- Written by Kevin Derksen Kevin Derksen
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Windows into the Word:
So, “Discovering” the Bible. In a couple weeks we’ll begin a seven-part sweeping overview of scripture that will offer us a bunch of different windows into the Bible. And hopefully it will help us get a sense for the whole, how the various books and sections of the Bible all hang together. It’ll be a longer process of discovery itself. But before then, we’re spending a few services with some of the stuff behind the scenes. Why is this book important, anyway? Where did it come from? What’s all in it? How do we read and interpret what we find in here? Next Sunday Bryan Moyer Suderman will join us to begin exploring how Jesus interpreted his scriptures and how we might continue to engage with our scriptures today.
But for now, a bit of basic Bible discovery. Last week Mark invited us to all make a special effort to bring Bibles to worship through the fall. There were a bunch of Bibles free to be picked up on your way in as well, so hopefully many of us have one. If you don’t, not to worry. But if you do, pick it up and hold it in your hands. Take a look at how thick it is, and how much it weighs.
Unless anyone is using a Bible app on their phone... any digital Bible readers out there? Works just as well, though the tactile experience isn’t quite the same. As we’ll discover later, the Bible wasn’t always in book form either.
So, there are lots of different ways of dividing and categorizing the various parts of the Bible, but the most basic way is probably between the two testaments, what we usually call the Old and the New. If you have a Bible see if you can find where the Old Testament ends and the New Testament begins. Take a moment to find it. Now hold your Bible open at that point and lift it up. What do you notice? Which is the bigger half? Right, the Old Testament is much longer than the New Testament – it’s most of the Bible.
Now flip to the first pages of your Bible and see if you can find the table of contents. You should find the different books of the Bible all listed in the order they appear. Sometimes you’ll find them listed alphabetically too. Does anyone know off-hand how many books are in the Bible? At least one of the kids knew last week, and if you listened to the children’s time that morning you’ll know too. Right – there are 66 books in the our Bibles (though as a side note, there are a few Christian traditions with a slightly different number and collection). I’m curious how many people memorized all the books of the Bible in order at some point in their lives... hands? I did during Sunday School at some point, I think around grade five. Now how many think they could still rattle them all off now? I’d be hard pressed, these days, I can tell you. Especially when you get into the minor prophets...
If you don’t have all the books of the Bible right there on the tip of the tongue, that’s probably ok. But there is something helpful about knowing the general order, and whereabouts you might find different parts of the Bible. There’s the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – then books of Israel’s history, then Psalms and the Prophets, with books of wisdom and poetry sprinkled through there as well. And in the New Testament, there are the Gospels, and then a bunch of letters from the Apostle Paul and others, and finally John’s Revelation. Having a sense for that roadmap can help to put things in context and make sense of different verses and books as we encounter them.
So we’re holding these books in our hands. These Bibles with their covers at the front and back, and their set order of contents inside. If you pick up your neighbour’s Bible, it’ll probably be organized in exactly the same way. But where did this book come from? How did it get to us? How did it take the form that we know and recognize as the Bible? We know that the Bible didn’t descend from heaven leather-bound and in English. But the truth is that the Bible didn’t descend from heaven leather-bound in German either...
So where did the Bible come from? Well, let’s start with the Old Testament. These scriptures are, as our name for them suggests, older. They are the original scriptures of the Hebrew people, and the scriptures still read by Jewish people today. They are, in fact, Jesus’ scriptures. They are the only scriptures that Jesus knew.
They were not, however, all written down at the same time. The question of who wrote different parts of the Old Testament and when is an ongoing conversation and debate among biblical scholars. There is a whole industry built on close investigation of these texts looking for parallels or shifts in style and tone that might give clues as to the who and the when of its writing. There are various popular traditions associated with different parts of these scriptures, like that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. But most of these are not strictly true, or at least not in a literal sense. Many elements of the scriptures likely existed as oral traditions, stories passed down between generations, before they were finally put down in writing – mosltly in an ancient language that we now call Biblical Hebrew. And many sections were likely written down long after the events that they record. And we can read in them the concerns and contextual realities of the writers, who are telling the stories of God’s people that help them make sense of their own experiences.
