The word Bible is derived from the Greek biblia, meaning "books," and refers to the sacred writings of Judaism and Christianity. The Bible consists of two parts. The first part, called the Old Testament by Christians, consists of the sacred writings of the Jewish people and was written originally in Hebrew, except for some portions in Aramaic. The second part, called the New Testament, was composed in Greek and records the story of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity. Translated in whole or in part into more than 1,500 languages, the Bible is the most widely distributed book in the world. Its influence on history and culture, including literature and the other arts, is incalculable.
The Old Testament
Major Themes and CharacteristicsThe Hebrew Bible, written over a period of more than 500 years, consists of many types of literature and reflects varying points of view. It is essentially religious, but, unlike most ancient religious books, the Old Testament is characterized by a strong sense of history; even laws and exhortations are woven into the narratives.
The themes are the uniqueness and glory of God (Yahweh), the Covenants he made with Israel, the Law, God's control of history and Israel's special destiny, God's revelation through the Prophets, the nature of humanity, corporate and individual sin and its remedy, and the true worship of God.
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Yahweh was different from all other deities. Israel was forbidden to worship any other god, and the Mosaic religion perhaps implied that no other existed, although this was not specifically emphasized until the time of the exile during the Babylonian Captivity (587 - 37 BC). Other gods personified natural forces or tribes and nations, but Yahweh was supreme over everything. Because he controlled history, he could use Assyria or Babylonia to punish a rebellious Israel. Plentiful crops depended on his will alone and not on the magical rites by which the Baals of Canaan were worshiped. The concept of the Book of Leviticus was that the Hebrews were to be a holy people, separated from all defilement.
Many laws in the Pentateuch, or Torah, the first five books, were not different from those of surrounding nations. However, some unique commandments were given, without specific rewards and punishments; most important were the Ten Commandments, which have a high ethical content. The Torah (Law) was a complete religious and civil law for the whole nation. It prescribed sacrifices and festivals similar to those of other nations, but the emphasis was on morality. Yahweh was a God of justice. All sin and injustice was an offense against him; and repentance could bring forgiveness.
In the Book of Joshua, Yahweh is a God of war who commands the slaughter of the Canaanites, but the Hebrew religion gradually outgrew such a concept, as can be seen in the books of Jeremiah and Jonah. The prophets saw history as an interaction between the living God and his people, and its outcome depended on their obedience. Israel was destined to be a light to the nations, but it always had a special place in God's purpose and love, and the Hebrews always struggled with the two concepts of God's impartial justice and his love toward Israel. Late in the biblical period, writers of Apocalyptic Literature, unlike the earlier prophets, despaired of the normal forces of history and believed that God would put an end to the present age, bringing in a miraculous reign of righteousness.
These themes were not systematized into a theology but can be discerned from the literature as a whole, which expresses the hopes, fears, laments, thanksgivings, and even the doubts of the Hebrews. Thus the Book of Job criticizes the popular, facile doctrine of reward and punishment, and the Book of Ecclesiastes often approaches skepticism.
Christian Bibles arrange the books differently. The Law, or Pentateuch, comes first, then all the historical books. These are followed by the poetical, or wisdom, books and finally the prophetic books. Thus Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther appear in the second group and Daniel and Lamentations in the fourth.
[Editor's Note: Christian Bibles also generally divide apart all of the separate Books, so the Canon is described as being a total of 39 Books, but which are the same text as the 24 Books of the Hebrew Bible. For example, where the Hebrew Bible counts the Twelve Minor Prophets as one Book, Christian Bibles almost universally count them as twelve Books.]
The Jews never ceased writing religious books. Several books composed in Hebrew or Greek after 300 BC are part of the Septuagint, or Old Greek version, and were regarded as Scripture by many Christians. Roman Catholics and the Orthodox include these books, called Apocrypha or deuterocanonical books, in the Bible. Protestants omit them or print them as an appendix to the Bible.
The Pentateuch is based on four principal sources. The oldest, J, was perhaps written in Judah, the southern kingdom, about 950 BC. Between 900 and 750, another version from Israel, the northern kingdom, was woven in; this is called Ephraim (E). In the 7th century BC, Deuteronomy, or most of it (D), was compiled. About 550 BC, during the exile, the final edition of the Torah added a priestly source (P), some parts of which are very old.
