What is the Bible, really?

Opening of The Shrine of the book, Israel Museum

I often like to remind my readers that theology is the “science of God.” Scripture, found in the Bible, is the primary data source we analyze in the pursuit of supporting or falsifying theological hypotheses. The normative or binding Special Revelation of the Bible is primary (although it may be bolstered by data gleaned from General Revelation and non-binding Special Revelation). But what is the Bible?

At times our culture takes it for granted. We walk past the sensory-overload of options on the shelves of bookstores, ignore the copies placed by the Gideons in the drawers of hotel rooms, and have long forgot where those pocket-sized, orange New Testaments went that some street evangelist handed us years ago. Believing and unbelieving politicians alike are sworn in on them. They line the backs of church pews and lay open superstitiously in some dusty relative’s house. A hundred different English translations are available online for free at the click of a button.

But what is this book, really?

Well, it is not a book at all. The Bible is a collection of sixty-six different documents (in the Protestant canon most familiar to us), written by no fewer than forty human contributors, across the span of some 1,500 years, in three different languages.

These diverse writings encompass many different genres and forms: creation stories, history, genealogy, narrative, law, covenantal agreements, song lyrics, wisdom literature, prophecy, erotic poetry, apocalyptic, gospel, epistle, and more. Some ‘books’ of the Bible are brief letters written from one individual to another, while another ‘book’ may symbolically and/or literally describe the future end of the entire universe.

Yet these laws, prophecies, and writings are tied together by some crucial factors. First, the collection tends to follow the nation of Israel in general, and more specifically the genealogical family lineage of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) and, later, the effects of his ministry and the actions of his followers. Second, many sections purport to be records of Divine Speech. A writer will often record a supernatural encounter that happened at such-and-such a place, at such-and-such a time, in which the writer will be commanded to “write down these words.”

The Old Testament depends on the testimony of recognized prophets, persons commissioned by God to be his messengers. Likewise, the New Testament rests on the concept of apostolicity, that all of the contributors were eye-witnesses of Jesus Christ. All of these documents were recognized fairly early as authoritative and legitimate by their respective audiences, with other writings being excluded for not passing the sniff test.

Despite the span of geography and time, and the complexity of writing, editing, transmitting, collecting, preserving, and ultimately translating these supernaturally-themed works, Christians recognize the final product now known simply as the Bible as being both a human book and a divine book. There are many terms that can be used, including ‘inspired,’ ‘authoritative,’ ‘inerrant,’ and so on. That may lead to confusion for the uninitiated, because the Bible at times inerrantly quotes from non-inerrant sources, and our best manuscripts might actually have missing pieces (see: 1 Samuel 13:1)!

One concept I like to focus on is that of ‘inscripturation,’ which is to say that our closed canon of scripture contains everything that God wanted it to contain and nothing that God did not want it to contain. The Bible is a collection of literature, the creation of which God superintended, sometimes even having his literal speech recorded word for word. To the extent that we can find the most accurate manuscripts, being closest to the original, ancient-language autographs, and seek to understand them through the best linguistic, archaeological, and cultural study tools available, we have access to an amazingly invaluable resource.

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