The Bible Fell from the Sky!
It has been a while, but this is part two of my mini-series on the Bible. The first article (here) talked primarily about the New Testament canon. This article will speak primarily of the Old Testament. That said, I will repeat the introduction from the first article here almost word-for-word to emphasize important context. If you are rereading the first section, it’s a good reminder, and if you skipped the first article, you still need the information here.
Okay, first, I want to say that I go to the Bible for my inspiration, my understanding of Jesus, my understanding of the Spirit and the Father, for my authority, and so on. Period. No question. Scripture tells me about the ancient understanding of the character of the Father and how the truth of God’s character is realized in the character of Jesus. Even the Old Testament (especially the Old Testament?).
That said, I try to also understand that the character and Spirit of Jesus is not the Scripture itself. We must realize the nuance between the spirit of someone and the “letter” about someone (1 Cor. 2; 2 Cor. 3). Jesus is the Word and the Truth; the Bible has words and truth (and, in an appropriate context, is noncontradictory from an eastern understanding of storytelling). The bottom line is that Jesus is my ultimate authority, inspiration, and clarification. He IS the Word of God!
Many Christians unwittingly assume that the Bible just fell out of the sky in the first century, and we are supposed to be able to lay our bias, experience, intelligence, ignorance, and opinions aside perfectly to find the true pattern for Christianity therein. To be fair, I’m speaking sarcastically to make a point. I don’t think that most Christians literally think the KJV Bible (or any other version) was magically placed in Christian hands in the first century. However, the way we think about and use the Bible suggests that we may believe that assertion on some subconscious level.
So, What Do We Do with this Book?
Well, first, we need to recognize that it is not a book but a collection/library of books in one canon. Second, we need to recognize that the Bible never claims that it is the Bible or that there will be a Bible. The New Testament never says for us to have a collection of books and letters from the Apostles and their writers. Third, we need to acknowledge that the “Word” of God is Jesus Himself, not Scripture (John 1:1-2, 14; 5:39). Fourth, we should understand that, as far as I can recall, every time the word “Scripture” is used in the New Testament, it is in reference to the Old Testament, besides when Peter mentions Paul’s writings (2 Peter 3:16). But the Greek word simply means writing or documents. It does not necessarily mean sacred text. The words “Bible” or “canon” or “New Testament” or “library” were not mentioned in the context of the New Testament as we see it today. Fifth, writing was incredibly expensive in the first century. For example, some experts suggest that it would have cost close to $2,500 in today’s U.S. dollar to write the book of Romans alone in the first century. Imagine how expensive it would be to write the Old Testament! Sixth, experts say that only 30% of males and 10% of females could read in the first century (even then, they were not necessarily able to write). And even today, 10% of men and 20% of women worldwide cannot read. Several who can read have very poor reading comprehension ability. Seventh, Christianity, and thus its New Testament writings, were illegal until 313 AD. Eighth, books were not mass-produced until 1455 AD (much closer to our time than Christ’s time on Earth). Ninth, for much of the Christian age, it was illegal for laypeople (non-professionals) to have their own Bible. Tenth, the full Bible was not printed in English until 1535 AD, and there are still 2,000 languages (representing 300 million people – almost the population of the USA) in which the Bible has not been translated.
It is a modern American privilege to have a Bible, to have it in your language, to have it in a place where it is legal, to have your own copy, to have it received affordably, to have the ability to read and write, and to have tools to do detailed language studies on the Bible that previously only professionals could do (and it took them much much longer to do it). I appreciate the reverence for the Bible that the Christians mentioned in the first paragraphs have. They love their Bibles! I love mine too, and I respect it and cherish it more than ever before. But we need to understand what it is and what it isn’t. We need to know where it came from. The Bible is a tool I believe we are blessed with by God. However, the Bible is not God. The Trinity is not “Father, Son, and Holy Bible,” It is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The Bible is inspired by God and through the Spirit, but it is not God. It was written by humans and has human elements. It was written for us but not to us. Context determines the meaning. We hear one side of the phone call for much of the Old and New Testaments. Most of the New Testament was written to particular churches at particular times and in their particular context and culture. The same can be said for the Old Testament (OT from here on), but as we will discover, it’s even more complex than that. Sounds like a good reason to have some humility, right?
So, how did we get the OT canon?
The OT Canon
So, I like for my articles to be an overview (even my longer ones). I rarely give citations other than Scripture or direct quotes. There’s a reason for that. First, I see my blog as a place for normal folks. I usually say that you can ask me for references if you’d like some, but I want my articles to be a natural conversation. I don’t spend a lot of time making them linguistic masterpieces or college dissertations. The articles are meant to be real. Second, I would still ethically need to give citations in some form (and I still do many times), but the problem is that I don’t usually recall the exact places I get much of my information because I’ve likely read the information in many of my sources many times. I’m 30, and I’ve owned close to 1,200 physical books at one point in my life or another (not including a few hundred digital and audiobooks). I listen to tons of podcasts and videos. I read a ton of blogs and journal articles. I have dozens of religious FB groups I am involved with. It is impossible to keep up with every source, especially when many of them repeat the same things almost word-for-word. So, if I remember that certain things came from a specific source, I’ll give citations. If I don’t recall the source, I usually consider it common material for a casual blog like this. But always feel free to check me or to ask for suggested reading. I don’t pull these things out of thin air.
Why am I bringing that up, and what does it have to do with the OT? That’s my point, exactly! The OT is largely comprised of oral traditions. That doesn’t mean that nothing was written down or that every story was developed later and has a late date or that there wasn’t a general consensus. The letters of the OT had specific purposes. They were real conversations to real people in a common language. Sometimes the books never mention God at all. Occasionally the writers would reference one another, but the common ground was the Torah. That’s the first five books, also called the law or the Pentateuch. The rest of the books were somewhat fluid regarding the degree of authority and inspiration that was assumed, depending on who you asked.