Ezra and Nehemiah were composed after the exile, when these two leaders restored Judaism in Palestine, and Nehemiah's own memoirs make up much of the latter book. The two Books of Chronicles cover Hebrew history from Ezra's priestly point of view but contain some valuable earlier traditions. Ruth is the story of a foreign woman who became loyal to Israel and was the ancestor of David. Esther is a tale of a Jewish queen of Persia who saved her people from persecution.
The remaining prophets followed the exile. Obadiah is strongly nationalistic; Jonah expresses God's concern for Gentiles as well as Jews. Haggai and Zechariah 1 - 8 reflect the rebuilding of a small temple in Jerusalem. Joel, Zechariah 9 - 14, and Malachi combine the themes of judgment and restoration and have apocalyptic elements. Daniel is an apocalypse from the Maccabean period (c. 164 BC) and promises God's help to the Jews in time of persecution.
In explaining and defending their faith, the disciples of Jesus found passages in the Old Testament that they believed were prophecies of his death, resurrection, and nature (for example, Psalm 110:1, Isaiah 53; Daniel 7:13 - 14). They also preserved Jesus' sayings and the stories of his life, which they interpreted in light of their faith. Jesus had proclaimed the gospel ("good news") of the coming reign, or kingdom, of God and carried on a ministry of teaching, forgiveness, and healing. Although much of his teaching agreed with that of other Jews, his more radical and prophetic sayings made enemies. The high priest and his associates feared Jesus as a threat to the established order, and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate was persuaded to have Jesus crucified. Thus, the gospel tradition contains both the message of Jesus and the proclamation of his divine nature.
Other new experiences of ecstasy and prophecy were interpreted as gifts of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, most books of the New Testament ponder the relation of the old and the new. Christians, and Jesus himself, believed in the same God as other Jews and recognized the authority of the Old Testament. Yet Jesus had made radical statements that undermined the separateness of Judaism and led logically to the admission of Gentiles into the community. Thus, there emerged a Church embracing Jews and non Jews that was interpreted as based on a new covenant inaugurated by Jesus. Paul, the greatest apostle of the Gentile mission, defended his policies by teaching that the basis for acceptance by God is faith in Jesus Christ; yet Paul did not wish to break continuity with the old religion.
The New Testament contains a strong apocalyptic element. Jesus' parables and sayings regarding the coming reign of God are enigmatic, and it is not certain that he expected the early end of the world; but many original Christians believed they were living in the last age. Nevertheless, much of the moral teaching of the New Testament is aimed at everyday life in this world, and Christian behavior is a constant theme. The New Testament reflects other concerns of community life, including public worship and church organization, but equal emphasis is placed on individual Prayer and communion with God.
The New Testament covers a much shorter period of time than the Old Testament, and its interests are fewer and more intense. This is partly because Christians had access to the Old Testament and other Jewish books. The New Testament was written concisely. Almost no attempt was made to imitate the fashionable literature of the time; yet the writings have great rhetorical power. Natural science had little influence. The outlook is not unscientific but prescientific; these are writings of faith, not speculation.
The general, or catholic, Epistles are so called because they are directed to the church as a whole. The Epistle of James emphasizes the importance of good deeds against an empty type of belief that involves no right action. The first Epistle of Peter proclaims joy in the face of persecution and is addressed particularly to congregations with newly baptized members. The Epistles of John resemble the fourth Gospel. St. John teaches the intimate relationship between love of the brotherhood and the true doctrine about Christ; he also attacks division within the church.
During the Middle Ages, parts of the Bible were put into Anglo Saxon and Middle English. The first English versions of the entire Bible were made (1380 - 93) by John Wycliffe and his associates who used the Latin text. The Reformation gave further impulse to translations into modern languages, notably that of Martin Luther in German and William Tyndale in English. Among later versions are the following: Miles Coverdale's Bible (1535), Matthew's Bible (1537), the Great Bible (1539), Geneva Bible (1560), Rheims - Douai Bible (1582, 1609), King James, or Authorized, Version (1611), English Revised Version (1881 - 85), American Standard Version (1946 - 57), New English Bible (1961 - 70), Jerusalem Bible (1966), New American Bible (1970), Today's English Version (1966 - 76), and the Revised Standard Version (1946 - 1971).
