In a recent conversation about the Bible, I referred to it as “a collection of texts known as the Bible.” Someone responded:
“In the collection known as the Bible?? I’m sorry, my friend, but you have gone off the deep end…”
This response was a bit of a surprise. The fact that the Bible is comprised of various books by various authors is common knowledge to anyone who has taken a single religion class in high school or college, or to anyone who has actually opened a Bible. As a young child, I was required to memorize “the books of the Bible.”
The fact that this statement was alarming to someone, in this case, a pastor—is itself alarming. If our clergy are unaware of basic truths about what kind of “book” the Bible is, well, that doesn’t bode well for having informed congregations.
As a child I’m not sure that I understood what it actually meant that the Bible was made up of various books. I took it for granted that the Bible was a single, solitary unit, comprised of contributions from various authors, yes, but ALL given directly and supernaturally from God via the Holy Spirit. We were not encouraged to think very hard or long about the fact that each of these texts were written by different human beings in various historical contexts and situations. This would have made things unnecessarily complex. It was much simpler to just open the Bible and say, “God says …”
But the more I’ve studied the Bible, it’s development, context, varied authorship and more via biblical scholarship, I’ve realized it often makes more sense—and is more helpful—to say “Paul says …” or “the author(s) of Isaiah say…” It’s a subtle but important distinction, and allows the original authors to speak, especially when we speak in light of when they are writing, whom they are writing to, and what historical situation may be prompting them to write at all.
But back to the origins of the Bible. It is comprised of many writings from various periods. The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, is a collection of writings from ancient Israel. There are differences between the Protestant Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the ordering of the books. The Roman Catholic Canon includes several books not included in either the Protestant OT or the Hebrew Bible: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, various others, and extended versions of Daniel and Esther, including the stories of Susanna and Bel and the Dragon. How Protestants felt it was necessary to exclude a story about dragons I’ll never understand. This is a ripoff to Sunday School teachers everywhere. The Greek Orthodox church has a still larger canon, including 1 Esdras, Psalm 151, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees. The Ethiopian Church also includes the books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch.
These collections of books are known as “canons.” The word originally meant “rule” or “measuring stick.” It is interesting to know that various churches/traditions have varying canons. In his book, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, John J. Collins notes that the differences between the various canons can be traced back to the differences between the Scriptures that became the Hebrew Bible and the larger collection which circulated in Greek. I would refer you to his book if you want more details. Collins does note that the word “canon” is a bit anachronistic to use in the context of ancient Judaism or even earliest Christianity, simply because such a canon did not yet exist then, and even earliest lists of texts referred to as Scriptures varied for some time.
“It should be apparent from this discussion that the list of books that make up the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament emerged gradually over time. This list was (and to some degree still is) a subject of dispute. The various canons were eventually determined by the decisions of religious communities. Christian theology has often drawn a sharp line between Scripture and tradition, but in fact Scripture itself is a product of tradition. Its content and shape have been matters of debate, and are subject to the decisions of religious authorities in the various religious traditions.”
He goes on to speak about the various manuscripts that exist and the many discrepancies among them. Some traditions have much shorter versions of books like Jeremiah, different versions of the David and Goliath story, different chapters in Daniel, just to mention a few. These are some of the major differences. There are also many smaller differences in terms of wording, dates, names, and more.
Collins notes that in light of all this “it makes little sense to speak of verbal inerrancy or the like in connection with the biblical text.” He notes that in many cases we cannot be sure what the exact words of the Bible should be. Indeed, it is open to question whether we should speak of the biblical text at all: “in some cases we have to accept the fact that we have more than one form of the text.”
This is not someone trying to “undermine the Bible.” This is more like, “Bible 101,” and is known and agreed to almost universally among biblical scholars, regardless of their faith commitments. These are no doubt some of the reasons my own denomination does not hold to a position of inerrancy when it comes to Scripture.
The fact that this is threatening to certain views of the Bible is not a reason to ignore it, or pretend this isn’t what the Bible actually is. Now, many of us believe it is more than that, but certain faith commitments can’t make the realities of the texts we have and how we got them any different. I may, for example, believe in an idealized, patriotic version of US history, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore some of the uglier realities if I am in a position to learn them.
To reiterate: Collins is not some radical scholar going out on a limb on any of this stuff. His Introduction to the Hebrew Bible is one of the most widely used textbooks at the undergraduate and graduate level. James VanderKam, Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at the University of Notre Dame, says “John Collin’s introduction is a timely and welcome contribution, one based on his own extensive research and on his many years of teaching the subject. The reader will find not only a careful presentation of the biblical material but also a judicious assessment of scholarship on it.”
The obvious conclusion to all of this is that the Bible is a product of history. Whatever you believe about its divine inspiration, we know these texts were written by human beings. What we refer to as “the Bible” took shape over time and scholars agree that over that duration of time “its content and even its wording changed in the process.” Collins notes that this is no different from any other book, except that the Bible is “really a collection of books, and its composition and transmission is spread over an exceptionally long period of time.”
This is quite basic stuff. I learned that there were various books of the Bible as a kid. As adults, particularly adults who are students or teachers of the Bible, let’s not pretend otherwise. If so, we might miss out on the varied richness of the texts we do have, in favor of an imaginary “magic text” that we don’t have. I think it’s fine—and certainly much easier—to refer to a given canon as “the Bible,” but let’s do so understanding that we are using a popular convention to refer to a complex collection.
I believe the biblical texts have important things to say to us today, yet we risk distorting and misappropriating these messages if we don’t understand some basic things about them, even things we learned as children.
Perhaps most importantly, we’d miss out on the dragons.
Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, writer, and author of the book, Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation and God. He enjoys studying and teaching on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and reading biblical scholarship when he isn’t playing catch with his boys.