Over the next few months we’re going to be thinking about the Bible. Between now and Christmas we will look at the questions: What is the Bible? Why do we read the Bible? How do we read the Bible? This afternoon we’re starting with “What is the Bible”. Andrew has already started us off down this path thinking about some of the big themes of the Bible, and now we’re going to spend a bit more time looking at the book itself in some detail Let’s watch this video: What is the Bible
We saw in the video that the Bible is made up of 66 different books. If the Bible is a collection of books, then it’s a bit like a library, and just like a library it has different kinds of book in it, written by different people, over many centuries. For some of the books we know who the author was, for others we have some idea, and for others we have no idea. We also heard that the Bible has been translated into over 400 different languages. It was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. One of the interesting things about this is that the biographies of Jesus were written in Greek, but Jesus would have done the majority of his teaching in Aramaic.
So, from the very first Christian writings, translation was at the heart of the communication of Christian faith and story. Christians have always been working out how to apply the language of the Bible to their own language and culture. This is part of what we do today as we follow Jesus, and we’ll be looking at this again when we think about how we read the Bible in a couple of months.
If you’re looking for a Bible for your own use, then you might be wondering which translation is “best”. I wouldn’t get too hung up on this. Whilst there are some variations between translations, the core message and meaning is the same. The most important thing is that you can physically read it and that you can understand the language.
So, who wrote all these books, and when did they write them? How come these books are in the Bible and others aren’t?
At this stage it is helpful to remind ourselves of another division that was mentioned in the video, the division between the Old and New Testaments.
The Old Testament is made up of the Scriptures of the Jewish peoples. Because this is far older (it is the Old Testament) there is less certainty about who wrote it and when. This is further complicated by the fact that some of the Old Testament would originally have been passed down as a spoken tradition, rather than written. So, the person who first developed it might not have been the person who wrote it down eventually. Even so, it is likely that most of it was in a form that would be recognisable today by about 200 B.C.
The books in the New Testament, which follow Jesus’ life on earth, were all written between 30 and 70 years after Jesus death and resurrection. During that time, and in the following years, lots of other books were also written about Jesus and by his followers. At some point the church decided that it would be good to decide which of these books gave the most reliable accounts of Jesus’ life and were most faithful to Jesus’ teaching and should therefore be seen as God’s word. The debates about this took some time, but mostly agreement had been reached by about 400A.D. The earliest copies we have of parts of the New Testament date back to 100 years after Jesus death, and the manuscript evidence for the New Testament, both in terms of number of copies and closeness in time to the originals being written, is far stronger than for any other documents from that time in history.
So, the Bible is a small library of 66 books. We’ve thought about where these books came from, and why it’s made up of these books rather than others, but what about the books themselves. What kind of books are they?
Can we have some suggestions for the different kinds of book that it might have in it?
Law, History, Poetry, Wisdom, Song Books, Prophecy, Letters, Biography,
This is going to be important to remember when we think about how we read the Bible, because we read poetry in a different way to the way that we read history, for instance.
Having thought about some of the general examples of what the Bible is, we’re going to look at a specific example that we’ve had read to us this morning.
What kind of book was it that Nathaniel read to us from? It was Luke’s gospel. A biography of Jesus written by a historian who had researched Jesus’ life by talking to eye witnesses of what Jesus had said and done.
This is the first bit of Jesus’ teaching that Luke records and it is sometimes called Jesus’ manifesto. It is Jesus setting the programme, the theme, the focus of his life and ministry. This is what Jesus is all about, and he draws on the existing Bible, the Old Testament (remember the New Testament wasn’t written yet) to explain what he’s about to the people who live in the town where he grew up.
Firstly he read from the book of Isaiah. What kind of book was Isaiah? It was prophecy. Isaiah lived at a time when the people of God were not living in the way that God had set out for them, and Isaiah warned them and warned them that if they continued going their own way then they would end up defeated and in exile, which is what happened in the end. But he also said that if they returned to God then they would come home from exile, and in various passages he wrote about the one who would lead God’s people into a new and fuller relationship with God.
It is one of these passages that Jesus reads now. It is a passage of hope and restoration, a message of healing and freedom. And Jesus says that he is the one who is going to fulfil it. Jesus shows us that the prophecies of the Bible are trustworthy. He fulfilled many of them, and that can give us confidence that the promises he makes about the future in the Bible will also be fulfilled.
Jesus moves on from the prophets to remind his listeners of stories from another kind of book in the Bible. Any guesses what kind of book he’s taking the accounts of Elijah and the widow and Naaman the Syrian from? History books. Jesus is looking back at things that happened in the past and pointing out patterns of human behaviour that are repeated. In this case, people’s tendency to crab bucket. Did you know that if you have a bucket of crabs then you don’t need to put a lid on it to stop them escaping. Do you know why? As soon as one starts to climb out of the bucket the others grab on to it and pull it back down. They stop each other climbing out. People are often the same. As soon as we see someone we think we know doing well or becoming something we don’t expect we have a tendency to pull them down, to try and cut them down to size.
The history books of the Bible tell the story of the relationship between people and God and are full of patterns and examples of when things went well in that relationship and when they went badly, and we can learn from those.
To finish off this morning I want to come back to what Jesus said. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release for the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
What is the Bible? It is all the things that we have talked about this morning, but more than that it is the word of God that demands a response. What we’ve read Jesus saying this morning is, to me, a challenge and a commission. Jesus was sent to fulfil these words. Later on he said, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” As Jesus’ followers we have been sent to fulfil these words as well. We also have been given the Spirit of the Lord. We also have good news to the poor, healing to bring, freedom to work for. We have received the favour of the Lord, we are sent to tell other people about it.