The Bible is often misunderstood from a historical and literary point of view. The history of the Bible is complex and covers 3500 years of history. Although the history is long, the literary focus and purpose of the Bible is simpler than expected.
The history of the Bible is often misunderstood because of pop culture confusion or lack of reading. It is important to see the Bible not only as one book but as a compilation of many sources. The Bible is not designed as a history book but more like an encyclopedia. It is comprised of 66 independent documents written between 1500BC and 100 AD. There are several reasons these particular documents are used, and not others. The main inclusion factor for these 66 works is their connection to credible sources. They all are written by or are closely connected to those who proved prophetic status or remarkably reliable credibility. Many, many more details should be discussed in this field. Here, however, is only a summary of the history of the Bible:
The first of the Biblical documents to be penned were the first five books of the Jewish law (called the Pentateuch). Moses wrote most of these accounts at God’s request. They are the foundation for understanding the rest of the Bible. They describe God’s creation, problem of Sin, God’s promises for restoration, and His calling of the Israelites to be a holy nation. Joshua, Moses’ successor, finalizes the accounts and adds the conquest of the land of promise which God gave them.
The next thousand years of history are recorded by unknown sources. Their focus and themes are united in telling the story of God’s interaction with Israel and the circumstances that lead to their destruction and reformation. The books of history are finished and compiled during or shortly after Judah is punished and in exile. Several post-exilic documents are added to the growing list of scripture.
Prophets spoke at various times over hundreds of years. The penning of the prophetic material varies per work, and range between 1000 BC and 400 BC. Books of Wisdom were written around the days of David and Solomon in 1000-900 BC. Prayers and worship songs called Psalms were primarily written during the days of David, but include Psalms ranging from Moses to the exile. By around 400 – 300 BC the Jews closed the canon of scripture. The last post exilic prophet to speak from God marked the end of the Jewish scripture. Four Hundred years of scriptural silence ensued. Then, at the time Jesus came, God started speaking to His people again.
An explosion of Biblical documents occurred in the middle of the first century AD. Within 20-30 years, nearly all of the Christian documents were written. Four authors write about the ministry of Jesus, one of which adds an extensive account of the earliest church history. Two authors were eye-witness close followers of Jesus. The other two were close companions of the disciples and researched the stories from a wide base of sources. The authors wrote independently of each other. There is much overlap between them. Some of those moments carry exactly the same details, while other moments vary in perspective. Such is to be expected since there were many eye-witnesses to the same events. The authors do not contradict each other, nor do they intend to. They each have a theme and reason to write which tells the Gospel of Jesus from unique standpoints.
As churches were established by the message of Jesus, many needed encouragement and doctrinal grounding. The apostle Paul pens the majority of instructions, writing many letters to churches and individuals about maintaining proper faith. The last of the ‘New Testament’ documents was written by John at the end of the first century. John’s ‘revelation’ warned of closely approaching persecution of some of the churches. After the last of the apostles died, the churches closed what documents were acceptable to treat as scripture.
After God stopped speaking to the Israelites around 400BC, the Hebrews compiled all known scripture together into a set. The scriptures were recognized as words from God. They commonly became known as the “law and the prophets,” even though they included history and wisdom literature as well. There was no dispute as to which books belonged. When Jesus and His disciples referred to the scriptures they approved the traditional Jewish canon and used it prolifically. If we trust Jesus and His apostles, then we can trust the ‘Old Testament.’
As the gospels and the letters to the churches were read, copied, and passed around the churches of the first century, they began to accept an authorized canon. By the third and fourth centuries, pseudo-gospels and obvious fakes began to emerge. The christians agreed it would be good to compile the authorized scriptures together like the Jews had with their Scriptures. Many churches had already done this, so they pooled together their lists and realized that almost all churches were in unanimous agreement. A few remote churches were less familiar with two or three of the letters, and they discussed those individually. In the end, the canon we have today was unanimously accepted by the churches. From that time on, the ‘New Testament’ scriptures were seen as a singular collection, and placed alongside the Jewish ‘Old Testament.’ This collection came to be called ‘The Book,” better known as “The Bible.”
God’s word is not bound to a specific culture or language. Very shortly after the penning of the documents, translations began. Even the Hebrew language changed between Moses and Ezra (1400BC and 450BC). Within a hundred years of the Jewish canon being finalized, the Greek culture became dominant in Ancient Near Eastern culture. In Egypt, a group of 70 translators set to deliver a Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures for the Hebrews who now knew Greek. Even though this translation (called the Septuagint or LXX for the number of “70” translators) was not the best translation, the early disciples did use it and quote it.
