What is the Bible?

The Bible is an anthology of sacred texts for Christians. Today, the Bible has sold over five billion copies and stands as the best-selling book of all time.

Translators have rendered some portion of the Christian Bible into almost 3,600 languages. They have translated the complete Christian Bible into 728 languages. In addition, they have translated the New Testament into another 1,617 languages. Moreover, smaller portions of it have been translated into an additional 1,248 languages. The Bible has influenced the development of culture and history on a global scale.

The word Bible is derived from the Greek word for book, biblion, and, later, the Latin word for Holy Books (Biblia Sacra). The collection has two parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament consists of the Hebrew Scriptures (called the Tanakh in Judaism) which includes books of Jewish law, history, prophetic writings, and wisdom literature. The New Testament includes the four Gospels, which provide accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a collection of letters written by Christian leaders that the earliest Christian churches circulated.

The Christian Bible includes texts composed in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), over more than 15 centuries, on three different continents, by approximately forty different authors from very different walks of life. Some came from humble backgrounds such as farming, fishing, medicine, and shepherding. Others were kings, priests, and government officials. Some authors are unknown, and scholars still debate who wrote some of the texts.

The Biblical Canon

Many of the texts were composed in societies that relied more on oral transmission of texts than on literacy and written documents. Therefore, people may have compiled, augmented, and redacted some of the texts at various points in history to reflect earlier oral traditions. Most likely, these texts were not “authored” by one person in our modern sense.

Professional scribes and trained monks copied and preserved sacred texts in the form of scrolls over many centuries until they agreed upon the contents of the Bible we have today. They referred to this approved list of sacred texts as the canon. Surprisingly, the Christian canon was not settled until the fifth century CE.

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians include some additional texts besides the Old and New Testaments. They call these the Apocrypha or the deuterocanonical books. As a result, their Bibles include slightly different content compared to the Protestant canon. Authors wrote these texts during the four hundred years between the completion of the Old Testament texts and the writing of the New Testament texts, and people view them as useful but not inspired.

Martin Luther began publishing Protestant Bibles with the Apocrypha separated out into a different section in 1534. In the early 1800s Protestant Bible publishers took the Apocrypha out entirely, and most Protestants today consider these texts “non-canonical.”

People have meticulously preserved copies of texts that make up the Bible. As a result. the most ancient copies of Old Testament texts date back to the second century BCE and the oldest copies of New Testament texts date to the second century CE.

The belief in inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture

Throughout history, people have identified Jews and Christians as “people of the Book” because of their adherence to these sacred writings, or Scriptures. Scriptures are viewed as a guiding authority for all of life. The Bible is a fundamental source of teaching for the Christian faith, and Christians believe it is the inspired word of God.

What Christians mean when they say the Bible is divinely inspired falls along a spectrum. At one extreme are people who believe God dictated the words of the Bible to human authors who wrote them down. At the other extreme are people who think the Bible is essentially a human product that God has adopted and infused with spiritual importance by the work of his Spirit. Most Christians fall somewhere in the middle, believing that as the texts were composed, written down, collected, and edited, God was motivating and guiding the process. Even though the human authors spoke in their own words from their own perspectives and cultural understandings, God spoke through them to communicate what he intended to communicate.

Additionally many Christians, especially in the United States, hold to the belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Inerrancy means the Bible is without fault or error in everything it teaches and affirms. For many Christians, the inerrancy of Scripture validates that it is true and authoritative. Others do not see inerrancy as an important or useful doctrine.

What the Bible teaches

Although the exact process of how God inspired the Scriptures is a mystery, Christians agree that the Bible is God’s revealed message to humanity. It is “the word of God” and communicates God’s character, requirements, plans, and purposes.

The metanarrative, or overarching story, of Scripture, tells how God created humankind and gave them a mission to represent him on earth. However, the humans rebelled against God and this rebellion separated humanity from God and the loving relationship he wanted with them. God established a plan to restore humanity to the kind of faithfulness, love, and peace he intended for them to enjoy as his children.

This plan began through the Hebrew people who descended from a man God specially chose named Abraham. This family grew into a people group called Israel, God’s chosen people, whom he promised to use to bless the whole world.

God fulfilled this promise when He came to earth as the human Jesus, the rescuing king promised to Israel. Jesus lived a sinless life, died on the cross, returned to life, and ascended to heaven to prepare a place for those who believe in his message and follow him. Many consider the Bible to be a divine love story between God the Creator and humans.

The Bible is filled with accounts of God interacting with humans of all backgrounds, nationalities, and statuses. He uses people to accomplish his divine plans and, ultimately, will set all of creation right so everything and everyone can live as God intended, in justice, peace, and harmony under the rule of Jesus the rescuing king.

The Structure of the Bible

The Christian Bible is split into two sections. The Old Testament records the history of the Hebrew people and their relationship with the God of the Bible. The books of the Old Testament describe how the Hebrew people became God’s chosen people, Israel (later called the Jews because they lived in the land of Judah),, the trials they experienced as they moved from place to place, and the victories God granted them.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament is largely the same as the Hebrew Bible used in Judaism, although Jews number and order the books differently. There are several different kinds of text in the Old Testament.

