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 you or as someone whose relationship to the text is defined by their faith? Should it be different? Might one’s faith prematurely dictate what the response ought to be, prior to actually investigating the biblical texts themselves? How exactly does one, or should one, go about answering our question in the first place? What about the word “Bible”? What do we mean when we invoke the word “Bible”? What effect does the word “Bible” have on us? Does this affect the way one answers the question, ‘What is the Bible’? In other words, have we as individuals, faith-communities, a culture, already imposed a pre-defined answer to the question ‘what is the Bible?’ that is based on what the Bible means to us or how the mere utterance of the word “Bible” affects us? Aren’t the questions ‘what is the Bible?’ and ‘what does the Bible mean (to us)?’ two separate questions? Wouldn’t the latter question elicit a subjective response? When someone invokes a biblical passage or the word “Bible” for a particular purpose or with a particular meaning in mind is this the same as expressing what the Bible is? Isn’t this rather a subjective meaning—that is, defined by the subject, in this case the reader or hearer of the text? Does this have anything to do with what the Bible is, or is this merely what the Bible means to us, to a particular individual, community, or culture? Aren’t these different questions? That is, one question focuses on understanding the Bible from the perspective of its subjects, what it means to its readers (real or implied); while the other question focuses on understanding the Bible from the sole study of the object under examination, i.e., the Bible. Lastly, how are we able to distinguish between responses to ‘what the Bible means’ and ‘what the Bible is’? If it’s a given that the Bible means something to us as a culture, as individuals, then have we not already prematurely answered the question ‘what is the Bible’ with the response appropriate to ‘what does the Bible mean’? Could, in fact, what the Bible means to a particular individual, community, or culture be completely different than, or even at odds with, what the Bible actually is? What if this turns out to be the case?

Or, take these sets of questions. The question ‘What is the Bible?’ already presupposes the existence of the Bible. We know that the Bible as we have it was not formed until the  3rd century AD, and largely under a Christian interpretive agenda (more about this later). Would our answer to the question ‘what is the Bible?’ be the same or similar to a culture or community which existed before there was a Bible? Think about it – especially if it is the Bible or what the word “Bible” invokes in us that bears meaning for us. Do we not automatically fall back into thinking about what the Bible means for us, our culture, faith-communities, etc., comparative to what these scrolls pre-Bible meant for communities living millennia ago? Do you think they meant the same thing? And how could you know? Moreover, is what the Bible is the same as what the Bible’s many scrolls (or biblia, “books”) were or meant to a particular community at some particular time and geo-political world? What if we went further back in time with our question. If we were hypothetically to ask a community of Hellenistic Jews living circa the dawn of the common-era what were the scrolls they were reading—commonly know as ‘the (scroll of the) law and the (scrolls of the) prophets’—do you think their response would be similar to our response to the question ‘what is the Bible’? Should it be? What about the ascetic Jews living at Qumran who were frantically copying and safeguarding numerous scrolls (deemed both canonical and non-canonical by later communities), would they respond similarly? Or what about the Judean Jews living in the 5th-4th centuries BC who [i.e., the educated scribes, Levites] actually collected, codified, and authenticated as scripture the texts and traditions that now make up ‘the scroll(s) of the law of Moses’ or the Torah—would they respond similarly? The question ‘what is the scroll of the law of Moses?’ cannot possibly invoke the same response, nor mean the same thing, as ‘what is the Bible?’ with its additional 61 books, different agendas, different audiences, and different expressed political and religious concerns and beliefs. Could it? Should it? What if we moved even further back in time, to the actual authors of the texts and traditions that later became collected together and labeled as “the Bible”? To the Levite priest writing a scroll in the 7th century BC that will become the core of the book of Deuteronomy: What was the text that he was writing, and to whom? This is certainly not the Bible! nor even envisioned as part of what almost 10 centuries later will be labeled “the Bible” by vastly different people, for a vastly different audience, and to address vastly different concerns and beliefs. What about this Levite priest’s adversary, the Aaronide priest writing a century or two later (6th-5th c. BC), who most probably was writing a scroll to replace the scroll of his Levite predecessor and to denounce the claims written therein (we will examine this later)—would these two priests have responded similarly to ‘what is this scroll’? Is this the same as ‘what is the Bible?’ Aren’t subjective answers unavoidable here? Or, what of the chronicler (the author of the books of Chronicles), who, living in the 4th century BC, rewrote the ‘history’ of Israel as preserved in the earlier books of Samuel and Kings in order to have ‘history’ now represent and address the chronicler’s own religious concerns, beliefs, and worldview—what were the scrolls that he was writing? And what were the scrolls that he saw himself replacing? Are these all to be answered with the same response as ‘what is the Bible’? We could go on like this citing many more examples and we have not even addressed the New Testament authors, many of whom dramatically changed the parameters of what is or what was becoming the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible itself, as it was formed, even preserves variant responses to our question ‘what is the Bible’? To take one example out of many (we will look at others later): Paul’s dispute with his Jewish brethren as depicted in his letter to the Galatians (circa 54-56 AD) is not only one centered on reinterpreting the figure of Abraham, but the whole ‘biblical’ story. Paul’s hypothetical answer to the question ‘what is the law and the prophets?’ (since the Bible was still not created) would have not only clashed with the Judean church’s response (as depicted in the Galatian debate), but also with the responses from the chronicler, our 7th century BC Levite priest, the author of the book of Ezekiel, and even of Isaiah, although Paul cites this text to support his gospel (reading Isaiah through a new interpretive lens; we will look at this later). These examples can be duplicated hundreds and hundreds of times. In other words the answer to our question, ‘what is the Bible?,’ seems to depend on what community is being asked, where and in what geo-political worldview, and moreover of what texts are being asked. Is what the Bible is, therefore, dependent on a subjective understanding of what the Bible or pre-biblical scrolls were or meant to different communities? Certainly what the Bible is for our modern culture is vastly different from what the scroll that would become the book of Leviticus was to its author and community, and this example can be duplicated numerous times when we look at the texts that eventually became the Bible independently.

And there it is. The question “What is the Bible?” already prejudices its answer through that which is already taken as an unquestioned given in the question itself: namely that our question is posed to, and of, a Book! Since Bible means “Book” our question already presupposes we are dealing with a Book. The examples above were meant to break that down a bit. On the one hand the Bible is a book, yet before it became a book (3rd c. AD) it was independent scrolls and codices, many of which were written to replace earlier texts or to expresses competing views, and, as suggested above, would have elicited very different responses to the question ‘what is the Bible?’ It seems on the one hand that what the Bible is is something specific that came into existence in the 3rd century AD (the Torah, 4th c. BC) and even there the response to the question ‘What is the Bible’ might be different from ours. And on the other hand, what the Bible is are the actual earlier scrolls that came to be collected together and labeled as ‘the Bible’ by this later generation of readers, whose religious and political concerns, we must acknowledge, were vastly different from those who some 8-6 centuries earlier originally penned the scrolls that eventually became the Bible. To some extent, these preliminaries have already indicated to us, to return to the modern era, what the Bible is—namely, a collection of scrolls, where each independent text was deemed something utterly different before it was collected together with other texts and traditions and labeled “the Book.” Isn’t it quite unavoidable that we now read and understand these many, variant, and once independent scrolls and codices through the interpretive framework inherent in labeling these texts as “the Book”? And that this then changes, alters, not only the meaning of these texts, but how they are conceived and what they are conceived to be? Aren’t these many, variant, and once independent texts, with their many authors, audiences, and purposes of composition each something quite different than what this Book is—a later creation by and for a later community? But here we have gotten ahead of ourselves….

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