Seven Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the Bible?

Most importantly the Bible is a story -- a long story made up of many shorter stories -- about the relationship between God and God's people. That is why it is also called the Word of God. The stories are told in many different ways, in poetry and in prose, through prophecy and law, in gospels and in letters. But fundamental to understanding the Bible is recognising that it is the story of God and God's people, told from their human point of view. And because the people of the Bible are our spiritual forebears, men and women on a journey like ours into relationship with God, the Bible is also our story. Week by week in worship and in many parishes in Bible Study and other similar programmes, we retell the story and make it alive in our own lives, as individuals and as communities.

2. Okay, great, but I had something more literal in mind -- What is the Bible really?

If you pick up the Bible in your pew or go to a bookstore and ask for a Bible, you'll find yourself holding a volume divided into two parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. Each one of those parts is subdivided in turn. The Old Testament breaks down into the Law (also called Torah or the Pentateuch), the Prophets, and the Writings:

  • The Law (Torah, Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • The Prophets:
    • "The Former Prophets": Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings
    • "The Latter Prophets": Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, the Twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)
  • The Writings: Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel

The New Testament can also be divided (less neatly) into three categories, the Gospels, the Epistles (or Letters), and Revelation (the nearest thing in the New Testament to the Prophets):

  • Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke/Acts, John
  • Epistles:
    • Letters of St Paul (To the Romans, To the Corinthians (1 and 2), To the Galatians, To the Ephesians, To the Philippians, To the Colossians, To the Thessalonians (1 and 2), Pastoral Epistles (To Timothy (1 and 2), To Titus), and To Philemon (often grouped with the three Pastorals))
    • Letter to the Hebrews;
    • Catholic (or General) Letters (Letter of James, Letters of Peter (1 and 2), Letters of John (1, 2, and 3), Letter of Jude)
  • Apocalypse: Revelation of St John

3. What's the best version of the Bible to get? How do I choose one?

There are many, many translations, and the last 30-40 years have been especially productive. A good rule of thumb in choosing is to look at who sponsored or commissioned the translation -- by and large, the more different churches and confessional groups were involved, the better. That way, no one particular set of axes is being ground! Among the most popular translations are:

  1. New Revised Standard Version: this is the version usually used in most parishes for public reading of the Bible. It is sponsored by the widest range of denominations imaginable and was overseen by a very distinguished group of scholars. If you have only one Bible, the Oxford Annotated Edition of the NRSV is probably the best one to have.

  2. Revised English Bible (new edition -- 1989 -- of the New English Bible). It is very vibrant and clear, and represents a response to many of the criticisms made of the New English Bible. It makes a deliberate attempt to avoid exclusive language in translation, without however softening actual problems in the original languages. It was also sponsored by a wide range of denominations across Britain.

  3. The New Jerusalem Bible (new edition of The Jerusalem Bible). An excellent, readable version in many ways, it must be used with caution because, unlike the others, it is the work of one denomination only (Roman Catholic), and represents a particular point of view exclusively.

Especially to be avoided are paraphrases, rather than translations--The Living Bible is an example of a paraphrase.

4. What do you mean when you talk about the Bible being the Word of God? Is it inspired? Didn't God write it or something?

Well, yes and no -- yes, the Bible is inspired by God, but no, God didn't write it. For example Anglicans (the faith community I'm most familiar with) show their belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible by putting it at the centre of worship and by affirming its fundamental role in bringing us to salvation. The Anglican church teaches that everything that is needed for salvation can be found in the Bible. Notice that is not at all the same thing as saying that everything found in the Bible is necessary for salvation!

The attempt to define a uniquely Anglican approach to the Bible began back in the sixteenth century with the thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the historic foundation of Anglican doctrine and practice:"The Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." (1571 printing)

More recently the Episcopal Dictionary of the Church offers this uniquely Anglican balancing act, encompassing not just the Bible but the roles of church tradition and human reason:

The threefold sources of authority in Anglicanism are scripture, tradition, and reason. These three sources uphold and critique each other in a dynamic way. Scripture is the normative source for God's revelation and the source for all Christian teaching and reflection. Tradition passes down from generation to generation the church's ongoing experience of God's presence and activity. Reason is understood to include the human capacity to discern the truth in both rational and intuitive ways. It is not limited to logic as such. It takes into account and includes experience. Each of the three sources of authority must be perceived and interpreted in light of the other two.
The Anglican balance of authority has been characterized as a "three-legged stool" which falls if any one of the legs is not upright. It may be distinguished from a tendency in Roman Catholicism to overemphasize tradition relative to scripture and reason, and in certain Protestant churches to overemphasize scripture relative to tradition and reason. The Anglican balancing of the sources of authority has been criticized as clumsy or "muddy." It has been associated with the Anglican affinity for seeking the mean between extremes and living the via media. It has also been associated with the Anglican willingness to tolerate and comprehend opposing viewpoints instead of imposing tests of orthodoxy or resorting to heresy trials.

