Answers to four questions about Bible basics
"How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path."
“I delight in the way of your decrees. I will meditate on your precepts, fix my eyes on your ways. I will not forget your word.”
“Truly I love your commandments more than gold, more than fine gold. Truly I direct my steps by all your precepts. Your decrees are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.”—verses from Psalm 119.
How appropriate that the Psalmist, in so many ways, values and cherishes the language of our faith. But is this how we regularly talk about the Bible—about its language or its message? I find the language of Psalm 119 so refreshing and inspiring. There is a true love of the text.
My prayer is that we may all delight in reading and learning from Scripture, this book that is the central vessel for holding and explaining our faith. In an effort to engender that delight, I want to explore four questions with you.
1. Where does the Bible come from?
When you hold the Bible in your hand, it’s easy to think of it as a single composition that plopped down from heaven, maybe even in English. But the Bible has one of the longest development timelines of any book—almost 2,000 years. There is the Old Testament—the Hebrew Scriptures dealing with the history of the people of Israel; and the New Testament—stories about Jesus and the birth of the Christian church.
Both testaments started out as oral history before they began to be written in different stages by many different authors. There was no one bringing some of our modern historical/critical methods and questions to bear on what happened. There were no newspaper reporters or cell phone cameras to capture the action. We get descriptions, history, stories and poetry that answered what people in that culture and time were interested in—how they were experiencing the presence of God in their lives and making sense of that.
The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew, with some Aramaic; the New Testament was written in Greek. Through the centuries, scribes carefully copied and recopied the original manuscripts, none of which exist today. Some of the earliest fragments we have—from discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls—are on papyrus and parchment from the second to fourth centuries.
Sometimes scholars and scribes had to piece together text from various sources to create the complete Hebrew and Greek testaments our Bibles contain today. It was not until the Reformation, and the invention of the printing press, that more widespread translations of the Bible came into being—Martin Luther’s German New Testament in 1522 and William Tyndale’s English New Testament four years later.
Even now, there are always newer translations, like the New Revised Standard Version in use in many Mennonite churches, that try to go back to the early documents and capture the best in that complicated process of translating while dealing with modern language that is ever-changing. There are also more loose translations, or paraphrases, like the Good News Bible or The Message, that try to put the stories and words into a more contemporary language while still maintaining the essence of each passage.
Two related questions
Two related issues need to be wrestled with here in terms of the writing of the Bible. One is with the process of how the books of the Bible were chosen and declared to be the Word of God. This is sometimes called canonization—choosing what’s in and what’s out. The other deals with what it means for the Bible to be written by human writers over this long history and yet be fully inspired by God.
By the time of Jesus, the books of the Old Testament were already well established and accepted. In A.D. 90, there was a Jewish conference in Jamnia that officially declared the Hebrew Scripture, with its 39 books, closed.
It is interesting to note that one early influential church leader wanted Christians to throw out the entire Old Testament; Marcion said it was a different story and different God than the Jesus of the New Testament. That view, thankfully, was rejected. As the New Testament itself proclaims, Jesus is in continuity with, and comes out of, the Jewish history and story.
For the New Testament it was a long process to discern what would be considered Scripture—the 27 books we have now. Chronologically, the earliest documents are the letters of Paul, starting around A.D. 50, and then the four Gospels. Probably written somewhere between A.D. 60 and 90, the Gospels start with Mark, then Mathew and Luke, and lastly John. One of the gifts of the four Gospels is the diversity within them, the different perspectives and stories they have preserved. Then there is Acts, the other letters—known as epistles—and the Book of Revelation.
There were many other religious documents that emerged in the first and second centuries—some of which included very odd and fanciful descriptions of Jesus’ ministry and childhood. The Gnostic writings, including the “Gospel of Thomas” and the newly discovered “Gospel of Judas,” gave a very different theology of Jesus, denying his humanness and making faith a secret other-worldly spiritual state only available to an elect few.
