Reading the Bible 1: The Bible as library

The word “Bible” comes from the Greek ta biblia meaning “the books”. The Latin equivalent is scripturae, “those things that are written”, which is the origin of our word “"Scriptures”. Religious Jews call their Bible (the Christian Old Testament) the Tanakh, which is an acronym for Torah Neviim Khitaim (the Law, the Prophets and the Writings). It is significant that all three terms are plural. We tend to think of the Bible as a book, “The Good Book”. But it was not written as a single book. Rather it is a collection of books of different kinds (as its Jewish name makes particularly obvious), written at different periods of history in three different original languages. The Bible is actually a library.

When you walk into a library, you know that you will find books of many different kinds there. If you are at all familiar with that particular library, you will know where those different kinds of books are to be found. You don’t go to the fiction shelves if you want a book about science. You don’t go to the science shelves if you want a book about history. If you pick a historical novel from the fiction shelves, you expect it to give an accurate overall picture of the age it is set in and not to go against what is definitely known, but you don’t become indignant because it describes people that never actually lived and maybe some events that never took place. Similarly we expect literary fiction to show people behaving in a realistic way. We expect it to be true to life. In fact we expect it to teach us something about life. But we don’t expect it to be factually true. The same is more or less true of the Bible. Different kinds of books within it contain different kinds of things and must be interpreted accordingly.

It is often said that for every text, there is a context, but in fact there are several contexts that must be considered for the interpretation of a Biblical text:

  1. The immediate context. Obviously you must not interpret a single verse in such a way as to make nonsense of the verses that surround it. In particular, if a verse begins with the word “Therefore”, you need to ask what it’s there for. If it is the conclusion to a previous argument, it should not be interpreted in such a way as to contradict that argument.
  2. The context of the book it occurs in. What kind of book is it? Is it law, history, prophecy, poetry, wisdom literature, theological teaching…?
  3. The context of the Bible as a whole. What do other Biblical passages have to say about the subject? If the answer is “Nothing!”, you would be ill-advised to base a major doctrine on that verse. If there are other relevant passages, do they agree with your interpretation? What (if anything) did Jesus have to say about the matter?
  4. The relationship of the passage to the major Biblical themes, for example creation and God’s care for it, God’s ongoing relationship with His people, sin and redemption, how to run a society in justice and love.

An excellent example of how not to interpret the Bible is Matthew’s account of the second temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Luke makes it the third temptation but the story is essentially the same. Jesus dealt with Satan’s first temptation by quoting Scripture against him. Satan may have thought, “Ah, so that’s how it’s done!” because the second time around, he does the same. He carries Jesus to the roof of the temple (whether literally or in a vision we aren’t told, and it doesn’t make any real difference) and instructs him to throw himself down, because “It is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you lest you dash your foot against a stone’”. The temptation obviously is to force everyone to believe in him as Messiah by means of an unarguable miracle, rather than offering miracles as the reward for a freely-given faith. Jesus answers by quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”

It is fatally easy to see this as just two people quoting Scripture at each other. Such an interpretation encourages the idea that the Bible is an old fiddle on which you can play any tune you like. But to understand the passage, you need to ask what books in the biblical library the two antagonists are quoting from. Satan quotes from the Book of Psalms, which is a book of religious poetry. It is in fact the hymn book of the Jewish temple. This particular psalm, Psalm 91, is a rapturous meditation on what it feels like to know that God is on your side and will protect you. It is not a literal instruction to jump off the roof and only a fool would think it was. Jesus on the other hand quotes from the Torah, the set of five foundational books that included the laws by which Israel lived. And it is a fair bet that when a book of law says, “You shall not do so-and-so,” then it means precisely what it says. In other words, Jesus quotes a passage with respect for its overall context, while Satan quotes one completely out of context. It’s an object lesson in how and how not to use the Scriptures.

How then did the Bible turn into a single book? That’s an interesting story and it turns out to depend on a succession of different technologies for writing and binding books. The Old Testament “books” all started their lives as scrolls, and scrolls are still used for this purpose in every Orthodox Jewish synagogue. The Greeks and the Romans used the same technology. But the Romans also used codices, books in which all the pages were sewn together as a block with the seam running down the left hand side. The early Christians particularly liked this format because it allowed rapid paging back and forth so that the existing scriptures could be easily referenced for reinterpretation in the light of Christ. So eventually, when Europe had become Christian, the codex became the standard European publication format.

But throughout the Middle Ages, the books of the Bible were still usually bound as separate codices (particularly the Psalter or Book of Psalms), or as small collections such as the Five Books of Moses, the Four Gospels, or the Letters of Paul. Whole Bibles existed too but they were enormous books that were kept in churches, often chained to the lectern. They were not suitable for individual devotional use.

It was printing which changed all that. A printed book could use a much smaller font without becoming illegible. Also the technique of printing impressed the ink into the paper with an even pressure across the whole page rather than locally through the point of a nib, so that much thinner paper could be used without the risk of tearing it. The combination of smaller fonts and thinner paper meant smaller, lighter books, including Bibles that you could carry in your pocket for reference at need.

It was a circular process. Printing allowed revolutionary thinkers like Luther and Calvin to disseminate their works too rapidly for the Church to censor them or to isolate and destroy the authors. This caused the rise of the new Protestant religious movement which emphasised personal study of the Bible and led to a widespread demand for new Biblical formats. And printing could then be adapted to provide those formats. The eventual result was the modern pocket Bible with its two-column small print format, written in a clear, readable Roman font rather than a decorative Gothic one, and often provided with headings and cross-references.

Most Christians would consider it a good thing that people read the Bible more (although the Roman Catholic Church only came round to admitting as much in the mid-20th century as part of the Vatican II adjornamento process). But it encouraged a widespread misapprehension that the Bible should be regarded as a book in the narrowest sense, maybe even a textbook or instruction manual, because that was what it now looked like. Some Christians, especially in the Evangelical wing of the Church, have completely lost sight of the fact that the Bible is actually not a book but a collection of books written for different purposes and in different styles. You cannot simply take verses out of context and use them to prove anything you want – unless you want to emulate the behaviour that Matthew (and presumably Jesus, from whom the temptation story must originally have derived) attributes to the Devil himself!

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