In the end, I tend not to be too concerned about questions of authorship and dating. It’s interesting if you’re into that sort of thing, and can perhaps open some new insights into particular books and passages. But for the most part, I find it enough to read these scriptures as a record of God’s relationship with God’s chosen people over many hundreds of years. A record of an ongoing relationship that grows and deepens even as it breaks down and needs to be rebuilt over and over again. These scriptures tell the stories of our ancestors in faith.
One thing that I think is important to keep in mind, however, is that the Hebrew scriptures were first written on papyrus scrolls. And scrolls can only be so long. Particular books would each have their own scrolls, and longer books would often be divided between multiple scrolls. So our sense of a single book with firm covers is very different from what Jesus would have known, for instance. We probably have skewed sense, as a result, for how perfectly all these parts of the Bible should fit together. In reality, these scrolls were independent.
And that helps to explain why there is so much diversity and even contradiction within the Bible. There is a conversation going on within these scriptures, and between these different scrolls. There is often an internal debate at work. A story is told in one place, but it’s re-told in another. A theme is developed over here, but it’s taken up again in a different way somewhere else. The books of Joshua and Judges, for instance, are often very strict in emphasizing the importance of keeping separate as God’s people – don’t marry outsiders, and kill everyone you conquer so that you aren’t tempted to stray from the one true God. But the very next book in line is Ruth – a story about a Moabite woman who marries into God’s people and becomes a hero of faith. So the text moves back and forth in this conversation with itself.
Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, we see this developing story of relationship with God. And it changes and shifts and grows over time. It doesn’t always look the same. But past understandings are not just thrown out as this relationship continues. The ongoing conversation is kept, recorded, and it continues to be engaged in the life of God’s people now. There is a lively exchange happening within the covers of this book, and it speaks to the vibrancy and currency of the scriptures as God’s people continue to read and engage them.
So, what about the New Testament?
By the time of Jesus, the Hebrew scriptures were largely set and accepted, although there was still some debate about what was all included. Many texts, particularly the Torah, had been translated from Hebrew into the Greek that was the common language of the Mediterranean world. And when the first Christians began writing about Jesus, it was in this same Greek dialect.
The earliest sections of the New Testament are the letters of Paul. His conversion and missionary journeys began not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul would travel to a new city, preach the gospel and establish a community of believers, and after a while would move on to another location. But he would often write letters back to these early congregations, answering questions they had, encouraging them, or sometimes scolding and correcting them. These letters are the earliest documents preserved in our scriptures.
Although they appear first in the New Testament, the gospels were written a little later into the first century. Again, there’s all kinds of scholarly debate about which were written first, and by whom. Did Matthew and Luke have an early copy of Mark’s gospel that they used as a source? Or was there an even earlier collection of Jesus stories and sayings that all the gospel writers drew on? And who are these authors that we now attribute the gospels to – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John? Were any of them disciples of Jesus, eyewitnesses to his life? There are popular traditions, there is critical scholarship, and then there’s the reality that 2000 years later it’s hard to know for sure.
And perhaps it doesn’t much matter, either. Whoever these writers were, the church eventually decided that these particular documents were worthy of elevation to the status of scripture in a new Christian testament. It’s good to remember from time to time that neither the gospel writers, nor Paul, nor any other contributors to the New Testament, had any idea that they were writing scripture. They were simply writing to build up the church in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 4th Century that there was a wide consensus on the writings that ought to be included in the “Canon” of scripture. There were years of discernment and debate that went into evaluating different pieces of writing from the earliest church, deciding which ought to be authoritative. Which were inspired? Which were reliable? Which were closest to the Apostles? Which were conformed to the rule of faith? We now assume that the Bible is an authority for the church, but it was the church itself that had to figure out which early writing would make the cut. Scripture and community have always been in relationship with each other. They have been mutually formative and shaping.
So, sometime in the 4th century there is some common agreement among Christians on what the content of the scriptures should be. Not long afterwards, there would appear the first examples of something that we might recognize as the Bible. A single book, bound together, containing the various writings considered to be scripture.
But how have our Bibles gotten to us from that point so many centuries ago? And, for that matter, how did some of the earliest writings of the Hebrew Bible make it through all the centuries leading to the time of Jesus? The answer is centuries of careful copying, quill on parchment or paper. Until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, there was nothing but the painstaking work of copying by hand – all those words, all those pages, all those books. Through the middle ages, this was often the work of monks and others in monasteries. Among the few who could read and write, they were the holders and preservers of sacred texts. Their life’s work to produce one more copy of the Bible to keep these precious words available to the church.