Christians were influenced both by Jewish tradition and by philosophers who explained Greek myths as allegories. The Alexandrian scholar Origen distinguished literal and allegorical meanings in the Old Testament, and his followers found three or four ways to interpret a specific text. The school of Antioch, represented by commentators such as Theodore of Mopsuestia and the great preacher John Chrysostom, insisted on the natural and literal meaning of Scripture. During the Middle Ages the allegorical method largely prevailed.
Sherman E Johnson
B W Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (1986); G W Coats and B O Long, eds., Canon and Authority (1977); J L McKenzie, The Two Edged Sword (1956); J A Sanders, Torah and Canon (1972); G Von Rad, Old Testament Theology (1962).
R M Grant, The Formation of the New Testament (1966); H C Kee, Understanding the New Testament (1983); C F D Moule, The Birth of the New Testament (1981); J M Robinson and H Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity (1971).
History and Criticism
R Alter and F Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987); F F Bruce, History of the Bible in English (1978); C H Dodd, The Bible Today (1946); R E Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (1987); R M Grant and D Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (1984); K Koch, The Growth of Biblical Tradition (1969); N Perrin, What Is Redaction Criticism? (1969).
The English word "Bible" is derived from the Greek biblion, "roll" or "book." (While biblion is really a diminutive of biblos, it has lost this sense in the NT. See Rev. 10:2 where biblaridion is used for a "little scroll.") More exactly, a biblion was a roll of papyrus or byblus, a reedlike plant whose inner bark was dried and fashioned into a writing material widely used in the ancient world.
The word as we use it today, however, has a far more significant connotation than the Greek biblion. While biblion was somewhat neutral, it could be used to designate books of magic (Acts 19:19) or a bill of divorcement (Mark 10:4) as well as sacred books, the word "Bible" refers to the Book par excellence, the recognized record of divine revelation.
Although this meaning is ecclesiastical in origin, its roots go back into the OT. In Dan. 9:2 (LXX) ta biblia refers to the prophetic writings. In the Prologue to Sirach it refers generally to the OT Scriptures. This usage passed into the Christian church (II Clem. 14:2) and about the turn of the fifth century was extended to include the entire body of canonical writings as we now have them. The expression ta biblia passed into the vocabulary of the Western church and in the thirteenth century, by what Westcott calls a "happy solecism," the neuter plural came to be regarded as a feminine singular, and in this form the term passed into the languages of modern Europe. This significant change from plural to singular reflected the growing conception of the Bible as one utterance of God rather than a multitude of voices speaking for him.
The process by which the various books in the Bible were brought together and their value as sacred Scripture recognized is referred to as the history of the canon. Contrary to prevailing critical opinion, there existed, prior to the Exile, a large body of sacred literature. Moses wrote "all the words of the Lord" in the "book of the covenant" (Exod. 21-23; 24:4, 7). Joshua's farewell address was written "in the book of the law of God" (Josh. 24:26). Samuel spoke concerning the manner of the kingdom and "wrote it in a book" (I Sam. 10:25). "Thus saith the Lord" was the common preface to the utterances of the prophets.
This revelatory literature, although not reaching a fixed form until late in the second century B.C., was nevertheless regarded from the very first as the revealed will of God and therefore binding upon the people. The "oracles of God" were held in highest esteem, and this attitude toward the Scriptures was quite naturally carried over into the early church. Few will deny that Jesus regarded the OT as an inspired record of God's self-revelation in history. He repeatedly appealed to the Scriptures as authoritative (Matt. 19:4; 22:29). The early church maintained this same attitude toward the OT, but alongside of it they began to place the words of the Lord. While the OT canon had been formally closed, the coming of Christ had, in a sense, opened it again. God was once again speaking. Since the cross was the central redemptive act of God in history, the NT became a logical necessity. Thus the voice of the apostles, and later their writings, were accepted as the divine commentary on the Christ event.
