Alongside Prayer, Bible Study is at the heart of everything we do. We take our words, our songs, our practices and our beliefs from its pages. It is our encouragement in trial and a distressing challenge to our boredom and complacency. The season of Lent offers us a time to grow in our study of Scripture. Wherever you fall, be it an avid daily reader of Scripture or you haven’t seen your bible since the Winter Retreat, there is room to grow.
Today we want to look at what the Bible actually is and what processes went in to putting the printed Bible in our hands. So where does it come from?
-The Oral Tradition: Nearly every story or passage of Scripture was first passed on by word of mouth, repeated from one generation to the next. This is true of the Old Testament, where much of its pages weren’t actually written down until the 8th century BCE and later, as well as the New Testament, which of course began as the stories of Jesus told and retold by the disciples. Remember, its only relatively recently in history that most people could read!
-The Written Tradition: But the stories of Scripture are important. They needed to be preserved and they needed to be portable so they could be shared from community to community. So the words were written down. The apostles and the students of apostles wrote down the things they had heard and believed and shared them with other Christians (most of this happened from about 50 AD until some time in the 2nd century AD)
-Canon: Canon, literally meaning “measure” or “rule”, is the body of books we agree to make up Scripture. There are other texts out there written about Jesus but we don’t accept all of them as Scripture (some make crazy claims like Jesus was a ghost without a body or that Jesus blew people up with eye lasers as a child, no joke). The early churches got together and made specific lists of books which were to be called “Scriptures.”
They used criteria like age (the closer to the original time the better), apostolic connection (they looked mostly for books written by the disciples or close students of theirs) and their own understanding of Jesus’ teaching (after all they were only a generation or two of leaders away and had learned from the disciples what they learned from Jesus). Together with prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit they used these criteria to set out the NT canon. The final canon process didn’t come until the 4th and 5th centuries but the majority of books were pretty well agreed on by then.
-Compilation: We don’t have the original documents that make up the Bible. We don’t have a pristine, fresh copy of Romans or Matthew. Over time paper deteriorates. Many of the earliest church documents were lost to persecutions of the first few centuries. What we have instead are a variety of different copies from lots of different times and places. Scholars take these various pieces, sometimes nearly whole groups of books like the Codex Sinnaiticus or the Dead Sea Scrolls, sometimes just a sentence or two from one book, and join them together using the oldest and most authentic versions they find. These produce manuscripts of Greek and Hebrew which are as close as possible to the original documents (which is very very close, the bible is one of the most well preserved and most copied ancient documents in the world).
-Translation: If compilation leaves us with big manuscripts of Greek and Hebrew (and most of us don’t read both or either of those), we need translators to get a final copy. Translators are scholars of Christianity, Judaism, Greek, Hebrew and ancient languages who try to convey the original sense of the Gk. or Hebrew words into English.
There are two main kinds of translation, literal translations and paraphrases. Literal translations focus on getting the word for word or phrase for phrase meaning of the original text into English. These are translations like the NASB, NRSV and NIV. Paraphrases focus on broad meaning over specific words, like the Message or New Living Translation. These translations try to convey the complicated original phrasings in a way that is clear and readable in English. Personally, I prefer a strict translation if you can read it and understand it. The NRSV and NASB are usually very accurate to the original words. This is important because even a translation can be skewed by the translator’s bias.
-Helps: There is one last phase that goes into most bibles. Most of us have more than just a raw translation of the Bible. We also have footnotes, endnotes and even essays, charts and maps that help us to understand the bible more clearly. These can be very very important. Oftentimes footnotes point you to other verses that reference similar topics (or show you where the author is referencing an earlier piece of scripture). An index might help you find verses about a topic. A map might help you understand the very geography centered stories of Paul’s missionary travels or the Exodus wandering.
These are also very very dangerous. Most translations show the bible well enough, meaning that they haven’t skewed it too much in any one direction. Most major translations will be just fine. But footnotes are not scripture! Oftentimes bibles don’t even list their authors and editors of their footnotes. They might be a renowned biblical scholar or a gifted and wise preacher or they might be a random person off of the street with an unknown agenda. The very literal “Left Behind” reading of Revelation is actually the result of one of the most popular early footnoted bibles, the Scofield Reference Bible. Many readers had never used the footnotes before and had difficulty distinguishing the extremely literal minded and agenda heavy comments of the author from the Scripture itself.
