What is the Bible?
From a young age Rosemary Grier was told the message of the Bible about Jesus - that God gave him to live perfectly and die in her place for the wrong things and attitudes in her life. She became a Christian as a child when she realised that just trying to be a good person wasn't doing her any good. Rather than insulting God by pretending she could be a good person on her own, she asked him for forgiveness and trust he welcomes her because of Jesus. Rosemary now works with UCCF, serving Christian Unions in the West Midlands.
In FREE we encourage you to take a look at a part of the Bible – an account of Jesus’ life, based on eye-witness testimony, from 2000 years ago. But what is the Bible? Well, here are some facts and figures:
- 66 books in the Bible
- Composed of 2 main sections: usually called the Old Testament and the New Testament. (“Testament” is an agreement – so the content could be boiled down to: God made an agreement with people (‘old testament’) and then fulfils it (“new testament”))
- Around 40 different human authors
- Different literary genres – some poetry, some historical narrative, some prophecy (God’s direct word to people about events past, current and future), some letters of teaching, some apocalyptic (dramatic symbolic prophecy)
- Written over around a 1500 year period
- Written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
But that’s like saying that a human being is a pile of chemical elements: it doesn’t explain what it actually is! To get to know someone, and find out who they are, we have several questions:
What’s your name? Where do you live? Where do you come from? What do you look like? What do you do? What do you say about yourself?
Doubtless there’d be other questions, but let’s ask those of the Bible, to find out what it is.
What’s in a name?
The word ‘Bible’ just comes from the Greek word for ‘books’ – biblia. The English word was made up by Wycliffe, when he translated it into English in the 15th century. As names go, not very informative – other than that we know that it’s composed of more than one ‘book’!
Where does it ‘live’?
Most of the events recorded in the Bible, and its human authors, lived in the Middle East, in what is now Israel and Palestine. Some activity goes as far south as Egypt, ventures slightly farther east, and late on in the Bible, across the Mediterranean into Greek islands and Italy.
Where does it come from?
The books of the Bible were written over a period of about 1500 years, by over 40 authors, ranging from farmers to kings, poets to historians, prophets to warriors, religious leaders to fishermen.
So the astonishing thing is, given this diversity of authorship, that far from being an interesting variety of views – like a poetry volume, or a collection of quotations perhaps – the books of the Bible show a common understanding, and a unified teaching running right through [link to What is the Bible about?]. This is why from the beginning it has been recognised as one book.
More detail on the background:
The Old Testament was compiled by the Jewish people and the 39 books were recognised as God’s revelation by them. They knew their history – what God had done – and what it meant, and took great care in preserving it. Since around 400 BC, it was acknowledged and lamented that there had been no further revelation from God like in that recorded in those books.
So when Jesus came in the 1st century, saying not only, “The Scriptures say…” but “I say to you…” the people took notice. If you read one of the eyewitness accounts of his life, you’ll see people struck by the authority with which he speaks – and that he demonstrates to them that he does have that authority, by showing his power over illness, weather, the supernatural, and death. If they had accepted the previous 39 books to be God’s revelation, with his authority, it was clear too that Jesus had that same authority – so new books were written, all about Jesus. (In fact, he said the previous 39 were all about him too, if you understand them!) Not only that, but before Jesus left his followers, he promised that he would give them his Spirit to stay with them and remind them of everything he’d said, and help them to think truly – so that they could bear witness of it all. They didn’t just think it would make a nice story – they wrote with a purpose, to point the readers to Jesus.
It would be amazing if one person had insight equivalent to what we read in the Bible. But such unity of thought from such a diversity of authors of different backgrounds, educations, styles, and periods in history is staggering. No wonder the Bible writers claimed that these weren’t their own ideas – they were revealed from God. This is no stray collection of books thrown together with merely human ideas.
But didn’t the Roman emperor Constantine take a vote on the Bible books in the 3rd century?
This claim has been bandied around by a popular fiction writer, but doesn’t hold water. From letters written we know that Christians recognised most of the New Testament books early on, and the council of Christian leaders called in the 3rd century only served to issue this as an official list, to counter those who’d come up with new works from the 3rd century. Christians recognised the authority of books written by the eyewitnesses of Jesus or those who’d known them and acted as scribes or compilers of the events still in living memory, and letters written by this same generation which fitted with the facts as passed on and accepted universally.
What does it look like?
