Bible, also called the Holy Bible, the sacred book or Scriptures of Judaism and of Christianity. The Bible of Judaism and the Bible of Christianity are different, however, in some important ways. The Jewish Bible is the Hebrew Scriptures, 39 books originally written in Hebrew, except for a few sections in Aramaic. The Christian Bible is in two parts, the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament. The Old Testament is structured in two slightly different forms by the two principal divisions of Christendom. The version of the Old Testament used by Roman Catholics is the Bible of Judaism plus 7 other books and additions to books (see the accompanying table); some of the additional books were originally written in Greek, as was the New Testament. The version of the Old Testament used by Protestants is limited to the 39 books of the Jewish Bible. The other books and additions to books are called the Apocrypha by Protestants; they are generally referred to as deuterocanonical books by Roman Catholics.
The term Bible is derived through Latin from the Greek biblia, or “books,” the diminutive form of byblos, the word for “papyrus” or “paper,” which was exported from the ancient Phoenician port city of Biblos. By the time of the Middle Ages the books of the Bible were considered a unified entity.
II ORDER OF THE BOOKS
The order as well as the number of books differs between the Jewish Bible and the Protestant and Roman Catholic versions of the Bible. The Bible of Judaism is in three distinct parts: the Torah, or Law, also called the books of Moses; the Nebiim, or Prophets, divided into the Earlier and Latter Prophets; and the Ketubim, or Writings, including Psalms, wisdom books, and other diverse literature. The Christian Old Testament organizes the books according to their type of literature: the Pentateuch, corresponding to the Torah; historical books; poetical or wisdom books; and prophetical books. Some have perceived in this table of contents a sensitivity to the historical perspective of the books: first those that concern the past; then, the present; and then, the future. The Protestant and Roman Catholic versions of the Old Testament place the books in the same sequence, but the Protestant version includes only those books found in the Bible of Judaism.
The New Testament includes the four Gospels; the Acts of the Apostles, a history of early Christianity; Epistles, or letters, of Paul and other writers; and an apocalypse, or book of revelation. Some books identified as letters, particularly the Book of Hebrews, are theological treatises.
The Bible is a religious book, not only by virtue of its contents but also in terms of its use by Christians and Jews. It is read in practically all services of public worship, its words form the basis for preaching and instruction, and it is used in private devotion and study. The language of the Bible has informed and shaped the prayers, liturgy, and hymnody of Judaism and Christianity. Without the Bible these two religions would have been virtually speechless.
Both the confessed and actual importance of the Bible differ considerably among the various subdivisions of Judaism and Christianity, but all adherents ascribe some degree of authority to it. Many confess that the Bible is the full and sufficient guide in all matters of faith and practice; others view the authority of the Bible in the light of tradition, or the continuous belief and practice of the church since apostolic times.
IV BIBLICAL INSPIRATION
Early Christianity inherited from Judaism and took for granted a view of the Scriptures as authoritative. No formal doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture was initially propounded, as was the case in Islam, which held that the Qur’an (Koran) was handed down from heaven. Christians generally believed, however, that the Bible contained the word of God as communicated by his Spirit—first through the patriarchs and prophets and then through the apostles (see Revelation). The writers of the New Testament books, in fact, appealed to the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures to support their claims concerning Jesus Christ.
The actual doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit and the inerrancy of its words arose during the 19th century in response to the development of biblical criticism, scholarly studies that seemed to challenge the divine origin of the Bible. This doctrine holds that God is the author of the Bible in such a way that the Bible is his word. Many theories explaining the doctrine have been suggested by biblical scholars and theologians. The theories range from a direct, divine, verbal dictation of the Scriptures to an illumination aiding the inspired writer to understand the truth he expressed, whether this truth was revealed or learned by experience.
V IMPORTANCE AND INFLUENCE
The importance and influence of the Bible among Christians and Jews may be explained broadly in both external and internal terms. The external explanation is the power of tradition, custom, and creed: Religious groups confess that they are guided by the Bible. In one sense the religious community is the author of Scripture, having developed it, cherished it, used it, and eventually canonized it (that is, developed lists of officially recognized biblical books). The internal explanation, however, is what many Christians and Jews continue to experience as the power of the contents of the biblical books themselves. Ancient Israel and the early church knew of many more religious books than the ones that constitute the Bible. The biblical books, however, were cherished and used because of what they said and how they said it; they were officially canonized because they had come to be used and believed so widely. The Bible truly is the foundation document of Judaism and Christianity.
It is commonly known that the Bible, in its hundreds of different translations, is the most widely distributed book in human history. Moreover, in all its forms, the Bible has been enormously influential, and not only among the religious communities that hold it sacred. The literature, art, and music of Western culture in particular are deeply indebted to biblical themes, motifs, and images. Translations of the Bible, such as the Authorized Version (or King James Version, 1611) and Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German (first completed in 1534) not only influenced literature but also shaped the development of languages. Such effects continue to be felt in emerging nations, where translations of the Bible into the vernacular help to shape language traditions.
VI THE OLD TESTAMENT
It is remarkable that Christianity includes within its Bible the entire scriptures of another religion, Judaism. The term Old Testament (from the Latin word for “covenant”) came to be applied to those Scriptures on the basis of the writings of Paul and other early Christians who distinguished between the “Old Covenant” that God made with Israel and the “New Covenant” established through Jesus Christ (see, for example, Hebrew 8:7). Because the early church believed in the continuity of history and of divine activity, it included in the Christian Bible the written records of both the Old and the New covenants.
A Old Testament Literature
The Old Testament may be viewed from many different perspectives. From the viewpoint of literature, the Old Testament—indeed, the entire Bible—is an anthology, a collection of many different books. The Old Testament is by no means a unified book in terms of authorship, date of composition, or literary type; it is instead a veritable library.
Generally speaking, the books of the Old Testament and their component parts may be identified as narratives, poetic works, prophetic works, law, or apocalypses. Most of these are broad categories that include various distinct types or genres of literature and oral tradition. None of these categories is limited to the Old Testament; all are found in other ancient literature, especially that of the Near East. It is noteworthy, however, that certain types did not find their way into the Old Testament. Letters, or epistles, so important in the New Testament, are not found as separate books (except for the Letter of Jeremiah in some manuscript traditions). Autobiography, drama, and satire are not found at all. It is particularly striking that most Old Testament books contain several literary genres. Exodus, for example, contains narrative, laws, and poetry; most prophetic books include narratives and poetry in addition to prophetic genres as such.
In both outline and content, a great many Old Testament books are narratives; that is, they report the events of the past. If they have, as most do, a plot (or at least the development of tension and its resolution), characterization of the participants, and a description of the setting where the events occurred, then they are stories. On the other hand, a great many narrative works of the Old Testament are histories—although they would not fit a scholarly definition of the term. A history is a written narrative of the past that is guided by the facts, as far as the writer can determine and interpret them, and not by some aesthetic, religious, or other consideration. The historical narratives of the Old Testament are popular rather than critical works, because the writers often used oral traditions, some of them unreliable, to write their accounts. Moreover, all these narratives were written for a religious purpose; they may therefore be called salvation histories, because they are concerned with showing how God was active in human events. Examples of such works are the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings; see below), the Tetrateuch (Genesis through Numbers), and the Chronicler’s History (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah). The so-called Throne Succession History of David (see 2 Samuel 9-20, 1 Kings 1-2) comes closer to the modern understanding of history than does any other biblical narrative. The writer was sensitive to the details of historical events and characters, and he interpreted the course of affairs in the light of human motivations. Nonetheless, he could see the hand of God moving behind the scenes.
Other narrative books are Ruth, a short story; Jonah, a didactic, or teaching, story; and Esther, a historical romance or a festival legend. It is likely that such books developed from folktales or legends. Several didactic stories are found in the deuterocanonical books of the Bible and in the Apocrypha: Tobit, Judith, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon.