So what are the three questions you should ask about your bible?
1) Is it accurate?
2) Can I read and understand it?
3) Are the notes and comments helpful and accurate?
If you aren’t sure send me a text or email, drop by or leave a comment. These are the most important factors in bible choice and you absolutely shouldn’t be without one. If you need one let me know ASAP and we’ll make it happen.
We’ll check in again in a few days to talk about why the bible is so important and the various ways people read it.
When we try and lay out the broad timeline of the Old Testament it usually goes something like this:
Creation, Fall, Noah, Abraham, something something, Joseph, Egypt, Exodus, Desert, Law, Joshua and Conquest, Judges, Kings (Saul, David Solomon)…
And then we lose it. We tend to be pretty good on these first few books. We tend to get them a lot in Sunday School, VBS etc. They’re very narrative driven (story centered, as long as we skip the big chunks of law). But then it gets a bit fuzzy. There are so many cool stories about David. And Solomon was wise and built the temple. But after that we get lost. And there’s a reason for that.
The Old Testament suddenly goes all out of order. We go Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. And that gets us from Creation to the death of Moses. Joshua and Judges tell us about conquering the promised land (Canaan/Israel) and then trying to live in it. 1 and 2 Samuel tell us of the life of the prophet, the people’s demand for a king (over God’s objections), the anointing of Saul and then his downfall and replacement by David. 1 and 2 Kings tells us the story of the Solomon and all the kings who followed after him (Chronicles hits all this over again from a different perspective).
And then everything is blown apart. What happened? We had this fairly neat straight line and then suddenly we have all of these prophets and a lot of what they have to say isn’t narrative at all but long blocks of verse and poetry and song. We have Ezra and Nehemiah first but they seem to be talking about things that are at the very of the OT story. And what is up with Jonah?
Well, there are two events that are only referenced in 2 Kings but might be as important for understanding the Old Testament as God giving the law at Mt. Sinai or Saul being anointed as King.
The first happens in 2 Kings 17. In the ancient world leading up to the 9th century BC Assyria (one of Israel’s ancient neighbors) had largely been everyone’s punching bag. They weren’t militarily, socially or economically strong. But then they discover how to work high-grade Iron weaponry. The rest of the world is using bronze weapons and shields and Assyria suddenly takes the field with this strange new gray metal that cuts through bronze like it wasn’t even there. Its like bringing a machine gun to the American Revolution or GPS and drone strikes to WWII. It’s a technological jump so big they might as well be from the future.
Assyria conquers everything in sight in no time at all. Including the northern kingdom of Israel. Back in those days one of the best ways to control a conquered people was to shuffle them up with other conquered people. So Assyria took a huge chunk of the population and sent them away to other lands they had conquered. Then they brought in large numbers of peoples from other lands. They forced them to intermingle with the local peoples. This meant there was no unifying culture to help shape resistance against them. Within a few generations these peoples were integrated into Israel, bringing their own foreign religious and cultural customs with them. The Northern Kingdom wasn’t just gone but there was no coming back. (This is where we end up with the Samaritans we see in the New Testament.)
The second event happens in 2 Kings 24-25. Once iron technology had started to spread to their neighbors Assyria quickly lost its dominant status. In their wake came a unified Babylonian empire. A series of Babylonian kings (you might recognize Necbuhadnezzar from Daniel) had united their people behind a religious and cultural revival and they were using that momentum to conquer their neighbors. With the Northern Kingdom mostly destroyed only Judah remained of the Jewish nation.
Babylon swept through them and laid siege to Jerusalem. The current King, Jehoiachin, ultimately surrendered. Babylon carried away the royal household, all the treasures of the palace and temple and many of the ruling and cultural elites of the city, taking them back to their own capital. When his successor, Zedekiah, tried to rebel against Babylon they came again and this time laid waste to the city. They destroyed the walls, desecrated the temples and burned or otherwise destroyed much of the city. Then they carried away another large part of the people into exile in Babylon.