Viewed as a historical process, the formation of the NT canon occupied some 350 years. In the first century the various books were written and began to be circulated through the churches. The rise of heresy in the second century, especially in the form of Gnosticism with its outstanding spokesman, Marcion was a powerful impulse toward the formation of a definite canon. A sifting process began in which valid Scripture distinguished itself from Christian literature in general on the basis of such criteria as apostolic authorship, reception by the churches, and consistency of doctrine with what the church already possessed. The canon was ultimately certified at the Council of Carthage (397).
The claim of the Bible to divine origin is amply justified by its historical influence. Its manuscripts are numbered in the thousands. The NT had barely been put together before we find translations in Latin, Syriac, and Egyptian. Today there is not a language in the civilized world that does not have the word of God. No other book has been so carefully studied or had so much written on it. Its spiritual influence cannot be estimated. It is preeminently the Book God's word in man's language.
R H Mounce
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments; B. F. Westcott, The Bible in the Church; P. R. Ackroyd et al., eds., The Cambridge History of the Bible, 3 vols.; D.E. Nineham, ed., The Church's Use of the Bible; A. Harnack, Bible Reading in the Early Church; N.O. Hatch and M.A. Noll, The Bible in America; B. Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages; A. Richardson, The Bible in the Age of Science; J. Barr, The Bible in the Modern World.
A collection of writings which the Church of God has solemnly recognized as inspired.
The name is derived from the Greek expression biblia (the books), which came into use in the early centuries of Christianity to designate the whole sacred volume. In the Latin of the Middle Ages, the neuter plural for Biblia (gen. bibliorum) gradually came to be regarded as a feminine singular noun (biblia, gen. bibliae, in which singular form the word has passed into the languages of the Western world. It means "The Book", by way of eminence, and therefore well sets forth the sacred character of our inspired literature. Its most important equivalents are: "The Divine Library" (Bibliotheca Divina), which was employed by St. Jerome in the fourth century; "the Scriptures", "the Holy Scripture" -- terms which are derived from expressions found in the Bible itself; and "the Old and New Testament", in which collective title, "the Old Testament" designates the sacred books written before the coming of Our Lord, and "the New Testament" denotes the inspired writings composed since the coming of Christ.
It is a fact of history that in the time of Christ the Jews were in possession of sacred books, which differed widely from one another in subject, style, origin and scope, and it is also a fact that they regarded all such writings as invested with a character which distinguished them from all other books. This was the Divine authority of every one of these books and of every part of each book. This belief of the Jews was confirmed by Our Lord and His Apostles; for they supposed its truth in their teaching, used it as a foundation of their doctrine, and intimately connected with it the religious system of which they were the founders. The books thus approved were handed down to the Christian Church as the written record of Divine revelation before the coming of Christ. The truths of Christian revelation were made known to the Apostles either by Christ Himself or by the Holy Ghost. They constitute what is called the Deposit of Faith, to which nothing has been added since the Apostolic Age. Some of the truths were committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and have been handed down to us in the books of the New Testament. Written originally to individual Churches or persons, to meet particular necessities, and accommodated as they all were to particular and existing circumstances, these books were gradually received by the universal Church as inspired, and with the sacred books of the Jews constitute the Bible.
In one respect, therefore, the Bible is a twofold literature, made up of two distinct collections which correspond with two successive and unequal periods of time in the history of man. The older of these collection, mostly written in Hebrew, corresponds with the many centuries during which the Jewish people enjoyed a national existence, and forms the Hebrew, or Old Testament, literature; the more recent collection, begun not long after Our Lord's ascension, and made up of Greek writings, is the Early Christian, or New Testament, literature. Yet, in another and deeper respect, the Biblical literature is pre-eminently one. Its two sets of writings are most closely connected with regard to doctrines revealed, facts recorded, customs described, and even expressions used. Above all, both collection have one and the same religious purpose, one and the same inspired character. They form the two parts of a great organic whole the centre of which is the person and mission of Christ. The same Spirit exercised His mysterious hidden influence on the writings of both Testaments, and made of the works of those who lived before Our Lord an active and steady preparation for the New Testament dispensation which he was to introduce, and of the works of those who wrote after Him a real continuation and striking fulfilment of the old Covenant.