Many of these and other narrative genres are found within the books of the Old Testament. The Book of Genesis is composed, as are most of the other narrative works, of numerous individual stories, most of which originally circulated independently and orally. The patriarchal stories in Genesis 11-50 have been called legends, sagas, and—more accurately—family stories. Many of them are etiological; that is, they explain some place, practice, or name in terms of its origin.
A2 Poetic Works
The poetic books of the Old Testament may be taken to include Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (Songs), and in the deuterocanonical books and the Apocrypha, Sirach and the Prayer of Manasseh. The Book of Wisdom has much in common with the poetic wisdom books, but it is not poetry. Most of the prophetic books are written in Hebrew poetry, but they are sufficiently distinctive to be considered separately.
A2a General Characteristics
Hebrew poetry has two major characteristics, one relatively easy to recognize even in translation and the other difficult to discern. The more obvious characteristic is the use of parallelismus membrorum, or parallelism of lines or other parts. For example, the meaning of one line may be restated or paralleled by a second line, as in Psalms 6:1:
“O Lord, rebuke me not in thy anger,
nor chasten me in thy wrath.”
These two lines are synonymous. On the other hand, the second line in the unit may state the negative side of the first line’s point, as in Proverbs 15:1:
“A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
In other cases, the second line may extend or explain the first, and in still others, the parallelism is merely formal. Parallelism can in some instances extend to three or more lines. One major advantage of most modern English translations of the Bible is that they retain the poetic form of the Hebrew, enabling the reader to enjoy and understand the structure of the original.
The other major feature of Hebrew poetry is rhythm, which seems to have been based on the number of accents in each line. One of the more easily recognized meters is that of the qina, or dirge, in which the first line has three beats or accented syllables and the second line has two.
The poetic books include a great many diverse genres. The most widespread types are the various songs of worship (Psalms) and wisdom poetry. In addition, the Bible contains one book of love poetry, the Song of Solomon (Songs).
A2b Lyrical Poetry
Israel’s worship literature was lyrical poetry, that is, poetry meant to be sung. Most, but not all, of these songs are collected in the books of Psalms. Many are hymns—songs in praise of God himself, his works on behalf of Israel, or his creation. Others are communal laments or complaint songs, which were, in effect, prayers of petition sung by the people when they were faced with trouble. Approximately one-third of the Psalms are individual laments or complaints, songs used by or on behalf of individuals facing death or disaster. When the nation or the individual has been saved from trouble, thanksgiving songs would be sung. A few Psalms, such as 2, 45, and 110, celebrate the coronation of a king in Israel as God’s special servant.
A2c Wisdom Poetry
The wisdom poetry includes collections of wisdom sayings and short poems, as in the Book of Proverbs, and long compositions such as Job, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. The shorter wisdom materials are proverbs, sayings, and admonitions, commonly only two lines long. Some were undoubtedly traditional or popular sayings; others bear the marks of thoughtful and creative composition. Proverbs 1-9 contains a collection of poems on the nature of wisdom itself, but the Book of Job is a lengthy poetic composition in the form of a dialogue framed by a folktale. Ecclesiastes is a somewhat disjointed work; Sirach is a book written by a Jewish teacher and later translated by his grandson.
The subject matter of the wisdom sayings ranges from practical advice for living a good and successful life to reflections on the relationship between following the wise path and obedience to the divinely revealed law. Job, at least on one level, agonizes over the question of the suffering of the righteous, and Ecclesiastes meditates sadly on the meaning of life in the face of death.
A3 Prophetic Materials
Prophets were known elsewhere in the ancient Near East, but no other culture developed a body of prophetic literature comparable to that of Israel. Ancient Egyptian writers produced literary works called “prophecies,” for example, but these writings are different in both form and content from the biblical prophetic books.
Most Hebrew prophetic books contain three kinds of literature: narratives, prayers, and prophetic speeches. The narratives generally are stories or reports of prophetic activity, either attributed to the prophet himself or told by some third person. They include vision reports, reports of symbolic actions, accounts of prophetic activities such as conflicts between the prophets and their opponents, and historical narratives or notes. One book in the prophetic collection, Jonah, is actually a story about a prophet, including only one line of prophetic address (see Jonah 3:4). The prayers include hymns and petitions such as Jeremiah’s complaints (for example, Jeremiah 15:10-21).
Speeches predominate in the prophetic literature, for the essence of prophetic activity was to announce the word of God concerning the immediate future. The most common addresses are prophecies of punishment or of salvation. Both of these are framed, as are most prophetic speeches, by formulas that identify the words as revealed by God; for example, “thus says the Lord.” The prophecy of punishment usually gives reasons for the punishment in terms of social injustice, religious arrogance, or apostasy and spells out the nature of the disaster—military or otherwise—to be visited upon the nation, group, or individual addressed. The prophecies of salvation announce God’s impending intervention to rescue Israel. Other speeches include prophecies against foreign nations, woe speeches enumerating the sins of the people, and admonitions or warnings. See Prophecy.
Legal materials are sufficiently prominent in the Hebrew Scriptures that the term Torah (Law) came to be applied in Judaism to the first five books, and in early Christianity to the entire Old Testament. Legal writings dominate in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The fifth book of the Bible was called Deuteronomy (“second law”) by its Greek translators, although the book is primarily a report of the last words and deeds of Moses. It does, however, contain numerous laws, often in the context of interpretation and preaching.
According to biblical tradition, the will of God was revealed to Israel through Moses when the covenant was made at Mount Sinai. Consequently, all the laws—except those in Deuteronomy—are found in Exodus 20 through Numbers 10, where the events at Mount Sinai are reported.
Scholars have recognized in the Hebrew laws two major types, the apodictic and the casuistic. Apodictic law is represented by, but not limited to, the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:1-21, 34:14-26; Deuteronomy 5:6-21). These laws, usually found in collections of five or more, are short, unambiguous, and unequivocal statements of the will of God for human behavior. They are either commands (positive) or prohibitions (negative). The casuistic laws, on the other hand, each consist of two parts. The first part states a condition (“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it …”) and the second part the legal consequences (“… he shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep,” Exodus 22:1). These laws generally concern problems that arise in agricultural and town life. The casuistic laws are parallel in form, and frequently in content, to laws found in the Code of Hammurabi and other ancient Near Eastern law codes.
A5 Apocalyptic Writings
The apocalypse as a distinctive genre arose in Israel in the postexilic period, that is, after the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews from 586 to 538 bc. An apocalypse, or revelation, contains the disclosure of future events by means of a lengthy and detailed dream or vision report. It makes use of highly symbolic and often bizarre images, which in turn are explained and interpreted. Apocalyptic writings generally reflect the author’s historical view of his own era as a time when the powers of evil are gathering to make their final struggle against God, after which a new age will be established.
Daniel is the only apocalyptic book as such in the Hebrew Scriptures, and its first half (chap. 1-6) is actually a series of legendary stories. Sections of other books, however, are similar in many respects to apocalyptic literature (see Isaiah 24-27; Zechariah 9-14; and some parts of Ezekiel). In the Apocrypha, 2 Esdras is an apocalypse. Judaism in the last two centuries BC and the first century ad produced numerous other apocalyptic works that were never considered canonical. These include Enoch, the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, and the Apocalypse of Moses. See Pseudepigrapha.
Until recently, most scholars argued that the development of apocalyptic literature and thought was strongly influenced by Persian religion. That view is being challenged by the recognition of the roots of apocalyptic literature in Israelite thought itself, especially the prophetic understanding of the future, and in older Near Eastern traditions. See Apocalyptic Writings.
B The Development of the Old Testament
By no means did all the books of the Old Testament originate at the same time and in the same place; rather, they are the product of Israelite faith and culture over a thousand years or more. Consequently, another literary perspective examines the books and their component parts in terms of their authorship and their literary and preliterary history.
