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Introducing the Bible
By William Barclay
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1972 BRF and IBRA
All rights reserved.
The Making of the Old Testament
The Canon of Scripture
We are going to begin by studying how the Bible was built up and came into being. To put it in technical language, we are going to study the formation of the canon of Scripture. The canon of Scripture is that list of books which have been accepted as the Christian Church's written rule of faith; it is the list of the "official" books of the Church; it is the list of books which the Church regards as authoritative and determinative for the story of its own history, and for the formation of its life and doctrine.
A list in this sense and usage contains books which have had something done to them; they have been put on the list; but these same books do something to everything else; they become the standard by which all other things are judged. So the canon of Scripture was formulated by the Church; in this sense it was not the Bible which made the Church, it was the Church which made the Bible; for the Church existed long before the Bible existed. The early Church did not possess the New Testament; it was busy writing it. On the other hand these books are not merely books which have had the passive experience of having had something done to them; they are books which have the active power of guiding and directing the life and work of the Church.
So we go on to study how there came into being that list of books which the Church accepted as authoritative and which became the basic documents of the Christian faith.
Papyrus and Parchment
If we go into a shop nowadays, and ask for a copy of the Bible, we will be handed one single volume, one book. But if we open that book we will find lists of the books of the Old Testament and of the New Testament. We will find that by the usual reckoning there are 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament, a total of 66 books. This is to say that, when we buy a one-volume Bible, we are really buying a library between two covers. When we go on to investigate this portable library a little more closely, we will find that the writing of it was spread over at least one thousand years, and that its books were written all over the ancient world from distant Babylon to Rome.
If we had lived in biblical times, we would never have made the mistake of thinking of the Bible as one book, because we would never have seen it in the form of one book; it did not exist in that form. In the ancient world literary works were written on rolls. The book form, called the codex, did not emerge until round about the second century AD. The Old Testament books were written on skins. The New Testament books were originally written on papyrus. Papyrus was made from the papyrus reed, which grew almost exclusively on the banks of the Nile. It is a bulrush. It can be taller than a man, and thicker than a man's wrist. The pith was cut into long strips; it was then laid down vertically and another row of strips was applied horizontally. It was then moistened; pressure was applied; and there emerged a substance rather like brown paper, after the papyrus had been smoothed off with pumice stone. Biblos or bulbos is the Greek word from which our word bible comes. Biblos originally was the word for the papyrus bulrush itself; it then became the word for the papyrus writing material made from that bulrush; it then went on to mean a roll of papyrus; and finally it came to mean a book.
Papyrus was not a cheap material. It was made in sheets which measured about ten by eight inches (25.5cm by 20.5cm). It cost anything from two pence a sheet for the cheapest quality to about nine pence for the best quality, and these prices have to be evaluated in the light of the fact that a working-man's wage was four pence a day. The sheets were joined edge to edge to form a long strip of papyrus. A wooden roller was placed at each end. The roll was unrolled with the one hand, and rolled up again with the other as it was read. The writing was in narrow columns, two and a half to three inches (2.5-3.5cm) wide.
There is an overlap period when the roll was vanishing and when the book or codex form was coming into use, during which the codex too was made of papyrus. But usually the codex is made of vellum or parchment. Vellum was originally made of calves' skin. Vitulina charta it was called and from that phrase the word vellum is derived. Its greatest center of manufacture was Pergamum and it was also called Pergamênê charta from which the word parchment is derived.
Parchment and papyrus have one advantage—they are both extremely durable. But the whole situation in the ancient world had two disadvantages:
The roll was unwieldy to use. The result is that the maximum length of roll for all practical purposes was thirty feet (9.14m), and it would take a roll of almost exactly that size to hold the Gospel of Luke or of Matthew, or the book of Acts. This is why no one in the ancient world would ever think of the Old Testament or the New Testament as one book. To such a person the Old and New Testaments would be quite extensive collections of rolls. Even when the codex came in, ancient binding was such that three or four volumes would be needed for even the New Testament. The fact that the Bible is a library would not be lost sight of in the ancient world.
The other disadvantage was expense, both of the papyrus material itself and of the cost of copying.
