The Bible vs “the Bible”

Can the Bible be opposed to, or contrary to, “the Bible”? Huh? Are there two Bibles? Well that might depend on what we mean by Bible? The word “Bible” literally means “book,” and indeed this Book is in fact composed of 66 different “books” (biblia)—more exactly scrolls and codices—many of which are also composed of smaller units of texts and traditions. But that is not the conversation I am aiming at here. Rather, put bluntly: is there a difference between the label “the Bible”/“the Book” and all that it implies, and the actual texts that make up this so-called “Book”?


Let’s say I write a text that serves a specific purpose or ideological aim, the writing of which is prompted by my own or my culture’s historical circumstances and concerns, and is addressed to a specific audience or community. It is a text advocating a particular practice, belief system or worldview. Got that? Now let’s say Joe on the other side of town has different views than myself. A couple decades after my text, he writes a text that disagrees with my ideology and furthermore writes it to a different audience. Unlike my text, Joe advocates for a different course of action and has a slightly different worldview and belief system. Ok. Now let’s say I’ve long died, Joe has passed away, but our texts have become authoritative within the specific communities we wrote to and for. A century later, Susie comes along and thinks she can reconcile the differences between mine and Joe’s texts, and her course of action is to rewrite the text that I wrote and to present it more inline with Joe’s ideological aims. Let it also be said that the rewritten text she is composing, using my original text as base, is meant to replace my original text. In fact, Susie even goes so far as to present her text as written by me! But as far as I am concerned (from the grave), Susie has distorted my ideas and my text, and certainly has misrepresented me in presenting me as the author of the text she is composing. Nevertheless, Susie is also writing her text, a rewriting of my text, for a specific historical need or concern, and to and for a specific audience. After time, however, Susie’s text (pseudo-mine) also gains some sort of authoritative standing within its community. Time passes, indeed another century, and a new community arises and due to specific historical circumstances and concerns, new needs also arise. These can be met by authenticating earlier authoritative texts as part of a new canon. So a group of ruling elites and educators collect all 3 texts together—my original text, Joe’s text, and Susie’s text meant to replace mine but presented as a false-mine text (i.e., this community has not heard of Susie; they assume the text was written by me). Furthermore, all three of these texts are anonymous to this new community; they do not know who wrote any of them. And finally, they label this collection of anonymous texts as “the Book.”

But wait a minute, how can these 3 different texts—written by 3 different authors, for different purposes and to different audiences, and each advocating a different ideology or belief system, one of which is even a pseudo-text—be imagined as a single homogenous book? Imagine now that there are not just 3 original contending texts or voices here, but dozens and dozens and dozens! This, in fact, is a vastly over-simplified analogy of what the Bible is!

You can start to imagine the complexities of our original question, What is the Bible. It is thus in this manner that I ask: are the texts that came to be labeled as “the Book” by this later community, and for the purpose of meeting the concerns and needs of its historical circumstances, the same as the individual texts themselves? Think again about the individual circumstances of mine, Joe’s and Susie’s (pseudo-mine) texts. Doesn’t the label “Book” onto what became an anonymous collection of authoritative texts distort or re-present in a different interpretive framework, these original texts? Is what this “Book” means to this later culture the same as what mine, Joe’s, and Susie’s text meant for their authors, and their respected communities and time periods? How could it? And likewise, how can the label “Bible” do justice to its more than 66 different individual, and conflicting as we will examine, voices? It can’t! The “Bible” cannot be the same as the Bible.

So in conclusion, my contention is, with forthcoming textual data to confirm this position, that what the Bible is (i.e., what is meant, implied, and invoked, by the label “Bible”/“Book”) stands in opposition to what the Bible is (i.e., the 66+ once independent texts, which were written over a period of roughly one-thousand years, by varying authors, and under diverse historical circumstances and religious and political convictions). How can the label “Bible” define let alone defend these biblical texts? Rather, the label “Bible” prejudicially defines these texts through the interpretive framework already inherent in and implied by the term “Bible.” And thus the label “Bible” is actually negligent, and perhaps even disingenuous toward, these once independent texts with their independent and historically anchored purposes of composition. This is what I mean by the Bible vs “the Bible.” It is the difference between the interpretive framework implied, erroneously we might add, through the labeling of these individual texts as “the Book,” and the actual texts themselves understood as products of their respective historical contexts. The implication here is that the Bible as it is known to us is not, is in no way, similar to all its individual contending once independent voices. That the very label “Bible” on this collection of texts already distorts these texts, neglects these text’s many authors and their different arguments, worldviews, and even beliefs—co-opts these texts into and for a new and different interpretive agenda represented by the word “Bible” or “Book.” So, what the Bible is is not equivalent to what the biblical texts are and were prior to being bookended together and co-opted under the label “Book.”

What is the Bible? must be a query addressed to the content of this so-called “book” and not merely what the label itself invokes or implies. In other words, the texts themselves must be the object of our study, not the interpretive framework imposed on these texts by the term “Bible.”

This entry was posted in Studying the Bible and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *