Week 1: What is the Bible?

Week 1:   What is the Bible?
Published by Jeff West on Wed, 1 Apr 2020 16:53
An Introduction to the Bible

The Old Testament

The Old Testament is the name given by Christians to the Jewish scriptures known and used by Jesus during his earthly life. The Church of England recognises 39 books:

The first five books (sometimes called the Pentateuch) – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – are are known by Jews as the Torah, or Law. They are a collection of stories about the creation of the world and the origins and early history of the Jewish people, and include the laws and regulations that they saw as God's particular gift to Israel.

The twelve historical books (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther) tell the later history of the Jewish people down to around 400 BC.

The five miscellaneous “writings” (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon) include philosophy, practical advice, poetry, hymns and songs.

The seventeen “prophetic” books are not prophecy in the sense of foretelling the future, but reflections from a religious or theological viewpoint on current social and political affairs and pronouncements of God's judgement (which could be positive as well as negative). There are five books of the “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel) and twelve “minor” prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi).

The New Testament

The New Testament tells us about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the experience of his first disciples and the beginnings of the church. It consists of 27 books:

The first four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) tell the story of Jesus, and are known as “gospels” (which means “good news”).

  • The first three (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are closely related to one another, and are sometimes called the “synoptic” gospels (because it's possible to make a “synopsis” of them, placing them side by side and using one to fill in the gaps in another). They were probably compiled in their present form around 40 years after the events they describe. Mark is the shortest, and probably the earliest, and seems to have been used by both Matthew and Luke to provide the main shape of their story. Matthew and Luke share other material (mainly Jesus' teaching, including the Lord's Prayer) not found in Mark, which they may have taken from another common source. Some stories are found in only one gospel (such as the story of the shepherds in Luke, and the wise men in Matthew). They each have their own character – Mark's language is urgent and breathless, Luke's much more polished and urbane – and were clearly written for different audiences.
  • John's gospel (often called “the fourth gospel”) is different yet again, and isn't easy to place alongside the other gospels. Things happen in a different order (Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers in the Temple at the beginning of his ministry, for example, rather than at the end), and it contains extended passages of theological reflection (such as chapter 1:1-18 and chapters 15-17) not found in the other gospels.

The next book, the Acts of the Apostles, is a continuation of Luke's gospel. It tells the story of some of the disciples following Jesus' resurrection, and gives us a picture of the way Christianity spread westwards into the Roman world. Sadly, it does not tell us much about its spread southwards into Africa or eastwards into Asia (which was also happening at the same time).

The next 21 books are letters (“epistles”) which at the time they were collected together were thought to have been written either by one of Jesus' first disciples or by Paul, a Jew who was not a disciple during Jesus' lifetime, but who later became the most famous of the first missionaries to the Mediterranean world.

  • The first nine letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians) claim to be letters written by Paul to different churches. Most are still thought to be genuine, and 1 Thessalonians (which must have been written around 49 AD) is generally accepted as the earliest surviving Christian writing. 2 Thessalonians is not now thought to be by Paul, and there is doubt about both Ephesians and Colossians, although they contain material of great theological value and insight.
  • The next four letters claim to have been written by Paul not to churches, but to individuals (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon). Philemon is probably genuine (although very brief and to the point: more a text message than a letter), while 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are almost certainly forgeries, written well after Paul's lifetime to bolster someone's position in an argument about discipline and authority.
  • The last eight “letters” are not strictly speaking letters at all, but more like sermons or theological essays, written for general distribution (they are sometimes called “epistles general”). Hebrews was originally thought to have been written Paul, but this has long been discounted. James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John and Jude were once thought to have been written by the disciples whose names they bear; this is unlikely, although they may have originated in churches founded by them. The theology of the three letters attributed to John is closely related to that of John's gospel, and they must have come from the same community or tradition.

The final book of the Bible is Revelation. This shares some of the characteristics of Old Testament prophecy, in that it pronounces God's judgement on the world, and it contains a vision of the end of all things. It was only included in the New Testament after a great deal of argument, and although it contains some images of great power and beauty, some passages remain problematic for many Christians.

When was the Bible written (or compiled)?

A difficult question to answer, since the Bible was compiled over many centuries, being written and re-written and brought together from many different sources, some of which had never been written down but simply remembered and passed on from generation to generation.

The Jewish scriptures – our Old Testament – probably came together in something like their present form in about the 4th century BC, although some of them were written much earlier (for example, Amos and parts of Isaiah probably date from the 8th century BC), and some incorporate traditions that go back well into the second millennium.

The earliest parts of the New Testament as we have it today are Paul's (genuine) letters, which date from the middle of the first century. The gospels all seem to have been compiled in their present form in the 70s or 80s, although they clearly include material that goes back to Jesus' lifetime. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus weren't written until the second century AD.

But for the first three or four hundred years after Christ, there wasn't a single official body of “scripture” to which some writings belonged and others didn't, and several different collections were made. The New Testament as we know it only gained general acceptance in the late 4th century, and there is still disagreement today about which books to include in the Old Testament.

What language was it written in?

The New Testament was written in Greek, the language spoken throughout the eastern Mediterranean in Jesus' lifetime. The 39 books universally accepted as being part of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew, the ancient language of Jewish worship. Other Jewish scriptures in use in Jesus' time were until recently only known in an ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint. These are included in Roman Catholic bibles as part of the Old Testament, but other churches (including the Church of England) regard them as slightly less authoritative and put them in a separate section, not included in all bibles, known as the Apocrypha.