The Pentateuch

The first five books of the Bible are the Mosaic Law. These are called the Torah in Hebrew and the Pentateuch in Greek. This collection begins with the book of Genesis. The first eleven chapters of Genesis include the account of creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, and the Tower of Babel. The second part of Genesis focuses on the family of Abraham. This includes the covenant God made with Abraham. It follows his descendants (Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) as they form a nation of God’s chosen people.

The second book, Exodus, chronicles how God rescued the descendants of Jacob (the Twelve Tribes of Israel) from slavery in Egypt. It tells how Moses became their leader, how God sent ten plagues on the Egyptians until Pharaoh let God’s people go, and how Moses received the Ten Commandments and the rest of God’s law on Mount Sinai.

The third book, Leviticus, records instructions God gives to Moses about his Law. This includes instructions for building the Tabernacle, the portable meeting place where God was present in a special way. The books of Numbers and Deuteronomy narrate the same events. They cover the early history of Israel as they make their way from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land.

History, Wisdom, and Prophets

The next section of the Old Testament contains the history books, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. These books follow the Hebrew people on their quest for the Promised Land. A home for them to dwell in peace with God and their neighbors. In this process, new forms of governmental and religious authority developed from priests to judges to the monarchy. God raised and sent prophets to deliver his words to the people to guide their path.

The next section contains the wisdom books. Job is a drama about suffering. Psalms was a collection of poems used in corporate worship. Proverbs was a collection of wise sayings, and Ecclesiastes, the collected wisdom of an ancient Teacher.

The last part of the Old Testament is the writings of prophets. Traditionally, scholars divide these into the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel) and the Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).

The New Testament

The New Testament follows after the Old Testament. The accounts in the New Testament begin after a period of 400 years of silence between the last book of the Old Testament. While the Old Testament focused on recording the history of God’s chosen people, the Jews, the New Testament is concerned with one Jewish man—Jesus Christ, and the history of the Christian church, the new, more inclusive people of God.

The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) record Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, as well as his teaching about the Kingdom of God. The first three Gospels are called the Synoptic Gospels and contain some of the same material. The book of Acts records the event of Pentecost (the coming of the Holy Spirit), the emergence of the Christian church, and the calling of one of the church’s most influential teachers, Paul.

The Letters

The rest of the New Testament is a collection of letters written by Christian leaders to instruct newly formed churches in Greece, Rome, and Asia Minor. The New Testament letters instruct the new church on how to live righteously and function as a community. The instructions helped establish the purpose of the church and mitigated some of the early problems that emerged. Problems such as the errors introduced by false teachers. The letters also address specific questions about how to live as Christians in the religious, cultural, and political environment of the time. Practitioners of pagan religions often persecuted Christians who lived among them. Jewish followers of Christ debated the best way to incorporate Gentile (non-Jewish background) believers into the new community.

The last letter included in the New Testament is the book of Revelation (Apocalypse in Greek). It was written to seven churches in Asia Minor in a literary style different than the other epistles. This apocalyptic style is unfamiliar to many today. It includes a vision of Jesus’ return to the earth to redeem creation and judge the world. Common belief attributes the authorship of this text to the Apostle John. Tradition suggests that he wrote it while he was in exile for his faith on the island of Patmos. How to best understand the book of Revelation has been the source of contention among many different groups of Christians. Some believe the book is prophesying future events. Others conclude that the book is a response to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

What the New Testament teaches

The 27 books of the New Testament reveal how the chosen people of Israel were part of God’s plan to bring Jesus Christ (God himself made human) into the world at the appropriate time. God promised Israel in the first book of the Bible (Genesis) that he would bless the world through His chosen people. This culminated in a descendant from the royal family of David coming as a new kind of king. This king, the Messiah, came to save his people, the Hebrew people.

The New Testament authors highlight how Jesus’ life fulfills the prophecies and promises of the Old Testament. Jesus is clearly depicted as more than a historical figure or prophet. He is the unique Son of God, which was a way of saying he was God in human form. As the Son, he is capable of enacting God’s plan for salvation. Jesus completed his work by dying on the cross. This was a sacrifice that dealt with the problem of sin that kept people from God, and allowed them to come back to life, an event called the Resurrection. Christians consider the Resurrection the ultimate victory over death. It promises that all who have faith in Jesus and are reconciled to God will also experience resurrection after their death and live eternally with God.

Good News

Jesus’ death created a new covenant with humans. It declared that all who have faith in Jesus can be saved from death and separation from God. The Gospels record the good news that Jesus preached on earth. The good news is that we can all be reconciled to God because Jesus is Lord and his Kingdom is coming. His death and resurrection proved the truth of this reality. God’s new order of things was breaking into the world and Jesus has all spiritual authority in all of creation. The followers of Jesus who believed the good news he preached elaborated on his teaching and their implications. These are recorded in Acts and in the New Testament letters.

The Process of Canonization

When considering the Bible, many question how the collection of Scriptures we have came to be. The process of determining which books were sacred Scripture and would become part of the Bible is called canonization. Canon comes from the Greek word meaning measuring rod. The biblical canon is the list of books the church has accepted as “measuring up” to the standard.

