What is it? - The Bible
What is it?- The Bible.
I remember one seminary assignment where we were asked to write an essay explaining what the Bible says. The assignment was essentially to boil the Bible message down to one message, and to explain that. I thought it was an impossible assignment. I ended up writing on the narrative arc of the Bible, and how it relates to life, only to be humbled by others in the class who wrote that the message was love, was faithfulness of God, and such.
I also remember one of my first big questions as I began my own in-depth faith journey was, “which Bible is THE Bible, and how do we know?” Which is a common question, and one that is best answered with another essay.
So, with that what IS the Bible? Is it a book? A group of books, a collection of writings? Is it history, is it a moral code, is it made up, or factual or both, or all of these things, just really, WHAT IS IT?
I’ll try to answer that here.
The Literal Meaning
“Bible”, or the root βίβλος in Greek literally means book, while its exact origins are unknown is derived from word for the inner lining of a papyrus, and is used in context to refer to a writing, or a scroll in ancient times. The equivalent of ‘book’ in modern times. It is usually translated into English as book, books, or seldomly, as ‘record’.
It is generally agreed that the collection of scriptures were first referred to as ‘The Bible’ by John Chryostom somewhere in the 200-300’s AD. He references the old and the new testaments together in some of his writings as Na Biblia, or ‘the books’ in Latin. The emphasis there, was as it is today, that taken collectively the writings become one writing, made up of other parts. In other words, the many parts come together to form a sum greater than the parts, hence a singular reference. In the Origin, inspiration, and History preface to the 1997-98 version of the New American Bible, this very same claim is made, where it says, “Taken in this sense, it refers to all the books of both Testaments. The Bible is The Book, par Excellence.” NAB, 1997-98 origin, inspiration, history, pg XVI.
So the Bible is one big book, one big work, but it is also so much more than that.
What’s the story?
If the Bible is one work, one book of many, one story of many, then what exactly is “the Story”? As with any story, the narrative arc of the bible follows the narrative arc of any epic story. There is a beginning, usually with things going along pretty smoothly, then there is a problem. A problem that has to be constantly dealt with that forms the centerpiece of why the characters in the story need to interact and have the experiences they do. Then, ultimately, the story and the dealing with this problem grows and deepens resulting in a climax, after which there is a resolution, and sometimes, a happy ending. The Bible follows this same pattern. In the beginning is the garden of Eden and the whole of Gods good creation. The problem enters with the temptation and fall. This problem of mankind not quite going along with God’s directives for them continues and even as good things happen, so do bad. There are ups and downs. Abraham is promised that his descendants will be made as numerous as the stars in the sky, Gen 17:5 and a few generations later Jacob is told that he will become a nation, and is renamed, Israel Gen 32:28. Israel then is both a person, and a nation, making the Israelites literally the children of Israel. Throughout the books of the Old Testament, we follow these people of Israel through the growth of their own kingdom, the growing pains of persecution, of forming a new nation, of good rulers and bad, or friends and enemies. We follow the struggles and ultimate success and triumph of David, and through the splendor riches and fall of Solomon. The prophets and the wisdom books both chronicle the exile post-Solomon, and simultaneously tell of the coming redemption of God. They talk of the wrongdoing of man-again the problem of sin and evil pervading the world and God’s good creation; and they talk of the hope of reconciliation with God, through His divinely appointed savior. Throughout the Old Testament and through the very beginning of the New Testament we see, when looking at the big picture, the problem that started in the garden. The problem of the temptation of evil, and the problem of mankind’s sin growing and deepening until there is a necessary tipping point. The Climax comes in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Again, in the grand picture of things, we can see how the effects, and the power of sin and evil and death are gathered to Christ, BY Christ, and overcome when he takes his life back from death. John 10:18, John 16:33.
After the Resurrection and ascension of Christ we have the stories of the early church, of the first missionary trips, of the influence of the Holy Spirit and the news of the availability of the promised redemption through Jesus spreading. The climax seen in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the resolution of the problem of sin and evil. As Jesus says in John 16:33, “I have overcome the world”, and within that, overcome everything in the world. Hence, in the personage and mission of Jesus there is redemption, solace, peace and the ability to overcome the problems of this world. The bulk of the New Testament is examples, stories and practical applications to what and how this relates to life.
