Have you ever considered that the Bible evolved? It didn’t fall from heaven in the form which we now know. It had a long and complex history, passing through many hands and being influenced by many minds and circumstances. And this evolution is an integral part of its richness.
Because of its history, the Bible offers us a map of human history and of the human quest for authentic spirituality. It is not the only map—it is one among many. But it is a valuable map of the terrain that we must all navigate in our own personal spiritual journeys. And it speaks into pretty much every facet of our human experience, even though our world is now so different from that of the biblical writers.
This podcast explores the long and complicated journey that the Bible took to get to us in its present form. And it invites us to allow the evolving Bible to inspire and nurture our own evolution into our most sacred selves.
So let me begin with this question: Why do you read the Bible? Assuming that you do, and if you don’t, why don’t you? Just think a bit about your relationship with the Bible through those questions. If you do read the Bible, what do you hope to get from your reading of the Bible? If you don’t, are there other sacred texts or other books that you read to try and enrich your life in some way? Well, let’s focus on the Bible, because that’s what we’re talking about in this series, so for now we’ll do that.
Many of us read the Bible as a spiritual practice, because we’ve been taught to, but also to immerse ourselves in a sense of God’s presence and to listen for God’s word to us, to get a sense of God speaking to us. Then linked with that we read the Bible for discipleship, to grow as disciples of Christ, to become more like Christ. We also read the Bible to understand God’s perspective on the world, on others, on ourselves and maybe to use the Bible to make ethical, moral, political, and personal decisions about how to live. And you can see even as I’m speaking that there’s a particular perspective about the Bible and about God that comes with our decision to read it or not.
Regardless of what your relationship with the Bible is though, let me ask you: How do you describe the Bible? What is the Bible to you? Here are a few descriptions that I’m going to throw out and we will be unpacking some of these descriptions in the next few weeks, but what do these descriptions mean to you, how do they speak to you, or not?
The Bible is a library of books, not a single book, a library of books, written by many authors, compiled and edited by others, over thousands of years. The Bible is inspired. We read these words in 2 Timothy chapter 3:14-17: “But you must remain faithful to the things you’ve been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. You have been taught the Holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes in trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true, and to make us realise what is wrong in our lives. It connects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.”
That word “inspired” can be translated as “God-breathed”, or it’s been breathed into by God. Now remember when this was being written, the Gospels and even some of Paul’s letters had not been written yet. The Canon of Scripture was not yet in place, so the writer is not necessarily referring to the Bible as we have it now. But nevertheless, there is something to be said about this idea of Scripture being inspired. But you’ll also notice that there’s nothing in what I’ve just read that says the Bible is inerrant or infallible. It just says it’s inspired, that God has breathed into it. It also says that the importance of the Scriptures is not that we have the right ideas—yes, our ideas are informed—but at the end it says that God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. It’s so that those who seek to follow Christ can be equipped to do everything that is good. It’s about how we live, about how we act, how we relate.
So the Bible is a library of books, the Bible is inspired. Just think for a moment what those words might mean to you.
How did the Bible come to us? Many of us know this and you can pick up a lot of this information anywhere online, but let’s just quickly get a picture of how the Bible came into being in the form that we know it. Much of the Bible began as an oral tradition, it was shared by being spoken, wisdom was shared in conversation, stories were told around a fire or a table. And little by little those stories got put into manuscripts, separate manuscripts for each story or each small collection of stories. And then those manuscripts would have been compiled into smaller books, which then over time got compiled into larger books, which then got edited, and rearranged, and compiled, and collated again, and ordered. And then finally after thousands of years the Bible came into its final form.
But that brings us to this word: The Canon. The Bible that most of us know is called the Canon of Scripture, it’s all of these books and letters and different bits of literature and writing that have been brought together and put together and said “okay, this is our Bible, this is our sacred text.” But it wasn’t always like that. The Apostle Paul didn’t know he was writing Scripture. Probably most of the Biblical writers didn’t think of what they were doing as actually writing a book that future generations would consider to be “the Word of God”.
So how did the Bible get formed into this Canon, into this final fixed form that we have with us. Well, it’s uncertain when that happened for the Old Testament, and there are many different ideas of when it happened. And the Old Testament Canon, if you look at the Hebrew Bible, is different from what most of us know in the Christian world. The Hebrew Bible, for example, has only 24 books—it combines some of the books we know into single books where they are more than one for us. we come to the Christian Bible which of course includes the New Testament, but let’s stay with the Old Testament at the moment, in the Protestant version of the Old Testament there are 39 books. The Catholic version, however, includes what we call the “Apocrypha”—the Apocrypha literally means the hidden books—and it includes the intertestamental books—so there are 17 of those plus an extra Psalm, so there are more books in the Catholic version of the Old Testament.
