Our next section in this review of The Basics of Christian Faith will consider the Bible. What is the Bible? How did it come to be? What is its role in our walk of faith? These and other questions will be considered as we explore the collection of works called The Bible.
The Bible is a confusing book at times. It’s not the work of a historian, although it contains history. It’s not a psychological textbook, but it deals with humanity’s innermost problems. Neither is the Bible like a novel which moves in a defined character driven arc or a mystery with a whodunit twist. At times there are assumptions of culture, ways of seeing the world, and shared experiences placed on the reader which modern readers don’t have. Also confusing to some folks is the number of available versions, especially in the English language.
Even though there seems plenty to confuse readers just a bit of knowledge makes all the difference. In a way, learning about the Bible is like learning to read a map. To use a map we need to understand its orientation, scale, type, and what the symbols mean. Without that basic knowledge, maps are difficult to use. And likewise, so is the Bible.
The first thing to understand is the Bible isn’t one book but a collection of 66 individual books. Of those, there are several literary types or genres. Some of which are common today such as historical narratives, poetry, and personal letters. Others are uncommon in modern literature such as the prophetic writings and end time visions. One key to understanding the Bible is recognizing the genre of any given section.
Another item to recognize is the broad time and cultural difference of the writers. The Bible isn’t the work of one person but a collection of many writers. Some, like the writings of Moses, are around 3000 years old. And within the Bible’s pages is a range of cultures from the nomadic tribal experience of Abraham to the palaces of King David and King Solomon to Roman-occupied Israel during Jesus’ era to the metropolitan cities of Corinth and Rome which received Paul’s letters. The Bible’s continuing relevance given this large span of time and culture is truly amazing.
The Bible is also a well-preserved collection. Without diving too deeply into the discipline of paleography the textual evidence for the various books of the Bible is overwhelming in comparison to its peers from the same era. While none of the original manuscripts exists there are thousands of painstakingly created copies and fragments of copies. The sheer number allow archeologist to confirm the transmission of the Biblical text through the ages. This is not to say there are no differences but that those differences are inconsequential. It should also be noted that the chapter and verse designations were added later to aid study.
Unless someone is reading directly from a Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek text, the Bible we read is a work of translation. There are differences of interpretation and translation methods between the various versions. The English versions range from what are nearly word for word translations (KJV, NASB) to freer flowing thought for thought editions(NLT, MSG) with many combining the best of both (ESV, NIV).
Another difference between versions is the ancient texts upon which they are based. Older English versions such as the King James Bible are based on a collection of texts or codex called the Textus Receptus. Since then older and presumably more accurate manuscripts have been found. This is why some newer versions may not contain a word, verse, or section found in other versions. It’s not some evil attempt to change the Bible but a desire to get as close to the original manuscript as possible.
Translators must also bridge the differences between the original languages with the language and culture for whom they are translating. Each translation is an attempt to accurately convey the Bible in the most meaningful way possible for the intended readers.
Knowing these things is not a prerequisite for understanding the Bible but it helps. The next seven articles will delve deeper into the Bible but there is a more important point. The Bible is useless if not applied. Unless we let God speak into our lives through its pages, chapters, and verses we’re only reading some very old stories. I personally love and relish those moments when the Holy Spirit shines a spotlight into my life as I read the Bible. That moment when spiritual understanding supersedes my own finite understanding and my sinful habits. There is a painful joy when the Holy Spirit touches our heart and lives through the ancient words of the Bible.