Virtually all the books went through a long history of transmission and development before they were collected and canonized. Moreover, it is necessary to distinguish between traditional Jewish and Christian views concerning the authorship and date of the books and their actual literary history as it has been reconstructed by modern scholarship from the evidence in the biblical books and elsewhere. It is not the aim of this survey to present a detailed account of the literary history of the Old Testament. Many of the facts are not known, the history is long and often complicated, and older conclusions regularly are being revised under the weight of new evidence and methods. The general contours of that history can, however, be summarized.
For most Old Testament books it was a long journey from the time the first words were spoken or written to the work in its final form. That journey usually involved many people, such as storytellers, authors, editors, listeners, and readers. Not only individuals but different communities of faith played their parts. See the individual entries for each book of the Old Testament.
Behind many of the present literary works stand oral traditions. Most of the stories in Genesis, for example, circulated orally before they were written down. Prophetic speeches, now encountered in written form, were first delivered orally. Virtually all the Psalms, whether originally written down or not, were composed to be sung or chanted aloud in worship. It is not safe to infer, however, that oral transmission was merely the precursor of written literature and ceased once books came into being. In fact, oral traditions existed side by side with written materials for centuries.
B1 The Pentateuch
According to Jewish and Christian tradition, Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Nowhere in the books themselves, however, is this claim made; tradition stemmed in part from the Hebrew designation of them as the books of Moses, but that meant concerning Moses. As early as the Middle Ages, Jewish scholars recognized a problem with the tradition: Deuteronomy (the last book of the Pentateuch) reports the death of Moses. The books are actually anonymous and composite works. On the basis of numerous duplications and repetitions, including two different designations of the deity, two separate accounts of creation, two intertwined stories of the flood, two versions of the Egyptian plagues, and many others, modern scholars have concluded that the writers of the Pentateuch drew upon several different sources, each from a different writer and period.
The sources differ in vocabulary, literary style, and theological perspective. The oldest source is the Jehovistic, or Yahwist (J, from its use of the divine name Jahwe—modern Jehovah—or Yahweh), commonly dated in the 10th or 9th century BC. The second is the Elohist (E, from its use of the general name Elohim for God), usually dated in the 8th century bc. Next is Deuteronomy (D, limited to that book and a few other passages), dated in the late 7th century BC. Last is the Priestly Writer (P, for its emphasis on cultic law and priestly concerns), dated in the 6th or 5th century bc. J includes a full narrative account from creation to the conquest of Canaan by Israel. E is no longer a complete narrative, if it ever was; its earliest material concerns Abraham. P concentrates on the covenant and the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai, but sets that into a narrative that begins with creation.
None of the writers of these documents—if they were individuals and not groups—was a creative author in the modern sense. Rather, they worked as editors who collected, organized, and interpreted older traditions, both oral and written. Therefore, most of the contents of the sources are much older than the sources themselves. Some of the oldest written elements are parts of poetic works such as the Song of the Sea (see Exodus 15), and some of the legal material was derived from ancient legal codes. One recent view suggests that the individual stories of the Pentateuch were collected under the heading of several major themes (Promise to the Patriarchs, Exodus, Wandering in the Wilderness, Sinai, and Taking of the Land) and took their basic shape by about 1100 BC. In any case, the story of Israel’s roots was formed in and under the influence of the community of faith. See also Pentateuch.
B2 Deuteronomistic History
In recent years the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings have been recognized as a unified account of the history of Israel from the time of Moses (13th century bc) to the Babylonian exile (the period from the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC to the reconstruction in Palestine of a new Jewish state after 538 bc). Because the literary style and theological perspective are similar to those of Deuteronomy, this account is called the Deuteronomistic History. On the basis of the last events it reports, among other evidence, it seems to have been written about 560 BC, during the exile. It is possible, however, that at least one edition was written earlier.
The writer (or writers) of the work set out to record Israel’s history and also to account for the disaster that befell the nation at the hands of the Babylonians. On the one hand, he worked as any other historian would, by collecting and organizing older sources, both written and oral. He used materials of many kinds, including stories of the prophets, lists of various sorts, earlier histories, and even court records. In fact, he often refers the reader to his sources (for example, see Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18; 2 Kings 15:6). On the other hand, however, he worked as a theologian—and one who already had firm convictions about the course and meaning of the events he recorded. He expressed those convictions by the way he organized the material and by placing speeches, which he had written, into the mouths of the major characters (for example, see Joshua 1). He believed that Israel had fallen to the Babylonians because of disobedience to the law of Moses (as in Deuteronomy), especially in its worship of false gods in false places of worship; he also believed that the prophets had warned of the exile long before it happened.
B3 The Poetic Books
Both the cultic and wisdom poetry of the Old Testament are difficult to date or to attribute to particular authorship, primarily because they contain so few historical allusions. David is regarded as the author of the Psalms because of the tradition that he was a singer and composer; in fact, only 70 of the 150 Psalms are specifically identified with David, and far fewer than that originated during his era. The attributions to David and to others are found in the superscriptions, which were added long after the Psalms were written. The identification of Proverbs and other wisdom books with Solomon stems from the tradition of that king’s great wisdom, and is reliable to the extent that Solomon did encourage institutions that developed such literature. Wisdom poetry contains in the sayings some of the oldest material in the Hebrew Scriptures, and in compositions such as Ecclesiastes and Sirach some of the latest.
The Book of Psalms became the hymn and prayer book of Israel’s second temple, but many of the songs predate the second temple. They contain motifs, themes, and expressions that Israel inherited from its Canaanite predecessors in the land. Many voices speak in and through the Psalms, but above all they are the voices of the community at worship.
B4 The Prophetic Books
Few if any of the prophetic books were written entirely by the person whose name serves as the title. Moreover, in most instances even the words of the original prophet were recorded by others. The story of Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch (see Jeremiah 36; see also Isaiah 8:16) illustrates one of the ways the spoken prophetic words became books. The various utterances of the prophets would have been remembered and collected by their followers and eventually written down. Later, most of the books were edited and expanded. For example, when the Book of Amos (circa 755 bc) was used in the time of the exile, it was given a new and hopeful ending (Amos 9:8-15). The Book of Isaiah reflects centuries of Israelite history and the work of several prophets and other figures: Isaiah 1-39 stems primarily from the original prophet (742-700 BC); chapters 40-55 come from an unknown prophet of the Exile, called Second Isaiah (539 bc); and chapters 56-66, identified as Third Isaiah, come from various writers of the period after the exile.
C The Canon
The Hebrew Bible and the Christian versions of the Old Testament were canonized in different times and places, but the development of the Christian canons must be understood in terms of the Jewish Scriptures.
C1 The Hebrew Canon
The idea in Israel of a sacred book dates at least from 621 BC. During the reform of Josiah, king of Judah, when the temple was being repaired, the high priest Hilkiah discovered “the book of the law” (see 2 Kings 22). The scroll was probably the central part of the present Book of Deuteronomy, but what is important is the authority that was ascribed to it. More reverence was paid to the text read by Ezra, the Hebrew priest and scribe, to the community at the end of the 5th century bc (see Nehemiah 8).
The Hebrew Bible became Holy Scripture in three stages. The sequence corresponds to the three parts of the Hebrew canon: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. On the basis of external evidence it seems clear that the Torah, or Law, became Scripture between the end of the Babylonian exile (538 BC) and the separation of the Samaritans from Judaism, probably by 300 bc. The Samaritans recognized only the Torah as their Bible.
The second stage was the canonization of the Nebiim (Prophets). As the superscriptions to the prophetic books indicate, the recorded words of the prophets came to be considered the word of God. For all practical purposes the second part of the Hebrew canon was closed by the end of the 3rd century, not long before 200 BC.
In the meantime other books were being compiled, written, and used in worship and study. By the time the Book of Sirach was written (circa 180 bc), an idea of a tripartite Bible had developed. The contents of the third part, the Ketubim (Writings), remained somewhat fluid in Judaism until after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in AD 70. By the end of the 1st century ad the rabbis in Palestine had established the final list.
