Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

What Is The Bible?

Posted by foryourfaith on April 29, 2012


Christians consider the Bible to be the most important book that has ever been compiled. It has been translated into more languages and has sold more copies that any other book that has ever been written and published. However, the apparently simple question, “What is the Bible?” is a very difficult one to answer. In fact, there are as many ways to answer this question as there are reasons for asking it.

Understanding the Bible better is not the same as being able to define what the bible actually is. Consider these statements about the Bible:

  • “The Bible is a collection of writings written over a long period of time which came to be recognized by the church as scripture.” This statement defines the Bible in terms of how it came into being: it is concerned with the Bible’s origins.
  • “The Bible is a label given to the Christian scriptures, consisting of Old and New Testaments.” This statement is concerned with the content of the Bible.
  • “[The Bible is] the most valuable thing that this world affords . . . Here is wisdom; this is the royal law; these are the lively oracles of God.” This third statement is more about the status and value of the Bible.

The first two statements are commonly reflected in standard English dictionaries because they are universally accepted answers to questions about how the term “Bible” is used in the English language. The third offers more than this: it is a statement that reflects the faith that generations of Christians have placed in the Bible. The mention of faith in the Bible is significant because the bible is a collection of books that were written as testimonies to a faith that has developed over many centuries. These books record a journey of faith with the aim of inspiring faith. It is this faith on which the third statement relies.


The Authority of the Bible

The Bible is known by variety of names: the Holy Bible, the Holy Scriptures, Scripture, the word of God. These terms emphasize the way in which Christian people have given the Bible a special status and authority. This fact is so widely recognized that the word “bible” has come to be used to refer to all kinds of resources that have been given a special status among others, so a “bible” of French cooking and a “bible” of car maintenance are available. A “bible” stands apart from other ordinary resources as being different. It is the authority and not just an authority. Christians assert more, however, they claim that the Bible is uniquely authoritative because it is relevant not in just one sphere of life but across all spheres of life. The Bible has its own history.


The Languages of the Bible

The Bible was written in three languages: Classical Hebrew, Biblical Aramaic (or Chaldee) and Koine (Common) Greek.

Most of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, although a few Aramaic texts occur. The New Testament is written in Koine Greek although occasional Aramaic words appear – not surprisingly, as Aramaic was the language that Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries would have spoken.

Classical Hebrew

Classical Hebrew belongs to the group of languages known as the “Classical Semitic languages” (that is, Hebrew, Syriac, Geez, Aramaic and Akkadian). This was the predominant language group in the Near East in Old Testament times. Classical Hebrew became the language of the Jews once they entered Canaan, and the Hebrew biblical texts suggest that the language remained remarkably consistent despite the wide geographical, cultural and historical spread of these texts. It would not be true to say that the Hebrew of the Old Testament is consistent in every aspect, but the writers keep to a defined language system with a single grammatical framework.

Originally the Old Testament text was written in words that contained only consonants. It wasn’t until the time of the Masoretes (AD 600–900) that the vowels and the punctuation system found in present editions of the Hebrew Old Testament were added.

Biblical Aramaic (Chaldee)

As the Assyrians rose to power they developed Aramaic as the common language of their empire, and it achieved widespread use in the Near East. First the neo-Babylonian empire (605-539 BC) and then the Persian empire after its conquest of Babylon (539-330 BC) continued this process. As Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Persian empire, a formal Aramaic style was adopted for official and legal documents. This formed Aramaic was influenced by various spoken dialects resulting in the type of written Aramaic that we find in the Aramaic portions of the Old Testament. Aramaic only accounts for a very small proportion of the Old Testament text: passages in Daniel 2-7, and Ezra 4-6 and 7, and a single verse in Jeremiah (10:11). The changes from Hebrew to Aramaic (and back again) in both Ezra and Daniel suggest that the writers of these Old Testament texts were proficient in both languages. The form of Aramaic that is used in these texts was used by Jews for a long time and lasted at least into the Middle Ages. However, the popularity of the Aramaic language obviously faded as the Greek empire advanced.

