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What does it mean . . .?


The Bible

The English word Bible, is taken from the Greek word Biblia which means books.

For Christians , the Hebrew Scriptures (Tanakh) have been recognised as the Old Testament. Christians have disagreed as to the complete number of books to include. Protestants and Catholics disagree over books called the Apocrypha, although the Old King James Bible of 1611 used to have the Apocrypha between the Old and New.

The Hebrew Scriptures were in a collected form probably some 200 years before Jesus. We can read in the New Testament that Jesus and the Apostles regarded the scriptures as being important words of faith. It is explicitly seen in 2 Timothy 3:16, when speaking of the Hebrew Scriptures, the writer claims that it is inspired by God and useful for teaching, reproof and correction. Then in 2 Peter 1:21 we read 'No prophecy ever came by the will of man, but men spoke from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.'

The New Testament Scriptures were produced as a result of the life of Jesus. Some Jews believed that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Scriptures and it was therefore important to recognise that an end of the old age had come and the beginning of something new had started which needed another collection of sacred writings. At first it was not a problem, there was no real need to write anything down because Jesus was going to come back very soon . But then it became vital to make record following the death of eyewitnesses. The other big reason of course was that people started to disagree on important details of theology concerning who Jesus was etc. Hence it was important to have a written record to attack heretics (such as Marcion the Gnostic).

Lets think how the New Testament came about.

What we have as a New Testament today is a relatively late invention, indeed it is only the invention of the printing press which has caused the Bible to be thought of a single book, rather than a collection of lots of different books, with different types of writing.
First of all the stories were transmitted orally. The Christians were Jews and they had the canon (rule) of the Jewish Scriptures- law, prophets etc.
Then they passed on stories about Jesus verbally. The first writing to appear were letters written by people like the Apostle Paul to give pastoral guidance or to correct false teaching (eg Galatians). He would have not thought of his words being enshrined as Holy Scripture, perhaps if he had he would have chosen his words more carefully !
Next came the written Gospels about the life of Jesus.

The 27 books of the New Testament are largely separate works by different authors, composed in their own time and place for their own particular purpose. The joke is told of the American Senator who extolled the virtues of the English Language saying ‘if English was good enough for Jesus Christ then it’s good enough for me.’
The point of the joke being that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, his words were written in Greek and now we have at best a translation. The books of the New Testament were not written in a heavenly language and delivered by angels, they were written in the Greek language of the first century AD. The last decades have seen numerous translations made, often getting rid of the old words of the Authorised Version. Some have even changed the words completely to make doctrinal points, such as deleting the masculine language, or changing the use of the word ‘virgin’ when used of Mary. We also do well to remember that for Roman Catholics the Bible includes many more books, the Apocrypha.

Another important point to consider is that what we call ‘scripture’, was only decided gradually. The church, viewed as a whole, managed for four centuries or so without the NT as we know it today. It was only at the end of the second century that there was acceptance in a number of major Christian centres (eg Rome, Alexandria) of something close to the present collection (four gospels, Acts, Paul’s and other letters). The church managed without a fully formed and authorized New Testament for its first few centuries.
The first canon of books was probably compiled by the Heretic Marcion in the middle of the second century. It included Luke and 10 Pauline letters which he purged of Jewish traits. A complicated process ensued and at the end of the second century there was broad agreement. There was some disagreement throughout the church especially concerning the Didache, Shephard of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter. Hebrews was often omitted and also Revelation was often excluded in the fourth and fifth century. The Western Church was silent about James until the second half of the fourth century.
The first official document which mentions the 27 books of the New Testament as alone canonical is Athanasius's Easter Letter for the year 367, but the process was not complete everywhere for another 150 years.

We must also remember that the New Testament as we have it, includes not just the oldest books, but only a selection of them. There were numerous other writings, from the second century, if not from the first, because copies of them have survived, often in fragments and extracts. Some of them indeed are at least as old as writings included in the New Testament itself. They were chosen not just on the basis of antiquity, but also popularity and usefulness and especially the attachment of an apostolic name, the name of one of the earliest Christian leaders. They were increasingly venerated as authorities, perhaps as martyrs, certainly as close to Jesus. These two factors were not wholly distinct: indeed it looks as if a bid could be made for the authoritativeness of a writing by attaching to it an apostle’s name, whether Paul or Peter or John.

In this very human and political process of deciding which books to call scripture and which to ignore, some Gospels were actually left out. The picture below shows a window at Chartres Cathedral, with details of Jesus’ family, birth, and childhood drawn from the Protevangelium of James (2 cent.). It has important details from Jesus life, some of which the church found convenient to be able to leave out.

I have said that the Bible is made up of many different books. Some of these books were poetry and songs, like the Book of Psalms, they include details which are clearly not meant to be taken literally, such as describing the mountains clapping their hands. Other books are full of religious laws which were written in a particular context and so we feel able to ignore them. We no longer obey the commandment that the Sabbath should be a day of rest, and we do not feel a compulsion to stone people to death for breaking this or a whole range of other religious laws commanded by God through Moses.