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HOW TO GET INTO THE BIBLEJOURNEY THROUGH THE GREATEST STORY OF ALL TIME
By STEPHEN M. MILLER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 1998 Thomas Nelson Publishers
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSNEAK PREVIEWS
How We Got Our Bible
There's a short version of how we got the Bible—and why.
It's summed up in a letter from the apostle Paul just before his execution: "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives" (2 Timothy 3:16, New Living Translation).
Paul was talking about Jewish Scripture, which Christians call the Old Testament; the New Testament was not finished at that time. But Christians believe that Paul's words apply equally to the 27 books of the New Testament, which revolve around the life and teachings of God's Son.
Exactly how God "inspired" the many biblical writers is an intriguing mystery, and a source of sometimes hot debate. But all Christians who believe that the Bible is God's revelation to the human race agree on one rock-solid point: God guided the more than a millenium-long process, from beginning to end. He personally saw to it that humans got the message he wanted to deliver.
In the beginning, stories about God were probably passed on by word of mouth long before they were written onto clay slabs or tanned sheepskin. In ancient times, villagers and herders alike admired gifted storytellers who, with entertaining flair and evocative cadence, preserved and passed along the community's tradition and history. Listeners became familiar with the stories, and typically refused to allow storytellers to skip or add material—much like children today monitor and supervise the familiar stories that their parents read to them.
The Writing Begins
No one knows when the first Hebrew put pen to parchment, or stylus to clay. Moses is the first person the Bible identifies as a writer. Perhaps as early as the 1400s B.C. Moses wrote down the many laws God gave him—probably those preserved in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 31:9). But hundreds of years before Moses, Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, may have written the dramatic stories about his life that are preserved in Genesis. He came from the Persian Gulf region where writing was already at least 1000 years old.
Most of the rest of the Old Testament—stories, poems, songs, genealogies, nuggets of wisdom, prophecies, and all the other genres of Hebrew tradition—was likely passed along orally, then eventually collected and recorded by scribes. The writing probably began in earnest after Israel established itself as a powerful nation, during the reigns of David and Solomon in about 1000 B.C. As scrolls began to wear out, scribes carefully duplicated the text onto fresh scrolls.
Exactly who wrote the Old Testament remains a mystery; most books don't say. The first five books of the Bible, for example, are anonymous. But ancient Jewish tradition says Moses wrote them. Some Bible authors, on the other hand, are clearly identified; many prophets wrote the books named after them.
All but a few sections of the Old Testament are written in Hebrew, the language of the Jews. A few passages are written in Aramaic, a similar language that the Jews picked up when they were exiled to Babylon. After twenty-some-year-old Alexander the Great swept through the Middle East in the early 300s B.C., Greek became the prevailing language.
Within about a century, an Egyptian king decided to create a new holding for his renowned library in Alexandria. As legend has it, he asked the high priest in Jerusalem to loan him about 70 top scholars who would translate the five revered books of Moses into Greek. The result—the first Bible translation—became known as the Septuagint, meaning 70. Over the next hundred years or so, the rest of the Hebrew Bible was added. When New Testament writers later quoted the Old Testament, they quoted it from this Greek translation.
Rome destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, leaving the Jews with no temple for offering animal sacrifices. So the Jews began to offer sacrifices of praise and prayer by reading from their sacred writings. The problem was that the Jews had a wide array of revered books, and many versions of some books. No one knows exactly how or when the Jews settled on the books that make up their Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. The five books of Moses, known as the books of Law, were probably among the first ones widely accepted. The books of the prophets likely came next, followed last by books known as the Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, and others. Eventually eliminated—partly because they were not originally written in Hebrew—were many books published in the popular Greek translation. They were called the Apocrypha, meaning "secondary" or "hidden" works, and would later reappear in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles.
The Late-Breaking Good News
The story of how we got the New Testament is quite similar, though the time frame is compressed. Instead of taking a thousand years or more for spoken stories to give way to writing and then to widely revered status, the process takes about a century for Christians. The earliest followers of Jesus didn't immediately write their stories, apparently because they expected Jesus to return soon. They urgently spread his teachings in person, by speaking.