Although the New Testament is written in Greek, Jesus and the Jews of this time would have used Aramaic as their main language. For this reason we see some clear examples of Aramaic influences on the text of the New Testament both in terms of words used and style adopted.

Koine Greek

Although the people in the New Testament would also have spoken Aramaic and Latin, it is the language of the Greek empire that became the primary medium for recording the events of Jesus’ lifetime and their immediate aftermath.

The Greek language had spread rapidly in the Near East since Alexander’s conquests (334-324 BC) – even though the Maccabean uprising meant that Hebrew was placed alongside it, albeit temporarily, as an official language in Jerusalem. The popularity of Greek philosophy helped to make sure that Greek held its ground, even when the Romans brought the Latin language with them, because it was so strongly rooted as the language of education and learning in both Hellenistic and Jewish circles. For Jewish people spread throughout the region it was essential to be able to communicate with the people around them, and increasingly Koine Greek became the language of everyday life in Jewish homes too. So Koine Greek provided the possibility for communications with the whole Greco-Roman world, something the Gospel writers, and other New Testament writers, were of course eager to do.

The New Testament writers also chose to use the Greek Septuagint as their source when they included Old Testament quotations in their writings. This means that we can be relatively sure that this Greek version of the Old Testament had already secured a firm place as the scripture generally used in the early church. Despite this incorporation of Greek influences, there are many examples of how the Jewishness of the New Testament writers has left its mark on the Greek New Testament text. For example, Hebrew and Aramaic sentence structure is common rather than a pure Greek style. The result is that the Greek of the New Testament is quite distinct from that found in contemporary texts form other regions.


The Transmission of the Bible

Although Christians believe that God inspired the text of the Bible, the task of writing, preserving, circulating and translating the Bible was entrusted to a variety of human hands. This task was often difficult, but the story of the transmission of the bible bears witness to the seriousness with which people approach it.

The Transmission of the Old Testament

Although there are many manuscripts of Old Testament texts, we have none older than those that were found in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea in a place called Qumran.

These manuscripts, preserved by a devoutly religious Jewish group, date from between 250 and 150 BC. The initial discovery was made in 1946, but it took some years to uncover the many scrolls that are now available to scholars. The very fact that the Old Testament had been preserved for so many years between the writing of the individual books and the date of the Qumran manuscripts, indicates the central place the Old Testament books assumed in Jewish communities in these intervening years. During this time Jewish scribes and scholars faithfully copied Old Testament texts and handed them down from one generation to the next. Their dual aim seems to have been preserve the text faithfully and to ensure that it was understood in their own day. By the start of the first century AD a third aim had emerged. Jewish scholars were eager to establish an agreed and universal text that would end the circulation of different versions within individual communities, in order to facilitate unity and communication between communities.

Safeguarding the Text

Eventually, groups of scholars appeared who were dedicated to preserving this universal text, and, between AD 600 and 1000, these scholars (who became known as the Masoretes) began to add marks to the Hebrew consonantal text. Their aim was to record the oral traditions that surrounded the reading and teaching of the Old Testament. As they copied texts, they used a meticulous system of marks (such as dots over words) to draw attention to grammatical issues. They added marginal readings where something was considered wrong or misleading, in preference to altering the consonantal text itself. They also kept statistics to measure the texts and words in various sections and parts in order to check that nothing had been omitted or inserted by accident in the process of copying. One of the best manuscripts from this period is the Aleppo Codex, dated c. AD 930, which clearly shows the vocalization (the vowel marks added to the original consonantal Hebrew text) provided by the Masoretes. It is remarkable that, when we compare the consonantal text that the Masoretes worked with to the text from the second century BC found at Qumran, the agreement is approximately 95 percent.

The Transmission of the New Testament

There are over 5,000 handwritten texts of the Greek New Testament dating from between the second century AD and the time when Erasmus produced the first printed edition in 1516. Their large number is evidene of the demand for copies of the New Testament text as the Christian gospel spread. The early manuscripts became the basis for other early translations of the New Testament into languages including Coptic, Syriac, Latin and Ethiuopic, all of which were completed by the sixth century.