The culmination of The Bible in Revelation is description of the end of the problem. The problem of sin and evil, defeated by Christ, are eradicated and ejected from this world in Revelation leaving only the rule of God and peace within the New Creation to come.
So, the greater work is as the sum is greater than its parts. The story follows the narrative arc of one story. One epic and world changing, world defining story.
What’s the meaning?
So, it’s a great story, but there is also deeper meaning within that. Like any good story, the meaning and the lessons are deeper than simply the words on the page. And so it is with the Bible. There is history, Genesis, 1, 2 Kings, 1, 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, Ezra, Acts, among others. There are works that deal with the meaning of life, the purpose of life, of the questions of what is knowledge, what is wisdom, and deep philosophical and theological questions in Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Revelation, among others. It deals with the problem of why bad things happen to good people, and why good things happen to bad people, in Job, Psalms, and Lamentations and in other places and stories. It gives morals lessons from the perspective of the right thing, and from the perspective of the wrong thing. It explains what to do, and what not to do. Looking with a wider, historical view it allows for contrast between the laws given and handed down by God, and those developed by men. IE the similarities and differences between Hammurabi and Moses. Appearing similar but quite different.
The themes throughout are the faithfulness of God to His people, His love and devotion to them coming to their aid time and again as they fall away from Him time and again, and all the while giving examples of relatable human stories, within which we can find the morals and lessons expounded within the wisdom sections of the Bible. Jesus taught in parables. He told story after story to relate his message, his examples and he lived in such a way as to example and demonstrate those concepts he was teaching and explaining. Perhaps a bit over-simplistic, you might say that the Bible is the Ultimate parable of God.
Not just one thing, it’s the thing.
The Bible is more than a story. It’s more than a moral code. It’s more than a rulebook for life. It’s more than a collection of handed down stories and it’s more than simply history. But it is ALL of those things. Does it give directions for life? Yes. Are they always clear cut? No. Does it have humor? Yes. It has beautiful stories, and action and good people and bad. It has deep lessons, heartwarming ones and heartbreaking ones. It’s deeper than the simple words on the page, and yet it is, at least physically, only words on a page. It is more than it seems to be. It is complicated and confusing that way.
To fully appreciate it we need to be engaged with it, dig into it. With the over-arching view, and the specific examples and stories view. We need to step back and look at the whole picture, and zoom in on the details as well. Only taking a literal read-it-for-what-it-says viewpoint will not give you the depth. To do so would be akin to looking at the surface of a still lake, and guessing how deep it was. You’d never know. To find out how deep the lake is you need to be in it, on it and explore it. The same with the Bible. To really get to know it we need to dive in, read it, think about it, discuss it, and explore it. It is only then that we find the depth, the lessons, the deeper meaning, and full story of God’s creation and involvement with it.
A map, and MapQuest
In a lot of ways, the Bible is more analogous to an old-fashioned map than MapQuest. It gives you all the information and more about how to get to your destination. But it does not have exact turn by turn directions. It’s a map. Not MapQuest. It gives you information, guidance, meaning, definitions, stories, action, wisdom, knowledge, history, poetry, essays, epics, heroes and villains. Wherever we are in life we can find examples, illustrations, guidance, directions but they are not turn-by-turn directions. It gives me all the information I need for life and how to live, and examples of how to apply them, and it leaves it to me to actually do them. It leads us to the righteous life-giving waters of the Word of God, and it shows them to us, but it won’t make us drink it. That part is on us. I’ll never be faced with an issue, nor will anyone else and turn to the pages of the Bible and read, “ok Tom, go down this way, do this, then this, stay away from that, hang a right when you get to this point and you can’t miss your destination on the left.” It doesn’t work that way.
The Bible gives me all the information I need for my life, and invites me to explore and apply it as I will. The Bible provides the direction but not turn by turn directions. The turn-by-turn direction part is through prayer-next weeks’ what is it blog.
What is it – The Bible?
The Bible provides us data. An overwhelming amount of data. We have to sort through it and find the details and the application for our specific needs by putting in some work ourselves. In our modern-day life, we have a question, pull up Google on our phones, and ratta-tat-tat we have pages and pages of data regarding what we just typed or said. The Bible does the same, we have to go through the pages, like the google results, one by one and apply them the best we can. So bottom line, what can we say the Bible is? It’s kind of like google, but for God.
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