Despite its name, the Bible is not a single, monolithic book. It is a collection of texts of multiple authors, places and times. Its diverse material ranges across history, law, prophecy, poetry and myth, and has been through centuries of editing, translating and reinterpreting. There is no agreement across religious communities about which texts belong in the Bible, and in what form. Different Bibles serve different groups, so the version you read depends on who you are.
As the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient Greek, there is the additional complication that few can read the whole collection in the original. The vast majority of readers rely upon translations, which must by their nature interpret and re-imagine the text.
The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all trace their history in some form to the Biblical figure of Abraham, but they have different attitudes to the Bible. For Christians, the Bible is divided into two: the Old and New Testaments, and Jesus was the messiah predicted in Old Testament prophecies. Jews believe the messiah is yet to come, and therefore do not accept as sacred the texts of the New Testament. Islam recognises certain Old Testament books as divinely inspired, but contends the texts are unreliable due to alteration by human hands, and that only the Quran, written to correct these problems, is authoritative.
The Old Testament
What the Christians know as the Old Testament is known to Jews as the Tanakh. This name is an acronym, T-N-KH (the vowels were added later), referring to the three sections of the Hebrew Bible: the Torah, the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim. It is written in Hebrew apart from a few passages in Aramaic.
The first five books of the Bible are known to Jews by the first words of their respective texts, but to Christians as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In Judaism, this is the Torah, best translated as ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’, and forms the first section of the Tanakh. In Christianity, these five books are the Pentateuch (Greek, ‘five scrolls’) and form the first section of the Old Testament. A later tradition claims they were written by the prophet Moses, but that is not claimed by the texts themselves. They tell the story of the people of Israel, from the creation of the world through the flood and the exodus from Egypt to the desert wanderings and the covenant made with God at Sinai. The narrative ends with Moses and the Israelites on the brink of entering into Canaan, the promised land.
The next section of the Hebrew Bible is the Nevi’im, which means ‘prophets’. The first few books, Joshua through to 2 Kings (the Former Prophets), continue the historical narrative of Israel begun in the Torah. The Israelites cross into Canaan and conquer it, then eventually suffer defeat and exile at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians. This provides a background to the next few books (the Latter Prophets), each named after the individual prophet who supposedly wrote the text. The most important are Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and there are also short texts by twelve minor prophets. The Torah and Former Prophets form most of the Bible’s ‘historical’ narrative, from the creation to the exile.
The final section is the Ketuvim, the Hebrew word for ‘writings’. This is a miscellany of various texts expressing the spiritual life of the Israelites, including the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and Chronicles.
Non-Jewish readers who reached for a copy of the Bible while reading this will probably find that the books in it are not organised according to the outline above. The Christian version of the Bible has its own story, beginning with the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Bible into ancient Greek produced in the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE to serve the Greek-speaking Jews who lived in the Hellenised Egypt of the post-Alexander period. This changed the order of the books and added some texts not in the Jewish canon, and became the basis for the Christian Old Testament. (Relying upon the Greek translation, Christians mostly didn’t revisit the original Hebrew text until the Reformation.) The very term ‘Old Testament’ expresses for Christians a relationship to the ‘New Testament’: the New does not merely follow the Old, it supersedes it.
Here I shall use ‘Old Testament’ as the general term, as it’s the most familiar in the culture I’m writing in, but will refer to the ‘Hebrew Bible’ when it’s necessary to differentiate the two.
In the 16th century CE the Reformation split Christianity into Catholic and Protestant traditions, and the contents of these traditions’ Bibles differ from each other. Some versions of the Old Testament also contain writings known as the Apocrypha, including the books of Esdras, Judith, Maccabees and others. These were considered less important by the Jews, but some Christian groups accepted them as canon, while other Christians rejected them. There is no need here to try and untangle all the different versions and groups. Suffice to say there are many canons serving many communities, and the Old Testament therefore takes a variety of forms. However, every version of the Bible contains, though not necessarily in the same order, the 24 books of the Tanakh outlined above.
A scholarly consensus has gradually emerged that the books of the Old Testament were written and redacted roughly between 1000-200 BCE – a period dominated by great ancient civilisations such as Babylon, Egypt and Assyria – though they may contain fragments of much older, oral communications. We can’t be certain who wrote them. We tend to think in bourgeois society’s terms of an author as a specific individual writing in a specific time, but in the ancient world texts were made differently. They are the product of long traditions of scholarship, put together over centuries by many hands, the writers acting as compilers and also interpreters of tradition.
No original Biblical manuscript has survived, as they would have been written on highly perishable papyrus or animal skin. The texts we have today were transmitted by centuries of hand-copying, translation and other fallible processes. Until the mid-twentieth century, the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible were copies from the 9th and 10th centuries CE made by a group of Jewish scribes called the Masoretes. Ancient Hebrew did not include written vowels, so the Masoretes, concerned that the pronunciation might become lost, very carefully added vowels and punctuation to produce what is known as the Masoretic Text: the authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible.