New Testament manuscripts fall into three categories:


This is the oldest group of manuscripts written on papyrus.

The earliest papyrus manuscript is the John Rylands manuscript, containing parts of John 18, which dates to early in the second century and was published in 1935.

Other important manuscripts include the Chester Beatty papyri (Gospels, Acts and Paul’s letters) and the Bodmer papyri (Luke and John), both dated c. AD 200.


These manuscripts are written on parchment and use a script that resembles our capital letters, without spaces or punctuation, which was the preferred style of writing in early literary texts. These date from the fourth century onwards and often contain the whole Bible. It is clear that the Old Testament and the New Testament were transmitted together from this point onwards, marking the church’s conviction that both were to be viewed as scripture.

Codex Sinaiticaus (dated in the second half of the fourth century) contains the whole Bible (plus a couple of other Christian texts: the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas).

Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century) contains the whole Bible (though some parts are now missing). Plus two short letters: 1 and 2 Clement.

Codex Vaticanus (mid-fourth century) contains the whole Bible (though some parts are now missing.


These manuscripts are in a cursive script and, apart from a few eleventh- and twelfth-century manuscripts, date from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. They are written on paper. On the whole they contain small sections of text.

Other evidence of the Greek text of the New Testament can be found in the church’s lectionaries, in the writings of the early church fathers and of course in the renditions offered by the early Bible translations. Taken altogether, all this evidence suggests a uniform text with only marginal variations. The care exerted with the Old Testament and its transmission was also applied to the New Testament text as it too was copied and circulated to meet the demands of the growing Christian communities.


Bible Translation

The history of Bible translation is intertwined with the history of the geographical spread first of all of the Jewish people and then later of the Christian church. In other words, the translation of the Bible was driven by the demand for it.

  • Before the start of the third century BC, most of the Old Testament was already translated into Aramaic. These translations became known as Targums and ere really a loose version (paraphrase/interpretation) of the Hebrew text.
  • The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) appeared in the second to first centuries BC as Jews began to reside in Greek cities and towns.
  • After that further Aramaic, Syriac (the Peshitta), Coptic (the first Christians in Egypt spoke Coptic) and Latin (Vulgate) versions began to appear. The Latin version translated by Jerome in the fourth century was dominant until the decline of the Roman empire. It remained the standard Bible in Europe until the Reformation.

The task of translating any text into a new language is full of difficulties. Perhaps these difficulties are particularly obvious when you are dealing with a collection of texts that are drawn together from a lengthy period of history and treated as sacred. The sorts of issues that face translators include:

  • How far you should translate word for word, or try to express a meaning in the target language by a phrase that has an equivalent, though not identical, meaning to that in the source language;
  • Whether you should be loyal to the original meanings of words when they make no sense in the language of the translation;
  • Whether identical words in a text should be translated consistently;
  • How word play, alliteration, poetry and puns should be represented in translation;
  • How much the structure of the original language should dictate the structure of the translated text;
  • How much good literary style should affect the final translation;
  • How contemporary the style should be in the language you are translating into, and how far accuracy should be sacrificed to be easily understood by the readers for whom you are translating the text.

Throughout the centuries the painstaking work of translation has been undertaken by individuals and organizations in the attempt to meet people’s desire to read the Bible in their own language. Present Bible translations rely on examining the most reliable manuscripts available today. Like those who first preserved the Old Testament centuries ago, contemporary translators want to preserve the Bible, circulate it and make sure that it is understood in diverse cultures, in different geographical locations, and ever-changing times.


The Canon of the Bible

The word “canon” means “measuring stick,” “rule” or “standard.” It is used to describe the list of texts collected in the Bible. Christians assert that these texts are the “rule” of the Christian faith.