We'll say more about this process of interpretation in the second section of this Guide. But for now let's explore what it means to say that the Bible is inspired by God. That expression is taken from one of St Paul's pastoral epistles, 2 Timothy 3.16: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness". A great deal of ink (and blood) has been spilled over the centuries in trying to understand what Paul meant by this. For some Christians, it has meant (indeed to many it still means) that the Bible is "verbally inerrant", that is, that no word of the Bible is untrue or mistaken.

It's unlikely that this was what Paul meant. He cannot have been advocating some kind of unthinking literalism or fundamentalism, for in the previous verse he reminded Timothy that the "sacred writings" he had known from childhood were able to instruct "for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus". Now the only sacred writings, the only scripture, to which Paul can possibly be referring in these verses is the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, and it is not by a literal interpretation of that Bible that Timothy or anyone else can be instructed for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus! It requires the eyes of faith, guided by the Holy Spirit, to see that faith and that salvation in, through and undergirding the encounter between Israel and her God of which the Old Testament is the story and to which it is the response in sacred history, in prophecy, in liturgy, and in poetry.

The most important indication of what he did mean may be found, it seems to me, in the simple, literal meaning of the words he used: the word we translate as "inspired by God" means, literally, in-spirited by God, that God has breathed God's Spirit into the Bible.

If this means anything at all and is not just some flowery or rhetorical flourish, it must mean that God has made the Bible an instrument of grace, a way through which, like the sacraments, God reveals Godself to humankind. But nevertheless the scriptures remain what they started off as, the product of fallible human beings at a particular point in their history and (more importantly) in their understanding of God. Just as the bread and wine of the Eucharist remain bread and wine while becoming the body and blood of Christ, so the scriptures become inspired books capable of revealing God's self to God's people without ceasing to be the work of human authors.

Paul's words point to the fact, which we all experience in our lives and which the church has experienced in its corporate life, that there is a kind of progressive revelation in our reading and understanding of the Bible. Timothy, knowing Christ through community and sacrament, also finds Christ through the Spirit in the Old Testament and it changed the way he read the Old Testament. In the same way, the on-going experience of Christ through community and sacrament in the life of the church since apostolic times has changed the way we read both Testaments and done so in very practical ways. We have only to contrast the changing attitudes of the church about slavery or the role of woman in the community with the attitudes Paul himself expresses in some parts of his letters to see how, prayerfully and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church has come to read the New Testament in as new a way as Paul and Timothy and the rest of the early Christian community had come to read the Old Testament. This is not a betrayal of Christian essentials, but a necessity if the whole Bible, the whole word of God, is to become gospel, that is good news, for our own times.

5. How old is it?

We're not exactly sure when many of the books of the Old Testament were written, but the best judgement of modern scholars seems to be that the collections of the Law and the Prophets began to assume their final form during the Exile in Babylon, that is, during the late 6th and 5th centuries BC, although of course some individual books within those collections are older or contain older material and traditions. The books of Samuel and Kings draw on contemporary sources about the reigns of David (c1000-961), Solomon (c961-922), and other kings. Some of the Minor Prophets may not have been composed until the 4th century BC, so the creation of these collections went on over a long period of time. The New Testament is far more recent, all having been written within the first century after the death and resurrection of Jesus, if not sooner. So we are dealing in the Bible with ancient writings incorporating still more ancient sources and traditions, written in ancient languages. Not an easy thing to read and understand!

6. If it was written by so many different people over such a long time, how did it get put together?

That process is what is called 'forming the Canon', or in other words, making the list. The problem for the early church, as it had been for the synagogue before it, was how to decide which traditions or which written works were authentic sources of revelation, of God's words for God's people. At the start, of course, as we have indicated, the new Christian community simply inherited scriptures from the Jewish community. This, however, was not unambiguous -- the Jewish community itself had two versions of the scripture in the early Christian period. There was the Hebrew Bible, which had already assumed its threefold division (given above) by the early Christian period, the form of the Jewish scriptures used liturgically, for reading in public worship. But there was also the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, called the Septuagint (the Latin word for seventy, since tradition had it that seventy translators worked on the text). But it also included books in the third part, the Writings, which were not in the Hebrew Bible but had been written in Greek in the second and third centuries BC. Since most early Christians had Greek as a first or second language, it was natural for the early church to gravitate toward the Septuagint as its original Bible even though some of the early Christian writers were clearly aware that the authoritative version of the Jewish scriptures was the Hebrew Bible.

