For many people the question posed by the title of this post will be easy to answer and may even cause them to feel perplexed as to why it’s a question at all. Their answer would simply be, “It’s the Word of God,” or they might perhaps quip that it’s humanity’s Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth manual as I was taught growing up in the Bible Belt in north Texas. Those answers are no longer satisfactory to me and I believe they do a disservice to what the Bible actually is. With that in mind, just what is “The Bible”?
One of the questions that many people fail to ask when considering this issue is, “Which Bible are we talking about?” A lot of people assume that there is only one Bible, but that assumption is incorrect. There are in fact multiple canons of scripture that Christians around the world refer to as “the Bible” and these canons of scripture are different from one another. Growing up, I learned that there was a Catholic canon and a Protestant canon. Being from a Protestant fundamentalist style tradition, I was told that the Catholic canon was of course incorrect and that it contained books that weren’t “God’s Word.” More than two canons of scripture exist however. There are Biblical canons used by various Orthodox Churches, such as the Greek and Eastern Orthodox communions among others, and Coptic Christians (Ethiopia). The roots of all of these Christian canons is of course the Hebrew Bible, known by Jews as the Tanahk- that is the Torah and the writings. For my purposes, I am speaking of the Bible in general and the Protestant canon specifically, but it is important to recognize that other Christians have a slightly different, though authoritative canon of their own.
The Bible then is a collection of writings of various genres that has been compiled and made into official canons of scripture by distinct groups of Christians with different doctrinal and theological beliefs. Within the canon are genealogies, histories, myths, fables and legends, theophanies, narratives, discourses and speeches, epistles, apocalyptic writings, and even the highly erotic poetry of the Song of Songs. For example, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Christian Old Testament, has multiple genres throughout the five books. These include: patriarchal history, the legendary origin story of Israel, heroic myths of Moses, prophecy, laws, and some poetry. In the Psalms there are songs of praise, lament, and thanksgiving, as well as meditations on the laws, royal psalms, and psalms of Zion. Clearly, there is a lot going on in the Bible, and that’s just scratching the surface of the Old Testament.
The New Testament is far shorter than the Old Testament, yet it too contains multiple genres which include lengthy discourses such as the long speeches by Jesus found in Matthew, known to scholars as ‘The Five Discourses’ (see Matt. chapters 5-7; 10; 13; 18; 23-25). Included too are genealogies in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew which harken back to Old Testament genealogies. The four Gospels are considered a type of ‘ancient biography,’ which is different from modern historically accurate forms of biography and is closer perhaps to a philosophical hagiography in a modern context. There are also parables, hymns, prayers, and a travel narrative in Luke. A ‘general history’ is found in Acts (though as NT scholar Mark Allan Powell notes in his book Introducing the New Testament, it’s a tale of success- “We hear next to nothing about missions that fail, people who aren’t healed, or prayers that aren’t answered…everything always seems to work out for the best.” (198) There are numerous letters in the New Testament, seven of which are known as “Uncontested letters of Paul,” meaning that scholars unanimously agree that Paul actually wrote them – Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The other six letters found in the New Testament, 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1&2 Timothy, and Titus, are all considered “Contested” or deutero-Pauline because many scholars find discrepancies in writing style, and the theological content of these letters when compared to the Uncontested letters.
The final book in the New Testament is Revelation. It is a form of ancient apocalyptic writing and has confused many for centuries which confusion has led to charlatans raking in money hand over fist as they predict the “End Times” with some super-secret code they’ve worked out. As a preview of coming posts, I can say here that John’s Revelation written ostensibly on the island of Patmos, had absolutely nothing to do with predicting events in the 20th and 21st centuries. Rather, it is “the most explicitly counter-imperial book in the New Testament” in which the author is “speaking to his own time and place, not writing a guide to events of the future,” according to New Testament scholar and expert of ancient apocalyptic literature Dr. Greg Carey. (1) Ancient apocalyptic literature like Revelation and the Book of Daniel is infused with deep symbolism while claiming to reveal hidden truths about the world from an apocalyptic perspective. (Powell, 523).
A close reading of Biblical scripture reveals that it is a diverse collection of human ideas written in distinct genres about God rather than a single coherent narrative dictated to a human transcriber by God. One could say that it is a collection of theological arguments about God, Jesus, and humanity’s role in the world because there are so many disparate and sometimes even polar opposite views contained in the 66 books of the Protestant canon of scripture. This latter may come as a shock to some (it certainly did when I started learning more about the Bible than I was taught in Baptist or Church of Christ churches) but these are easy to spot with careful reading and attention to the work of Biblical scholars. In future blog posts, I’ll explore some of these discrepancies and other interesting things about this incredibly important collection of texts. Until then, peace be with you.
Greg Carey, PhD., “The Book of Revelation as Counter-Imperial Script.”
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