The Christian Bible is considered to be one of the best-selling books of all time. Though accurate figures are impossible to compile, there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of volumes are sold each year. One translation alone, the New International Version, has seen more than 400 million copies in print worldwide since its introduction in the 1970s.
Despite its ubiquity in the culture, however, Americans in general, and American Christians in particular, are not especially well-informed about the contents of the Bible. The Pew Forum, which is noted for its polling and statistics-gathering on matters religious, completed a survey in 2010 about religious knowledge among U.S. residents. Seven questions in the survey focused specifically on very basic Bible knowledge. For the total number of all respondents completing the survey, the average correct out of seven was 4.1; for Christians, the average was only a tenth of a point higher, at 4.2. Best overall group score was achieved by Mormons at 5.7, followed by White Evangelical Protestants at 5.1. Lowest scores came from Hispanic Catholics at 2.4 and Unaffiliated-Nothing in Particular at 3.2.
Perhaps surprisingly, the group identified as Unaffiliated-Atheist/Agnostic scored higher at 4.4 than the Christian average. This may indicate that the majority of atheists and agnostics have arrived at their beliefs, not through ignorance, but with a clear understanding of what they are rejecting. But that’s a topic for another column.
Very briefly, then, what’s in the Bible and how did it come to be? First of all, it is more appropriate to think of the Bible as a library rather than as a single work. Many of the books included in it had a separate existence before they were all gathered together in one volume. And the writing of them spans more than 800 years, while the earliest fragments represent an oral tradition that predates the written version by another few hundred years, at least.
The books that are officially accepted as scripture are referred to as the canon. The Christian Old Testament (O.T.) is basically equivalent to the Jewish canon, called the Tanakh, which was standardized in the early part of the second century C.E. The order and divisions of the texts differ considerably between the O.T. and the Tanakh, however. Both collections begin with the Pentateuch, or the Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This first section is called in the Hebrew scriptures The Torah, or The Law.
The second section of the Tanakh, known as The Prophets, includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. Note that Samuel and Kings are not divided, as they are in the O.T., and that the twelve short prophetic books at the end of the O.T. are consolidated in the Tanakh into one book. When Jesus speaks of “all the Law and the Prophets” in Matthew 22:40 and elsewhere, he is referring to these first two sections of Hebrew scripture.
The final section, called The Writings, consists of the remaining eleven books, with Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles each counted as just one book. This is a far more diverse collection of topics and styles than were the first two sections, including as it does the Psalms – hymns and liturgies to be used in temple worship; wisdom sayings such as those found in Proverbs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes; the lovely short stories of Ruth and Esther; and the historical material of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. Rounding out the collection are the apocalyptic book of Daniel, with its visions and fanciful tales; the intense theological debate on the problem of evil, framed in an ancient folk tale, found in the book of Job; and the sensual love poetry of the Song of Solomon.
The general scholarly consensus is that the oral history maintained in the tribes of Israel began to take written form during the early monarchy, that is, the roughly hundred-year span between circa 1025 B.C.E. and c. 928 B.C.E. in which Kings Saul, David, and Solomon ruled over the combined kingdom. The “book of the law,” the discovery of which sparked the reforms under King Josiah c. 621 B.C.E., was most likely a portion of what is now called the book of Deuteronomy.
The first stage of compilation of what are considered in the O.T. to be the “history” books, running from Joshua through Esther, also took place during the time of King Josiah. Drawing on both earlier writings and oral tradition, the Deuteronomic editors assembled the faith story of the Hebrew people from the death of Moses through the period of the Judges and into the age of the monarchs. A second stage of compilation was accomplished during the Babylonian exile in the mid-6th century B.C.E. Chronicles, which repeats much of the material in the earlier histories, and Ezra-Nehemiah, were completed after the return from exile. There is some linguistic and textual evidence that these two books (four in the O.T.) are the work of the same hand.
With a very few exceptions, the language of the Old Testament is Ancient Hebrew. The exceptions are portions of Daniel and Ezra, and one verse in Jeremiah, which are written in Aramaic, the common language of Jesus’ day. This shift in language provides strong evidence for a late date for these particular passages.
After the Babylonian and later the Persian exiles, more and more Jews found themselves living outside of the land of Israel. With the ascendency of the Greek empire, Greek became the language of commerce throughout the ancient Mediterranean area. Many of the children of Israel began to lose their native Hebrew language. During the third century B.C.E. a team of Jewish scholars working in Egypt prepared a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. Known as the Septuagint, this Greek translation became the primary source for knowledge of the O.T. among early Christians, especially those who were not Jewish in origin.
Though standardization of the Tanakh would not be fully accomplished for another two hundred years, with the preparation of the Septuagint, the texts that would eventually become the Christian Old Testament were essentially complete. In another post I’ll continue the story with an examination of the inter-testamental books known as the Apocrypha, and the New Testament.