The New Testament documents were circulated in common Greek. For those who didn’t read greek, early translations were made to Egyptian Coptic and Latin. These early translations are important for comparing and understanding the common Greek language. Many early translations also serve as early testaments to the accuracy and preservation of the Biblical documents. When the Catholic denomination began, they standardized the Latin translation across Europe.
Of most interest to us today is the development of the English translation. The earliest translations date back to the first part of the second millennia. Layman psalms precede full translations. Full English translations were suppressed by the Catholic religion because they feared the commoner bypassing the clergy for truth. Early English translators like Wycliffe and Tyndale were persecuted and killed for their dedication to translate. By the sixteenth century, even the Catholic religion had to resign that English translations were required to retain membership. Several English bibles were produced in a short time. The most famous was commissioned by the King James of England.
As more reliable manuscripts became known to translators, new editions were produced. By the late nineteenth century a much better greek foundation ushered in a new series of English translations. Then, over a period of a hundred years, dozens of English translations have been produced. Some try to better reflect the updated English language. Others try to adopt strict or loose translation philosophies. Such a prolific range of translations exist today that understanding the message of God’s word has never been easier. Even the most drastically opposite translations are in close enough agreement to communicate a singular truth. (See brief comparison of the most questionable text variant and its supported teachings)
The literature of the Bible is misunderstood due to lack of reading or lack of appreciation for time and culture. A series of documents written thousands of years ago in a different language cannot conform to modern expectations for history, biography, or even religious literature. Though the Bible consists of 66 independent works, it’s homogeneity is astounding. This uniformity is seen in it’s themes and purpose.
Within these partitions we must also note the variety of literature styles. Variations include: Narrative, Law, Poetry, Journal, Personal Letter, and Visions. Each mode accomplished a purpose which adds to the make-up of the whole. Just as a study of modern day communication would study drastic styles and methods, so too does study of ancient works.
Genesis, parts of Exodus, parts of Numbers, parts of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Esther, parts of Ezra, parts of Jeremiah, parts of Daniel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts
The narrative form is about communicating a story. The authors wrote these stories to be fact based accounts of history. The selective nature of the history does push agenda and teaches lessons. The authors often compare and contrast stories to show how God is pleased or displeased with certain conduct. Jesus and His apostles tell us that those stories are valuable today as examples of good and evil.
Parts of Exodus, Leviticus, parts of Numbers, Deuteronomy
The literature of Law is primarily based on covenant. Two parties make an agreement to live by certain expectations. In the case of the Law of Moses, God made an agreement with Israel like Kings or Emperors would make with subjects. God would grant the people blessings, land, and protection. In return, He expected them the be holy, righteous, and wholly dedicated to Him. If they refused to comply, He would remove His blessings and send curses until they repent. Even the people who initially received the law recognized the mercy God was extending, since all nations truly deserve punishment.
Job, Psalms, Song of Solomon, majority of the prophets
Hebrew poetry is hard to translate. Modern poetry relies on syllable number and rhyme schemes. The ancients used primarily thematic repetition. A form called ‘Parallelism’ can be seen in every example of Biblical poetry. A concept of phrase is stated, and then followed by a similar or defining thought, much like a semicolon might. Another element called ‘inclusio’ acts as bookends at the front and end of the poem. Most poetry is found in the Psalms, which were set to music. Most poems are prayers to God, but the prophets also used poetry to convey a message. Poetry is used for its repetitious nature, for its memory building, and for its effectiveness to portray more emotion.
Parts of Ezra, Nehemiah, parts of Daniel, parts of Isaiah, parts of Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes, parts of Acts
Some parts of the Bible are written in first person as accounts of what the author experienced. Their first hand accounts ultimately do not differ drastically from narrative form, though do occasionally provide insights into thoughts or valuable hindsight. Most authors found it easier to write about their own experiences in third person.
Letters to: Rome, Galatia, Corinth, Thessolonica, Ephesus, Phillipi, Colossea, Philemon, Timothy, Titus, Hebrews. Letters by: Peter, James, John, Jude. Parts of Revelation
The letters (sometimes called epistles) were written to individuals or churches, but were intended to be read as an open letter. The information benefiting one person or church often found meaning abroad. Not all specifics can apply, but most proper behavior we know comes from letters addressed to other christians.
Parts of: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Revelation
Also called “apocalyptic” literature, visions were like journals, but simply recorded what the author saw. The the author would see a series of fantastic and hard to describe scenes which were parabolic and symbolic. This literary technique was not uncommon to Jewish literature. The original readers were not baffled at the genre. They often functioned like the cinema of the ancient world. Most often they applied specifically to events in the reader’s own experience. We must not get out of hand trying to manipulate the meaning of visions to suit modern situations.