The Big Questions series
The Bible is a human construct. By this I mean that these were books or writings collected over a long period of time. They were eventually codified or canonized by some authoritative individuals into a collection that was considered by some to be an official representation of the religion. They may have been divinely guided.
(Videocast of this article on YouTube.)
They are generally inspired by people’s active faith in God. These writers may have been divinely guided in their writings and selections. They may inspire faith in God or a godly message in the reader.
There are many considerations to consider when trying to understand what the Bible is. Interpretation is affected by context, which may be hidden by time or interpreter bias. What did a Messiah mean to the prophets who called for one, and did it happen? What books are excluded and why?
What applies to non-Jews and why? How did politics influence the church? How do different groups interpret the Bible? How authoritative is the Bible? In this article we’ll look at these questions.
The Hebrew Bible collection, AKA the Old Testament for Christians, which covers a 1200-year period from Moses to around 100 BCE (more if you count creation stories, and Abraham stories from around 1900 BCE), contains indications about history, but it isn’t a history book.
In no way does the Hebrew Bible reflect current ideas about writing history. It also has nothing to do with science. It’s about the relationship between people and God. Interestingly the creation story does kind of jive with science.
The books are also written from various points of view including individuals, judges, kings, priests, prophets, and their observers or writers. You can see different opinions of different groups in these writings.
In this respect they are also human constructs. The chroniclers, who likely came from the Levite tribe from whom priests were selected, wrote down religious history in the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
According to some authoritative Jews, the Book of Psalms was composed by the First Man (Adam), Melchizedek (a universal priest), Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Heman, Jeduthun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah.
There are always groups who are detractors. The Jews and three major Christian denominations don’t agree on which ancient books or writings from the period before Jesus are representative and authoritative for the Hebrew Bible.
The earliest versions of these books included in the Hebrew Bible, weren’t written texts. Writing in the area didn’t begin in that area until after 1100 BCE. So anything referenced before that time is from oral tradition.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible weren’t written until the 10th to 6th centuries BCE. And it came from multiple traditions, not just one. So the writers incorporated several oral traditions.
Several oral traditions have been identified in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible:
- The creation story (Genesis 1-2)
- The flood story (Genesis 6-9)
- The story of Abraham (Genesis 12-25)
- The story of Moses (Exodus-Deuteronomy)
- The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20)
- The laws of the Torah (Leviticus-Numbers)
- The poems of the Torah (Psalms)
It’s interesting that different versions of these can be found in the first five books. Each storyteller might have added their own variation to the story as this was passed down through generations. Biblical generations are thought to have lasted 35 years, so from 1900 BCE to 650 BCE there were 1250 generations.
Loss of context corrupts interpretations
As languages evolve and emphasis is put on different parts of past and current events, interpretations as told by storytellers can very immensely. And for many of these old stories they would have had a historical context at the time, but today that context is lost.
An example of lost context is the story of Elisha, the bear, and those who taunted him. Why did Elisha have the bear attack those who taunted him? We can’t tell from the context. But Jewish sources tell us that Elisha was in a known group of prophet haters who would beat or kill him.
An example of lost context is the story of. Why did Elisha have the bear attack those who were taunting him? We can’t tell from the context. But Jewish sources tell us that Elisha was in a known group of haters of prophets who would beat or kill him.
Stories about creation likely circulated in the region for centuries before being written down. And the interpretation of what the stories meant also likely varied from area to area as they encountered religions in the areas who put their own interpretation on them.
For example the earliest known creation stories were from ancient Sumer dating to around 3000 BCE, well before the time of the Hebrews. They also have a Noah type flood story from earlier than the Hebrews couched in their religious beliefs. Trade routes and migrations would have brought these stories into new lands where they would have been localized and adapted in meaning.
The origins of these stories don’t make them untrue. There likely is an element of truth in them, some exaggeration, and adapted for local interpretation.
An example of meaning localization is the story of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the Bible they were destroyed because they lacked the hospitality essential to that area, such as caring for the poor even though food was abundant. And they replaced hospitality with depravity that includes adultery, lying, harm to visitors, and even murder. (See Jeremiah 23:14, Ezekiel 16, Matt. 10: 5-15.) The word “abomination” is found, but abomination describes many sins.
