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How We Got the Bible: Part 2: Back to the Biblia

by Darren Johnson

It’s difficult for a “Bible-carrying Christian” like me to imagine going to worship without a Bible in hand. I’d feel underdressed, like a cavalry officer who left his saber sitting on the dresser. Anyone old enough to remember “sword drills” is likely familiar with this illustration. Here’s another one that I learned from a former Sunday school teacher. Perhaps you’ll remember it: “The Bible is like an American Express card: Don’t leave home without it!”

            Worshippers in Jesus’ day would’ve been mystified by all this talk of credit cards, sword drills, … and Bibles. Jews and Christians alike revered the sacred writings (Psalm 19:7-10; Matthew 5:18; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). But the idea of the Bible as we know it was a foreign concept to them. It was very much a work in progress.

            Did you know that the word “Bible” does not occur in any major English translation of the Bible? Check a concordance if you’re curious. “Bible” is printed on the cover and spine, to be sure, but not between the covers—at least not in the actual text of the Bible itself. I like to remind folks of this fact when they protest that terms such as “Trinity” and “inerrancy” don’t appear in the Bible. “Neither does ‘Bible’,” I reply. That’s usually good for a few seconds of awkward silence.

            If we trace “Bible” back to its prebiblical roots, we arrive at the Phoenician city of Byblos, a seaport known in antiquity for the export of Egyptian papyrus. Made from reeds native to the Nile Delta, this popular writing material found an eager market in Greece, where scrolls of papyrus became known as biblia. At some point prior to the coming of Christ, Greek-speaking Jews adopted this term for their sacred scrolls. Bear in mind, however, that biblia was a plural noun. Only much later in Christian history did it denote a single volume that believers could tote with them to worship—the Bible as we know it.

            I say all of this simply to remind us that the Bible at its root is a collection of books. It is a vast spiritual library whose contents were produced over a period of at least 1,400 years by scores of scribes living on three different continents, writing in multiple languages and on a variety of materials: stone, clay, leather, and, yes, papyrus! Interestingly, the earliest biblical scrolls discovered to date are two tiny silver scrolls unearthed in a tomb near the Old City of Jerusalem. They date to the 7th or 6th century B.C. and contain the priestly benediction from Numbers 6:24-26.

            So, when were these biblia (scrolls) collected, combined, and canonized into the Bible that we have today?

Let’s start with the works that make up our Old Testament. On my desk sits a copy of the Jewish Bible or Tanakh. Its contents are the same as the 39 books in the Protestant Old Testament, but they appear in a different ordering. Tanakh is an acronym for the three main divisions of the Jewish Bible: the Torah (Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Kethuvim (Writings). This ancient ordering of the Hebrew Bible furnishes us with some clues about how and when it all came together.

            The Law (Torah) is the oldest division of the Hebrew Bible, encompassing its first five books: Genesis through Deuteronomy. Despites its name, the Law isn’t simply a collection of “laws” but a rich tapestry of historical narrative, worship rituals, and rules for civil society. Although its contents trace back to Moses in the 15th or 13th century B.C., no one is sure precisely when the Torah reached its familiar fivefold form. It must be remembered that a good portion of the Law was lost and forgotten during the period of the monarchy, only to be rediscovered during the reign of King Josiah in the 7th century B.C. (see 2 Kings 22:3-20; 2 Chronicles 34:8-28). Most scholars are confident that the Law attained its definitive form no later than Ezra’s religious reforms in the 5th century B.C. (see Ezra 7:1-10; Nehemiah 8:1-8).

            The next division of the Hebrew Bible is the Nevi’im or Prophets. Contained in this collection are not only the so-called Minor and Major Prophets (minus Lamentations and Daniel), but also the historical books familiar to us as Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings. These works were brought together by Jewish scribes and regarded as a complete collection sometime after 400 B.C. Our earliest witness, the Jewish sage Ben Sira (ca. 200 B.C.), attests to the existence of the prophetic collection in his writings (Sirach 46-49). Around this time it became common for Jews to refer to “the Law and the Prophets,” a designation that persisted into Jesus’ day and beyond (e.g., Matthew 5:17; 7:12; Acts 13:15; Romans 3:21).

            Which brings us to the final division of the Hebrew Bible: the Kethuvim or Writings. This hodgepodge of sacred poetry, wisdom literature, and exilic history is first alluded to by Ben Sira’s grandson (ca. 132 B.C.). He observes in passing that his grandfather “devoted himself especially to the reading of the Law and the Prophets and the other books of our ancestors” (Sirach 1). Jesus may also allude to these “other books” when he reminds his disciples that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Some scholars maintain that “the psalms” is shorthand for all the works included in this division. But that remains a subject of much debate.

            One question that continues to puzzle scholars is when, exactly, this final division of the Jewish Scriptures was nailed down. Were the contents of the Writings set in stone (or papyrus) by the beginning of the Christian era? Or was there still some wiggle room about which books belonged?

We’ll tackle these questions next month when we examine the biblia as they existed among various ancient Jewish groups and the earliest Christians. Until then, may “the LORD bless you and keep you” (Numbers 6:24).

 

Darren Johnson preaches for Central Church of Christ, Cedar Rapids, Iowa  




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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8