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. The important thing to note, even if we wish for the sake of convenience to keep “books” as the translation of the Greek biblia, is that the term is plural and it was used in a plural sense.
For our purposes, the first occurrence of the Greek term biblia appears in works written circa the late 2nd century BC and the 1st century BC. Both 1 Maccabees 1:56 and 2 Maccabees 2:13-15 speak of collections of biblia, such as “the biblia of the law” and “the biblia about the kings and the prophets.” Properly the term denotes “scrolls”—the scrolls of the law that were then collected and kept in the temple precinct. Another 2nd century BC text, the book of the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), also speaks of the books—“scrolls”—that have become authoritative for the Jewish people then: “the law and the prophets and the other biblia of our ancestors” (1:10). These brief occurrences are of extreme importance because they also indicate that by the second and first centuries BC there was already a set Hebrew canon: the law and the prophets, and other scrolls or writings. We may wish to add to this list the testimony of 1st century AD writers such as the Jewish historian Josephus, who speaks of the 22 scrolls (biblia) that make up the Hebrew canon (Against Apion 1.37), and the Gospel writers, who merely speak of “the law and the prophets” (Matt 5:17; 7:12; 22:40; Jn 1:45; cf. Lk 24:44).
Of course the Greek singular, biblion, was also used when referencing a single “book.” The Greek biblion, in fact, became the standard term to translate the Hebrew word sepher, “scroll.” Thus in the few instances where a sepher is referenced in the Hebrew Bible—as for example Exodus 24:7 which mentions “the scroll (sepher) of the covenant,” or Nehemiah 8:3 where “the scroll of the torah of Moses” is mentioned, or the mention in Numbers 21:14 of an ancient scroll now lost, “the scroll of the wars of Yahweh”—the Septuagint, which is a 3rd century BC Greek translation of some of the “scrolls” of the Hebrew canon, uses biblion as the translation for the Hebrew sepher. Thus biblion must be translated as “scroll” in these contexts. Likewise in our examples above of the uses of its plural biblia, the proper understanding is the “scrolls” of the law and the prophets.
The use of the Greek word biblia in the early Christian period also follows this same usage, yet with a significant difference—the emergence of the codex, that is the modern book form. The codex in other words replaced the scroll. Now instead of having to unroll a very large piece of papyrus to read a manuscript, one merely had to open up a codex, and much like the modern book, at any desired place. Most notably too, the codex form could hold more text than the ancient and cumbersome scroll. This codex form was aggressively adopted by the early church, and even though the word biblia was used to now designate “the books” of the Christian canon, these texts were produced in codex form where one “book” was followed by another. In other words, the codex form enabled scribes to copy many individual and independent scrolls onto one codex, one “book.” So earlier independent biblia, “scrolls,” were now reproduced as part of a larger codex of biblia, which also came to be designated by the term biblia.
Not only did the codex form reinforce, indeed create, the idea of a single book, the content of which was many previous single “books” or “scrolls,” but the notion of an orthodox canon also accentuated the idea of many books representing one “rule” or “standard.” The formation of a canon for the emergent Christian church, which occurred during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, developed concomitantly with the idea that these canonical biblia now expressed and lent themselves to be interpreted as a single authoritative ‘narrative.’ The point is that although the plural biblia was still employed throughout the early centuries of Christendom, the idea of a homogenous book was nonetheless coming into vogue, through both the codex form and the idea of a set canon of biblia.
This new format, a book that now housed all the canonical books or biblia, created a whole new interpretive framework within which to read and understand the various biblia it now contained. Moreover, all of these innovations were external to the actual texts or biblia themselves. In other words, the idea of a single codex and a unified canon were external developments and had nothing to do with what these texts were and what they actually said as products of their unique historical eras and geo-political worlds [more here & here]. Nothing intrinsic to these once individual biblia brought these changes about. Rather, these once individual biblia, “scrolls” written centuries earlier, took on new meaning to a new readership, and were placed in a new interpretive framework: the canonical “book” or codex of biblia. What these once separate and ancient biblia said outside of this new interpretive homogenous narrative represented by the canonical codex became irrelevant or secondary at best. Now they were read under and through an interpretive grid which imposed the idea of a unified homogenous narrative, a single book or codex of books (biblia), and even envisioned as the product of a single divine author!
These developments were furthermore accompanied by yet another interpretive maneuver which took as its premise this idea of a single homogeneous narrative and authorship, namely Christian exegetical practices. In sum, the very idea of a “book” presented itself: in the concept of an authoritative canon, in the newly adopted codex form of the early church, and the mode of exegesis endorsed by early church Fathers that sought to legitimate and demonstrate the books of the canon as a homogeneous narrative fabric. Learned church Fathers and apologists sought to anchor Christian doctrine in the canon of Hebrew scripture by re-interpreting, indeed often re-appropriating, Old Testament passages as prefigurations or prophecies of Christian doctrine. This new Christian interpretive approach to the Old Testament was actually indicative of a more pervasive hermeneutic tendency prevalent in the Judaism of the emergent church, namely to understand and interpret the books of the Hebrew canon as prophesying current eschatological events. For Christians, the current eschatological event was Jesus and the emergent church. It’s important to recognize that this interpretive approach was carried out with little to no real knowledge of the nature of the texts which were now being impregnated with new meaning. The individual texts simply became vehicles for the larger interpretive framework now imposed on these various biblia. That is to say, they now meant little to nothing apart from this larger interpretive and external framework. Today, that external and interpretive framework goes by the name “the Bible.”