Two possible cities that could have been Sodom and Gomorrah were found on the Jordan plane. Another two cities have been found by the Dead Sea which date to around the time of Abraham and Lot, key figures in the story in 1900 BCE, and they appear to have been destroyed by comets.
The interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction is an illustration of the localization of meaning and interpretation. The word Sodom has no known origin and means “Flaming, Burnt” in Hebrew. (Could also mean to harrow a field or to act violently.)
The word was later interpreted by some to mean homosexuality, which isn’t mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as what they were destroyed for. The word Sodomite first appears in use by Christians in letters in A.D. 395 between Saint Jerome and a priest Amandus, but the details of the act and the nature of the sin are not explained. Yet today’s New Testament translations use the word Sodom to mean homosexual sex.
Jesus infers in Matt. 10: 5-15 that not receiving him and his apostles peacefully (lacking hospitality, hostile mistreatment) is similar to Sodom and Gomorrah or worse.
The word sodomy came from 13th century French and does not appear in the original King James Bible. Translators later translated the word into English to indicate homosexuality.
First five books of the Hebrew Bible
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known to the Israelites as the Torah or Law, are thought to have been written down during the Israelites’ exile into Babylon. At that time the influential leaders of Israel were collected by the Babylonians and brought to Babylon. This was to prevent them from leading insurrections in Israel and teaching culture and religion. It’s likely that they brought scrolls with them from writings from 1100 BCE to 650 BCE.
One example of the disparity in document origins was their discovery of the book of Deuteronomy, which appears to be from a different tradition. Some of the punishments called for in the book are different from those in other books.
For those looking for consistency in the Bible, it isn’t there. But this is an indication that there were few attempts to make the books consistent – not that alterations didn’t happen. We know they did.
For instance, the Samaritans who lived in Israel and were hated by the Jews considered themselves keepers of the scroll. Their version differs in some significant details such as where the Temple should be located.
End of the prophets, end of early calls for a messiah
The writings about the Prophets were probably compiled in the 4th or 3rd century BCE from previously known writings. The last prophet, Malachi, was active during the Persian period, and after the Second Temple reconstruction and dedication in 516 BC. Some considered the age of the prophets to be over at that time even though nothing said by the prophets explicitly said so. Part of the reason for this idea is that unlike other prophets, Malachi didn’t mention a messiah.
Why might this be? A messiah is an anointed king or priest who acts as a savior or liberator of a group of people. The prophets called for a messiah to liberate them from Babylon. Prophets used the title to refer to many people.
The prophets applied the title messiah to Cyrus the Great, who founded the Achaemenid Empire and king of Persia from 559 to 530 BC. He is venerated (honored) in the Hebrew Bible as Cyrus the Messiah for conquering Babylon and liberating the Jews from captivity, allowing them to return to the land and rebuild their Temple. (Wikipedia)
So the prophecies that looked for a messiah to deliver the Jews from Babylon were fulfilled. But the call for a messiah sprang up again among groups in Israel. This is because Alexander the Great invaded between 329 to 332 BC, followed by the Romans in 63 BCE.
Alexander pushed to make Greek language and culture dominant in the land. Many Jews hated this and looked for a messiah to deliver them and restore kingship to Israel. The second part of the Book of Daniel, written around 165 BCE, which mentioned the code words “abomination of desolation,” was about the period in which Israel was dominated by the Hellenized (Greek) Seleucid Empire.
The Maccabees were a group of Jewish rebel warriors who took control of Judea, which was part of the Seleucid Empire. They founded the Hasmonean dynasty which revolted and ruled from 167 BCE to 37 BCE, establishing a fully independent kingdom from about 110 to 63 BCE. They reasserted the Jewish religion, expanded Judea’s boundaries by conquest, and reduced the influence of Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism. (Wikipedia)
When the Romans took over they granted some autonomy to the Jews while protecting the land with their laws and military. The ruling Sadducee sect became “Helenized” by years of Greek influence. They grew comfortable with Roman rule and preferred to maintain the status quo at Jesus’ time. Jesus was viewed as a religious and political troublemaker. Critiquing the leaders, calling them hypocrites and snakes, didn’t earn him favor.
Jesus’ claims of starting a new kingdom, even if it was a spiritual one, put him down as another insurrectionist.
Claims that Jesus was the son of God were viewed as blasphemy which was a major religious crime worthy of death. So Jesus was in deep trouble on political and religious grounds.
