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Scripture in Lent Part 1: What goes into a Bible?

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.

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