However, they all told the same story in different ways and in the language and context of the people of their environment. Sometimes they spoke literally. Sometimes they claimed they wrote directly from God. Sometimes they gave specific commands. Sometimes they were doing their best to make sense of God’s character, wisdom, and commands. Sometimes they were reacting to domestic and international events or religions. Sometimes they used poetry. Sometimes they used hyperbole or allegory. The context and nuance go on and on. But regardless of all the context, culture, nuance, genres, etc., the core of the story remains the same. And, from an eastern perspective, it is infallible and inerrant. Why? Because from the eastern perspective, details were more about emphasis than truth. From our western mindset, if there is one detail out of place, then purity is lost. But it is not so with eastern thinkers. Even narratives usually had an underlying agenda. As long as the core of the story is the same, the story is consistent. The words “actual” and “truthful” did not always mean literal or mathematical, or physical. The heart of the story was the primary importance. And thousands of years later, the story is the same.
Because of the relative fluidity of the OT books, there are different books that are accepted as canon by different sects (or denominations) of Judaism. Some version of the Torah (Gen.-Duet.) was accepted by all of the known sects. However, there is some disagreement regarding when the books, including the books of the Torah, were completed. Most of the laws and stories were passed along through the traditions, rituals, calendars, holidays, and oral storytelling. It appears that King Josiah provoked a new appreciation for the books when, what was likely, Deuteronomy was rediscovered in his reign.
Also, the neighbors and enemies of Judah, the Samaritans, used the Torah. It is safe to assume that the Torah was common ground and that some versions of it have been around since the beginning of the Israelite people. That said, it is also safe to say that there were edits and commentaries added to the books along the way. The book of Second Maccabees suggested that there were collections of books, letters, and poems from previous kings and prophets going back at least a few hundred years. There are parts of Isaiah and the other prophets mentioned in the intertestamental period as well as parts of the Torah. In other words, there was a relatively agreed-upon canon within Judaism that was built upon years of tradition, rituals, and storytelling (as well as the occasional ancient letter).
The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah was translated into Greek in the third-century BC, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible was translated in the second-century BC. The Septuagint is the text most quoted in the NT when the writers and speakers quoted OT texts (Paul, Jesus, etc.). All of the books that are in the traditional Rabbinic Judaism canon (the traditional Tanakh) are also in the Septuagint. However, the Septuagint also has some other books like Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Daniel (a later addition), and Psalms of Solomon. Modern Jews tend to distance themselves from the Septuagint, most likely because of a few differences between it and the Hebrew in the Masoretic text. Furthermore, it is possible that they distance themselves from it because of how much Christians pull from it. It should be noted, however, that the Hebrew and the Greek share a very similar canon. The Masoretic version of the Tanakh is essentially the Protestant OT. The Hebrew Masoretic text is newer. We have much older copies of the Greek Septuagint.
The Tanakh was a Jewish canon of Scripture containing 24 books. Some of those books were simply combined versions of books we have since divided into multiple parts (like Chronicles, for instance). The first section was the Torah (Pentateuch) which consisted of Genesis-Deuteronomy. The Second section was the Nevi’im. Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were the former prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were the later prophets. The twelve minor prophets were Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The next section is the Ketuvim. Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, were the poems and scrolls. Other books in this section were dated late according to Jewish tradition. Those books were Nehemiah, Daniel, Ezra, and Chronicles.
The three major denominations of Judaism in the first century were the Essenes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. I’ll give more context regarding their beliefs in a later article. The Essenes were instrumental in preserving the ancient text. It was thanks to them that we have the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of ancient Jewish manuscripts that contained the Apocrypha (potentially non-inspired books written between the OT and NT), the Jewish canon, and other Jewish writings. The Apocrypha is alluded to in 1-2 Peter and in Jude. This gives it some degree of legitimacy. At least enough to suggest that authoritative Jewish Christians took the Apocrypha seriously. The Catholics and Eastern Orthodox keep the Apocrypha in their Bibles. The 2022 version of the NRSVue does a great job of harmonizing the Masoretic and Septuagint texts.
All but 10 of the 39 books of the OT are quoted or alluded to in the NT. Jesus Himself quoted or alluded to 24 of the 39 books as authoritative. The books not explicitly quoted or alluded to are Judges, Ruth, Ezra, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Obadiah, Jonah, and Zephaniah. Though, it could be argued that even those books are mentioned in relatively vague ways. Furthermore, most of the roughly 300 OT quotes/allusions in the NT are from the Septuagint. Many are direct quotes. This tells us that if we believe in Jesus and His authority, we should also trust in the books of the Septuagint. You might be reading this as a non-believer, in which case that argument doesn’t mean anything to you. However, if you are a Christian, that fact should mean something to you regarding why we trust the OT canon. Eight of the Apocryphal books are alluded to by Jesus or the other authorities in the NT as well.
As you can see, the way we got the OT is not quite as clean as how we got the NT. But I think there is some beauty in that. First, I think that the fluidity should caution us from the toxic nature of religious fundamentalism and literalism. Second, I think it shows us how God works through our human free will to accomplish His plans. Third, Jesus affirms the first two points by affirming the Spirit of the entire OT while rebuking those who only knew the letter. – Jesse
*END NOTE: Some prefer “Hebrew Bible” or one of the other names I mentioned above rather than the language “Old Testament.” That’s fine. I get it. But it is worth noting that the early church fathers called it the “Old Covenant,” which is just another way of saying testament. There are many covenants (testaments) in the Bible, but the 39 books that make up the Hebrew Bible are often called the Old Testament. So that’s good enough for me.