As you can imagine, there is the potential here for one doozy of a game of telephone. After centuries of re-copying, the potential for typos or additions or omissions is pretty high. And no doubt there are some of these in the text of the Bible. Some of the biggest ones you’ll actually find noted in most versions. See if you have a footnote in your Bible at the beginning of John chapter 8. The earliest manuscripts don’t include the story of the woman caught in adultery, and most scholars agree it’s a later addition to John’s gospel. Or check out the end of Mark’s gospel. There’s a shorter ending and a longer ending there, both of which are generally assumed to be later additions to the text. But when the gospel otherwise concludes with the disciples silent and terrified, as they are at the end of chapter 16, verse 8, you can’t blame later editors for coming up with a better ending.
But the amazing thing is actually how consistent and accurate the Bible is after all these centuries of transmission. There are a few existing copies of the New Testament that date back to the 4th and 5th centuries that have been discovered over the past couple hundred years. There are a few small fragments dated even earlier than that. And you might have heard about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940’s. They were unearthed in an archaeological dig, and are by far the earliest manuscripts we have of the Hebrew scriptures. And these ancient sources show an amazing consistency and continuity even through all these centuries of copying and transmission.
Now here’s a question: this is all a lot of human activity in relation to the Bible. Writing, re-writing, debating, deciding what gets kept and what gets tossed, copying manuscripts from one generation to the next. With all these grimy human fingerprints on it, can we still say that the Bible is the Word of God? Is it still “inspired” as it says in Timothy, God-breathed and useful for training in righteousness?
For me, the answer is still ‘yes’. The relationship between the human and the divine in the creation of scripture is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Here is God among us not just in the stories that are recorded, but in the slow and complicated coming-to-be of a sacred text. God working in partnership, God’s people being constantly shaped through fresh encounter with the God of their ancestors.
And I don’t know about you, but I still find that the scriptures have power. They still have a way of coming to us from beyond ourselves and disrupting our lives and habits. I love the image that we heard earlier from Hebrews 4: scripture, the word of God, as living and active, a two-edged sword the pierces and divides – soul from spirit, joints from marrow. Scripture still has the power to catch us up, to reach us at deep levels, to call us and convict us, to surprise us with what he had not known or seen before. Scripture is wild and exciting. It opens us to amazing adventure and its meaning expands and deepens the more we read and explore. And perhaps even more significantly, through scripture we encounter God. We encounter the God of our ancestors in faith, but we also encounter the God of our present who meets us in new times and ways. Scripture makes that link for us. Through it, God’s word is spoken again and anew and in the context of our lives and our world.
I remember discovering the Bible as a teenager and young adult. Thanks especially to some gifted teachers, I became absolutely gripped and compelled by the world as the scriptures described it to me. It was beautiful, provocative, wild – different from the way I was taught to see and imagine anywhere else. Something about the Bible took a hold on me then, and has never fully let go. I still often have flashes of joy and excitement as I come back to scripture again.
The Bible has this power, I think, in part because it alone is not the word of God. For Christians, God’s word has come to us most fully and decisively in Jesus. God’s word is not just on the page; it has been made real, made flesh, and come to live among us. The scriptures are a witness to the Word of God at work in human lives. The scriptures come alive when they open our eyes to God’s presence here and now, with us. To the Spirit of the living Christ that can never be captured in words on a page. Even if the oceans were ink, the skies were parchment, and every person a scribe.
Discovering the Bible is about encountering God. It’s about incarnation, as God’s word takes shape in a new context. Next week Bryan will lead us in exploring how we read and interpret scripture, paying attention to what we see around us alongside what we read on the page. Scripture must be incarnated too. Over and over again, as a new reading community, a new scriptural community, gathers around it once more. It must be reborn, given life in new languages, new translations, new versions. The Bible becomes scripture for us as we read it in community together. As we wrestle with it, rest in it, question it and open ourselves to its power among us.
As I see it, all those grimy human fingerprints on the Bible are part of the good news. The diversity of translations and versions and perhaps even understandings are part of the good news. This book is not done. It’s not settled or finished. It didn’t descend from heaven complete and self-evident. It became scripture as God’s word became flesh. Not beyond our sweaty and dirty hands, but in them and through them and for them. God’s word with us, then and now. What a gift. Let’s continue to discover it together.