We’ve mentioned that the Bible contains books of varying types of literature. That means when you read a bit of it, you read it as you would that literature! We don’t look for scientific description in poetry, for example – but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It just means we don’t get hung up on a description of the sun like an athlete bursting forth and running his race joyfully from one side of the sky to the other, saying that that’s not how the universe works! Similarly, when we read one of the books of historical account, we see what happened (and how it fits with the larger story of what God was doing). We don’t necessarily read it as behaviour to copy in our own lives! As with any books, the authors are good at giving us road-signs as to what kind of literature it is we’re reading. When they repeat the same idea several different descriptive ways, we can be fairly sure it’s poetry; if they say, “In the days of king X, in the month of Y…” we know we’re into history! All this can help us get the big picture, as we get what happened, why, what it meant, how it felt, etc.
The other thing to note is that not so many centuries ago, some bright guy thought it would be easier for people to find their way around reading the Bible’s books if they were divided into chapters and each sentence or so given a ‘verse’ number. This was indeed handy – so if we want to refer to something, we don’t have to all know the Bible from memory: someone writes, “John 3:16”, or “John ch.3 v.16”, and we can just look up the book of John, chapter 3, and look down the chapter for the verse number 16. Just don’t be put off by a letter being divided into chapters, sometimes at strange places – they’re not original divisions so you can ignore them!
What does the Bible do?
You turn to an encyclopaedia to look up facts on one topic; a dictionary for word definitions; a novel for a fictional story and a manual for operating instructions. What does the Bible do? It is none of the above. It does contain consistent views on any given topic, it does define some ideas, and it does give some instruction. But it has one big idea and does one big thing: it reveals God to us, in events and the meaning he explains. And more precise than that, the Bible shows us Jesus. The whole of the Old Testament – everything that happened and was recorded, all that God said that had been written down, all the poetic reflection on that – all of it is like a shaped shadow on a wall. With the New Testament, we get to back away into the light and see what it is that made the shadow – and we see it was Jesus. So the Bible doesn’t just tell you how to be good, or give interesting ideas, or a good story. It shows us God – in the person of the man Jesus who lived 2000 years ago in a Middle Eastern backwater.
“Make me a Christian,” by Channel 4, showed participants being given a Bible and trying to conform to its teaching in 3 weeks. But that’s doomed to failure, and isn’t the Bible’s message. In it we see what God’s like, and we see that we don’t live up to what he’s like and how he’s made his world to be. But the Bible isn’t just a highway code to point out our failures – it shows us Jesus, who did live perfectly on our behalf, so that we can trust in him for that and know God through him. The Bible’s aim is a lot bigger – and a lot better news for us – than ‘clean up your act in 3 weeks’!
It isn’t a small thing that the Bible aims for us to see Jesus. Speaking of it, Jesus said to religious leaders, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,” (John 5.39) and speaking to God, “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” For such a huge thing as coming to know the only God, the Bible has many ways of describing what it does – giving us light to walk by, smashing hard hearts to pieces, giving wisdom, cutting us up like a living sword to show what’s really inside, training us in living rightly.
What does it say about itself?
Obviously there’s no point claiming that a book’s all true and revelatory if the book itself says, “All characters, conversations and event in this account are fictional and any resemblance to real persons living or otherwise is purely coincidental.” So what does the Book claim about itself? It’s simply peppered with “This is what God says“-statements, to start – in books of prophecy and history. And not indiscriminately so: when someone claimed, “God says,” it was taken very seriously: if the claim was found to be false – that is, if it was said, “God says you’ll win this battle,” and they then lost, the prophet was to be executed. You did not just say, “God says this…” because you felt particularly sure about the world when you got up that morning!
Jesus continued in this vein, taking the Old Testament as God’s word – he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” In doing so he kept up the old test of truth – does what was said fit with what happens? He also focussed it on himself. For Jesus’ claim was not just that the Scriptures were true, but as we’ve seen, that they pointed to him – that he is Truth in person.
Now someone may write a book claiming that, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate,” and you wouldn’t necessarily take their word for it! You’d want to know if their word carried any weight. Do they know what they’re talking about? Does it bear up investigation? Can they speak with any authority on the matter? In this case, Jesus words carry unbelievable weight. His hearers are astonished at the wisdom and authority of what he says, and his authority isn’t just impressive rhetoric: he says the word and people are healed, raised from the dead, or have their lives transformed. Jesus didn’t simplistically give credence to the religious tradition or fashion – he reserved his harshest words for such. Yet he takes the Scriptures to be God’s revelation – and says that it culminates in himself.
This book has transformed lives and societies, inspired cultures, been translated into more languages than anything else and spurred on educational programmes worldwide. It would be worth a read for its interesting literature, for its remarkable coherence, for its longevity, for its influence. But far beyond that, it invites us to read and see God himself revealed in the man Jesus, in the testimony accounts of those who knew him. It invites us to hear his word and respond – not simply to improve our understanding, but to respond to the Person who speaks in the Bible.
© Rosemary Grier 2008
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