The book that started it all
Q: What kind of timeframe are we looking at during which the multiple books of the Bible were written?
A: Altogether, the Bible (from the Greek word for books) comprises 66 books, plus another group of writings acknowledged by some Christians but not others. It’s difficult to be precise about dating. We’re looking at a period of more than 500 years in the making, although some of the Old Testament traditions probably go back, in oral form, before the fifth century BC, when many of them were written down. The New Testament covers a period of about 50-60 years in the first century AD.
Q: Who chose which books would be included in the Bible as we know it today?
A: It took quite a while, and the process for the Old Testament was separate from that of the New (obviously, since the Old Testament is also the Jewish Scriptures). Most people these days think the New Testament canon grew ‘from the bottom up’ over several hundred years; it developed as an authorised collection, mostly by common usage and popularity. Later church councils ‘canonised’ in many ways what had already happened. This involved some negotiation of controversial books, such as the Book of Revelation.
Q: People make all sorts of claims about ‘what the Bible really says’. Do you think people are informed enough about the history of the Bible?
A: No, they’re not, which is why we offer a wonderful course in theology at MCD University of Divinity! Not just to train people for priesthood in the institutional church, but to educate anybody at all in the Bible. We also teach Hebrew and Greek, the two main biblical languages.
Q: What was happening with the Bible around the time of the Gutenberg press?
A: There are actually thousands of manuscripts or fragments of the Bible, all hand-written before Gutenberg. But many of those have been discovered in more recent centuries, and are still being discovered. During the Middle Ages, the Bible used in the Western church was the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Hebrew and Greek (which is what the ‘Gutenberg Bible’ is). When the early reformers wanted to use a Bible with the original languages, they used the Textus Receptus, which was the basis of the King James’ Bible in English in 1611. Both the Vulgate and the Textus Receptus are now seen as being significantly problematic, and older and better manuscripts are now used to translate the Bible into English and most other languages.
Q: Could you explain a bit about the context of the Bible?
A: Biblical scholars talk about plural contexts of the Bible because it covers so many years and so many different contexts. The New Testament books are interacting both with their Jewish origins, and the Jewish communities of their days, and are also struggling to negotiate the wonders and terrors of the Roman empire. The world of the Bible is, of course, very different from our own – not just technologically, but also in its cultural values. Biblical contexts, as a whole, place emphasis on the community rather than the individual, family and kinship have priority, they have clear views on gender roles and virtues, they are overwhelmingly patriarchal, they presuppose slavery, they are mostly agrarian, they are hierarchical in political structure rather then democratic, and so on. Writers of the Bible sometimes share these values, but also at significant points radically challenge the cultural values of the day – for example, the prophets’ critique of social injustice in the Old Testament, or the New Testament’s radical perspectives on women.
Q: Jews, Muslims and Christians all see the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible as a holy book...is there agreement among theologians from these faiths about textual approach?
A: There is a certain agreement on using the historical-critical method in study of the Bible – that is to say, though we regard the Bible as divinely inspired, we also recognise it’s a human book, with the perspectives and personalities of its writers. The Bible is not a book on science. It presents, for example, the creation of the world in what we now recognise as a mythological story expressing profound theological truth.
Q: Isn’t it strange that people of various faiths have used this book that they all hold sacred to justify their animosity and violence over millennia? Is there a way out of this?
A: Well, it’s not strange at all in one way, because people who want power and are prepared to use violence to get it will use almost anything to justify it. But the overall message of the Bible presents a very profound challenge to that kind of self-aggrandising mentality. Jesus himself explicitly rejected violence and hatred, calling people to love and care for one another, arising out of a deep love of God.