Category Archives: What is the Bible?

Ancient Stories and the Bible’s stories

Stories were as much a part of the ancient world as the television is for us today. People told and heard stories on a daily basis. It was part of their lifeblood. Stories defined a people’s identity and origins; they explained the origins of current political and religious institutions; and they preserved traditional beliefs, worldviews, and customs. Most stories enjoyed a long oral tradition before they were finally written down. In many cases alternative versions of stories existed. A people living at one place in time might tell the story that they inherited from their forefathers differently in order to suit the needs of their community, or to better represent the changing views and beliefs of their community. One can easily imagine changing narrative details in an old story in order to modernize its message. If you’ve ever seen a modern production of a Shakespeare play, or Dickens’ A Christmas Read more

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Studying the Bible objectively

What does it mean to study the Bible scientifically or objectively? How is this different from studying the Bible subjectively, that is with respect to its subject, its readers? What might be the advantages of studying the Bible objectively? What would be its purpose? Or, the real question might be: can the Bible be studied objectively given that it is dear, on a subjective level, to the hearts of millions?

If, for example, I posted a survey where one had to fill in the blank, “the Bible is ______?,” I suppose that I would receive a number of differing responses. I suppose furthermore that these different responses would all be subjective in nature. They would all be premised by an unarticulated “I think that the Bible is….” or “I believe that the Bible is….,” or “My inherited tradition, culture, or faith community informs me that the Bible is….” But what … Read more

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“The Bible” — a misnomer?

This is the last post in our introduction to What is the Bible. Next we will start to look at specific biblical passages and deduce hypotheses concerning the biblical text’s composite nature.

Does the label “the Bible”—“the Book”—accurately represent its content, that is the once separate, numerous, and often competing, texts and traditions that were written over a thousand-year period by different authors, to different audiences, and to address the needs and concerns of different peoples, worldviews, and even beliefs? How could it? It is a label that by its very nature imposes a homogeneous interpretive framework onto what is then viewed as a canonical book, which was furthermore a product of a later generation of readers, who were themselves influenced by the needs, concerns, and beliefs of their own historical era.

In a very real sense, then, “the Bible” as a title for this collection of ancient texts and … Read more

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What’s in a name? from biblia to Bible

This post follows the What is the Bible? series and is excerpted from a chapter I’m writing.

The English “Bible,” literally “Book,” is derived directly from its Latin cognate biblia, which itself is a loan word from the Greek βιβλία. The Greek however is a plural noun meaning “books.” So how do we move from the plural “books” (Greek biblia) to the singular “Book” (Latin biblia) while seemingly not changing the noun nor its form? And moreover how does this transition affect the way we read and understand the books of the Book?

The Greek βιβλία, transcribed in Latin letters as biblia, is a neuter plural noun which is often understood as meaning “books.” However, this understanding is in fact anachronistic. For books did not yet exist; there were no books in the time period we’re concerned with. There were instead “texts” or “scrolls” of papyri. … Read more

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What is the Bible? (Part 3)

So what does the Bible itself tell us about its compositional nature? We are now able to respond objectively to this question:

The Bible is a collection of ancient texts and traditions.

Granted, this does not yet tell us much, but it is an objective starting point and one that can readily be accepted by Jews and Christians of various persuasions, and even agnostics and atheists. Indeed, there is not much here to dispute. A glance at the Bible’s table of contents would only confirm our initial assessment: the Bible is in fact a compilation of other books, a book composed of other books. In other words, the Bible is a composite text, a text composed out of earlier texts and traditions.

This very fact presents us with a bit of an irony. The Bible, a word which literally means “Book,” is actually no book at all, but rather a … Read more

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What is the Bible? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I suggested that there were two distinct ways one might respond to our query What is the Bible?: subjectively and objectively—the former focusing on what the Bible means from the perspective of the individual subject, and the latter on what the Bible is from the perspective of the Bible itself, the object under examination. I also suggested that when the vast majority of people think about, invoke, refer to, attempt to define or describe the Bible and what it is, this is done from a purely subjective level. In other words, ‘what the Bible is’ gets reduced to what the Bible means to an individual, to various faith-communities, or even to a culture. Thus when one invokes the Bible, they are usually invoking a subjective idea of the Bible, and not the actual biblical texts themselves. Let me enumerate by way of an example.

In her Bible: Read more

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What is the Bible? (Part 1)

What is the Bible and how did it come to be? is the question I’ve posed for my current research and writing project, and thus also our topic for discussion here. It is a fair question, and one that should be of interest to a large number of individuals, regardless of religious affiliation. Yet before we attempt to answer this rather sensitive question, I’d like us first to think about the question itself, about the ways in which we might respond to such a question, and to think about the givens or assumptions that may already be inherent in our question as well as in any pre-defined, even pre-mature, answers we might harbor before the biblical text is actually studied.

What is the Bible? is a good question. But what do we mean by that question? Is what I as a biblical scholar mean by this question the same as … Read more

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