Both positive and negative forces were at work in the process of canonization. On the one hand, most of the decisions had already been made in practice: The Law, the Prophets, and most of the Writings had been serving as Scripture for centuries. Controversy developed around only a few books in the Writings, such as Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon (Songs). On the other hand, many other religious books, also claiming to be the word of God, were being written and circulated. These included the books in the present Protestant Apocrypha, some of the New Testament books, and many others. Consequently, the official action of establishing a Bible took place in response to a theological question: According to which books would Judaism define itself and its relationship to God?
C2 The Christian Canon
The second canon—what is now the Roman Catholic version of the Old Testament—arose first as a translation of the earlier Hebrew books into Greek. The process began in the 3rd century BC outside of Palestine, because Jewish communities in Egypt and elsewhere needed the Scriptures in the language of their culture. The additional books in this Bible, including supplements to older books, arose for the most part among such non-Palestinian Jewish communities. By the end of the 1st century ad, when the earliest Christian writings were being collected and disseminated, two versions of Scripture from Judaism were already in existence: the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Old Testament (known as the Septuagint). The Hebrew Bible, however, was the official standard of belief and practice; no evidence indicates that an official list of Greek Scriptures ever existed in Judaism. The additional books of the Septuagint were only given official recognition in Christianity. The writings of the early Fathers of the Church contain numerous different lists, but it is clear that the longer Greek Old Testament prevailed.
The last major step in the history of the Christian canon took place during the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he rediscovered what others—notably St. Jerome, the 4th-century biblical scholar—had known: that the Old Testament had originated in Hebrew. He removed from his Old Testament the books that were not in the Bible of Judaism and established them as the Apocrypha. This step was an effort to return to the presumed earliest—and therefore best—text and canon, and to establish in opposition to the authority of the church the authority of that older version of the Bible. See Apocrypha; Apocryphal New Testament.
D Texts and Ancient Versions
All contemporary translators of the Bible attempt to recover and use the oldest text, presumably the one closest to the original. No original copies or autographs exist; rather, hundreds of different manuscripts contain numerous variant readings. Consequently, every attempt to determine the best text of a given book or verse must be based on the meticulous work and informed judgment of scholars.
D1 Masoretic Texts
With regard to the Old Testament, the chief distinction is between texts in Hebrew and the versions, or translations into other ancient languages. The most important, and generally most reliable, witnesses to the Hebrew are the Masoretic texts, those produced by Jewish scholars (called the Masoretes) who assumed the task of faithfully copying and transmitting the Bible (see Masora). These scholars, active from the early Christian centuries into the Middle Ages, also provided the text with punctuation, vowel points (the original of the Hebrew text contains only consonants), and various notes. The standard printed Hebrew Bible in use today is a reproduction of a Masoretic text written in AD 1088. The manuscript, in codex or book form, is in the collection of the Saint Petersburg Public Library. Another Masoretic manuscript, the Aleppo Codex from the first half of the 10th century ad, is the basis for a new publication of the text in preparation at Hebrew University in Israel. The Aleppo Codex is the oldest manuscript of the entire Hebrew Bible, but it dates from well more than a millennium after the latest biblical books were written, and perhaps as much as two millennia later than the earliest ones.
Extant, however, are older Hebrew manuscripts—Masoretic and other texts—of individual books. Many from as early as the 6th century were discovered during the late 19th century in the genizah (storage room for manuscripts) of the Cairo synagogue. Numerous manuscripts and fragments, many from the pre-Christian era, have been recovered from the Dead Sea region since 1947 (see Dead Sea Scrolls). Although many of the most important manuscripts are quite late, the Masoretic texts in particular preserve a textual tradition that goes back to at least a century or more before the Christian era.
D2 The Septuagint and Other Greek Versions
The most valuable versions of the Hebrew Bible are the translations into Greek. In some instances the Greek versions actually offer readings superior to the Hebrew, being based on older Hebrew texts than are now available. Many of the Greek manuscripts are much older than the manuscripts of the full Hebrew Bible; they were included in copies of the entire Christian Bible that date from the 4th and 5th centuries. The major manuscripts are Codex Vaticanus (in the Vatican Library), Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Alexandrinus (both in the British Museum).
The major Greek version is called the Septuagint (“seventy”) because of the legend that the Torah was translated in the 3rd century BC by 72 scholars. The legend is probably accurate in several respects: The first Greek translation included only the Torah, and it was done in Alexandria in the 3rd century bc. Eventually the remaining Hebrew Scriptures were translated, but obviously they were translated by other scholars whose skills and viewpoints differed.
Numerous other Greek translations were made, most of them extant only in fragments or quotations by the early Fathers of the Church and others. These include the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, and Lucian. The 3rd-century Christian theologian Origen studied the problems presented by these different versions and prepared a Hexapla, an arrangement in six parallel columns of the Hebrew text, the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek, Aquila, Symmachus, the Septuagint, and Theodotion.
D3 Peshitta, Old Latin, Vulgate, and Targums
Other versions include the Peshitta, or Syriac, begun perhaps as early as the 1st century AD; the Old Latin, translated not from the Hebrew but from the Septuagint in the 2nd century; and the Vulgate, translated from the Hebrew into Latin by St. Jerome at the end of the 4th century ad.
Also to be considered with the versions are the Aramaic Targums. In Judaism, when Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the language of everyday life, translations became necessary, first accompanying the oral reading of Scriptures in the synagogue and later set down in writing. The Targums were not literal translations, but rather paraphrases or interpretations of the original. The two major Targums are those that originated in Palestine and those that were revised in Babylon. Recently a complete manuscript of the Palestinian Targum has come to light—Neofiti I of the Vatican Library. The best-known Babylonian Targums are Onkelos for the Pentateuch and Jonathan for the Prophets. See Targum.
The versions often are good, sometimes even the best, witnesses to the original text. Moreover, they are important as evidence for the history of thought among the communities that took the Bible seriously.
E The Old Testament and History
On virtually all its pages the Old Testament calls attention to the reality and importance of history. The Pentateuch and the historical books contain salvation histories; the prophets constantly refer to events of the past, present, and future. As the history of Israel was told in the Old Testament, it came to be organized in a series of pivotal events or periods: the exodus (including the stories from the patriarchs to the conquest of Canaan), the monarchy, the exile in Babylon, and the return to Palestine with the restoration of the religious institutions.
E1 Separating Interpretation from History
It is important to distinguish between the Old Testament’s interpretation of what happened and critical history. In order to write a reliable account, the historian needs more or less objective sources contemporary with the events themselves. The major source of information concerning Israel’s history is the Old Testament, and its writers generally are concerned primarily with the theological meaning of the past. Moreover, most of the documents are later—sometimes by centuries—than the events they describe. A significant body of written evidence does not exist before the time of the monarchy, which was established with the anointing of Saul as the first king of Israel in the 11th century BC. Other evidence, both written and artifactual, has been recovered through archaeology, but all the evidence—both biblical and archaeological—must be evaluated critically (see Biblical Archaeology; Biblical Criticism). To be sure, all biblical texts that can be dated at all furnish important historical information. They reveal facts concerning the period in which they were written, but they do not necessarily contain literally accurate accounts of the events they report.
E2 The Historical Core
Israel’s life was a part of the history of the ancient Near East. Like the other small nations of the eastern Mediterranean, Israel was at the mercy of the major powers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia and could prosper independently only when they were in decline or preoccupied with struggles among themselves.