This split between the two versions of the Jewish scriptures would have lasting implications for the Christian Old Testament, as the church came to call the Jewish scriptures after there were authoritative Christian writings to place alongside it. The books that were part of the Septuagint but not part of the Hebrew Bible, now called the Apocrypha, continued to be part of all Christian Bibles until the Protestant Reformation. The reformers rejected the canonical status given to the Apocrypha by the Roman Catholic Church and returned to the Hebrew Bible as the norm for a Christian Old Testament. The Anglican Church, characteristically, attempted a compromise, viewing the apocryphal books as valuable to some extent but not inspired scripture and seldom choosing them for liturgical use. It is good idea when you are looking for a Bible to look for one with the Apocrypha in a separate section, usually found between the Old and New Testaments.

The real test for the early church was what to do about the body of purely Christian writing that had begun to form by the end of the first century AD. Was any of it scripture, like the Hebrew Bible? If so, which parts, and how was the church to tell? It appears that within Judaism, the criterion that appealed to the rabbinic authorities was connection with a prophet -- since prophets were by definition inspired by God to speak God's word to God's people, a book by a prophet or preserving the teachings of a prophet could be seen as inspired as well. In the end, such figures as Samuel and Moses, David and Solomon gained the status of prophets and brought that authority to the books attributed to or connected with them. For the church, the standard was to be apostolicity -- to be considered part of the canon of the new Christian Bible, called the New Testament because of the new covenant God had made with humanity in Christ and in contrast to the Old Testament, the Jewish scriptures, a book needed a recognised and demonstrable connection with an apostle.

Creating these canons, or authoritative lists, took time. Scholars estimate that the three-part canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was finalised sometime between the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 and the Bar Kokhba rebellion that started in AD 132, but that was the end of a process that likely began in the early 4th century BC with Ezra. This period also saw the creation of a new Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Bible of Aquila, to take the place of the Septuagint, which was increasingly identified with the emergent Christian community. The formation of the Christian canon was likewise a lengthy process. By AD 200, the twenty-seven-book canon of the New Testament is taking form, but 100 years later, the historian Eusebius recorded that the status of the Letters of James and Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation was still under dispute. But by the end of the fourth century, the Council of Carthage was able to publish a list of 27 New Testament books that was accepted as definitive by the Christian Church.

7. How do I read the Bible?

Very carefully! The Bible is not easy to read, for many reasons, the most obvious of which is its antiquity, as we have seen. It reflects the understanding of particular communities -- far removed from us in space, time, and culture -- of God's decisive acts in their corporate and individual lives. Although we, for example, believe and affirm that our covenant relationship with God and our worshipping communities are founded upon and descended from the covenant relationship and worshipping communities described and constituted in the Old Testament, descriptions from the 8th or 7th century before the birth of Christ of the life of wandering tribesmen 5 or 6 hundred years earlier remain very foreign to us. Not only are the books themselves, even those of the New Testament, now very ancient (and sometimes relating or reflecting upon events more ancient still), the act of collecting them together is also very old.

Another problem is that the Bible is not one book but many books, of differing origins and purposes (which is the basis of classification given above). So in order to read the Bible fruitfully we need various helps, with the background and history and with the religious and theological concepts it reflects. The best help in reading the Bible is probably the Bible itself. That is, there is a great deal of deliberate quotation, imitation, and reflection between one part of the Bible and another. So it is very useful to have a Bible with running cross-references in footnotes so that you can easily find and compare texts alluded to or quoted in a passage you are reading. There are several series of Bible commentaries for the general reader, such as The Cambridge Bible Commentaries (which are in paperback) and the Torch Bible Commentaries (also in paper). Some Bibles have helps in the back matter such as maps and definitions of weights and measures.

There's no one best way to go about it, but the two most important ways to read the Bible are probably devotional reading and study. Both are important for growth in our Christian life, for nourishing our life of prayer, and for deepening our relationship with God. Devotional reading, connected as it is with personal prayer and meditation is, well, personal. There's no one right way to do it. On the other hand, you can't just hand someone a Bible and say 'Here! Go read in a devotional manner!'

The essence of devotional reading is that it is reading the Bible within a framework of prayer. The reading of the Bible within public worship followed by reflection on it in a homily and individually is a kind of corporate devotional reading. There are several techniques for devotional reading which many people have found successful. Two are: 1) prayerful reading, week by week, of the four readings for the coming Sunday; or 2) thematically organised readings, such as a selection of scriptural passages and accompanying reflections, focussed on the eucharist.

There's no one right way to study the Bible either, but here too there are helpful steps to follow in navigating the text. One important rule of thumb for Bible study is not to try to do it completely on your own. Bible study with a group is the best, but failing that, using a variety of commentaries and other helps will expose you to other points of view on passages and their meaning. But this takes us to the topic of our next section.

Return to the Introduction

Continue to the Bible Study Guide

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