What Kind of Books are the Bible?

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Most people, if they think about the word ‘Bible’, think about a fairly thick book, with small print, and lots of pages, most of which they’ve never read. Some people may have, in the back of their minds, the idea that it’s a book that ‘came down’, in its completed form, from heaven above. Others, if they reflect on the fact that it’s actually not ‘a book’ but a collection of books, may imagine, slightly more realistically, that a number of people wrote these books, perhaps ‘by dictation’ from God above. The rest will realise that these books were in fact written by men, and that they are about God, rather than being by God.

We may then wonder why a certain number came to be written, and why they are in a particular order, and this is where differences begin to emerge. If we look at Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Bibles, each has different numbers of books and/or different orders in which they appear. Jewish and Protestant Bibles have the same number of books, but in a different order. Catholic and Orthodox Bibles include books called ‘Apocrypha’, meaning ‘hidden’, though hidden from whom is not clear. It seems, then, that things are not quite as straightforward as we most likely thought.

We now know that the earliest material in some of these books goes back to times when nothing was written, but stories and teachings were passed down the generations by word of mouth. We likewise know that when they began to be written down, they were added to, subtracted from, altered, corrected, edited and re-edited an unknown number of times before they reached their final form. Thereafter, their collection into any agreed number and order, took very many more years, with much debate and argumentation, acceptance and rejection, with meetings and councils. Not until the 5th century had a relatively stable ‘canon’ of approved books been agreed, but even in the 16th century, after the Protestants rejected the Apocryphal books, the Catholic Council of Trent decreed their inclusion. The Bible, then, is a collection of books, the writing, gathering, approval and ordering of which has taken over a thousand years to be completed.

So do we now have the final, perfected and ‘polished’ article? The answer is, no! Sometimes people forget that the Bible wasn’t written in English, but originally in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Unless we know these languages, we have to rely on a variety of different translations and, even if we can read the originals, there are words the meaning of which we are now unsure of, and words which have a wide variety of meanings from which translators have to best-guess a choice. These books, having been written and edited centuries before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, were at first copied by hand, line by line. We don’t now have any of the original manuscripts, but only copies of copies of copies etc., with the inevitability of mistakes creeping in. Comparison of the manuscript copies that we do possess show thousands of differences, most of which are trivial, but not all. A variety of scholarly disciplines have to be employed to try to arrive, as far as is possible, at what originally might have been written.

 We need also to reflect on the fact that these books have a very wide variety of content and style. There are myths, legends and folktales. There are stories, poems, prophecies, songs, and collections of proverbs and laws. There is symbolism allegory, metaphor and parable. There is wisdom, altruism, bravery, fidelity and integrity, but also slavery, murder, rape, bloodshed and genocide. There is strict orthodoxy on the one hand, but dissent (Job), scepticism (Ecclesiastes) and eroticism (Song of Songs) on the other. There is a world view with a heaven up above, and a hell down below, that’s now billions of light years out of date, and a way of understanding events in terms of devilish powers of evil contending against angelic powers of good, that’s now the stuff of Hollywood horror movies. Finally, let’s acknowledge that, rather than a simple, straightforward, unified book, this is a collection of different books written by different people, at different times in history, in different locations, for different audiences, and for different purposes. What’s the result?

Whatever you choose to look for in the Bible, can be somewhere found. There’s so much inconsistency and contradiction, that you can argue for anything and therefore prove nothing. Understood aright, the Bible is endlessly fascinating, and full of the unexpected, the colourful, the shocking, the challenging and the inspiring. We need to take the best of it and learn from that, and to repudiate the worst of it, and learn from that also. What we mustn’t do is extract verses from such an ancient compilation originating first from tribal, and then from pre-industrial agrarian societies, and claim that they have any direct and immediate, authoritative application and relevance for the issues facing us today in our 21st century post-industrial and globalised world. We need open-minded discernment rather than closed-minded dogmatism.        

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