Canonization of the Old Testament

Many of the texts that comprise the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, originally existed as oral tradition. Over the centuries, people wrote down, collected, and wove these oral traditions into new texts. With time, community and religious leaders edited, revised, and validated these texts as authoritative. They settled on the form of the text we now call Scripture. Scribes carefully stored and copied the scrolls containing the Scriptures. In later centuries, scribes copied these scrolls into codexes, which were hand-written manuscripts with spines, representing the earliest books. Archaeologists have also discovered fragments of texts engraved in clay, stone, and leather around the Ancient Near East.

For thousands of years, the documents containing the Hebrew Scriptures were only accessible to priests and royalty. To common men and women, the truths were only available through the continued passing down of oral traditions and by attending readings in the synagogues, a Jewish assembly for congregational religious worship and instruction. After Alexander the Great’s Hellenization of the modern world, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek. This new Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible became known as the Septuagint. There was also a widely used Aramaic translation called the Targum. Aramaic was the common language of many Jews who lived during Jesus’ lifetime.

Canonization of the New Testament

During the early history of the church, the Christian leaders called apostles passed around copies of letters and the Gospels among the churches. Some of these letters became considered part of the list of books that counted as Scripture. This was due to their importance in teaching doctrine and guiding believers in Christian behavior.

During this time, teachers of other doctrines emerged. They began spreading letters with teachings that contradicted the teachings of the apostles and other Christian leaders. In order to combat these other teachings, councils of church leaders met. They consulted the various lists of texts in use by the churches in order to determine which texts reflected the teaching and authority of the apostles. The Christian church would collect and distribute these validated and approved texts as the official Scriptures.

The earliest known attempt to do this was the Muratorian Canon at around 200 CE. This list included all the New Testament books recognized today except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John. Likewise, the Council of Laodicea, 363 CE, approved the 37 books of the Old Testament, one book from the Apocrypha, and the books of the New Testament except for Revelation for public reading in the churches. The Council of Hippo, 393 CE, and the Council of Carthage, 397 CE, also affirmed the 27 books of the New Testament as authoritative. However, it was not until the 5th century that the Church as a whole reached an agreement on the canon.

Early Translations

In 312 CE, the first full copy of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, was made in Koine Greek. This first full copy was called the Codex Vaticanus. In 405 CE, Jerome translated the Codex Vaticanus into Latin, the official language of the Catholic Church. This translation is called the Latin Vulgate. During the 400s CE, the Church adopted the “hidden” books, called the Apocrypha, into the biblical canon. In the Protestant Reformation of the 15th Century, these books were excluded from the canonical Old Testament because they were not originally written in Hebrew. However, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church continued to include the seven Apocryphal books in Bibles.

Versions of the Bible in English

English Bibles are translations because the texts that make up the Bible were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Various translators employ different strategies for translation, and the goals for using the translation may differ. Given the widespread use of English, numerous translations of the Bible into English exist, and people often refer to these distinct translations as versions.

The seemingly endless versions of the Bible available in English overwhelm many Christians. Some Christians claim only certain traditional versions, like the King James Version (KJV), are authoritative. Others openly welcome more contemporary translations like the NIV or the NLT. Culturally contextualized artistic translations like The Message and also acceptable to many.

Source Text

The most widely quoted English version of the Bible is The KJV Bible. It was first printed in 1611 and played an important role in codifying the English language. However, language and culture can change dramatically over several centuries. The Shakespearian language of the KJV is often hard for modern English readers to understand. Since the 17th century, there have been discoveries of more ancient copies of Scripture and advances in biblical scholarship. This has slightly adjusted the source text, the collection of the most reliable texts of the New Testament on which translations are based.

Most modern English translations use this more reliable source text. These translations all utilize the original languages (Hebrew and Greek) to translate according to a variety of translation strategies. They seek, in different ways, to be faithful to what the Bible says and means. No language maps perfectly to another language. The vocabulary and grammar can vary. The further apart two languages are in time and culture, the harder it can be to translate a text well.

Approaches to Translation

Some translators strive to stay very close to the grammatical structure and word choices of the original texts. Thus, the rendering in English can sound awkward or hard to understand. These kinds of translations (often marketed as “literal” or “word for word” translations) are good for close study of the text with aids like commentaries or Bible dictionaries that can help explain the context and meaning better.

Other translators focus on communicating the intended meaning in the best way possible in English. This often means putting a thought into different words or grammatical structures. Typically, these kinds of translations are good for devotional reading and meditating on Scripture.

Reading several different translations of a passage can help provide the fullest possible picture of what it says. If there seems to be a significant difference between the two translations, it is an indication that translators may have struggled to understand exactly what the original text meant or what the best way to communicate the meaning in English might be. No matter which translation of the Bible a person chooses, we can be confident that scholars have closely considered the many questions and issues that come up in translation and chosen the words carefully and thoughtfully.

Due to its continued influence on culture and religion, the Bible is the most studied work of literature in all history.


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