E2a Early History and Development of Israel
A considerable body of information concerning the history of the ancient Near East is available from the 3rd millennium bc on, but a detailed history of Israel can begin only about the time of David (1000-961 BC). This does not mean that nothing at all can be said about the preceding eras, or that all the reports of events before David are inaccurate. It does mean that historical evidence can be separated from later interpretation only with difficulty, and that relatively few details can be known with certainty. The Genesis stories of the patriarchs, for example, are not intended as history. History deals with public events; the accounts of the patriarchs are family stories, concerned for the most part with private matters. Archaeological evidence, however, has shown that the background or setting of the stories gives a reasonable picture of life in the late Bronze Age. The stories suggest that the ancestors of Israel were seminomads and provide an indication of their religious beliefs and practices.
Careful analysis of the biblical record and judicious use of archaeological evidence suggest a date for the exodus from Egypt in the second half of the 13th century bc. Even the route of the exodus, however, is unknown; the Old Testament preserves at least two major traditions on that point. Not all of Israel would have been involved, and most likely only the Joseph tribes.
Joshua 1-12 and Judges 1-2 present two different versions of Israel’s entrance into the land of Canaan. The summary statements in Joshua report a sudden conquest by the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua; but Judges 1-2 and other traditions support the conclusion that individual tribes moved into the land gradually and that it was decades if not centuries before Israel acquired its territory. The period of the conquest and that of the Judges thus overlap. For the most part, during the two centuries after 1200 BC individual tribes were sometimes on their own and sometimes together, only gradually becoming one nation, Israel.
E2b The Monarchy
The monarchy arose during the 11th century bc in the midst of internal strife and external threat. The internal strife concerned the question of the proper form of government for the nation. Some favored the more traditional form of charismatic leadership in times of crisis; others wanted a stable kingship. Kingship won out because of the external threat from the militarily superior Philistines, who occupied five cities on the coastal plain. Saul united the tribes and established a monarchy, but was killed, along with his son Jonathan, in a battle with the Philistines. David then became king, first in the south and then of the entire nation. It was left to him to put an end forever to the Philistine threat and then to establish an empire that exerted control from Syria to the border of Egypt. His reign was long and prosperous, although not without internal conflict over his throne. He was succeeded by his son Solomon, who set up a court after the manner of other oriental monarchs. Solomon built a palace and the great Temple in Jerusalem, and overtaxed the resources of the country for his luxurious programs.
E2c The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah
After the death of Solomon, the northern tribes rebelled under his son Rehoboam. The two nations, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, were never again reunited, and they often fought each other. In Judah the dynasty of David continued until the Babylonians took the country (597 and 586 BC), but in Israel numerous kings and several dynasties came and went. The period of the divided monarchy was marked by threats from the Assyrians, the Arameans, and the Babylonians. Israel, with its capital Samaria, fell to the Assyrian army in 722-21 bc, its people were deported, and foreigners settled in their place. Judah suffered two humiliations at the hand of the Babylonians: the surrender of Jerusalem in 597 and its destruction in 586 BC. Captives were carried off to Babylon on both occasions, but because foreigners were not settled in Judah, and the captives were allowed some measure of freedom—at least to associate with one another—the life of the people continued both in Babylon and in their native land. The exile was a disaster long announced by the prophets as a divine judgment, but the experience led the Israelites to a reconsideration of their own meaning as a people, and to the writing down and interpretation of their old traditions. See Babylonian Captivity or Exile.
E2d The Postexilic Period
The people were set free from Babylon in 538 bc, when the Persian king Cyrus established the Persian Empire. The prophets Ezra and Nehemiah were leaders in the era after the exile when institutions were reestablished and the Temple was rebuilt. Judah became a province of the Persian Empire, and the people had relative autonomy, especially in religion.
At some point during the postexilic period, the history of Israel became the history of Judaism, but at precisely what time is debated. For further information, see Jews; Judaism. By the beginning of the Christian era the people had survived the rise of the Hellenistic empire (333 BC), the Maccabean revolution (168-165 bc) and rule, and the establishment of Roman control in Palestine (63 BC). After an abortive revolution in ad 70 that led to the destruction of Jerusalem, their life changed dramatically.
F Theological Themes of the Old Testament
The theological themes of the Old Testament are rich, deep, and diverse. No single theology is found in these writings, because they emerged from many individuals and groups over several centuries. They reflect not only a development of thought but also differences of opinion and even conflicts. For example, different interpretations of creation are preserved side by side, and prophets on more than one occasion challenged the views of priests. The themes of the Old Testament are coherent with and related to one another, but they are not a systematic theology. The canonization of the Bible, while establishing an official list, also recognized substantial diversity.
F1 The God of Israel
The most obvious theological theme of the Old Testament is both the most pervasive and the most important one: Yahweh (the personal name of God in the Old Testament; see God; Jehovah) is the God of Israel, of the whole earth, and of history. This theme echoes from Exodus 20:3 (“You shall have no other gods before me”) throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and it is the basis for all other theological reflection. It would be misleading, however, to identify this theme as monotheism; that term is too abstract for the texts in question, and in all but some of the latest materials the existence of other gods is taken for granted. Generally the other gods are held to be subordinate to Yahweh, and in any case Israel is to be loyal to only one God. That God is affirmed to be the creator of the earth, the king active in history to save and to judge, all-powerful but concerned for his people. He is known to reveal himself in diverse ways—through the law, through events, and through prophets and priests.
The distinctive Old Testament language about God links the name of Yahweh with events: “I am the Lord [Yahweh] your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). Israel confesses who God is in terms of what he has done or will do, rather than in terms of his nature. History then takes on special importance as the sphere of divine action and interaction with his people. The only significant exception to this use of historical language is the wisdom literature.
F2 Covenant and Law
Two other themes fundamental to the Old Testament, covenant and law, are closely related. Covenant signifies many things, including an agreement between nations or individuals, but above all it refers to the pact between Yahweh and Israel sealed at Mount Sinai. The language concerning that covenant has much in common with that of ancient Near Eastern treaties; both are sworn agreements sealed by oaths. Yahweh is seen to have taken the initiative in granting the covenant by electing a people. Perhaps the simplest formulation of the covenant is the sentence: “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). The law was understood to have been given as a part of the covenant, the means by which Israel became and remained the people of God. The law contains regulations for behavior in relation to other human beings as well as rules concerning religious practices, but by no means does it give a full set of instructions for life. Rather, it seems to set forth the limits beyond which the people could not go without breaking the covenant.
F3 The Human Person
The Old Testament stresses an understanding of human beings in community, something important for the people of such a covenant. The individual human being was conceived of as an animated body, as Genesis 2:7 suggests: “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” That “breath” should not be viewed as a “soul” but simply as “life.” In the Old Testament, the human being was seen as a unity of physical matter and life, the whole a gift from God. Consequently, death was a vivid reality; views of afterlife or resurrection appear only rarely and late in Israelite thought.
Another theme that appears in the prophets and is basic elsewhere is that Yahweh is a just God who expects justice and righteousness from his people. That includes fairness in all human affairs, care for the weak, and the establishment of just institutions.
With these and other themes, it is small wonder that the Hebrew Scriptures provided the foundation for two world religions, Judaism and Christianity.
VII THE NEW TESTAMENT
The New Testament consists of 27 documents written between ad 50 and 150 concerning matters of belief and practice in Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean world. Although some have argued that Aramaic originals lie behind some of these documents (especially the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle to the Hebrews), all have been handed down in Greek, very likely the language in which they were composed.
A Text, Canon, and Early Versions
For a time, some Christian scholars treated the Greek of the New Testament as a special kind of religious language, providentially given as a proper vehicle for the Christian faith. It is now clear from extrabiblical writings of the period that the language of the New Testament is koine, or common Greek, that which was used in homes and marketplaces.
A1 Manuscripts and Textual Criticism
Extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament—complete, partial, or fragmentary—now number about 5000. None of these, however, is an autograph, an original from the writer. Probably the oldest is a fragment of the Gospel of John dated about AD 120-40. The similarities among these manuscripts is most remarkable when one considers differences of time and place of origin as well as the methods and materials of writing. Dissimilarities, however, involve omissions, additions, terminology, and different ordering of words.
