The current issue of Christianity Today features an interesting interview with Christopher Wright, international ministries director for Langham Partnership International and author of the newest entry in IVP Academic’s “The Bible Speaks Today” series: The Message of Lamentations: Honest to God. Twice in the magazine’s introduction Lamentations is described as one of the Bible’s “most neglected” books, a theme that Wright sets up early on in the book: “Why had I neglected this book for so long and never really studied it in depth before? And in that respect, of course, I confess to the same neglect of Lamentations that seems sadly typical of most Christian people and churches” (p. 13).
And that sets up a good question to open this week of blogging:
Which books of the Bible are the most neglected?
I could ask the same question as Wright, so let’s start with his choice of text.
A couple years ago my employer went through a fiscal crisis that led to the elimination of several faculty positions and many more layoffs among the staff. As we gathered as a faculty in the wake of those announcements, the Old Testament professor then serving as our faculty senate president led us in a lament — an essential form of religious expression, he said, that evangelicals tend to neglect.
Or as Wright continued in his preface to The Message of Lamentations, “Since we seem to have lost the willingness, the vocabulary, or even the capacity, to engage in authentic biblical lament (at least in public worship and certainly in the West), what use have we for a book with such a name? In the CT interview, Wright elaborated on the “absence of lament” in Western churches:
We have quietly airbrushed great swaths of the Bible from our consciousness. We sing songs based on the Psalms, but often leave out the bits about suffering or oppression. We ignore the fact that in the Psalms, “lament,” or protest, is the largest category.
So much of our worship is cover-up: pretending to have emotions we don’t really feel, or smothering the emotions we do. That is not praise. It simply leaves us to pick up our suffering again on the way out—without bringing it into God’s presence or hurling it at him in questioning (but trusting) protest. Spending time in Lamentations helps us learn how to plumb the depths of lament as well as scale the heights of rejoicing.
I think this is all true, yet it struck me that Lamentations is not actually one of the ten least-read books in the Bible — at least, going by what Open Bible Overview blogger Jeffrey Kranz found when he analyzed data gathered on the usage of Bible Gateway, the free website and app that offers over 200 versions of the Bible in over 70 languages. Here’s his list: (counting down to the least-read)
My suspicion is that there are two or three verses in Lamentations that are repeated often enough that it gets enough traffic to stay out of this bottom 10. But that’s certainly not true of the least-read books on this list…
Obadiah and Nahum
Half of the dozen minor prophets show up on this bottom 10 list, with Obadiah apparently the most neglected by online Bible reading standards and Nahum taking an unwanted 2nd place. Why is this?
For Obadiah, at least, Kranz suggests five reasons, including its length (4th shortest in the whole Bible), the seeming lack of application (makes life hard for pastors and devotional writers), and its tricky context (“Hold up. Who’s Edom?”).
Another indicator of the lack of popularity of Obadiah and Nahum: little-read and -heard as this part of the Bible is in general, they’re the only two minor prophets not scheduled even once in the Revised Common Lectionary. (Most of the others have at least one messianic prophecy to get them on the list.)
Likewise, three short books at the end of the New Testament are on Kranz’s list and fail to appear even once in the lectionary…
2 John, 3 John, and Jude
The 3rd, 4th, and 8th least popular books with Bible Gateway readers, with brevity perhaps being another factor. At a mere 25 verses, Jude is still almost as long as the other two put together, but more controversial because of its direct quotation from an apocryphal text. All three were at least somewhat disputed in their canonicity, in the Early Church and again during the Protestant Reformation, with Martin Luther taking this famously view of Jude:
…no one can deny that it is an extract or copy of St. Peter’s second epistle, so very like it are all the words. He also speaks of the apostles like a disciple who comes long after them and cites sayings and incidents that are found nowhere else in the Scriptures. This moved the ancient fathers to exclude this epistle from the main body of the Scriptures. Moreover the Apostle Jude did not go to Greek-speaking lands, but to Persia, as it is said, so that he did not write Greek. Therefore, although I value this book, it is an epistle that need not be counted among the chief books which are supposed to lay the foundations of faith.
Then three more from the Old Testament aren’t in the lectionary, though they’re read often enough to avoid Kranz’s bottom ten:
1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, and Ezra
I suspect this is a matter of the Bible seeming redundant to 21st century readers. 1/2 Chronicles aren’t in the lectionary, but 1/2 Kings are. Ezra’s not, but Nehemiah (the two were originally one text) gets one pericope (selections from ch. 8, when the people renew the covenant — I use it whenever I have to try to get my Christian students to understand how post-exilic Jews felt about law and covenant).
Mostly, this just reminds me how weird I was as a child, since my favorite biblical texts were the histories of the Old Testament. I can’t say I read Ezra all that closely, but I knew Kings and Chronicles backwards and forwards. Ironically, none of that interest survived my development into a professional historian.
Song of Solomon and Esther
They’re not on Kranz’s list; at least once every three years, each of these gets a turn in the lectionary. And I suspect that most Christians with even a modicum of biblical literacy could at least give a one-sentence summary of these books (unlike others on the list): respectively, “It’s the one my pastor is too embarrassed to preach on. (whispered: “Isn’t it about sex?)” and “It’s the one where Haman gets hanged.”
But I can’t recall ever hearing a sermon on either of these books, nor having read them in individual or small group Bible study. Perhaps because Esther and Song of Songs share one trait that makes them unique in all of Scripture: neither so much as mentions God.
As Kranz points out, Song of Solomon is a judgment call here, depending on what your favorite translation does with chapter 8, verse 6. And it’s at least easy to think of this erotic poem as a metaphor for God’s relationship with his people (Israel, or — as Augustine and others have argued — the Church).
Esther’s the trickier one. When my wife and I taught 4th grade Sunday School again last year, we struggled to know what to do for an hour when this story came up in the schedule. But doing a bit of research into Purim customs, I came across Claudia Roden’s explanation that the dumplings known as kreplach are served because the hidden filling symbolizes how God’s presence in the story is hidden. I hope it’s true; it provoked a really good discussion with ten-year olds about situations where God is present even when we don’t see or name him.
Now, I’ve no doubt that Mark is read much more widely than most of the books in the Bible. It’s a gospel, after all.
But I’d also suspect that it’s the least read of the four gospels. Here’s Kranz’s list of the ten most popular books according to Bible Gateway usage: (this time starting with the most-read and counting down)
Only Psalms is more popular than Matthew and John, and Luke and its sequel are in the top ten. So the sheer fact that Mark doesn’t make this list seems telling. “And what about the lectionary?”, asked maybe one of you… Luke shows up over sixty times in that schedule, Matthew and John around fifty. Mark accounts for the relatively small number of 36 readings.
Or I’ll put it this way… When I preached at a church in Wisconsin earlier this month, I felt mildly rebellious when I asked to switch from Matthew’s version of the parable of the sower to Mark’s. (In reality, I just wanted to be able to refer to the brief parable of the growing seed, which isn’t in Matthew.)
Your turn: Which book of the Bible do you think is most “neglected”?