The first New Testament books were probably not written by Jesus' disciples, but by missionary-minded, circuit-preaching Paul. Scholars estimate that Paul's earliest letters of encouragement to young churches he had founded were written about 20 years after the death of Jesus. The rest of the New Testament was written throughout the remainder of the first century, roughly A.D. 50 to 100.
Christians had long respected the Jewish Scriptures as God's Word. But they also recognized that the message of Jesus, contained in the Gospels and other writings, was an essential part of God's revelation to human beings. Christians, however, didn't formally agree on which books to include in the New Testament until after Marcion, a Christian leader in the early A.D. 100s, proposed a short list: the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Luke—all of which he had edited to reflect his belief that Jesus was not human and could not really suffer.
Over the next two centuries, Christians debated which books should be included. Many had been written, including about 60 of questionable content and authorship. By 367, most church leaders agreed to accept as authoritative only the 27 books they believed were written by apostles—ministers who had actually seen Jesus, including the original disciples and Paul. The first known list of these books appears that year in the Easter letter that an Egyptian bishop, Athanasius, sent to his churches. He was the first on record to use the word canon—which originally meant "measure"—to describe the officially recognized books of the Bible. Church leaders decided that no other books should be added to the canon.
The Dangerous Art of Translation
Latin, the preferred language of Romans, eventually spread throughout the empire. Christian scholars began producing several Latin translations of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. By 382, however, Pope Damasus decided the church needed a single, authoritative Latin translation. He assigned this arduous task to Jerome, leading Bible scholar of the time.
Jerome knew Latin and Greek, but not very much Hebrew. He was determined to translate the Old Testament from the original Hebrew language, not from the Greek Septuagint. So he moved to a monastery in Bethlehem and learned Hebrew from Jewish scholars. More than 20 years after he began, his monumental translation was complete. It became known as the Vulgate, meaning "common," since he wrote it in the common language of the day.
At first, his translation met stiff resistance. After one congregation heard his version of Jonah read to them, instead of worshiping, they rioted. They preferred the earlier version they were used to hearing and memorizing.
Because language changes, updated versions can sometimes sound dramatically different from previous versions. To further complicate the process, it's not always clear how to interpret the ancient text. For example, ancient Hebrew had no vowels and no lowercase letters. If we wrote English that way, "once upon a time" would look like this: NC PN TM. But those same letters could also read "Nice pun, Tom." Ancient readers familiar with the story seemed to have little trouble reading it. Others had to look for context clues, which were plentiful. Solving the puzzle of one word gives you a clue about what the next word should be. When you put a lot of words together it's easier to figure out what the story is about.
At about the time Jerome was translating the Bible into Latin, a missionary named Ulfilas was inventing an alphabet for German tribes so he could translate the Bible into their Gothic language. This scene has been repeated throughout the world, throughout the ages.
As Christianity grew, so did the number of Bible translations. Most Bibles were too expensive for common people, because it took months of work to copy them. In the 1300s a Bible could easily cost a priest a year's salary. This changed dramatically in about 1456, when the Bible was first printed with movable type. By the end of that century, printers were busy in more than 250 European towns, publishing a wide variety of Bible editions.
Surprisingly, Christian church leaders resisted the notion of translating God's Word into everyday language. The prevailing opinion was that people should get their teaching from ministers, not the Bible—because it was thought most people were not capable of traveling through God's Word without a spiritual guide. Oxford scholar John Wycliffe became viewed as a heretic for creating the first English Bible—which was banned in England. He died before anyone killed him, but 43 years later church leaders dug up his remains, burned them, and threw the ashes into a river. William Tyndale produced an improved English translation in the early 1500s. For this, he was publicly strangled with a rope and his body burned. His dying words were, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes." Within two years the king ordered English Bibles placed in every church.
The most famous English Bible of all time is the King James Version, known in England as the Authorized Version. It remained the principal Bible of English-speaking Protestants for some 300 years, beginning with the time of Shakespeare. In 1611 the translation was presented to King James of England, who had commissioned about 50 of England's foremost scholars to produce it. Working at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster, they completed the task in about seven years.