By the time of Jesus, the area was swarming with those who used guerilla tactics to try and oust the Romans. In Six CE the Zealot political party was formed. Their revolts led to the destruction of Israel and the Temple, with the Romans driving out entirely those who hadn’t fled the land by 128 CE.
Those looking for a king type messiah were sadly disappointed that Jesus brought changes in religious thinking, not political revolution. Judas Iscariot, the man who handed Jesus over to the authorities, is thought to have been one who was disappointed that Jesus wasn’t a military king. Many at the time tied Jesus to King David and to many messianic texts, but conquering lands and ruling was not Jesus’ mission.
Jesus was closely related to the Suffering Servant texts in ancient prophecy (Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12). He spoke of the Kingdom of God as a spiritual kingdom, not one with physical or political boundaries.
The Greek translation of Messiah is Khristós (Χριστός), and is anglicized as Christ in the Christian Bible era.
Late books in the Hebrew Bible
The Book of Daniel was written in two parts centuries apart. The first part was written in the Third or Second Century BCE. The second part was composed around 146 to 165 BCE. The writings were in reaction to the occupation by foreign invaders who brought Greek culture such as public baths and language. They ruined the Temple by erecting Greek god statues.
Judaism had an early collection of books from the Babylonian exile. The historian Josephus (37–100 CE), refers to a collection of 22 books called “the sacred books of the Jews.”
A final collection of Hebrew Bible books was created by Rabbis (generally Pharisees). By the Second Century CE, they had codified 39 books. Until the 10th century, work continued to improve accuracy. But comparison to texts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are ancient texts from the Third to First Century BCE, showed that those scrolls more closely resemble the Samaritan texts.
Hebrew Bible recognition in Christianity
In Christianity various denominations recognize different books of the Hebrew Bible. The Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church recognize 46 books, while Protestants recognize 39 books. God forbid denominations should agree on anything – this would be Babel-iscious.
The Apocrypha is a collection of 14 books written between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE. These books are not considered part of the Hebrew Bible by Jews, but they are considered part of the Christian Bible by Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Why agree?
Protestants don’t believe Apocrypha books have divine authority. The Syriac Church (Egyptian) Bible of the second century CE contained them, but later it didn’t. The Roman Catholic church didn’t officially declare these books Holy Scripture until 1545-1563 at the Council of Trent. The Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes some Apocrypha.
The Apocrypha books include themes related to other Biblical books: wisdom, faith, hope, justice, and love. One of the books is like the Book of Esther. The Maccabees books largely relate history.
The books in the Christian Bible present the religious history of Jesus, the Apostles, and the early church. In general, it is in agreement with other histories from the time, such as political ones.
The three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, were written between 70 and 110 CE, 40 or more years after Jesus’ crucifixion in 30 CE. They are biographical and may have been put into writing by individuals who were disciples or collected sayings from others. They consist of collections of sayings and stories about Jesus that mostly agree.
The Book of John comes from the Johannine community. This is the church community started by the Apostle John who was with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. Polycarp was a student of John, and provides a known line of people from John into the church’s future.
Polycarp says John thought it a good idea to bring the other apostles together and write down their memories of Jesus. They couldn’t fit everything they remembered into one book but limited it to one. The Book of John would most likely be the more authoritative of the four gospels.
Jews, non-Jews, and Jewish Law
James and the Apostles Paul, Peter, John, and others wrote letters to the churches they started or guided. These letters are featured in the Bible and show struggles to interpret Jesus’ ideas and the difficulties of the times. Some of the letters were to Jews who had converted to Christianity. Others were to non-Jews.
Many Jews preferred to continue practicing their Jewish heritage. This was okay – the apostles guided them. But for the non-Jews the apostles didn’t push Jewish practices onto them. The apostle Paul said that if they embraced Jewish law as a standard for judgment then Jesus’ work was for nothing. And the law would apply to them rather than forgiveness. The law of God is in everyone’s hearts, which likely refers to natural laws such as the Seven Laws of Noah or the Ten Commandments.
“The Law,” which is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible in which they find their commandments, doesn’t apply to non-Jews. The Apostles didn’t create any new laws for anyone but simply advised them to love others and not defile their own bodies with promiscuous sex. This means transient sexual relationships. At that time multiple sexual partners could have devastating consequences and was not a sign of love and family characteristic of that era and region.
