The Bible: A beginner's guide
Who wrote the Bible? What kind of writing is it? How did we get it thousands of years later? David Jarnes lays out the basics.
David JarnesMar 20, 2023, 12:48 AM
No other book has had such an impact on human history. It has guided the course of nations and influenced the political philosophy that produced liberal democracy. And it has transformed countless individual lives, changing raging criminals into peaceable citizens. The book, of course, is the Bible.
Just what is this book like?
Some people have compared the Bible to a library. It does resemble a library in that it’s a collection of “books” written individually and later collected together. The Old Testament consists of the books written before Jesus’ birth—some of them nearly 1500 years before. The books that were written after His crucifixion make up the New Testament.
Obviously, many people were involved in writing the Bible—about 40, in fact. While some of the people who wrote the books of the Bible were unknown chroniclers of Israel’s history, some were famous Bible characters, such as Moses, David and Paul. And much of the New Testament was written by the first disciples of Jesus or their close associates.
Nearly all the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, though a few portions of Ezra and Daniel were written in Aramaic, the language of Babylon, a Semitic “first cousin” of Hebrew. The New Testament was written in Greek, the common language of the Mediterranean world at the time. This wasn’t the lofty classical Greek of philosophy and literature; it was the dialect used in personal letters to friends and family and in bills and receipts. So biblical Greek really was the language of the common people.
No original manuscripts
Printing wasn’t invented until the middle of the 15th century AD Before that, when people wanted copies of books of the Bible, a scribe had to write them out by hand. And when a book of the Bible became worn out, it was usually either discarded or ritually destroyed. So, unfortunately, no original manuscript of a book of the Bible exists today. Codex Vaticanus (so named because it is kept in the library of the Vatican in Rome) is the earliest nearly complete manuscript of the New Testament. It was copied sometime during the early fourth century AD, which was 250 to 300 years after the last book of the New Testament was written.
However, scholars have found smaller pieces of the New Testament that are older than Codex Vaticanus. For instance, there’s a fragment of the Gospel of John that was written about AD 125, not too many years after the original.
The oldest copies of the Old Testament books that we have are the Dead Sea Scrolls (see sidebar). In general, even more time separates them from the originals.
Because the authors of the Bible didn’t speak English, most of us read translations. The various translators of the Bible have adopted one of two philosophies: emphasis on a literalistic, word-for-word translation, or a focus primarily on conveying the meaning of the passage.
Most modern translations fall somewhere between the extremes of these two philosophies. The King James Version and New Revised Standard Version lean toward the word-for-word approach. Translations such as the New Living Translation and Eugene Peterson’s The Message lean strongly toward the other approach. And other popular translations, such as the New English Bible and the New International Version, fall somewhere in between.
History, poetry, letters
The Bible resembles a library not only because it’s composed of many “books,” but also in that both the genre of these books and their subject matter vary greatly. We’ve already mentioned that some books of the Bible consist of history. The apostle Paul said that what happened to ancient Israel “occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6).
Many of the Old Testament books were written in the form of poetry. When we think of poetry in the Bible, the Psalms probably come to mind first. They were the hymns of the Hebrew people—the lyrics of their worship songs. But most of the books of the prophets were also written in poetic form. Contrary to what we might expect, biblical prophecy didn’t primarily involve foretelling the future. Instead, the prophets called their readers to reject false religion, be faithful to God, and follow His principles of justice and mercy.
The New Testament begins with four books: the Gospels. Their authors primarily meant these biographies to give us a clear picture of God through recording selected incidents and teachings from the life of Jesus Christ (John 14:9). Their primary purpose is to bring us to faith (John 20:30, 31).
Some parts of the New Testament are epistles—letters from church leaders to individuals, to congregations or to the Christian community as a whole. Often, the leaders wrote these letters to help the young churches deal with problems they were facing. When we know what the problems were, we’re more likely to understand the counsel the leaders gave and how to apply it to our lives today.
The Bible is for reading
Paul wrote that the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). But there’s no magic in the pages themselves. They bring eternal life only as we find Jesus Christ in them (John 5:39). And of course we can find Him there only if we’re looking—if we’re reading the stories about Him. So whether or not we’re benefiting from this “library” of books given to us by God through His prophets is entirely up to us.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient writings on parchment (a few are written on papyrus and bronze) dating from about 200 BC to around AD 200. They were first discovered accidentally by Bedouin shepherd boys in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea in Israel, hence the name “Dead Sea Scrolls.” Fragments or significant parts of all the books of the Old Testament have been identified except for Esther. The most complete manuscript is an entire Isaiah scroll, which, except for a few damaged parts, includes the entire book. Also included in the Dead Sea Scrolls are sectarian works written by the Jews who lived at Qumran. The Israeli Antiquities Authority has collaborated with Google to digitise all of the scrolls. They are available online for anyone to see and for scholars to study at DeadSeaScrolls.org.il.
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