The unit of measurement for copying was the stichos (plural, stichoi). A stichos was not a line; to pay by the line would not be satisfactory, for different writers might well get a very different number of words into a line. A stichos was the average length of one of Homer's hexameter lines which is sixteen syllables. Books were reckoned in stichoi. There is a sixth century New Testament manuscript, Codex Claromontanus, which gives the number of stichoi in each book. For example, there are 2,900 stichoi in Luke, 2,600 in Matthew, 1,040 in Romans, 251 in Colossians, 20 in 2 John, 2,600 in Acts, 1,200 in the Revelation. In the time of Diocletian (AD 287-305) a price-fixing edict was issued, and the cost of copying was 20 to 25 denarii per hundred stichoi. A denarius was about four pence (in 1972); so this means it cost about a pound to copy one hundred lines, which means that Matthew itself, apart from the papyrus, would cost about £26. This expense was something which remained until printing arrived. There were few who could own a Bible; and until the printed book emerged the Bible rarely existed in one volume.
The Jewish Old Testament
Let us now move on to see the process by which the divine library of the Old Testament came into being and grew up into completeness.
The Jews divided their sacred writings into three sections—the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. This classification goes back to about 180 BC. Jesus the son of Sirach had written a book of wisdom which we now commonly call Ecclesiasticus. It was originally written in Hebrew. In the year 132 BC his grandson, thinking it a valuable book and a book deserving to be widely known, while he was staying in Egypt translated it into Greek, and in the Prologue he refers to the teachings of the Law, the Prophets and the others who followed them. He speaks again of the Law, the Prophets and "the other books of our fathers."
The Law consists of the first five books of the Old Testament— Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This section of the Bible is commonly known as the Pentateuch, which is a Greek word, meaning the five rolls.
The Prophets came to be divided into two sections. First, there are the Former Prophets. These are the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. These were reckoned as four books, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, each being reckoned as one book. We usually look on these books as historical books, but the Jews looked on them as prophetic, partly because they tell the story of the great prophets like Elijah and Elisha. Second, there were the Latter Prophets. These were Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve. We call the Twelve the Minor Prophets—Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. They are not minor in the sense that they are in any way lesser or inferior; they are minor only in the sense that they are shorter than the first three. The Latter Prophets are also reckoned as four books, because the Twelve are reckoned as one.
The Writings are a miscellaneous collection. They are variously classified. One classification is, first, three books of poetry—Psalms, Proverbs, Job; second, the five megilloth (megillah means a roll); each of them was connected specially with some great Jewish festival. The Song of Solomon, allegorized to make it speak of the deliverance from Egypt, was associated with the Passover, and was read on the eighth day of the Passover celebrations. Ruth was connected with Pentecost, Because it was a harvest idyll, and Pentecost was the harvest feast; it was read on the second day of Pentecost. Lamentations was read on 9th Ab, which is the anniversary of the destruction of Solomon's temple. Ecclesiastes was read on the third day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Tabernacles commemorated the journey through the wilderness, and during it for a week the people left their houses and lived out of doors in booths made of branches. Ecclesiastes was read to remind men to remember God in the midst of material blessings. Esther was read at the Feast of Purim, for which it provides the reason and the warrant. The five megilloth were the only books of the Writings to be read in the Synagogue, and they were read only on the occasions with which they were specially connected. Third, there was one book of prophecy—Daniel. Finally, there were two books of history—Ezra-Nehemiah, counting as one, and Chronicles.
The Jews often counted these books as twenty-four. This number was arrived at by reckoning:
five books of the Law;
four books of the Former Prophets, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2
Kings each being reckoned as one book;
four books of the Latter Prophets, the Twelve being reckoned as one book;
eleven books of the Writings, Ezra and Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles each being reckoned as one book.
So then let us see how and when each of these three parts of the Old Testament acquired the character of Scripture.
For the Jew the Law was, and is, the most important thing in the world, the center of the Synagogue service, and the essence of all true religion. The word Law is not quite an adequate title for it; the word Law is in English too legalistic to describe the Jewish Law. There is much more in it and to it than rules and regulations, prohibitions and commands. The Hebrew word is Torah, and it means instruction rather than law. The Torah is God's instruction to men and women, by obeying which they find life in this world and life in the world to come. They held that the Law had been created before the creation of the world itself, and that God had looked into the Law and then created the world. When the Kingdom of God fully came, the prophets and the writings would pass away, but the Law would last for ever.