There was no Christian Bible at the time of Jesus and the apostles, and not for 300 years. There were simply books and letters circulated and copied. There became a growing collection of these books and letters that were considered authoritative. Some who became bishops in the churches filtered these as reflecting Jesus’ teachings or not. There were many imposters and writings that twisted Jesus’ message.
Many books and letters circulated in the tradition of the apostles’ or Jesus’ teachings. In the Second Century some followed Gnosticism. Gnostics, like ancient Greek secret religions, believed that salvation came from enlightenment by secret knowledge. The idea of secret knowledge seemed opposed to Jesus’ teachings about individual transformation to cease wrongdoing and do positive things. Church leaders ruled out Gnosticism.
Not much was known to modern scholars about Gnosticism until the discovery in 1945 of Egypt’s Nag Hammadi library. This is a collection of rare early Christian and Gnostic texts.
Evangelist and Apostle Mark founded the Egyptian Orthodox Church (AKA Coptic) in 42 CE. It likely received the same sayings and stories about Jesus as others.
Around 150 CE, in Syria, Tatian translated the four existing gospel books into the Diatessaron version. This was a harmony of the four gospels. It was the standard Gospel text in the Syrian Middle East until 400 CE. A 3rd-century Greek papyrus fragment was discovered in 1933 at Doura-Europus, northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. A “recension” exists from the Fourth Century. The translation was replaced in 400 CE by more modern texts such as the Peshitta.
The politicization of the church
The Roman Emperor Constantine, 274 to 337 A.D., was tired of endless fighting among Roman people about religion. His mother was a Christian. He decided that Christianity would be the religion of the Roman empire. He or others cited dreams as the impetus for this. I don’t believe Jesus would have favored this since he only spoke of a spiritual kingdom and refused political considerations.
Constantine was a person of order, not disorder. He called the Council of Nicea — the first general counsel of the Christian church, 325 A.D.—primarily because he feared disputes within the church would cause disorder within the empire. Neither he nor the attendees ordered an official canon of Church books, but he may have been part of the impetus for creating one later. Constantine ordered 50 copies of the existing Bible books from Eusebius.
Eusebius was a church historian. He is noted for writing the church’s history up to his time, but also for propaganda. He wouldn’t include information unfavorable to the church. He had a canon of 27 Christian books which are the same as today.
Before Constantine, 21 books were acknowledged by all Christians: the 4 Gospels, Acts, 13 Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. Revelation was written during Roman First and Second Century oppression of Jews and Christians and refers to the eventual triumph over oppression.
There were 10 disputed books (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter and 2-3 John, Jude, Ps-Barnabas, Hermas, Didache, Gospel of Hebrews). There were several that were all considered heretical (Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthaias, Acts of Andrew and John, etc.).
In Carthage in 397, nearly 60 years after Constantine’s death, a council formally listed the Christian Bible canon. These books are a unified, consistent view of the work and faith of Jesus and his apostles from various sources and writers.
Other books have been found that Christians have not incorporated into the Bible. Their authorship is uncertain, they were written at dates too late to be original, and many are related to Gnosticism. Books in the Gnostic tradition that purport to have secret knowledge were uncovered at the Nag Hamadi Library in Egypt. Many are fragments. Some fragments have been found in other locations.
These include the Gnostic texts of the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) which was discovered as part of a papyri collection that also included the Apocryphon of John and the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Pistis Sophia, and the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit.
People love secret societies and secret knowledge. They are the stuff of clubs, fantasy, and mystery. Many people tried to create a following in that era that mimicked Jesus’ work. But Jesus’ work was very open even gaining religious leaders’ wrath and stirring up controversy. Jesus was inclusive of anyone who wanted to follow the ways he showed people to live and love.
People also like to discredit the Christian Bible. They like to say that the books manufactured the idea of Jesus, that they mimicked other religions in the area, that they are just fiction, and that Constantine and others rewrote them to their liking. Evidence for their claims is lacking. Evidence for Biblical text validity would stand up in court. I get it, people endlessly question court rulings, too.
The Church – planned for by Jesus
Jesus intended an organization to represent his faith. In a conversation with some apostles, “He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Jesus referred to the understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God as the foundation for the church as said by Peter. The word church means assembly and Jesus built on the idea of the Jewish Synagogue of the time, which means assembly or congregation. The early church commonly met in people’s homes, partly due to Roman oppression.