Then, as now, people resisted change. It took 40 years for the public to warm up to this new version and accept it as a replacement for the Geneva Bible, which was translated 50 years earlier and was used by the American Puritans.
Since King James commissioned his masterpiece translation, archaeologists have unearthed Bible manuscripts much older than the ones that his translators used—up to a thousand years older. For example, some Old Testament texts from the renowned Dead Sea Scrolls, a library cache preserved in dry caves near Israel's Dead Sea, date as far back as about 200 years before Christ. Variation in the Scripture is surprisingly minor—a tribute to the care taken by copyists.
So far, none of the original Bible manuscripts have surfaced. But translators today make good use of the ever-emerging ancient texts, linking them with cutting-edge technology. To piece together brittle and broken fragments of leather scrolls, for example, some scientists are using DNA testing to determine what sections belong together.
Today there are countless millions, perhaps a billion or more, Bibles in homes throughout the world. At the moment, at least parts of the Bible have been translated into about 2,200 languages from Abau in Papua New Guinea to Zulgo in the Cameroon. Surveys report that in the United States nine out of ten homes have at least one Bible—and the average home has about six. These are just the printed Bibles. People can now choose from a staggering array of ancient and new Bible translations on computer, via electronic disks, online services, and the Internet. People can also listen to narrated tapes of Scripture.
For children, there are Bible stories in comic book style and other age-tailored editions. And for kids who would never consider curling up with the Good Book, there are Bible story cartoons and dramas, and even interactive Bible video games.
Adults, too, can choose Bibles targeting their interests. There are storybook Bibles for parents to read to their children, and devotional Bibles with inspiring articles for singles. Readers interested in studying the cultural background of each Bible passage can buy thick volumes such as the Nelson Study Bible, with 15,000 expository study notes based on the latest scholarship. The less scholarly, yet equally inquiring, can turn to the Word In Life Study Bible, designed for today's media-smart reader. In addition to in-text maps and charts, this edition contains hundreds of articles and features, including information on occupations in the Bible, geography and culture, and personality profiles.
The Bible has been the world's best-selling book since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press 550 years ago. With modern publishers producing niche editions that meet the spiritual needs of even the narrowest segments of the market, the Bible is likely one of the best-read as well.
Highlights and Headliners
God the Father
Before the first star began to sparkle, there was God. That fact opens the Bible: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).
When the last star fades, and creation gives way to a celestial realm, God will be there—with his people. That fact closes the Bible in John's vision of the future: "People will worship God and will see him face to face.... The Lord God will be their light, and they will rule forever" (Revelation 22:3–5).
Between Genesis and Revelation is a sacred library written over more than a millennium. It is the story of God revealed in history, biography, law, prayer, song, proverb, prophecy, parable, letter, and vision. Through this story we begin to understand God, though only in part. For as Job asks, who can understand "the mysteries surrounding God All-Powerful? They are higher than the heavens and deeper than the grave" (Job 11:7–8).
Why God reveals himself to humanity quickly becomes clear in Genesis. God created a good and idyllic world, and placed in it humans with whom he could fellowship. These humans chose to disobey him. Because of this, and in ways we can't fully grasp, sin contaminated God's creation and severed his intimate relationship with humanity. Since that moment, God has been working to restore his creation and his relationship with humans.
God begins by teaching humanity about himself through promises made and fulfilled in obedient people, like Noah, and through punishing evil people. Then through Abraham, God produces a race of people chosen to receive his special insights and laws, and to guide others in the ways of the Lord. He also sends prophets to remind these chosen people, the Jews, to obey him.
Finally, God sends Jesus onto the planet and the Holy Spirit into the human heart to further reveal what he is like. The Bible doesn't explain how three distinct entities can be united as one. It simply states this as fact, then reports a wide array of astonishing miracles and testimonies to prove it. Who but God, for example, could silence a storm (Mark 4:39)?
From beginning to end, the Bible paints a detailed and complex portrait of God. But all the descriptions are best expressed by John, a disciple of Jesus: "God is love" (1 John 4:8). Good news for humanity is that this love is offered to us, and when we accept it, it's ours forever.
Excerpted from HOW TO GET INTO THE BIBLE by STEPHEN M. MILLER Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Nelson Publishers. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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