Biblical Perspectives

Feb. 17, 2001


Some thirteen centuries ago, Mohammed described Christians, along with Jews (and of course his own followers) as "people of the book".  The book in question was primarily what we call "The Old Testament" -- although no doubt the Prophet saw the Gospels and the book in which his own writings were recorded (the Qur’an or "Koran") as being part of the whole process by which God reveals his will to humankind. 


Nevertheless, we tend to forget that the term "The Holy Bible" -- the last word meaning literally "book" -- is a relatively recent one.  When the earliest Christian writers spoke of the "holy scripture" they meant what we call the "Old Testament" and almost always in the plural ("scriptures"), reflecting the fact that what we call the Bible was not one book but a whole collection of books.  Nor was there ever any complete agreement (even among Jews) as to which books belonged in this collection.  At present, Hebrew Bibles contain 22 books which correspond, more or less, to the 38 listed in the Old Testament section of Protestant Bibles today.  But meanwhile the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was known as the "Septuagint", often quoted by the New Testament writers and which used by most Greek-speaking Jews of that time (and is still used by the Eastern Orthodox churches) contains seven more books, including some parts of those books not accepted by today's Catholic scholars as being authentic.


Even when the New Testament scriptures began to appeared they were not, at least to begin with, necessarily thought of as part of a single book. Numerous other "Gospels", "Epistles", and "Acts" claiming to have been composed by one or another of the apostles appeared and it took most of the first 400 years of Christianity to agree upon which books really belonged in the collection. Many of these books were either lost or, for one reason or another, tossed aside. Nor was the usual New Testament list of 27 books been universally accepted.  Early Syrian Christian New Testaments had only 17 books, and even today still lists only 20 books.  Ethiopian Christians, on the other hand, have 35 books in their New Testament!


Nor are all the accepted biblical books considered to be of equal authority or inspiration.  Jews do not consider the later Wisdom books to be rank as high as the Prophets, nor the Prophets to rank as high as the Pentateuch or "Law".  Luther considered the Epistles of James, Hebrews and 2 Peter of questionable worth.  Nor do some Eastern Christian Churches accept the New Testament Book of Revelations ("The Apocalypse" as they call it), perhaps except as a kind of appendix of lower rank than the rest.


It seems then that although early attempts were made to draw up an official list or "canon" of the various scriptures (what we'd call the "Table of Contents" for a Bible today) through most of the history of Christianity the status of any particular book was a matter of debate to be settled on the basis of whether or not that book met certain standards. Was it, for example, regularly read in the assemblies? Was it (in the case of the New Testament era writings) seen as faithfully representing the teachings of the apostles -- even when its actual authorship was debated? Did it conform with the general tradition in a way that was seen as more or less inspired by God?  


All this suggests how differently we tend to see things today. In ancient times, Christians attempted to gather together and sort out many sacred writings, as diverse as they were, to single out those that were most expressive of the faith of a single universal church.  Today, we (especially we Americans) pretty much do just the opposite. We treat the Bible as if it had come floating down from heaven bound together complete with a divinely revealed table of contents, but being disappointed in finding that we can't totally agree on what it really means (surprised?), decide to go off by ourselves and found still another church -- or maybe even write still another sacred book!