What is the Bible?
The Bible is a collection of writings and oral traditions that have been written down over the course of over one thousand years. It was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, in varying cultures and historical settings. Among its contents are many genres: creation story, history, law code, prophecy, poetry, apocalypse, letters, etc.
But what unites this collection of writings together is that it is the written record of the experience of God. It itself is not the experience of God, but rather the inspired writings about many people’s experiences of God throughout many centuries, cultures, empires, and political situations.
Although each book of the Bible was written independently and then collected later on to form one Bible, the gradual revelation of God’s plan of salvation for the human race runs through the entire collection. The Bible speaks of the entirety of human experience, from the creation of the universe to the end of the world.
Scripture is “a letter” from “the King of Heaven,” writes St. Tikhon of Zadonsk; “Christ Himself is speaking to you” in the books of the Bible. It is God’s “authoritative witness” of Himself, expressing “the word of God in human language. We know, receive, and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church” (Moscow Conference, 1976).
The purpose of Scripture is summarized by St. John the Theologian: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31).
The Bible that we have today was compiled over many centuries, and the books in the Bible were all canonized at various points.
Canonization– Accepted by the community as being of greatest value for doctrine, worship, and moral teachings.
Canon– A Greek word for “reed,” which referred to a straight stick used for measuring. This basic meaning was extended to refer to any rule or standard by which things could be compared or judged.
The Hebrew Bible
Known by Christians as the Old Testament (OT). The contents of the OT were written in Hebrew (and some parts in Aramaic) over many centuries (approx. 1,000-400 BC).
According to rabbinic tradition (post-70AD), there are three sections to the OT:
The Torah/Pentateuch – the five books of Moses
The Writings – histories, wisdom literature
The Prophets – prophecies, judgments on Judah, Israel, and surrounding nations, stories about the prophets
The canonization of the OT took place over centuries and in different areas of the Near East, largely depending on the local community’s views of the particular books’ centrality, authority, sacredness, and inspiration. The main centers of Jewish learning at this time were in Jerusalem, Babylon, and Egypt. Their canon would take its final form c. AD 90-100.
Originally the Hebrew did not have vowels, only consonants. In the Middle Ages a group of scholars called the Masoretes developed a system of markings above and below the letters that stood for vowels and accents. The Hebrew tradition of Scripture is therefore usually known as the Masoretic Text (MT).
The Septuagint (LXX)
This is the Greek translation of the OT done by Greek-speaking Jews starting c. 200 BC in Alexandria, Egypt. It is so named for the 70 or 72 translators, who, so the story says, all translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek identically due to divine inspiration.
The LXX is in many respects similar to the MT, except for some major differences in books such as Jeremiah, where the Hebrew version is considerably longer than the Greek version (see Orthodox Study Bible p. xi). It is likely that one version was edited in Babylon after the exile, and the other in Egypt, both versions being from original sources. First Century AD Jews in Palestine used both versions.
Sometimes differences between passages have huge theological implications (Isaiah 7:14 regarding the virgin birth of Jesus Christ), though often it’s just a matter of wording.
The LXX includes the so-called Apocryphal/Deutero-canonical books, which were widely circulated during the time of Christ’s ministry among Jews. These books would later be removed from the canon by Judaism, perhaps because they were in Greek and not Hebrew, Hebrew being a holy language in their eyes, and perhaps also because the Christians used the LXX. Most of the OT references and quotes in the New Testament (NT) are from the LXX, not the Hebrew version.
St. Jerome was the first major Christian writer to distinguish the Deutero-canonical books from the Hebrew books, placing the former at the end of the canon. These books are sometimes called The Apocrypha, meaning “hidden.” But that’s never been the case for the Orthodox Church.
Differences between the Orthodox Old Testament and that of Protestants and Catholics
While all Christians have the same New Testament, the canons of the Old Testament vary between Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. The Orthodox Canon of the OT preserves all the so-called Deutero-canonical books, while the Catholic canon of the OT does not have several LXX books, including 1 & 2 Esdras, Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees.
The translation of the OT into Latin done by St. Jerome, called the Vulgate (common language), has been the common translation of the Catholic Church. St. Jerome preferred to translate from the Hebrew Old Testament rather than the Greek. Therefore, in the Vulgate, the Deutero-canonical books are in an appendix to the Old Testament, between the books composed in Hebrew and the New Testament.
In the Protestant Reformation (beginning in the 1500s), the Bible became the highest authority for doctrine. As the Bible had only been available in Latin, they sought to go back to the original languages so they could understand the Bible better. This led at first to Martin Luther keeping the Deutero-canonical books in an appendix, like St. Jerome had; in his view, they were still valuable, but not as much as those which had been written in Hebrew.
Later Reformers would go further and remove the Deutero-canonical books entirely. This is why Protestant Bibles do not have these books in their Old Testament. They also view some aspects of these books as suspect, especially in 2 Maccabees 12:38-45, where there is prayer for the dead.
In the next post, we’ll move on to the New Testament and talk about Scripture in Tradition.