Over the first few centuries the church began trying to sort out which books were the Word of God. It debated and discerned which books were receiving a broad recognition and acceptance. It was not until near the end of the fourth century—through a series of councils—that the final canon was accepted.
The Bible we have today has both been tested and discerned by that early church and gives us such a rich source of God’s Word in our world. Human beings brought their experiences of God and their own personalities and understandings to the writing of Scripture. And yet we claim that these humans were inspired by God and were guided by the Holy Spirit as they wrote. It is like the mystery of Jesus being both fully human and fully divine. Our Scriptures are both fully shaped by human intention and fully inspired by God.
2. What kind of book is the Bible?
It is a book filled with many different kinds of writing that cannot be read in the same way. There are lots of narrative passages that simply tell the stories of creation, the calling of a people, the exodus, the Promised Land, the judges and kings, the exile into Assyria and Babylon, the return to Jerusalem, and, of course, the stories of Jesus and the early church.
But there are also passages of laws and commandments, and places with wonderful poetry and praise, like the Psalms. And then there are prophetic passages, wisdom literature, places of pure worship, letters—written to real New Testament congregations with their problems and issues, apocalyptic literature—like the Book of Daniel or Revelation—that look to the future, as well as sermons, parables, sayings, exhortations and songs.
In other words, there is this rich range of literature about people’s experience of God and faith. This gives me delight. I can try to understand what part of the Bible a passage is coming from and how it might speak to me today. Depending on what I need, a different literary style or a message from a particular place in the Bible will speak to my situation.
3. How can we study and engage the Bible?
2 Timothy 3 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
Just like there are many different styles and forms of writing in the Bible, there are many ways to study and engage with Scripture. One of the key insights of the early Anabaptists was that the Bible is not only to be interpreted by the pastors or the teachers, but by everyone in the community, the “priesthood of all believers.”
One approach to Scripture is to do some serious study of it. Have a commentary or Bible dictionary in your home to help you understand the context, history and original meaning of the languages.
But that is not the only way. Scripture is experienced in worship or by hearing a story dramatized or sung. Congregations need to keep working at presenting Scripture well in worship. Scripture can be read in group settings and Bible studies, with discussion or guiding questions.
Some people memorize Scripture, which comes back to them at significant points in life. Others meditate or pray the Scriptures, spending time in contemplation and allowing the words to speak very directly to their situation.
One of the most interesting ways I experienced the Bible was at a young adult retreat, where each person was given a short story about Jesus from the gospels. We read the story and then tried to imagine what character we were in the story—a person being healed, a family member, a member of the crowd or one of the disciples. Then each of us was put into the town square—as those characters—and we went around talking to each other about what had just happened: “Did you just see what Jesus did?” “I was healed.” “I experienced forgiveness.” “I saw Jesus show compassion on that outcast of society.”
Whatever way we approach Scripture, one of the challenges is to bridge that gap of the millennia since the books of the Bible were written. We live in a different culture and world, so we sometimes need to do some research to understand those biblical worlds.
The Bible does not talk about all the issues and concerns we face in 2008. It is a voice from outside of our normal understandings that can challenge, change and transform us. It can offer a counter-cultural message to what we see and hear in our culture and media. It can give us an alternative understanding of reality.
In a sense, we read the Bible—bringing our life to it—and the Bible also reads us, bringing its powerful challenge into our lives.
4. How can we make the Bible come alive for us today?
Two things are vital for this to happen. First, we need to read it, know it and become familiar with its language, stories and message. If we keep the Bible on the shelf—never reading or engaging it—we limit the influence it can have on our lives. It is when we keep the Bible in front of us, that, in the words of the Psalmist, we delight in it—like fine gold, like sweet honey.
A second aspect is to see the Bible as the story of God and to try to put our story into God’s story. My prayer is that as we continue studying and learning and engaging with the Bible, that it bears fruit in our relationship with Jesus Christ and in how we live our lives.
Mark Diller Harder is co-pastor at St. Jacobs (Ont.) Mennonite Church. This article is adapted from a sermon and was first printed in the Canadian Mennonite, a publication of Mennonite Church Canada.