Its hard to explain how huge this is. In Joshua the people trust in God and he gives the land over to them. It’s the promise to Abraham and to Moses. The land promised them by God. Saul and David and the judges before them and the kings after them were always able to defend it with God’s divine aid. But because of the grievous sins of kings like Manasseh and the idolatry and wickedness of the people God has finally withdrawn that protection. Jerusalem and its temple, the physical symbols of God’s presence on earth and with the people of Israel are wrecked. This is devastating, beyond devastating. They could never have imagined this happening. The only contemporary U.S. event that is even close would be September 11 but even this falls far short. It changes everything.
So why are these two events so important?
-They scatter Jews all over the world. Instead of just being concentrated in one tiny region they are scattered over dozens of countries. This group of displaced Jews is often called the diaspora (which is gk. for scattering).
-This scattering also means their faith needs to change. They had primarily understood God in terms of the land promised to them, the King watching over them and at the middle of it all, God’s temple where they worshiped and sacrificed and celebrated their faith and identity together. In the diaspora we start to see new institutions called synagogues and new leaders called Rabbi’s. Without the temple for celebrations and sacrifices Judaism refocused around the law. Its new leaders were masters of the law and its interpretation, teaching the people how to follow God’s commands and maintain their Jewish identity in a new place surrounded by gentiles.
-This also lead to the writing of what we call the Old Testament as a written document. Much of the law and stories of the OT had been largely oral tradition, stories told and retold and passed down from one generation to the next. But scattered, living with strange people with strange customs, they needed a more concrete means of recording and teaching their faith to the next generation. This period led these scattered sages and rabbis to choose a specific written canon and share and reproduce it for all Jews.
-This also left a gaping hole in their worldview. Why would God punish them so? How could they ever recover? The scriptures they had gave them some tools to comprehend this but they weren’t enough. The exile generated dozens of new texts and biblical stories. The lives, works and words of the major prophets came about during this time, prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel who helped the people process what it meant that God was still with them in the midst of their suffering and offered them hope for the future. Lamentations is a book of pure grief, lifting the people’s pain and outrage to God. Other books saw additions and edits during this time period, like the writing of Genesis 1. Finally Ezra, Nehemiah Haggai and Zechariah were written after exile, relating the stories of the return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
–It changed the way they thought about God. Before these events the Jewish people tended to think of God as mostly centered around Israel and its people, even specifically around the temple and Jerusalem. (This wasn’t uncommon, many ancient peoples thought of their gods as regional or tribal gods, powerful only in one area and concerned with only a small region or set of interests). When Jerusalem falls the people have to expand their understanding, they begin to understand God as God of the whole world, not just their people or land. God isn’t just concerned with Israel but is shaping the fate of the entire world. Isaiah in particular shows us a God who is suddenly universal, no longer contained by one nation and its concerns. This is hinted at in earlier books but it is the exile that makes it suddenly distinct and noticeable.
–Israel never really recovers from this, they would never again be an independent self-ruling people. Assyria conquered them. Then Babylon. Persia conquered Babylon and sent them home but still ruled over them. Alexander the Great and the Macedonians conquered Persia and ruled over Israel. When his empire fell apart one of his generals would found the Seleucid dynasty which would rule over them for several more centuries. For one brief shining moment a Jewish rebellion led by the Maccabees (found in the non-canonical books of Macabees and giving us the story of Chanukah) succeeded in establishing Jewish self-rule but they were soon conquered by the Romans who would hold Israel into Jesus’ life and for centuries beyond.
–This conquest leads to a new belief, based on promises in Isaiah, that God would send them a new deliverer, God would send a messiah. A warrior-king like David or a prophet like Moses who would free them again and restore them to past glory. (This should sound familiar)
These two events, the conquest by Assyria and the conquest by Babylon, radically changed the course of history for Israel and Judah. They also change the course of the Old Testament. Where the first half of the Old Testament is mostly one long story, the second half is broken into dozens of different voices offering a different perspective on events. These events generated more books of the bible than anything, nearly as many as the entire New Testament but generally much longer in content. We have to be aware of them to read the Old Testament in a way that makes any sense at all. Before our next entry we will take a short interlude to look at how this can help us read certain texts better than before and then we will take a look at the New Testament context and what the world of Jesus was like.