How the Bible Came to Be

Like most people, I grew up in a family that owned a hefty, king-sized, King James family Bible. Ours had a slightly padded beige cover with gold-embossed lettering and gilded-edged pages. It included wonderful artwork, maps and pages where you could insert details of your family tree. I enjoyed reading the names, birth dates and anniversaries that my mother had entered. The implication, I guess, was that the book would become an heirloom passed on from one generation to the next. It was obvious to me that the Bible was given special status, and although we rarely read it, I understood that the contents were revered and authoritative.

This divine mystique, the assumption that the Bible was inspired by God from cover to cover, describes a common impression of the contents of the 'Good Book' in Western culture. John Barton, in How the Bible Came to Be, suggests that there are undersides to relating to the Bible in this way. Although there is 'a great advantage for the Christian, whose faith thus rests not on the shifting sands of human teaching but on the firm rock of a God-given revelation,' it shuts down a healthy process of questioning and inquiry. Our natural curiosity about the origins and contexts are withdrawn leaving the book up on a pedestal and somewhat two-dimensional. Barton responds by exploring how the the Bible came to be. In so doing, the smoke and mirrors of a 'divine hand' are in a way exposed, but unexpectedly, a weight of merit remains after all the smoke has cleared.

I'll try to take you on a Reader's Digest version of the trip travelled with John Barton. To be honest it's a bit of a dry read through many layers and dead ends. Take for instance the question of who wrote the texts. With few exceptions (such as Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and the epistles of Paul), we do not know who the authors of the books of the Old and New Testaments were. Not just because the authors did not disclose their names, as modern writers typically do, but because most of the books are believed to be creative composite collections of older writings and oral stories. A good example of this process can be found in the book of Genesis. Reading through the book we find glaring inconsistencies. For example, there are two versions of the Creation story with differing orders of events. In one version animals were created before humans whereas in the other humans were created first with animals following as companions for man. Similarly, in the New Testament we have four gospels with many inconsistencies if one compares one with another. What occurred according to most scholars was a process by a talented editor or a series of editors using previous materials and with great skill forming the texts we have today. What cannot be defined is a moment in time when a revelation was received by an author and penned to paper. At best, what can be said is for most of the books of the Bible, a creative process of working with the materials occurred in response to their own unique contexts and the outcomes are the books included in the Bible today.

Now that we've had our first glimpse into the complexity behind the texts, let's take the next step. We've come to recognize the Bible as a single volume so we tend to think of the contents as a cohesive whole. But as the root 'biblio' suggests, the Bible is actually a collection or a small library of books. If you imagine the Hebrew books as they were written, they would have been an assortment of scrolls. The first efforts to gather a collection together may have occurred around the time of the exile to Babylonia (approximately 586 BCE) after Judah was conquered and the first temple was destroyed. By the fourth century BCE, we find references to the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and the prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). The books of Moses at this point are referred to as Torah (or law, instruction, guidance), and have become the center of Jewish life, faith and identity. 'No other books equalled it in prestige and holiness.' For Jewish people, the Torah is at the centre, followed by the prophets, and then the writings (everything else). As we will see, for Christians these texts will become equally weighted under the category of Scripture.

Between the fourth and first centuries BCE, Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek. This collection of works is referred to as the Septuagint and included more books than the Hebrew Masoretic text (and would become the Christian version of the OT). Interestingly, in the first century CE the technology changed from a scroll to a codex which is a book bound between covers. Codices were considered slightly less formal than scrolls, more like our current day notebooks. The texts of the New Testament were recorded on these codices like notes or drafts. This is reflected in the freedom that others had in revising the texts. For example, it is doubtful if Luke would have revised Mark if the work was already considered Scripture in the formal sense. Similar to the Old Testament, collections developed that were circulated as separate codices. References to the following collections can be found: the four gospels, Pauline letters, catholic epistles, and Revelation.

So where and when was the line drawn, narrowing down the list of which books would be included in the Holy Bible (canonization). As we have found, the books were really moving parts, far from being collected at one point in time and then deemed as Scripture. In fact we find that the Hebrew 'Bible' was set before the writing of both Daniel and Ecclesiastes and the Pauline corpus was in circulation before the writing of 2 Peter, which cites it as a well-known work. So, when was the line drawn in the sand and the reckoning completed of which books were in and which were out?

Certainly there are missing pieces in what we can know of the process. In the Old Testament, there was discussion of whether Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 'defiled the hands.' Minor notes of the worthiness of other texts can be found as well. The Septuagint contains more books than the Hebrew Masoretic texts but there is little evidence of why these books were not included in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the New Testament, little record of list-making is found as well. One interesting instance can be found when Marcion created a very short list including one gospel, a de-Judaised version of Luke, a few Pauline texts, and excluded the Old Testament. This actually spurred other theological writers to define a list defending the inclusion of the Old Testament and a list of New Testament texts. Given the variation between the gospels, it's a bit of a mystery that in the end they were all included. For the most part, what stands out is how little negotiation was made over lists. "Overwhelmingly, in both Judaism and Christianity, the criterion for using particular books was the fact (or the belief, whether or not well-founded) that they always had been revered. ...it is only at the margins of the canon that decisions were actually required in either religion: the great bulk of the biblical books were simply received from the past and transmitted to the future, with no questions asked." By 367 CE the list had been set. Athanasius wrote a letter to his clergyman including the list of books we find in our bibles today (including the apocrypha).

I've obviously missed some details in my Reader's Digest version of events. What struck me was the complexity of details in how the texts evolved over the years, became valuable to readers, and were then collected together. This was a process reaching over a thousand years. The absence of a dictating, all-knowing divine hand is not a letdown at all. I am humbled and encouraged by the miracle of this patient, slowly-evolving work that wasn't a product of politics or legislation but of many ears listening for a deeper, life-giving word. Alleluia.

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