No other book has had such an impact on human history. It has guided the course of nations and seeded the political philosophy that produced democracy. And it has influenced 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 1,500 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 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, which was a “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 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 fifteenth century a.D. 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 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 a.D., 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 a.D. 125, not too many years after the original. The oldest copies of the Old Testament books that we have are the Dead Sea Scrolls. In general, even more time separates them from the originals.
Because the prophets and apostles who wrote the Bible didn’t speak English, the Bibles that most of us read are translations. The various translators of the Bible have adopted one of two “philosophies.” One approach involves a literalistic, word-for-word translation. In the other, translators 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, Revised Standard Version, New King James Version, and New Revised Standard Version lean toward the word-for-word approach. Translations such as J. B. Phillips’s version of the New Testament, The Living Bible, 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 forms 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 contains four books that at first glance might seem to be either history or biography: the Gospels. While these books do tell historical happenings and relate stories from Christ’s life, they’re really a different literary form. Their authors primarily meant for them 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.
Putting it all together
The books of the Old Testament were written over a period of about 1,100 years. The first five were written by Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) around 1500 B.C., and the last one was written by Malachi (the book goes by his name) around 400 B.C. Numerous other books were written during this period that have not been preserved (1 Chronicles 29:29). Eventually, Jewish leaders considered it necessary to decide which books would be considered “official” (or canonical, the technical term), and thus began the process of making up the Old Testament canon.
The Jews had begun to consider the books written by Moses as canonical around 300 B.C. By 200 B.C., they had added the prophetic books (Isaiah to Malachi), and the rest of the Old Testament, called “the Writings,” were also added to the Old Testament canon between A.D. 200 and 300. Protestants accept the same Old Testament as do the Jews, though they place the books in a different sequence. The Protestant Old Testament comprises 39 books. Roman Catholic Bibles have all these books plus 12 others, which Protestants refer to as the Apocrypha.
Protestants and Roman Catholics have basically the same New Testament. The acceptance of these 27 books as Scripture also involved a process—one that was completed in church councils in the late 300s and the early 400s A.D. The early Christians had at least three criteria for determining which books to accept as official Scripture: (1) the wide acceptance and use of a book in the early church, (2) its faithfulness to Christian doctrine, and (3) its reputation for having been written or authorized by one of the apostles.
Of course, much of what we’ve said so far could be true of a collection of books of mere human history, philosophy, and speculation. But the Bible is more than that. It is God’s inspired message to humans that has been communicated to us through written words.
Like Jesus, the living Word of God (John 1:1, 14), the Bible is both human and divine. Its words bear the impress of its human authors—their characteristics, history, and culture. But it’s also inspired—“God-breathed,” as 2 Timothy 3:16 puts it. Peter also affirmed the inspiration of the Bible. He said, “Prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21; emphasis added).
Paul wrote that the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). However, there’s no magic in the Scriptures themselves. They bring eternal life only as we find Jesus Christ in them (John 5:39). But, of course, we can find Him there only if we’re looking for Him—if we’re reading the stories about Him. And whether or not we’re benefiting from this “library” of books given to us by God through His prophets is entirely up to us.