But you can see that there is a lot of difference between different communities and the Canon that they have. The same is true for the New Testament. The New Testament came into being—or the Christian Scriptures we might call them—as the product of much debate, many church councils, and many revisions. I’m not going to go through all of that history but for the Protestants, the Canon was pretty much finalised in 1563 with the Thirty-Nine Articles for the Anglicans. In 1647 the Westminster Confession of Faith finalised it for the Presbyterians. The Catholics in 1546 had the Council of Trent which finalised their version of the Canon. And the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1672 the Synod of Jerusalem finalised their Canon. And again you can see that there are still differences between different Canons, different versions of the Scriptures used by different branches of the Church.
Of course, none of this was in printing initially. It was only much later that Scripture got printed. It was written by hand before that. It was only with Gutenberg where printing became available and in 1455 the first Bible was printed in Latin. The first English Bible was the Coverdale Bible that came out in 1535. And before this individual Christians had no access to the Bible themselves. Handwritten copies were kept in churches and only the priests could read them. But even at this point most people were still illiterate, so even if they had a Bible, they wouldn’t have been able to read it for themselves.
And then of course we recognise that the Bible has been translated. Our original manuscripts for Scripture are in Hebrew, and Aramiac, and Greek, and then the first translations that happened translated them into Latin. The first English translation was only completed in 1382 by John Wycliffe.
And of course translation is a challenge. Particularly when you look at Hebrew, because int he original Hebrew there were no vowels and no punctuation. So I remember my Old Testament teacher when I was at University, Robin Wakeley giving us this illustration: he put up a bunch of letters on the blackboard, just consonants, because there are no vowels in Hebrew. So he put up these letters: W M NW TH TH RM NSNN M L, and then that was the end of the sentence. And he asked us what this sentence might mean. Well of course, none of us could tell him what that really meant, so he puts some vowels in for us. And the vowels meant that what we read was this: woman without her man is an animal. And of course, all the men started laughing and all the women in my class felt kind of offended, until he did something different—he added punctuation in. And what he did was after the word ‘woman’ he put an exclamation mark. Then he put ‘without her’ comma and then left the rest of the sentence. So what we first read as ‘Woman without her man, is an animal’ now became ‘Woman! Without her, man is an animal’. The same letters, without vowels or punctuation, could be interpreted in two possible ways that were completely contradictory. That’s what Bible translators are dealing with.
So this is kind of how the Bible came into being, it’s a very brief and sparse overview, there’s lots more I could fill in. But it gives an idea of the long and complex journey that brought the Bible to us, from an old tradition to small manuscripts put into small collections, put into larger collections, finally compiled and edited and reordered and put together into final books and forms and collections of books, w which then needed to be translated and were selected by various councils and various groups of people to come into what is their Canon—what we know as our Canon, whichever version we read—that gives us the Bible that we know. What this points out is that the Bible did not just drop out heaven fully formed! This whole process had elements of inspiration yes, but it was also mixed in with power plays, and agendas, and simple mistakes—like all human endeavours.
But what does it mean for us when we recognise all this? When we see this journey that brought the Bible to us? Well first of all it tells us that we need to be aware of the background, the authors, the first listeners and readers as far as we can determine who they were, the genre of what is being written and the intentions of the writers as best we can discern them, before we impose our thinking and our interpretation on the text. And we are going to talk more about that as we continue in this series.
Exploring the history of the Bible and how it came into the form that we know it also gives us a wonderful map of human history and how humans experienced and understood the divine throughout history. Yes, obviously there are other strains, and other paths, and other sacred texts, and other ways of understanding humanity and divinity that come out of other cultures. But the Bible, even though it’s limited to its culture, gives us a wonderful picture and a wonderful map of the human story and the story of human spirituality.
And this means that we can find insights and wisdom, principles, and guidance for just about anything we might encounter in our lives—both in the sense that we get some wisdom for what to do and of course sometimes what not to do, but also in the sense that there are some principles there that can apply throughout time and that we can apply to our own lives.
There’s a story in Scripture of redemption, of hope, of healing, of justice, of goodness, beauty and truth. And it’s a story, a myth really—and by this I mean not that it’s untrue, a myth is a story that is truer than just being factual. I’m reminded of Marcus Borg telling the story of, I think it was a Native American grandfather who sits with his grandchildren and says to them: “I want to tell you a story. I don’t know if it really happened like this, but I do know that it is true.” That’s what a myth is, it is true even though it maybe didn’t actually happen the way the story tells it. And so the Bible gives us a myth in that sense. And it’s a myth that we can live into in our quest for sacred living and our quest for showing up fully, authentically and courageously.
The Bible is a complex and varied library of books—we’ll talk more about that next week. It took thousands of years, and dozens of writers, compilers, editors and translators to get it into the form we now know. It has had a fascinating evolution and when we read it with that in mind, we unlock so much more of its richness and wisdom. And the map the Bible gives us of one facet of human history and spiritual evolution is a wonderful gift that can guide us in our own evolution into our most sacred selves.
Next week we examine what is contained in this library of books in more detail. And we’ll see why the variety of authors and genres is one of its greatest gifts.
But for now, that’s all I have. Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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