Comparing, evaluating, and dating the manuscripts, placing them in family groups, and developing criteria for ascertaining the text that most likely corresponds to what the authors wrote are the tasks of critics. They are aided in their judgments by thousands of scriptural citations in the writings of the early Fathers of the Church and by a number of early translations of the Bible into other languages. The fruit of the labor of text critics is an edition of the Greek New Testament that offers not only what is judged to be the best text but also includes notes indicating variant readings among the major manuscripts. The more significant of these variants usually appear in English translations as footnotes citing what other ancient authorities say (see, for example, Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11; Acts 8:37). Critical editions of the Greek New Testament have appeared with some regularity since the work of the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus in the 16th century.
A2 Precanonical Writings
The 27 books of the New Testament are only a fraction of the literary production of the Christian communities in their first three centuries. The principal types of New Testament documents (gospel, epistle, apocalypse) were widely imitated, and the names of apostles or other leading figures were attached to writings designed to fill in the silence of the New Testament (for example, on the childhood and youth of Jesus), to satisfy the appetite for more miracles, and to argue for new and fuller revelations. As many as 50 Gospels were in circulation during this time. Many of these noncanonical Christian writings have been collected and published as New Testament Apocrypha (see Apocryphal New Testament).
Knowledge of the literature of the period was greatly increased by the discovery in 1945 of the library of a heretical Christian group, the Gnostics (see Gnosticism), at Naj‘?amm?d?, Egypt. This collection, written in Coptic, has been translated and published. Major scholarly attention has been focused on the Gospel of Thomas, which purports to be sayings of Jesus, 114 in all, delivered privately to Thomas, one of the 12 apostles.
A3 The Canon
No clear records are available documenting what determined the church’s decision to adopt an official canon of Christian writings or the process by which this occurred. For Jesus and his followers, the Law, Prophets, and Writings of Judaism were “Holy Scriptures.” Interpretation of these writings was, however, governed by the work, words, and person of Jesus as he was understood by his followers. The apostles who preserved the words and deeds of Jesus and who continued his mission were regarded as having special authority. That Paul, for instance, expected his letters to be read aloud in churches and even exchanged among the churches (see Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:26 ff.) indicates that a new norm for belief and practice was developing in the Christian communities. This norm consisted of two parts: the Lord (preserved in the “gospels”) and the Apostles (preserved primarily in “epistles”).
Tracing the history of the development of the New Testament canon by noting which of the books were quoted or cited by the early Fathers of the Church is an uncertain process. Too much is made of silence. It seems that the earliest attempt to establish a canon was made about ad 150 by a heretical Christian named Marcion whose acceptable list included the Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline Epistles, edited in a strong anti-Jewish direction. Perhaps opposition to Marcion accelerated efforts toward a canon of wide acceptance.
By AD 200, 20 of the 27 books of the New Testament seem to have been generally regarded as authoritative. Local preferences prevailed here and there, and some differences existed between the eastern and western churches. Generally speaking, the books that were disputed for some time but were finally included were James, Hebrews, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation. Other books, widely favored but finally rejected, were Barnabas, 1 Clement, Hermas, and the Didache; the authors of these books are generally referred to as the Apostolic Fathers.
The 39th festal letter of St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, sent to the churches under his jurisdiction in 367, ended all uncertainty about the limits of the New Testament canon. In the so-called festal letter, preserved in a collection of annual Lenten messages given by Athanasius, he listed as canonical the 27 books that remain the contents of the New Testament, although he arranged them in a different order. Those books of the New Testament, in their present-day order, are the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), the Acts of the Apostles, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. See separate articles on the books of the New Testament.
A4 Early Versions
Because the New Testament was written in Greek, the story of the transmission of the text and the establishing of the canon sometimes neglects the early versions, some of which are older than the oldest extant Greek text. The rapid spread of Christianity beyond the regions where Greek prevailed necessitated translations into Syriac, Old Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Arabic. Syriac and Latin versions existed as early as the 2nd century, and Coptic translations began to appear in the 3rd century. These early versions were in no sense official translations but arose to meet regional needs in worship, preaching, and teaching. The translations were, therefore, trapped in local dialects and often included only selected portions of the New Testament. During the 4th and 5th centuries efforts were made to replace these regional versions with more standardized and widely accepted translations. Pope Damasus I in 382 commissioned St. Jerome to produce a Latin Bible; known as the Vulgate, it replaces various Old Latin texts. In the 5th century, the Syriac Peshitta replaced the Syriac versions that had been in popular use up to that time. As is usually the case, the old versions slowly and painfully gave way to the new.
B The Literature of the New Testament
From a literary point of view, the documents of the New Testament are of four major types or genres: gospel, history, epistle, and apocalypse. Of these four, only gospel seems to be a literary form originating in the Christian community.
A gospel is not a biography, although it bears some resemblance to biographies of heroes, human and divine, in the Greco-Roman world. A gospel is a series of individual accounts of acts or sayings, each having a kind of completeness, but arranged to create a cumulative effect. The writers of the Gospels apparently had some interest in chronological order, but that was not primary. Theological concerns and readers’ needs strongly influenced arrangement of materials. One would expect, therefore, that even though all four New Testament Gospels center on Jesus of Nazareth and all four are gospels in literary form, differences would still exist among them. And that is the case. Apart from the accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and resurrection, which are strikingly similar in all four, the Gospels differ in important details, perspectives, and accents of interpretation.
In all these ways, the Gospel of John stands most noticeably apart from the others. In this Gospel, Jesus Christ is portrayed more obviously as divine, all-knowing, all-controlling, and “from above.” The other three are called synoptic (viewed together) Gospels because, despite differences, they can be viewed together. Placed in parallel columns, Matthew, Mark, and Luke impress the reader with such similarities that they have spawned many theories about their relationships. The most widely held scholarly opinion is that Mark was the earliest written and became a source for Matthew and Luke. Most likely, Matthew and Luke each had other sources as well as a common source, a conjecture made on the basis of much shared material not found in Mark. This theorized but as yet unidentified source has simply been called Q, or Quelle (German, “source”). In a preface, the author of the Gospel of Luke speaks of having researched many narratives about Jesus (see Luke 1:1-4).
Historical narrative is best represented in the New Testament by the Acts of the Apostles, which is the second of two volumes (sometimes called Luke-Acts) ascribed to St. Luke. These two books tell the story of Jesus and the church that arose in his name as one continuous narrative, set in the history of Israel and of the Roman Empire. The history is theologically presented; that is, it interprets what God is doing in this event or with that person. Acts is unique in the New Testament in its use of historical narrative for purposes of proclamation.
The epistle or letter in the Greco-Roman world was a fairly standardized literary form consisting of signature, address, greeting, eulogy or thanksgiving, message, and farewell. St. Paul found this form congenial to his relation to the churches he had established and convenient for an itinerant apostle. The form became widely accepted in the Christian community and was used by other church leaders and writers. The epistles that they wrote, some of which appear in the New Testament, are really sermons, exhortations, or treatises thinly disguised as epistles.
B4 Apocalyptic Writing
Apocalyptic writing appears throughout the New Testament but is most extensive in the Book of Revelation. Apocalypses are usually written in times of severe crisis for a community, times in which people look beyond the present and beyond human sources for help and hope. This literature is highly visionary, symbolic, pessimistic about world conditions, and hopeful only in terms of the invisible beyond the visible and the victory beyond history. Just retribution and reward characterize the visions of the end of the world. Apparently, Revelation was written during the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Domitian, who reigned from 81 to 96. See Apocalyptic Writings.
B5 Literary Forms
Within these four major types of literature, many forms appear: poems, hymns, confessional formulas, proverbs, miracle stories, beatitudes, diatribes, lists of duties, parables, and others. Recent scholarship has given a great deal of attention to literary form not only as necessary in understanding content but also as a vehicle by which the reader can share the experience created in a given passage. Forms have the power to create worlds and to define relationships; they are not mere accessories to content.