It was held to have been delivered to Moses verbatim and entire by the very hand of God himself. It was even held that God began each day by himself setting time apart to study the Law. The aim was that Jewish children should have the Law "graven on their souls." From their infancy they were instructed in the Law, and many a Jew died rather than be false to the Law which was nothing less than the word of God. Center of everything was the Law, and even the rest of Scripture, great as it was, was no more than commentary on the Law. The center of the Synagogue service was the reading of the Law. It was read one verse at a time in Hebrew, and translated into whatever language the congregation understood. How then did it reach its exalted position? In what follows we try to reconstruct the situation. This is a reconstruction and not a certainty; but it does fit the facts, and the majority of Old Testament scholars would agree with it.
In regard to the Law we have one date from which we can start, and a dramatic start it is. Religion in Judah had been in a sorry state. The good king Hezekiah (c. 728-699 BC) had been followed by Manasseh and Amon, who were little better than heathen (2 Kings 21). Their combined reigns lasted for more than half a century, and religion was at its lowest ebb. Then in 621 BC the young Josiah came to the throne. And Josiah "did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord." One of the things he did was to initiate the repair and the restoration of the neglected temple; and during that work the book of the Law was found by Hilkiah in the house of the Lord. The reading of that book of the Law moved the king and the people to repentance and reformation, and that book of the Law became for them the very word of God (2 Kings 22 and 23). There is little doubt what that book was. It was a large part of the book of Deuteronomy. Someone who was at once prophet and priest wrote it in the dark days of Manasseh and Amon, when it was impossible to speak openly, and then hid it in the temple, to be found in due time.
Here is the beginning of the whole movement; here is the first time that part of a book is, so to speak, canonized, and becomes the word of God to God's people. There were other statements of the Law and they too were recovered and collected and cherished. There was the oldest statement of all about the Law, commonly called the little book of the covenant, in Exodus 34. There was the book of the covenant itself, the conditions to which the people of God agreed, when God took them as his people and promised to be their God. This is found in Exodus 20:22-23:33, and in its present form dates back to 900 BC. Then in the middle of the sixth century BC another great section was added. The very essence of Judaism is in the phrase: "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). So there arose what is called the Holiness Code. The word holy here really means different. God is the supremely different one, as he has been called, The Wholly Other. His people too are to be different; they are not to live like other nations; they are to accept the fact that they are a people destined to be different. And the life of difference they are to lead is summed up in the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17 to 26. So we have the great sections of the Law, the voice of God coming ever more fully and directly to his people—the ancient little book of the covenant, and the book of the covenant itself, the major part of the book of Deuteronomy, and the Code of Holiness. Slowly the Law is building up. It is of the greatest importance to remember one fact that is emerging. People did not sit down and write a book with the intention of writing a book of Scripture. The books which became Scripture had for years and centuries been the help and the strength of the people. These books had already proved themselves over the centuries to be nothing less than the word of God. They were books which by their own proven value had established their right to be recognized as God's word to men and women. These books which became Scripture were not new books; they were books which time had already proved.
The Making of the Pentateuch
But there is more in the Pentateuch than laws and instruction. The law material in the Pentateuch stands in the context of a narrative which takes the story from the creation of the world to the entry into the Promised Land, and within this narrative there are certain very interesting phenomena. When we study this material, it becomes clear that it is composite and that it comes from more than one source.
Traditionally, it is the work of Moses, but it soon becomes clear that more than Moses had a hand in it. In Genesis there is a list of the kings of Edom, and then there is the sentence, "These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites" (Genesis 36:31). The first of the kings is Saul, and Saul is three centuries after Moses, so Moses could hardly have spoken of kings reigning over the Israelites. Genesis 14:14 tells of Abrahams pursuit of his enemies as far as Dan. But Dan did not get its name until the time of the Judges (Judges 18:29) after the time of Moses. In Genesis (21:34; 26:14-18) the Philistines are mentioned, but in fact the Philistines did not appear on the scene of history until about 1200 BC, again after the time of Moses. And, above all in this connection, Deuteronomy 34:1-8 tells of the death of Moses, and it is hardly likely that Moses told the story of his own death!
Unquestionably, Moses was the great law-giver of Israel, but equally unquestionably more than his hand is to be seen in the first five books of the Old Testament. There is more than one narrative here and there is more than one author here.
Excerpted from Introducing the Bible by William Barclay. Copyright © 1972 BRF and IBRA. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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