A couple of years ago I ran a 2-part series for our church’s Wednesday evening bible study titled “What actually is the Bible?”.
The goal was to answer three essential questions:
- What actually is the Bible itself (the “canon of scripture”)?
- Where does it come from?
- How is it in English?
- What is a Bible translation (what we have in English today)?
- Does our choice of Bible translation matter?
- Is there one “perfect” Bible translation out there?
- How do we defend against controversy?
- “That’s not a real Bible because it’s not translation X“
- “That translation is based on outdated language and culture”
I enjoyed planning and running the course, and thought it might benefit others if made available online in a text-only fashion… so, here we are!
Please note: I am not a qualified theologian (I serve as an elder at my church, and I’m in the final year of part-time study for a BTh w/Hons – but I’m not even close to an authority on any subject). I owe a huge debt to the authors of the many books I’ve read and dipped in and out of in the preparation of this course.
A couple of book recommendations, if I may:
[Please note – these are all Amazon affiliate links – if you buy via them, I get a kick-back. All these books are also available on other websites!]
- How to Read the Bible Book by Book
(Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart)
In my opinion, an absolute “must have” for every Christian bookshelf.
- How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
(Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart)
For anyone wanting to “go a little deeper”, I’d buy this next.
- How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth
(Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss)
For anyone wanting to “go a little deeper still” …
- One Bible, many versions
For some in-depth technical details … a really great introduction.
- The Gender Neutral Bible controversy
(Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem)
Now, up-front, I unashamedly believe scripture teaches in the equal value of all human beings – with distinct God-designed differences between men and women. I believe, without any doubt, that “gender” is going to be the issue for the church in my lifetime – and this book presents a very solid set of essays on the subject.
So with all those books promoted (and believe me – these are the tip of the iceberg on the great content there is available on the subject!) – let’s get started…
What is the canon of scripture?
A “canon” (in the context of writings) is “those that are considered authoritative”. The concept isn’t unique to Christianity and the Bible – unless we’re talking specifically about scripture.
This idea of “accepted as authoritative” is important, the Old Testament and New Testament are collections of documents (letters and scrolls) written many years ago … the Jews in the first instance concluded what should be treated as authoritative in the Old Testament, and the early-ish church had agreed most of the New Testament by 200AD, with final agreement on Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation coming around 370AD.
Each of these accepted writings was authored (although we don’t know precisely by whom in all cases) and vary in style (from songs and poems, to narrative history and corrective letters).
The Old Testament
The first handful of books are narrative – writings regarding what happened in (at least per-book) chronological order, followed by some wisdom literature, a healthy dose of Psalms, and finishing with a significant amount of prophesy.
A quick tour tells us from where much of it originates:
- God’s own words – e.g. the 10 commandments (Exodus 31:18, Deuteronomy 10:4-5)
- Moses’ words (Deuteronomy 31:24-26, Numbers 33:2, etc)
- Josua’s words (Joshua 24:26)
- Latter prophets (1 Samuel 10:25, 1 Chronicles 29:29, Jeremiah 30:2, etc)
The Old Testament stopped with the prophets circa 400BC, the start of a silent 400 years – before John the Baptist arrives on the scene.
These writings are Jewish – they were given and belonged to Old Testament Israel in the first instance. There are other Jewish writings from this era (Maccabees, Dead Sea Scrolls, etc) – but they were never accepted as canonical.
We can easily gain certainty that these writings are accurate and good in content by looking at Jesus’ own words. Not only did He never reject the Old Testament writings – He continually affirmed them, quoting them Himself (e.g. Matthew 4:1-11, during his temptation).
Another shameless affiliated Amazon link – there is an exhaustive commentary edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson on the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament which examines every place that Jesus (and any other New Testament writer) quotes directly or otherwise references the Old Testament text.
And we may query regarding the Apocrypha. Well, this wasn’t accepted until 1546AD (whereas the Old Testament had been ‘closed’ some 1500 years earlier…). 1546AD is a date which might sound familiar. It was at the time of the Reformation, and these non-conanical sources contain teaching contrary to Luther’s… coincidence?
The New Testament
The New Testament stands very distinct from the Old Testament in how it came to be.
Firstly it did not belong to the Jews, it – except the first 5 books – is not narrative, there’s also no wisdom literature and practically no poetry or song – it contains very little prophesy (like John the Baptist and John’s vision in Revelation) – and introduces an new and very key term “apostleship”.
- Apostles were empowered by Holy Spirit (John 14:26, John 16:13-14)
- Apostles spoke with special authority (2 Peter 3:2)
- Apostles saw and understood mysteries unseen (1 Corinthians 2:9,13)
- The Apostles recognised each other’s spoken authority (2 Peter 3:15-16)
Now the New Testament wasn’t finalised until much later than the Old – and there were developed strict rules for what should be included and excluded (rules for ‘canonicity’):
- The text must be divinely authored. (Apostle authorship is automatically divine.)
- or must be divinely approved. (Apostle approval is automatically divine – i.e. Paul’s approval.)
Clear example: Luke 10:7 quoted in 1 Timothy 5:17-18 as “the scripture says”.
The astute amongst us may at this point wonder what 1 Corinthians 5:9 is all about… 😉 Well as far as we can tell, there was another letter authored by Paul – which was never divinely maintained for inclusion in scripture
Most of the New Testament books have known apostolic authorship.
Exceptions are: Mark, Luke (and Acts), Hebrews (with an unknown author) and Jude.
Mark and Luke (and Acts) were accepted early thanks to their links with Peter and Paul. Similarly Jude via James (which Luther struggled with). Hebrews? It was just too good to not be included!
And this canonicity is settled as of around 350AD (relatively early New Testament church history). We recognise the severe warnings about now seeking to add or remove from it (Revelation 22:18-19).
Next, we’re going to look at the “divine inspiration” of scripture…