In the writings of biblical scholars, much attention in the past was focused on the parable, which for centuries was regarded as an allegory. At the close of the last century, the German biblical scholar Adolph Jülicher (1857-1938) took a new direction in the interpretation of parables. He insisted that the New Testament parables be understood as real similes, rather than as allegories. Thus, he held that Jesus’ stories should be understood as illustrations, the meanings of which could be restated in single themes or propositions.
More recently, parables have been respected as works of literary art, having a force and function similar to poetry, and therefore not to be destroyed by paraphrase or summary or propositional digest. As literary art, a parable does not simply make its point, but it does its work on the reader—creating, altering, or even shattering a particular view of life and reality. Scholarly explorations into other literary forms in the New Testament are also under way.
C History in the New Testament
The New Testament is not a collection of maxims, reflections, and meditations dissociated from historical concreteness. On the contrary, its documents focus on a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, and address the problems faced by his followers in a variety of specific contexts in the Roman Empire. This concern with historical events, persons, and situations does not mean, however, that the New Testament submits itself to purely historical and chronological interests.
C1 Determining the Broad Chronological Outline
A number of difficulties are encountered in a historical reconstruction of the period as revealed in New Testament sources. First, the documents are arranged theologically, not chronologically. The Gospels are first because they tell the story of Jesus, but they were written between 70 and 90, as much as 60 years after his death. The Acts of the Apostles is also from this period. The Epistles of Paul, however, are earlier; they date from the decade between 50 and 60 because they were written at the very time Paul was involved in missionary work. The remaining books, which can be dated between 90 and 150, reflect church conditions of the postapostolic period. Second, the documents do not evidence much interest in history as a chronological process, partly because their authors believed in the impending end of history. Third, the New Testament is not one book but an ecclesiastical collection, preserved for the specific purposes of worship, preaching, teaching, and polemics. Fourth, all the documents were written by advocates of the Christian faith for purposes of proclamation and instruction; hence, although they contain historical references, they are not pieces of historical reporting. Add to these difficulties the lack of many references to Jesus and his followers from other contemporary sources, and the possibility of a detailed history grows dimmer.
Nevertheless, scholars are in general agreement as to the broad chronological outline. The major anchor points are provided by Luke and Acts, which set the story of Jesus and the beginning of the church in the context of Jewish and Roman history. The Gospel of Luke states that Jesus began his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius (see Luke 3:1), which would be ad 28-29. All four Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified when Pontius Pilate was governor (AD 26-36) of Judea. Jesus’ ministry was conducted between 29 and 30, according to the view that he ministered one year; between 29 and 33, according to the theory that his work extended three to four years.
C2 The Infancy Narratives
Before his public life, little is known of Jesus. He was from Nazareth of Galilee, although both Luke and Matthew place his birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the ancestral home of King David. Only the books of Luke and Matthew contain birth and infancy stories, and these differ in several details. Luke (see 1:5-2:52) relates the stories in poem and song woven from Old Testament texts that highlight God’s concern for the poor and despised. Matthew (see 1:18-2:23) patterns his story on that of Moses in the Old Testament. Just as Moses spent his childhood among the rich and wise of Egypt, so was Jesus visited and honored by rich and wise magi. As Moses was hidden from a wicked king slaughtering Jewish male children, so was Jesus saved from Herod’s massacre. (Since Herod the Great died in 4 bc, Jesus was probably born between 6 and 4 BC.)
The remainder of the New Testament is silent about Jesus’ miraculous birth. Throughout the history of the church, some Christians have insisted that the infancy narratives be taken literally; others have regarded them as one among many ways of expressing belief in Jesus’ relation to God as Son. The tendency of the New Testament to proclaim the meaning of events without giving a reporter’s account of the events themselves has always provided much room for disagreement among those involved in the historian’s quest.
C3 The Apostles and the Early Church
Following the ministry of Jesus, which is described in the four Gospels, the religious movement he had launched came under the leadership of the 12 men he had chosen to be his apostles. Most of the Twelve faded into obscurity and legend, but three of them are mentioned as continuing leaders: James, who was killed by Herod Agrippa I sometime before 44, the date of Herod’s own death; John, his brother, who apparently lived to old age (see John 21:20-24); and Peter, who was an early leader of the Jerusalem church but also made several missionary journeys and, according to tradition, was martyred in Rome in the mid-60s. In addition to these three, James, called the brother of Jesus, was prominent in the Jerusalem church until he was killed by mob violence in 61. Before the Jewish revolt against Rome erupted in Jerusalem in 66, the Christians left the city and were not involved in the violence that destroyed Jerusalem in 70.
Major attention in the record provided by the Acts of the Apostles is focused on Paul, a Jew from Tarsus, who became a convert to Christianity near Damascus about 33-35. After 14 silent years, Paul began to write his Epistles, marking a missionary career that took him through Syria, Galatia, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome. Apparently his life ended in Rome in the early 60s. Paul’s Epistles and the Acts offer the reader some understanding of the life of these early Christian communities and their relationship to the larger cultures.
The remaining books of the New Testament provide little historical information and almost no basis for exact dating. Generally, they seem to have been written for a second- or third-generation community. In these documents, the immediate followers of Jesus are dead, early enthusiasm and high expectation of the final return of Christ to end history has now waned, and the need for preservation, entrenchment, and institutionalization is evident (see Eschatology; Second Coming). Heretics and apostates are identified and attacked, and the membership is called to a tenacity of faith adequate for the persecution soon to come. The second Epistle of Peter, probably the last of the New Testament books to be written, makes a vigorous effort to rehabilitate the earlier expectancy of an imminent end to history. This attempt to recover the zeal and conviction of a former era is itself an indication of the end of an age.
D Major Themes in the New Testament
Like the theological themes of the Old Testament, those of the New Testament are varied and rich in content.
Nowhere is the continuity of the New Testament with the Old more clearly or more consistently presented than in its teaching about God. Any view that the God of Jesus or of the early church was different from the God of Judaism was rejected as heresy. The God of the New Testament is creator of all life and sustainer of the universe. This one God, who is the source and final end of all things, takes the initiative to seek with love all humankind, entering into covenants with those who respond, and behaving toward them with justice and mercy, with judgment and forgiveness. God has never left himself without witnesses in the world, having revealed himself in many times, manners, and places; but the New Testament claims in Jesus of Nazareth a unique revelation of God. The person, words, and activity of Jesus were understood as bringing followers into the presence of God. In the days of its beginning within Judaism, the church could assume belief in God and focus its message on Jesus as revealer of God. Beyond the bounds of Judaism, however, faith in the one true God became basic to the proclamation of Christianity.
The New Testament presents its understanding of Jesus in titles, descriptions of his person, and accounts of his word and work. In the context of Judaism, the Old Testament provided titles and images that the New Testament writers used to convey the meaning of Jesus for his disciples. He was portrayed, for example, as a prophet like Moses, the Davidic king, the promised Messiah, the second Adam, a priest like Melchizedek, an apocalyptic figure like the Son of man, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, and the Son of God. (For a full account of Jesus’ life, see Jesus Christ; for a theological understanding of his person, see Christology.) The Hellenistic culture provided other images: a preexistent divine being who came to earth, accomplished his work, and returned to glory; the Lord above all caesars; the eternal mediator of creation and redemption; the cosmic figure who gathers all creation to himself in one harmonious body.
The Gospels present the ministry of Jesus as the presence of God in the world. His words revealed God and God’s way for his people; his actions demonstrated the healing power of God bringing wholeness of body, mind, and spirit; his sufferings and death testified to God’s relentless love; and his resurrection was God’s sign of approval of Jesus’ life, death, and message. St. Paul and others developed views of Jesus’ death as sacrifice and atonement for sin and of Jesus’ resurrection as guarantee of the resurrection of his disciples. Documents written during persecution (see 1 Peter, Revelation) interpreted Jesus’ suffering as the model for Christians in the hour of martyrdom.