Interpretation of Scripture
Every day we learn more about ancient times by archaeologists and scholars. But literature two to three thousand years ago is difficult to understand for many reasons. Word meanings change over time. The Christian Bible contains some Greek words that either weren’t in common usage or were coined by the Apostle Paul, without a definition. Many references are vague with no explanation.
Different interpretations are found in different English translations. Over 100 translations into English have been made. The American Bible Society considers the number around 900. Different groups question the validity of each. As time passes more translations are made that are supposedly more accurate. The comparison of different source materials affects accuracy.
The things we can look for in interpreting is seeing things in context, unity of theme, and looking through the lens of love. Love is the most prominent virtue in the Bible for both Jews and Christians. It’s the only commandment Christians must follow. God acts out of love and expects us to do the same.
There are many methods of interpretation. Some are:
Literal Interpretation: This means every word means exactly what it says and no interpretation is required. Except that linguists had to interpret it to put it into another language, so we depend on their understanding.
Moral Interpretation: Ethical lessons for life.
Contextual interpretation: Consideration of the context of the overall Bible, historical times, language, culture, etc.
Thematic interpretation: Love.
Many verses are allegories that convey lessons through hidden meanings. This was often done partly to prevent religious and political authorities from discovering them and throwing the writer and his followers into prison. Sometimes Jesus alluded to the idea that some people just wouldn’t understand or refused to understand.
We understand God by what God stands for, which is the highest ideals that motivate and compel us into action. These ideals are social, moral-ethical, and love of others.
Yet we also have to realize that sometimes abstract words like love, spirit, morals or ethics, and the idea of a caring God, are not clearly understood by people. So we have representatives of God such as Jesus to show us the way. And the Apostles further clarified what Jesus meant.
The Apostle Paul put love into perspective for us in a letter to the Corinthian Church in 1 Corinthians 13, paraphrased:
Love isn’t spouting high-sounding words – that’s just a lot of noise. Love is a state of being that results in kindness. It’s what we do for others and how we treat them, not how we feel about others.
Love tolerates others and their foibles. Love is more important than faith and hope. Love compels us into action.
Love is at the heart of our being. Our love testifies to our character and connection to God.
We are to be like God’s love. We’re to be people who convey God’s love in word and deed. Love is what we do for others.
How authoritative is the Bible? Does it come from God?
Can we trust that every word in the Bible was divinely inspired, or is some of it just words written by people’s bias? As I mention in the preceding, we know some of it comes from interpreter’s bias. We know some of it was manipulated. Keith Giles lists several words that were left out to suppress women, in his column Why Certain Words Are Left Out Of Our English Bibles.
The Apostle Paul repeated the Jewish belief about scripture in the only passage that talks about inspiration:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NASB)
If we use love as the lens through which to understand the Bible, inspiration may come at the time of reading. I believe this is what inspiration means. If there are errors, inspiration will guide us through unity of theme.
There is no higher value, no greater virtue, no more certain commandment, than love of others. It is the standard above all other standards in Christianity (except loving God). It is a high value supported by most religions ancient and modern alike. This is the Bible.
Tradition has it that when the Apostle John was dying, he was asked if he had any final words of advice for them. He said, “Little children, love each other.”
The Bible contains writings from many perspectives about individual’s relationships with God, and about relevant historical events from their perspective. The writings that consistently represent the main or important themes and were authoritative were collected by those who represent the religion.
The Hebrew word for Scripture, Tanakh, is actually an acronym for the three parts of Jewish Scriptural writings. By inference it means their holy writings and are revered as inspired by God.
Christian writings underwent a similar process and the authoritative ones that survived centuries of screening and agreement as being authoritative and representative of the religion were officially included into the canon of books known as the Bible at the end of the Third Century.
God can inspire, meaning breathe life into, all Scripture when you read or hear it. Especially when you need to hear it. And God can breathe life into any other positive writing or event when you need it.
Love is the lens through which we interpret the Bible. It’s not a book of history or science. It’s about God’s love for people and that he set an example of love and expects us to love like God.
Critics of the Bible can never be satisfied. Their criticism misses the point that literature can be helpful to people as they grow spiritually.
The standard of belief and conduct for Christianity is love. God is love. We’re asked to be like God.
If you find these articles intriguing, please consider joining the mailing list.
If I’ve challenged your thinking, I’ve done my job.
Our answer is God. God’s answer is us. Together we make the world better.