How to Read the Bible – what is the Bible?
Children’s stories, the Good News, God’s love letter, a rule book, Best Instructions Before Leaving Earth… there are lots of ways we think of the Bible but what exactly is the Good Book?
Some very practical stuff to start with: the one book is actually a little library of lots of books. The Christian Bible most of us will be familiar with has 66 books – 39 of which form the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. Much of the Old Testament we share in common with the Hebrew Bible used by Jews, which comprises the Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (writings). (For more on this have a look at this worksheet from the Bible Project).
These books vary a lot in terms of style and content as they were written by at least 40 different authors and in different languages over a period of between one and two thousand years (some scholars estimate around 1600, others say 1000, and there is lots of disagreement!). To put this in context, take a look at these opening lines of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon poem written around 1000 years ago – just think how much English language, culture and literature has changed since those words were written, and you’ll start to get an idea of the wide scope of culture and context the Bible covers!
They also contain a variety of types of writing with around 43% of the Bible written as narrative (stories) such as parables, historical stories and so on. 33% is poetry such as songs, reflections and crafted prophetic art. And 24% is prose discourse which is stuff like sermons, teaching and laws. Story is hugely important in the Bible – from the stories like Noah’s Ark to the Prodigal Son. In the ancient world of the earliest bits of the Bible, it was really unusual to write in this form, most of bordering neighbours wrote long epic poems, so it was something new and unique to ancient Israel to choose to craft their history into brilliantly crafted short stories with each detail carefully chosen and full of meaning. Lots of details are deliberately left out – think how rarely we get to hear what someone looks like for example – so that when it is mentioned we know it will be important to the rest of the narrative, like Samson’s hair or Esau’s hairy arms!
At different points in Israel’s history, these collections of writings were gathered and formed into the book we know, with some books making the cut and others being left out. There are variations on the Bible which are used by different branches of the church which feature some extra books such as the books of Macabees or Enoch, which didn’t make it into the canon (or collection) that we use. And there were probably other writings that have been lost over time such as the Book of the Battles of Yahweh (Numbers 21:14) or the Book of the Kings of Israel and Judah (1 Kings 14:19).
Many of the books we know were shaped and crafted during the process with some ancient sections being edited and added to with more contemporary bits, titles, introductions and explanations. Think for example of the end of the book of Deuteronomy, a book which Jewish and Christian tradition says was written by Moses: ‘Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. 12 For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel‘. Moses himself clearly didn’t write these words after his own death, and the phrase ‘since then’ suggests an author much later looking back and explaining to the readers in his own time.
One of the illustrations that get used to describe this is the picture of the Bible being assembled a bit like a family quilt. Some of the pieces are very ancient, handed down from generation to generation, some are newer. Each bit is trimmed and shaped and edged as it’s assembled to fit the whole, making up something beautiful that represents the family past and present.
It can be a bit unsettling to think of the Bible as something shaped and crafted by humans when we are used to approaching the Bible as the infallible Word of God. We understand the Bible to be both human and divine (written by man but inspired by God), but we get a bit twitchy when we come face to face with the human bits. But just as Jesus was both man and God, the whole story of the Bible is the wonder of God himself wanting to be right in the middle of humanity, His love reaching us in all our messes, scrapes and imperfections –Immanuel, God with us. When we look a bit closer and see the artistry and crafting of the Bible, yes, we notice the human hand, but we can’t help but also be amazed at the genius, the divine hand at work too.
The more I look into the amazing book of this tiny nation from the ancient world, the more I am amazed by the loving Father who is happy to let His kids tell the family stories their way – although it may or may not always be quite “how it happened”, I can see the family likeness, the reflection of the Father, shining through from start to finish and I can’t help but be in awe.