The manuscript record was transformed between 1947-56 when hundreds of ancient manuscripts were found in a series of caves near the Dead Sea. One of the twentieth century’s greatest archaeological discoveries, the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE by a strict religious community occupying the nearby site of Qumran, who hid them in about 70 CE while the Romans were conquering the region. Among them is the most ancient surviving Biblical manuscript: an almost complete copy of the book of Isaiah dating to at least 100 BCE. There were also fragments of almost all the other books of the Hebrew Bible, and various other texts.
The Biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls were surprisingly consistent with the extant versions, a measure of the dedication of the scribes who went to great lengths to preserve them accurately, and of the remarkable stability of the texts over many centuries.
The New Testament
The New Testament is much shorter and compromises 27 books, written around 50-150 CE. Its diverse texts, traditionally ascribed to eight authors, range from accounts of the life of Jesus to letters to early Christian communities and the bizarre visions of Revelation. They are not accepted as scripture by Jews and therefore represent the split of the new Christian religion from Judaism.
They also represent a linguistic break. When they were being written, Hebrew was in decline as a spoken language even amongst Jews, who would commonly have spoken Aramaic. The heyday of ancient Greece, and above all the Hellenistic empire of Alexander, left a legacy of Greek-speaking culture from Egypt to Afghanistan. Therefore the most familiar version of the Hebrew Bible in Jesus’ time was the Septuagint. After the rise of the Roman Empire, Greek culture persisted as the language of scholarship, of literature and philosophy, and the New Testament writers naturally turned to it as the lingua franca of their world. They did not however write in the classical Greek of Plato and Aristotle, but in koine, a form of Greek understood by the common people.
The collection opens with the four Gospels (‘gospel’ means ‘good news’) of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which report the life, teachings and resurrection of Jesus. These are followed in the running order by the Acts of the Apostles or simply ‘Acts’, an account of the expansion of the early church after Jesus’ death. This was intended as a continuation of Luke’s gospel and was written by the same person. The main figures are Peter, leader of the twelve original followers or apostles, and the early church leader Paul of Tarsus, who is converted and finally makes a trip to Rome.
The next set of 21 books is the Epistles, a series of letters written by church leaders to a variety of Christian communities. The first fourteen are normally ascribed to Paul, whose target communities eventually lent their names to the texts: Romans, Corinthians, etc. After this come seven more letters, known as known as the Letters to all Christians, or ‘catholic’ letters, intended for Christians as a whole rather than particular communities. According to tradition they were written by James the brother of Jesus, Peter the apostle, John the Evangelist, and Jude, another brother of Jesus.
The final text is the Book of Revelation, a strange vision foretelling the end of the world and Jesus’s second coming.
Each book has its own writer and purpose – the New Testament, like the Old, is not a book so much as an anthology. The people writing the texts did not know they were writing a ‘new testament’ that would follow an ‘old testament’. Even the titles of most of the books were added later. The first books to be written, although they come after the gospels in the final running order, were the letters of Paul, the first being 1 Thessalonians from about 50 CE. These letters would have been copied by scribes and sent to different communities; the evidence for this comes from the texts themselves. For example, in early Greek manuscripts of the letter we now know as ‘Ephesians’, the recipient is left blank for the scribe to fill in as appropriate. Remarkably, Paul is the only named author in the Bible who can be confirmed as an actual historical figure.
The gospels were written about 20 or 30 years later. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not written by the apostles of those names, but considerably later by people who were not eye witnesses of Jesus. Beside the four gospels that became canon, there were others, such as the gospels according to Thomas, Judas, and Mary. Why some texts were accepted into the Bible and others weren’t is a subject we’ll discuss later.
As with the Old Testament, no original manuscripts survive. The earliest copies of complete books date to about 200 CE, and the earliest complete New Testament is the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus.
As the Latin of the Roman empire replaced Greek as the dominant language, a Latin translation of both Testaments was created in about 400 CE by the scholar St Jerome. Known as the Vulgate, this translation became the standard edition of the Christian Bible for centuries. It was not until the Reformation that translation into other European languages began to be made: the most prestigious in the English-speaking world is the King James Bible of 1611, whose style, though now archaic, had an immense influence upon English literature. More recently there have been numerous further English editions, which aim for greater accuracy in a contemporary style.
A thousand years separate the writing of the first and last sentences of the Bible. In the ancient world the only way to preserve texts over generations was for scribes to make handwritten copies, first as scrolls and later as books. Acutely aware of the potential for human error, scribes often took immense care to make their copies accurate, but even so, different ancient editions of Biblical texts do not entirely agree. The Bible does not have a single ideology or style, nor did its compilers attempt to impose them. Each book reflects a different perspective on history, the world and how to live.
In the next few posts we will look at the Old Testament, beginning with how it was written and compiled.