The Bible, as the inspired recorded of revelation, contains the word of God; that is, it contains those revealed truths which the Holy Ghost wishes to be transmitted in writing. However, all revealed truths are not contained in the Bible (see TRADITION); neither is every truth in the Bible revealed, if by revelation is meant the manifestation of hidden truths which could not other be known. Much of the Scripture came to its writers through the channels of ordinary knowledge, but its sacred character and Divine authority are not limited to those parts which contain revelation strictly so termed. The Bible not only contains the word of God; it is the word of God. The primary author is the Holy Ghost, or, as it is commonly expressed, the human authors wrote under the influence of Divine inspiration. It was declared by the Vatican Council (Sess. III, c. ii) that the sacred and canonical character of Scripture would not be sufficiently explained by saying that the books were composed by human diligence and then approved by the Church, or that they contained revelation without error. They are sacred and canonical "because, having been written by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, that have God for their author, and as such have been handed down to the Church". The inerrancy of the Bible follows as a consequence of this Divine authorship. Wherever the sacred writer makes a statement as his own, that statement is the word of God and infallibly true, whatever be the subject-matter of the statement.
It will be seen, therefore, that though the inspiration of any writer and the sacred character of his work be antecedent to its recognition by the Church yet we are dependent upon the Church for our knowledge of the existence of this inspiration. She is the appointed witness and guardian of revelation. From her alone we know what books belong to the Bible. At the Council of Trent she enumerated the books which must be considered "as sacred and canonical". They are the seventy-two books found in Catholic editions, forty-five in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New. Protestant copies usually lack the seven books (viz: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and First and Second Maccabees) and parts of books (viz: Esther 10:4-16:24, and Daniel 3:24-90; 13:1-14:42) which are not found in the Jewish editions of the Old Testament. The Bible is plainly a literature, that is, an important collection of writings which were not composed at once and did not proceed from one hand, but rather were spread over a considerable period of time and are traceable to different authors of varying literary excellence. As a literature, too, the Bible bears throughout the distinct impress of the circumstances of place and time, methods of composition, etc., in which its various parts came into existence, and of these circumstances careful account must be taken, in the interests of accurate scriptural interpretation. As a literature, our sacred books have been transcribed during many centuries by all manner of copyists to the ignorance and carelessness of many of whom they still bear witness in the shape of numerous textual errors, which, however, but seldom interfere seriously with the primitive reading of any important dogmatic or moral passage of Holy Writ. In respect of antiquity, the Biblical literature belongs to the same group of ancient literature as the literary collections of Greece, Rome, China, Persia, and India. Its second part, the New Testament, completed about A.D. 100, is indeed far more recent than the four last named literature, and is somewhat posterior to the Augustan age of the Latin language, but it is older by ten centuries than our earliest modern literature. As regards the Old Testament, most of its contents were gradually written within the nine centuries which preceded the Christian era, so that its composition is generally regarded as contemporary with that of the great literary works of Greece, China, Persia, and India. The Bible resembles these various ancient literatures in another respect. Like them it is fragmentary, i.e. made up of the remains of a larger literature. Of this we have abundant proofs concerning the books of the Old Testament, since the Hebrew Scriptures themselves repeatedly refer us to more ancient and complete works as composed by Jewish annalists, prophets, wise men, poets, and so on (cf. Numbers 21:15; Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18; 1 Chronicles 29:29; 1 Maccabees 16:24; etc.). Statements tending to prove the same fragmentary character of the early Christian literature which has come down to us are indeed much less numerous, but not altogether wanting (cf. Luke 1:1-3; Colossians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 5:9). But, however ancient and fragmentary, it is not to be supposed that the Biblical literature contains only few, and these rather imperfect, literary forms. In point of fact its contents exhibit nearly all the literary forms met with in our Western literatures together with other peculiarly Eastern, but none the less beautiful. It is also a well-known fact that the Bible is so replete with pieces of transcendent literary beauty that the greatest orators and writers of the last four centuries have most willingly turned to our sacred books as pre-eminently worthy of admiration, study, and imitation. Of course the widest and deepest influence that has ever been, and ever will be, exercised upon the minds and hearts of men remains due to the fact that, while all the other literatures are but man's productions, the Bible is indeed "inspired of God" and, as such, especially "profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice" (2 Timothy 3:16).
Publication information Written by Francis E. Gigot. Transcribed by Ernie Stefanik. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II. Published 1907. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York
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