jews in Roman Palestine who believed that story had reached its expected, yet surprising, pinnacle in a Jewish man from Nazareth in Galilee. The New Testament is one late second Temple Jewish interpretation of and addition to the older canonical narrative.
Now the Protestant Old Testament in terms of content is practically the same as the Tanakh (the Hebrew acronym for the Hebrew Bible). Now there is nothing wrong with the Protestant Old Testament but I think for the following reasons the Hebrew canon is better. Given the Bible is a compendium of ancient Jewish texts, it is important to keep its antiquity and Jewishness firmly in view. There is very good evidence that the 24 book, tripartite division of the Jewish scriptures into the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim) is how Jesus and largely most other Jews of his era would have thought of the Hebrew Bible (TaNaKh.) The Hebrew canon is virtually the same to this day. For Christians our belief in the scriptures rests entirely on our allegiance to Jesus Christ so how he conceived of the scriptures should be our way of thinking about it. This includes the shape of the canon. Not only does the Hebrew canonical order very broadly reflects its development and composition history, it more importantly tells its unique story and through that story gives its theology.
The Torah or the first five books of the Bible traditionally ascribed to Moses is the foundation of all scripture. It is the first canon within the canon and it sets the trajectory of the rest of the canon. After the Pentateuch (another name for the 5 books of Moses) comes the first section of the Prophets, which after the time of Jesus became known as the Former Prophets. It consists of ancient Hebrew historical narrative but viewed through an explicitly theological lens. Biblical scholars have identified literary features that show that the Former Prophets are theologically informed directly by Deuteronomy and have been woven together by later editors into a single narrative bloc known as the Deuteronomistic history. Deuteronomy anticipates the exile of the Hebrew people because of covenant infidelity and restoration because of YHWH their god’s unwavering fidelity. The Former Prophets track the progression of events that led them to that. This Deuteronomistic history is further evidence that the Law and the Former Prophets are a distinct narrative block of scripture with a clear story arc that should be appreciated together. It results in an epic narrative stretching from creation to the start of return from exile. It is the longest coherent sequence of books and in terms of word count it is the one of the largest discrete segments of scripture. On sheer size alone it cannot be ignored. Almost every other book in the Hebrew canon can be plotted in relation to that set of stories or is referenced in some fashion. All these things affirm the primary place it has in the canon.
The next book in my lectionary is Ezra-Nehemiah. While there are many other narrative books in the canon including historical ones, it is the only one that can effectively pick up events from where the Book of Kings leaves them. It chronicles the return from exile in multiple successive waves and the efforts of the returnees to restore the Temple (led by Joshua and Zerubbabel), restore Torah observance (led by Ezra) and restore the city of Jerusalem (led by Nehemiah.) The Book of Ezra-Nehemiah is intensely aware of the long narrative of the Law and the Former Prophets and references it a lot. In it we have the first in-canon public reading of the Torah which set the canonical precedent for regular public reading of all scripture. In fact, the more official name for the Tanakh is Mikra, which means “that which is read.” So in Ezra-Nehemiah we there is a sense of a proto-Hebrew canon with a special focus on a proto-Pentateuch where Jewish people are collectively reading and recalling, reciting and interpreting their history according to it. In it we can clearly discern the outlines of the biblical metanarrative. For these reasons Ezra-Nehemiah must be included in my schema. The thing with this book in particular and how the Mikra concludes in general, is that things are left in limbo with only partial restoration. The hope for full restoration sets the stage for a number Jewish ideologies and sects including the Jesus movement.