D3 Holy Spirit
Some of the prophets of Israel had characterized the “last days” as a time when God would pour out his Spirit on the whole of humanity. The New Testament claims that promise was fulfilled in the days of Jesus. The Spirit of God, an expression representing the active presence of God, is therefore used throughout the New Testament; this entity is variously referred to as the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Spirit of Christ, or the Spirit of truth (see Holy Spirit; Trinity). The Spirit empowered Jesus, and it enabled the church to continue what Jesus had begun to do and to teach. Within the individual disciple, the Spirit produced the qualities appropriate to that life and equipped the person to work and serve the good of the community. Understandably, the category “Spirit” was subject to a wide range of interpretations and created problems in many churches. The New Testament reflects the struggle to find clear criteria for determining if a congregation or a person really was influenced by the Holy Spirit.
D4 Kingdom of God
According to the New Testament, the central message of Jesus was the kingdom of God. He called for repentance in preparation for the kingdom that was “at hand.” The kingdom of God referred to the reign or rule of God, and in Jesus’ ministry that reign of God was announced as present. The presence of the kingdom, however, was not full and complete, and, therefore, was often referred to as a future event. Students of the New Testament have argued over whether Jesus and his followers expected the kingdom of God to be fully present in their generation. The unresolved state of that debate is registered in the two expressions often used to characterize the New Testament teaching about the kingdom: “already” and “not yet.”
The kingdom of God seems not to have survived as the central subject of the church’s message. According to the New Testament, the church did not identify itself as the kingdom, and in its preaching it began to speak more of salvation. The term generally referred to a person’s reconciled relationship to God and participation in a community that was both reconciled and reconciling. In this sense, salvation was a present reality—but not completely. The consummation of salvation would be in a fullness of life beyond the struggle, futility, and mortality that mark this world.
Paul believed that in the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purpose, salvation would be cosmic in scope. The realm of redemption would be coextensive with the realm of creation. This meant that finally even the hostile spirit powers that, according to the New Testament, inhabit the heavens, earth, and subterranean regions would be brought into harmony with the benevolent plan of God. This final vision differs from that of the Book of Revelation, in which the end is characterized by the vindication and reward of the saints and the damnation of the wicked.
In the meantime, the followers of Christ are to manifest in their conduct and relationships that they have been reconciled with God. This is the instruction of the entire New Testament and a legacy from the Old: the inseparable connection between religious belief and moral and ethical behavior. The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings had insisted on it, and the New Testament continued that accent. This life is variously referred to as righteous, sanctified, godly, faithful. The books of the New Testament are filled with instructions about this life not only in an inward sense but in relation to neighbors, enemies, family members, masters, servants, and government officials, as well as in relation to God. These instructions draw upon the Old Testament, the words of Jesus, the example of Jesus, apostolic commands, laws of nature, common lists of household duties, and ideals from Greek moralists. All these sources were understood as having one source in a God who expects his own faithfulness to be met with faithfulness in those who have been reconciled as the family of God.
VIII THE BIBLE IN ENGLISH
The history of the English Bible is the history of the movement of the Bible from its possession and use by clergy alone to the hands of the laity. It is also the history of the formation of the English language from a mixture of French, Anglo-Norman, and Anglo-Saxon. Even though Christianity reached England in the 3rd century, the Bible remained in Latin and almost exclusively in the hands of the clergy for a thousand years.
Between the 7th and 14th centuries, portions of the Bible were translated into English, and some rough paraphrases appeared for instructing parishioners. In literary circles, poetic translations of favorite passages were made. Interest in translation from Latin to English grew rapidly in the 14th century, and in 1382 the first complete English Bible appeared in manuscript. It was the work of the English reformer John Wycliffe, whose goal was to give the Bible to the people.
A Translations of the Reformation Period
In 1525 the English reformer William Tyndale translated the New Testament from the Greek text, copies of which were printed in Germany and smuggled into England. Tyndale’s translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew text was only partly completed. His simple prose and popular idiom established a style in English translation that was continued in the Authorized Version of 1611 (the King James Version) and eventually in the Revised Standard Version of 1946-52.
In 1535 the English reformer Miles Coverdale published an English translation based on German and Latin versions in addition to Tyndale’s. This was not only the first complete English Bible to appear in printed form, but unlike its predecessors, it was an approved translation that had been requested by the Canterbury Convocation. Shortly thereafter, the English reformer and editor John Rogers produced a slightly revised edition of Tyndale’s Bible. This appeared in 1537 and was called Matthew’s Bible.
In 1538 the English scholar Richard Taverner issued another revision. At about the same time, Thomas Cromwell commissioned Coverdale to produce a new Bible, which appeared in six editions between 1539 and 1568. This Bible, called the Great Bible, in its final revision in 1568 by scholars and bishops of the Anglican church was known as the Bishops’ Bible. The Bishops’ Bible was designed to replace not only the Great Bible, which was primarily a pulpit Bible, but also a translation for the laity, produced in Geneva in 1560 by English Protestants in exile, called the Geneva Bible. The Bishops’ Bible was the second authorized Bible.
B The Douay and Other Roman Catholic Versions
The Douay or Douay-Rheims (spelled also Douai-Reims) Bible, completed between 1582 and 1609, was commonly used by Roman Catholics in English-speaking countries until the 1900s, when it was considerably revised by the English bishop Richard Challoner. The Douay Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate, primarily by two English exiles in France, William Allen and Gregory Martin. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Douay and Challoner Bibles were replaced with other translations by Roman Catholics. In the United States, one of the most widely used is the New American Bible of 1970, the first complete Bible to be translated from Hebrew and Greek by American Roman Catholics.
C The King James Version and Its Revisions
In 1604 King James I commissioned a new revision of the English Bible; it was completed in 1611. Following Tyndale primarily, this Authorized Version, also known as the King James Version, was widely acclaimed for its beauty and simplicity of style. In the years that followed, the Authorized Version underwent several revisions, the most notable being the English Revised Version (1881-85), the American Standard Version (1901), and the revision of the American Standard Version undertaken by the International Council of Religious Education, representing 40 Protestant denominations in the U.S. and Canada. This Revised Standard Version (RSV) appeared between 1946 and 1952. Widely accepted by Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic Christians, it provided the basis for the first ecumenical English Bible. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989) eliminated much archaic and ambiguous usage. The New King James Bible, with contemporary American vocabulary, was published in 1982.
D Other Modern Translations
In the first half of the 20th century many modern speech translations, mostly by individuals, appeared: Weymouth (1903); Goodspeed and Smith (1923-27); Moffatt (1924-26); Phillips (1947); and others. Since 1960, major translation projects have been underway to produce English Bibles that are not revisions of the Tyndale-King James-RSV tradition. The more significant among these are the following: the Jerusalem Bible (1966), an English translation of the work of French Dominicans (1956); Today’s English Version (1966-76) in idiomatic English by the American Bible Society; the New English Bible, commissioned in 1946 by the Church of Scotland and designed to be neither stilted nor colloquial; the New International Bible (1973-79), a revision by conservative American Protestants based largely on the King James Version and similar to the New American Standard Version; and the Living Bible (1962-71), not a translation but a paraphrase into the modern American idiom. The latter was designed by its author, Kenneth Taylor, to make the Bible interesting, but to propagate “a rigid evangelical position.” The multivolume Anchor Bible (1964- ), an international and interfaith project, offers modern readers an exact translation, with extended exegesis (exposition). Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible into English have been appearing for two centuries. A new translation, sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society of America, was published in three segments in 1962, 1974, and 1983. It is called the New Jewish Version.
The continuing flow of new translations testifies to the changing nature of language, the discovery of new manuscript evidence, and most of all the abiding desire to read and to understand the Bible.
Fred B. Craddock
Gene M. Tucker