The Canon of the Old Testament

Although the origins of the books of the Old Testament and their assembly are hidden in distant times and traditions, it is clear that the canon was divided into three parts from an early point: the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets. By the time of the Qumran community all the present books of the Old Testament were carefully preserved, and certainly most writers agree about the contents of the Old Testament canon by the first century AD. The only books about which there was any uncertainty were Esther, the Song of Songs, and Ruth. Josephus (AD 37-100) shows us that the idea of a canon was already in place during his lifetime. In fact the Old Testament canon was possibly already a closed list by 200 BC, although some would argue that it remained open in Jesus’ lifetime and was only settled at an early church council held at Jamnia in AD 90.

The Apocrypha

This word means “hidden” or “secret” and is used as a collective term to refer to a range of texts that emerged between 200 BC and AD 200. Over the period of Christian history there has been some dispute concerning whether or not these texts should be included in the Bible. They are similar to biblical material and were probably stored alongside Old Testament scrolls. They are preserved in Greek although they may have had earlier Hebrew or Aramaic forms. They are found in Roman Catholic versions of the Bible and were part of the Greek Old Testament of the first century. This explains why New Testament writers sometimes seem to allude to these texts. In the fourth century an early Bible scholar, Jerome used the term “apocryphal” and said these books were not to be considered authoritative parts of the Old Testament because they are not in the Jewish Bible. He added that they were still edifying if read by people who were wise and understanding.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Apocrypha

During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church confirmed the place of most of these books within the Old Testament, stating at the Council of Trent (1546) that the Old Testament contained forty-six books. The Roman Catholic Church describes the additional Old Testament books as “Deuterocanonical” (belonging to a second canon) and has never argued that they were part of the Jewish canon. However, the Protestant churches reacted strongly to the inclusion of these additional texts in the Old Testament and insisted that they should be excluded from the canon.

What is certain is that these additional texts do have historical value. They offer evidence of the continued use of literary forms present in the Old Testament and bear witness to the ongoing story of faith between the Old and the New Testaments. They also provide us with a framework for interpreting the New Testament in the light of the events that immediately post-dated the Old Testament and preceded the New Testament itself.

The Canon of the New Testament

From the early days of the church, the first Christians started to preserve certain texts. At first they concentrated on the sayings of Jesus himself. We know that collections of these sayings explain some of the word-for-word overlap in the Gospel accounts. The “gospel of Thomas,” which contains a list of Jesus’ sayings, was sometimes referred to by church leaders in the second century. The words and writings of the apostles also gained early recognition. In fact apostolic authorship (or indeed connection to an apostle) became an early test of authoritative standing. Gradually, the church sifted through the wealth of writings about Jesus, and the New Testament canon began to take shape. By about AD 100 the list of Paul’s letters was settled; by AD 150 the four Gospels were agreed. The church in Rome drew up its own list of the contents of the New Testament in AD 200 (the Muratorian Canon). This list omitted Hebrews and 3 John but included the Revelation of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. It also discusses a short allegorical tale called the Shepherd of Hermas. This was a popular story with many similarities to modern books like John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. The leaders at Rome said the Shepherd was acceptable for private reading but should not be read as part of public worship. For some time there remained a little uncertainty, especially about Hebrews, the shorter epistles and Revelation. But by the beginning of the fourth century there was widespread agreement, although some hesitancy about letters such as 2 and 3 John and Jude remained.

By the time of the Council of Carthage (AD 397) the present New Testament canon had been affirmed in the West, with the same collection affirmed by Athanasius in the East in AD 367. From time to time, however, people still debate the books which were at some time in their history on the fringes of the canon.


A Continuing Task

The task of understanding the history of the text continues as new manuscripts come to light. The task of translating the bible also continues. There is a wide range of English versions to choose from, but many people do not yet have the complete Bible, or even part of it, in their own language. As we look at the Bible and its contents in more detail, it is instructive to remember the great sacrifice made by those who, throughout the centuries, have worked to make the Bible accessible. Without their tireless endeavors – and in some cases the sacrifice of their lives – our understanding of human history in biblical times, and our understanding of the Christian faith and its development, would be so much poorer. It is because of them that it is possible to continue the journey and discover more answers to the question “What is the Bible?”


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One Response to “What Is The Bible?”

  1. offbeat opinion…

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