As I have already said, the four gospels see Jesus as the climactic fulfilment of Israel’s scriptures. The rest of New Testament, even though it is mostly not narrative, is written on this narrative assumption. All the gospels are therefore dripping with references and allusions to the Hebrew scriptures. Of the four, since we are working with the category of historical metanarrative, the synoptic tradition (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is best suited for this schema. Among the synoptics, most scholars would broadly say Luke is the most thorough historiographically speaking. He covers a wider swathe of material in more detail in his ancient biography of Jesus than the other gospel writers do. Its content more or less represents the other synoptic books since it presumably draws from them and other sources. These things make Luke the ideal selection for continuing the Hebrew Bible’s metanarrative. After Luke, Acts must be picked for three reasons. It’s the only history of the early church that we have in the New Testament. In terms of narrative it immediately follows where the gospels leave of, telling us how Jesus’ followers continued his mission entering a new international phase after his ascension. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is the proper sequel written by Luke to his gospel. While we see the authors of the gospels presenting in different ways how Jesus was in retrospect indeed the fulfilment of the scriptures, in Acts we see the early Church tenaciously at work with that realisation.
Though the New Testament canon is not as highly curated as the Hebrew canon, the synoptic gospels and Acts give us a broad timeline that the rest of the New Testament books can mostly be plotted on to. It is clear the Bible of the New Testament is Israel’s scriptures so it constantly references it in the light of Jesus. So the metanarrative lectionary I am proposing represents the Torah, the Nevi’im (with the Former Prophets) and the Ketuvim (with Ezra-Nehemiah). It continues with the Christian addendum with Luke and Acts which brings the narrative to its zenith with Jesus and follows its initial aftermath in the world through the Church. Together these give you the macro-story of the Bible.
There is a notable exclusion I must account for. Chronicles is a work of historical prose but I left it out because it repeats a lot of material already found in the Former Prophets. For this reason and the fact that it is was written much later (hence why it is in the Writings), it is the last book in the Hebrew canon and it is designed to refresh ones memory of the story, add some new material to the story as well as offer its own theological take on the narrative. Chronicles is effectively already a metanarrative summary of the Hebrew Bible and therefore promotes adopting such a framework in understanding the scriptures. I propose pairing it with Matthew for a concise metanarrative lectionary. I chose Matthew because the way it starts with a genealogy is clearly inspired by Chronicles which begins with multiple genealogies. Unlike modern pedigrees that only give data, biblical genealogies are arranged to tell highly condensed stories with a theological perspective. So they function as quick story recaps. With his genealogical introduction Matthew is intimating that his gospel, the story of Jesus, continues where the Hebrew Bible ends and it ends with Chronicles. He also indicates a new beginning in the biblical story because his genealogy begins with an allusion to Genesis.
So in summary the long metanarrative “Mikra” consists of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im Rishonim (Former Prophets), Ezra-Nehemiah, Luke and Acts. The short metanarrative Mikra consists of Chronicles and Matthew.
Reflecting on these insights has made me reconsider how the Bible ought to be approached. In this case what is the the best reading plan? Reading the Bible is a good thing regardless and there is not only one way to read it. That being said there are better ways to read the Bible than others. My proposed reading plan works on certain assumptions of good reading habits.
Firstly, except on good reason, the Bible should not be read in piecemeal chunks. That is how we have been taught to read the Bible but strangely enough we do not do the same for any other book. We aim to read large chunks at a time. The longest books in the Bible are about the length of a novella so it is certainly doable in a day or even a weekend at most. The other assumption I work of is that reading scripture is a life time activity. While I do appreciate year long reading plans, it’s too quick and too fragmented. While it is nice to have the achievement of reading the entire Bible under your belt, and it is certainly a goal to be pursued, doing it at the expense of being impacted by it is not worth it. Taking your time to go through the core narrative and then attacking other books is a slower process but it gives you time to appreciate what scripture is actually about in all its fullness.
The purpose of my metanarrative lectionary is to give the intrepid explorer of scripture the master map, highlight the main path and therefore give them the confidence to explore the other paths that feed into. I want people to get there bearings straight when the read the Bible. Once you are familiar with the controlling narrative when you dive into the Psalms or Zephaniah or any other book for that matter you are better oriented with what they are referencing and how it is all interconnected.